OFF TOPIC: ABBA – 10 Songs That Say It All (the Director’s Cut)

The wonderful people at the Huffington Post UK published my “ABBA – 10 Songs That Say It All” article recently.

Call me a sad stickler, but they ballsed up some of the copy-editing, so here’s the perfect version, the way I want it…

In 2009, the American writer Chuck Klosterman wrote, “It’s difficult to say anything new or insightful about ABBA, mostly because they’ve already absorbed every possible criticism and accolade that a musical act can entertain.” I agree with the first part, but not the second. I actually still believe ABBA to be somewhat underrated. I know that probably sounds as nuts as if I piped up with “I really don’t think Rupert Murdoch’s got enough money yet,” but honestly: I have spent more than 20 years waiting to read a piece of ABBA criticism that speaks of their music in quite the same tone that I would employ. Back in the early 90s, no one had written seriously on the subject at all, save for a couple of grudging, repetitive references to “perfectly crafted pop”. Since then, what with the elegant writings of Carl Magnus Palm and the well-balanced if slightly sardonic essay by Mr. Klosterman, things have improved. But it’s not enough. I’ve realised that when you love something – truly, genuinely love something – you don’t necessarily want everyone else to feel the same, but you find it difficult to rest until everyone knows how you feel, and understands why you feel it.

Not that I am the world’s greatest ABBA “fan”. I do not collect memorabilia. I do not obsessively hang around in Stockholm hoping for a glimpse of Benny Andersson going out for coffee. I don’t even own every ABBA record (the first couple of albums, after all, were largely bollocks). I have never seen Mamma Mia!, the musical, nor (emphatically nor) the film. But I do believe my appreciation of the music created by ABBA to be as great as that of any other living human. So, in an attempt to demonstrate this, here are 10 songs that say it all.

1. “So Long”

A catastrophic chart performance and a production that, for many, was a blatant attempt to repeat the successful bombast of “Waterloo”, “So Long” is, for me, nonetheless the first time ABBA started to really sound like ABBA. The devil is in the detail: a strange, spiralling intro with what sounds like a boiling kettle in the background, Agnetha and Frida hollering perpetually at the very top of their register, a sassy pre-chorus in which a moneyed-up suitor is soundly given his marching orders (“The girls might fall for everything you’ve got / But I’m not one of them, you know I’m not / You won’t have me tonight“) and a coda in which an off-key saxophone is incongruously dropped over the regular beat and riff, changing the picture entirely. What could have been a standard, even boring 50s rock’n’roll pastiche acquires an unnerving, almost menacing edge.

ABBA Greatest Hits: great songs, even greater clothes.
ABBA Greatest Hits: great songs, even greater clothes.

2. “S.O.S.”

Generally regarded as the moment the world finally realised ABBA had a life beyond “Waterloo”, this three-and-a-quarter minute chunk of bliss provided the template for much of what was to come: piano-accompanied heartbreaking vocal, winning chorus, strumming guitar/bubbling synth combo and unexpectedly rocky bit. So rocky, in fact, that Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols – as oft-repeated legend has it – reversed the chord progression of said rocky bit and birthed the chorus to “Pretty Vacant”. More important to my mind is ABBA’s employment of the quiet verse/loud chorus technique pioneered by Led Zeppelin on “Baby I’m Gonna Leave You”, and subsequently used by every 90s grunge band. Kurt Cobain was reportedly quite an ABBA fan; perhaps this is why.

3. “That’s Me”

1976’s Arrival might be full of hits, but it’s also the record on which ABBA mastered the art of the album track. While the likes of “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” made all the noise and the money, ABBA were quietly content to let “When I Kissed The Teacher”, “My Love, My Life” and “Tiger” languish: awesome songs that would all have been swiftly earmarked as singles by any other group. Even lesser known is the dreamy “That’s Me”, a pop song so effortless that it doesn’t even bother with a chorus. Benny propels the whole thing along with a piano riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a late-80s house track, while the girls pour their velvety voices into a lyric that seems to depict some tricky, attention-seeking girl Björn might have encountered at a swinging singles night in his pre-Agnetha days. All this, and a pre-chorus* with harmonies so beautiful they actually give me a toothache, and you have one of ABBA’s finest non-single songs.

*Yes, I know I said it didn’t have a chorus. Humour me.

"Get me ABBA in a helicopter! If I don't have ABBA in a helicopter by lunchtime, heads are gonna roll!"
“Get me ABBA in a helicopter! If I don’t have ABBA in a helicopter by lunchtime, heads are gonna roll!”

