On this page are magazine reviews and other articles from the United States of America. The bulk of the reviews were
sent to me by the wonderful Bob Kashefski! Thanks very much! Other contributors are - Stephen Morris, James Bachmann,
Jay, Ian Cole, Dora O'Rorke, and Stephen Cerone. Certain reviews via the ABBAMAIL
mailing list. Thanks to all concerned!
"Put on a Happy Face" by Billy Altman, "Creem", April 1978
Mention Sweden to me and here's what comes into my mind: Lousy parties with food (ain't never been at one that didn't feature those ever lovin' bouncing meatballs); permissive sex (my theory being that this "sexual freedom" bit has only happened there first because everybody looks the same and people thought they were going home with their hubbies or wives only to discover the next morning that they'd goofed, leading to lotsa giggles-fun lovers those Swedes); Erik cigars (throw away the filters and they still taste rotten); Suicide (like I said fun lovers til' the end); Incest (legal now over there, so I guess we better get ready now for the invasion of the Mongoloids next century); Ingmar Bergman (gimme a break!); John Cassavetes (American Bergman-only diff; Bronx accents); The big dummy from Journey to the Center Of The Earth, who spent most of the movie addressing his pet duck. Best line: "Onka minka manna han lorca intur dom, Gertrude!!", spoken when the bad guy (I think it was James Mason) tried to turn the webbed creature into a fricasee because no one had eaten in three weeks and it seemed the logical thing to do. Young blue eyes didn't let it happen though; those Swedes respect their animal friends.
Of course that guy was only an actor and Jules Verne most likely didn't spend more than 15 minutes out of his 80-day tour of the planet in Sweden 'cause why bother? Nothing ever happened there that the rest of the world could care less about except maybe an interesting Viking or two raising a ruckus on some deserted ocean long, long ago. Until Abba, that is; two men and two women. Benny who lives with Anni-Frid (Frida to her friends) and Bjorn, who's married to Agnetha; the latter have two kids who, at this very moment, may be playing masseur and masseuree in the BA household. (In fairness, I should say that I don't know for sure if the two kids are of different genders. If they aren't then the sibling hanky-panky doesn't qualify as official incest - unless, Pater and/or Mater are in on it. And who knows what really goes on in Sweden these days? Since porno films became real porno films, with no sociallly redeeming value chains to tie them down, all those "scientific" Swedish sex films have disappeared.
But that's beside the point. Which is that I love Abba. I love them without knowing my Bjorn from my Benny and my Frida from my Agnetha. As a matter of fact, that might be one of the reasons I do love them. They are nothing more to me than the sound of their songs, singles to be exact, singles that have driven me gonzo over the last few years. The Abba gang seems to want nothing more than to make great sounding songs that sound real nice on the radio, be they rockers--"Waterloo," "SOS," "Ring, Ring," (personal fave) or schlockers--"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," (and I do--Connie Francis 70's style), "Fernando," (take that Evita!) and "Dancing Queen" (ain't their fault it was a disco hit). And now Abba - The Album, not to be confused with Abba - The Movie, which it's going hand in hand with so that we will all get to see them sing and act (I'm told the movie has a plot and everything. 'Course I'll have to boycott it to keep my illusions going.)
I don't know which tracks on the album are tied up with the movie concept. I doubt that it matters. Every song on side one could be a hit and probably will be, from the ethereal "Eagle" to "Take A Chance On Me" (Beach Boys meet Kraftwerk by way of the Honeys) to "One Man, One Woman," a "let's get it together 'cause we're married and stuck with each other" tear jerker (beware of Olivia Newton-John cover) and their current single "The Name Of The Game" (God, they know Tony Franciosa all the way over there?) Side two's a little less magnificent but it does have "Hole In Your Soul," which states that romantic ballads are all phony and that only rock and roll hits ya where ya breathe. "My friend Sal he's a chaffeur, Annie goes to school / Jerry works at the office, Sue lies by the pool," sing the gals in the best imitation of "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels I've heard as they bring folks from all walks of life together for a sock hop. No exclusionary tactics with Abba. They believe in the brotherhood of man. Yes, concerned with the world, they are beckoning punks, disco-ers, housewives, truck drivers, everybody to join in. And join you do, you gotta admit it--I know people who say they hate them and when discovered humming along to "Honey, Honey" or "Knowing Me, Knowing You" embarrassingly claim that they thought it was another group.
