he natural question is, “why am I reading this?” By most accounts, a band that embodied fewer characteristics of “cool” than did ABBA has probably never existed. They were outwardly flawless, capitalist to a fault, professional, overtly refined and produced arguably the greatest pop music ever to be spit on by legions of “rockist” critics and musicians. I state these things without any sense of irony, for there are still generations (yes, it’s been more than twenty years since they made new music) of people who are under the impression that the world is a better place without ABBA. With “common sense” out of the way, let me tell you about the ABBA I know.
There are the characters: Bjorn and Benny (Ulvaeus and Andersson, just to show they were real people with real last names), the “brains” of the outfit. This duo wrote the tunes, handled most of the arrangements, productions and was generally responsible for the “legitimate” reason why anyone would ever admit to liking the band. For who can argue with excellent craftsmanship, especially when it results in an experience at once marvelous and intuitive? And then there are Agnetha Falkstog and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad, who, without ever writing a note of music, managed to define dramatic pop performance to an extent naturally theatric singers like Barbara Streisand or Liza Minnelli never could. Chiefly, they were young, and they didn’t have the burden of appeasing any kind of ridiculous classical tradition. They also became famous in an era when female pop performers were being looked at quite differently than they had been only ten years previously. Agnetha’s and Frida’s roles of songbirds and interpreters of Bjorn’s and Benny’s material may have been viewed (mistakenly) as the band’s attempt at faceless commercialism; a way to gloss over “inherently” vacuous sentiment. Of course, when Mozart used his wife to sing his arias as he composed them, nobody blinked. Mozart was a genius. Common sense says ABBA was not; though I say let the free thinkers make their own decisions.
Benny met Bjorn in the summer of 1966. Benny was a member of The Hep Stars and Bjorn was performing with the Hootenanny Singers, both popular bands in Sweden at the time. Bjorn’s band was recording for Stig Anderson’s Polar Music, who was very interested in achieving pop success outside of their native country. Stig felt Benny and Bjorn could collaborate on projects to suit this aim. Concurrently, Benny and Bjorn had begun serious relationships with dance band singers Frida and Agnetha, respectively. By 1970, both couples were engaged, and the same year were working together onstage, and in the studio. They had varying degrees of success in Sweden, though the relationships were at that point stronger than the music. In July 1971, Bjorn and Agnetha got married.
Prior to that, Bjorn and Benny had penned some music for the little known Swedish film The Seduction of Inga, of which one tune, “She’s My Kind of Girl,” was released as a single, under the moniker Bjorn & Benny. The tune was a rather odd combination of British Invasion harmony and rigid rock shuffle, with Bjorn’s double-tracked vocal giving it an ominous tint where a group like Herman’s Hermits (who could’ve pulled off something so light more convincingly) would have taken it in a “cuter” direction. In any case, Japanese publishers seemed to like what they heard, because when they released it in their country, it was a number-one hit. Benny and Bjorn were inspired to record more songs in English, as it had been, as well as to work more with Frida and Agnetha.
In March of 1972, the yet unnamed quartet recorded “People Need Love,” their first together. The tune took on a more contemporary flavor, with rock guitars and a stomping (if a tad on the “oompa” side) beat. Using the wholly straightforward name Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, the two couples released it as a single, and it climbed into the Swedish top 20. It was a worthy tune, though the inexplicable yodeling section during the outro effectively disqualified it from foreign consideration. At the same time, the two women were recording as solo artists, so the foursome still weren’t working together as a group most of the time. Stig convinced Benny and Bjorn to record an album with Frida and Agnetha, not necessarily because he had a lot of confidence they would be a hit, but more to test the waters outside of Sweden. They started sessions for their debut in September 1972, and released a second single (“He Is Your Brother”) in November. The song continued where the previous single had left off, with the group trying its hand at rock textures, and succeeding a bit better due to an ace vocal arrangement and by sticking to more relevant reference points for non-Swedish audiences (the sound was something along the lines of Badfinger crossed with the Partridge Family).
