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Thank you for the music

The ABBA museum in Stockholm is both playground and reliquary – sublime and sombre

Matthew Sweet | January/February 2016

A basement in Stockholm. A tomato-red plastic telephone mounted on a pedestal. Behind it, a wall-size photograph depicting two women and two men. Young, cheerful, pristine – and known throughout the world as the blonde one, the brunette, the one with the beard and the one without the beard. Bolted above this, an official-looking sign with a message in urgent upper-case italics, hinting that in the advent of some distinctly Scandinavian catastrophe – the coming of Ragnarök, the fall of the great tree of Yggdrasil – help would be at hand. “OM TELEFONEN RINGER, SVARA, DE AT ABBA SOM RINGER!”

I know what you’re thinking. Where are the faience ushabti? The fragile Venetian tapestries? The photographs of a Booker winner in a reverie before a vitrine of Meissen ware? And hang on – isn’t that the helicopter from the cover of “Arrival”? Surely this writer has misunderstood the brief. What next for these pages? Madame Tussaud’s? Planet Hollywood? Peppa Pig World?

On Djurgården, the greenest of Stockholm’s 14 islands, you can gaze upon the carcass of the Vasa, the 17th-century warship that cruised straight into the realm of the symbolic by sinking 1,300 metres into its maiden voyage. Or you can wander through the zoological gardens and open-air architectural archive of Skansen, where the wooden spire of an 18th-century church soars skywards and wolves howl at the milky dusk. Or you can turn your back on these phenomena, and examine what lies beneath a squat yellow building beside the ferry terminal.

The ABBA museum opened in May 2013 as a monument to the lives and work of Sweden’s four most successful pop stars – Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Quite a mouthful, which is why their manager, Stig Anderson, condensed it to an acronym – after first checking that Sweden’s biggest herring-pickling company didn’t mind sharing the name.

Some of the space is occupied by larky hands-on exhibits. A bank of faders allows you to reconstruct the mix of “Fernando”. A row of recording booths is busy with headphone-wearing visitors belting “The Winner Takes It All” into unwired mikes. And a curtained anteroom contains the museum’s equivalent of the Chamber of Horrors – a device that scans your face and appends it to the bodies of a computer-generated ABBA line-up.

Remixing desk: Matthew Sweet reconstructs “Fernando”

As well as a playground, however, this is also a reliquary. Behind the glass panels lie Benny’s silver platform shoes; the Telex machine that spewed out some of ABBA’s most lucrative contracts; a tea-chest bass, twanged by Björn in his skiffle period; a Star Trek expanse of mixing desk, extracted from the Polar recording studios; those sateen blouses worn by Agnetha and Anni-Frid when they sang “Waterloo”, back to back, under the Brighton Dome, and won the 1974 Eurovision song contest. (Come close, and you can see that they are studded with little enamel badges bearing the faces of Stan Laurel and his 1920s rival Harry Langdon.)

The sceptical eye might dismiss it as the unlovely detritus of Europop – a subterranean fire-trap of hen-night kitsch. But this would be to underestimate the semiotic thickness of ABBA’s art – and trust me, you really wouldn’t want to do that. The artefacts on display evoke, sometimes painfully, the band’s personal and artistic trajectory: the vanishing grins, the collapsing marriages, the tour-bus melancholia, their progress towards that bleak and clear-eyed final album, “The Visitors” – their Winterreise. It’s true that ABBA lyrics sometimes exhibit errors familiar to EFL teachers around the world (“since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand,” says the narrator of “Fernando”) but who else could have produced a song like their last recorded work, “The Day Before You Came” – an account of joy measured in the minutiae of depression, and possibly the only pop song ever written in the past-modal perfect tense? (“I’m sure I had my dinner watching something on TV,” reflects Agnetha. “There’s not, I think, a single episode of ‘Dallas’ that I didn’t see.”)

As good as new: a blouse worn when ABBA won the 1974 Eurovision song contest

This is not the special pleading of an obsessive. I know what it is to be a fan. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I possess three pairs of Dalek socks, and when my children were asked to draw a phrenological diagram of my head, both reserved a fist-sized hunk for matters pertaining to Doctor Who. No ABBA zone was demarcated – as far as they’re concerned, ABBA are YouTube stars who belong to them, not me. Until the ABBA Gold compilation appeared in 1992, I’d never owned one of their albums. The nearest I’d come was in 1980, the year I played for the worst lacrosse team in the north-west of England, when I bought, on my way to a 16-0 defeat in Blackpool, a disc-shaped bubblegum slipped inside a perfect miniature replica of the sleeve of “Super Trouper”. After our customary humiliation, the coach drove us home in silence. ABBA’s latest hit came on the radio. We were, I recall, sick and tired of everything.

In those days, though, no purchase was necessary. ABBA’s songs and their attendant sensibility were part of the warp and weft of the culture. My first clear memory of hearing them dates from October 1976, when the wave-crash of notes that begins “Dancing Queen” blasted from the speakers at Hull Fair and provided the soundtrack to a painful incident of childhood loss – my letting go of what is probably best described as a racist helium balloon, and watching its surprised expression recede to a black dot high above Humberside. Fifteen years later, when I bailed out of university for a year in order to avoid a former girlfriend, I found myself selling ice-cream in front of “Chess”, Benny’s and Björn’s cold-war musical – whose company manager seemed to regard the recent fall of the Berlin Wall as a calculated assault on the box office. In the last lecture I had attended before making my retreat, I’d listened to Terry Eagleton poke fun at fellow Marxists who had “woken up one morning and found they had been hermeneutic materialists all along.” No such strategy was available to the characters of “Chess”. How lost they seemed, personally, in their unhappy love affairs, and politically, in an ideological world that, on the other side of the proscenium, had dismantled itself shortly before the opening night.

