Blonde Goddess from ABBA
Agnetha Åse Fältskog (born 5 April 1950) is one of the most enigmatic pop stars, and she prefers it that way. She also is as well known throughout the world as any of today's one-name pop stars, though she is not as well known in the States. As one of the "A's" in legendary Swedish rock group ABBA, Agnetha remains a worldwide celebrity to this day, one of the true greats.
|Frida and Agnetha.|
There is a lot more to Agnetha Faltskog than ABBA, though, so let's learn a little more about this Swedish superstar.
Agnetha was born in Jönköping, Småland, Sweden on 5 April 1950. Her father was a department store manager who loved music and show business. Both Agnetha's mother and father lived into the mid-1990s and thus enjoyed their daughter's success.
Agnetha first began singing with friends at age nine. She and two friends called themselves the Cambers. They had a few local gigs.
Agnetha left school at age 15 to pursue a musical career.
Faltskog's first job was as a switchboard operator at a car firm. She sometimes sang with a local band, and eventually quit the operator job. Some fans, in light of later events, think she might have been happier in the long run staying put. However, those bright lights beckon.
The local band Agnetha sang with was simply known as the Bernt Enghardt band. Enghardt sent some demo tapes to a friend who had connections at Cupol Records. The friend, Karl Gerhard Lundkvist, liked Agnetha and signed her to a recording contract with CBS Records.
Much like Taylor Swift decades later, Agnetha began writing about her break-ups. She recorded her own song "Jag var så kär" ("I Was So in Love") and released it. The song became a huge hit in Sweden, hitting No. 1 on 28 January 1968 and selling over 80k copies.
Agnetha had big dreams, and submitted her recording of "Försonade" ("Reconciled") to Melodifestivalen, the Swedish contest for entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. The song was not selected. However, it made Agnetha familiar with the process.
During 1968, the issue of Gypsies was much in the news in Sweden (just as migrants became an issue in 2015). Agnetha somewhat opportunistically released a song about gypsy love called "Zigenarvän" ("Gypsy Friend"). It caused some snickers as being "ripped out of the headlines," but was another hit. That's how it's done, kids, snickers or not.
Agnetha was having a lot of success in Sweden, but she wanted to become successful throughout Europe. She began dating a German record producer, Dieter Zimmerman, but when he was unable to get a record contract there, she dumped him. In those years, Agnetha was quite ambitious. Hey... he had her for a while. Better than the rest of us.
Agnetha continued releasing material in Sweden. In 1970, she released "Om tårar vore guld" ("If Tears Were Gold"), which became a huge hit. However, her success was still largely limited to Sweden and the adjacent Nordic countries.
The Swedish music scene was pretty small and tight. Agnetha knew a local folk-rock singer, Björn Ulvaeus, and eventually began dating him around 1969-70. Bjorn sang and played with the Hootenanny Singers, which did folk songs, very popular at the time. The Hootenanny group was successful in its own right, and in the early days of ABBA, Bjorn would pose holding his gold records from that group along with the other ABBA members holding ABBA awards. That made ABBA look much more successful than it actually was at the time. Marketing counts for a lot, and everyone knows that Bjorn is a genius.
Bjorn had written songs and played with local musicians Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, who were kind of an on-again and off-again couple. Speaking of couples, Agnetha married Bjorn on 6 July 1971, with Benny playing the organ at their wedding. Anni-Frid and Benny also married, but only many years later. They did get engaged around this time, though. It was a very long engagement.
The four friends hung out together. They took a vacation together to Cyprus and began singing for some bemused UN soldiers hanging out casually on a beach. You know, just a bunch of soldiers acting as tourists having a spot of fun, and along come four hippie goofballs who start singing. If only they had known....
Ulvaeus and Andersson were busy writing songs together. Agnetha, of course, also wrote much of her own material, and she was quite proud of her own songwriting. At one point, long before ABBA, she even half-jokingly (maybe?) told a magazine that she was a better songwriter than Bjorn. Maybe she was, but Bjorn and Benny did the songwriting for the group. Eventually, Bjorn and Andersson used their songs to create an album ("Lycka"), and Agnetha and Frida (as Ani-Frid became known) sang some vocals on it. It was the start of their mutual collaboration.
Agnetha and Frida began to sing together as a cabaret act, and a song written for them by Bjorn and Andersson - "Hej, gamle man" ("Hello, Old Man") - proved popular in their act. They recorded it, and it hit No. 5 on the Swedish charts. Obviously, their voices blended well together. However, it was not "ABBA" - it was just Agnetha and Frida.
Agnetha, of course, with a No. 1 Swedish hit, had done better than that on her own. Bjorn also had had a lot of success with his group. However, a successful record was still a good start for a casual, friendship, family kind of musical deal. A lot about music is how the artists get along - so many great groups rely on that personal chemistry, and when it is there it is magic. Of course, when it disappears, so does the group, but let's not get ahead of our story.