4. “The Name Of The Game”

Right. Deep breath. In his excellent song-by-song guide to ABBA’s music, Carl Magnus Palm frequently mentions the band’s love of west-coast American soft rock and Stevie Wonder as a major influence on the sounds ABBA were creating towards the latter half of the 70s. Until I read this, the thought that ABBA had influences simply hadn’t occurred to me. Bands such as Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles creeping into the consciousness of Benny and Björn was as unthinkable to me as Radiohead being influenced by Cliff Richard. ABBA’s music seemed to come from nowhere at all. Okay, I could detect hints of 50s rock’n’roll and schlager in the likes of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”, and folk had naturally informed “Fernando” and its ilk, but songs like “Eagle” and “Take A Chance On Me”, to my ears, arrived fully formed from another planet. “The Name Of The Game” – mysterious, claustrophobic, painstakingly assembled but still blindingly catchy – was the track I found hardest to imagine the genesis of: a moment when one of its writers said, “Hey [or ‘Hej’, more appropriately], I’ve had Songs In The Key Of Life on my record player all week, and I’ve come up with this great riff.” And yet, of course Carl Magnus Palm is absolutely right; of course Andersson and Ulvaeus were ingesting the big, creative tunes of the time. So why, still, does “The Name Of The Game” sound like no other music on earth? The answer, I suspect, lies in their own locality. The group’s songwriting and production engine might have been sparked into life by sounds from the USA, but once Benny and Björn got going, their centre of musical gravity was completely different. For example: there ain’t no blues. Or jazz, come to think of it. A more musically literate man than I would be able to accurately pinpoint, but crudely: the scales, chords and inflections of blues and jazz are almost entirely absent from everything ABBA created from about 1975 onwards. In the same way that the Beatles started as a thoroughly rock’n’roll oriented outfit, but went on to make an unusually English record like Sgt. Pepper’s, ABBA progressed from “Waterloo” towards a typically Swedish straightforwardness, user-friendliness, but with a widescreen ambition, scope and atmosphere. It is nothing but a product of ABBA’s surroundings. In lyrical, musical and stylistic terms, they were neither naturally inclined nor obliged to stick to rules set by any other part of the world. As Chuck Klosterman puts it, “Operating out of Stockholm in the seventies, they were a) singing in a second language, and b) living with real idealogical distance from the trend-conscious worlds of New York and LA and London.” What emerges is a sound unlike any other. Back in 1978, gazing at the slightly dreamy band photo on the back of ABBA: The Album (I was five at the time, so temporarily unable to decide who I fancied more, Agnetha or Björn), something about the tunes emerging from my parents’ record player told me all this. While Boney M were entertaining, Racey were fun but rubbish and the Bee Gees were high-pitched and a bit funky, I already knew ABBA were unique. With Benny’s spooky synths, Ola Brunkert’s chocolatey drums and the girls’ knockout voices (including career-topping solo passages from both Agnetha and Frida), “The Name Of The Game” embodies that feeling like none other of their songs. One can be certain of very few things in the music world, but I guarantee no one will ever make a pop song remotely like this one.

5. “One Man, One Woman”

If ABBA were in a strange, anxious mood for most of 1977, Björn certainly seemed to be reflecting this in his lyrics. “I have no friends, no one to see, and I am never invited / But I am here, talking to you, no wonder I get excited” sing Agnetha and Frida on “The Name Of The Game”; possibly the least cheerful lyrics in a hit pop song since “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted”. This gloom hangs over almost every song on ABBA: The Album like a tropical thundercloud. Cautiously pretty, and with a beautifully understated vocal from Frida, “One Man, One Woman” manages to turn the dark atmosphere to its advantage, capturing those hideous times when a domestic argument in the morning screws up your entire day. The lyric’s fictional story has a happy ending (“You smile and I realise that we need a shake up“) but a song containing the line “Sometimes when I just can’t cope, I cling to a desperate hope / And I cry and I feel like dying” does little to hide the real life pain that was clearly engulfing ABBA’s personal lives at the time. The band’s most famous art-mirroring-reality moment is of course “The Winner Takes It All”, when these relationship troubles didn’t so much boil over as splatter scaldingly all over the kitchen tilework, but this quieter, less melodramatic glance at the foothills of a break-up is, to my mind, an equal achievement.

6. “Hole In Your Soul”

In a parallel universe, ABBA could have been a noughties indie band. I don’t mean an Arcade Fire or a White Stripes or a Libertines. I mean the playful sort: a Go! Team, a Polyphonic Spree, a Futureheads – or, perhaps mostly, a CSS. Holed up in their Stockholm studio, even while making an album with such bleak themes as ABBA: The Album, the foursome were still capable of having unadulterated fun with their music. And in 1977, with the confidence only a series of globally chart-busting singles can instil, this meant effortless, creative pop, the like of which lesser bands struggled for years to produce. “Hole In Your Soul” is perhaps ABBA’s most successful rock song: an unapologetic, influence-less slab of what became, in the 80s, “driving music”. It shares the same audiospace as Starship’s “We Built This City” and Jane Wiedlin’s “Rush Hour”, only with Agnetha and Frida’s incredible elastic vocals and a outro of such chord-changing, synth-pounding sweetness that it’s hard to believe the song was consigned to mere album track status. But then, as Carl Magnus Palm points out, ABBA simply didn’t need the singles.