Ring Ring- 1973
Stig was already a prolific lyricist in his own right, and with Benny and Bjorn, was invited to contribute a song for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. This contest would play a major role in the group’s success in the future, though their entry for that year’s contest, “Ring Ring”, was notable mostly for aping Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production and lyrics provided by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody (as well as its uncanny resemblance to the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko”). The song placed third in the contest, though along with a version of the song in Swedish, became a massive hit in Sweden. Furthermore, the group had their name – ABBA – and in the spring of 1973, released their first album, named after the Eurovision tune. The record included all of their previous singles, though the rest was culled together from whatever the writers and Stig could come up with on short notice.
“I Am Just A Girl” is one of the most surreal songs ever recorded by the band, being a very strange ode to the pleasures of having “nothing much to say” and lamenting that it was “an evil world that has only made me a girl.” All of this to a tune not unlike “Happy Trails,” featuring group vocals chanting the refrain with a hushed finality. Strangest of all, it was a tune Benny and Bjorn had originally written for a male actor! “Rock��n’Roll Band” was the B-side to their Japanese single from the year before, and featured some valiant attempts at real rock attitude (the guitar introducing the chorus overpowers the entire arrangement for a few seconds) that nonetheless exposed the writers’ instability regarding styles beyond Swedish radio pop and Beatlesque melodies. Other tunes fared better: “Disillusion” was a solid soft-rock number, with excellent guitar work and a fine lead vocal provided by Agnetha. “Nina, Pretty Ballerina” was hardly the kind of thing that could ever have been a hit in an era of the serious singer songwriter (or even comparatively gritty American bubblegum pop), though its infectious chorus, with piped in audience applause, was arguably the first sign of Benny and Bjorn’s interest in writing for the stage. It was dreadfully “twee”, but the melody was hard to forget – which is probably the worst one can say of Abba at any point in their history.
Ring Ring was a modest success, climbing into the top 10 in the Scandinavian region, and eventually in Australia as well, providing a glimpse of the popularity Abba would enjoy down under in the future. Similarly, most of the music, while containing the same basic elements of the best Abba work (catchy melodies, immaculate production and fine vocals), only hinted at the incredible pop masterworks they would produce in the coming years. But, they had to begin somewhere, and modest successes were better than none at all.
After Ring Ring and the near miss at the Eurovision Song Contest, Benny and Bjorn continued to write for the group. Almost since the day they had finished third at the contest, Stig and the writing duo had been planning for the 1974 contest. As it happened, there was something of a controversy in Sweden about the nature of the judging at the 1973 contest, and it had been decided by the contest organizers that a new method of determining the winner would be used henceforth. Abba’s entry, “Waterloo,” blew the field away in 1974. This was a tune that seemingly out of nowhere exposed the band’s strengths, as if the modest fame they had glimpsed during the previous year had inspired them to produce the very finest of which they were capable. At best, the song’s metaphor of love as a battle, and the “fatal” love affair was highly engaging pop (with an arrangement that saw Benny, Bjorn and co-writer Stig branching out of 70s pop-rock trends, and into a recognizable, more idiosyncratic sound); at its worst, it was merely infectious bubblegum pop. In any case, after the song’s victory, it was a major hit all around the world, breaking Abba in the all-important American radio singles market.
The band used this momentum to quickly record their sophomore LP, named after their hit song. Benny and Bjorn were still feeling the pressure of the lack of preparation time (Abba were just starting their promotional whirlwind, which would not cease before the decade ended), so most of album suffers from similar faults as their debut: unstable “rock” gestures (“King Kong Song”), and odd genre exercises (horribly white reggae on “Sitting in the Palmtree”, even whiter funk on “My Mama Said”). However, the smooth, creamy “Honey Honey” (featuring a string arrangement not unlike that on John Lennon’s “#9 Dream”) was a modest hit, and other tunes like “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong” showed that they could play it straight when need be. Of course, the record served its purpose, placing the group firmly in the public eye, and was probably the last time Abba ever had to worry about not being prepared for their own success.
