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Stockholm: the place that went pop

ABBA pose dockside in Stockholm's Gamla Stan (Old Town) in July 1977. Pictured from left: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Benny Andersson - Credit: Getty Images

It all started with ABBA, but Stockholm’s association with pure pop music has long outlasted the band, says SOPHIA DEBOICK.

Stockholm is the centre of the Swedish New Year’s Eve. Ever since 1895, the Skansen open-air museum – a collection of historical houses on Djurgården island – has hosted the national celebrations. The tradition of reading Tennyson’s Ring Out Wild Bells, known as Nyårsklockan in its translation by Stockholm man of letters Edvard Fredin, just before the stroke of midnight originated at the same time, and for decades the event has been televised to the nation. The view from Skansen of the fireworks exploding over the 14 islands of the Stockholm archipelago is the best there is.

Skansen is also known for its schlager-heavy Allsång på Skansen (‘Sing-along at Skansen’) summer shows, part of Stockholm’s rich musical life which includes a long-running jazz festival and an early music festival, as well as institutions of musical education of long pedigree.

Musical genius flows in Swedish veins, and a New Year’s Eve party sound-tracked only by artists who were born, lived or worked in Stockholm would be a more than adequate one.

ABBA would have to take pride of place in that playlist, and it would not just be for the familiarity of their songs, since Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ melodies, inspired by those of traditional folk music, have an essentially communal, democratic feel to them.

The four members of ABBA had been working separately on the Stockholm music scene for years when they formed the cabaret act Festfolk in 1970. Benny Andersson had been in the ‘Swedish Beatles’, the Hep Stars, and Agnetha Fältskog had had a hit with her self-penned Jag var så kär (‘I Was So In Love’) in 1967. After the two joined forces with Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad they had a domestic hit with their perky People Need Love (1972) and several goes at the Melodifestivalen competition to choose the Swedish Eurovision entrant before getting selected and seeing Waterloo launch them on an international stage at the 1974 competition.

The scale of ABBA’s subsequent success is only really hinted at by their eight No.1 singles and eight consecutive No.1 albums in the UK, but despite conquering the world their association with Stockholm endured. Only Andersson was actually born in the city, but the bulk of the band’s material was recorded at the Metronome Studios, today Atlantic Studios, housed in a former cinema on Karlbergsvägen, which served as their creative base before they switched to Andersson and Ulvaeus’s own Polar Studios on Kungsholmen.

ABBA’s visuals also made heavy use of the city as a backdrop. In their imperial period, when they were defying the emergence of punk with ABBA: The Album (1977) and its two UK No.1 singles, they put Stockholm before the eyes of the world through filming ABBA: The Movie (1977) and most of their music videos there. Stockholm’s own Lasse Hallström – later a Best Director Oscar nominee – directed almost all this work, and locations like the Årstabron bridge and Tumba rail station, featured in the video for perhaps ABBA’s oddest single, The Day Before You Came (1982), are now forever associated with the band.

But ABBA were also part of a wider story of Stockholm’s 1970s renaissance. While acts like Blue Swede and Harpo were also breaking out of the city to wider success, in the city itself major regeneration projects, particularly in the old Klara district, were followed by new constitutional laws that passed power from the young king Carl XVI Gustaf to the nation.

His wedding in the summer of 1976 at the city’s oldest church, the Storkyrkan, was the first marriage of a reigning Swedish monarch for nearly 200 years and a major national occasion. When ABBA performed Dancing Queen live for the first time at the pre-wedding gala at the city’s Royal Swedish Opera, popular culture claimed its place in this key moment in modern Swedish history.

ABBA are still a presence in Stockholm, both in body and spirit. Only Lyngstad doesn’t have a residence there and the ABBA Museum, opened in 2013 on Djurgården island with the tagline ‘Walk in. Dance out’, offers a clear focus for ABBA tourism to the city. But they also have an intangible musical legacy there, having originated an association between Stockholm and perfect pop that has not yet waned.

In the 1980s and 1990s a raft of hits came out of Stockholm, some of which shaped the direction of global pop. Neneh Cherry was born in Stockholm to a Sierra Leonean father and Swedish mother before moving to the US and then the UK. Representative of the city’s ethnic diversity – it has large populations from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Turkey and Syria today – she originated a brand of transatlantic cool and signalled a shift in the place of women in pop when she emerged with her debut Buffalo Stance in 1988.

Four years later, Alban Uzoma Nwapa, who had arrived in Stockholm from Nigeria to study dentistry, had a major Eurodance hit as Dr. Alban with It’s My Life, a song produced by veteran of the Stockholm dance scene Dag Volle, aka Denniz Pop. Volle and Max Martin, a future writer of no less than 22 US No.1s, would wield a huge influence over anglophone pop in the coming years after they founded Cheiron Studios on Kungsholmen. There they worked on records by fellow Swedes Europop act Ace of Base and irreverent art pop trio Army of Lovers, but also Britney Spears’ first two albums and the cream of the 1990s US boy bands – Backstreet Boys and N’Sync.

Martin and Volle were also responsible for the first hit by a Stockholm-born future pop icon. The teenage Robyn’s Show Me Love (1997) was in the RnB-tinged pop mould of the time and gave little hint of what was to come. After becoming disillusioned with the pop conveyor belt, she staged a comeback in 2005 with a self-titled album on her own Stockholm-based label, Konichiwa. Having taken back creative control, the record was lyrically preoccupied with male arrogance and oppressive ideals placed on women and it began to establish her as a female artist of uncompromising attitude.

Robyn’s heart-breaking and hypnotic 2007 single With Every Heartbeat gave her her first UK No.1, but it was 2010 LP Body Talk, co-written with long-term collaborator Klas Åhlund of legendary Stockholm alternative rock band Teddybears, that marked her out as a true pop innovator, bringing together club-worthy synthpop and a tendency to idiosyncrasy influenced by her idols, Prince and Kate Bush.

Songs from the album Call Your Girlfriend and Dancing On My Own proved that Robyn is an inheritor of ABBA’s ability to inject genuine pathos into otherwise euphoric pop – the bitter sweetness of Dancing Queen surely stands for all time – as well as to redefine the limits of pop.

Robyn has hardly been alone in carrying forward Stockholm’s pop dominance into the 21st century. DJs Eric Prydz, whose Steve Winwood-sampling Call On Me was a monster hit in 2007, and Tim Bergling, aka Avicci, whose euphoric Wake Me Up (2013) made his name before his tragic early death in 2018, have been foremost among Stockholm’s latter day musical success stories. Female electropop duo Icona Pop’s I Love It (2012) was embraced with gusto by ad men and heard widely ever since, while Zara Larsson’s attitude-heavy Lush Life was a Top 5 hit across Europe in 2015.

All upbeat stuff, and sadly fitting for the New Year’s party none of us will be having. Instead, ABBA’s surprisingly dark Happy New Year is perhaps a more appropriate song to see 2020 out to, with its blend of optimism and fatalism: “May we all have our hopes, our will to try/ If we don’t we might as well lay down and die.”

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