ABBA

Showing 31 posts tagged ABBA

Hello! (Hej!) This week on One Week One Band is about ABBA.
I have no grand new theories to put forward about ABBA. I’m just going to spend the week writing short pieces about as many ABBA songs as I can manage, in no particular order.
To help me with this I asked the Internet. “Internet,” I said, “Tell me what ABBA songs to write about.” And the Internet did. With half a dozen of my own additions we’ve got 28 songs, which is four a day, but I’ll take requests all week and see if I can bump the numbers up. Reblog, reply, or otherwise get in touch if you want to see a take on something. I’ve written about a few ABBA songs before, on blogs or websites, so if I’ve nothing new to say about a request I’ll post something old.
If You Don’t Know Who ABBA Are: They were a Swedish pop band active between 1973 and 1982. For much of this time they were the most successful pop group in the world. They consisted of two couples, both of whom split up while the band was active. A bit like Wittgenstein, there is an early ABBA and a late ABBA: unlike Wittgenstein, there is no scholarly agreement on when late ABBA really begins. Most of the tracks the Internet picked for me are definitely “late ABBA”, though.
I approach ABBA-ology with two basic principles.
Principle One: Every ABBA song has something good about it. (I am happy to take suggestions for ABBA songs of which this is not true, and I will attempt to disprove them.)
Principle Two: ABBA is always capitalised!
The picture above is Studio A in Stockholm’s Polar Studios - custom-built for the band in 1978. High-res

Hello! (Hej!) This week on One Week One Band is about ABBA.

I have no grand new theories to put forward about ABBA. I’m just going to spend the week writing short pieces about as many ABBA songs as I can manage, in no particular order.

To help me with this I asked the Internet. “Internet,” I said, “Tell me what ABBA songs to write about.” And the Internet did. With half a dozen of my own additions we’ve got 28 songs, which is four a day, but I’ll take requests all week and see if I can bump the numbers up. Reblog, reply, or otherwise get in touch if you want to see a take on something. I’ve written about a few ABBA songs before, on blogs or websites, so if I’ve nothing new to say about a request I’ll post something old.

If You Don’t Know Who ABBA Are: They were a Swedish pop band active between 1973 and 1982. For much of this time they were the most successful pop group in the world. They consisted of two couples, both of whom split up while the band was active. A bit like Wittgenstein, there is an early ABBA and a late ABBA: unlike Wittgenstein, there is no scholarly agreement on when late ABBA really begins. Most of the tracks the Internet picked for me are definitely “late ABBA”, though.

I approach ABBA-ology with two basic principles.

Principle One: Every ABBA song has something good about it. (I am happy to take suggestions for ABBA songs of which this is not true, and I will attempt to disprove them.)

Principle Two: ABBA is always capitalised!

The picture above is Studio A in Stockholm’s Polar Studios - custom-built for the band in 1978.

Lay All Your Love On Me (Super Trouper, 1980)

This was the first ABBA song I remember loving - as opposed to simply accepting as part of the 70s background. It was Summer 1981, and the charts were full of astonishing music. This still cut through – a mix of tense, snippy urgency and wounded pride that sounded dangerously grown-up. Or so I prefer to remember, I probably just liked the chorus.

ABBA songs were – mostly – written by men for women to sing. That’s not a terribly unusual division of pop labour. In ABBA’s case the men in question were married to the women in question, and then they weren’t. That is rather more unusual, and some ABBA critics focus on the break-up and divorce eras with dubious relish. There are definite exceptions – we’ll get to some of them – but mostly the band’s personal saga doesn’t much change how I hear the music. The theatrical, tactical heartbreak of, say, “The Winner Takes It All” is so magnificently done that loving it goes far, far beyond rubbernecking at a specific case.

Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote songs for women, but their conception of women could be melodramatic, even condescending. Women in ABBA songs are often losing their agency, as their lives are overturned utterly by the arrival of a bloke. In “Lay All Your Love On Me” a modern, liberated ‘grown-up woman’ has been reduced to jealous, teeth-gnashing paranoia, for instance, her disruption captured by that nagging rhythm guitar riff, always snapping at its own tail.

