ABBA

TrackAlbum / Single
My Mama SaidWaterloo
Suzy-Hang-AroundWaterloo
Bang-A-BoomerangABBA
Intermezzo No.1ABBA
ArrivalArrival
The Name Of The GameThe Album
The PiperSuper Trouper
Me And ISuper Trouper
SoldiersThe Visitors
Should I Laugh Or CryB-side of One Of Us

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Contributor: Damien Spanjer

It’s been a while since my last post here. I’ve been busy finding my groove in the new role of fatherhood. It is therefore fitting that this time around I reflect on the first band that inspired me as a child. As one of the most successful quartets the world has even seen, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some of the hidden gems in their catalogue, rarely heard outside of ABBA conventions – yes, they do happen – or the personal collections of their diverse and dedicated fan base.

Being born too late to have experienced their heyday, I first “discovered” ABBA in the mid-eighties when they were at the absolute depths of their popularity. I was at my grandmother’s house and came across the single of Money, Money, Money. I was quite intrigued by their sound at first, not sure what to make of this odd-looking group. But once I overcame my youthful naivety and realised that I had been playing the 45 at 33⅓ rpm, I corrected my mistake and the music started to make sense.

Soon after I found the LP of Super Trouper in the collection. The album was a revelation. The sheer magic of those voices, the folk-inspired melodic invention, the immaculate arrangements and super-slick production hit me like a Swedish freight train. To this day, the album remains my favourite – the impact it had on me as a seven-year-old has endured. Indeed, it was difficult to select just two tracks from that album for inclusion in my top ten.

Often dismissed as seventies kitsch, the boys of ABBA haven’t received their due recognition as master songwriters, arrangers and producers. When ABBA took “a break” in 1982, they left a void so large that it took a ten-year-long conga line of ABBA-esque wannabes like Bucks Fizz, Tight Fit, Bananarama, Kim Wilde, The Bangles, and just about anything produced by Stock / Aitken / Waterman to show us that nobody could match up to their artistry. Fortunately, by 1992 music consumers had realised the error of their ways and ABBA were returned to their rightful place at the apex of popular music, even if in some circles they are still remembered more for their costumes than their craft.

So, onto my Toppermost selection …

My Mama Said, an R&B/funk-tinged number about teenage angst and the conflict between mother and daughter, has arguably one of the coolest bass lines we’ve heard in an ABBA song. Grammatically incorrect rhyming aside, I believe this is one of the group’s most underrated tracks and would translate well into a more current R&B/hip-hop vibe if someone dared to give it a go. Either way, the song deserves a wider audience; hence its inclusion here today.

Suzy-Hang-Around is the only time Benny Andersson took lead vocal duties on an ABBA song. Channeling the Beach Boys, the song evokes a misty-eyed recollection of pre-teen bravado – a time when young boys are simultaneously asserting and discovering their masculinity, leaving little time for the opposite sex (at least for the time being). If you heard this one on the radio and didn’t already know it was ABBA, you wouldn’t know it was ABBA. The song stands as a fine example of the group’s true versatility, too often obscured by the commercial success of an all-too-familiar set of similarly crafted pop masterpieces showcasing what we know as the “ABBA sound”.

Although my next selection was included in the group’s first Greatest Hits compilation in 1975, Bang-A-Boomerang was not originally released as an ABBA song. When approached for another song for the annual Melodifestivalen, the Swedish song competition that selects the country’s entrant for Eurovision, ABBA did not wish to compete having won the previous year. So Benny and Bjorn provided a song to Swedish duo Svenne & Lotte who performed the song and released it in both Swedish and English. Much to the entrants’ surprise, their backing track ended up on ABBA’s self-titled album with new vocals by Agnetha and Frida and somewhat oddly released as a single in France only. The song itself is pure pop bliss, complete with breathtaking harmonies and the group’s affection for Australia came across in the lyrical metaphor. Their love of the land down under was also expressed in Tropical Loveland from the same album. ABBA loved us, and we loved them back.

Moving on, the first instrumental selection, Intermezzo No.1, is a miniature rock concerto featuring Benny Andersson on piano. Part Rachmaninov, part Billy Joel, part Queen – the piece is a glimpse into the future, foretelling Björn and Benny’s foray into rock opera ten years later.

Expectations were high for Arrival, and ABBA took a chance (a cha-a-cha-chance) on introducing their fans to Swedish folk music with the title track. Arrival is the other ABBA instrumental (there were only two) though this one includes a choral arrangement without lyrics. Sometimes I find the tune uplifting, at other times melancholic. Just as the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room, this piece of music follows your mood and is always a perfect fit.

