We’ve always had good reason to thank ABBA for the music. Now it’s time to thank the Southbank Centre for putting that music in context in a chronological exhibition which (helped immensely by items loaned from ABBA The Museum in Stockholm) is immersive, innovative, informative and above all celebratory.
A surprise guest at this week’s launch of ABBA: Super Troupers, Bjorn Ulvaeus summed it up perfectly. “It’s the opposite of all those huge, technically advanced, virtual reality exhibitions,” declared one fourth of arguably the world’s greatest-ever pop group. “It’s much more intimate, it’s warm and it has a sense of humour.”
Fan letters to ABBA from across the world. Photo credit: Mikael Bodner. Courtesy of ABBA The Museum.
I say ‘arguably’ but for me there’s no disputing Abba’s status at the very top of the pop pinnacle. From their 1974 international breakthrough ‘Waterloo’ to the underrated sign-off ‘Under Attack’ in 1983, no other band could lay claim to so many classic singles like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Take A Chance On Me’, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and so many more.
Photo credit: Victor Frankowski
Done as a series of rooms, the walk-through exhibition very cleverly starts against the backdrop of 1970s Britain from when they burst on the scene as winners of the Brighton-hosted Eurovision Song Contest to cheer up a country mired in strikes, cutbacks, political chaos and doubts about joining the EU. It opens, suitably camply, with the rolling back of a giant ABBA record and – with narration by Jarvis Cocker (a self-confessed ABBA fanatic) and guidance from an expert tour host – takes you through the likes of replicas of a British living room stuffed with band memorabilia, their victory suite at Brighton’s Grand Hotel and the legendary Polar Studios where they recorded all those hits.
Gold cassette awarded to ABBA for the success of the Super Troupers single in Japan, 1980
Photo credit: Mikael Bodner. Courtesy of ABBA The Museum.
There are some 120 exhibits which include obvious choices like gold discs, photographs and posters alongside quirkier ones like Benny’s leather boots, Agnetha’s iconic blue knitted hat and the juxtaposition of the image of a happy band in the early days with the cover for final album ‘The Visitors’ where Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frida aren’t even looking at each other.
White boots worn by Benny Andersson on ABBA’s European and North America tours in 1977 and 1979, hand-painted to match his outfit. Photo credit: Mikael Bodner. Courtesy of ABBA The Museum.
A couple of things don’t quite work, such as a wander round a Swedish forest and a trip to the grotty loos of a nameless nightclub. I’m also not sure about the last installation, an aircraft where you take a seat as testaments to ABBA’s legacy are projected on the windows, but at least it includes a clip of Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ leotard and all and doesn’t try to flog tickets to the Mamma Mia! musical – which, despite having the best soundtrack of any show ever, is to my mind as cheap as the band’s catalogue is sophisticated.
ABBA: Super Troupers is at the Southbank Centre, London, until April. southbankcentre.co.uk
Words by Simon Button