Monday, February 16, 2009

FOR THOSE ABOUT TO POP, WE SALUTE YOU!!! - A subjective overview of the ABBA catalogue!! (originally published in THE DEVIL ON 45 issue 3 )

They were somewhat of a super-group from inception, spawned from the Swedish folkpark circuit and consisting of names familiar in domestic music circles. They survived a short changing in one Eurovision, conquered another in gallant fashion, and achieved admirably durable international pop chart success as a result. They sold more records than any other band during the 70’s ( a limping Led Zeppelin trailed in second place by comparison ) and weathered the trends of music exceptionally. Although not a glam band, they could match anyone from that era - The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Bowie - pound for pound, with their lesser known album track stompers while still delivering mega-hit ballad cheese like the world had never heard of Barbara Streisand ( if only!! ). Garage R’N’B and incompetent 15 year old Marc Bolan/Stooges imitators fuelled punk, but everyone was searching for the perfect pop song, whatever the delivery. Many of them looked the masters of it all in an effort to lift a chord progression or hook - The Sex Pistols were quite open about this, others were a tad coy about the “Hip” factor of such a declaration . Even the most belligerent element of that era, Throbbing Gristle bestowed hero status upon them. As soul carved a path into Disco, they consciously threw down the gauntlet with soundbites enduring dancefloor wear to this day. Peaking with unblemished pop masterpieces as the 70’s rolled over into the 80’s, they ebbed out of the limelight on their own terms, without testing the chancer elasticity factor once since.

ABBA mean a lot of things to a lot of people and fuck all to others. For some, it’s Wanker Uncle and Jabba the Aunt strutting bad dance moves at a shit family wedding after 3 vodkas. For many, it’s a littering of the same 3-5 songs on 90’s film soundtracks about the 70’s, homosexuals and Australians. There’s also the cottage industry of wigs, glitter and bad karaoke that passes for tribute by bands of musicians too lame to actually be inspired to have their own ideas. Whatever the retro-whoremongering, suckage and Goldfish-loop desires of those old enough to know better or young enough to know nothing, probably now, more than ever an appreciation of the band beyond the ABBA GOLD facade is necessary.

RING RING - BJORN & BENNY, AGNETHA & FRIDA (1973)
BJORN & BENNY, AGNETHA & FRIDA was marginally more diplomatic than BJORN & BENNY & SVENSKA FLICKA ( Swedish Girls ) as the credits read on a minute run of PEOPLE NEED LOVE as a stateside single on Playboy Records. A strange twist of fate surrounded the Swedish only release of what is for all intents and purposes the first ABBA album. The track RING RING had come 3rd in the ‘73 national heats for the Eurovision and while the winner sank without a trace, RING RING became a huge international hit, unsurprisingly, and as a chunk of beguiling pop glam with the right guitar licks and piano swoops, it was the earliest indication of the classic signature ABBA sound. In June ‘73, following public interest and the success of the single, the band began touring with a show at Lisseburg amusement park, Gothenburg ( now famous for gnarly Roller-Coasters and metre long Toblerones ) dressed to the hilt in tacky glitter costumes.