The 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and “Waterloo” had certainly put Abba on the map, though it is not without some warrant that they were viewed as something of a one-hit wonder. Their big break was catchy enough, but what little precedent there was (if any) for Swedish light pop may have been overshadowed by the group’s flair for the superfluous. When Abba was released in April 1975 (the terribly decadent cover was nothing if not prophetic), they were still a band with much to prove. Near constant touring and filming of promotional clips (director Lasse Hallström filmed videos for four tunes, including mega-hit “SOS”) helped keep their name afloat in Europe, though it would take some strategic placement of product in America to gather steam there.
Despite their still up-and-coming status, Abba’s LP from 1975 is probably their first real semi-cohesive release. Truthfully, there are some very questionable choices made regarding the songwriting and I have yet to be convinced anyone named Bjorn or Agnetha can ride a funky break. That said, the production, arrangements and any other studio technicality at their growing disposal was markedly improved, and of course, there are some fairly amazing songs sprinkled amongst the filler.
The opener, “Mamma Mia” is immediately more ambitious and musically striking than anything on their previous two albums. As the xylophone and piano introduce the tune (Benny and Bjorn’s introductions were getting better and better, and on “Intermezzo No. 1”, they actually manage to stretch one out to the length of a complete song), the tried and true faux-Beatles rock guitar softens the pallete in anticipation for the vocals. The main body of the song features quite a thick arrangement, with xylophone, piano, guitar, strings, backing vocals, and spunky drumming all contributing to the mix. This was Abba’s version of a wall of sound -- creamy where Spector’s was grand, flowing where Motown’s was punchy -- and was part of a production method they never really discarded. “Hey, Hey Helen” features similar tactics, though in the frame of very questionable Glam rock (though, of the two glam experiments on the album, including “Rock Me”, was actually the more convincing performance).
Musically, Abba was overqualified compared to their peer self-contained family acts, even when the formalist inside each of the writers engaged in strange genre explorations (oddest yet, bubblegum calypso on “Tropical Loveland”). Of course, the highlight of this album, and probably their career up to that point, was the joyously compact “SOS”. Again, the arrangement was spotless, with Benny’s piano and synth lines lighting up entire sections where in normal circumstances the singer’s voices would be the main attractions. The chorus for this song is at once reminiscent of classic Beach Boys’ soaring vocal lines and overflowing sonic detail, and yet features distinctly 70s conventional escapism wholly detached from the populist American act’s sincerity. The mass of acoustic guitars were richer than a real-life guitar could ever be; the vocals were compressed, as if the operatic power of Frida’s and Agnetha’s was something to be loved from afar. Sure, this could’ve been a purposeful strategy to outline the issue of detachment in the song, or it could’ve been something that merely sounded cool at the time. Depending on your point of view, it could be either a magnificent pop miracle, or a clinical, distant piece of perfection.
Lyrically, the band weren’t quite firing on all cylinders. There was still a slight issue with flow (“He can choose the wine from a vintage year/He will drink champagne in his limousine” reads OK, but doesn’t really do their attempt at funk on “Man in the Middle” any favors), though Frida and Agnetha made almost everything sound good. There were more than a few lame couplets (“Life can be funny/Happy and sunny”), though it’s not as they were asking anyone to peer into hidden meanings in the songs, or an overriding concept for the album. Again, this could be attributed to standard pop practice of simply finding a lyric that didn’t hinder the hook, but could also inadvertently give the impression Abba’s relatively generic, innocuous prose (concurrently in America, Paul Simon hit it huge with music most critics assumed was very “personal”) was an instrument to distance their music/images/lifestyles from practical reality. Abba was their first true internationally successful LP, and for better or worse, greatly helped establish their image, in all its guises, everywhere.
