The story goes something like this: one night in 1995, Victoria Norback went to see an ABBA tribute band in her native Sweden. The group was terrible, and Norback, a lifelong fan of the Swedish pop group famous for 70s-era hits like "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen," was horrified.
"It was a group from Australia, and it was sing-back," Norback remembered. "Some parts were playback. It was only six people on stage. They spoke fake Swedish. They sang awful and not even in tune, and it was really bad to see, when you know how good ABBA was. They made fun of ABBA! The stage clothes seemed to be made at home. Nothing like ABBA at all."
Norback, who grew up in a family of musicians (her mother was an opera singer and her grandparents ran a cabaret) decided to form her own ABBA tribute. It took some doing. At first, she recruited friends and people she knew. In 1999 she decided to use only professional musicians and singers.
"I had auditions to pick everyone in the band," she said. "I wanted it to be first-class. And also I started to work with original ABBA musicians back in 1997. They are in the show from time to time, too, the musicians that worked with ABBA for over 10 years. The whole band is made up of musicians who went to quality performing arts schools. For example, my keyboard player was only 16 years old when he went to a conservatory for music in Switzerland. He is really a virtuoso! He can play anything. And that goes for the rest of the band, too."
The result of Norback's hard work is Arrival from Sweden, a 12-piece song and dance showcase that will take the Foellinger Theatre stage Saturday, July 7 at 8 p.m. as part of the venue's summer concert series.
Since the mid 90s the men and women of Arrival have taken the music of ABBA to 60 different countries, including the U.S., one of their favorite places to perform. Americans love them some ABBA. Just look at the success of the Mamma Mia! movie franchise. (But don't look - or listen - when Pierce Brosnan launches into song.)
"American audiences really take care of us and show us so much love and passion for what we do," said Norback. "That keeps us going. America is a dream to tour in. The American people really know how to party and show how much they love the music of ABBA!"
Americans weren't the first to embrace ABBA's uniquely stylish and Swedish take on the pop formula. The phenomenon all began with the foursome's swoon-worthy performance of "Waterloo" in Eurovision's Song Contest. It was 1974 and ABBA's triumphant showing was a first for Sweden. The group also went on to become the single most successful band to have competed on the show. The numbers don't lie: roughly 500 million records sold and eight consecutive No. 1 albums in the UK alone.
Some of the success is attributable to the band's undeniable chemistry, itself a result of the fact that the band was comprised of two married couples: Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus brought the hair, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson the sequins. Just kidding. All four brought it all, all the time.
Norback thinks another secret to ABBA's appeal is how easy the songs are on the ears. Don't let that fool you, though.
"I grew up listening to ABBA," Norback said. "I was really impressed by the voices of Agnetha and Anni-Frid. How they used their voices, their technique of belting and twang, so hard to do! So I learned how to sing like them. And the music. So good, so well played, and produced ... all of their songs are so different from each other ... very easy to listen to, but very hard to sing and play.
ABBA's first performance was in 1970 when the two pairs of lovebirds went on vacation together to Cyprus. Not that they called themselves ABBA yet, and not that the performance was exactly planned. They launched into song on the beach in front of an assemblage of United Nations soldiers, and the warm reception they received there prompted them to try their hand at a stage show back home in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The show, titled Festfolket (which translates to "Engaged Couples" and "Party People") was panned, and the four musicians pursued other opportunities for a time. Andersson and Ulvaeus recorded together under the name Bjorn and Benny, eventually breaking onto the charts with "Hello, Old Man," "No Doctor Can Help with That" and "Say It with a Song." Faltskog and Lyngstad worked solo as singers. Later, when Faltskog and Lyngstad again joined their husbands in making music, their manager decided they needed a catchy name. They landed on ABBA because it was an acronym of their first names. (It's also the name of a Swedish fish-canning company, but that's a story for another day.)
In 1974 they struck Eurovision gold with "Waterloo" which they sang in English instead of Swedish. It turned out to be a fateful choice. An impossibly catchy take on love as an act of surrender, "Waterloo" reached No. 1 on the UK charts and climbed to the sixth spot in the U.S. An international tour followed, but it would be two more years before ABBA really became a household name.
In 1976 the group made yet another odd and fateful decision. They released a greatest hits album, despite having only six songs on regular rotation. The album went to No. 1 in the UK and sold more than a million copies in the U.S. Suddenly, songs like "SOS," "Mamma Mia" and "Fernando" were playing everywhere. Resistance, as they say, was futile.
And then came Arrival, the album for which Norback's group is named. It introduced the world to "Dancing Queen," "Money, Money, Money" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You." It also was the best-selling album of 1977.
The late 70s was ABBA's world and everyone else was just living in it - and, if they were listening to ABBA, living it up in it. World tours, mass hysteria, and press junkets followed. One of their sold-out shows even included a high-drama, high-stakes bomb scare. They put out The Album, Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper.
Worldwide fame had its down sides. In the early 80s both marriages fell apart, and even though ABBA continued to tour and make music together, the band's heyday was over. They recorded one more album, the critically acclaimed and undeniably darker and more mature The Visitors, and then the group slowly disbanded. There was never an official split, per se. They simply stopped performing, and the members have all gone on record as saying that they will not reunite. Ulvaeus has said that they want their fans to remember them as they were in the 70s: "young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition."
All pretty good words to describe Arrival, actually.
"We give it all on every concert," Norback said. "We give so much energy every time, and we treat the songs of ABBA with respect and love. Our audience feels that they are part of the show. And they can also see that we love to be on stage. That is very important."