There is a serious side to Abba though, as demonstrated by the three song "mini-musical" that closes the record. Aptly titled "The Girl With The Golden Hair" (no Clairol needed in Nordic circles, thank you), it moves from the joy of singing for a living ("Thank You For The Music") to musings over leaving home in search of fame and fortune ("I Wonder") to "I'm A Marionette," a rather dizzying number about not having a life of your own and being unhappy as an entertainer. "I feel like a pushed around refugee" sing Abba and maybe that's why they've never played the States. (If and when they do, I'll go, but only blindfolded.) I hope that the ending of the record on a down note doesn't signal trouble in Abbadom. I mean, Abba makes me feel good, with no strings and I like it that way. I, for one, don't want to have bad dreams in which Ted Lewis comes down to earth for a visit and has to yell "Is anybody happy?" Meatballs, anyone?
Review of 'Arrival' by Robot A Hull, "Creem", April 1977
Gushing with enthusiastic naivete, here come those sibilant Swedes again, blanketing the globe with the affectionate harmonies of Polar Sirens! With the abra-cadabra of inventive wizards, Abba has hatched a presence that has been felt and absorbed on practically every inch of foreign soil. And the uproar continues.
Abba believes in ancient visions of American teenagerhood; they romanticize infatuation and stolen kisses... and, like their Spector-born predecesssors, they possess the big voices and the big production know-how required to promote their fantasies and win audiences. Abba's innocence, in fact, was never more conspicuous during their appearance on Saturday Night and Wonderama.
The artificiality of Frieda's and Anna's go-go boots and miniskirts on the Saturday Night guest spots looked bonkers compared to the cast's usual routines. In contrast, Abba's Sunday morning stint on Wonderama (New York's Kiddie Club) was a sugar coated delight of pre-pube choreography (gyrating forth the gummy bubble fans of the Wombles and Hudson Brothers with host Bob McAllister oohing and aahing at the female Abba's leggies). The difference here being that Abba survives only as alien rock 'n' roll force, contained in a time warp, rippling through the seventies.
Arrival, then, is the typical Abba album, complete as a collection of wholesome singles (designed for the younguns with pocket change who have not yet graduated to big bubba's gullible level of rock sophistication) but incomplete as a total unit (featuring the filler between the hits). Still, Abba's moments of extreme exhilaration are produced with enough precision to flutter your senses into oblivion. Of course, "Dancing Queen" has already evolved into a disco cliche, but the elaborate use of strings on this record forces you to ignore the trendy rhythms. Any band that can make even disco sound like the Ronettes can't be all bad!
There are at least five more smasheroos destined for the dj's turntable spread all over this LP. "Tiger" will pulverize the transistor waves this spring, shifting the planet on its axis with a sheer magnitude of sound. Same goes for "When I Kiss The Teacher" (don't expect a light case of puppy love). Ditto for "Knowing Me, Knowing You" (would give your parakeet goose bumps). Likewise for the majority of these fine Abba melodies and on the whole, not really one lousy gasp worth mentioning.
It's possible Abba's effusive charm may eventually wear thin, for lately the unemotional and synthetic seem all the rage. Certainly Abba could croak overnight competing with the recent plague of lobotomized superstars. With Arrival as a testament of Abba's stamina, however, better give them another fifty years.