“SOS” and “Mamma Mia” transformed Abba from bubbly up-and-comers to center stage European celebrities. Fittingly, things got a bit complicated: in between touring and working on material for a forthcoming album, Benny produced tracks for a Frida solo album, and Agnetha was doing an album as well; the band was started doing more television appearances, including Top of the Pops in England, and their own special in West Germany. Perhaps most significantly for the band, Australia was starting to develop something of a cult fascination. Their 1976 Australian TV special drew over half the continent’s total viewers, seen by more people than watched the moon landing. And if that wasn’t enough, the band actually slipped in another huge single with “Fernando”, which had been pillaged from Frida’s record.
Looking back, the time immediately after Abba begins the band’s “classic” period. 1975 was a very good year for them, though they didn’t really achieve the kind of glossy veneer many people associate with Abba (and to be fair, often as a criticism) until the following year. They were successful, and at that point they were also becoming inseparable from their image. People wanted to see the band, and they still yearned to be seen (if not touched); the cover of their album from ’75 optimistically showed them surrounded by fans while riding comfortably in a limo, while their follow-up cover had them untouchable, packed like jewels in a glass case, inside a helicopter. This was the turning point.
The Arrival- 1976
Musically, this translated to a very strict adherence to contemporary pop disciplines. Benny and Bjorn seemed to have decided that if they were going to try their hand at different genres, then by gosh, it was going to be something marketable. No more reggae – make room for disco. No more peppy rock and roll – LA soft rock was the way of the charts. The only tunes on what would become Arrival (which had an atypically difficult birth, over a year in the making) that referenced their early pop growing pains were “Why Did It Have to Be Me” (rolling trad-pop, somewhat similar to “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”) and “Dum Dum Diddle”, which sounded like a cross between the Beatles’ fake ska on “Obladi Oblada” and the West Coast professionalism of the Captain and Tennille. The song was a lament by the narrator of not being able to get close to her music-obsessed lover. Even during their awkward moments, they were terribly self-aware (and quintessentially self empowering).
Of course, songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Dancing Queen” and “When I Kissed the Teacher” are probably the best examples of how far Abba had come on Arrival. The first was a pristine specimen of the sophisticated American pop with which Benny and Bjorn were quickly becoming obsessed. Mid-tempo, richly detailed arrangement (still emphasizing walls of acoustic guitar and keyboards, though now processed and filtered beyond any kind of natural reverberation), this was a tune that could have been interpreted as being about internal conflicts, though was as likely an attempt to be Fleetwood Mac. In any case, they were flying so high by then that they didn’t even have the chance to release it as a single until early 1977.
“When I Kissed the Teacher” was yet influenced by American pop, though the chorus was probably closer to the Beach Boys than The Eagles (they’d get to them soon enough). However, the supernova on the album, and for many people, Abba’s career, was “Dancing Queen.” Beyond the fact it was a massive hit, it was significant for several reasons. It was the first time Abba really made an impression beyond the radio and into the dancefloor, though the song was a bit more laid back than the TK Records sound Benny and Bjorn were going for. Abba’s full-fledged disco record was still a couple of years away, but this song alone puts them in the upper class of dance pop acts in the 70s. Secondly, it gave them an anthem. “See that girl, watch that scene/Dig in the Dancing Queen” goes one of the most recognizable refrains in pop, and is calling card for both the group and their perceived legacy as glamorous, deceptively innocent golden children. Thirdly, it simply made them incredibly famous at the time.
And there were more hits: “Money Money Money” managed to take a concept which by then should have been foreign to them, an understated four-on-the-floor, and yet another wildly catchy chorus to give Abba a #1 in just about every country except the US. Also significant on Arrival was its regally Celtic title track, being the last time Benny and Bjorn ever put an instrumental on an Abba record (and even then, there were wordless backing vocals). However, there were more “firsts” for Abba in 1976 than “lasts,” and the scary thing was they were still moving up.
