Perfect 10: Thank him for the music — Benny Andersson’s greatest ABBA moments

What thoughts enter your head when you hear the word ABBA?

Come on, give me a break, will ya? You know you love them.

For those who left their history book on the shelf, the Swedish quartet made up of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad achieved worldwide fame after winning Eurovision with Waterloo in 1974, combining two of the Seventies’ hottest trends: unalloyed heartbreak and sequin-studded pantsuits.

Yet, all these years later, ABBA still haven’t faced theirs and they continue to be a juggernaut in the musical landscape, with their much discussed Voyage comeback set to be the biggest selling physical album of 2021. 

Today, the band’s catalogue can often be said to define a golden age of disco and dance music, and that there’s no ABBA sound without the girls. But the Stockholm singers represent so much more than feel-good floor fillers. True, while most of their classics are grounded around Agnetha and Frida’s impeccable harmonies, but with all the vocals acting out Björn’s lyrics removed there is only the music. And shorn of all the production bells and whistles, there is one person to which the awesome foursome owe their musicality, and that’s multi-instrumentalist pianist and keyboardist Benny Andersson, who has turned 75. 

Born in the Vasastan district of Stockholm on 16 December 1946, ABBA’s co-founder, composer and co-producer of the legendary popsters, Benny Andersson was destined to music since his early years. A self taught musician massively influenced by his love for classical and folk music, Benny left school aged 15 to perform at youth clubs. During the 1960s he was in several Swedish rock and pop bands scoring local hits that didn’t made it outside Scandinavia. In 1966 he first met Björn Ulvaeus, and in 1969, after submitting one song to the Swedish Eurovision Song Festival finals, he came across Anni-Frid Lyngstad and almost at the same time, her “little sister” Agnetha Fältskog. 

Let’s remove all doubt, Benny is ABBA’s true musical genius: one of pop’s greatest living songwriters, outstanding composer and the undisputed maestro of melody. In fact, when it comes to melodies he’s one of contemporary music’s all-time greats; almost in the same league as Paul McCartney or Burt Bacharach if he wasn’t so content to toil away in the background and live a typically Scandinavian existence of humility.

Get this. For a member of one of the biggest selling and most famous bands in musical history, this man is so amazingly devoid of ego he doesn’t even think of himself as an artist. In a radio interview with Alex Belfield in 2013, the modest one stressed he was no David Bowie, who happened to be born just three weeks after Benny:

“To start with, I’m not an artist. I just happened to be one of the four members of ABBA and I could play the piano… I might be almost a musician. I’m just a songwriter and a piano player on stage. I mean, the girls are artists. But I’m not a stage artist. I’m not a singer, I’m not a performer.”

Either way he’s in great composer company as December 16 seems to be something of a famous writer’s birthday, with Andersson sharing the big day with the great masters Jane Austen, Noël Coward, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Paul van Dyk, and, most appropriately the deaf old bat himself, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Bearing this in mind, to celebrate Benny’s three-quarter-century I’ve spent all week listening to dozens of ABBA instrumentals thanks to the joy of YouTube. So without further ado, I’ve chosen a Perfect 10 of arrangement-based tracks that have undeniably stood the test of time but also are remarkable pieces of music in their own right that are testament to Benny’s multitalented productions. For comparison’s sake, you’ll find instrumental versions cunningly linked in each song header.

The one that started it all. With this glammy, jazzy Wizzard-inspired ode to that short-arsed Napoleon and his historical defeat by the Brits, ABBA staked their claim to the music world by conquering first the Eurovision Song Contest, and then the rest of planet pop. 

With killer guitar riffs, genius piano fills and blaring saxophone, the arrangement sounds like doo-wop song while the melody pre-dates Blondie’s Call Me by a good half-dozen years. And it’s still one of their most recognisable tunes, which presents a very convincing argument that love is, indeed, a battlefield. 

I could have been predictable and plumped for Intermezzo No. 1, Benny’s magnifico if overblown Emerson Lake & Palmer-styled pseudo-classical keyboard instrumental which divides listeners’ ears halfway through the second side of ABBA’s self-titled third album. However, when said opus also contains the track that is the favourite ABBA song of scores of musicians from John Lennon to Ray Davies to Marco Pirroni then it can only be the moment for sending out an S.O.S. 

Kicking off with a few lonely, plaintive keyboard notes in D Minor — “the saddest of all keys”, according to Spinal Tap, the song’s real genius lies in the contrast between the tender, anxious verses and the desperate, pleading major-key chorus, which soars right off the charts in an unforgettable display of unrestrained Nordic longing over flashes of razor sharp guitar riffs and sparse synthesizer. S.O.S. also boasts a pair of noticeable throwbacks to the Sixties, with rococo influence from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the sunny surf melodies of the Beach Boys. Benny’s first masterpiece then. 

Arrival (1976)

An almost impossible choice, really. Arrival is a veritable powerhouse of an album, stuffed full of memorable melodies from the joyous boogaloo of Dancing Queen to the wintry heartbreak of Knowing Me Knowing You, via the plinky plonky cabaret Money Money Money, and the sweetly enchanting My Love My Life. Tough call then. But it’s time to give Benny his virtual solo spot though, as the almost instrumental title track which closes the band’s fourth long-player.