Review of 'Waterloo' by Ken Barnes, "Rolling Stone", No. 168, 29 August 1974
Abba's emergence is one of the most cheering musical events in recent months. Just when the Top 40 was plumbing hitherto-unfathomable, moribund depths, along came their single, "Waterloo." A modern-day "girl group" production with the brightest, most exuberant sound around, it's made button-punching on the car radio a worthwhile pastime again.
The album is one of those infinitely playable records with a wealth of outstanding tracks, and I find that a new favorite is constantly coming to the fore. "Waterloo" led the pack as a 45 and was joined immediately by "Suzy-Hang-Around," with a galvanizing guitar figure straight out of the early Byrds. "Honey Honey" moved into contention with its irresistably bouncy tune and surf-era harmonies; it sounds like it was done by the Beach Boys' female counterparts, the Honeys/American Spring. At the moment "Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)" takes the honors. The verse derives directly from the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" (quite conceivably the best pop record ever made), with enchanting original touches - a near perfect number.
Naturally polished precision pop like this doesn't spring from nowhere, and Abba is no exception. The male participants, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, were the nucleus of the Hep Stars, Sweden's biggest mid-sixties pop group, with a long string of English-language hits in Scandinavia. They recorded as Bjorn & Benny with Playboy here, almost hitting with "Ring Ring" (a revamped version in this LP, with all the appeal of "Waterloo", will probably be the next Abba single) and last year's superb "Rock & Roll Band." Joining with their wives to form Abba, they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo" (the first real rock song ever to win), and immediate worldwide success followed.
This album will probably be hampered by the ultra-pop, non-"progressive" nature of the tracks. A lot of people will unfortunately pigeonhole it as trivial AM radio fodder and will ignore it. A lot of people will also be dead wrong. With their concise, upbeat pop creations, Abba is much closer to the essential spirit of rock & roll than any number of self-indulgent hot shot guitarists or devotional ensembles handing down cosmo-dynamic enlightenment to the huddled masses. Anti-pop snobbery is an obsolete relic of the Sixties; the time has come to abandon it else you miss albums as perfectly delightful as Waterloo.
'Abba faces America' by Jim Farber, "Rolling Stone", No. 304, 15 November 1979
Björn Ulvaeus, one-forth of Abba has been running aimlessly through the streets for hours. Back in his hotel room he continues jogging in place, with a look on his face that makes it clear he isn't expending this energy for his health. "Shit, I'm scared to death," Björn blurts out. "I just can't settle down. I'm so used to everything going smoothly with this band; the new challenge is frightening."
The challenge for Björn, 34, and the other members of Abba - Benny Andersson, 33; Agnetha "Anna" Fältskog, 29; and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad, 33 - is to conquer the one market where the Swedish group isn't consistently Number One; the United States. To do so, Abba has been forced to resort to a tactic the band detests: touring. Abba has certainly done well in the U.S. without live appearances; their light, clean, hook-laden pop has netted them two platinum albums and a Number One single ("Dancing Queen") in the States. That's comparitively minimal for a band that has sold 25 million albums worldwide since its formation in 1972, and recording company pressure has been building for Abba to tour America to promote its new album, Voulez-Vous. "People told us America is different," says Björn. "No band has really made it here without touring. But in the beginning we didn't believe it."
Abba's lavishly staged one-month North American tour may lose as much as a quarter of a million dollars, all for the sake of giving the band a concrete image. There's a danger, however, that Abba's image simply may not be right for America - that they will come across as solless, overly wholesome technicians grinding out formulaic hits. Though the songs have proved their mass appeal, the band itself has met with hostility from the press. "They don't see us as human," says keyboardist and singer Benny Andersson. "And all the publicity on the money we have - we want to get over that."
Benny & Björn, who write all of Abba's material with occasional assistance from their manager Stig Andersion, worry that the American audience is more interested in rhythm than in the melodies that are Abba's strong point. "We were just born in the wrong country," Benny says. "But there's European tradition," Björn adds. "It may be pop to you but to us it's soul. To us a good melody is soulful, which is something people find hard to understand over here. It doesn't have to be 'Get down baybee.'"