The guys continued writing songs together, and the two girls chipped in with some vocals. It was very hit-and-miss. It isn't as if the musical gods came down and created the ABBA we now know. It took a lot of work and some failures as well as successes.
|Agnetha with Stig.|
Their friend, producer Stig Andersson, encouraged the two guys to write, and some of their songs became minor hits overseas as recorded by other performers. Stig was one of those flashy, hail-fellow-well-met types who didn't let anything get in his way. He was infamous, in fact, for stealing others' songs from the US and "borrowing" them for local Swedish records. It's a little unclear how the four future members of ABBA actually teamed up, but Stig probably had something to do with it.
"People Need Love" was the first song that the four future members of ABBA recorded together and that achieved real success. It can be considered the first "ABBA" hit. It only reached No. 17 on the Swedish charts, and also had some very minor success in the United States. But it was a start.
Agnetha and the others decided to record an album together. They also decided (at Stig's urging) to try Melodifestivalen, the gateway to the Eurovision contest, again, though none of them had ever had any success with it. They submitted "Ring Ring," which didn't make the Eurovision Song Contest, but at least came in third at Melodifestivalen. It's a good song, and ABBA used it throughout their history in live performances. It was not, however, the start of their real success.
During this time, Agnetha was busy on her own separate project: on 23 February 1973, she gave birth to Linda Elin Ulvaeus.
Stig came up with the name (actually an acronym of the band's first names) "ABBA" in 1973. The band chose this despite a contest in Swedish newspapers to choose the band's name, with none of the suggestions being "ABBA." They had to pay a venerable fish-food company for the rights to the name.
Encouraged by its modest success at the 1973 Melodifestivalen contest, the band decided to try again and enter the 1974 contest. They had many choices from Benny and Bjorn's output of compositions, but ultimately chose "Waterloo" because it was fun and upbeat.
ABBA won Melodifestivalen with "Waterloo," and went on to the Eurovision contest in the dome at Brighton, England. Expectations were low, because no Swedish act had won the contest since its inception in the '50s. There was a lot of feeling that the "hometown" act, Olivia Newton-John (who, while becoming Australian later, had been born in England), would win with "Long Live Love." In a "normal" year, Olivia might have.
"Waterloo" proved immensely popular and the performance by the group was flawless. ABBA won the 1974 Eurovision contest. "Waterloo" since has been voted time and again the best song in the entire contest's existence, and few would disagree. It's really an excellent song with very European vibes.
ABBA still had to make its breakthrough in terms of international sales. After some stumbles, it did so in 1975 with "SOS." Agnetha sang lead vocals on the song, which catapulted the group into global celebrity. Pete Townshend of The Who calls "SOS" the best rock song ever written, and when you really sit down and listen to it, he has a point. However, a lot of its appeal depended on Agnetha's brilliant lead vocal.
From then on, ABBA was unstoppable. It topped the charts for the remainder of the '70s throughout the world. The only place where ABBA had only indifferent success was the United States, but the group was so popular elsewhere that it didn't really matter. The States in the '70s were not very welcoming to foreign acts, and it was hard for Europeans to crack the code of the urban disco, country and heavy metal that ruled the charts (Olivia Newton-John, on the other hand, had brilliant success there).
|A promo shot from the photoshoot for "ABBA: The Movie," a slightly fictionalized tale of their 1977 tour of Australia.|
ABBA's "Dancing Queen" of 1976 was their only No. 1 single in the States. Somewhat incredibly, not a single ABBA studio album ever cracked the top ten on the US Billboard album chart throughout the band's existence, continuing to the present day. However... there's a big "however" to that which we'll get to below.
ABBA has sold somewhere in the vicinity of 400 million records (probably many more than that, but that is the official estimate at the time of this writing) and are said to be the second-most-popular pop group in history, second only to The Beatles. They continue to do well today - the "Dancing Queen" video has well over 100 million Youtube hits and climbing. While that may not seem like a lot - it's a 40-year-old song. Imagine how many hits it would have had in the first few years after its release if the Internet had been around then like it is now.
Agnetha wasn't just about music even at the height of the group's success. She gave birth to Peter Christian Ulvaeus on 4 December 1977.
