ABBA was a pop music group formed in Stockholm, Sweden in November 1970. The band consisted of Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Agnetha Fältskog. (See also Björn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson, as well as Benny's previous band Hep Stars.) They topped the charts worldwide from 1972 to 1982 with eight studio albums, achieving twenty-six #1 singles and numerous awards. They also won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo.
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Abba: Wembley Arena, London ZigZag, Dec 1979
JUST FOR THAT night "ABBA World Tour 1979" nestled next to Motorhead and the Heartbreakers on my pet leather's lapel. Talk about extremes life's full of 'em lately. A Saturday in Le Mans, plunged in the atomic holocaust of Motorhead at their loudest in an echoey hall, followed Monday by Abba, the ultimate crossover pop group.
Stuck between enraptured rows of pre-teens and nice couples I was the only black leather in Wembley Arena.
Abba have never graced the pages of Zigzag. Not within good reason, you might say, and I agree. They really have nothing in common with the usual content. They're pure showbiz, obscenely rich 'cos the masses love, or think they love, their easy tunes, lilting disco Euro-beat, the girls, the spectacle, the glamour, the fact they sing about heart-struck dayglo Romeos.
They're so easy to dismiss but certain facts cannot be denied: Abba have turned out some of the best pop singles of the '70s ('Knowing Me, Knowing You', 'SOS', 'Dancing Queen', to name three), epic chandelier productions showing care and flair for what'll stick in the ear. The girls have got the presence and are just the icing for this cold, sweet cake. These are all things you could never attribute to the Eagles, Boston, F. Mac and the other American MOR heavy-sellers. Of late you couldn't say it about Elton, Wings or other UK intravenous drip-feed merchants either.
Nah, around about '75-'76-'77 no-one could touch Abba on the pop front. Disco's taken its toll of their individuality recently and they obviously don't mean it like I used to think, what with all that Sub-Brotherhood of Man rubbish, but still I trotted along to Wembley Arena for the opening night clutching an £8 ticket (they'll take your pocket money, kids) and feeling quite excited 'bout the prospect of 'SOS' in the flesh.
Inside the place it was like a vast Sunday School outing, 'cept first bloke I saw was John Cleese and Polly. Poor geezer, he must know that every other head is craning for any hint of mania.
As I suspected it was simple to get a drink 'cos everyone was seatbound and expectant, waiting for the Abba-rition which would make '79 complete.
The lights dim and the cheers grow at ten past eight, as close to ticket-time as any gig I've seen. The curtains part, the stage is blue, dry ice swamps rows A to G and there they are! Bronzed Bjorn all grins and stomping, broad Benny bouncing by the mountain peak backdrop in white tails, and the two girls stage centre looking for all the world like a pair of wigwams in their Roussos-robes and crucifixion poses.
They charge into faultness repros of tracks from the last album. I settle back with vodka and await the first classic. It comes fourth song and 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (melt!). It's given a massive treatment with the first sign of real emotion issuing from that pale, shiny stage. Even the bouncers played imaginary guitars.
By now the girls have shed their tents to reveal skintight leotards. When Agnetha that's the blonde one, 'cept she's had it chopped pans her rear round the auditorium the name Hugh Jarse moves into new areas. Whooo, what a seat!
Old Bjorn strikes a weird note when he introduces Ag as "my former wife"! Crossroads-style real life infiltrates the snow-white Abba frigid-air! S'weird how they uphold this grinning picture of health, efficiency and cleanliness yet the outfits are Legs and Co. and the movements provocative-chic The little girls don't know but the men understand ask most of those benign baldies in white polo-necks after a few gins and they'll confess along with any other honest geezer that one of the main reasons they're here is 'cos they'd like to give Ag or Anni-Frid a portion. Meanwhile the wife can get off on the Fernando-fantasies.
Now I'd planned it so I'd run out to the bar for a swift when the Abbas did one of the numbers I didn't like (when they stray too far into Eurovision Brotherhood of Dooleys ground I switch off). So soon, after 'Rock Me', 'Fernando', 'Chickenhearter' and an awful bit where the backup band get to shake it about, I was quite pissed! I nearly fled the hall when they wheeled on a gang of London schoolgirls to sing 'I Believe In Angels', causing mass tapping of leisurewear - clad knees and ecstatic smiles aaah! Suddenly I longed for the joy of Motorhead and the thought "Why am I hear?" whizzed 'round.