These were still embryonic days for the band as is only too evident by the unnecessary amount of lead vocal duties Bjorn took on the album. ANOTHER TOWN ANOTHER TRAIN is flowery 70’s tack befitting of Brotherhood Of Man or Dawn. DISILLUSION, Agnetha’s sole ABBA songwriting credit seemed strange given that she had a large back catalogue prior to the band, but ultimately it was forgettable. The aforementioned PEOPLE NEED LOVE is one of those dumb smiley bobbing heads tracks with impressive elements of vocal dynamic but didn’t really seem to serve much of a purpose. It’s highlight is a spectacular and grossly under used backing vocal track on the fade-out. I SAW IT IN THE MIRROR is more Bjorn tat... horseshit. Bjorn’s adequate vocal aspirations seemed completely unnecessary, given the powerhouse vocal duo of Agnetha and Frida’s capabilities together. NINA PRETTY BALLERINA had the ingredients of a lukewarm ABBA prototype, as did HE IS YOUR BROTHER, which got good mileage in the bands live set well into the 70’s. I AM JUST A GIRL, LOVE ISN’T EASY and ME AND BOBBY AND BOBBY’S BROTHER were patchy, pointless bilge. The album’s buffer, ROCK’N’ROLL BAND was at least proto ABBA of a certain vintage, always threatening to lift to the heights of RING RING but never quite letting it rip in it’s brief duration. The cover of this record is as tacky as they get, all cheesy smiles and unbearable lightness of being, but it does have that great ‘73 Eurovision heat shot on the back featuring one 8 month pregnant Agnetha Faltskog. You can’t knock that sort of ambition!!!!

WATERLOO (1974)
Hot on the heels of Eurovision success with WATERLOO ( They wouldn’t have won shit with HASTA MANANA - the other contender ), the album of the same name was issued under the ABBA moniker ( BJORN & BENNY, AGNETHA & FRIDA was a mouthful and basically a shit name to market yourself with ). WATERLOO itself is an faultless track - ABBA firing all cannons, great arrangement, great vocals, everything... perfect pop and strike 2 after RING RING. I’m not too sure what the plod calypso of SITTING IN A PALM TREE is supposed to be and I don’t think that it does either. It’s kind of irrelevant. KING KONG SONG however is a good early example of that crunchy ABBA glam rock side, and with it’s Glitter band nuances, it’s without a doubt the result of observation of trends of the time. Again, HASTA MANANA sounds like the song Israel didn’t win the eurovision with the year ABBA did. MY MAMA SAID is another oddity and a strange gemstone... it’s backdrop is old school funk, notable for some pretty happening bass grooves courtesy of Rutger Gunnarsson and a brief but wonderful guitar solo from Janne Schaffer.

DANCE WHILE THE MUSIC STILL GOES ON is in that ABBA category of slush puppy songs you can’t help but love... A great intro vocal by Agnetha, multi tiered backing vocals and a good old up-an-octave chorus trick at the end which ABBA would employ way beyond a ripping the piss level!! Watch out for Janne Schaffer’s great guitar parts way down deep in the mix. One of the undoubted diamonds of their early songbook, HONEY HONEY was a slice of sugary genius with another Agnetha lead vocal.. she seemed to get the decent material earlier on. WATCH OUT, another glam rocker, was funky and rough cut which seems mostly to be Bjorn’s baby.... the only keyboard presence is a bit of moog squealing on the chorus. WHAT ABOUT LIVINGSTONE was another kind of inoffensively irrelevant track. GONNA SING YOU MY LOVE SONG, the big ballad of the album was their first success at a slow burner and a prototype for many others.The very odd curiosity SUZY HANG AROUND with a rare Benny lead vocal is one that I’ve always liked... it seems in a way to glorify gratuitous bullying and would make a brilliant punk song... I don’t even want any credit for pointing this out!!! Given that the debut was a domestic release, RING RING is aired again here in a valedictorian roll... and why not!!!

