Money Money Money: How Abba Won Their Waterloo

IN ALL THE WORLD except America (which was too busy celebrating centennials and electing presidents) 1976 was the Year of Abba.

In Britain, for example, Abba had three successive number one singles and their new one, ‘Money, Money, Money’, is climbing the Top Ten as we write. Abba’s Greatest Hits was the year’s biggest selling album and the advance orders on its successor, Arrival, were so huge that CBS’s European pressing plants were tied up for weeks. And Britain has only been following world trends. The most intense outbreak of Abba-mania so far actually occurred in Australia where all attendance records have been broken and Abba’s tour hasn’t even started yet!

Abba are an honest-to-god pop phenomenon and their appeal crosses as many boundaries as that of the Beatles of old – old and young, MOR and teenybop, Europhile and disco. Only trouble is they’re Swedish! And not just Swedish by birth or accident but Swedish by choice and design: their records are made in Swedish studios by Swedish musicians with Swedish mas-terminds. Which is strange because Sweden doesn’t have much of a record industry, has no great pop tradition and is anyway a boringly pleasant country where most people like jazz.

So where are Abba coming from already?
Mostly from the brains of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson who write and arrange and produce and with their ladies perform all of Abba’s material. (Bjorn is married to Agnetha Faltskog, Benny is engaged to Annifrid Lyngstad – hope you’re getting ready to have these names trip easily on your tongues – ABBA comes from their initials.) All four of them have actually been around for years and years. Benny was on keyboards for the Hep Stars, Sweden’s answer to the Beatles, and first met up with Bjorn in the Hootenanny Singers, Sweden’s answer to the Rolling Thunder Revue. Benny and Bjorn started recording together as Bjorn and Benny in 1966 and Anna and Frida started their successful solo careers soon after. They got together as Abba in 1973, with immediate Swedish success. Their second single, ‘Ring Ring’, was a Euro-smash and came third in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, the next year ‘Waterloo’ won and became a hit even in distant America.

Not that this bode very well for the future. Rock is an essentially Anglo-American enterprise and while most other countries do have their rock groups, Abba, by entering the Eurovision Contest, made it clear that they weren’t one of them. You’re gonna have to know about song contests – they’re the essence of European musical culture. During the summer months European towns, in east and west, form a circuit for third rate singers’ song contests – a source of cheap entertainment for holiday makers, of cheap promotion for song writers, of cheap booze for awful old musicians. The Eurovision Song Contest is the acme of this scene, an extravagant international TV link-up which guarantees the winner a smash hit and annually reveals to an appalled English audience what little impact rock ‘n’ roll really made on the world. Until 1967 the contest was won by big ballads (Italian, you realise) then Britain actually did it, with Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’, which set a new trend, Eurobeat – bouncy/teutonic marching beat + gibberish (expressing, uh, the inarticulacy of someone-who-has-just-fallen-in-love) – the only advantage of which was that light precise girls replaced the quavery balladeers. All Abba did in ’74 was develop this: ‘Waterloo’ combined the Euro-beat with a pop sensibility derived from years of listening to Anglo-American producers, from Spector to Roy Wood. The result was not so much a song as a sound, and it’s Abba’s sound that is phenomenal.

Like all pop masters Abba express and sell themselves entirely according to the grooves; they’ve rarely performed live and have no personality – few people know their names and nobody knows which girl is which. They stay home in Sweden, firmly on the fringes of the international rock biz; for an interview you have to telephone. They don’t ignore the visuals altogether, though. Each new single comes in a package with a promo film, fit to be slotted into TV shows the world over and here lies the real source of their appeal: their super sound is accompanied by the most bizarre idea of grooviness and presentation.

The girls wear truly wonderful party clothes: white sacks covered with prints of large black cats; romper suits studded with opals; authentically fiery caftans four sizes too big; they look like cheap Christmas cards. The boys wear those poncy zippered one-piece suits in nylon or costumes left over from an old sci-fi film, gold flared trousers and jet exhausts on their heels. The resulting tension between innocence and sophistication is the basis of Abba’s sex appeal. The blonde/brunette leads may be knowing continentals but they don’t look it – one is too nervous to dance, one too clumsy. They look to each other for support, do a delicate Swedish version of the bump, sing close into each other’s eyes. And all the time Bjorn and Benny, plain men, are bouncing in the background, beaming big brothers.

For most European kids the rock ‘n’ roll revolution happened not in the fifties but, via the Beatles, in 1963-4. The consequence is that European music remains remarkably unblack. On the one hand this has meant the development of kraut rock – arty and complex and improvised and technical. On the other hand it’s meant Abba. While American pop has simply followed and bleached soulful leads, until we reach the simpering blue notes and laid back rhythms of the Carpenters and the Captain and Tennille, Abba’s appeal still rests on the hook line and big brassy foot tapping appeal. And Bjorn and Benny show their real genius in their eclecticism: somewhere in their four albums you can hear every pop cliche ever, and so slyly snuck in! Their productions are funny. They’ve mastered the secret of great white pop, perfect control. They’re aided by the disciplined tones of Anna and Frida but they’re dependent on the emotionless precision of the moog.

Abba show none of the angst or nostalgia or “adult” sensibilities of contemporary Anglo-American pop. Their lyrics are built round Euro-phrases – ‘Mama Mia’, ‘Hasta Manana’ – or banal metaphors – ‘Waterloo’, ‘Fernando’. No meaning here, but no wimps either. Their best song so far (on Arrival) is called ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ and is, of course, the story of a man who loves his violin more than his woman. Ahhh, the exhilaration of it all!

All pop (except maybe the German avant-garde) is plastic, commercial, manipulative, meaningless and eventually irritating. Not all of it is fun. Anglo-American pop has developed down two equally blind alleys: schmaltz and disco (though what could be better disco than Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’?) Abba remain faithful to a more honourable tradition of ephemera and unless Gary Glitter makes a comeback, 1977 ought to be their American year.

© Simon FrithCreem, March 1977

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