So, what does the group on the cusp of everything do next? Work their asses off: 1977 was the busiest year of the band’s career to that point, and despite massive success all over the world (with an especially intense Australian following), they continued to press forward with new music, tours and other projects. First up was their European tour beginning in January 1977, which actually ended in Australia, mid-March. The shows debuted several new songs, including a modest suite of tunes the group had begun working on the previous autumn. Heretofore, Bjorn and Benny’s interest in the staged musical had gone relatively untapped, though their music had always contained its share of dramatic moments.
The Album- 1977
The two men came up with a short concept about a small-town girl who yearned to be a singer, though who’s ultimate fame cut her off from the rest of the world (“The Girl With the Golden Hair”). Again, what seems superficial and innocuous at first glance in Abba’s music is terribly true to their experiences coming out of Sweden, at once glamorous superstars, commodities and genuine human beings. Of course, the music they came up with was suitably “showy”, even down to the extended instrumental passages they used during the more visual aspects of their concert performances.
The “mini-musical” tunes that made it onto The Album were “Thank You for the Music” (wherein the band approximated the chorus number, with layered group vocals, and dramatic shifts in texture and tempo), “I Wonder (Departure)” (a very traditional ballad, which may actually have more in common with some of the Hollywood musicals of stars such as Judy Garland and Liza Minelli) and “I’m A Marionette.” All of the tunes were noticeably less suited for the radio than the stage (and perhaps aren’t as immediately satisfying as their straight pop work of the time), but especially the last one, which featured possibly the most aggressive, symphonic grandeur of any Abba song (and was certainly the only one you could argue was “atonal”, with the “tritone” emphasis in the chorus). After Abba, Bjorn and Benny would further investigate their dramatic interests, but their initial efforts were nothing if not accomplished.
Prior to beginning the recording of the upcoming album, the two composers paid a visit to the singer-songwriter hotbed of Los Angeles. The main objective of their trip was to check out state of the art recording equipment for yet another one of their projects: their own studio. They planned to set up a home base in Stockholm, but the center of the music business was across an ocean, and yet still on the far coast. They wouldn’t have their studio as soon as they wanted, but its possible they also wanted to visit L.A. for another reason. By the late 70s, both men had become virtually obsessed with California acts like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and were so inspired just by sharing the same city as those acts, they turned out two of their finer songs from the period.
“Eagle” would seem to be a direct reference to the concurrently mega-popular American band, though filtered through Abba’s typically refined pop sensibility, didn’t really sound very much like them. The groove of the tune is very much in the spirit of the brand of soft rock coming out of L.A. at the time, though the lyrics are a sight more ambiguously romantic: “They came flyin’ from far away/Now I’m under their spell/I love hearing the stories that they tell.” It could be about the songs Benny and Bjorn loved so much, the unrequited admiration they had for their favorite musicians, or indeed about themselves, as foreign ambassadors to so many of the fans they had acquired. The other California-inspired tune was the classic, “The Name of the Game.” By most accounts, this is one of Abba’s finest moments, at least insofar as it presents their strengths (brilliantly compact arrangement, radically infectious chorus melody, smooth, yet classically informed vocals) unhindered by genre experimentation (which wasn’t bad in itself, only when the composers weren’t completely sure how to manage their form). Furthermore, for one of the first times on record, their words could be taken at face value and contained real emotional resonance. Lines like “I’m a bashful child, beginning to grow/And you make me talk” are simple, but give a beautiful tune warmth previously elusive for the band.
Other songs that made The Album their most successful to date were “Hole In Your Soul” – an upbeat dance-pop number which actually had its origins as one of the transitional numbers in Benny and Bjorn’s mini-musical – and “Take A Chance on Me,” one of the last songs recorded for the album. The latter has eventually become Abba’s most successful single in America, and was a top 5 smash in several countries at the time of its release. In addition to all of their promotional and recording activity that year, Abba were making a movie, most of which was filmed in Abbamania-central, Australia. It was released at the end of the year, as was the The Album in Europe (the rest of the world got it in early ��78), and at the close of 1977 Abba were bigger than ever.
