Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, Prince Charles was dating a 19-year old Lady Diana Spencer, and Abba were enjoying the last of their nine No 1 hit records in the UK.
And yet almost 41 years after their last album, Super Trouper, topped the charts in November 1980, the enduring appeal of a quartet that embodied all that was fun and exhilarating in pop seems undimmed — as the extraordinary reaction to this week’s news of their reunion has proved.
Two new dazzling songs released already, a full album due in November and a ‘cyber-theatre’ — a new global hub for Abba fans worldwide — is being built at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will put on virtual shows from next May, featuring digital versions of each band member, reunited once again (albeit computer generated).
Frida, now 75, was said to be envious of Agnetha’s classic Swedish blonde glamour and voluptuousness. Yet for all her success, Frida’s life too has been marred by sadness and the miseries of the past
Amid the glitzy headlines welcoming this most unexpected comeback, however, is the unspoken fact that the news this week of the band’s relaunch was announced in London by the two ‘B’s — Benny and Bjorn — with ‘A’s Agnetha (the sexy blonde one) and (Anni-)Frid (the cool brunette, known by her nickname Frida) watching from afar in Sweden. But we should hardly be surprised by this striking absence.
For while the beautiful front-women were the focus of the band’s success — and were made rich beyond dreams — it also brought them a measure of torment and tragedy their male counterparts have managed to all but avoid.
In fact, the disparity between their damaged lives — which saw both at times retreat into isolation and seek psychiatric help — with that of their ex-husbands (Benny was married to Frida and Bjorn to Agnetha) could not be greater.
After the group’s break-up in 1982, Benny and Bjorn, who had penned all the smash hits, went on to enjoy even greater triumph and riches.
They wrote West End and Broadway smash Chess and then, of course, there was the spectacular success of Mamma Mia! (while not their creation, the two were deeply involved with both the musical and the two films).
They also wrote lucrative hits for other artists, including the British band Steps, and have accumulated fortunes worth more than £200 million each. Now 74 and 76 respectively, they have always seemed entirely comfortable with their fame, as evidenced by frequent red-carpet appearances around the world.
In sharp contrast, however, as the two ‘B’s continued their unstoppable rise, Frida and Agnetha have, for much of the past four decades, been largely absent from the limelight — instead finding themselves falling from one misery to the next: fragile mental health, doomed affairs, a sensational relationship with an ex-stalker, a family suicide, and the death of a child and new husband — to name a few.
But things weren’t always this way.
When the band started out they represented an unusual ideal: in the world of pop, where sex was as vital an ingredient commercially as tuneful songs, having a band made up of two married couples was deemed risky.
Just a decade earlier The Beatles’ management had deliberately downplayed the fact that John Lennon was married to his childhood sweetheart because of the fear it might damage the band’s appeal.
In 1979, at the height of Abba’s fame, they split up — to the horror of Abba fans — and, at a stroke, blew away that wholesome image
But by the time of Abba’s breakthrough in 1974 when Waterloo won the Eurovision Song Contest, their clean-cut, couple status was an essential part of their allure.
Here were a foursome who sang happy songs on stage and then went home to continue loving each other.
Agnetha, now 71, had been an angelic-looking and shy 19-year old who had just performed her first solo single on Swedish television when she met Bjorn, five years her senior and who was then a member of a popular folk group.
They were instantly smitten and married two years later in 1971, the year before Abba was formed. Two children, Linda and Peter, followed. But six years into the marriage, it was in deep trouble.
In 1979, at the height of Abba’s fame, they split up — to the horror of Abba fans — and, at a stroke, blew away that wholesome image.
Within a week of their separation, Bjorn was dating Agnetha lookalike Lena Kallersjo, a Swedish TV presenter. Two years later they were married and he had another two children with Kallersjo.
At the time, Bjorn and Agnetha described their break-up as a ‘happy divorce’ but reality suggests otherwise. Agnetha later confessed she had felt ‘mangled’ and had needed counselling.
The pain of the split was immortalised in the hit The Winner Takes It All, and many fans have wondered over the years if Bjorn was being deliberately cruel in asking his ex-wife to sing the tragic lyric: ‘Tell me does she kiss like I used to kiss you?’
By then, Agnetha was already finding the stardom and adulation hard to handle, which was only compounded by the guilt she felt at being apart from her children as Abba toured the world. She began to develop a visceral dread of crowds, noise and open spaces.
Alongside the stage fright, and cripplingly shy, she also found the devotion of Abba fans alarming and suffered from dreams in which they set upon her and consumed her alive.
A fear of flying after being caught in an electric storm on a private jet was an additional demon. Nor, crucially, was she as at ease socially as the other three, her English was not as good, which added to a lack of public confidence.
After Bjorn came a succession of lovers, among them an ice-hockey star and a fashion designer, as well as psychiatrist Hakan Lonnback — the man consulted initially to try to salvage her marriage to Bjorn.
She then had an affair with Stockholm detective Thorbjorn Brander, who had been assigned to her case after kidnap threats towards her children.
In 1990, Agnetha married for a second time — to divorced surgeon Tomas Sonnenfeld. The marriage was conducted, at Agnetha’s insistence, in secrecy, and became public knowledge only after it disintegrated three years later.
Around this time, Agnetha also had to cope with the suicide of her mother Birgit, who threw herself from their sixth-floor flat. A year later, her father died, too.
Again, Agnetha kept everything secret and even her biographer was told her mother died in an accident. Those who are close to her say everything changed from this point, and her reclusiveness became more pronounced.