ABBA (1975)
The inventively titled ABBA was the first one to include Bjorn, Benny and Stig Anderson on the songwriting credits.... strangely with no immediate results.. WATERLOO still comes across as a stronger record. However, the vintage era of ABBA was well and truly over at this point and there seems to be more defined ideas coming into play... less Bjorn singing, more Agnetha and Frida and a kind of arrogant cover of the band inside a limo scoffing champagne... ( as they seemed very prone to doing once the cash started rolling!! ).... I love the way the artwork even cuts the driver’s head out!!! MAMMA MIA is a well worn cutesy classic, one that the world is probably sick of and a contender for one of the forbidden ABBAGOLD 5, but that’s no reason to proclaim it as dross when it’s far from it... this was also the track that sparked ABBAmania in Eastern Europe and Australia ( where it was the biggest selling single in Australian history well into the 90’s - and could very well still be??!! ) and it broke BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’s chokehold on the UK charts!!! HEY HEY HELEN is an adequate glam rock track, a one trick verse chorus thing that falls short on the content expected from an ABBA track and ultimately goes nowhere. TROPICAL LOVELAND... well, I’m not surprised they dumped the lead vocal for this stinker on Frida.. naff cod-reggae pop... what the fuck were they thinking??? A Mega hit everywhere, SOS is the one the Sex Pistols claimed to have “sourced” material from... a fine Agnetha performance and safely within the top 10 of their finest moments... a deserved classic!! MAN IN THE MIDDLE... let’s be blunt here, it’s an unsuccessful funk venture with shit lyrics and is undoubtedly the stinker of the album. BANG-A-BOMERANG doesn’t seem to be much about anything but is class stuff nevertheless and testament to the development of their signature sound.

I DO I DO I DO I DO I DO was notoriously slammed by the English music press... rightly fucking so... it has all the class of a shite wedding song. ROCK ME presents Bjorn’s finest Noddy Holder impression and continues the glam rock fetish in style. INTERMEZZO NO.1, Benny’s vogue masterpiece is him being a complete fucking show-off... and with every reason at his disposal... it’s a feisty, pacey classical rock instrumental. Just to interject at this point, not much mention has been given to Benny... basically his piano/keyboards were the backbone to absolutely everything the band recorded and were exemplary on every level... a consummate genius and consequently, a forgivable beardy ( we’re still incredibly beardist ), I just thank christ on a bike he rarely did a lead vocal!! All beards hide something.. I’m guessing it’s that he was an atrocious singer? On I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU, the balladry is left to Agnetha’s more than capable tonsils, although it’s not their greatest shot in this direction by any stretch of the imagination... parts are strangely reminiscent of a Kris Kristofferson track, almost to the point of cheek! The album’s final track, SO LONG Is a genius of a glam stomper... again, it’s ABBA getting everything right... great lyrics, great arrangements scorching vocals... it was the first single issued from the album and did adequate business around Europe but failed to impress the all important English charts. This track is unsung brilliance and testifies yet again why the English are a shower of wankers!! Shortly before the next album Abba recorded FERNANDO as a promotional single for their first greatest hits record... it’s a completely horrible song about some irritating spik which probably just reminds everyone of Alan Partridge!

ARRIVAL (1976)
Everything went a bit mad with the release of ARRIVAL. The band were finally able to quench the miasma of eurovision which clinged to them in favour of a Mamas & The Papas type reputation... something which they had aimed for all along. The flagship single DANCING QUEEN is the forbidden music... it serves a purpose in this world only as a “press here dummy” button to fuel clumsy drunken dancing from irritating girls. Of course it was their biggest hit and it’s disco backdrop has given it life long after it deserved cremation. WHEN I KISSED THE TEACHER on the other hand is ABBA on top of their game although what the Svenska Department of Education and numerous parents committees made of this, I’m curious to hear! MY LOVE MY LIFE is weak balladry by the standards they were capable of and DUM DUM DIDDLE is a lazy and adequate album track with a perverted title.

KNOWING ME KNOWING YOU is one of the more tolerable mega-hits and has become part of greater pop culture thanx to a certain fictional chatshow host & Radio Norwich DJ. This was the one Chris Carter from TG described as a “Heavy Metal song about breaking up!!”. MONEY MONEY MONEY has more of the mini-musical element to it and the all important English music press hated it unanimously. THAT’S ME was originally a single contender with it’s disco pacing but somehow didn’t make the cut... with it’s very strange lyrical content it’s definitely one of ARRIVAL’s high points. Then we’re all treated to limp wristed sub Status Quo boogie courtesy of WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE ME with Bjorn on lead vocals... definitely could have benefited from a bit more balls!! TIGER is the gemstone of the album with steepling dual vocals from Frida and Agnetha. No sentimental slop here, just short, fine-tuned, pacey pop at it’s best! The instrumental ARRIVAL completes the album, just kind of limping away and doing nothing. It sounds like a eurotack version of a shit national anthem from some damp grey eastern block state. The big question is... was this album really recorded in a helicopter.. because it sounds great if it was!!!