In the wake of activity leading up to 1978, Abba should have been collectively short of breath. So many concerts, television appearances, a movie and near-constant writing and recording would have left most acts dry, and predictably the band stumbled ever so slightly out of the gates after The Album. When recording for a follow-up LP began in March (a mere four months after the release of their last album), Bjorn and Benny had very little to bring to the sessions. Furthermore, it seemed that what ideas they did attempt to develop often led to dead-ends, as the resulting album eventually produced more unreleased material than any other in their catalog. Stylistically, the band were incorporating more and more dramatic elements into their sound, though certainly not ignoring the trends. It could be that the writers chose to emphasize the freer structures of disco and dance music in general for many of the songs on their forthcoming album because they had not yet really capitalized on the style. Or, it could be that they simply didn’t have enough raw materials with which to flesh out their typically baroque pop. Whatever the case, the resulting album, Voulez-Vous, could be considered their “dance” record.
Abba’s first go at laying down tracks for the record began in March 1978, though only the very mildly funky “Lovers (Live A Little Longer)” survived. The basic groove of the song would seem to be directly lifted from the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive”, though the vocal arrangement retained the group’s sense of classical detail. However, the lyrics were basically repeating the line “Lovers live a little longer, yeah” several times, and basing the claim on the fact that “some physician had made a discovery.” It wasn’t the most ambitious track, but they still had the rest of the year to figure out what they wanted.
As it happened, the next tune anyone heard from Abba was another Bee Gees inspired single, “Summer Night City”, which had been recorded in the initial album sessions but never actually made it to the final track list. The tune is very nice, energetic disco, though is probably more of a direct reference to the Australian trio than anything else. The group vocals are dead ringers for the Gibb brothers’ rubbery tenors, and the arrangement is pure Miami four-on-the-floor. Of course, Abba didn’t even have to step out of their backyard, as they were by then recording from their recently completed Polar Studios in Sweden. The band released another single, “Chiquitita,” about a month later. It wasn’t disco, though there probably wasn’t a classification for its Latin-classical-soft rock-oompa beat synthesis. For all Benny and Bjorn’s interest in covering all the bases of pop composition, it was fairly rare for them to combine more than a couple of styles into a tune. It’s a cheerful song, though suffers a bit at the hands of its overstuffed arrangement.
During the recording period, Benny and Frida got married (their engagement preceded Abba by several years), though didn’t invite anyone to the ceremony, including the other group couple. Additionally, in January 1979, Bjorn and Agnetha announced their plans to divorce. As the band had not stopped working since its formation, Benny and Bjorn’s sudden decision to take off for the Bahamas on a mammoth writing session might seem like a natural decision in the wake of the announcement. It’s not as if Abba’s deadlines and obligations were going away just because the relationships therein underwent drastic changes. If they had been guilty of keeping their fans at arms lengths in the past, this behavior pointed to a single-minded determination not to let “real life” get in the way of the music, shows or reliable routine of continuous work.
Probably not ironically, Benny and Bjorn came up with about half of what ended up on Voulez-Vous, including the title track, during this tropical getaway. “Voulez-Vous” may be Abba’s best pure disco tune, and in fact was recorded in Miami at the same studios the Bee Gees had made their biggest hits, with the American dance-funk outfit Foxy. Everything about the tune, from the handclaps in the chorus, to the extended vamp in the middle, to the macho, desensitized lyrics (“Masters of the scene/We’ve done it all before”) fit perfectly into the wild, carefree underground of club culture in the late 70s. It probably wasn’t the greatest songwriting triumph of their careers, but the two writers were succeeding in their mastery of styles as well as ever.
