11 October 2013

The heavenly embarrassment of Abba

Abba on Dutch TV, 1974 (via Wiki)
Last night I watched a recording of a BBC documentary that was made to promote Agnetha Fältskog's 2013 solo album 'A'. Ex-husband Björn Ulvaeus and former band-member Benny Andersson gave lengthy interviews to sing Agnetha's praises, while Anni-Frid Lyngstad didn't participate. The doco featured plenty of clips both before Abba and during the band's heyday, and it reminded me of huge success of Abba's pop output. Ulvaeus and Andersson had a gift for the mile-wide pop hook, that manifested itself in countless hits through the 1970s and early 1980s. Certainly, they were never particularly hip, and their Swedishness set them apart from their competitors - they sang in English, yes, but it was sometimes an odd variety. Guardian music writer Alex Petridis, in reviewing a massive Abba boxset released in 2005, hit upon the fearsome precision of the Scandinavian pop machine at its peak:

Waterloo (1974) has a loveable brashness and, crucially, no yodelling, which counts as an improvement, but 1975's Abba births songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' signature style: glossy harmonies, subtle orchestration, glam power chords, a melodic sense they claimed was derived from Swedish folk music, a certain fearlessness regarding hooks lesser writers might have considered too obvious, and a predilection for tick-tock rhythms as clipped as Agnetha and Anni-Frid's accented vocals. A year later, Andersson and Ulvaeus were on a remarkable roll, writing songs almost dreamlike in their perfection. Not just the singles - Dancing Queen, Money Money Money, Knowing Me Knowing You, The Name of the Game and Take a Chance on Me - but album tracks too: the glorious, expansive Eagle, the gripping Tiger. And yet Arrival and its follow up The Album still seem less like a product of the 1970s than the early 1960s, when LPs were afterthoughts, rushed out under pressure and padded with filler. One difference: a 1960s album's filler was forgettable, not an adjective applicable to Arrival's Dum Dum Diddle. Abba had written some weird lyrics before - What About Livingstone? admonished Swedish youth for their disinterest in great explorers, while Sitting in a Palm Tree concerned a man who dealt with romantic rejection by sitting in a palm tree ("I will stay here among my coconuts") - but Dum Dum Diddle is something else. It is a song about a woman who feels sexually threatened by her partner's violin. "You are only smilin'," she alleges, "when you play your violin / I wish I was - dum dum diddle - your darling fiddle." That was the thing about Abba. They either made you feel like you had temporarily ascended to heaven or they made you feel like sawing your own head off with embarrassment. The one thing they couldn't do was mediocre. 
- Alex Petridis reviews 'Abba, The Complete Studio Recordings', Guardian, 28 October 2005

Listening to the hits again reminds you of the breathtaking talent on display, both in terms of the performances and, perhaps crucially, in the studios where the arrangements were perfected and polished to maximum effect. I confess I cannot listen to Dancing Queen anymore, due to massive overexposure on local classic hits radio, despite it being one of the greatest pop singles ever released. But there are so many more to consider. Chivalrous glam stomper Does Your Mother Know, with its polite 'no thank you, miss' groupie rejection, boasts a cooing harmony from Agnetha and Anni-Frid that erupts into an exciting see-sawing baying in the outro, and a shameless disco three-step into the chorus that is both immensely hackneyed and utterly thrilling at the same time. The timeless synth intro to Gimme Gimme Gimme, that proved so addictive that Madonna had to rent it for 2005's Hung Up. The melancholy strum of Knowing Me, Knowing You and the Alan Partridge-inspiring and instantly recognisable '...a-ha...'. The taut high-energy disco videogame score and descending end-of-verse vocal treatments of Lay All Your Love On Me. The fluttering pre-chorus synth flourishes in S.O.S, and the storming intro to Voulez-Vous (plus that 'a-ha' again in the chorus). And of course the classical descending piano chords in Waterloo that told all of Europe that Abba meant business during Eurovision '74.

And let's not forget that this world-straddling stardom was built on a foundation of some of the most gloomy and introspective lyrical content in pop. Abba excelled at the break-up song simply because by the end its members had experienced the pains of divorce within the band itself.

Perhaps then it's best to highlight an Abba track that is unashamedly up-beat. Tiger, mentioned above by Alex Petridis, appeared on the Arrival LP in 1976. Appearing near the end of the album's Side 2, it's a throw-away bit of pop fluff, but in its trebly burst of noise lurks a vivid pop thrill, all the way through to its helium-voiced finale. The live concert footage from a drenched Australian gig in Abba: The Movie shows the band at their peak, but I'm also keen on the album version, which is perhaps slightly quicker and therefore even more fun. Plus it boasts a film clip of the band driving around aimlessly in Stockholm traffic, looking moody.

See also:
Music: Abba - Tiger (Stockholm video)
Music: Abba - Waterloo (Swedish version)
Music: Lisa Ekdahl, 1 March 2010*
Music: First Aid Kit - Emmylou (Glastonbury, 2013)**
Comedy: Knowing Me Knowing You - Alan's Abba Medley

* Previously produced by Fältskog's new co-producer, Peter Nordahl.
** They're from Sweden, you know.
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