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ABBA: thank them for the music

Everybody knows their music even though most people will struggle to remember who the individual band members were (“Well, there was a bearded guy, a clean-shaven guitarist and then two pretty women who sang – one of them was a blonde and the other was a brunette, I think” – this would be a standard response if someone is asked now to give more details of one of the most successful pop music acts ever).

But their achievements were staggering: 380 million albums and singles sold worldwide, domination of the global pop charts from 1975-82, a documentary movie devoted to the mania they inspired, a musical based on their songs that continues to draw crowds wherever it is hosted and a Hollywood romantic comedy that is in turn based on the above musical.

They were a unique phenomenon in all senses of the term. They were uncool at the peak of their popularity – now they are among the coolest of all retro acts. The immortal music they created lives on, timeless and inescapable. They have provided the soundtrack for many of the key moments of our lives, whether we remember them or not.

No guesses, yet? Or is it too obvious by now? We are, of course, talking about ABBA, the foursome from Sweden formed in 1972. They were made up of Agnetha Fältskog (the blonde), Björn Ulvaeus (the goofy-looking guitarist), Benny Andersson (the bearded pianist/keyboardist), and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the brunette). Together with their manager Stig Anderson ABBA turned the world of pop music upside down in a heady few years. Only the United States would remain largely immune to their charms – they had just one No 1 hit there, the great Dancing Queen (1976), which many consider their signature song now.

ABBA were the ultimate guilty pleasure in pop music. Few people at one point liked to admit they were ABBA fans but everyone knew their songs. Their fashion sense was pretty dodgy even at the peak of their fame – their colourful and mismatched dresses (sparkling hot pants, sequinned jumpsuits and platform heels) were unlike that of any other performers before or since. And the less said of their cheesy dance moves, the better! Call it what you will but they were pretty unique that way also.

ABBA were also very family friendly – no wild antics on stage, no trashing of hotel rooms, no abusing of drugs or other performance-enhancing substances, no profane language, no tantrums or bad behaviour … they were acceptable to everyone and everywhere.  They were cuddly and wholesome and also consummate professionals.

The Nordic countries may be noted for crime fiction these days but in the late 1970s, Sweden was dominating the world in various fields. ABBA at this time was arguably the most popular pop band globally, tennis was ruled by the enigmatic and supercool Bjorn Borg, while Volvo and Saab were setting benchmarks in the auto world.

Most pop music fans will know at least the brief outline of the ABBA story – winning the Eurovision contest in 1974 with their rendition of Waterloo, then the meteoric rise to superstardom in Europe and much of the world by the end of the 1980s, then the gradual splitting-up, both personal and professional. By 1982 the band was no more; only dazzling memories were left. There was no vicious fighting in public or in the courts, unlike how The Beatles separated. They were distinctive that way also.

ABBA fell out of favour for some years after the individual members went their separate ways, which seem to be the fate of most bands in the immediate years after they dissolve. Then came the big revival. The release of ABBA’s Gold: Greatest Hits album in 1992 created a worldwide interest in the legendary group all over again. This particular release would go on to sell nearly 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums ever. Then came the musical Mamma Mia! (based on ABBA’s hit songs), which premiered in London in 1999, and then the 2008 Hollywood movie of the same name which was based on the musical. Suddenly new generations were discovering their magnificent music all over again.

Various promoters tried to get them to reunite over the last 30 years – it was reported that ABBA were even offered the princely amount of one billion dollars to get back together. But to their eternal credit they have refused to do so. Agnetha has always been uncomfortable in the public eye and that is reportedly one main reason behind the fact that they have shown no interest to reform in all these years. So, in our collective consciousness, ABBA always remain fresh and youthful – which may not be a bad thing at all. No nostalgia tours for them and nobody can accuse them of overstaying their welcome.

What made ABBA’s music so special? Why does their body of work remain so fresh and evergreen even four decades later? They specialised in perfect (mostly three-minute) pop songs that were strong in melody, catchy hooks and harmonies. Listen to them even once and there is no mistaking them for any other band. Lyrics (in English, which was not their native language) were not their strongest suit but Bjorn and Benny unveiled  track after track of slick and polished arrangements. The two guys were formidable composers – I would go as far as to rate them well on par with the more-celebrated pair of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom they are often compared with.

Then, of course, the other major factor in their success was the voices of the two women who sang lead on most of the best-known songs. Anni-Frid and Agnetha could sing like angels whatever material Bjorn and Benny came up with. The songs in the last part of the band’s career were sadder and melancholic but they were never less than expertly crafted. None of their best tracks seem dated even now, which is quite an achievement.

For a reminder of how big ABBA were at one point, especially in Australia, watch ABBA: The Movie (1977, now available on DVD), which is a faithful documentary record of their tour of Australia earlier that same year. The movie, built around a thin plot of a radio DJ chasing them across the country, is very entertaining and has some classic concert footage, though some of the songs are sadly truncated. The movie was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the man behind most of their pioneering pop videos. Many of their early hits are here and it is a very watchable film even now.

The definitive biography of the group has been written by ABBA expert Carl Magnus Palm, titled Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story Of ABBA (published in 2001). Palm is also the man behind the compilation of the box set Thank You for the Music, which contains 66 tracks over four discs (including a host of rarities). This is the ultimate ABBA release on CD, for those who are fanatic fans. Live at Wembley Arena, brought out last September, is a brand-new release of one of ABBA’s full-length concerts from 1979. It remains, as of now, the only document of one of their famous live shows, replacing ABBA Live (1986) which has now gone out of print.

Anybody who loves good music will surely have their favourite ABBA tracks at their fingertips. Here are five of their lesser-known songs, for those who wish to go beyond their mega hits.

1. Nina, Pretty Ballerina – from their debut album Ring, Ring (1973). A lightweight number that I have always loved, especially for the way it starts. It is full of breezy optimism and good cheer. Listen to it here:

2. Rock Me – a rocker from their 1975 album ABBA.  If you have ever wondered how an ABBA hit sounds like with one of the men singing lead, then this is the time to find out. Bjorn is the lead singer here and it packs a wallop. 
 3. Eagle – from ABBA: The Album (1977). It is the longest track the foursome recorded. Eagle was not a hit when first released but over time its reputation has grown among ABBA fans and now it is recognised as one of their very best creations.
 4. Summer Night City – their second non-album single released in 1978. A very catchy number but not that well-known these days. 
 5. Voulez-Vous – from the album of the same name, 1979. ABBA’s disco track. 

By Naveen Verghese

Naveen Verghese is a journalist based in Singapore. His passions are words, books, movies, pop music and sports. He firmly believes that the 1970s was the best decade ever, and hopes to one day open a shop that would feature his favourite things from that era. Some of Naveen’s writings can be found at https://naveensays.weebly.com

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