Also from the Bahamas came the upbeat “Does Your Mother Know”, the last single Abba ever released without a female lead vocal (Bjorn took this one). The dance beat remained, though a rock touch was injected into the tune as well, giving it a welcome edge (relatively speaking) amongst the other music. Despite the pumped-in energy of much of the music on Voulez-Vous (from which lesser tunes like the ultra-smooth “The King Has Lost His Crown” and generally limp disco of “If It Wasn’t for the Night” detracted), it ultimately suffered in comparison to the preceding couple of records. It’s not that Abba wasn’t still producing catchy, insistent pop music, but circumstances probably dictated a slight break in momentum. Their tours were still massive successes (particularly in Europe), and their final release of the year, the non-album track “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” was a substantial hit. Nevertheless, if The Album marked the peak of their popularity and song craft, Voulez-Vous may well signify their journey down from the mountainous highs.
Even as the personal relationships within Abba broke apart – though it should be noted, Benny and Bjorn never stopped working together, even after the band’s breakup – the professional lived on. In autumn of 1979, they had begun a tour covering North America and Europe, and would complete the last leg of the tour in March 1980 with two weeks of shows in Japan. Most of Abba’s music lent itself well to performance, especially as the writers’ grew more anxious to compose staged musicals, though the members weren’t particularly fond of touring. After their final Japan concert, they would never again play outside of Sweden.
Super Trouper- 1980
During a brief break in January 1980, Benny and Bjorn attempted to repeat their vacation songwriting success of the previous year by jetting off to Barbados. In retrospect, it seems that detaching themselves from the shared community and experience that was Abba was probably the only way for them to continue working on music for the group. Certainly, the two men had other interests by that point, especially regarding musicals and theatrical works. As it happened, they were already planning on a musical about New Year’s Eve as they flew to Barbados, and even went so far as to ask comedic actor and writer John Cleese to write a script for the project. Cleese declined, and the idea went no further than what might have become its title song, “Happy New Year,” a light, modestly anthemic tune appearing on their forthcoming album.
Other tunes written during the shot vacation were “On and On and On” (stylistically, very much related to the energetic disco of their previous album, and a successful single in various parts of the world), “Andante, Andante” (an airy, atypically understated ballad featuring very nice group vocals, as well as an arrangement that makes their soft-rock songs from the previous years sound positively kinetic) and “The Piper” (yet another Abba song about music itself, though an odd combination of Renaissance melodic motives and too-smooth television incidental music). The excellent “Elaine” was also written during this trip, though for some reason was not included on the record that would become Super Trouper. Lines like “You hate, you scream, you swear/And still you never reach him” and “You’re like a goldfish in a bowl...They have your mind, they’ll take your soul” are hardly the kind of radio-friendly prose Abba were known for, and may have been factors in why the tune only ever surfaced as the B-side to “The Winner Takes It All”. The music is something else: joyous, up-tempo pop, with interesting harmonies and an infectious acoustic guitar riff repeated during the choruses.
Recording sessions didn’t commence until March, after the group returned from Japan. The sessions, and writing continued throughout the year, literally up until the last moment before the record was released. During the spring and summer of 1980, the band recorded “The Winner Takes it All”, one of the better singles of their later period. Frida took the lead vocal, and was accompanied by Benny on grand piano. Again, the theatrical method of contrasting soft and louder sections, and the dramatic build-up to the chorus was used to great effect by the band. Furthermore, Bjorn’s lyrics (admittedly, “colored by the divorce”) injected a fair amount of drama into the song. Recording during the same time was “Our Last Summer”, which finds the band revisiting its soft-rock aspirations (which seemed to have overtaken disco and pure pop as their mode of choice in 1980).
Super Trouper’s title refers to the giant spotlights used for Abba’s concerts, and whose light is depicted on the LP cover. The band chose this title before actually recording the song of the same name, though the song certainly seems to be fairly literal in its translation of the term (“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me”). Abba has never really been credited with writing “personal” songs, and though pure pop music is rarely about making confessional stances, the show-weary sentiment of “Super Trouper” is one of the most straightforwardly personal songs as you’re likely to hear on the radio.
