State of the Arts

Super troupers: ABBA should never have worked – but they became the goofy, glorious gift that keeps on giving

As Abba return with two comeback singles and a virtual tour, Helen Brown explores how the band that should never have broken out of Sweden became the world’s favourite plucky underdogs

Friday 03 September 2021 13:26
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<p>Abba pictured in 1974</p>

Abba pictured in 1974

Reviewing ABBA’s comeback singles in the Daily Telegraph last night, a fellow critic said the opening bars of “Don’t Shut Me Down” “cruelly exposed” the “wobbly vocals” of 71-year-old Agnetha Faltskog. Although he has written often about how much he hates the band’s “formulaic Euro drivel”, he’s a smart reader of the scene. So I’m surprised he didn’t realise that this was precisely the stuff that would move fans the most; that where he heard “cruelty” and “wobbles”, we would hear bravery in the face of frailty, loaded with intense emotion.

This has been ABBA’s USP all along. They’ve been the world’s favourite plucky underdogs, dancing through the tears and shimmering through their shyness. They should never have broken out of Sweden, but they did. Using their performance of “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest like a wrecking ball, they’ve been the goofy, glorious gift that has – against the odds – kept on giving.

Born in 1975, I’m one of many fans to have discovered the band after they broke up in 1982. It was their divorce ballads that I played most as a child. God, I loved their sad songs! Aged around eight, I would sit alone in my bedroom, in my Wonder Woman leotard, and allow my spirit to plunge and soar with the agony and ecstasy of “The Winner Takes it All” (1980) and “The Day Before You Came” (1981).

As the desperate synth flutes fluttered around Faltskog’s vocal, Bjorn Ulvaeus’ lyrics seemed to dangle a key to adulthood that fascinated and frightened me: “I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two/ And at the time, I never even noticed I was blue/ I must have kept on dragging/ Through the business of the day/ Without really knowing anything/ I hid a part of me away… It’s funny, but I had no sense of living without aim/ The day before you came.”

When my own parents divorced a couple of years later, and when a school teacher gave me a peculiar little lecture on why my family situation didn’t sit comfortably with his religious principles, I turned up the ABBA in my head and tuned him out. “ I apologise/ If it makes you feel bad/ Seeing me so tense/ No self-confidence…”

ABBA fell from mainstream playlists in my late teens. But the release of compilation album ABBA Gold in 1992 was gamechanging. Initially it was bought by my parents’ generation. But kids my age soon began pinching their CDs and taking them to university with us. Although not prominently displayed on our shelves, Gold gradually became the reboot button for every flagging party. You’d have a few friends who’d throw themselves into the songs with abandon. Your “cooler” mates allowed themselves off the sofa for an “ironic” bop to “SOS”.

The trend for “guilty pleasures” was just beginning and I’d suggest the release of ABBA Gold was at the heart of it. Today’s youth – roaming freely between musical genres online – might not realise how tribal music was back in the 1990s. But loads of my straight, male friends from that time really didn’t feel allowed to let “girly”, “synthetic” pop into their hearts. They wore plaid shirts, carried battered guitars and quoted Dylan lyrics – even though the poor man’s wobbly vocals were so cruelly exposed on so many of his records.

But in the gay clubs of the era, ABBA songs were on from the minute the doors opened. It was there I found my love of the dance floor, twirling under the lights and miming every line to “Gimme Gimme Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Dancing Queen”. The songs – and all those deliriously daft dance routines – came out of the closet along with my friends. Private passions were finally celebrated under bright lights; pain was openly acknowledged and transcended. We’d known these songs since we were kids and the keys they’d dangled before so many of us were now unlocking doors. “Without really knowing anything/ I hid a part of me away…” Agnetha and Frida sounded like they understood. And the way they sang together projected strength and solidarity. “You want to wear silver platform boots and a crocheted hat?” they seemed to say. “Then you go, girl!”

No surprise, then, the two films that made a feature of ABBA music in 1994 were both about the power of friendship in the face of cultural adversity. The best scenes of Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert use camp, karaoke performances of “Waterloo” and “Mamma Mia” to show the characters bonding and telling the world that they’re not afraid to be themselves. Friendship is also the theme of the pioneering hit musical Mamma Mia!. You go to see it with your mates. You sing along with them. You throw your arms around them. You know the songs are goofy and a bit clunky – like you all are inside – but the piano glissandos, soaring synths and easy-stomp beats guide you through. You can miss every note – like Pierce Brosnan – or display the minimal dancing skills of Cher in the sequel and still style it out. By this time, all the boys who once wore plaid shirts had been to enough office karaoke parties to realise that singing ABBA duets brought out more workplace solidarity than picking up a guitar and plucking Neil Young B sides. If ABBA were a “cruise ship band” then it was all hands on deck.

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This shift had been evident as early as 1996, when John Lydon got promoters to play “Dancing Queen” before Sex Pistols came on stage for their 20th-anniversary gig. Lydon’s plan had been to remind their audience how terrible pop music had become pre-punk. The plan backfired when the crowd broke into a spontaneous, arm-waving boogie.

When I had coffee with Bjorn Ulvaeus in 2019, he told me a bit about the ABBA Voyage project. He told me about how wonderful it felt being back in the studio with “old friends… like old times”. He and Benny Andersson have been close ever since their first meeting in 1966 “when we went out into a park and sat under some big oak trees singing Beatles songs together until the sun came up. So it was a kind of romance.” But they’ve, understandably, been more distant from their ex-wives. Although things are amicable, Agnetha has spoken in interviews about not knowing about Ulvaeus’s rumoured health problems. Last night, Ulvaeus admitted to worrying, five minutes before Agnetha and Frida arrived in their studio, about whether the women could still sing.

That tension between long-term affection and detachment adds a powerful frisson to the two new tracks. As the group sang, at a rare get-together in 2016: “Gloomy moods and inspiration/ We’re a funny combination.” But it’s wonderful to have them back. We don’t need them to match the energy and ambition of their glory days. Because these mature tracks are a glorious victory lap. We don’t mind if they walk it. We don’t mind if Agnetha and Frida don’t want to do talk shows to promote it. As Ulvaeus told me back in 2019, “I just want to make people laugh and cry and dance and sing.” He still has faith in us.

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