"And now for something completely different!" japed Bjorn, possibly a subtle address to Mr Cleese or maybe a coincidence. They launched into 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! A Man After Midnight' and from here on it was nonstop hits a majestic 'SOS', 'Take A Chance' and 'Name Of The Game' and I was happy specially as I was in the bog during Benny's keyboard extravaganza. I thought, what an apt name is Benny, but Mr. Hill and the Crossroads hero have more stage presence in their double chins. When the Abba man stepped out first time I thought it was a janitor who'd taken a wrong door.
After some rousing "rock 'n' roll", which finally got the hall going a bit, Abba ran off...and back on again for a new song another slow singalong and 'Dancing Queen'. A huge neon ABBA flashed and white searchlights (obviously nicked from the Clash) swept the hordes. It was great!
Another encore, 'Waterloo', put the cap on it. Agnetha and Anni-Frid shook out-stretched hands and threw their towels, Benny threw his y-fronts and two fans went home in a hammock.
There ya go, we witness and attempt to explain the Abba phenomenon and I'm stuck. In lots of ways the image is not what it seems. I'll stick to the old records.
This article is dedicated to the Northampton punks in the seats behind me on the train home. Their ten-strong word-perfect 'Clash City Rockers' gave me the biggest grin all night.
Abba: Oompah? NME, Apr 1976
Whats squeaky-clean, exquisitely produced, Scandinavian and goes OOMPAH? The answer to the riddle is ABBA ...and heres MICK FARREN to ask it.
THEYD TOLD us that Stockholms numero uno disco nightclub was a place called Alexandras. From the way the muscle on the door looked at you when you told them you had a table booked, you could almost believe it was the citys most exclusive niterie.
Inside, its black glass, mirrors and the kind of Edwardian whorehouse lampshades that they were selling in Bibas five years ago.
On the miniscule dance floor a young woman who looks like a kind of lumpy, muscular Bibi Anderson is performing something that resembles a cross between the frug and Canadian Air Force Advanced Physical Training Routine. Another equally strapping couple join her on the floor. They start into a soft core porn-by-numbers version of The Bump.
An overweight computer salesman leads an equally overweight young woman out to join the other couples. They press against each other. The salesman rubs his hands over her thighs. They sway, roughly in time to the music. Right at that moment its Barry White. Later it evolves to the 1966 Spencer Davis Group.
At nearly three pounds for a drink its not even possible to get drunk. The whole image of Sweden as wall-to-wall Britt Elkands falls apart at the seams.
And who sent us into Alexandras, this feast of Scandinavian delights? None other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the masterminds behind the group called Abba, the first Scandinavian pop ensemble ever to make a dent in the international entertainment industry.
I guess the only way you could have failed to be exposed to Abba's particular brand of open-face. Ultra-Brite pop is to have spent the last twelve months in a sealed fallout shelter. Only someone totally insulated from radios, televisions and even pub juke-boxes could have missed them. Since their Eurovision Song Contest win in 1974 with a song called Waterloo, their music has poured forth in an unrelenting stream from just about every kind of electronic medium.
Theyve had hits (not one but virtually sequential hits, one after the other) in Britain, the U.S.A., most of Europe, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia. In Australia they beat both Sinatra and Andy Williams in TV ratings with their telly special. About the only market in the world that they havent solidly dented is Japan, and that seems only to be a matter of time.
Right about now (unless youve already given up and turned the page) youre probably wondering what in hell am I doing going on about Abba? Has Farren lost his marbles, suffered brain damage, been bribed? (Funny you should mention it-Ed).
No, my friends, it is not what you fear. Just bear with me a while longer and all will be made clear.
Anyone who comes so fast and hard out of left field and sells so many millions of records has to qualify as a PHENOMENON. A squeaky clean phenomenon for sure, nowhere in the same bracket as Lou Reed, but a phenomenon just the same.
"Wait a minute," you cry, "surely if a big corporation hype is being undertaken its no great hardship to use a band thats a novelty in terms of its country of origin? Isnt it just the Osmonds in a Bergman location? If they did it in Salt Lake City they can do it in Stockholm."
