Don’t step on my blue Swede shoes — ABBA: Odeon, Birmingham

TIM LOTT (only previous contact with Scandinavian culture: a lunchtime viewing of Danish Dentist On The Job at the Greek Street Cinema Club, members only) gets to grips with ABBA

AREN’T THEY wonderful, those gleaming chocolate box Swedes. Aren’t they just so wonderful.

Well, of course they are, my my, yes yes and yes already. They have to be, you know, quite unassailable, because it’s not only those sweaty little boppers and blank-eyed scarf wavers who keel over at the sound of those revered initials now, oh no.

Abba, a blatantly commercial business unit, have achieved the previously unachievable. They are somehow hip. Quite the coolest of people are quite publicly beginning to jabber the praises of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Goran Bror Benny Anderson, Björn Kristian Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältscog.

It’s becoming the teeniest bit annoying.

I mean, whatever happened to good old snobbery? The Osmonds, who, after all, in their heyday were at least as slick, intelligent, listenable and lovable as Abba (and even sold as many records) are to this day reviled and hated by Cool Dudes everywhere. But not Abba, they are it, from whatever direction you observe.

What niggles me is that they are as much ensconced in the greenback showbiz formula as the next band. Yet they have become almost sacrosanct, beyond criticism. Their absolution comes conveniently packaged in glitter and lights and TV tubes, unapproachably labelled ‘professional’.

Maybe they get away with it because of their Scandinavian charisma. More likely the explanation lies in the sheer quality of all they do. It may be crass, or glib, or obvious, but it’s planned crassness, polished glibness, intentional directness. And I recap, the songs are superb, ageless appeal, instant adhesion.

Benny and Björn (and Stig) are the talents. Anni-Frid and Agnetha are little more than fleshy selling points. If the boy/girl relationships with the men weren’t so inherent in the image, their role could be taken — and improved upon — by umpteen session singers.

It could be something to do with difficult Swedish/English translation intonation, but the whole band sound like they think they’re quite, quite marvellous.

I guess they are, too. Birmingham loved them anyway.

The show opens not with a bang but a whirr, helicopter sound effects, presumably aural reference to the cover of ‘Arrival’. Then the mandatory flashing lights and whoopee look who’s onstage, it’s them and they’re all smiling and radiantly pink. For two hours they grin, pout and act cute. They do it very well.

‘I Am The Tiger’ is the opener. The helicopter thrashings have died down, superceded by a visual punchline. Anni-Frid and Agnetha seem to be in a minor time warp — it’s all glitter and sparkle, cloaks that look like outsize Fiorruci bags matching garish gold boots.

The sound is OK, but the female leads confirm my suspicions — the voices are rather brittle and hollow outside of the vinyl disguise, though not disastrously so. And behind, the ace session musicians keep the rhythms churning in perfect texture, glossing any vocal shortcomings. No apparent first-night worries, they brim confidence, and goodwill, and homely jollity. Benny looks like Bill Oddie, Björn makes like a Cheshire moggy, all gums and enamel. Bona-fide cabaret. It’s all bogus but that’s alright for the moment anyway.

Everyone looks pleased with themselves as the first of the string of chart successes is unleashed. ‘Waterloo’ sounds exactly like the record, perfectly put together, smoothly executed, and critically immune, unless you consider perfection annoying.

Anni-Frid and Agnetha are erection-mongering now, pointedly waving their tight little asses at the packed house. This is something they do repeatedly during the performance. Make no mistake, at least one quarter of the Abba appeal is sex, that’s s-e-x, obvious if un-explicit. Both girls endlessly contort their closely-outlined bodies into a variety of static erotic poses, disguised as musical posturing.

What you’re meant to think is gosh aren’t they really into the music: what you do think is I wish those impossibly tight pants would rend asunder from pelvis to spine. That’s not sexist, it’s simple chemical reaction, and that’s how it’s planned.

Planning of course is the key. They don’t put a glittered step wrong, through the jumpy ‘SOS’, the Caribbean flavoured ‘Jenie, Jenie’, and my all time Abba favourite, ‘Money, Money, Money’. It all looks so much like a moving photograph, everything in place and perfectly in focus. The frames run through the gravelly ‘He Is Your Brother’, and during ‘I Do, I Do, I Do’, inexplicable projected snow falls behind them.

Between numbers they chat stiffly and unconvincingly to wide mouthed Birmingham (out for the night in ties and Old Spice), in dead flat monotone with unfunny ad libs (or are they planned) and embarrassing platitudes.

“We love you” intones Björn. I don’t believe a word of it.

More energetic stuff with ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Rock Me’. Their musical appeal is beyond doubt, with numbers I haven’t even heard before sounding familiar and palatable. And as the hits just keep on coming, enjoyment builds and hostility fades. But then the music takes backseat and showbiz takes over for a swift dose of self-gratification.

At the end of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, the happy little chums sit on stools and sing nursery rhymes about themselves. “I am Frida, hello I am the star of the show,” and “I am the guy whose careful and shy.” Get the gist? Personal details, way of life that sort of thing. Acutely embarrassing but the audience applaud politely. Overkill, but only for five minutes. Then they regain their senses and stick to the hits and the tits — ‘Mama Mia’, ‘Fernando’ (incorporating the singalong ploy) and an excellent instrumental, keyboard/guitar based. Then comes an unoriginal but effective musical ‘play’, marred by lots of jaded clown and marionette imagery, then some glossy rock ‘n’ roll, and goodbye.

An interesting point; nowhere throughout the show have the crowd shown any real excitement, no rushing the stage, no out-of-control yells. Everyone in line and stuck to the seat. It takes the encore, ‘Dancing Queen’ and a request from the stage to get the entire theatre on their feet for a few minutes. Then the stage lights are off and Abba’s first gig of the tour is over.

Actually, it’s been quite fun. Benny and Björn are quite possibly in the genius class when it comes to manufacturing disposable attractive songs. Anni-Frid and Agnetha may only just sing adequately but they look just fine and possess an aura of slight naughtiness with it.

It’s fodder for the masses in its least derogatory sense. Supplying such a vast number of people with exactly what they want to hear is quite incredibly difficult to achieve, yet Abba have that elusive knack.

They are not important musical influences (quite the reverse; they have stolen from every commercially interesting music form available). They are not aesthetically stunning.

Perhaps, as their astute manager has said: “People aren’t as dumb as we think. They’re dumber.”

© Tim LottSounds, 19 February 1977

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