Any book on the legendary music superstars must face the temptation to plunge into the incredible wealth of statistics that underline the group’s success.
They are not only the best-selling Swedish band of all time, but they are also the best-selling band from all of continental Europe. They are the third best-selling singles act in the UK. They are the only band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from a non-English-speaking country. Their musical Mamma Mia! is in the Top 10 longest running musicals both on Broadway and in London’s West End. The film of that musical was the highest grossing movie in the UK in 2008. But those stats alone, as impressive as they are, don’t really tell the why and the how Anni-Frid, Björn, Benny and Agnetha conquered the world.
ABBA at 50 by Carl Magnus Palm is an exquisite retrospective tracing the many highs and occasional lows of the Swedish supergroup’s past five decades.
It traces the members’ musical careers before ABBA, the group’s formation and relatively slow start, how Eurovision catapulted them into public consciousness, how they defied the one-hit wonder curse, how they grew from an unlikely prospect to a seemingly unstoppable global musical force. From honing their songwriting craft on mega albums as Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper to the phenomenal demand for tour tickets, the book celebrates the talent and the achievements of the band. It follows the rollercoaster journey from when a change of decade (and tastes) heralded a rather unsatisfying end for the band and onto Benny and Björn’s not-completely successful first foray into musical theatre -before an entirely unexpected resurgence via two surprise hit Australian films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding reminded the world there was still a huge appetite for ABBA’s music. Writer Palm details how this upswing lead to the entertainment juggernaut that is Mamma Mia! (first, the stage musical and then, the two Hollywood smash-hit movies) before concluding ABBA’s phenomenal half-century with the even more surprising reforming of the group for the 2021 album Voyage and finally reaching the ground-breaking and highly-praised digital avatar experience at the ABBA Arena in London.
What Carl Magnus Palm has achieved with ABBA at 50 is that he’s written much more than a checklist chronology. No mere hagiography or fan tribute, he writes warmly and with a real affection of the band but isn’t afraid to explore the stumbles along the way or even offer a fair and balanced criticism of their output. Although an incredibly detailed and thorough chronicling of ABBA’s career, Palm has that acute, judicious historian sense of when to dig deeper and when to move the story on. Because of this discrimination, ABBA at 50 is a pleasurable and easy read that never gets bogged down in tedious detail or the drier minutiae of their timeline. From many, ABBA are the greatest band in the history of pop musical and Carl Magnus Palm never takes his eye off this key notion.
ABBA at 50 skillfully treads the line of entertaining the casual ABBA fan while bringing plenty of detail that the most ardent might fan might have missed. Peppered with fascinating insights and tasty anecdotes that certainly we at The Recs had not come across. Did you know that ABBA had a failed Eurovision attempt before their triumph in 1974 with Waterloo? Or that a future Hollywood director would help ABBA conquer the world? Or hilariously that Dancing Queen was originally titled Boogaloo, Honeypie became Waterloo and SOS had the working title Turn Me On.
If you ever wondered who gave ABBA their name and why it was a bit on an in-joke in Sweden, or how the famous ABBA logo with the reverse B came about, then Carl Magnus Palm has the answer for you.
Having researched and written about the group for over thirty years, Palm has acquired a knowledge and a deep understanding of what made them tick. There is a multitude of well-chosen, insightful quotes from the band members themselves, many taken from Palm’s own interviews conducted between 1993 and 2016. The love and care of songwriting comes through strongly throughout the book. A song briefly entitled The Story of My Life began as a jaunty track complete with handclaps. The songwriter duo felt there was something there but the feel wasn’t right. Four days later, they returned to the studio. Benny added some descending piano lines and over the session, the song moved more into the territory of French chanson. Liking this new direction, Björn took the backing tape home with him and began writing suitable lyrics. Unusually, he opened a bottle of whisky and tipsy, he wrote the lyrics in under an hour. The book brings the fantastic quote: “That never works, writing when you’re drunk. You think it’s wonderful but it looks terrible the next day…but that one worked”. The song they had written was The Winner Takes It All. It’s one of the many goose-bump moments you get regularly reading through the book.
Huge kudos must be given to Palazzo Editions for the superb presentation of ABBA at 50. Packed with beautiful, superbly-curated images from every stage of the band’s history, it is truly an impressive and worthy tribute to the Swedish superstars on their 50th anniversary.
For those who love Eurovision to anyone whose jaw has dropped at ABBA Voyage, from anyone who ever has shimmied to Dancing Queen or karaoke’d The Winner Takes It All, ABBA at 50 is the book for you.
The kind of essential book that if any ABBA fan was asked Voulez-Vous, they’d reply I Do, I Do, I Do
ABBA had four stars but The Recs is giving ABBA at 50 ★★★★★ 5 Stars