"Freedom from indoctrination ought to be a basic human right for
all children," argues ABBA star Björn Ulvaeus in a passionate plea for Sweden to
rethink its policy on faith-based schools.
Without thinking too much about it at the time, when I wrote the lyrics
for ABBA's songs the message I wished to convey tallies well with campaigns
launched recently by humanist organisations in the UK, US and Australia:
"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Earlier this month the Swedish Humanist Association (Humanisterna) launched a
similar campaign. And in light of the growing influence of religious schools in
Sweden, the campaign could hardly be more timely.
Unfortunately the European Convention on Human Rights doesn't permit the
banning of independent religious schools. Under current Swedish law,
independent schools may adopt a "confessional direction" as long as
they stick to the official national curriculum and adhere to the education
system's "general goals and values".
A lot of independently managed schools (friskolor) negotiate this
balancing act well, but there are also a lot of schools that don't.
If it wished, Sweden could choose to refrain from using tax money to fund these
independent schools. There is nothing in the European Convention on Human
Rights that prevents such a course of action. But Sweden has chosen to go the
So do the legal guidelines outlined above ensure that pupils at religious
schools are educated in an environment that does not favour any one ideology or
religion above all others? No, of course they don't.
And are not curious, questioning citizens one of society's most valuable
assets? "Of course they are", is the ringing response you will
receive from the majority of Swedes, of this I am convinced. And these are the
sort of citizens we want our children to become.
In a recent debate with principals from two religious schools I was accused of
being driven by emotions masquerading as reason. But if we hypothesise for a
moment that they are right, then surely the same is true of them. And if that's
the case, who should we listen to?
It is precisely to avoid such conflicts that schools should provide a safe
haven from all ideologies, with the obvious codicil that children should learn
as much about as many of them as possible from an objective point of view.
It's hardly controversial to opine that people in favour of religious schools
are themselves believers. Religion has a natural place in their homes and their
children grow up with it.
And that's fine. But does this not make it all the more important for schools
to be free of religious influence? Children need to be able to meet and get to
know their peers on neutral ground. Religions by their nature always run the
risk of creating an "us against them" scenario. However tolerant we
believe ourselves to be, there is always a reason people consider their own
religion superior to all others.
One of the school system's most important functions is to create a feeling of
community, where all are treated on equal terms regardless of race, class or
creed. Society's way of treating children with the respect they deserve is to
combat by all available means any sense of an "us against them"
In my debate with the school principals, they said that societies which had not
encompassed different ideologies and beliefs had never been successful. And they're
absolutely right, which is why we have a secular and democratic system of
It is important to guarantee people the right to believe whatever they wish. But
people should be free to choose their own ideology or belief system when they
have become old enough to think for themselves.
Nobody should have to form an opinion on matters of such weight before they are
ready to size up the arguments. Above all, children should be kept away from
anything that bears even the slightest whiff of indoctrination. In fact,
freedom from indoctrination ought to be a basic human right for all children.
A religious education makes it more difficult for children to form their own
views on the world. It puts obstacles in their way that not all are capable of overcoming.
The headmasters also put it to me that there were plenty of famous
free-thinking, prominent figures who had gone to Christian schools. But really
this just annihilates their own argument. These people learned to be free
thinkers despite, not because of, their Christian schooling.
One of them is particularly topical this year, 150 years after the publication
of 'On the Origin of Species'. Charles Darwin may have gone to a very Christian
school but it didn't prevent him from coming up with the "best idea in the
world". Nor did it prevent him from abandoning his faith. Because, faced
with the facts at his disposal, Darwin reached the same conclusion as the
Swedish Humanist Association: There's probably no God.
Björn Ulvaeus is best known as one of the four members of Swedish pop
sensation ABBA and co-producer of the smash hit musical and movie, Mamma Mia! He
is also a member of the Swedish Humanist
But the founders discovered fellow Swedes were raised to heights
of frenzied apathy
over the idea – despite a recent resurgence in Abba-mania due to the
musical and movie ‘Mamma Mia.’
Band members, who famously sang about cash in number one hit Money,
Money, Money, agreed to co-operate because of the inter-active nature of the planned
Previously they had refused to have anything to do with exhibitions
The band found that few investors were willing to part with money to
build a shrine to the Eurovision stars.
