ABBA: Live At Wembley Arena

ABBA NEVER REALLY wanted to bother with performing live at all. They would have preferred to be a studio band, a bit like Steely Dan, content to stay at home in Stockholm where they produced their multi-layered perfect pop at the Polar Studios during working hours so that Agnetha could get back to her kids, Björn could tag along – perhaps unwillingly – Benny could relax with a large Scotch in the knowledge of a job well done, and Frida, the only member of Abba frustrated by this arrangement, could ponder on what might have been.

This is conjecture, of course. I never saw Abba live, let alone interviewed them to discuss these assumptions, so I am basing them on having spoken at length with Magnus Palm, the author of Bright Lights, Dark Shadows, the definitive Abba biography I commissioned and edited, and my ongoing fascination with this Swedish group that I now believe to have sold the most records in the world after the Beatles and Elvis. 

They released a live album after they disbanded, in 1986, but hated it and it died a death. So this new live album, a vast improvement on the earlier one and with many more songs (25), is most welcome for a latter day apostle like me. Magnus sent me some live discs a while back but they were dreadful really, audience recordings by fans, and the only reason I asked him to do so was to try and figure out what Abba sounded like in concert. Live At Wembley Arena finally allows me to do that, and in a recent interview Björn said that no overdubbing had been done (heaven forbid that Agnetha and Frida would have heeded a summons to the studio to re-record their vocals!), no mistakes corrected, so this is exactly as they would have sounded.

It’s evidently a complete show from one of six nights they played at Wembley Arena in November of 1979. To play six nights at Wembley in those days was no mean feat – only Bowie played so many consecutive shows in the seventies – and in the audience over various nights were plenty of rock stars who recognised that the Swedes were to be taken seriously, members of Led Zep, Deep Purple and the Moody Blues among them. Even hipsters like Joe Strummer and Ian Dury were spotted in the VIP area.

It’s likely the audience wasn’t the usual rock crowd. Abba’s fans weren’t hairy head bangers or dopers, just everyday folk who appreciated top quality pop, and many of them would have brought their children along. Still, their enthusiasm never flags and there’s a genuine warmth about the atmosphere, group and fans in accord from start to finish. Reluctant performers or not, Abba seem to be enjoying themselves. At one point Björn says it’s been far too long since they were last in London – they never came back but he sounds sincere all the same.

Like Elvis at Las Vegas, Abba’s concerts during this era opened with a mighty fanfare, a quasi-classical synthesized blast that pumps up expectations until the four arrive to tumultuous cheers and break into ‘Voulez Vous’, taken at a breathless pace, far faster than the single. The sound is terrific, the girls’ vocals correctly balanced, the band racing along. They certainly didn’t need to warm up for this concert, so I suspect it’s one of the later shows. The group had already toured extensively during 1979, taking in the US and other European countries, so everyone is at Olympic fitness, as it were.

Two lesser-known songs, ‘If It Wasn’t For The Night’ and ‘As Good As New’ follow in quick succession, Björn introducing his ex-wife as “the blond one” for the latter, another fast-paced disco workout. ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ follows, taken at a slightly slower pace than I expected, and the variation on the guitar fills in the final chorus are as on record. It’s pretty much perfect in fact.

The first disappointment comes with ‘Rock Me’, sung largely by Björn alone. For all Abba’s professionalism and songwriting skills, when they try their hand at straight rock’n’roll something is missing and the result is cheesy, a bit clunky in fact. Far better is ‘Chiquitita’, with the spotlight back on the girls, pitch-perfect as ever, almost operatic in fact. For all its schlager roots, ‘Chiquitita’ has a gorgeous, uplifting melody and the wonderful sound of Agnetha and Frida singing together, their vocals generous and rich, covers the Wembley Arena like a warm blanket. (Since its release in early 1979 Abba have donated all the royalties from this song to UNICEF, so the children’s charity will no doubt benefit further from this CD.)

