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Abba’s top 12 lesser-known gems: From the dance-floor fillers to the sexually charged and bittersweet tunes

It ranks as one of the best pop comebacks of all time. The return of the Swedish quartet with a pair of brilliant singles and a new album, ‘Voyage’, has thrilled pop lovers of all vintages. Their songs are as ingrained in the cultural landscape as anything by The Beatles or Elvis. But there’s so much more to the band than Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia

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Abba — Benny, Anni-Frid, Agnetha and Björn in their 1970s heyday. They have just released a new album, Voyage

Abba — Benny, Anni-Frid, Agnetha and Björn in their 1970s heyday. They have just released a new album, Voyage

Abba — Benny, Anni-Frid, Agnetha and Björn in their 1970s heyday. They have just released a new album, Voyage

12 I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do Abba’s roots lie as much in the traditional schlager music (a type of European popular music focusing on love and feelings) of central and northern Europe as they do in pop. And that’s gloriously apparent in one of their most joyous songs. There’s something magnificently old-fashioned about the arrangements here, redolent of the 1950s. And Benny’s fascination with US orchestra leader Billy Vaughn shines through in the saxophone solo that colours so much of the song. It’s relentlessly upbeat, and probably not the best place for those unconverted to Abba’s charms to start. Melody Maker said, “it’s so bad it hurts”. Not to these ears.

11 As Good As New
Abba were no strangers to the genre mash-up. This one begins with a stately piece of Baroque classical music before segueing brilliantly into funk-heavy 1970s disco. As the opening track of the Voulez-Vous album, this heralded Abba’s embrace of all things disco — which, in 1979, was at its apex thanks to the Bee Gees and the likes of Chic and Donna Summer. Producer Stig Anderson, the band’s long-term studio boffin, does a high-wire act here, ensuring the strings of the intro subtly run through the song.

10 Disillusion
A year before Abba charmed an entire continent at Eurovision ’74, they were making inroads into the hearts and minds of their fellow Scandinavians with their debut album, Ring Ring. Most will be familiar with the giddy title track — an ode to longing — but it’s Disillusion that captures the sadness that’s at the heart of so many great Abba songs. There’s a lovely Agnetha vocal and, intriguingly, it remains the only song in their entire canon in which she shares a songwriting credit. She would record her own version for a Swedish-language solo album in 1975.

9 Tiger
A carnal desire runs through several Abba songs, not least on the funny, if creepy, paean to threesomes, Two For The Price of One. On Tiger, Agnetha and Frida sing with the sort of lust that makes Nelly Furtado’s Maneater look positively timid. “If I meet you/ What if I eat you?/ I am the tigeerrrrr.” Some contend that Tiger is about the dangers of city life, but the sexual charge at play from the start is undeniable.

8 I’m A Marionette
If the song sounds like it was written for a musical, that’s because it was. It was one of four songs specially penned for The Girl With the Golden Hair — a mini musical designed to take centre stage during Abba’s 1977 world tour. I’m A Marionette is wonderfully melodramatic with an excitable rock-orchestral score and featuring a stirring vocal performance. It’s little surprise, in hindsight, that Benny and Björn would go on to have success with the West End and Broadway musical Chess and, ultimately, that eternal money maker, Mamma Mia!

7 Summer Night City
There are several dance-floor bangers in the Abba catalogue, but none comes as supersized or downright catchy as this lavishly produced earworm from the Voulez-Vous album. It is as machine-tooled as anything the Bee Gees were releasing at the time, and makes its presence felt right out of the blocks. Listen to it today and feel yourself transported back to 1978 — no doubt there are readers who bopped to it on dance floor of Barbarellas. You can practically see the disco ball and the garish eyeshadow.  

6 Elaine
Abba have long integrated bittersweet sentiments in the sweetest of wrappings and that contradiction is especially apparent on Elaine
, the B-side to The Winner Takes It All. Synths abound and the production from Stig Anderson is typically slick and clever. The lyrics leave the listener in no doubt about the turmoil in the titular heroine’s life: “You’re like a goldfish in a bowl... they’ll take your mind, they’ll take your soul.” The whole thing is ridiculous and yet it works quite beautifully.

5 Angeleyes
Abba embraced numerous styles of music at their pomp — disco, soft rock, glam, pure pop — but few can match their mastery of the love-lorn ballad. On Angeleyes — yep, it’s stylised as one word — desire and temptation play a game with deception and regret. The repeated “ah-ha-ha” of the opening is a reminder of the band’s playfulness — even if, like Knowing Me, Knowing You, it’s hard not to imagine Alan Partridge offering his own inimitable interpretation. Speaking of interpretations, listen to John Grant’s heart-rending take — it’s on the Czars’ album Sorry I Made You Cry.

4 The Visitors
The opening and title track of Abba’s best album could not be more different to Waterloo. Although its finale features a bouncy disco coda, there’s little that’s joyous about the song. The overwhelming mood is one of anxiety and despair. “I hear the doorbell ringing and suddenly the panic hits me,” Frida sings in the opening line. The song documents a hellish near-future where autonomy has been removed. For those living in the old East Germany in 1981, where the Stasi still held such power, The Visitors — if they got to hear it — must have felt horribly authentic.

3 Under Attack
Abba, rightly, are synonymous with the sounds and looks of the 1970s — but some of their best songs came out in the early years of the following decade. Under Attack was one of their last singles before their comeback, released in December 1982, and every second of it is redolent of what we would soon come to regard as the quintessential ’80s sound. Think lashings of synthesisers, drum machines, all manner of studio tricks. The fashions had moved on, too:
take a look at the quartet on the cover of the single for a genuine WTAF? moment.

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2 The Day Before You Came
It’s one of the last songs they wrote — before going on that very long hiatus — and it perfectly captures the paranoid, unsettling mood of The Visitors album. (Initially a B-side, it would later be cobbled onto the ‘deluxe’ version of the album.) It’s the song to play for those who think Abba are all about camp theatrics. The song captures the lonely existence of a woman whose life is upended by the arrival of a love interest. It documents the grim, repetitive minutiae of her day and the wan evenings where the highlight is reading a few pages of a Marilyn French novel.

1 My Love, My Life
It seems astonishing that the third track on Abba’s best-selling album, Arrival, is not better known. It’s got everything: an extraordinary vocal performance from Agnetha, which Björn, her husband at the time it was recorded, later described as the best example of her vocal purity; a sumptuous and swooning orchestral arrangement; and, magnificent, bittersweet lyrics. It was bookended on the album by Dancing Queen and one of their lesser efforts, Dum Dum Diddle. Even avowed Abba fans will struggle to make a case for that one.


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