ABBA - THE ALBUM (1977)
This was the year they finally toured ( Europe & Australia ) and pretty much blew everyone away with the fact that they could reproduce their crystallised pop perfectly on stage. The Australian tour also gave rise to ABBA-THE MOVIE, which combined stellar live footage with a rough & tatty fictional story about a hapless journalist, Ashley, who followed the entourage around in a desperate attempt to get an exclusive interview.... the plan was to make this look as natural as possible, so no-one bothered to tell the real ABBA security that this pushy journalist was actually on the payroll and actor Robert Hughes received a severe hiding from them on a couple of occasions for his seemingly intrusive behaviour!! The release of ABBA - THE ALBUM was held back in order to coincide with the film premiere and didn’t really get to spread it’s wings until January 1978. THE NAME OF THE GAME preceded the album and while it served it’s purpose as a hit, it’s more like a solid adequate album track with some vague & indescribable shortcomings.

The opener EAGLE however is a bone-fide classic. If it’s good enough for Frankie Stubbs then it passes the test!!The Leatherface rendition is undoubtedly the greatest living testament to why ABBA would have made a great punk band. TAKE A CHANCE ON ME is another of the ABBAGOLD 5 .... great vocals however, with no computer trickery... just hours of production slog to get everything perfect. Quality, but repellent by it’s “ we never need to hear again ” factor. ONE MAN ONE WOMAN is where the mastering of balladry really starts to pay dividends and this was probably to date their most successful venture in this direction. MOVE ON is another adequate album filler but Bjorn’s spoken bits at the beginning are just fucking awful and serve NO purpose. HOLE IN YOUR SOUL is ABBA in all their blazing glory, pulling out all the stops and a testament to their consummate showmanship. I’m almost shocked that in all the lists of covers I’ve seen that this never springs up. THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN HAIR mini-musical completes the record with it’s 3 pieces. The first two, THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC and I WONDER are pretty much a bore and may as well be bad Sound Of Music out-takes. I’M A MARIONETTE however is absolutely faultless.... definitely another contender for the top 10 masterworks of their entire catalogue... lyrically brilliant and containing probably the longest guitar solo in any ABBA track courtesy of the omnipresent Lasse Wellander. Interestingly, GET ON THE CARROUSEL, the 4th part of the mini-musical ( as seen in the Movie live footage ) was never recorded as chunks of it were butchered to create other songs including HOLE IN YOUR SOUL )..... a pity really... it’s one of the highlights of the movie!!

VOULEZ VOUS (1979)
As a result of no tour schedule in ‘78 and the fact of having 6 tracks completed for the follow up album, SUMMER NIGHT CITY was issued as a single capturing a more blatant disco direction. ABBA simply saw it as the pulse of the 70’s. The press were not as sympathetic but it was a hit nevertheless. Shortly afterwards, ABBA were back in the news as a result of Bjorn and Agnetha’s divorce... and much was subsequently made of this including a dissection of their standing positions on subsequent album & single covers. CHIQUITITA, ( a song about cheap flavourless crisps? ) was the first single from the album with a marvellous Agnetha vocal and a great build up, but it peaks with a chorus that sounds like a euro-tat rehash from an earlier record ( a bit too much PEOPLE NEED LOVE in the recipe maybe )... it would have been marvellous as a slow burner throughout. As ‘79 was the International Year Of The Child, the royalties for this song were signed over to UNICEF in perpetuity. AS for the album... well, the cover was disco-tastic... Benny gets some manner of light-sabre to wield and the rest of them just kind of stand there looking mildly confused.