Now the mother of two young children, Agnetha began disliking many of the inconveniences of being in a rock group, such as being away from home so much. She had worked the hardest at selling the group in its early days - just watch her animated early performances of "Waterloo" and "SOS" - but as the '70s dragged on, Agnetha began limiting her willingness to perform and withdrew into herself. The group had to cancel a concert or two because Agnetha had "issues," though the band is justly proud of rarely cancelling. A rough plane flight fed her aversion to flying, so she would drive hundreds of miles in a limo to concerts when the rest of group flew.
|Agnetha and Frida on tour in 1977.|
Rumors arose that Agnetha was "difficult." Bjorn, on the other hand, loved performing and promoting the group and worked increasingly hard on selling the group and writing more hits. There are rumors pinning the couple's developing problem on both parties, and isn't that so often the case. In any event, their interaction within the group became cold, and then minimal, and ultimately virtually nonexistent. Group members who once sat next to each other no longer did. You can see that in some of their later promotional appearances.
Things came to a head in 1978. Agnetha and Bjorn basically broke up that summer, but at Bjorn's pleading, Agnetha promised to stay together through Christmas, for the sake of the children. She kept her promise - she left for good on Christmas night. Let's not pin all the blame on Agnetha - Bjorn suddenly "found" a new love within days of their breakup. So, who knows what really happened.
ABBA songs gradually became more wistful, some would say sadder, as in 1980's "The Winner Takes It All." It is a song about regret and forlorn hope about a breakup, and its original demo title had been "The Story of My Life." Agnetha herself, after years of issuing adamant denials that it wasn't about her own breakup, since has retreated a bit. Fairly recently, Agnetha said simply, "You'll have to ask Bjorn." In truth, there had been a sad edge to ABBA's music going all the way back to "SOS." While able to be joyful as appropriate, Agnetha's expression in videos increasingly became a frown, as if she were carrying a great weight and about to cry. The group's popularity, however, remained strong, increasingly led by Agnetha's soaring vocals.
The group ran its course by the early 1980s, as all things do. It basically disbanded around 1983 (though never formally - technically, ABBA is still together). Some again would point to the disharmony within the group for its ending, but times had changed and their final few singles had weak sales.
|ABBA in 1973, right before their explosive success.|
It is extremely difficult to look at some of ABBA's later music videos - which they helped to make an art form long before MTV due to creative director Lasse Hallström - and not read into them signs of their internal situation. However, the quality of the material remained strong to the end. In fact, ABBA's last true single while they were together, "The Day Before You Came," did not do particularly well on the charts. However, to this day it is a fan favorite and has topped some reader polls of favorite singles fairly recently, decades after its release.
Agnetha resumed her solo career after ABBA's breakup. In fact, she had continued her solo career, off and on, even during ABBA. She had good success in Sweden - where she always will be a national treasure - but only middling success elsewhere. Finally, she gave it up by 1988 and essentially retired. Agnetha later mentioned that it was tough for her around that time because her daughter was in her difficult teen years. She also had a young boy to take care of. Everyone would agree that she deserved a break.
Agnetha retired to Eckerö, her private island outside of Stockholm. A series of sketchy relationships ensued, many kept very quiet. There is a lot of misinformation about those years, or shall we say, missing information. We may not even know everything that went on even now. But, we know more now than was known at the time.
|Agnetha and Frida during the 1974 finals of "Eurovision" in Brighton.|
One of Agnetha's relationships was with Stockholm detective Thorbjorn Brander. Brander had investigated kidnapping threats aimed at Agnetha's children. Nothing wrong with that, Brander's probably a great guy... but it marked the start of an odd trend of haphazard relationships that seemed to come and go by happenstance.
Agnetha then married a doctor, Tomas Sonnenfeld. They were married for three years. Again, it was completely secret, and nobody but close friends even knew about the marriage until Agnetha mentioned it in 1993 while they were getting divorced.
Around this time, there were extreme highs and lows for Agnetha. While she was divorcing Sonnenfeld, "Abba Gold," a compilation of ABBA hits, became an international sensation. It only hit No. 36 on the US charts - but it is a steady seller there that has become 6x Platinum in the States and sold about 30 million copies around the world. It has become one of the top albums by any act - ever. All but the very top bands will never see anything like that kind of success even once in their careers! So, while ABBA never dominated the US charts, they have had phenomenal success not only overseas, but also in the US. That is seldom acknowledged.
Around this time, Agnetha had personal tragedy aside from her divorce. In an event shrouded in cover stories and mystery, Agnetha's mother reportedly - reportedly - committed suicide by leaping from her 6th-floor apartment. Mr. Faltskog, heartbroken, died a year later. It is pretty well known that Agnetha had a very close relationship with her parents. One can only imagine....
