Winner Take All: Inside ABBA’s Final Years

One former music exec reflects on the significance of his favorite song by the Swedish supergroup

Telex from ABBA / (Photo provided by Carey Budnick)

When I met with the members of ABBA in 1976, presenting them with a Gold Record Award for album sales, it was more a PR stunt than a social exchange.

It was two years earlier, during preparation for an album release of what I hoped would be the best 12 songs entered in that year’s Eurovision Contest, that I first heard the demo of Waterloo. It was so strong and different that I was confident the group would become stars. We immediately entered an exclusive agreement with ABBA’s agents: Polar Music, to manufacture and market the ABBA catalog releases for the next several years. As this was before the group won the Eurovision contest, it was kudos for me within CBS Records, the company I worked for before it became as absorbed by Sony Music. 

Carey Budnick presents a gold record to Bjorn and Frida of ABBA

“Waterloo,” the Swedish entry for 1974, was ABBA’s second attempt at gaining recognition beyond the Swedish border. More specifically, songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus set out to create a song that could chart in the UK. If you listen carefully, it sounds like they paid a lot of attention to the previous summer’s UK number one glam rock single: “See My Baby Jive“ by Wizard.

Time-jumping to now, forty years later. I am old enough to pay attention to the story the lyric was telling in the song “Winner Takes It All.” The words which a sad-eyed blonde Agnetha sang described a bitter, miserable ending of her marriage to guitarist Bjorn. She seemed devastated by it. When the song was first released, we all danced to it and sang it but never thought about the lyrics.

VIDEO: ABBA “Winner Takes It All”

I began to find the breakup stories of the two couples making up ABBA in the lyrics which Bjorn had been writing for years. From ONE OF US to MAMA MIA to KNOWING ME KNOWING YOU. The songs tell of the tension and heartbreaking toll the two couples went through during their final years as a performing group. They remained together to record and perform as long as they could after they had split up as couples.

I was deeply moved when listening with new ears as Agnetha sang WINNER TAKES IT ALL. The music to their songs was so light and catchy. I am annoyed at myself for missing the melancholy undertones when I heard them in the past. Even the joyful DANCING QUEEN can be understood as having a double message. Of an older woman who can no longer make the scene, enviously watching the 17 years old having the time of her life.”

Bjorn once said: “I think I wrote ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ before the divorce. In many ways, Agnetha and my divorce was an amicable one, we just grew apart and decided let’s split up. Benny and Frida’s was a little more difficult. It was not a happy time but still very creative.

By 1980, Bjorn and Agnetha would file for divorce. A deeper read into the lyrics of “Winner Takes It All” seems to lay it all out on the line.

I was in your arms

 Thinking I belonged there

 I figured it made sense

 Building me a fence

 Building me a home

 Thinking I’d be strong there

 But I was a fool

 Playing by the rules

 But tell me does she kiss

 Like I used to kiss you?

 Does it feel the same

 When she calls your name?

 Somewhere deep inside

 You must know I miss you

 But what can I say

 Rules must be obeyed

Bjorn wrote this after separating from wife Agnetha. “It’s about a divorce where one person doesn’t want to separate and clings desperately to the marriage. It put Agnetha in the strange spot of being asked to sing a breakup song, written by her ex-husband… It was strange hearing her singing it. It was more like an actress doing something when she sang it, but deeply moving. Afterward, there were a few tears as well”)

Bjorn has said that while he usually didn’t use drugs or alcohol while writing, he had a bottle of brandy next to him while writing the lyrics for this song. It was very personal to him. He told the London Times in 2010.

….Bjorn claimed that 90% of this song is fiction, which is why he didn’t feel too bad about having his ex-wife sing it.

Agnetha told The Mail in May 2013 this is her favorite ABBA song: “Björn wrote it about us after the breakdown of our marriage. The fact that he wrote it exactly when we divorced is touching really,” she explained. “It was fantastic to do that song because I could put in such feeling. I didn’t mind sharing it with the public. It didn’t feel wrong. There is so much in that song. It was a mixture of what I felt and what Björn felt, but also what Benny and Frida went through.”)

 

VIDEO: ABBA perform “Waterloo” on Eurovision TV 1974

In 1981, Benny and Frida would divorce, and in 1983 ABBA disbanded altogether. Their press release at the time stated, “They went on a long indefinite break” 

According to sources, the marriages came apart while the couples tried and failed to stick together coping with the existential changes their sudden worldwide fame put them through. Bjorn and Benny were perfectionists, both as composers and producers. There was always another take. Another bow, Another tour. Tempers behind the scenes were often fraying. One overlooked part of their split was that the sudden influx of a great deal of money made each of them independently wealthy and so less dependent on the other. They mentioned that the Beatles also cite their newfound wealth as one reason they were able to split. Each of them had enough money for a lifetime.

Agnetha was always worried about leaving her young children behind when they went on tour. She also feared flying after their private jet was tossed around in the air on the way to Boston, and she had a breakdown after landing. The pressure to continually pretend she was happy and content, to be known as the sexy blonde lead singer in ABBA, was wearing her down. 

Within weeks of his split from Agnetha, Bjorn was seeing another woman he soon married. Explained Bjorn speaking about the end of his marriage to Agnetha: 

“To clear things up, once and for all, when you talk to someone like I talked to Agnetha, and you honestly try to discuss things, solve your problems, and you don’t succeed, then you know it’s time to call it a day. So that’s what we did. But we didn’t give up on our marriage easily or quickly. It took two years before we eventually agreed to get a divorce. First, we went to a psychiatrist, and he helped us to discuss our problems in an honest way. At the end of those two years of continuous talks, we were completely sure that we were making the right decision, believe me. There was no tension, but of course, there were tears. What do you expect, we had been together for thirteen years!” 

ABBA Rage (Art: Ron Hart)

Frida had a troubled childhood, and although she was a party girl, she had left her first husband to care for their children, and the guilt was a heavy burden. In his excellent Abba biography, Carl Magnus Palm quotes Frida as saying,

“I don’t know exactly what went wrong. Maybe it was the strain of working together, never having time for our private life. We were never able to sit down as two individuals and decide what we wanted from our lives. It was a mixture of everything…Abba took a great part of our lives.”

Many Frida fans blamed Benny, because he apparently had started a relationship with another woman, Mona Norklit, several months before the divorce was announced in February 1981.

The entity known as ABBA has sold more than 380 million records worldwide since 1974.   You might say that the entity known as ABBA was the winner that took it all.

 

VIDEO: ABBA Live in Switzerland 1979

 

Carey Budnick

Carey Budnick is a songwriter whose work has appeared on recordings by The Cowsills and others. His writing on culture has appeared in the Albany Times Union Sunday Magazine and the Hartford Advocate.

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