The opening tracks, AS GOOD AS NEW & VOULEZ VOUS were very purposely back-to-back upbeat dancefloor numbers and AS GOOD AS NEW in particular has one of Agnetha’s most dynamic lead vocals. I HAVE A DREAM... um... “I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream” .. that’s all very well and good but did there really need to be this pointless song to broadcast this wonderfully interesting fact? If there was any taste on this planet ANGELEYES would be the real meaning of the phrase ABBAGOLD... pure genius... another one of their top 10 tracks. THE KING HAS LOST HIS CROWN... well, it was an album track and that’s all it deserved really... it kind of got buried under several much stronger tracks on this record. DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW... as played by everyone from ABBA themselves to the Restarts is kind of Bjorn’s peado divorce backlash... A great song about the concept of jailbait!! IF IT WASN’T FOR THE NIGHTS is another understated mirrorball gem with a swooping motown string arrangement. A class example of the girls dual vocals at their very best. From two classy openers to two classy closing tracks, LOVERS ( LIVE A LITTLE LONGER ) with it’s funky groove and twisting guitars is definitely a high point in Frida’s contribution to the band. KISSES OF FIRE could have been a massive hit... vocally, the girls rarely soared higher! This was the first ABBA album to get unanimous praise from the press worldwide!!! It was supported by a tour of America and Europe ending in the RDS in Dublin on Frida’s 34th birthday... any excuse for another round of ABBA champagne gluttony. A new disco heavy track, GIMME GIMME GIMME ( A MAN AFTER MIDNIGHT ) was issued shortly afterwards to keep the public profile while the band retreated to work on the next record.

SUPER TROUPER (1980)
This is ABBA at their most iconic... a massive, critically acclaimed, worldwide hit of a record and their crowning glory. It was less consciously a disco record and more an accumulation of everything ABBA had learned in one package. The opening tracks SUPER TROOPER & in particular the album’s first single THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL are pristine pop music and hard to fault in any way. ON AND ON AND ON is top quality and even ANDANTE ANDANTE ( which is possibly the album’s only glitch ) holds it’s own against the others. ME AND I is another one with a weird lyric... it reads like it’s about some manner of bi-polar freak and is an unsung jewel. HAPPY NEW YEAR might have been another huge hit only that it would have mistakenly been coerced as a celebration track for crap new year’s eve parties when the lyrical content is somewhat more ambiguously political. OUR LAST SUMMER is like the ABBA take on a mutation of the GREASE storyline and LAST TANGO IN PARIS and THE PIPER... well, this is the glorious oddball of the album... sinister and seedy. The album’s final tracks, the disco thumper LAY ALL YOUR LOVE ON ME and the live track THE WAY OLD FRIENDS DO were described by one particular journalist at the time of the album’s release as beyond pop music... almost hymn like... The one thing to mar the album’s release was the cancellation of all TV appearances and promotional activity as the result of a security threat. Anonymous messages had been turing up at Polar music in Stockholm declaring that their children would be hurt if they left the country. Being extremely rich at this point, they figured that the album would sell itself regardless and sat the threats out.