That would be quite true, except for one thing, Abba are not the product of some faceless corporation mogul in the Hollywood Hills, with IBM time and lots and lots of money. Sure theyre a manufactured product, but the men behind them are Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who happen to be in the group, and Stig Anderson, who is the boss of the almost one-man Polar Records label that had previously catered solely for the Scandinavian market.
In form and style, their closest antecedents are the early days of Motown or maybe Philles.
Once again I hear the cries starting Abba? Motown? Philles??
Okay, I know Abba dont sound anything like either Motown or Philles. They arent funky, they have no soul and theyre bland to the point of making baby food seem raunchy. Its the structure that produces the music that Im talking about and also the fact that a frightening amount of work goes into each one of their records.
Admittedly, to an ear thats been weaned on rock and roll its hard to detect. Id dismissed Abba as audio pablum and closed my mind whenever I heard Mamma Mia in the pub until a couple of my noble colleagues pointed out just how complex the Abba backing tracks were.
They were right, too. It took quite a while to strip away the eager, healthy vocal sound, the cute-to-the-point-of-moronic lyrics and the continually bouncing Nordic boom-boom hereafter referred to as Eurobeat. Once thats done, youre actually left with a pop structure in the grand manner of The Beatles or Spector.
So grand, in fact, that it would be more than likely to go clean over the head of the average Abba punter.
The whole thing was sufficiently intriguing that, when the chance to go to Stockholm and look at Abba in their natural habitat came up, I went to investigate.
THE NATURAL habitat of Abba varies between a large, rather elegant house near the center of Stockholm and an island retreat outside the city. The house is where all Abbas business is transacted; the country house is where they retire to at regular intervals to write, record and produce more songs.
The first part of the Abba story came from Stig Anderson. Anderson has medium length hair and the craggy features of a Hemingway character. He has been in the music industry since the early 60s.
In 1971 his partner died and it was suggested that he hire Benny Andersson as a producer. Benny brought Bjorn Ulvaeus and as Benny and Bjorn they created a couple of Swedish hits. Then, teaming up with the two girls they made Ring Ring which, although it made no mark on the U.K. market, was a major hit in Northern Europe. From there, world domination was in sight.
While Andersson talks, he is constantly interrupted by calls and secretaries. His office is just what youd expect of a Swedish record company whose main attraction is Abba. Its all bright, clean, stripped pine efficiency. The only thing in the entire room that doesnt fit with the squeaky clean image is a big, almost life size painting. Its of a schoolgirl in gymslip, crisp white blouse is unbuttoned and one breast is exposed. Her discreet and presumably masturbating hand has slipped under her skirt. The style is ultra realism. Its the only sign of decadence in the whole Abba operation.
Stig Andersson is a very definite part of the team that produces Abbas records. He writes some of the lyrics and generally lets Benny and Bjorn use him as a kind of sounding board. They try out new songs on him first and depending on his response they decide whats commercial and what isnt. Although I can no way go along with his taste theres no denying that, so far, he has an uncanny feel for public taste, but so, for that matter, has the editor of The Sun.
We move downstairs to a basement office to meet the group themselves. A photo session is winding up. Abba have been decked out in Daily Mirror Pop Club T-shirts. The two girls, Frieda and Anna, drop into instant posed animation for the camera. In between they seem kind of bored.
Benny and Frieda are engaged. Bjorn and Anna are married.
Thats right, folks, its a family act.
Bjorn Ulvaeus is thin and intelligent, he tends to do more of the talking. Benny Andersson is bearded and jovial. Anna and Frieda have the aloofness of the professionally decorative. It quickly becomes clear that they do not play any great role in the creative side of the act. Shortly after the interview they leave the room.
Theres a little initial fencing around. The two men are open and friendly. They are neither idiots or cynical pap-pushers who calculatedly feed the public what they think they want. They obviously like the work theyre doing, take great pains with it and are anxious to extend their creativity as far as possible.
They are both products of the somewhat isolated Scandinavian pop scene. Bjorn played with a folk outfit called Hootenanny Singers, while Benny was in a band called the Hep Stars who played "Hermans Hermits songs and that kind of thing." Just the name conjures up pictures of what these groups must have been like. I have visions of earnest Swedes solemnly intoning M.O.R. babble learned off the records.