Since there are no words, it’s less a song than a glacier of sound, an eerie hymn of light from beyond the stars as it harpoons through stormy northern clouds. Arrival was named after the title of the album had already been decided. As originally written it was called Ode to Dalecarlia in honour of the Swedish folk province where, as late as the 19th century, the local culture still communicated in medieval runes straight out of The Hobbit. Melodically, Arrival is therefore ABBA at their most inscrutably Nordic and, to Anglo-Saxon ears, at their most other.

ABBA were absolutely huge by 1977, but instead of another collection of radio hits, they delivered the more ambitious ABBA: The Album. Demonstrating that they were more sophisticated and impressive than ever before, the record opens with the six-minute epic, Eagle. 

Having listened closely to platinum-shifting album acts Fleetwood Mac and (obviously) The Eagles, it’s closer to Californian progressive rock than you’d expect from the Fab Four, with dual lead guitars and a much more expansive widescreen sound. Benny’s melodic sense is still intact despite the genre-shifting. And the chorus is as infectious and rhythmic as anything else in their extraordinary oeuvre. 

Ever wondered why Agnetha sings about being the “girl with golden hair?” Much of the second half of ABBA: The Album is dedicated to the triptych mini-musical with the title The Girl With The Golden Hair, of which Aggie and Frida are playing fictional characters with lustrous locks not a million miles away from the one who’s a platinum blonde.

Detractors may dismiss it as ABBA at their most mashed potato schmaltz, but love it or hate it, Thank You For The Music effectively became the band’s signature song. A standard in all but name, despite not being released as a single in Britain at the time. But if you mute the slightly clunky lyrics you’re left with an elegiac showcase for Benny’s beautifully arranged piano, with its waltzing cadence really coming into its own.

The first single from the group’s sixth set Voulez-Vous, the chin-up tune that is Chiquitita not only upped the group’s global appeal (with versions also recorded in Swedish and Spanish), but the lullaby-like verses showcase ABBA’s brilliant ability to jump from soothsayers to power-pop belters.

Translating as ‘little one’ in the feminine form, it’s a glossy late 1970s production and arrangement applied to what’s essentially Spanish folk meets oompah loompah, apparently inspired by Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa. Shorn of the vocals, Benny’s ticking arrangement is grand and uplifting, always cheerful reminder that it’s all gonna be OK. Appropriately, since its assignation for the International Year of The Child all royalties from the song have been donated to UNICEF since its release. 

Taken from the band’s seventh album, Super Trouper, this fabulous but somewhat funereal ballad was ABBA’s first single of the Eighties, topping the UK charts for a fortnight in August 1980 before being thrown on the pyre by David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes. As if you didn’t know, the subject matter is infamously about the end of a relationship, sung by Agnetha just weeks after her divorce from Björn.

Indeed, ABBA perfected the kind of bittersweet solemnity that only two newly parted couples in a supergroup could manage. But let’s talk about that magisterial musical motif: Benny wanted a French chanson meets variété française arrangement with a subtly changing circular approach with strings supervised by the band’s bassist Rutger Gunnarsson. The result? A firm favourite among band members, fans and critics alike, but more tellingly, Benny’s favourite ABBA song of all time.

Easily the most theatrical cut in ABBA’s arsenal, the imperious pomp-pop fantasia of I Let The Music Speak pointed the way Benny and Björn would adapt their songwriting for the stage after the foursome were put on ice. 

One of the many highlights of the band’s eighth and penultimate album, — 1981’s The Visitors — it’s a record divided between almost throwaway studio mastery and spectral, uneasy premonitions of their own demise. Moreover, the stunning classical melodrama of this track and its title made it the ideal opening number of Benny’s 2017 solo album, simply entitled Piano.

One of the band’s lesser known singles from the post-imperial phase of their career, The Day Before You Came is a masterful six-minute monologue that was too long for radio and too off-kilter for audiences, but provided ample evidence of the foursome’s musical evolution and newfound adventurousness. 

The ambiguity of the lyrics coupled with the song’s unconventional structure give the whole affair a haunting, almost ominous sound (dominated by Andersson’s Yamaha GX-1 synthesiser and very little else), perhaps heralding the band’s dissolution shortly thereafter. Benny’s last masterpiece. Well, for almost forty years anyway.

With its elegiac origins in a Benny instrumental — featured on the Swedish film soundtrack The Circle — called Kyssen (The Kiss), I Still Have Faith In You is a personal acknowledgement of the wondrous transcendental power and sweep of music and the way it bonds people together, especially two former couples whose music gained a new lease of life in the 1990s without them having to lift a finger.

With Benny and Bjorn being the perfectionists they are, they thought everything through to their obvious conclusion and so as Faith is a Frida lead, you get flashes of her previous ABBA highlights, including Fernando (the military drums) and being in waltz time, even a flash of the Macca-inspired Minimoog from Gonna Sing You My Lovesong (at 2:04). There’s an altogether more surprising semi-reference with the twinkly synth line that replicates the very last “Do I have it in me?” line only one note out from the similar sounding outro to Sheena Easton’s Bond theme For Your Eyes Only. But as filmic as Faith is, I’d just put that one down to coincidence, even if it was everywhere just as The Visitors was being finished off. A Sleeping Beauty of a song. 

Say goodnight to the folks, Gracie.

Steve Pafford

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.