THE VISITORS (1981)
The final, and most complex ABBA record, THE VISITORS was characteristically different in that key tracks were the most sophisticated that pop music can get without becoming something else entirely. A supposed pop record with only 9 tracks is self explanatory. Although it’s strangely remembered as somewhat of a lull after the heady chart action of the two previous albums, it did phenomenal pre-sales and spawned 2 huge hits. Maybe it was simply a matter of expectancy when it came to the ABBA “Midas Touch”..... But this was also a very new musical climate for them to be releasing an album in. The very early 80’s provided potshot glimpses of hope for unseasoned musicians reared on punk who had applied the constructions to other areas of music. For the briefest moment, the charts were awash with the vaudeville and experimental diaspora, and ABBA were getting older. Regardless, ONE OF US dutifully became a massive hit internationally. Undoubtedly the most interesting track on the record, the opener THE VISITORS ( CRACKING UP ) is marked by an ambiguous and somewhat sinister subject matter, the meaning of which the band kept under wraps. I’m sure to this day nerds discuss and dissect it on some geek forum or other as they are prone to do. Musically, it stands out as one of the superior tracks of the entire ABBA oeuvre with it’s steady build up and uber-perfect production. In fact any one of the 4 side A tracks ( THE VISITORS, HEAD OVER HEELS, WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, SOLDIERS ) could have been singles the run is that strong. SOLDIERS was another detour for the band lyrically.tracks THE VISITORS and SOLDIERS were certainly the nearest the band ever got to politics ( aside from the similar ambiguity of HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Side 2 of THE VISITORS had a slightly different tone and was very much the shape of things to come for Bjorn And Benny. I LET THE MUSIC SPEAK is steeped in a theatrical mini-musical quality not seen since the GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN HAIR trio of tracks on ABBA. ONE OF US, the superior single from the album is possibly the last great Agnetha lead vocal song the band would record. And then there’s the stinker, the Bjorn track TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE complete with extremely suspect lyrics about stalking someone through small ads and a cheesy Buggles type telephone bit after the first chorus. If only they’d recorded it in Swedish instead so that I couldn’t understand the lyrics!! The sentimental slush award on this record goes to SLIPPING THROUGH MY FINGERS and the sparse LIKE AN ANGEL PASSING THROUGH MY ROOM was apparently the difficult one. It had been arranged, re-arranged and eventually stripped right back to keyboards, a metronome and Frida’s vocal. Agnetha and Bjorn aren’t present on the track at all. Again this album is testament to something that’s forever overlooked - Just how damn good a band Drummer Ola Brunkert, Percussionist Ake Sundqvist, Bassist Rutger Gunnarsson and ABBA’s axe hero Lasse Wellander actually were. This had pretty much been the Line-up since ARRIVAL, With Brunkert and Gunnarsson going back as far as RING RING. Only Guitarist Janne Schaffer is curiously missing from the VISITORS line-up. In 1982, the band retained their profile by issuing HEAD OVER HEELS as a single in Europe and WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE in America and Australia. Unsurprisingly, as album tracks in it’s aftermath, neither broke the top 10, and WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE was to get ABBA banned from Russia for it’s inclusion in a stateside programme protesting the Russian chokehold on Poland. Work also began on new material, presumably for the next record, and the singles THE DAY BEFORE YOU CAME & UNDER ATTACK were issued late in the year after a10 month silence from the band. Both failed to do the business ABBA were accustomed to.

Musical trends had shifted yet again. Pressing towards 1983, pop music had become dominated by what Shane McGowan so eloquently described as “ the year of a bloke with a synthesiser and a faggot singing! ”. In comparison, ABBA were looking more and more like a jaded phenomonen from a long lost generation.... And by this stage, Benny and Bjorn were being sidetracked by the more ambitious prospect of working with Tim Rice on a musical... of course the rest is history... the girls went on to release a string of limp featureless solo records working with horrible bastards like Pete Cetera and Phil Collins and the Blokes made squillions and squillions and even more obscene squillions on CHESS which toured the world for the entire 80’s and spawned a couple of massive hits, ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK by Murray Head and I KNOW HIM SO WELL Elaine Page & Barbara Dickson... both had strong overtones of ABBA tracks, but hey, who the fuck wants to hang out in a band with their ex-wives forever???

There was no formal break up of ABBA, no press statement, but in retrospect, it made perfect sense that the order of business was coming to a close. And it makes even more sense that they have respectfully left it alone, enduring the hype of the ABBA GOLD generation, and consistently declining stupid piles of cash to squeeze their middle aged spreads back into tasselled nylon jumpsuits for the sake of bullshit nostalgia. - BOZ

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