Luckily for the songwriters, very few singers can sell drama like Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The most manipulative ABBA songs still feel – while they’re playing – like genuine, lived emotional moments, and “Lay All Your Love On Me” is no exception.

As Good As New (Voulez-Vous, 1979)

If asked to make a list of ABBA’s qualities, few would put “funky” high on the list. But they “went disco” with a wholehearted commitment, and some of their best-loved songs are from the high tide of disco as a mass market, social phenomenon. They may not have had the beats, but they made up for that: they were incomparable arrangers, they certainly got the look right, and they had the empathy (no surprise that the band who’d made “Dancing Queen” were so fascinated by nightclubs as a scene for drama and joy). So disco music will show up here a lot.

Still, they didn’t always get it quite right. “As Good As New” – leading off Voulez-Vous, their ‘disco album’ – is an endearingly awkward bit of work, one of the group’s oddest. It starts off with the prissiest strings imaginable – in my mind’s eye I see a wigged-and-powdered courtier hurrying down mirrored corridors to this music – and then suddenly lurches into a too-brisk disco beat, one that busybodies the listener onto the floor then keeps sticking elbows into them.

Everything sounds brittle, played a little too fast, and the song keeps the momentum choppy, dropping back into courtly mode on the chorus. It’s a song whose weirdness makes me come back to it more than most of Voulez-Vous, a fine example of turning limitations into something interesting – studio perfectionists last seen on album playing with musical theatre, coming back with a record no less ornate but somehow rushed and harassed at the same time.

Waterloo (Waterloo, 1974)

I got a request for this - this is one of the ones I’ve written about before, in a blog about UK No.1 records I write. And here’s what I wrote about my favourite bit of the song:

The real glory of “Waterloo”, though – one of the finest 30-second passages in all of pop – is the second verse. The backing “aaaaa-aaaahs” that lead into it; the thunderclap return of the double beat, now pumped and piano-ed up, the ice-clear enunciation on “I tried to hold you back but you were stronger” (this bit of the melody is the song’s best hook), and then, after “giving up the fight” those ecstatic descending surrendering chords. The second half of “Waterloo” is the straightest Wizzard-lift, a really good rock and roll knees-up, but those thirty seconds, so stuffed with life and confidence and flamboyance – thats why I listen to this stuff in the first place.

The video is - inevitably - their Eurovision performance, which set the tone of the contest for several decades after.

SOS (ABBA,1975)

The track where ABBA found their voice – and also perhaps their ultimate expression of it, not because it’s their best song (some people think so) but because everything that made ABBA ABBA is here. Imperious piano – ready. Glam vamping – check! Gear shift for the chorus – oh yes. Ridiculous faux-classical arpeggios - a-ha! Indelible dayglo monster hook – ah, there we go.

Melancholy was shot through ABBA records from the off, so “SOS” is hardly the first time you notice sadness mixed with the sleekness – but backed up by that unmistakable piano sound it’s the first time the sadness sounds so regal, so… Nordic, dammit. “Where are those happy days / They seem so hard to find”: it feels like half of all ABBA songs start this way from “SOS” on.

(Though they don’t – but the ones that do make an unforgettable impression, baked into the canon. The opening frost of “SOS” feels like a spring morning compared to the piled-up full stops of “Knowing Me Knowing You”, for instance: “No more. Carefree. Laughter / Silence. Ever. After.” Gulp!)

Cassandra (B-Side, 1982)

Towards the end of their career ABBA recorded a handful of political songs, which people sometimes say are “about the Cold War”. This is sort of true, but they aren’t like other pop songs about the Cold War, which tended to fixate on its potential for becoming a Hot War. At different ends of the quality scale, Sting’s “Russians” and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” assume that the important thing about the Cold War is that it dramatically increased the risk/promise that we were all going to die very soon.

ABBA’s songs “about the Cold War” aren’t like that. They aren’t interested in the potential threats to civilisation and existence of the Cold War, instead they’re concerned with the very real, ongoing costs to the fabric of human existence paid by people living in the 80s Eastern Bloc. They’re songs about justified paranoia, resigned dread, and – in the case of “Cassandra” – the betrayals and compromises occupation brings. Since the world didn’t end, and since plenty of people still live in those kind of circumstances, ABBA’s political songs have stayed more relevant and moving than most of the Bomb Fear stuff.