Abba does fit into an American tradition, however: the early-Sixties girl group. Agnetha's and Anni-Frid's lead vocals recall the Crystals and the Shirelles. "[Our sound] comes from the time between Elvis and the Beatles," says Björn, adding, "it's obviously an advantage to have two good-looking girls up front."
As a quartet, Abba looks like two prom-perfect couples. But the media have had a field day with coverage of their recent marital intricacies. Benny and Anni-Frid, who both have children from teenage marriages, were married last year just as Björn and Agnetha were divorcing after six years together. "It's always a problem to remember who's married and who's not," Björn says, leering. "We like to keep it that way for people. It keeps up the interest."
It's hard to tell, at times, how much of Abba's mystique is deliberate and how much is sheer naivete. When asked about some of their more intriguing lyrics - like "Hey, Hey Helen," which both praises and condemns a woman who leaves her family to gain independence, as Frida has done in real life - they claim they only vaguely remember the song.
The band members are noticably nervous as they take the stage at Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum. Agnetha and Anni-Frid front a highly choreographed show that features thirteen musicians and singers and lasts exactly two hours. The women look more like Olympic gold-medal winners than sex symbols; Agnetha sports a "how can you feel pretty when you're constipated" expression. A moment of unintended kitsch occurs during "I Have A Dream," when a bunch of UNICEF children troops out to sing the chorus, while Anna kisses each one. Later, Björn commits a faux pas when he prefaces a song with: "I'd like to introduce you to my ex-wife, Agnetha. And I can assure you she's still as good as new."
At their best, though, Abba's command of pop form makes feeling almost irrelevant; their songs may be emotionless, but they're brilliantly catchy. Despite a generally cool reception from the crowd, the band looks pleased at the end of the evening, or at least relieved that the show is over. After just a few days on the North American continent, the band members already seem homesick. "Swedes are very introverted people," Björn says quietly. "We like to work. It's important to be productive. Tours are very unproductive."
'Abba: The Sound of Business' by Dave Marsh, "Rolling Stone", No. 243, 14 July 1977
To Stig Anderson, it's a familiar story. "I've seen it all a hundred times," says Abba's business manager, record company president and lyricist. "First, we get the Number One hit; then the fan mail, the calls and letters; and then the merchandising companies approach us."
The Number One hit was "Dancing Queen," Abba's first Number One in America, after a slew of Top Ten hits, and the rest is following on schedule. America is Abba's final frontier. They're already the biggest pop group Europe has seen in years, the number one group across the continent, including England. In countries as diverse as Australia (where Best of Abba sold 860,000 copies in a nation of 14 million) and Turkey, Abba are huge stars; in fact, no one is bigger. Worldwide, they have sold 27 million singles, 12 million albums. The U.S. could up those figures by 25%, but it's only the icing on the cake: with the possible exception of the Eagles, no group in the world has sold as many records over the last three years as Abba.
But Abba's rise has been more methodical than meteoric, leading some to syspect that the group is more interested in marketing than music. Anderson insists that this is a canard. "If you're writing good songs, why shouldn't the marketing be as good as the rest of it?" he asks. "After all, this is the first time in the history of show business that there has been 100% artistic control of writing, marketing, recording and record label. We're just not giving it away to some third, fourth, fifth or sixth party."
Abba's music is as tightly controlled as that dialogue. Every song, not just a few, rides on sprightly rhythms, bounces from melodic hook to melodic hook and is overlaid with the chiming vocals of Agnetha (Anna) Faltskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. It is just the sort of music that, years ago, dominated the American Top 40 - intense beat, frothy instrumentation and well sung lyrics, much like Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball."