One of the other notable tracks from the album (released in the autumn of 1980, just a few weeks after the final mixing was completed) was “Lay All Your Love on Me,” an extraordinary disco track, and something of an anomaly placed on a record mostly comprised of soft-rock and theatrical vignettes. Although the song wasn’t a massive hit relative to some of Abba’s other singles, it was easily the most immediately engaging on Super Trouper (which sometimes suffers from blandness, and overly muted production), and if only for a moment, brought back the transient passion of Arrival and their best dance songs. Abba had already peaked in popularity, even as they continued to produce good pop music. By 1980, their songs had shifted from bubbly pop, to something more refined (and probably not as readily commercial). “The Way Old Friends Do” closed Super Trouper, serving as both a musical farewell to the passion of past relationships, and a symbolic farewell to touring, and generally all the hectic exposure of the last half-decade. They group was almost done.
The Visitors- 1981
The Visitors was ABBA’s final record. Inasmuch as the band were probably at their best on singles, this is not a significant detail. However, many fans choose it as their favorite, and there are plenty of reasons to agree with this. Firstly, it suffers from very little of the perfunctory dance trend experiments of previous records. Secondly, it was made under the most difficult circumstances they would ever encounter: the couples would be no more by the time this record was released in the autumn of 1981. Several of the songs dealt with various aspects of separation (obvious treatments as heard in “When All Is Said And Done” and “One of Us”, to tangential episodes like the infectious, mildly freaky “Two for the Price of One”), and whatever your feeling of ABBA’s lyrics, lines like “It’s so strange when you’re down and lying on the floor/How you rise, shake your head/Get up and ask for more” are nothing if not insightful about the nature of relationships.
Furthermore, Bjorn and Benny were writing music seemingly outside of the by-then very well defined ABBA spectrum. Of course, much of their inspiration was coming from the musical theater, and up on the demise of the group, they would immediately head for Broadway with Tim Rice to pen Chess, in addition to working with established theatric performers like Anne Sofie von Otter and Elaine Page. Musically, this interest found its way into all manner of their work, from the faux operatic melodic lines in “Head Over Heels” (also with a magnificent string arrangement, played on synth of course) and hymnal grandeur of “Like an Angel Passing Through My Window”, to the episodic juxtaposition of styles in “Soldiers” or “I Let the Music Speak”.
However, it wasn’t just the music that got more dramatic. The tale of red scare inquisition and paranoia of the title track (“The signal’s sounding once again, and someone tries the doorknob/None of my friends would be so stupidly impatient, and they don’t dare to come here”), and the Cold War frustration of “Soldiers” (“Is it true that the beast is waking, stirring in his restless sleep tonight”) detail what must have been very tangible fears for Europeans at the outset of the 80s.
The group worked together last in August 1982. “Under Attack” and “Cassandra” were interesting experiments in lush, ultra-posh synth-pop, and suggest what the band might have sounded like had it continued, in an arena alongside European composers like Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre (though large parts of “Under Attack” have much in common with contemporary British acts like Buggles). However, the tune most remembered from this session is “The Day Before You Came”, again using walls of electronics and atmospheric production to enhance the distant, almost cold reminiscence narrator Frida sings about (“Without really knowing anything, I hid part of me away”).
Of course, taken out of context, most of the music on The Visitors fits quite well in the band’s canon (even down to their tradition of including oddly cornball filler like “Slipping Through My Fingers”, easily the worst song on the album). Taken as a whole, it’s rather the most distinctive album they ever made.
Abba may not be for everyone, and given the kind of polarized reaction they tend to inspire, that’s probably for the best. However, one of these days, after all the images fade and stereotypes recede, they may very well be seen for the amazingly talented musicians they were, and for producing some of the finest pop music ever written. Benny, Frida, Bjorn and Agnetha had desire and talent to burn, and worked as hard as anyone in the business. Their music speaks for itself.
By: Dominique Leone
Published on: 2002-06-17