“Cassandra” never comes out and says, “I’m about the Cold War”, of course, let alone, “I’m about a country waking up to find it’s become a Soviet puppet state”. It’s openly and clearly a pop retelling of a story from the Iliad. But it’s also not unreasonable to ask – why this story? Why now? Metaphor has always been a really good way to talk about totalitarianism – it’s generally the way it gets talked about within such societies, after all.

And Cassandra is a honking great symbol anyway, it’s why her myth’s endured. She’s every spurned campaigner and mocked activist’s worst nightmare (and maybe sometimes guilty fantasy) – being proved completely right, after it could possibly make a difference. Singing a song from Cassandra’s point of view wouldn’t work so well - the song moves because it’s someone diagnosing the nature of the catastrophe, not predicting it. Not everyone can articulate that something terrible has happened, but people are beginning to realise it inside, and trim their futures accordingly. And while I bet Benny and Bjorn did have the Eastern Bloc in mind, it could apply to any society that’s drifted past a point of no return.

Frida’s final lead vocal performances for ABBA are almost all stunning, but her singing on the “Cassandra” verses is something else. The key moment is in the first verse, as she sketches what’s happening - “Now we must suffer and sell our secrets / Bargain / Playing smart / Aching in our hearts” – and what Frida does there is soften her voice a little on “playing smart”, simpering slightly, bringing home the realities of compromise while the tune resolves with the melodic equivalent of a shrug. What’s done is done.

It’s one of my favourite ABBA moments. The rest of the song is fine – beautiful, stately verses, a rather too thumping chorus. As a whole it’s not the most powerful of their final tracks. But that verse, and that performance, kills me.

Eagle (Arrival, 1977)

Seasoned and observant studio pros, ABBA cut their music to fit prevailing styles. When they first emerged, they were ramalama glam rockers – later on they adapted to disco and synthpop. Once introduced, a style never dropped entirely out of their repertoire: as late as 1980’s Super Trouper you get things like “On And On And On” (“Keep on rockin’ baby till the night is gone”) which is pure goofball Euro-boogie.

Between the glam years and the disco makeover came their commercial peak – the annus mirabilis of 1976-7 when they were genuinely the hugest thing in pop. And the music they made at this point was often thick, ornate, proggy: unrestrained multi-track banks of keyboards, guitars, treated vocals, all the gluttonous pomp of AOR and MOR put to the service of wonderful pop hooks. One of the pleasures of being an ABBA fan is being exposed to luscious, utterly unfashionable sounds like the gleaming twiddles and flourishes on “Eagle” that I’d never otherwise hear.

(“Eagle” in general is preposterous and enormous, though in the right way – more roc music than rock music. It’s also very much on the, er, ‘stirring’ side of march-time pop, the kind of thing you can imagine Laibach taking a bite at.)

Happy New Year (1980, Super Trouper)

If there’s one song which definitively puts down the “late ABBA” marker, it’s “Happy New Year”, an astonishing mix of jollity and bleakness, a grinning skull with a party hat. You get the impression Benny and Bjorn must have spotted a gap in the market for a pop rival to “Auld Lang Syne” – Christmas songs do great, why not New Years? Then they decided to fill it with a song which takes New Years as an opportunity to meditate on the laughable futility of all human endeavour.

“Oh yes, man is a fool and he thinks he’ll be OK / Dragging on, feet of clay / Never knowing he’s astray / Keeps on going anyway”

There’s optimism in that, but you have to squint.

It’s a marvellous song, though – the chorus makes a tilt for the anthemic, crashes, and ends up a drunken arm around the shoulder. And the verses capture a bittersweet New Years’ Morning feeling like nothing else. Also the end of the record makes me choke up every time. “…what lies waiting down the line / At the end of…. EIGHTY-NINE!” – so far off, and so long ago. I remember the end of eighty-nine very clearly. I stayed in – pretending perhaps I had any other option - and watched a pop review of the 80s on TV, the decade that had left ABBA behind, gawping at everything I’d missed and earnestly swearing to myself that I’d pay attention across the next ten years.