But there is a communal thrust to all of this. Anna is married to Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the group's principal writer/producers and its guitarist; Frida lives with Benny Andersson, the other writer/producer and the groups organist. Bjorn and Benny sing too; in fact, as Bjorn and Benny, they released a 1971 LP in Sweden. In 1972 they and then publisher Stig Anderson decided to "make hits for the world," and found they had the necessary vocal presence right in the family - Anna and Frida. Stig became the lyricist, because his trade for many years had been translating foreign hits for the Swedish market. (At one time in the Sixties, he says, every other song on the Swedish chart had his words.)
By 1974 Abba's "Waterloo" had won the Eurovision song contest; it eventually sold 5 million copies, plus another 3 million albums, worldwide. The group by now was recording for the label Anderson had set up for them, Polar (it also records local Swedish artists), and Stig was shrewd enough to shop for the proper record label in each nation. And they used TV effectively, spreading Anna's and Frida's likeness everywhere in the pop press, tabloid dailies and on posters.
Abba's attitudes toward their native Sweden are contradictory. On the one hand, they leave each winter (a big part of the year in the region), write English lyrics ("Because," says Anderson, "that's the international musical language") and - Anderson insists - "have nothing to do with Sweden." On the other hand, they record local artists on Polar and continue to reside legally in Sweden, despite a confiscatory 85% tax rate.
Anderson considers the tax rate ample evidence that the group isn't completely mercenary. He admits the music is commercial - the group does get the U.S. Hot 100 to listen to every week - but claims that it is also natural. "Some people believe we are doing this for money's sake, but we aren't," he says. "Otherwise, why would we be such perfectionists, turning out only one LP per year? It's also fun - the money comes with it."
But if they aren't in it just for the bucks, what's next, after the conquering of America? "I don't know," Anderson says. "Yesterday I said the moon." Currently, a movie is being prepared (much footage was shot during the group's recently concluded Australian tour) which involves a disc jockey in hot pursuit of an interview with Abba; there's also some thought about soing a musical for the legitimate theatre. Either venture should be more successful than when, years ago, Anderson approached Ingmar Bergman to inquire why the director didn't try using Swedish pop music in his movies, as American and English directors had used pop from their countries. "He didn't say anything," Anderson remembers. "But his next film was called The Silence."
When they're bored with it, Abba says they'll quit. In the meantime, Anderson insists defiantly that Abba's hit-singles success comes from no formula at all. "I'll tell you what I tell everyone who asks that - if it's a formula, why don't you go out and find it?"
'Abba: The Business of Selling Records' by Philip Bashe, "Circus", 30 April 1982
Abba, the Swedish pop group, have expanded their empire way beyond points A and B. There's Abba the Movie. Abba the Clogs. Not to mention Abba the Corporation. Selling records is big business, and Abba, thanks to their artfully contrived works of pop craftsmanship, and the business acumen of company president Stig Anderson, is one of the largest in Sweden.
On this particular day business headquarters is the Park Lane hotel in midtown Manhattan, just several dozen blocks from Wall Street, where Abba will appear - not in person - but eventually as a commodity on the Stock Exchange. Already the group has entered the Stockholm market via a real estate company called Badhus, of which it controls 87 percent of the shares. In addition, discussions are underway to ready Polar Group, created from the act's earnings (well over $100 million) and headed by the 50 year old Anderson, for introduction on the Stockholm Exchange, with London and New York to follow later.
All this wheeling and dealing is not what you might expect from a group with such a wholesome, folksy image, an image that is largely accountable for its 50 million-plus units sold. Although it's records (the latest being The Visitors on Atlantic), not burgers they're peddling, many have likened Abba to the McDonalds of pop, and Bjorn Ulvaeus, their tunesmith and principle lyricist, is painfully aware of the chiding the quartet often takes. Dressed casually in a blue sweater and jeans, he looks a bit uncomfortable padding around his sumptuous hotel suite, even though he could probably purchase the entire building for use as extra closet space.