The grand proposals included stages for visitors to dance with hologram
versions of Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn and Agnetha, karaoke booths, mock ups of
the Abba dressing rooms and a whole host of memorabilia including photos,
outfits and handwritten song compositions.
The project was launched in 2006 and the founders began collecting stage
costumes, platform shoes, gold records, childhood scrapbooks and first musical
Miss Wigenheim-Westman said. 'It was Abba’s cultural treasure.'
The collection was mothballed as plans were put in motion to spend £18
million pounds on renovating Stockholm’s former Customs House into the museum.
But costs spiralled out of control until the museum was going to cost
around triple that amount.
The rights to Abba the museum have now been sold to another promoter who
plans to take the idea on a travelling roadshow with no permanent base.
When asked about his memories of Michael Jackson Björn said the following in Expressen: Björn Ulvaeus, 64, muscian:
– Benny and I had lunch with his first producer, Quincy Jones in the beginning of the 80s. He had just started working with Michael Jackson as a solo artist and he said "He will be the biggest artist of the 80s".
This article comes from the Sunday Times (21 June 2009): Written by Dan Cairns (the guy in the picture with Benny).
Decades after Abba last recorded, the Swede releases a song co-written with Björn Ulvaeus and performed by Helen Sjöholm
In a long, single-storey building on the waterfront in Stockholm, the
man responsible for co-writing songs that, collectively, have sold more than
370m copies around the world is sitting at his grand piano, tickling the
ivories. He is trying to explain the difference between a bad song and a great
one. A familiar theme starts up and the words that have formed instinctively on
my lips spill from my mouth. “If you’re all alone/When the pretty birds have
flown/Honey, I’m still free/Take a chance on me.” “That,” says Benny Andersson,
“is the good one.” Without looking down at the keys, the 62-year-old alters the
melody after the chorus’s first two phrases, in the process discarding the
second section’s repetition — a crucial component in the appeal of so much of
Abba’s music — and heading off into something altogether more mundane. “And
that,” he concludes, “is the dead one. It means nothing to me. Now, if I play
the first one, it speaks to me. We hear something that we feel familiar with,
yet it’s not quite what we expected it to be.”
That sense of familiarity, of melodies that seem somehow preordained
(and pre-existent) yet novel, is at the core of the songs Andersson wrote with
Björn Ulvaeus, which propelled Abba to superstardom in the 1970s. Now, 27 years
after the group last recorded together, Andersson is set to return to the
singles charts with a new song co-written with Ulvaeus and performed — with
Anni-Frid/Agnetha-like precision — by the Swedish singer Helen Sjöholm.
To hear Benny Andersson Band’s Story of a Heart on the radio is to be
spun back in time to the days when Abba ruled the No 1 spot. The single has the
same communicative clarity, and the same conversational quality, that made
songs such as Dancing Queen, SOS and The Winner Takes It All so immediately
resonant. The album of the same name that marks Andersson’s first major-label
release in this country for almost three decades contains tracks inspired by
musical theatre and the Swedish folk-music tradition (in which Andersson first
learnt the ropes), a mix that makes you return to the Abba canon with renewed
curiosity. In doing so, you become aware just how multifaceted the old songs
are, how much they strain at the leash the pop charts placed on their writers. Super
Trouper may, in its sonic architecture, be identifiably a song from 1980; but
on a deeper level, its structure is hymnal, its female harmonies are redolent
more of church choirs than disco glitter balls.
“We were a pop band,” Andersson says, “and we made pop music — well, as
good as we could. But a song such as Thank You for the Music does not belong to
a pop group, or Money, Money, Money, for that matter.” Following a musical
idea, of whichever genre, was never, he says, done with an end result in mind. It
was, rather, all about graft and instinct. Surely the two things are
incompatible? “But inspiration is overrated,” Andersson responds with a
chuckle. “This is more like a real job. The inspirational part is when
something pops up that I really like. And that keeps on rolling, for a day or
two. But then it’s another three months on the treadmill. I have done a lot of
things, sure, but not actually that many hours of music — maybe a total of 13,
14 hours, in 40 years. There are 700,000 zillion possibilities from just 12
“Writing a song that means nothing is easy. I mean, technically
speaking, I could probably write five songs a day. But I have to hear myself
playing something that I haven’t heard before, and that I can spot, with my
body almost, rather than with my brain. There’s a communication there, between
me and myself, if that makes sense. That’s when inspiration enters the picture.
