ABBA: The High Priests of Euro-naff

The sateen-flared Swedes are back again. Caroline Sullivan on Abba — The Revival

TEN YEARS after their demise, Abba are again wrapping pop around their little finger. Today. Polydor Records releases Abba Gold: Greatest Hits. The company expects the album to reach No. 1. But Abba Gold is only the latest instalment in one of the biggest trends of the moment: the Abba revival. This is one of those pop-culture crazes so bizarre no pundit could have predicted it A couple of years ago, the possibility of the sateen-flared Swedes ever again having a nodding acquaintance with the Zeitgeist was extremely remote. Yet 1992 sees a tremendous resurgence of interest in them.

Abba-esque, Erasure’s EP of Abba songs, topped the charts for five weeks last spring. U2 perform an acoustic version of Abba’s 1976 hit, ‘Dancing Queen’, on their current tour. A London nightclub, Bar Industria, holds a weekly Abba Night, attracting frolickers like George Michael and supermodel Linda Evangelista. And the original ‘Dancing Queen’ hit the Top 20 upon re-release last month.

What initiated Abba’s rehabilitation? And why them? The early seventies have been undergoing scrutiny by pop theorists for several years; in London clubland, kitsch seventies fashions have been hot since the mid-eighties. Paris couture has recently got in on the act, reviving the maxi-skirt and platform shoe. With nostalgia’s spotlight trained on that uniquely unloved decade, it was inevitable that some of the era’s personalities would be selected for “reappraisal”.

But why is it not, say, the Bee Gees who are suddenly hip? Their tunes were as catchy as Abba’s, their dress sense as joyous. If it’s the beard that counts, well, Barry Gibb had one. Why ‘Dancing Queen’, not ‘Stayin’ Alive’.

According to Nick Coleman, Time Out‘s music editor, the process has not been arbitrary. “There was a great gap between real life and what Abba were doing. It was like a fantasy — Stardust, big shows, the supertroupers. It was also their sophisticated songwriting, which incorporated Bach arpeggios, attached to those fatuous lyrics. Their foreign-ness made them naff, providing Brits with a gratifying form of Euro-bashing. There really was no one else like them.”

Abba’s nationality certainly inspired much derision at the time. But 1992’s revisionist view maintains it was part of their charm. (It is remarkable how many of the people who detested Abba in 1974 now claim to have “secretly loved” them all along.) Struggling to communicate in a foreign language, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson begat lyrics of unsurpassed artlessness: My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender and Can you hear the drums, Fernando? Abba’s simplistic lexicon was and is a big factor in their success. The words induce wistful memories in thirtysomethings, appalled delight in tensomethings.

The exact origins of Abba’s restoration are difficult to pinpoint. The late Blancmange covered ‘The Day Before You Came Back’ in 1984. But it seems to have begun in earnest three years ago, with the formation of Bjorn Again.

This Melbourne outfit replicate Abba down to the Swedish accent. Begun as a joke, the group quickly became popular on Australia’s thriving tribute-band circuit. A foray into Britain last year was highly successful. Bjorn Again became a must-see attraction at the capital’s gay clubs. Mainstream audiences took to them with equal gusto. And December will see them play five consecutive nights at London’s Town and Country Club. “We didn’t start the seventies revival, but we hurried it along,” says the band’s manager, Rod Woolley. “We’ve heard that the real Björn and Stig Anderson (Abba’s ex-manager) apparently like what we’re doing.”

Bjorn Again inspired a nightclub scenemaker called Fat Tony to launch Abba Night last September. An early patron was Erasure’s Andy Bell, who in turn decided to bring Abba to the masses via Abba-esque. This sequence of events did not go unnoticed by the curator of the Abba vaults, Polydor Records. Hence, Abba Gold, described by a spokesman for the HMV chain as “a major release”. Between now and Christmas, record shops and radio stations will incessantly play Abba’s nine No. 1 singles.

All that is missing is the sartorially challenged quartet themselves. The former members — Agnetha Fältskog (blonde), Annafrid Lyngstad (brunette), Andersson (beard) and Ulvaeus (ponyish fringe) — have long since gone their own ways. Polydor’s request that they submit to interviews is being gently ignored. Just as well. The sight of middle-aged, Armani-bedecked Abbas would undermine the poignant nostalgia fuelling the revival.

Abba are more than just a good time. Songs like ‘Waterloo’ are reintroducing the concept of dance music with melody. A generation of teenagers reared on software-based forms like techno are discovering the pleasures of the hummable tune. A return to traditional song structures could only benefit the music business. Catchy tunes sell records. The re-release of more seventies dance hits — unviolated by remixers, of course — would be an excellent first step. It might teach a few musicians how to write a song.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 21 September 1992

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