WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHERE?: Southbank Centre
WHEN?: 10/5/18, booking to 29/7/18
Did you ever see ABBA live? Probably not because, as we learn here, they remained in Sweden for all but three months of the 10 years they were at their most popular.
- Read on for reasons including how you can sing Dancing Queen in a replica of ABBA’s studio
It’s 10.30 on the morning of the 2nd Eurovision Song Contest semi final and we’re at the venue (the Royal Festival Hall is within the Southbank Centre complex) of the fifth edition in 1960.
Norway won that year on its 1st appearance but it would take another 14 years for its neighbours Sweden to triumph down the road in Brighton with Waterloo sung by Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anna-Frid.
This tour takes one hour, costs £20 and our guide takes up to 16 visitors at a time around nine rooms which recreate pivotal points in the band’s career (the hotel room in Brighton where they celebrated that famous Eurovision win and the studio in Stockholm where they recorded their hits) as well as being filled with memorabilia.
The best thing about this exhibition is the wry recorded commentary from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker especially when, in a re-creation of a 70s UK living room looking suspiciously like the one we grew up in, he explains why at that time a Swedish group singing joyous pop provided escape from the realities of the time.
What we begin to realise as we listen to our fascinating tour guide in person is also what a contradiction they were: Benny (the perfectionist) disliked touring because he wasn’t able to recreate the Phil Spector-inspired Wall Of Sound they aped, yet Bjorn urged on their costume designer with the infamous words: ‘Nothing is too wild.’
It’s reflected in the music: a devastatingly sad lyric coupled with an unforgettable hook (see our favourite Knowing Me, Knowing You below).
What we also hadn’t realised previously was that, perhaps unusually for a group, all 4 members had found success before the band got together.
We’d advise going in a small group of like-minded friends to this exhibition because there is an opportunity to sing along at the microphone to Dancing Queen in a reimagining of ABBA’s own Stockholm studio.
On our tour our guide let slip his age (60 at his next birthday) as we hover over an actual ticket to a 1979 Wembley gig (cost £7.50 fact fans) and we suspect the only other guest was nearer that age than our own (four years old in 1974, so you do the math). That made for a slightly awkward moment when the guide launched into a solo singalong.
But for ABBA fans with a curiosity for that time this exhibition ticks the nostalgia box but is also a joyful celebration of everything that made them the world’s third most popular band in terms of sales.
Mamma Mia, we’d visit again in a heartbeat.