Thursday 24 May 2018

Punks to dancing queens: the allure of Abba

With the imminent arrival of new music for the first time in 35 years from the Swedish fab four, John Meagher looks at how the group's lengthy hiatus has only added to their legend

Knowing me, knowing you: Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Agnetha Fältskog
and Björn Ulvaeus were married couples
Knowing me, knowing you: Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus were married couples
John Meagher

John Meagher

In 1996 a reformed Sex Pistols played London's Finsbury Park. They thought it would be a smart idea to goad the crowd by playing decidedly un-punk songs before they came on stage. But the plan withered as soon as Abba's 'Dancing Queen' blasted from the PA. There was no booing; instead, the ageing punks in the audience heartily sung along, word perfect.

There was a time ­- mainly through the 1980s - where outing yourself as an Abba fan would be akin to stripping yourself of all credibility. Today, it's those who sneer at the Swedes who tend to be dismissed as elitist cranks too up themselves to know a good tune if they heard one.

Now that there's enough distance from those garish outfits - the camel toe spandex, deranged make-up and risible facial hair - and from a time when music fans where lumped into tribes - heaven help the brave soul who admitted to liking Abba and The Clash, it's much easier to appreciate what the smart folk have always known: Abba were/are bloody great.

Now that the four members have recorded together again for the first time in 35 years - news that has genuinely surprised many a music lover, who thought such a scenario impossible - there's much talk about their place in the great musical pantheon. Abba deserve a lofty position, and not just because they're among the bestselling acts in pop history. In Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, we have one of the finest songwriting partnerships of the pop era and as a quartet - with the wonderfully evocative vocals of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid 'Frida' Lyngstad - Abba were purveyors of some of the smartest radio-friendly tunes ever recorded.

For most, Abba arrived on the scene thanks to winning the 1974 Eurovision with 'Waterloo', but all four had been toiling at their craft for years. They had already been quite big in Scandinavia but the victory at Brighton put them on a global scale and they were quick to capitalise. Their 1975 song 'SOS' demonstrated a mastery of songcraft and its wintry piano evoked trouble in paradise. Then came 'Dancing Queen' and even the US surrendered.

As Benny and Frida and Björn and Agnetha were married couples, they used the troubles in their own relationships to write super-catchy yet grown-up songs about pain, heartache and disappointment. And that was especially apparent on what would turn out to be their final album, The Visitors.

Abba at Radio City Music Hall in New York, 1979
Abba at Radio City Music Hall in New York, 1979

By the time the sessions got under way, both Björn and Agnetha's marriage, plus Benny and Frida's, had come to an end. The former couple had already divorced but the latter two announced their separation just a month before going into the studio.

Not surprisingly, there was more tension than usual during the sessions, with Björn subsequently suggesting - with that Swedish restraint of his - that the atmosphere could be "frosty" on occasion.

The mood was hardly helped by the fact that the male duo turned up with a handful of songs that were focused on splintered relationships and how one member, usually the man, always comes out on top.

The album's most commercial track, 'One Of Us' featured Agnetha singing words penned by her ex-husband that suggested the female partner, newly freed from a relationship, was regretting her independence: "One of us is lonely, one of us is only/ Waiting for a call/ Sorry for herself/ Feeling stupid, feeling small/ Wishing she had never left at all."

The year before, on the Super Trooper album, she also had to sing what must have been the painful words of 'The Winner Takes it All' - one of her very finest vocal performances and a song still capable of lancing the heart of anyone who has ever felt they were jilted in a relationship.

And Abba looked at other relationships too, including that of parent-child. 'Slipping Through My Fingers' fixates on a parent rueing how little time they've spent with their child during those precious early years. It was sung by Agnetha and was inspired by Linda, the daughter she had with Björn, who was seven at the time. It's a song that continues to tug at the heartstrings, especially to those of parents today who feel they are having to work increasingly long hours just to keep everything together.

Abba never formally split, but their final public outing would not do their legacy much good - it was a wince-inducing appearance on Noel Edmonds' Late Late Breakfast Show in 1982. With new romantic bands like Duran Duran and cocksure upstarts like Madonna ready to take flight, Abba were soon seen as an embarrassing remnant of the previous decade.

The rehabilitation would commence in the early 1990s thanks to the release of the Abba Gold compilation - it's one of the bestselling albums of all time - and the Abba-referencing Australian film Muriel's Wedding, and due to the endorsement of such a disparate bunch of musicians as Bono and Kurt Cobain. Erasure also offered a reminder of the fun side of Abba's sound and while their cover versions camped it up, their homage was completely sincere.

Then Mamma Mia! took over the world. The enormously popular musical spawned the Mamma Mia! film, which featured Pierce Brosnan's strangled cat vocals. A sequel is due out this summer.

From next year, Abba embarks on a much anticipated world tour - although, in a novel and slightly bonkers move, the members themselves won't be touring; instead, the shows will feature digital holograms of the four as they were in 1979 (the year, incidentally, they played their only concert in Ireland).

The two songs they recorded this year - news of which has caused such excitement over the past few days - will likely find their place in a set full of classics.

Tickets will no doubt be hoovered up by fans of all hues… including a few Sex Pistols devotees.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment