An insider’s account of travelling to the premiere of ABBAWorld in Melbourne with a group of Australia’s most hardcore ABBA fans, who have shared their obsession for more than 30 years.
My story is here.
A contingent of about 30 of us arrived from interstate. I spent five days in Melbourne and most of those in ABBAWorld. Me, Mark and Dean stayed with Norma and Kevin in the Dandenong Ranges, a tranquil mountain rainforest area 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne. It’s the home of Puffing Billy, which inspired the song Morningtown Ride, so we sang “Rocking, rolling, riding, out along the bay …”
DAY 1 – ARRIVAL
Norma drove us to Brunswick so Mark could track down some ABBA ballroom dancing music. In a nearby secondhand shop, me and Norma found a vinyl Super Trouper album for $23.
Drove through Melbourne and photographed every ABBAWorld banner and Norma was mesmerised by them and drove through a red light. I teased her and she threw a Street Directory at me, which must have included the Regional Coverage of Greater Melbourne, it was so heavy (try doing that with a GPS.)
In the car on the 90-minute drive home, we sang along to Mark’s iPod collection of Eurovision No 1s. Sandie Shaw’s Puppet on a String, Lulu’s “Boom Bang-a-bang bang, I love you”, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, Brotherhood of Man’s Save your Kisses for Me, (and did the chorry) and Bucks Fizz’s Making Your Mind Up.
Dean, who writes NZ record chart books and knows all the sales stats, trivia tested us: “What was the only place to have three singles released from the Visitors Album?” New Zealand. “In 1976, ABBA was awarded 18 Platinum discs for The Best of ABBA sales in which country?” NZ. He’s from there.
We arrived home and Norma has framed photos of many fans from the extended ABBA community on the walls. “I travelled around the world and fans came out to meet me and gave me accommodation,” Norma recalled. “I think of us as one big family.”
Then we played charades while Norma searched for her deluxe edition DVD, ABBA in Japan. I did a movie charade and held up my fingers to indicate a three-word title. Kevin yelled out: “ABBA – The Movie.”
How on earth did he guess?
Had some one-on-one time with Dean and tried his favourite drink: milk with ice cubes. Yum! We discussed how many fans you’ve got to know well online are often very shy when you meet them in real life. Then Dean told me about one of his favourite hobbies, Lego. He won a Lego competition a couple of years ago when he built a Death Star (cost $400). The next year he built a Quidditch pitch ($800) and this year a white piano with keys and a lid that opens and closes ($1000).
The disco had been organised by the Melbourne ABBA fans in a low-lit nightclub with a grand Victorian-era theme.
I took along four costume changes and used a small dressing room usually reserved for drag queens. On the hour, I emerged in a different outfit: Fernando, Money Money black, Money Money white, and Frida’s tiger outfit. Earlier on, two ladies had asked how many changes I was going to do, and they waited to see them all. I’m glad they appreciated it, as it had taken me months to source the materials for the cat outfit, which I’d frantically done in the week before ABBAWorld. I’d had to use my entire kitchen area, and to avoid staining the slippery white shiny satin with any foodstuffs, I lived on microwaved porridge for a week.
I said to the security guard – “I think my friends are lost in there.” He said it’s OK if they’re taking their time. “But they’ve been in there for eight hours.” He looked concerned.
The Melbourne fans are fantastic dancers and were boogieing all night. Everyone’s dance card was full, and if it wasn’t, you just got up during your fave song and busted some authentic ABBA chorry.
During the rareity Happy Hawaii (the B-side of Knowing Me, Knowing You), we all formed a circle and did hula girl hip-sashaying. Mark broke out into a Rumba during Fernando. Adam danced half-naked on a table, as promised.
Roxanne and I did a Dancing Queen routine copied from endlessly watching the German Musikladen 1976 TV special.
Mark did a Paso Doble during Put On Your White Sombrero. I joined him for a frenetic cha cha to Angel Eyes.
Michael checked the time by his new ABBA watch and said: “By ABBA time, it was after midnight when Gimme Gimme Gimme was played …”
As per the tradition, the finale was The Way Old Friends Do, and we formed a big circle, joined hands and raised our arms during the lines: “Times of joy, and times of sorrow.”
DAY 2 – ABBAWORLD
At the Gala opening, Bjorn Again performed and BABBA posed with everyone for photos.
I wore my Frida cat/tiger outfit and vintage Japanese ABBA bag (which shocked some fans who think the bag should be kept in a glass case at all times).
I put my leg up on one of the large ABBA blocks, recreating Frida’s scissor-kick pose from the So Long vid clip in the Made For Sweden TV special.
I was interviewed by a TV crew about how great I thought the costumes were and it was included in the ABBAWorld TV advert which ran in Melbourne for five months.
One of the fans, Megan, mentioned that months ago she’d won a charity auction to meet Benny Andersson for $30,000. She hadn’t collected her prize yet.
I met Manni who’d donated one of Frida’s dresses to the exhibition. He’d been traveling in Europe when she’d held an auction. “I bought the dress for $2000,” he said, adding that he also purchased some of her crockery.
One of the fans, Chris, had written an ABBA book and it was on a bottom shelf in the ABBAWorld merchandise shop, so I moved it higher up to a more prominent shelf, where it stayed.
