In the 31 years since ABBA split up, Agnetha Fältsgok has avoided or made light of questions about her time with the world’s second bestselling band of all time. But last week, during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Frontline, she opened up at last about the highs and lows of the superstardom she eventually shunned. Or so it seemed.
She talked about breaking up with Björn, about how difficult it was for her to be on the road, about the experience of singing The Winner Takes It All – the song her ex-husband wrote about their divorce. But at the same time, she said nothing new at all.
These are well-known, rehearsed facts about Agnetha and ABBA. Although it seemed as if she was baring all, she wasn’t telling us anything new at all. But then John Wilson tried to get beneath the surface story. He asked her if she’d be going back to Stockholm for the opening of ABBA: The Museum on May 7, to which she replied:
“I’ll still be here in London, I’m afraid.”
Wilson sounded shocked that she wouldn’t be going and then asked: “Would you like to sing in public together again, the four of you?”
Agnetha gave a soft laugh and then said: “I think we would like it, but I don’t think that we’re going to do it because we have our separate lives now, we are much older, and I can’t see a reason why we should do it, really.”
Wilson wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You must wonder what it would be like of the four of you got together in a room, and just to hear what happens in the air when the four of you sing,” he said. ‘You don’t think that will ever happen again, even in private?”
“No,’ said Agnetha. “I don’t think so.”
ABBA do reunite in my novel, Knowing Me Knowing You. It’s a dream that may never come true, but at least with fiction we can try to write between the lines. Between the lines of Agnetha’s interview there was a very different story going on.
It’s hard to match up what she said earlier: “I think we would like it”, with her flat, firm refusal to even broach imagining singing in a room privately with Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, which leads me to think that her excuses for not getting back together – separate lives, too old, no good reason – are yet more surface statements, and Agnetha isn’t letting anyone in at all.
Her new album is simply titled ‘A’, a direct reference to her initial being used as part of ABBA. She’s taken it back, and it’s as if she’s saying that although ABBA still retain their epic popularity, her initial will never be linked up to B, B and A again in real time.
There’s a mystery at the heart of this that may never be made public, but you can’t help but wonder if Agnetha’s lack of enthusiasm isn’t somehow linked to the other A in ABBA.
I originally came up with the concept for my new novel while cycling in Dublin (often my ideas come while biking, there’s something about the rhythm of it that makes my thoughts flow). I remembered a story I’d written for a comedy newspaper I produce every now and then for my family, about my youngest brother who as a teenager was big into Eminem. The story said that he was spotted coming out of an Abbaholics Anonymous meeting.
Suddenly I had it. I would write a book about an ABBA fanclub who reunite to go to Stockholm to see an ABBA reunion concert. I would call the book Abbaholics Anonymous.
I pitched the idea to my publishers, who liked it, and so the long and hard work of writing Abbaholics Anonymous began.
Cut to a year and a half later, when my second draft was finished, and my editor says she wants to have a meeting. Nobody in the publishing house likes Abbaholics Anonymous as a title, she tells me over coffee. Can’t we call it something else?
I argued hard. I thought the title was comedic and would leave people in no doubt about the subject matter, but my editor argued that the book was about so much more than just an ABBA fanclub and an ABBA concert. They were just the hangers on which the full wardrobe of the novel were hung.
Eventually I had to agree. I let go of Abbaholics Anonymous (although I did keep the phrase part of the novel itself) and started casting around for a new title. It wasn’t easy. I looked through the ABBA catalogue over and over again, but nothing was jumping out.
The the publishers suggested The Day Before You Came. But I felt the song was too obscure, that only diehard ABBA fans would instantly remember it looking at the cover. I wanted it to be more instantly grabbing.
My editor’s instincts were spot on, in one respect. ‘The Day Before You Came’ is not only ABBA’s masterpiece (to my mind), but it has a real sense of story to it. As a title it suggests a past, present and future – the hook telling the browser that something interesting is going to happen in the course of this book.
Voulez Vous? “No,” said my editor. It’s too 1970s sexual.
Thank You For The Music? “No, it sounds like an ABBA biography.”
S.O.S.? “No, it sounds like a cry for help.”
I had suggested Knowing Me Knowing You early on in the process, but we both dismissed it because it was once the catchphrase of Alan Partridge, and people automatically delivered back comedic “Ah ha!” at the end.