Because it can take for ever to come up with those four bars, eight bars —
music that consists of more than just notes, if you see what I mean; that
speaks to me. And from that, I can work. I know that I have maybe two days, if
I’m lucky maybe three, of flow, where anything can happen. But it can take me
months to find those eight bars.”
One such instance of this process — the slow gestation, the lightning
striking — was The Winner Takes It All, a song seen by many as the definitive
Abba single: heartbreak, isolation, anguished lyrics, swelling crescendos,
sudden lulls, a catch in the throat, doomed romance. Not to mention the
greatest snare-drum entry in the history of pop. “It’s the simplest song,”
Andersson says. “It has two phrases — that’s it. And they just go round and
round. Now it also has, around those two phrases, this counterpoint thing going
on” — he plays the descending theme that opens the song, runs beneath the
chorus and, modulated, responds to the verse’s vocal melody — “and without a
doubt, without that, it would not have been a song. Music is not only melody;
music is everything you hear, everything you put together. But without the core
of a strong and preferably original melody, it doesn’t matter what you dress it
with, it has nothing to lean on.” For ages, there were only the two phrases,
the latter (the chorus) with each line following immediately after the one
before. “And then one day,” Andersson continues, playing the song again, “we
were out in the country, and I suddenly played the chorus like this, pausing
each time for the phrase to gather itself, and all of a sudden it was a song. Björn
and I played around with it for hours, just feeling that there was something in
it that was talking to us. Then we recorded it, but still without the
counterpoint, and it still was no good. It was only when, finally, I played
this other part that it really made sense.”
Leaning on a piano and involuntarily singing along while one of the most
talented songwriters of all time guides you through his songs is an experience
— humbling and bordering on the surreal — that is a real struggle to get your
head around. These are songs, after all, that people the world over are
word-perfect in, identify with and cherish. Their beloved status helps explain
the colossal success of the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia!. Yet the man
who co-wrote them has no hint of grandness about him, no trace of hauteur. The
building we meet in — homely rather than lavish, filled with knick-knacks,
paintings and flowers but, tellingly, no Abba memorabilia — houses Andersson’s
studio and the offices in which he oversees the still pressing affairs of the
band he and Ulvaeus formed in 1972. He comes here most days, he says. “And
every day is joyful, spending a couple of hours at the piano, following what’s
going on around the world with Mamma Mia!, and I have a hotel, and race horses.
So I have things to take care of, a lot of administration, a lot of questions
“I thought, we all thought, in 1982, we all said to each other, ‘Let’s
call this...’, well, not call it a day, but Björn and I said, ‘We want to write
this musical with Tim [Rice], it’s going to take us maybe two years, so we’ll
just take a break while we do that.’ And we were all fine with that. And it
took about three or four years, from starting writing Chess until it opened in
1986. Then we all said, ‘Well, why continue with Abba?’ I thought, ‘That’s it
for me; Abba is over.’ And it was. And I’ve been able to stay away from it” —
he laughs drily— “for a long time, up until Mamma Mia! started. I don’t mind
I ask him if, when he attends performances of the Mamma Mia! musical, he
can still be ambushed by the songs, still be swept back to the time they were
written. “The thing is,” he replies, “I don’t connect to the music as such. When
I go to see a performance, there is no bit of me that’s saying, ‘Wow, that’s a
part of me in there.’ Never. It could be anyone’s music.” Surely it gets to him
in some way? “Sometimes I’ll get moved by, say, The Winner Takes It All. Sometimes.
There’s a resonance to it, about what it was originally; maybe also some sort
of, not sadness, but a nostalgic feeling, of, you know, ‘All right, we weren’t
that bad; we were quite good, we did good stuff.’ ” Is he really as sanguine
about it all, the success, the fame, the hits, as he seems? “I feel,” he
answers, “that everything that has happened to me, Abba, my band now, Mamma
Mia!, all that, it’s a lot of work, but plenty of people do a lot of work. And
this isn’t like working in a coal mine or driving a bus. But it is work. And
the reason it works well for me is because I’m lucky enough to have this talent
to tell the bad stuff from the good. Now, that’s not my doing, is it? But I
know that I have that. And that’s luck.” He pauses. “Is that something to boast
about — that you’re lucky?” Benny Andersson: quite good, he says; he did good
stuff. Someone tell the man.