Shortly after all that, Agnetha went into a period that still mystifies fans and, frankly, everyone else. A Belgian forklift driver stalked her. Okay, that happens to celebrities. Agnetha complained to the police. Again, normal. But then, Agnetha started dating the Belgian in 1997. Not so normal. They were together for two years, and the forklift driver is proud to show very sentimental notes sent to him by Agnetha. Apparently, he lived in a trailer not far from her mansion, and, well, it was convenient for Agnetha and, well, she was lonely. Or something. Agnetha says she liked to walk her dogs in various random places; maybe that brought them together. Eventually, Agnetha discarded the stalker and got a protection order. But again, this guy had two years with a woman half of Europe would have liked to be with.
|Agnetha with a "halo" over head, in the studio with Frida.|
Perhaps because her life had become so haphazard and it wouldn't be helpful to have a high profile, Agnetha became known as a recluse, perhaps a bit eccentric. There were persistent rumors - wildly overblown, it seems, but who knows - that Agnetha was troubled, depressed, isolated, and so on and so forth. Fan sightings, though, sometimes turned into impromptu conversations with the elusive star. People would stand across the street from her estate - there's apparently a bus stop right near there - and would be astounded when Agnetha would pull up after a trip to town and start chatting with them as if they were old friends.
Agnetha then pulled herself together. She overcame the doubters and had more surprises in store. In 2004, she unexpectedly returned to the music scene and released a new album, "My Colouring Book," which contained new renditions of 1960s songs. It was a big Swedish hit - not ABBA-style success, but excellent for someone long thought lost to the music world forever.
Agnetha made some appearances with the other members of ABBA in following years. The "Mamma Mia" musical and film revived interest in the band around 2007. The fan enthusiasm truthfully had never died, but the group had turned down billion-dollar offers to get back together, so any kind of ABBA reunion was eagerly anticipated. Agnetha recently has said that she would be fine with a reunion of the group, but the others appear to be against it - and one or two may secretly resent Agnetha's sudden (and public) willingness after many years when she apparently was the obstacle to any reunion. However, this is reading too much into it - the group has been adamant that it will not reunite in the classic sense.
|Agnetha in 1976. Photographer: Bengt H. Malmqvist.|
There are many hard feelings within the group, because both couples had bad divorces and have since remarried - though Agnetha herself remains single now. But they seem to be getting over it.
Agnetha released another album, "A," in 2013. She did a lot more publicity for this than she had previously, and it was even more successful than "My Colouring Book" about a decade earlier. Word is that "A" sold around a million copies worldwide, which is a great success indeed, but that has not been verified.
Agnetha also did some other appearances, including an extremely rare duet with Gary Barlow, "I Should Have Followed You Home." Their concert appearance together in 2013 showed that Agnetha still "has it" - Agnetha was flawless and demonstrated her old rapport with the audience and duet partner. It was if 30 years had disappeared. It was one of the most astonishing performances by anyone in years. But it was only a one-off and has not since been repeated.
Agnetha Faltskog continues to receive worldwide publicity for her rare public appearance, which now occasionally even include some live performances for specific purposes. There is every likelihood that she will release more music for her fans around the world, but you never know when: Agnetha always operates on her own timetable.
Agnetha remains active in the music scene. There are always rumors of a ABBA reunion. The rumors are not far-fetched - Agnetha and Frida have both performed fairly recently and done well, showing no deterioration of their vocal talents. They both have given broad hints that they would at least consider it - and the amounts of money being bruited about would make it worth anyone's while. There was a famous offer of a billion dollars around 1999-2000 for a concert tour, but that went nowhere because the band said "No."
The two guys, Bjorn and Benny, while also still active, are big music industry tycoons now and not keen to reunite. In fact, they seem to think the mere idea ridiculous, something that would sully the group's legendary reputation. Still, the possibility exists. Even many of the same studio musicians the group used in the 1980s remain working for Bjorn and Benny in Stockholm. Theoretically, the group could go in the studio and resurrect the entire operation (except the studio itself, which is gone) whenever they want. It would be identical to when they last recorded in 1982. Exactly the same, except that they are older. But so what? They still are in great shape and their voices clear. They would sound the same, perhaps with some old and some new material. It would be epic.
But, alas, it's been denied so often that any revival is an extreme long shot. However, there also have been hints that Agnetha and Frida themselves may just record together, not necessarily with live performances but perhaps some studio work. It would not be ABBA, but it would be as close as we'll ever get. Maybe the guys will come around eventually. It likely won't happen. But, in any event, thank you for the music.
What a winning smile! Let's see that again.
UPDATE JUNE 2016For the group's 50's anniversary, all four members reunited at the Berns Salonger hotel in downtown Stockholm on Sunday, 5 June 2016.
The group has appeared together twice together in public so far in 2016 - for the opening of Bjorn's "Mamma Mia! The Party" in Stockholm in January. Agnetha in particular looked fabulous.
Not a lot is known about this event - whether they sang or just reminisced or whatever it was that they did. But, naturally, ABBA fans are very excited. It just seems as though the stars are aligning for something new - and it's about time.