But then one day I was driving to Sligo, my hometown (and where the teenage sections of the novel are set) and ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ came on the radio. I listened to the lyrics and found that they fit my story in so many ways.
It’s a book about love lost and found, friendships that have fallen by the wayside, and what happens in the aftermath of people’s lives. In it my characters get to rekindle romance and friendship 30 years after the summer they were feeltingly friends, and in a way it’s a book about knowing another person, really knowing.
When the cover designs for the book came through, it was Knowing Me Knowing You that stood out by a mile. It was perfectly right. I saw it in a bookshop, staring out from the shelf at me the other day, and thought: Abbaholics Anonymous? What was I thinking?
There’s another story doing the rounds about Abba reuniting, with Agnetha rowing in to say she wouldn’t be adverse to doing a charity concert. In Knowing Me Knowing You, they reunite to do a concert for Unicef, and my characters all go to Stockholm for the concert of a lifetime. Writing it was like writing a dream come true for me. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was see ABBA in concert. The nearest I ever got was going to ABBA: The Movie in the Savoy Cinema in Sligo, Ireland on a rainy summer’s night, but even then my excitement was so much, I could hardly eat the whole day beforehand. (I guess that’s called the ABBA diet.)
ABBA came to Ireland in 1979, when I wasn’t nearly old enough to go to a concert, so my parents wouldn’t hear of it. And anyway, the tickets sold out instantly and then became like gold dust. On the day they played, the then President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery, went on the most popular radio show of the time, The Gay Byrne Show, and appealed for tickets so his daughter could go to the show. She had a pair by 5pm.
My friend, John, who lived in Limerick (I didn’t know him at the time, we only met as adults) remembers this, and remembers how disgusted he was, that the President would be able to use his power to get tickets like that, and when you think about it, Mr Hillery was being very cheeky indeed.
I hope his daughter enjoyed the show. And maybe, if Bjorn, Benny Agnetha and Frida ever get back on a stage together, myself and John can go and see them play!
I thought I knew a fair bit about the media industry. After all, I’ve been magazine editing for 13 years now, and I know a good story when I see one. Over those years I’ve often been asked to go on TV, radio and in print to talk about gay rights issues, and the one proviso I always gave was that I don’t talk about my personal life. The reason for this is I have a son, and I felt a responsibility to keep his life out of it, since he had no choice in the matter.
My son’s grown up now, and he lives abroad, plus he’s totally comfortable with me talking about him, so when The John Murray Show on RTE Radio One asked me to come on and talk about my new novel, Knowing Me Knowing You, and at the same time tell the nation what it’s like being a gay dad, how it all happened, and what my relationships with my son and his mother were like, I said yes. I was reluctant – my book is mainstream commercial fiction featuring heterosexual characters, and no gay dads, but i understand that personal stories are interesting to listeners, and I felt ready to tell my story.
The show was broadcast on Monday, and right after it the RTE press office contacted me to say The Daily Mirror were interested in running a story, based on the interview. Then The Irish Sun called me and said they’d like to run a story too. I said yes, although again with trepidation. There was little I could do about it – my interview was public property. I asked both the Mirror and The Sun to print a photo of my book cover with their pieces and left them to it.
The stories appeared yesterday. The copy stuck to the tone of my interview, which was an honest account of how I came to have a child, the process of coming out as gay, how my child’s mother took the news, and how we have managed to bring our son up together but apart, the very best we could.
But the headlines were a different story.
‘I TOLD HER I WAS GAY BUT WE HAD A BABY ANYWAY’ shouted The Mirror.
‘GAY DAD PACT HIS BAGS DAY SON TURNED 1’ said The Sun – http://tinyurl.com/c7c2kz8
I know a headline is there to make a reader read the story, but still I was shocked at the negative slant in the headlines about my own life. They don’t reflect the truth of the story at all, and there’s a kind of homophobia to them, a suggestion of irresponsibility coupled with the word ‘gay’ that, for all my knowledge of the tabloid papers and their sexually prurient slant, I was not expecting. I guess, when it’s your life, you can’t imagine it framed in any other way.
God only knows what it must be like to be famous and see this kind of stuff every day!
Anyway, my publishers are delighted. Both papers printed the book’s cover so it should help sales. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, folks?