Sunday 19 November 2017

ABBA - winners who take all before them

Their longevity is hard to explain yet ABBA's music never dies - and it shaped my childhood, writes Sophie Donaldson

INSATIABLY CATCHY: ABBA
INSATIABLY CATCHY: ABBA
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

Growing up, it was hard to tell what Dad loved more - football or ABBA.

A sports enthusiast, he cajoled my two brothers and I into trying a seemingly endless array of sports - all genres of dance for me, rugby, soccer and rugby league for them, and one unfortunate summer when he tried to force cricket upon all three of us.

But the abiding memory I have is, at age 11, of hunkering down with him and my brothers in our old Ford station wagon outside the football pitch where we gathered every Sunday for their matches. He would spend those few minutes giving them pep talks to psyche them up for the game ahead.

To instil a final dose of paternal motivation, he would then hit play on the car sound system, volume maxed out, and blare the most adrenalin inducing, heart pumping, blood-boiling anthem he could.

It wasn't AC/DC's TNT, or Eye of the Tiger, or Welcome to the Jungle. It was Mamma Mia by ABBA.

As inexplicable as this ritual was, he probably wasn't the only one doing this. I grew up in Australia, and Australia loves ABBA. Type "Why is ABBA so popular" into Google and the search engine automatically affixes "in Australia" to the end of the question.

The famous foursome toured there in 1977 and despite the feverish fan base waiting, they never returned.

Agnetha (the blonde one) described the crowds Down Under as "screaming, boiling, hysterical" and added that there's "a thin line between ecstatic celebration and menace" - and she wasn't even stuck in the station wagon with us. In fact more Australians watched a televised clip of them visiting in 1976 than they did the moon landing.

Of course, it was not only in Oz that they were so adored. Despite being together for only 10 years, and spending just eight in the limelight, they are one of the most successful musical groups of all time.

Mamma Mia! The Musical, composed by Benny and Bjorn, is one of the longest-running musicals on both Broadway and the West End. According to the production's official website, it has been seen by more than 60 million people in 440 countries, with productions put on everywhere from Russia to China and even on board Royal Caribbean cruises.

The 2008 adaptation for screen starring Meryl Streep, one of the highest-grossing British films of all time, resurrected ABBA for the new millennium.

With the news last week that the film is getting a sequel next year, I find myself having to ask - what is the secret to the enduring allure of ABBA?

On paper they should have sunk back into C-list notoriety, making the occasional Swedish TV appearance after enjoying a few months of fame for winning Eurovision in 1974. They were kitsch and cloying and wore Spandex flares, the inverse of the snake-hipped rock 'n' roll stars who reigned supreme in the 1970s.

It was, of course, the music. A curious amalgamation of Swedish folk, showband razzle-dazzle and harmonic vocals, it was deeply uncool but insatiably catchy. Underpinned by a subtle Nordic melancholy, it was much more than just Euro-pop; it had global appeal.

If it's surprising that ABBA got as big as they did, perhaps even more surprising is the polarising effect they have. Nobody is ever ambivalent about ABBA; they either love them or hate them, but no matter which side of the fence you are on, chances are you (grudgingly) know the words to at least one of their songs.

Dad's adoration wasn't limited to pre-match singalongs.

If ABBA was the soundtrack to my youth, then Muriel's Wedding, the 1994 cult classic starring Toni Collette, was the film. It was the movie of choice whenever we sat down as a family - after a birthday lunch, on Christmas night, on a rainy Saturday afternoon - and I've seen it so many times that I am as familiar with the script as I am with the lyrics of Dancing Queen.

Another global box office hit, Muriel's Wedding is cringe-inducing and gaudy, both uplifting and tinged with sorrow - exactly like an ABBA song, actually. Their music has spurned musicals, films, books, countless cover bands and endless late night karaoke sessions, proof that too much ABBA is never really enough.

Sunday Independent

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