Shiny hot pants, blingy jumpsuits, outlandish space-age costumes that could put Star Wars to shame - a four-member Swedish pop band wasn't just channelling '70s coolth, they were defining it. Critics labelled their style "outrageous" and often wrote off their lyrics as "cheesy" and "repetitive". Yet, for a decade, ABBA (an acronym of the band members' names: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) ruled the music charts. And three decades later, their songs remain karaoke favourites.
ABBA came together in 1972, and disbanded exactly a decade later, in 1982. But in that time, they gave the world immortal hits like Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo. Their records were instant favourites, their singles were being played around the globe, and their dressing and hairstyles were being copied. Indeed, they were to music and pop-culture of the '70s what The Beatles were to the '60s.
Cut to 1997, when a London-based tribute band took to the stage. Their costumes, on-stage body language, hairdos, all screamed ABBA. Over a decade after the originals went up on stage together, the crowds were cheering on the doppelgängers. Platinum ABBA (now Platinum - The Live ABBA Tribute Show) had found a fan base. Since then, they've performed at hundreds of international venues, for thousands of ABBA fans dying to re-live, or experience for the first time, the second best thing to seeing the icons on stage. It's been 18 years since (ironically, longer than the original band was together), and they say they are yet to find a country that doesn't have loyal ABBA fans even now.
But what is it that makes tribute bands so popular? Curious to know, we schedule a Skype meeting ahead of Platinum's visit to Mumbai. We're given standing instructions that the band only communicates in character, and not to prod for personal details. By the time we get through, though, we only have Andy Nye (the band's founder, and 'Benny', when on stage) on the other side, representing the band.
Nye appears as himself, though, not in costume. There's no beard; he wears his hair long, but it's more Mick Jagger than Benny Andersson; even the hair colour is different. We wonder what happened to the we-don't-reveal-our-identities clause. But, Nye clarifies, being the spokesperson makes it difficult for him to do that. So, he's chosen to be more Tony Stark than Bruce Wayne.
And while he isn't a billionaire who lives in a flashy tower, Nye is conspicuous on the British music scene. Apart from playing 'Benny', he's a record producer, songwriter and was a member of a fairly acclaimed '80s rock band, The Michael Schenker Group (formed by the Scorpions guitarist, Michael Schenker).
How did a musician who had other gigs going then come up with the idea of a tribute group, one that wouldn't even sing rock, but pop, music? Nye says that, in the late '90s, there was a huge demand in Britain for ABBA, but they were no longer touring. Fortuitously, it was also in the late '90s (in 1999), that the musical Mamma Mia! revived the interest in ABBA.
Nye says, "We started doing tributes dressed up like them. But we chose to portray them as they looked when they were younger." This was also the time when the tribute scene was big. Not surprising then that Platinum quickly found popularity. Local gigs led to international concerts, and, suddenly, they were performing in China, Russia and the Middle East.
The choice of the name - 'Platinum' - was serendipitous. There was already a band called ABBA Gold. They thought they'd go one up by picking a more precious metal and hence, 'Platinum ABBA'. "The irony is that ABBA released a compilation album (in 2006), titled Number Ones..., which was referred to in the UK as ABBA Platinum, and their record company thought our band name would confuse people. So, with their permission, we settled for Platinum - The Live ABBA Tribute Show in 2010. We were clear that we are not ABBA, we are an illusion of ABBA," explains Nye.
Today, Platinum is a team of six (four core band members, apart from a drummer and a bassist accompanying them) who perform, as they proudly boast, absolutely live. "There is no back-up tape, cheating or miming," he says.
Over the years, they have had to change the occasional member (when someone fell ill, took a break or had children). But Nye says such changes have been few and far between (for instance, in 18 years, 'Agnetha' only changed thrice). But, overall, "it is the same show; it hasn't changed much," he says.
And while they take the whole tribute concert scene and working hard to be authentic very seriously, Nye says they never fool themselves about the fact that their fame is second-hand, like that of an actor 'pretending' to be larger-than-life on screen, or playing a popular figure in a biopic. "People come up to us and ask us to sign the odd ABBA album. But we are very clear that we are not ABBA. We just look and sound like them, and people get confused at times." Of course, that ability to "confuse" people is the ultimate achievement of a tribute group.
Still the 'pop'ular choice
With ABBA having left the scene decades ago, Nye admits he's surprised that the demand for the band (and therefore, for tribute bands) has only increased. "Their music lasted because it was really good. Everywhere we go, the crowds know the lyrics. That's the power of ABBA, and a testament to their song-writing abilities," he adds. But he also credits Mamma Mia! with keeping the interest alive.
Platinum's acts are typically 90 minutes long. Nye says they often run out of time to perform all the songs, but make it a point to include classics like Dancing Queen. "When we perform in England, the shows are sell-outs, but if we play the odd lesser-known song, the crowds don't like it. Everyone wants the hits," says Nye, adding that they add a bit of humour and additional choreography to appeal to the audiences.
However, there have been times when an audience has caught them off-guard. "The song Happy New Year is not a hit in England, but it is very popular across Russia. During the sound check, even the crew in the building in Moscow would sing along," recounts Nye.
Staying together, unlike ABBA
The band does not believe in rehearsals. Having performed the hits for years, it seems, they switch to ABBA mode when need be. "Unless we are trying to learn a new song, we don't rehearse… I always say that ABBA did the hard work for us; we don't have to convince people that the song is good. But every performance is still special for us. The day it stops being so, we will stop performing."
But is it tough to sustain the camaraderie between themselves, after so many years? After all, it was discord that caused ABBA to split. Tell Nye about lasting longer than the real deal, and he laughs. "There is no place for ego among us. We are like-minded people. We have drinks and eat meals after the show. It's like a family," he says. Interestingly, just like the real-life Benny and Anni-Frid, Nye got married to Sarah (who performs as 'Anni-Frid') and whom he met 16 years ago.
Over the years, Platinum has performed for royalty (British lords and ladies, Jordan's royal family, which rescheduled a birthday party to match their visit), celebrities, politicians (including the President of Kazakhstan) and diplomats. "At one event, the British ambassador introduced me to the Swedish ambassador. I was expecting to be told off for the Swedish accent. He looked at me angrily, and then burst into laughter. He said that it would be funnier if I did the voice like the Swedish chef out of the Muppets show."
The incident may be funny, but it emphasises the amount of prep they've done over the years to get it right. While they may not require rehearsals for the stage show anymore, to get the characters right initially, their prep was akin to that of a method actor - watching recordings, memorising the body language, and getting the costumes right. "A lot of Lycra is involved: imagine how hot it can get while performing. Hopefully, it invokes a time when it was normal to wear something a little outrageous... even for the guys," says Nye.
But why all the superhero-like secrecy, and for all these years? Nye says, "Some of the musicians are famous. And we want the audiences to judge us based on how we perform. As ABBA on stage, we want the audiences to focus just on that."
Platinum - The Live ABBA Tribute Show will perform on June 20, 4 pm and 8 pm, and June 21, 8 pm at NCPA, Nariman Point. (Contact: 97735 33332).
For tickets, go to in.bookmyshow.com. For more information on the band, visit Platinumabba.com.