ABBA: The Phenomenal Swedes Have Yet to Conquer America

FREQUENTLY dismissed as vapid and sterile, Abba may well be the world’s most popular rock band currently, but the Swedish quartet clearly has a ways to go in conquering America.

America may be the only holdout at this point. The phenomenally successful group already beat out Volvo automobiles as Sweden’s most popular export. The band’s new releases instantly shoot up the charts like fireworks all across the world.

But in this country, despite eight Top Ten records in less than four years, Abba has all the image of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 and all the stature of Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Although Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton have dominated America’s best-selling charts over the past couple years, none of those acts has given Abba even the slightest competition overseas. Yet the wholesome, squeaky-clean image and bland personalities projected by the group members does not appeal overwhelmingly to American rock fans, despite the quality of the music.

And the music is as outstanding as the group’s success!

American reviewers have not been kind to Abba, generally shunting the group off as low-brow pop crud for the masses. It is a fate that has befallen some of the finest rock groups in the world with the temerity to reach mass audience approval before being discovered by the critical elite. It was a problem that ultimately spelled an end to Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the best American rock bands of the decade who were never accepted by the hip tastemakers, despite — or perhaps because of — millions of records sold.

ABBA’S LATEST album, simply titled The Album, earned the group its third U.S. gold album, certainly an enviable plateau but far short of the double and triple platinum levels achieved by the likes of Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Boston, and myriad others. Nevertheless, The Album is as sure and smooth an album as can be found in pop music.

‘The Name of the Game’, the first single from The Album, made the Top 15 and the second single, ‘Take a Chance On Me’, is already moving up the charts even faster, although it was a Top Ten record in most countries in the world several months ago.

To coincide with the release of The Album, in Europe the group released The Movie, a bogus documentary shot around an Abba tour of Australia that will not be released in the U.S. until later this spring. The group will make its first major America TV appearance May 17 as guests on the Olivia Newton John special, Olivia.

Abba is led by singer-songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and fronted by their wives, Agnetha and Annifred. Andersson previously belonged to the popular Swedish recording group the Hep Stars, and began writing songs with Ulvaeus 12 years ago. Under the name Björn and Benny, the pair released a couple obscure singles in this country in 1972 and 1973 on Playboy Records.

The first Abba release, ‘Waterloo’, soared into the Top Ten in 1974 followed by hits like ‘Honey Honey’, ‘Ring Ring’, ‘S.O.S.’, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’, ‘Mamma Mia’, and ‘Fernando’. With the band’s 1976 number one record, ‘Dancing Queen’, Abba became well known to U.S. radio programmers, if not the mainstream rock audience.

The superb ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ followed ‘Dancing Queen’ into the Top 20, while ‘Money, Money, Money’ was a relative failure, never raising itself even as far as the Top 50. Of all the group’s hits, only ‘Dancing Queen’ earned Abba a gold record in the U.S.

Abba specializes in the Esperanto Sound — the kind of pop music that crosses international barriers because it does not need to be understood to be appreciated. Starting with a pumping oom-pah beat, the group adds flavorful and potent lead vocals from the two ladies and repeats a crucial line — usually the song’s title — over and over ad infinitum. Wheezing and groaning synthesizers sweeten the tracks, as do many overdubbed acoustic guitars and a multitude of harmony voices.

The blend creates a polished, svelte pop sound, with the kind of hummable, memorable melodies that made Beatles songs so special. The ultimate product is closer to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass than the Rolling Stones, but is also a far more sophisticated and supple mix of music, voices and lyrics than that achieved by Fleetwood Mac with roughly the tame instrumentation and two female lead vocalists.

Whether or not Abba ultimately crumbles this country as it has others remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the group has demonstrated such a record of consistency over the past four years, as well as evidencing a considerable stylistic growth, it seems likely that Abba’s future in this country is rosy.

© Joel SelvinSan Francisco Chronicle, 7 May 1978

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