Which brings me to another claim. My first visit to the ABBA museum was made in close proximity to a trip to Washington, DC, where, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I’d peered at the rifles discharged during the Kent State massacre and the wreck of a filing cabinet crowbarred by the White House Plumbers. And it seemed to me that ABBA’s effects were artefacts of a comparable order.

Meeting his Waterloo: the author glimpses the world through the eyes of Agnetha Fältskog

ABBA didn’t ask to take part in the culture wars, but the barrage happened just the same. On the night they won the Eurovision Song Contest, the audience in the Brighton Dome came roaring to their feet, but the Swedes were less impressed. After walking from the venue in a daze of pleasure, Stig Anderson found himself on camera with Ulf Gudmundson, a Swedish television reporter garlanded for documentaries such as “Northern Ireland – from the Crusades to the Class Struggle”. Instead of offering his congratulations, Gudmundson asked Stig to justify writing an up-tempo, glam-rock love song about a battle in which 40,000 troops were slaughtered. Anderson’s reply? “Go to hell before an accident happens.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sweden was another word for utopia – particularly in countries afflicted by industrial decline and rising unemployment. The Swedish Model, as it was called without a hint of double entendre, seemed to have delivered the Swedes from anxiety. They had the highest living standards in Europe. They had big cars and modernist furniture. Their welfare state seemed a miracle of generosity – this was a country without visible deprivation. Their political neutrality gave them moral independence, too. How many other states would have invited Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to convene a war-crimes tribunal that judged America guilty of genocide in Vietnam? “When a napalm bomb explodes among innocent civilians,” Olof Palme, the prime minister, told the Swedish parliament, “it is a defeat for the idea of democracy.” (When Washington heard that, it brought home its ambassador.)

With this came a measure of cultural puritanism. One of its strongest embodiments was a musical movement called progg – which, unlike its Anglophone namesake, was not interested in the production of four-hour symphonic concept albums about Orcs, but busied itself making coarse, punky, socialist folk music. Progg and its fans hated ABBA, and hated its manager even more. “He is dangerous,” said Lars Forsell, one of Sweden’s leading poets, “and what he writes is shit.” The media agreed. Its response to ABBA’s success was, briefly, to abolish the pop charts and cancel the Stockholm equivalent of “Top of the Pops”. Swedish television couldn’t wriggle out of its duty to stage the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest, but made its feelings known by giving more attention to a musical counter-demonstration than the official event. “For leftists in Sweden in the Seventies,” reflected Björn, “we became the Antichrist.” And the personal, ABBA discovered, was the political. When they invited the Sierra Leonean drummer Ahmadu Jarr to play with them, he declined, explaining that his wife would leave him if he accepted the gig.

Take a chance: from the outside, the ABBA museum is not especially promising. But of all the cultural delights on Djurgården, it’s the most rewarding

Today, Sweden’s ideological landscape looks very different. Progg is the preserve of nostalgic connoisseurs. The social model constructed in the days of Olof Palme has gone, though not so suddenly and inexplicably as Palme himself. (His assassination, 20 years ago, remains an unsolved case.) Swedish asylum policy is among the most liberal in Europe – but the far right, in the form of Jimmie Åkesson’s Sweden Democrats, is now the third-biggest party in the Riksdag.

ABBA’s position has also changed. In the 1970s, the New Left held them in contempt. Today, the band’s male alumni are engaged in a quiet campaign against the Nordic New Right. When the youth wing of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party turned ABBA’s 1975 hit “Mamma Mia” into a hymn to its leader, Pia Kjaersgaard, Benny and Björn called in the lawyers. When Gudrun Schyman, a former leader of one of Sweden’s communist groups, co-founded the women’s party Feminist Initiative, Benny became one of its biggest donors. During the 2014 election campaign I went down to the square in central Stockholm where every party maintains a little wooden hut in which voters can meet the candidates and read their literature. Most of the activity here seemed dour and dutiful – but in the glossy pink FI hut, they were having the time of their lives. Their enthusiasm, unfortunately, did not translate into parliamentary seats.

You couldn’t construct a coherent philosophical universe from the work of ABBA. Not quite. But the world observed through the lens of their songs often seems a coldly deterministic place – one where human agency is frail and inadequate. “The Winner Takes It All” posits a cosmos in which we are subject to the whims of dice-playing gods – Scandi cousins, surely, of the beings mentioned in “King Lear” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. That history book on the shelf, insists “Waterloo”, is always repeating itself.

In the ABBA museum, there’s a little area that represents “Knowing Me, Knowing You” – the first of the band’s songs about divorce, written by Björn when his marriage to Agnetha was entering its terminal phase. It’s a 1970s kitchen, somewhere in Swedish suburbia. On the table, there’s a half-eaten bowl of muesli. A child has just left for school. A wintry view is visible through the pine-framed window. There is, says the lyric, nothing we can do.

IF THE TELEPHONE RINGS”, reads the sign above the tomato-red telephone, “PICK IT UP, IT’S ABBA CALLING.” And it ain’t no lie. The only people who have the number are Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. But if it did ring, what could they say? It’s all in their songs, in the harmonies of their voices, in the image of a landscape in winter.

ABBA: The Museum opens Friday to Tuesday, 10am-6pm; Wednesday and Thursday 10am-8pm; abbathemuseum.com

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