"You have to realise that, in Sweden, we dont have the rock and roll background that there is in Britain or America. We listened to Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones of course but we didnt quite grow up with them in the same way that you did."
I ask them about Eurobeat. Why are they so obsessed by that jolly, obnoxious boom-boom?
Benny volunteers: "That is the popular traditional music of the Northern Europe. Our folk songs sound like that. The first instrument I ever had was an accordion. My parents bought if for me when I was about ten."
An accordion! It seems to almost symbolise the problem of Abba. It fits, but its hard to explain. Outside of maybe Clifton Chenier, as far as Ive ever been concerned, the only good accordion is a dead accordion. I think we have maybe defined the culture gap, if not bridged it.
Earlier, in Stig Anderssons office he had played me a cut called Intermezzo from the album Abba. Its obviously the prime example of Benny stretching out beyond the song Song For Europe format. Its an instrumental from the Wakeman/Emerson/ Moraz bag, except the Eurobeat bounces through it. It is impressively put together. A lot of work and technical skill obviously went into it and it gets right up my nose. It also proves that Eurobeat is so deeply ingrained in the souls of these Swedes that they will probably never lose it.
The time comes when theres no getting round the central unpleasant question: "How come you take so much trouble with the production of the music on your record and then stick these moronic lyrics over the top?"
I do my best to phrase it more politely, but it still comes out sounding mildly insulating.
To my surprise nobody is actually insulted. Benny shys away slightly. "We dont want to write political songs. We dont want to turn our records into speeches."
I explain I didnt mean politics, just imagery and content. Love songs can have a hell of a lot more depth than anything Abba have ever attempted. I point at examples like Yesterday, California Dreamin and God Only Knows. Bjorn looks thoughtful.
"Im glad you brought this up. It is possible that weve been concentrating too much on the music and neglecting the lyrics. You have to realise that it is very hard to create images in a foreign language."
You always write in English?
"Yes. So few people speak Swedish."
It wouldnt be possible to do something part English and part Swedish, the way McCartney used French in Michelle?
"Anythings possible. I think we are becoming far more fluent in English. Since weve been touring we find it much easier to express ideas."
The interview changes into a discussion of lyrics. Both Benny and Bjorn seem anxious to learn all they can. It could simply be a case of flatter-the-journalist-so-he-writes-nice-things, but I do get the feeling that these guys who have suddenly started producing world-side hits from what must be a musical backwater, want to soak up information like sponges.
The conversation moves on to morality.
Dont you feel that, with Abba, you could almost be turning out a kind of palliative; jolly songs that create the illusion that things arent as bleak as they really are?
We are in the middle of a depression.
"We dont plan in advance what we are going to do. We just go to our island and record whatevers in our heads."
Bjorn joins in: "We have not felt the effects of the depression too much in Sweden."
I think about the people merrily knocking back their £3 drinks. Perhaps hes right.
Theres one other thing I feel I ought to find out about. Abba are a group who have been promoted to a large extent by the medium of television. What do they do when they play live?
"We dont play a great many concerts. Its a problem to reproduce what we do on record live. When we do play we have something like 17 people on the stage.
"We also dont like to be committed to lengthy tours. It means we cant go out to our island and record. This is the most important thing."
Surely when you go to America to play concerts youre going to be pushed into the Las Vegas circuit?
"We dont want to become a Vegas act."
That is very firm. I wonder how these earnest Swedes are going to deal with the big league music Mafia.
You dont feel the need to play regularly to a live audience?
"Not at the moment, but things are always changing."
A bottle of Aquavit comes out and the interview winds down. I dont really feel Ive got the whole picture. Im not sure Id have it if I spent a whole week with Abba. Finally Bjorn drives us back to the hotel. This, in itself, is pretty unusual for a pop star.
I suppose that brings us back to where we came in: The gymnastic frug in the discotheque. Abba (and young Sweden, for that matter) appear serious, hard working, painstaking and eager.
Unfortunately, they dont have natural rhythm. And thats why Abba are Abba, and not The Beach Boys.
Music video by Abba performing Super Trouper. (C) 1980 Polar Music International AB.
For STEREO click: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=saag5yKhv_s&fmt=18 This song is from ABBA'S 7th album of the same name, 1980. Hope you enjoy the slide show o...