When it comes to pure pop, the name of the game is Abba. Even after 25 years, reports

Russell Baillie


Abba are back. Correction: That should be Abba are still back - and quite unavoidable.

Despite the wheels having fallen off their bandwagon (a nice Volvo) in the early 80s, after a decade of hits and some of the century's greatest fashion crimes, in 1999 the Swedish band remains the Phantom Pop Menace.


And next week's documentary The Abba Story: The Winner Takes It All is just part of the Abba reconsideration business.

That industry might have started early in the 90s as an exercise in nostalgia, swinging all the way from kitsch (the likes of Aussie tribute band Bjorn Again, the Flying Nun tribute album Abbasalutely) to camp (drag act numbers in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) to high-spirited comedy (Muriel's Wedding's rendition of Waterloo).

But at this end of decade the re-evaluation has become downright respectful. Like the Bee Gees, it seems Abba have been forgiven their style misdemeanours and are being belatedly appreciated for their pop genius and its legacy.

Possibly the worst of it is the current hit Thank Abba For The Music, a medley performed by a supermarket aisle of British kiddiepop (Cleopatra, Billie, Steps, the Irish B*witched) and produced by onetime Kylie'n'Jason producer Pete Waterman. The cardigan-wearing, Coro St-accented Waterman is one the doco's talking heads: "If you want to make great pop records you take Abba records and dissect them because they are absolutely blueprints for how to produce a record."

Today you might also hear the sound of those blueprints - low-key verses followed by dramatic choruses of stacked female harmonies, occasionally clumsy English - in Baby One More Time, the huge debut hit by America's current pop Lolita, Britney Spears.

Not convinced? Well, the song was penned and produced by a Swede, Max Martin.

And Abba is now in London's West End with a musical, Mamma Mia. Featuring 27 songs joined by a Grease-like mother-daughter storyline, it sounds curiously shrill according to the doco footage.

The production - and recent CD collections - is really the reason for the programme, though the stage show also opened last month on the 25th anniversary of Abba's win at the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo.

The win allowed them to break out of Sweden and start selling more than 300 million records in the next decade (fact: they had six No 1 singles in New Zealand between 1975 and 1979).

And they achieved that without ever really cracking America.

Abba are also there on the front of this month's Mojo, the thoughtful English rock magazine for post-teens whose cover stars are usually either Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young ... or dead.

That story comes with the headline: "Unhappily ever after: the dark side of pop's perfect fairytale."

The documentary itself leaves some sense of the sadness that came when Abba's bubble burst following the divorces of Bjorn Ulvaeus (the clean-shaven one) and Agnetha Faltskog (the blond one), then Benny Andersson (the bearded one) and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (aka Frida, the brunette).

It was a time which led to some of the band's more powerfully melancholic tunes - The Winner Takes It All, The Day Before You Came - but by 1982 the hits had run out and quartet went off did their own thing. Which for the songwriting pair of Ulvaeus and Andersson meant penning a couple of musicals, including Chess, and for the two women, Scandanavian-bound solo careers and retirement.

The British doco introduces itself as being the first time since the break-up they've taken part in a programme together. That's not strictly true.

In the late 80s they appeared on a Swedish This Is Your Life for their manager, Swedish music impresario Stig Anderson, with whom the band members later fell out over accounting practices when he sold the Polar record label - effectively Abba - to Polydor.

And also they're not quite "together." Faltskog speaks via a translator, is seen only taking moody walks through a frosty Oslo and gives the impression she'd rather forget her pop past.

The fabulously well-preserved Lyngstad is more upbeat and insightful in her recollections, while the two men talk earnestly about their songwriting partnership and recording techniques.

With footage of the pre-Abba days, complete with the horrors of 60s Swedish light entertainment television (the four were all stars before the marriages and that acronym), it makes for often fascinating viewing.

And those talking heads range from Malcolm McLaren (putting the anti-Abba punk rock view) to U2's Bono, who is also seen on stage in Stockholm having dragged Andersson and Ulaveus up for a stadium singalong of Dancing Queen. No, he wasn't being ironic.

Though the Irishman had rejected Abba as "girl's music" as a younger man, he says: "I think Abba had a pure joy to their music and that's what makes them extraordinary.

"These tunes are going to be around for a long, long time."


The Abba Story: The Winner Takes It All


Tuesday, 8.30 pm