Taking the central role, Frida follows this with ‘Money Money Money’, which always sounds to me a bit too much like a show song, a genre to which I am mildly allergic. At one point Benny veers into a lengthy piano flourish, only for Frida to interject – “it’s my song,” she complains – before resuming. She’s still leading for ‘I Have A Dream’, still pitch-perfect, but this is on a twee side, not least because Abba are joined onstage by a children’s choir and Björn brings them back for another lap when the song is over; reminds me of long-gone primary school concerts when our kids were young, family entertainment indeed.

Perhaps it was deliberate that Abba’s most saccharine song is followed by their most suggestive. ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ had yet to become the gay anthem it would in the eighties and it’s given a frantic workout here, complete with funky bass solo by Rutger Gunnarsson, Agnetha leading the vocals for this and a lively ‘SOS’ which follows. The contrast between Agnetha’s rather shrill voice and Frida’s warmer tones is more apparent on stage than on record, especially when ‘GGG’ and ‘SOS’ are followed by the folksy crowd-favourite ‘Fernando’, with Frida again note perfect. This was my dad’s favourite Abba song and whenever I hear it nowadays I can picture him swaying gently to its lilting chorus by the fireplace in our living room in Skipton. This was before my attitude towards Abba had softened from snobbish indifference into admiration and respect, and I regret now that I probably rolled my eyes towards the ceiling as he listened to Frida sing about something in the air that night, but I digress…

Both girls shine on ‘The Name Of The Game’, a complex arrangement perfectly rendered which after an extended coda segues abruptly into ‘Eagle’, perhaps Abba’s most overt nod towards conventional AOR rock, this aspect strengthened by Lasse Wellander’s long, bluesy, meandering guitar solo that brings the song home. The homely sing-along ‘Thank You For The Music’, with Agnetha on lead, serves as another contrast, an interlude before the rocker ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’ which opens with Ola Brunkert’s turn on the drums, followed by what sounds to me like a note-for-note copy of the intro to The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’, the fast version. Perhaps it was a tribute.

Sat at his keyboards, Benny Andersson has the lowest profile of the core group but he gets to add his fourpenneth with ‘Intermezzo No 1’, a cod-classical piano workout than sounds a bit like Beethoven morphing into ‘Nut Rocker’. Next he concedes the piano to Agnetha to sing her solo piece ‘I’m Still Alive’, a quite lovely ballad that could easily have been written by Andersson and Ulvaeus. But this would demean Agnetha who was writing her own songs as a teenager, long before Abba beckoned.

Another contrast comes with ‘Summer Night City’, which opens at a stately pace before accelerating into its groove, and the vocals clearly demonstrate that Abba “walk” in the moonlight and not copulate as they seem to be doing on the fade-out of the recorded version. The choral landscape of Agnetha and Frida in perfect harmony is never better than in the catchy acapella opening of ‘Take A Chance On Me’, which also features some nice keyboard touches, before Björn steps forward for ‘Does You Mother Know’, never a favourite of mine but clearly positioned to lead into the pre-encore concert finale, the pacey ‘Hole In Your Soul’.

Of course, that was never going to be the end, and Abba return to premier ‘The Way Old Friends Do’, their ‘Auld Lang Syne’ rewrite, the version here different from the more widely-known live recording on More Abba Gold. The magnificent ‘Dancing Queen’, flawlessly performed, follows, by which time I have no doubt that 8,000 fans were up on their feet, dancing along, seventeen again and having the time of their lives. There’s a delay before encore two, the finale, a belting, full-tilt and bass-heavy ‘Waterloo’, introduced by Björn as an “oldie” to shrieks of delight. 

One of the reasons cited by Björn for Abba’s reluctance to tour was that he felt the group was unable reach the perfection on stage that he and Benny sought in the studio. That might be the case but it doesn’t matter. The live versions of their much-loved songs presented here are not always perfect – though some are, especially the songs led by Frida – but the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the group make up for it in spades. This album probably won’t add to Abba’s massive fan base, but those who already love the group will adore it.

© Chris CharlesworthJust Backdated, November 2014

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