Göran Bror Benny Andersson was born December 16, 1946 in Stockholm, and spent much of his youth in the suburb of Vällingby. Music entered Benny’s life when he was very young. At the age of six he got his first accordion and started playing together with his father Gösta and his grandfather Efraim.
It was the early Eighties. Benny Andersson had been busy for a long time. In the Sixties he was a member of Sweden’s most popular rock band. In the Seventies he was a member of the world’s most popular pop band. But by 1983, the Scandinavian ‘teen idol’ status he’d enjoyed as a member of The Hep Stars and the multi-million sales that came his way as a member of ABBA – well, they were old news for this inveterate songwriter who’d been playing since he was six years old. ‘Straight after ABBA,’ Andersson remembers, ‘I thought, I want to make a real record one of these days.’
Now Andersson, who with lyricist partner Björn Ulvaeus crafted all of ABBA’s hits, isn’t decrying the songs that taught the world to sing; the records that, to date, have sold some 370 million copies; the canon that formed the heart and soul of Mamma Mia!, the hit musical-turned-record-breaking, Titanic-sinking blockbuster film. What he’s saying is that he wanted to make a record that took him back to his roots. Back to the six-year-old boy in Stockholm, playing traditional folk songs with his father and grandfather, all three of them on the accordion. ‘I wanted to make music based on the Swedish folk tradition, but with new songs written by me.’
And so began Benny Andersson’s next musical adventure – an exploration, catalysed by his lifelong love of the accordion, of the folk music he grew up with. It began as a collaboration with a gang of champion Swedish fiddlers on two albums: Klinga Mina Klocker and November 1989. ‘Then I thought, it would be nice to have a trumpet for this song. Or maybe a tuba. Maybe we should expand our little group of people. Make ourselves like a band from the Forties. That kind of instrumentation: two accordions, five fiddles, tuba, bass, guitar, another keyboard player, trumpet, flute, clarinet. And now we were 16…’
The musicians were joined by vocalist Helen Sjöholm, who had become a star in Sweden in the wake of her lead role in Andersson’s musical Kristina From Duvemala (about Swedish emigration to the United States in the 1850s). The line-up was completed by the addition of Tommy Körberg, whom Andersson knew from his singing role in the ABBA men’s musical Chess. ‘Tommy and Helen are the two finest singers in this country, for what we are doing,’ says Andersson. ‘Very versatile.’
They needed to be. Accordion in hand, Andersson led his band from a vigorous reboot of Swedish folk onto an odyssey into Big Band, Bach, polka, waltzes, Celtic folk, Fifties standards and more. Say “hej” to Benny Anderssons Orkester. Or, for their first UK release, say hello to The Benny Andersson Band and Story Of A Heart, a compilation of the best and most interesting musical moments from their three hit Swedish albums.
There’s Jehu, a galloping number we might call ultra-polka. The irrepressible party atmosphere of Glasgow Boogie, meanwhile, cheerfully flouts geographical borders, evoking both Celtic and Swedish music.
‘I think all folk music is tied together one way or another, through all the years. It sounds a bit different if you go to Scotland, or Ireland, or Germany, or Holland, or Sweden. But there’s something in it – you understand why the songs are still alive. How they’ve been kept in people’s awareness.’ Nonetheless, he cheerfully adds, we shouldn’t read too much into the song’s title. He’s never been a lyric writer, and titling songs is especially difficult with instrumentals. Still, he has some help. Björn Ulvaeus is an occasional collaborator with The Benny Andersson Band. He’s supplied words (originally in Swedish, and now in English) for the Forties swing-swoon of Our Last Dance and The Stars. And the two old creative partners also teamed up on a new, contemporary-sounding pop song, Summer In My Heart, and on a new-ish one, You Are My Man. The latter is a swaggering country-soul tune that, in its Swedish-lyric incarnation, has been a huge hit in Sweden.
This 62-year-old grandfather of five may, officially, be Dr Benny Andersson these days, courtesy of an Honorary Doctorate from the University Of Stockholm, awarded in recognition of his promotion of Swedish folk music and culture over these past two decades. He’s also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (the only accordion player accorded this honour). But what he likes more than anything is taking his band on their summer tours of Sweden. Just the musicians, the vocalists, their own stage – and a 500 sq metre dancefloor. The audience supply the vigorous dancing (and, like a Scottish ceilidh, the boozy bonhomie).
‘We make it like a typical Swedish folkpark event. They still exist but not to the same extent they did in the 40s, 50s, 60s. We play for three, four hours. If the audience are seated in a hall or arena, there’s certainly a one-way thing going on. But if you play while there’s dancing, the audience and the band become one thing. There’s a lot of energy from the audience, and from us, and it becomes less pretentious. That’s why we can do this for three, four hours.’
This summer The Benny Andersson Band play their first show in England (there was a one-off show in Glasgow a few years back). On the 4th July they are the finale to a day of Swedish-themed entertainment being held on Hampstead Heath, to mark the country’s assumption of the presidency of the European Union. The sounds of dancing, and carousing, and of a world of folk musics will fill the summer sky above London. When you have one of pop music’s all-time great songwriters applying his supertrouper talents anew, it’s a fair bet that the party will last well into the night.