AT FIRST glance, Abba appears on the horizon as A Bunch of Beautiful Aryans. Others, less generous, label their rise to prominence as Another Banal Bands’ Ascent. Granted, their style of unabashed pop may leave some cold, but it’s surely not to be compared with something like Middle-Of-The-Road(‘s) mawkishness, or the New Seekers’ outright crassness. For openers, Abba write all their own material, and then proceed to produce it with distinct flair and occasional brilliance. I can’t find any other auteuristic popists working today who can equal them in pure consistency or rival them in commercial success.
The strength of Abba is derived primarily from the production team of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, aided by their long-time engineer Michael Tretow. Abba is, by design, song oriented, as opposed to bands like Kiss or Aerosmith who generate sales via live performance, or image-makers like Bowie or Springsteen who can garner hits regardless of the quality of their respective work. Another essential ingredient contributing to Abba’s success is their vocal skill, which combined with their production prowess, allows them to transform even mediocre compositions like ‘I Do, I Do, I Do’ and ‘Fernando’ into palatable worldwide hits.
The band has released seven singles in America, beginning with ‘Waterloo’, and all seven have made the charts. This feat was accomplished without the benefit of any disco-influence, a trick which other “pop” stars like McCartney, Elton John, Bee Gees, Bowie, Bryan Ferry, etc. simply could not equal. (Judging by title alone, however, Abba’s latest European single, ‘Dancing Queen’ may set an ominous precedent.)
Despite the lack of live concerts, and the absence of image hype, Abba has notched more chart placings in the last year than anybody else. In England, Scandinavia, France, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Australia, (virtually all over the world), each of their releases surge into the top 10. The LP’s linger on charts for month, and more often than not, there are two, there, even four Abba records in any given Top 20 simultaneously. Their latest record, ‘Dancing Queen’ can be found at #1 in well over a dozen countries, with their Best of LP bulleted likewise.
Abba is by no means perfect. Their albums have basically been collections of singles, which doesn’t always make for repeated listenings or a cohesive long player. The last few singles have been disappointingly average, leaving ‘Waterloo’, ‘SOS’, and ‘Mamma Mia’ as Abba’s highwater marks. Additionally, the band seems to shy away from emotionalism, and being non-native English speaking, many of their songs suffer from less than erudite lyrics. (‘Fernando’ is perhaps the most irrelevant lyrically, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal.)
Abba are dedicated music people and true fans of pop. Their sincerity is total, although perhaps a bit naive, so when Annifrid and Agnetha appear on Saturday Night Live in matching white mini’s and perform schoolkids choreographed dance steps, it’s not satirical camp on their part — it’s almost a ritualistic homage to their pop fanaticism. You really don’t believe that Olivia Newton-John is as creepy as she tries to be, or that the Bay City Rollers are dedicated to their craft — they’re just playing games. But Abba are exactly what they appear to be — nothing more and nothing less. You can believe in those smiles.
Recently, I have detected a not-so-subtle attempt to mold Abba imagewise, by dressing them up in “today’s style,” by creating a new logo (with the two ‘B’s of Abba touching back-to-back), by pushing them into live concert situations, by registering the new Abba logo as a trademark, (usually the first step in marketing Abba this and Abba that) — which, if it’s true, will be all too unfortunate, because then they would merely be a tool of some ad man’s conceptions and decisions. But the individuals in Abba are more experienced than one might at first imagine, so perhaps there’s still hope of saving them…
Björn Ulvaeus was a member of Sweden’s Hootenanny Singers, one of the country’s more popular groups during the mid-1960s. Benny Andersson was a member of the Hep Stars, Sweden’s most popular group from the same era, (legions of Tages and Ola and the Janglers fans notwithstanding). The Hep Stars earned nine gold records during 1965-68, and usually averaged about four chart records per year. (Their biggest, ‘Sunny Girl’, was also released here on Dunhill in 1966, but nothing happened.) In 1967, Björn and Benny met on the Scandinavian circuit and soon co-wrote their first song (‘It Ain’t Easy To Cry’) together. By 1969 both were free agents and they teamed up to join Polar records as writers and producers. Perhaps as a final burst of artistic control, the duo decided in 1970 to record together, resulting in their first album as “Björn and Benny,” entitled Lycka (Happiness). Throughout these sessions they utilized the vocal abilities of Annifrid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog.
Annifrid had been in show business since the age of ten, and in 1967 landed a prestigious spot on Sweden’s Hyland’s Corner TV shown. In short order came a string of hit singles and a strong selling LP. Agnetha also was no novice to the music business. Signed to CBS in 1967, her first (and self-penned) single ‘I Was So In Love’ went to #1. Numerous recordings followed, and a few years ago, she married Björn.
It’s not common knowledge here in America, but Björn and Benny write and produce for several other artists besides Abba, and perhaps this is where they have begun to spread themselves too thin. At one time rather prolific songwriters, B&B now seen to have too few songs to go around. Often they have two or three or their artists perform the same song, and occasionally they even have the same song on the same album done twice, once in Swedish and once in English. Additionally, Abba themselves often record their biggest hits in Swedish, English, German, and other languages.
As artists they are tied totally to the Polar Music Organization which is a record company, publishing house, and production factory all under one roof. Polar is headed by the highly successful Stig Anderson, who also helps write some Abba songs. Since Polar is not an international label, they lease Abba’s work to other companies for specific territories. (The Hollies were incredibly prosperous doing likewise in the 1960’s.) Rather than just hand the band over to a huge network like EMI or CBS worldwide, Polar has shopped around, country by country, in order to find the best suited and hardest working companies for Abba. Epic foolishly passed on the band and ‘Waterloo’ in America, so Atlantic got them. In England they are on CBS/EPIC. In Germany and Holland they are pressed onto Polydor. In Australia and New Zealand they are on RCA. In some places they are on relatively new labels, like Spain’s Carnaby and Italy’s Dig-It. All this means a dizzying number of album compilations and single picture sleeves. “B” sides and album tracks are often singles in some countries, and the multi-language recordings are almost impossible to track down. Right now most of the world is busy buying up the 14-song Greatest Hits compilation, while others additionally get a double History-type anthology tracing the bands’ career. (Although we tend to think that Abba began with ‘Waterloo’, they actually had five singles and an album out before that.) In short, this adds up to a horrendous nightmare for the dedicated Abba consumer.
Abba s first new album in over a year and a half is just now being released in Sweden, to be followed by England and America. It should give us decisive proof of their direction and dedication. Will they simply churn out polished MOR-pop-rock records, or will they push ahead and risk failure with more adventuresome recordings? To pursue the former would be a near-fatal blow to the already weakened, on-the-defensive forces of popdom, but pursuit of the latter could mean terminal cult oblivion. An apprehensive public awaits the outcome.
© Alan Betrock, New York Rocker, December 1976