Monday, 21 September 2015
In the middle of the press conference at the Warsaw socialites hotel 'Novotel', a Polish reporter asked the naive but justified question: "What are you actually doing when you are not on the road, not composing or working in the studio?"
The 300 reporters pricked up their ears. Because here was a question about the private life of the pop group ABBA - a question that the four musicians gladly avoid to answer. After a short pause, the 31-year-old Björn saved the situation: "We are counting our money..."
It's been quite some time since Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid were able to count their millions. But the amounts on their bank accounts that their manager Stig (Stikkan) Anderson transmits (when he is in a good mood), are very reassuring for four young people, who performed for chicken feed only a couple of years ago.
Ever since their victory in the European masters league of pop musicians, that they achieved in 1974 at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton (England) with the hit record 'Waterloo', ABBA has sold around 26 million records all over the world, 26 million records, most of them LP's, in only two years time. That's the kind of success that reminds one of the standards set by the Beatles over ten years ago.
But one also remembers: the bigger the success of the Beatles became, the more fragile the cohesion within the group became. With the millions that gave its members the means to go their separate - private and professional - ways, the disunion found its way in as well. A break-up was the result. Is ABBA heading in the same direction?
No one is able to answer that question completely. As long as ABBA is performing as a group, they reply with rehearsed answers, like "We get along great" or "A crisis? Every such story is a lie or made up.".
Equally reserved, they respond to questions about their private life. At the press conference in Warsaw, ready-tongued Björn replied to the question what held the group together with an ironic nod to the title of their latest hit record: 'Money, Money, Money'. And money, money is the main thing that's occupying the minds of the four young musicians and their manager.
But now there are clear signs already that a crack in the ABBA framework is making it difficult to keep working together. Graphically it is underlined on the cover of their latest album 'Arrival' as well as on the prints on T-shirts that are bought by fans for high prices: in the name ABBA - made up of the initials of the two singing couples Agnetha and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid - both B's are positioned against each other. And whoever believes that it's the two B's that have turned on one another, is clearly off the track.
Both of the A's - Agnetha and Anni-Frid (also called Frida) - have been the reason for disunion in the group.
Both of the girls, who seem to get along so well on stage, have nothing to say to each other privately anymore. And their professional contacts in the joint company Polar Music AB are limited to courtesies, often mixed with double meanings.
This irreconcilability came across one year ago when Anni-Frid/Frida released her own LP with the significant title 'Frida Ensam' (Frida Alone). Although the album became a huge success in Sweden, Frida was not allowed to promote it on Swedish television. That was decided by the other group members.
Especially manager Anderson had the opinion that ABBA's group image should not be distorted by solo performances. Frida obeyed under protest, and her boyfriend and partner Benny didn't speak up either. But Frida had her revenge later on, when she was the first group member that broke the unwritten rule: she revealed all.
"I'm the only one from the group that wasn't born in Sweden. I was born in Narvik, on 15 November 1945. My father was an officer in the German occupying army. After the war he left Norway. I never got to know him."
That's how the story of a modern day Cinderella begins, someone who made it in her short life from a war child to a world famous star in the pop world.
After the birth of her baby, Frida's mother was awaiting the return of the father Alfred Haase. He had promised he would marry her as soon as the situation had calmed down. But he never returned. There was a big hatred towards the Germans in Norway at the time. When Frida was one year old, her grandmother took her to Sweden. A nomadic life started. The grandmother earned a living for herself and her granddaughter as a seamstress. "She was always like a mother to me," says Frida. It took years before they found a steady home: in Torshälla, a small town in the middle of Sweden.
When she was thirteen years old, Frida started performing publicly as a singer. "Even though I was still two years too young at the time to perform in the folk parks, we always found a way to make it happen."
50 kroner - about 40 German Mark - is what the half-orphan made at these weekend gigs. "To me that was a lot of money," Frida remembers. "I learned to make do with the money that I made. And to be honest, I'm still the same tight-fisted Frida, although today I would be able to throw money around if I wanted to.".
When she was a teenager she started her own orchestra: Anni-Frid Four. It took her eight years to build a career as a solo singer. When she was eighteen, she married a musician, Ragnar Fredriksson. From this marriage she has two children, a son Hans (13) and a daughter Lise-Lotte (9). Maybe Frida still would have become a fulltime wife and mother, when Sweden wouldn't have switched from left to right driving nine years ago.
To bring the new traffic rules to attention, the traffic planners used all available mass media. And when the day of the big switch dawned on 3 September 1967, the Swedish people witnessed the birth of a new pop star on the gala programme that evening: Frida. She sang all her colleagues into the ground. The long-awaited breakthrough finally happened. Record companies and folk park managers outbid each other with their offers.
But Frida couldn't cope with this sudden success. On the inside things weren't as bright. Her marriage broke down, friendships waned when she moved from the countryside to the capital Stockholm.
"Those first months in Stockholm were terrible," she remembers. "I was craving for my children, who had stayed behind with my husband. I was pondering all the time and started to regret my decision. I hated my career, that had started to grow too big for me. I simply wasn't ready for it yet."
A couple of brief sex flings didn't manage to fill the void in Frida's life either. But everything changed when she met Benny.
"He was the turning point in my life," she says. "I surely didn't make things easy for him in the beginning. Time and time again I went back into my depression. I'm extremely vulnerable. Sometimes I can't even stand myself..."
It's astonishing how different Frida comes across when she has agreed to a personal conversation. She, who often comes across as self-assured, distant and unapproachable on stage or at official engagements, suddenly seems like a little, insecure girl. "I'm definitely carrying a lot of problems from my younger years with me. I believed everything would become easier to take with the passing of time. But in reality it's the contrary. I don't know what would have become of me, if I didn't have Benny in my life."
Frida even admits that working with the group is helpful. "You have to force yourself to have consideration for the others." The fact that she doesn't always do that has caused resentment in the ABBA group at times. Because Frida - just like Benny - is a night person. She is often late for morning meetings. You can often spot the couple at the cosy restaurants of Stockholm's old town, in 'Gyllene Freden', 'Diana-Källaren' or 'Fem Smä Hus'. They live not far from there. But in the near future they will be moving to a big mansion on the island Lidingö. "Then the children will be able to spend more time with us as well," Frida says. Benny has two children as well. His and Frida's son will both get a big room in the Lidingö mansion.
How has Frida coped with the wealth that has come her way with the ABBA success?
"It's clear that money means freedom in a sense, especially when one still wants to develop."
At 32 years old, the successful pop star Frida is still rooted in the problems of her past. Neither money nor the soloistic attempt to break away from the group have made the girl from Narvik independent. "My only security is Benny," she says. "I depend on him totally."
But that's only half of the truth. Because there is another man whose influence Frida can't escape - and the same goes for the other group members.
This man is called Stig 'Stikkan' Anderson, he is 45 years old and he has lived an eventful life. Without him, the pop group ABBA wouldn't have existed. And that's why you can't write anything about ABBA, without investigating Stikkan's history. Because their sensational career is his doing.