ABBA: Welcome to the Palindrome

Reissues: Their entire oeuvre freshly silvered, remastered and mid-priced.


Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid. Messrs Words and Music, Mrs Perm and Mrs Nice Bum. They bestrode the ‘70s like an eight-legged, satin-flared colossus. With a beard. Meanwhile, tapping a platform at the school disco: Nick Hornby.

WHEREVER YOU STAND ON THE ABBA question (to which the correct answer, incidentally, is “Right up there with the greats,” rather than “Björn’s mum, with a pudding bowl and the kitchen scissors”) you can’t deny that this band has legs.

When we watched — through tears of joy or our fingers, depending on taste — the triumphant reprise of ‘Waterloo’ at the end of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, only the most sapient of us could have predicted that 20 years later the entire Abba oeuvre would provide the backbone for postmodern TV chat shows (Aha!); or that camp pop groups would record tribute EPs; or that rap groups would sample their bass lines; or that the intro to ‘Waterloo’ itself would provide a thrilling moment in a hit movie. Abba became A and B and B and A over a decade ago, but our culture seems to have found a permanent place for them in its heart, which is more than can be said for, say, The Jam, who seemed more significant at the time.

Part of the explanation for this is that Abba have become an obvious and universal symbol of Naff in the same way that James Dean is a lazy exemplification of Cool: one would imagine that Alan Partridge, with his mock-Tudor home outside Norwich and his golf club membership, varies his aural diet with a little Shakatak once in a while, just for old time’s sake, but basically Abba were his band in the way that the Beatles might be yours. (Any plans for an Abba Anthology, one wonders? Could Björn and Benny dust down the demos for ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ or ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’ and splice them together?)

It’s the same for poor Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding, but the moment in the film when she and her mate mime to ‘Waterloo’ at a holiday resort talent contest is complicated. Of course it’s funny and tells us something about the central character (i.e. she probably hasn’t got as many Nick Cave albums as she should have), but the scene has a real charge to it too, simply because the opening bars of the song sound so fucking brilliant. The film wants it both ways, and it gets it too, and there is the Abba paradox in a nutshell — they’re great, but they’re probably all dressed up as Napoleon.

A couple years ago, there was a pretty nifty BBC Peel-narrated documentary about the boys and girls, wherein the great and the good (Ray Davies, Ian McCulloch, Elvis Costello, the obligatory classical music scholar who had written a thesis about diminished 7ths in ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! A Man After Midnight’ or some such nonsense) got together to tell us why Abba were the pop business. One listened with interest to what they had to say, of course, but one’s attention was constantly distracted by the illustrative clips: did Abba really appear in a Mike Yarwood sketch? (Mike was doing Larry Grayson: “You have a song called ‘Dancing Queen’? Shut that door”, etc). And on Seaside Special? And Gerry Cottle’s Circus? And did they really wear that, and dance like that? That they really, really didn’t care at all, Abba, which probably means that they were the first and perhaps the only true punks: even Iggy cared a bit. He certainly never appeared on the Mike Yarwood Show, anyway.

I hope that you will forgive me, dear MOJO reader, when I tell you that I haven’t listened to all nine of these remastered albums, um, all the way through, but actually you don’t need to listen to them to work out what happened to Abba: the tracklistings tell the whole story. The first couple of albums, from ’73 and ’74, feature tracks called ‘Ring Ring’, ‘Nina’, ‘Pretty Ballerina’, ‘Hasta Manana’, ‘King Kong Song’, ‘Honey Honey’, ‘Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)’, and ‘Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)’: in other words, the song titles come in two languages, Eurobabble or a slightly strained intermediate-level English. (Love isn’t easy but it’s hard? What, precisely, is the function of that oppositional conjunction, guys?)

By The Visitors, their last studio album in 1982, all that has changed, and snappy Advanced English idioms are well to the fore: ‘You Own Me One’, ‘When All Is Said And Done’, ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, ‘Two For The Price Of One’, ‘Head Over Heels’… I used to teach people like Abba. They were a pain in the arse. It only ever rained “cats and dogs”, and policemen were always “bobbies”; there was something vaguely repellent about their desperation to become One Of Us.

That’s what it did for Abba, if you ask me: they became desperate, because they had somehow got it into their heads that we didn’t need Kitsch Scandinavian Eurovision hits. There was that brilliant mid-period, where they had taken off the Napoleon hats, and there was a bit less of the Ring Ding-A-Honey stuff, and they wrote ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Name Of The Game’ and ‘Angel Eyes’, pop classics all, without being afraid of going for the odd Dum Dum Diddle. But then self-consciousness set in. It’s one thing to be told that you’re camp, it’s quite another to actively court the description — by the end, Abba had got their own joke and effectively become their own Björn Again before tribute bands were even thought of. ‘The Day Before You Came’, their last hurrah, is a pop ironist’s take on Abba, and pop ironists sure know how to pull the fun out of things.

Abba sold 240 million albums worldwide and ended up with serious money troubles, which seems somehow indicative of the peculiar nature of their genius (or Swedish tax laws). But genius it was: will there ever be another band which manages to mean so many things to so many people, to succeed through inclusion rather than exclusion? And, of course, those songs, the good ones, have stood the test of time, just about the only pop songs to do so that aren’t built on guitars, bass and drums.

If you only buy nine remastered albums full of jolly rinky-dink fairground synths and dodgy titles all at once this year, make it these. Failing that, a second-hand Greatest Hits will do.

© Nick HornbyMOJO, June 1997

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