I’ll explain here that the fans are generally divided into two main types who usually socialise separately: the ABBA “Professors” fans (musicologists) who were transfixed with all the twiddles and dials in the recreation of the Polar recording studios; and the ABBA “Disco” fans (enjoy dancing and dressing up) who performed with the lifesize ABBA hologram avatars.
Sang ABBA karaoke. Did the quizzes. Jumped around on the arcade dance pads. Did the “Mix an ABBA song” challenge. Danced with ABBA in one of their video clips.
There was a revelation at the re-creation of their dressing room tables – the text next to the exhibit read: “Frida needs help to get into her super-tight bodystocking.” The mystery of Frida’s flat arse solved! It must have been difficult watching Agnetha get all the attention for winning Europe’s “Sexiest bottom” award in 1977.
My favourite room featured the costumes – it felt like ABBA was present. I stood next to the tiger costume and was interviewed by a TV crew. The satin costumes look like their decorations had been painted with Hobbytex.
Finally, “Head Over Heels” Norma rounded us up and drove us home, where she has a zillion teddy bears in buckets around the floor. One has a sound module card, with recorded 10-second excerpts from ABBA songs. I chose this as my bedtime buddy, which came back to haunt me when I rolled onto it in the middle of the night and was woken by it squawking Take A Chance On Me.
DAY 3 – ABBAWORLD
Spent it at ABBAWorld.
DAY 4 – ABBAWORLD
Spent it at ABBAWorld.
DAY 5 – ABBAWORLD
On the fifth day we met up with 30 fans for breakfast at the Beer Grille at Federation Square, which we rechristened the “Bear Grylls” considering the stamina test we’d endured. We’d done whatever it took, held our nerve and pushed ourselves to the limit in a scramble to get the highest points in the Micke Tretow “Mix an ABBA Record”challenge.
We engaged in the usual debates over which was our favourite member of ABBA, where did Benny and Bjorn write their best songs, Viggso or Vastervik? Which was more important, the boys’ songwriting or the girls’ voices? Is the storyline of Mamma Mia suitable for children (father is unknown because her Mum was so promiscuous)?
We told tales of how we’d been taunted for coming to ABBAWorld. A colleague had called me a freak but later he ‘fessed up that before he had his driver’s licence photo taken last week he’d deliberately grown a beard so he could shave animal shapes into it. Taunt withdrawn.
Went in to ABBAWorld and when I came out after several hours and I couldn’t find the other fans anywhere. I rang around and noone was answering their phones. I started getting into a panic. Against all odds, I wondered if they were all still in there.
I said to the security guard – “I think my friends are lost in there.” He said it’s OK if they’re taking their time.
“But they’ve been in there for eight hours.” He looked concerned.
The interactive tickets had only been set to work for four hours. He quickly let me back in and then I saw Kevin, recumbent on an ivory pin-stripe chaise longue in a state of collapse. “Oh Kevin! I fear something terrible has happened!” I screamed. “This place is like a Bermuda triangle. A scene out of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Norma! Dean!, don’t go up there! Come back! Come baaaaaaack!”
Kevin was nonchalant and reassured me it was certain, wherever they were, they’d eventually end up in the merchandise shop again.
One of the fans had spent so much money that she had applied for a weekend job there to help pay it off.
I asked Kevin how he survived all of this, putting up with a pack of ABBA fans taking over his home for a week. “We treat people well and hope some day they might treat us well too. That maybe someone will. You hope to get treated the way you treat others,” he said.
I chatted to the young retail girls said that since working there, they’ve realised the “bits from Madonna’s Hung Up are from Gimme Gimme Gimme. Finally, we went to record a digital clip of what we thought of the exhibit, but the machines wouldn’t accept our tickets as they were way over the reasonable time limit. The staff said in the future they’d reset the time limit higher.
We’d been to a special fan preview, gala opening night and several public sessions which went from 10am to 10pm. We spent the best part of five days pacing through 25 rooms over three storeys.
In our naïveity, we’d considered ourselves experienced from navigating the one-way exitless maze of IKEA from the ball room to the $6 Swedish meatballs, but AbbaWorld is a place where, if you’re a hardcore fan, you’ve got to have a plan, or it’ll swallow you up.
It’s easy to get swept away in a nostalgic rush and stomp yourself to exhaustion doing Voulez-Vous on the Dance Pad. How many of us dropped off the radar in those dark karaoke booths, trying to reach a perfect pitch in the ABBA Singstar?
When I got back, people asked what else I did in Melbourne – no one believed I could have spent most of my time in ABBAWorld. But we did.
How Australia’s affection for ABBA is viewed overseas
Australian ABBA fans are renowned worldwide because the band made such a huge impact here, so liking ABBA is viewed overseas as something unique to our national identity, an intriguing sociological phenomenon. Australian fans often get a special mention in foreign documentaries and books and whenever there is a major overseas ABBA event, are sought-after by the European media. The usual question is: “Why were ABBA so popular in Australia?” My answer is they were exotic isolated outsiders, a bit awkward, underdogs in the pop scene, had no airs and graces, and were excellent at their craft — traits that Australians can relate or aspire to.
ABBAWORLD is at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum until March 6.