ABBA: The Album. Very good but unfortunately I don't have it on vinyl.
ABBA: The Album. Very good but unfortunately I don’t have it on vinyl.

7. “I’m A Marionette”

If I told you a certain song had multiple time signatures, a discordant orchestra, a minute-long guitar solo (in a four-minute song) and lyrics like “Something’s happening I can’t control, lost my hold, it’s insane” – it’s unlikely you’d think it was by ABBA. But here it is: the closing song on an album by four of the most famous people, at the time, to draw breath. Almost 40 years after I first heard it, I still find it unsettling. “You’re so free, that’s what everybody’s telling me / Yet I feel like I’m an outward-bound, pushed-around refugee,” sing the two ladies; and although one of their male colleagues penned the words, you can tell the girls mean and feel every syllable of them. When I hear the song, I hear the sound of someone who can barely walk the streets of Stockholm, let alone Sydney or London; whose global record companies hang on their every note; who feel like “everybody’s pet, just as long as I sing.” And yet, they’re in the studio, masterfully creating the very raw material that worsens their predicament. Björn is too smart and self-aware a lyricist not to acknowledge this Catch 22: “Can’t complain, I’ve got no one but myself to blame,” he writes later in the song, a concept neatly summed up by Chuck Klosterman’s observation that Agnetha “never enjoyed fame, even while she was pursuing it.” You might think, “Ooh, too bad… pity the poor enormously famous rich person!” – and you’d have a point. But it’s a hell of a listen. Anyone who reckons the dark, experimental side of ABBA only reared its head on The Visitors need look no further than “I’m A Marionette”.

8. “Summer Night City”

It says something about the magnitude of a pop group’s success that a single reaching the top five in 11 countries can be considered a “failure”. But there was always something spiky and off-kilter about this one. Like many of history’s non-album singles, it seems to have one foot in the band’s past (straight-ahead pop) but is already striving towards the future (the disco crossover which eventually filled most of the Voulez-Vous album). Consequently it’s a bit of a mess, but a glorious one. The boys deliver another searing, dramatic melody, the girls veer between their usual caterwauling and a kind of deadpan, robotic sneer which we encounter again on Super Trouper‘s “On and On and On”, no-one seems to be able to make up their mind which of the song’s many hooks is the actual chorus, and the whole thing is delivered with such chaotic, driving urgency that you half expect band and studio to spin off a Stockholm cliff into the nearby Baltic. Björn and Benny apparently wish it had never been released; of course, that only adds to its allure.

9. “Lay All Your Love On Me”

ABBA were always at their best when there were faint essences of melodrama and the notion that everything might fall apart at any given moment. The Super Trouper album largely leaves me cold, but “Lay All Your Love On Me” is a brilliant exception: with yet more itchy, paranoid synth patterns from Benny, a drum pattern from Brunkert of quite spellbinding economy and a huge, baroque chorus the finest choirs of the world wouldn’t sulk if you asked them to sing, this was arguably ABBA’s most perfect blend of music for grown-ups and the pop of the old days.

Super Trouper: I'm not too struck with this one. (I think the SAAB competition might be over, by the way.)
Super Trouper: I’m not too struck with this one. (I think the SAAB competition might be over, by the way.)

10. “The Day Before You Came”

Much like Let It Be-era Beatles, by 1982 ABBA only really fired on all cylinders when they stopped pretending to have a good time. Their last ever recording together was, neatly enough, a work of genius, although as unlikely to become a hit single as someone reading Kafka over a click track*. If you try and ignore Benny’s slightly irritating synths for the first minute or two, you’ll find a near-perfect portrait of an utterly banal, lonely existence, in which the smallest details – “I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two“, “Rattling on the roof I must have heard the sound of rain” – are afforded the status of memorable events. In its depiction of a mundane life soon to be interrupted by some unknown, and possibly uncontrollable, event, it recalls Camus’ The Outsider and even The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin. Once it gets going, Agnetha’s flawlessly offhand delivery is accompanied perfectly: a metronomic rhythm, Frida’s operatic trillings, and cold, synthesized strings. Impressively, the song not only depicts the protagonist’s current world as one throbbing with boredom, but also, via minor-key synth pads and the song’s excellent, foreboding title, somehow predicts the potential future romance as one fraught with complication and misery. With probably few musical places left to go, it was a wise move to wind up the band shortly after this; but at least they left us with a nice depressing masterpiece with which to while away the rest of the ABBA-less decade.

*Actually, not only does this sound a rather splendid idea, but it’s also not a million aesthetic miles away from Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, which reached number two on the UK singles chart only the previous year.

Conversations can continue @timwthornton on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “OFF TOPIC: ABBA – 10 Songs That Say It All (the Director’s Cut)

  1. Loved these insights. I think, as well as being underrated, there is a prejudice against Abba in some quarters. But having fans like Townsend and Cobain must be indicative of something.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s