Certainly, she must have been troubled because it was now that the oddest chapter of her life began: an affair with a man who had been stalking her.
Burly Dutch forklift truck driver Gert van der Graaf, 16 years her junior, was an Abba fan who had been obsessed with Agnetha since childhood and who stalked her for two years. She complained to the police but, remarkably, in 1997 they started a romantic relationship.
‘It was a very intense attention from him and, after a while, I felt I could not resist any more. I wanted to know him,’ Agnetha later said.
It was, predictably, a disaster and within two years they had split up. By 2000 Agnetha was seeking a court order to have him deported to Holland. Three years later he was back in Sweden, stalking the singer again and she was forced to seek court protection.
After the disaster of this dalliance, she moved deeper into the forested Swedish countryside, building a house around a private courtyard garden. To many, she was following in the pattern of Greta Garbo, another Swedish star who found fame a burden.
Indeed, once during an interview she even uttered the Garbo-esque phrase: ‘I want to be alone.’
Neighbours say she barely exchanged greetings with them and for years Agnetha did not sing or even listen to music. The former sex symbol shut herself away from the outside world.
But then, to general astonishment, she released a record in 2004, a collection of Sixties covers, and embarked on some limited publicity for it, saying she yearned to find lasting love. The album, My Colouring Book, spent 25 weeks in the charts in Sweden, and then it — and she — dropped back out of public view.
But in 2005, that all seemed to change when a 20-year friendship with businessman Bertil Nordstrom blossomed into a relationship. Sadly, though, that romance too ended.
Some have suggested rivalry with the sophisticated Frida contributed to Agnetha’s insecurity and unhappiness. There were certainly tensions — even rumours once that they struck each other with gold discs during a row.
‘Frida and I had opposite backgrounds, temperaments and personalities,’ Agnetha admitted in a rare moment of candour.
‘We could get furious and tired with each other, so we had our moments.’
At the same time, Frida, now 75, was said to be envious of Agnetha’s classic Swedish blonde glamour and voluptuousness.
Yet for all her success, Frida’s life too has been marred by sadness and the miseries of the past. For her it began long before Abba. Frida — born Anni-Frid Lyngstad — always knew that she was the product of a wartime love affair. Her mother, Synni, was seduced by a Wehrmacht sergeant, Alfred Haase, with a sack of potatoes — a gift of immense value in wartime Norway where food was scarce — in 1943. They had sex shortly afterwards, following a naked swim in a nearby lake.
Haase, a pastry chef in civilian life, said he told Synni he was married. ‘I think she regarded our relationship as I did,’ he later recalled.
The affair continued until 1945, when Frida was born and Haase was shipped back to Germany. For the teenage mother, however, the stigma was intense. People in the street would shout ‘German whore’ at her and shunned her. Soon after, the new mother, baby and grandmother fled to Sweden. Synni took a job as a waitress but died of kidney failure, aged only 21, when Frida was just two years old.
Brought up by her grandmother, the future singing star endured a forlorn childhood. She was told that she was the daughter of a German soldier who had drowned when his ship sank on its return to Germany.
Were it not for Abba, she might never have known otherwise. In 1977 Haase’s niece, an Abba fan, read an interview with Frida in which she said she was the illegitimate offspring of a German soldier.
A meeting was arranged and Haase arrived bearing a bouquet of flowers. They looked over old photos and compared physical characteristics.
But the reunion proved to be short-lived and beyond Frida’s emotional capabilities.
‘It would have been different if I’d been a child,’ she said, ‘but it’s difficult to get a father when you’re 32 years old.’
For years afterwards, she was prone to bouts of depression.
Frida’s own Abba story had begun in 1969 when she met Benny. Frida had already been married and divorced, and each had two children by previous partners.
After a lengthy engagement they finally tied the knot in 1978. But it was not to last and they separated in 1980. Benny took up with Swedish TV personality Mona Norklit, to whom he has been married since 1981 and with whom he has a son, Ludwig.
Like Agnetha and Bjorn, Frida and Benny claimed theirs was a ‘happy divorce’. In truth, Frida was devastated at being dumped for another woman.
Abba could not continue, the magic was dimmed and so, after 350 million record sales, the bandmates went their separate ways.
For many years after Abba’s break-up, Frida looked for family happiness. She briefly moved to London before settling in Switzerland where, in 1992, she married a member of one of German’s royal houses, becoming Her Serene Highness Princess Anni-Frid of Reuss.
But tragedy was never far away. In 1998 her daughter by her first marriage, then 30, was killed in a car crash in New York, and the following year she lost her third husband, Prince Heinrich, to cancer.
For months she disappeared from public life and later spoke of how her faith in God had helped her overcome the trauma. But in recent years she seems to have found contentment, living happily in the Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt with the WH Smith heir Viscount Hambleden.
For decades, rumours of an Abba reunion have swirled around pop but no amount of money could persuade the supergroup to make a comeback. Twenty-one years ago they reportedly turned down an astonishing $1 billion offer from an Anglo-American consortium to re-form for a series of concerts.
Now, to the delight of fans, they have had a change of mind — albeit a studio reunion rather than on stage. Many will wonder why but, given their ages, perhaps it was now or never.
And in a little over two years the Abba story will reach its golden jubilee — 50 years from the moment they first stomped on stage at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton. Thanks to the come-back announced this week, there may be another chapter to add to the legend of pop’s most unassuming and enduring stars.