Like many musicians, I often hear songs which have gotten everything so right; chord progression, melody, lyrics, performance, production, etc, that I just wish I’d had half the talent to have come up with it myself. The Name Of The Game is one such song – a master class in songwriting, arrangement and production. Everything is so immaculate it just makes everything else that anybody did in 1977 look sloppy.

The Piper, from 1980’s Super Trouper, is yet another preview of the music direction Björn and Benny would take after ABBA. The song is a self-contained mini musical, laden with folk-inspired melody and counter melody. The harmonies on the Latin chant, “sub luna saltamus”, still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Me And I is epic pop at its best. From the grandiosity of the opening synth to the intricate complexity of the harmonies, this track will either induce euphoria or altitude sickness. Again, this is one of my enduring favourites over the last 30 years. It never gets old.

Moving on to my penultimate selection, and an unorthodox subdivision of the ¾ time signature on Soldiers. The unique groove devised by Ola Brunkert opens the track and underpins the group’s homage to those who lay their life on the line for causes, which at times fly in the face of public opinion. The lyrics are as relevant today as they ever were – in support of the troops while opposing the war.

No “deep cuts” Toppermost would be complete without a B-side, and Should I Laugh Or Cry is a thoroughly warranted inclusion. The song has a cult following among the fan base, widely believed to be worthy of more than a mere B-side. My interpretation of the lyrics differs somewhat to that posited by John Tobler in “ABBA: Uncensored On The Record” and Christopher Patrick in “ABBA: Let The Music Speak”. While we agree that the verses describe an argument in progress, with the choruses taking a step back to view the dynamic of the relationship in more forgiving terms, I had thought that they were father and daughter, rather than equal partners in a failing marriage/de-facto relationship. For me, the line “he’s wrapped up in a warm and safe cocoon of an eternal lie” points to a religious parent casting judgement on his unruly daughter.

So that’s it! Given the immense and widespread popularity of ABBA, I hope this post will inspire some debate about my inclusions / exclusions and more.

Above all, I hope to reinforce the notion that ABBA were not just about costumes, but were, at their core, master craftspeople of some of the finest pop music of their generation.

 

ABBA The Official Site

The Official International ABBA Fan Club

ABBA The Museum

ABBA Facebook

ABBAChat – ABBA fans worldwide forum

ABBA Internet – TV performances archive

ABBA Fans Blog

Agnetha Fältskog Official Website

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus news

The Hep Stars International Official Website

ABBA biography (iTunes)

Damien Spanjer is a classically trained musician and founding member of Sydney-formed studio outfit Starflight. Check out his Soundcloud page for samples of his other musical work.

TopperPost #488

10 Comments

  1. Rob Morgan
    Nov 8, 2015

    A fabulous article and some great choices highlighting the obscure and melancholy side of ABBA. I suppose ABBA were the first ‘new’ band I recognised as my own – I was born in ’69 so by the mid seventies I was aware of music and my parents’ record collection which was all 50s rock and roll and 60s pop – ABBA were modern and different and mine. And yes I did have their posters on my wall. I never heard the early albums until I was older, for me it all started with “Greatest Hits” and even there, there is melancholy – “Another town another train”, “Dance (while the music still goes on)”. “Arrival” though is perfect from start to finish, the sleeve shot of sunset is very apt, day turning to night… and the title track was something so different from anything I had heard before. Every album from then until the end is embedded with memories of growing up, and it was always the minor key songs that were my favourites – “Eagle”, “I wonder”, “The king has lost his crown”… Even at the end they could create extraordinary music, “Under attack” and “I am the city” still sound remarkably contemporary. Anyway, thank you for digging deep, I’ll have to get the old records out again and enjoy them again.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Nov 8, 2015

    Elvis Costello reckons the easiest way to make an Australian happy is to put Abba on. My extension of that theory is to say that I’d reckon every Australian when asked will offer a favourite record. Mine? SOS. I was 15 in 1977 and can well remember the enormous impact they had, that seemingly endless supply of incredible singles. Damien’s eclectic list of favorites is brilliant if only for the fact that there are some I’ve never heard of, let alone heard, but I will now. The blending of those two voices is the stand out feature as well as the song writing, but their arrangements were also in the upper echelon of pop brilliance, things like leading with the chorus in Dancing Queen. Great band, great list.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 9, 2015

    I must have The Winner Takes It All. Yup, a thumping great hit, we’ve heard it a gazillion times. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid in the past if it wasn’t here. But ever since I read this, one of my favourite bits of music writing ever.. that song became essential.

