So we say thank you for the mimics

Abba are wrong to take legal action against the tribute bands who gave their music a new lease of life, says Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

Come in, Abba Mania, Abba Queens and AbbaDabbaDoo, your time is up. Lawyers representing the original Swedish foursome's label have told tribute bands it is time to stop making money off their good name, threatening to sue those that continue to perform under some derivation of Abba.

Universal Music in Sweden seems to have realised – 22 years after the group split up – that Abba is a valuable trademark and they should do more to defend their charge's intellectual copyright. These ersatz groups are in a rather lucrative game – apparently there are around 40 in the UK alone, all making money from tickets to their shows and possibly even selling merchandise.

Yet this is hardly stealing food from the children of Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who have repeatedly made clear they would never reform; it is not as if audiences prefer to see copycats rather than the real thing. A spokesperson for Universal claims the label has received complaints from fans that felt they had been misled. How? Were the tribute acts too tasteful? Were the costumes not ridiculous enough?

Tribute bands have been around for decades, originally becoming live fixtures in Australia, a nation that rarely gets to see even global names, hence the Australian Pink Floyd and Björn Again, another Abba-derived group that could well dodge a writ given the cleverish pun of their band name. While name-changing could be a necessary option, it does seem unfair of the lawyers to start sharpening their quills now.

When tribute bands first emerged, Abba were hardly the fêted band they are nowadays. Through the Eighties, disco and Seventies pop were dismissed as the most egregious facets of the decade that style forgot. Pop had become massively self-important thanks to the world-saving evangelism of Live Aid and snobbishly self-regarding thanks to the rise of the style magazines The Face and i-D.

Maybe a change had to come at some point, but it is telling that, as Björn Again helpfully point out on their website, in 1988 the compilation Absolute Abba stalled at number 70 in the UK album charts. A year later, the Aussie parody group formed and soon became a major force in their home country and then around the world. Once Erasure got in on the act – their "Abba-esque" EP of covers topping the singles chart in 1992 – it was clear there had been a sea change in people's perceptions of the Eurovision winners.

When Abba Gold came out in September of that year, the greatest hits set reached the No 1 spot in Australia, UK and a number of other European countries. From then on, the Scandinavian quartet were rarely far from the public's consciousness. Their songs started appearing in major films. The romcom Muriel's Wedding centred on a daydreaming character obsessed with their music, with various hits emerging at key moments, including "Waterloo" in a karaoke contest.

Abba's music was also integral to the more arch Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, soundtracking that film's finale, and thus the path was laid for the Mamma Mia! musical that premiered in 1999 and toured the world before the movie version came out nine years later. Thanks to that cash cow and their own back catalogue, the original group's members need never tread the same nostalgia circuit as Bucks Fizz and Boney M.

But maybe it is not about that at all. Post-Abba, Björn and Benny found immediate success with the musical Chess. The female members themselves pursued eclectic, sometimes leftfield, solo careers, hinted at in the sophisticated adult themes of later Abba albums, when their divorces provided lyrical inspiration; something that might not be reflected in the shiny outfits and party vibe of a tribute act. Perhaps these groups take their craft seriously, but don't take Abba seriously enough.