Sometimes it takes so long for greatness to be recognized that when it finally happens, most people wonder how such a highly-developed ability sprang into being, seemingly from nowhere.
Abba, whose ‘Waterloo’ is one of 1974’s most fully conceived pop singles, is such an act. For ‘Waterloo’ was by no means their first release. Under another name, they had four singles last year that were nearly as good. And, under yet another name, they endured for years as one of Scandinavia’s top pop groups, going back as far as 1965.
Actually, Benny Andersson was the only one who enjoyed those years of hits with the Hep Stars. It wasn’t until 1971 that Benny left the group to join up with Bjorn Ulvaeus to do pop interpretations of Swedish folk tunes that the duo of Bjorn & Benny was formed. From the start their wives Anna & Frida joined them on record, and by their fourth American single it was ‘Bjorn & Benny with Anna & Frida’ so they shortened it to Abba and went on to win the Eurovision song contest and sell millions of copies of ‘Waterloo’ all over the world. And that’s where Abba came from.
Even if you didn’t know all that, it would be easy to deduce this was a group with some roots by listening to their music. It takes a few years of making great records to know how to put together a song like ‘Waterloo’ – just ask Roy Wood. At the same time, they’ve been refining their music all along, making strong advances with each new release. Their best move was letting the girls take over nearly all the vocals, as their strong harmonies augmented by Benny’s Roy Wood-inspired moog & mellotron made for a more distinguishable sound than Bjorn & Benny’s merely adequate singing. And there’s little doubt Roy Wood, his eclecticism as well as his dynamic approach to sound, has been a strong influence. Abba listens to and absorbs a lot from other rock pioneers, and their taste is faultless. Even the Hep Stars were known to cover obscure Who B-sides and unknown Curt Boettcher tunes in their time.
Abba’s album not only lives up to all expectations, it surpasses most and might just turn out to be one of the classic debut LPs of the ’70s. There are six songs of ‘Waterloo’’s general caliber, two or three of which will probably become comparably big hits. Taken with the other songs, the album shows a real diversity of styles and an overall sense of excitement and expanding creativity that is the mark of an emerging phenomenon.
The first side consists of six completely different types of song. ‘Waterloo’ we’ve all heard, ‘Sitting in the Palmtree’ is an adequate pop-reggae tune. ‘King Kong Song’ is a good try at the Chinn-Chapman sound, ‘Hasta Manana’ is a ballad with a pretty melody that Astrid Gilberto would be proud of, ‘My Mamma Said’ is a strikingly unusual type of tune, not unlike some of Sly Stone’s experiments, and ‘Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)’ is a pop anthem, very much like Bjorn & Benny’s ‘Rock and Roll Band’, the theme of which was we should all dance because it’s a beautiful world and you’re only young once. This one doesn’t have quite as strong a hook, but it makes me feel good and that’s what counts.
Side two is the killer. ‘Honey Honey’ leads off, and if you thought ‘Sugar Sugar’ you’re right, this is the essence of Jeff Barry mass-level pop irresistibility, with the addition of a stringing, sparkling production sound, a joyously bouncy vocal, and even a couple of short heavy breathing segments. ‘Watch Out’ sounds like the Hollies’ ‘Long Cool Woman’ combined with the Sweet’s ‘Rock and Roll Disgrace’, that kind of flash. ‘What About Livingston’ is another Woodsily cheerful pop ditty, not one of their strongest tunes but good enough for a single. ‘Gonna Sing You My Lovesong’ could establish yet another image for Abba, with this slushy, Carole King-like ballad, although with the full mellotron production sound it becomes rather enjoyable.
The album closes with two of its strongest cuts. ‘Suzy Hang-Around’ is highlighted by a strangely attractive echoed ‘Bells of Rhymney’ 12-string droning throughout, joined on the choruses by moog and double-tracked vocals to create a dense, powerful effect. ‘Ring Ring’, likely to be the next single, has a pounding impact equal to ‘Waterloo’ or ‘Honey Honey’ and could turn out to be the most lastingly fulfilling of the three.
Clearly, any group that can present this many brilliant songs on its first American album, when most of our leading acts are lucky to have one listenable track these days, is cut out for big things. If I were Playboy Records, I’d rush out ‘Rock and Roll Band’, which still could be a hit. And if I were you, I’d rush out and buy this album while you’re young enough to enjoy it.
© Greg Shaw, Phonograph Record, August 1974