  4. Peter Viney
    Nov 9, 2015

    I don’t know if you young kids in your forties can grasp how hard the road was from Waterloo to the Singalong version of Mama Mia, surrounded by hen parties at your local cinema was for those twenty years older. Everyone I knew loathed Waterloo. The tune, the words, the costumes, Eurovision. The first people who whispered, ‘Hang on, these guys are really good …’ were professional musician friends. We did weekly comedy sketch shows and often did mime send ups of Boney M, The Supremes, the Rolling Stones … whoever. I think it was only miming to Dancing Queen at full volume that let it come through, though we shifted to Knowing Me, Knowing You, which I prefer and is my “must have”. A DJ pal puts Dancing Queen in his top five floor-fillers, and it’s one of the very few non-soul songs he uses. I really appreciate this Toppermost because I STILL haven’t got beyond the Greatest Hits (which I love) and this will guide me further. Even so, I still have to skip Waterloo on the Greatest Hits and turn it off it comes on the radio. This link is to my review of an ABBA tribute band with full symphony orchestra!

    • Glenn Smith
      Nov 9, 2015

      The answer to the riddle that is Waterloo is the lip snycing of Rachel Grifiths and Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding. I’d think the real smorgasbord in the room is a song that has so far avoided any mention by all and sundry…..the dreaded Fernando..

      • Peter Viney
        Nov 9, 2015

        Just went on to YouTube to check “Fernando” video – just short of 24 million hits! And indeed it is the pickled herring in the smorgasbord in the room.

        • David Lewis
          Nov 11, 2015

          Fernando. The biggest selling single in Australia until Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana. It’s quite a brilliant arrangement (Scandinavian elements over a song set in Mexico) but hasn’t worn well …

  5. David Lewis
    Nov 9, 2015

    I’ve been waiting for this one, because I was ready to defend the omission of ‘Name of the Game’: but the power of what is this Australian’s favourite ABBA song has won out. The incredible backing vocals; coupled with the climactic chorus; added on top of their best performance – it was the first ABBA single to not go to #1 in Australia. I think my cousin put it best (following Peter): ‘At the time we were sick of it – couldn’t bear to hear it one more time. Then we heard it years later, and thought ‘actually, this is pretty good’. Uncool? Ok. ‘Daggy’? If you wish. Pop music that defines what pop music should be? Oh, My God, yes. Forget Sibelius and Greig: this is the ultimate Scandinavian music. And the list is fantastic. If you doubt that the band (which also had a permanent drummer and bassist and rhythm guitarist) couldn’t play – listen again. Benny Andersson is, like Barry Gibb, one of those songwriters who never quite get their due. But if you want to know how a song works, take an ABBA song apart. You will be impressed.

  6. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 12, 2015

    I’m going to defend Waterloo. As a thirteen year old, sitting in front of the telly bored out of my skull at yet another tedious Eurovision, THAT moment was as seismic for me as any musical event I can remember. As I said recently, dropping the needle on The Clash or Anarchy in the UK, Joy Division and The Jam on Something Else, XTC or Rich Kids on Revolver, seeing The Smiths or Dr. Feelgood for the first time (yada yada, you get the idea).. whatever I’ve done, wherever I’ve been, THAT moment stands up. Pop changed that night in Brighton, and so did I.

  7. Ilkka Jauramo
    Nov 13, 2015

    Thanks for your list with many surprises. My favourite ‘Arrival’ is there, too. It is the clearest example of Swedish instrumental folk music influences from Dalarna region in their music. It has a lot in common with Bob Dylan’s ‘All The Tired Horses’ on Self Portrait album. First you are waiting on vocals, after one minute you realize that it will never come, then you lean back and enjoy the perfect sound and melody and the eternal choir. You said you like the evening sun on the sleeve of the album. By all means keep on doing this but I believe in the rumors that it was the morning sun instead.
    Other interesting influences are 18th Century Swedish ballads a la Carl Michael Bellman, dancing hall music, hootenanny, singing the jazz. From a feminist point of view it is interesting that girls did the job and the boys got the money. Mr. Andersson is nowadays an active supporter of the feminist party in Sweden, financially and in media.
    As a bonus for you who had taken your time to read this I have personal memories to tell. We lived in the same street where Mrs. Lyngstad lived when young. A few blocks away. A typical “friend-of-a-friend-of-mine” mega star. Her pre-ABBA band leader became my friend afterwards. He was a jazz musician and Mrs. Lyngstad may have had a career as a jazz singer without ABBA. She is good in jazz ballet, too. Later on I was a teacher for a couple of years in the school where she went as a child. I realized that she may have been eating meatballs with the very same fork which I had in my mouth. After that I never brushed my teeth. Fiff haffenef in ffe eiffieff.

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