Ulvaeus speaks placidly and self-assuredly, in a tone not unlike the sound of Abba LPs, while he addresses the cricitisms that began when the group won the 19th annual Eurovision Song Festival with its entry "Waterloo," which went on to sell five million copies. The best musical showcase in the world, the competition is televised to an estimated 500 million viewers in 32 countries. It's traditionally family-oriented (read: non-rock), however, and in the long run hurt Abba almost as much as it helped.
"If we had been an English group we wouldn't have done that show," Ulvaeus explains in unaccented English, "and so we wouldn't have problems with the super commercial, slick image we have. But at the time it was the only way we could reach outside the border." Coming from Sweden, hardly known as a hotbed of rock & roll activity, "They wouldn't have listened to us; they have thrown our demo tape out."
Abba have since capitalized on their TV exposure, successfully utilizing that medium in lieu of touring. In the eight years since "Waterloo," Ulvaeus estimates that they've toured no more than a total of seven months. The only reason the band even bothered to tour the U.S. for its first and only time in 1979 was "to prove to people that we were actually alive. That was the only reason. I certainly didn't believe that playing twenty-five gigs would make much of a difference."
From an adjacent room in walks Agnetha, one of Abba's two female vocalists. An archetypical blonde Swedish beauty, she and Bjorn divorced in 1978 after seven years of marriage. Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the other two Abba members, also recently ended their marriage. The continuing working relationships, says Ulvaeus very business-like, are "running very smoothly."
Abba wouldn't have had it any other way. Unlike Fleetwood Mac, no personal laundry turns up in their songs, no matter how hungry the public might be for some juicy rumours. Most of Ulvaeus's words cling to a direct, often-times bland emotional common denominator, which helped Abba net an extremely varied audience, "very much a family audience," categorizes Bjorn. "Our audience is growing up with us." He shakes his head when discussing the duplicity of middle-age rock singers (all four Abbas are in their thirties) feigning aggression and anger, "when really," he laughs, "they're bourgeoise. I think that's kind of tragic." And if that ever happened to Abba? "I think I would feel stupid," he answers. "I'd like to think that wouldn't happen to us."
Despite their considerable wealth, Abba lead unassuming lifestyles on the island of Lidingo, a Stockholm suburb Bjorn describes as "quite ordinary." Both he and Agnetha own houses "within five minutes of each other," and shuttle their two children, ages four and nine, between them. Benny and Anni-Frid also have homes nearby. The modest living stems not from Sweden's socialist doctrine, but from what film director Ingmar Bergman once called "Swedish Envy."
"It has to do with the way the Swedish people are, if I may generalize," Ulvaeus explains. "There's a very prevalent feeling of, 'Oh, this guy shouldn't be earning so much money. Look at me; I'm not.'" While it obviously rankles him, he maintains that the group has no desire to vacate the country. Without the development of Abba industry, however, they would probably be forced to leave because of Sweden's crippling tax laws.
Returning to the intrusion of questions concerning Abba's empire, Bjorn emphasizes that neither he, Benny, Agnetha nor Anni-Frid have anything more than a cursory interest in the business side. "They don't take part in the day-to-day operation," clarifies Stig Anderson, "but if there's a big decision to be made or a major investment, we'll all have a meeting and press the buttons together. The passion of Abba is their music."
It's that very passion that keeps Ulvaeus constantly monitoring the effects of the money-making end on the music-making end. While he admits to occasionally feeling the pressures that come from having so much profit potential ("I really have felt that at times," he says with a sigh), for the most part, "We've always had complete freedom," and Abba intend to keep it that way and not allow themselves to be impinged upon artistically.
"There's no use putting any pressure on us," Ulvaeus stresses, "because if it doesn't feel good doing the next album" - you can imagine all of Wall Street eavesdropping with deep concern - "we'll split up and finish."
'In Search of Abba' by Jon Young, "Trouser Press", December 1979
When "Waterloo" won the Eurovision song competition in 1974, nobody, including its performers, could have predicted what would follow. After all, Abba - an acronym for Agnetha (Ulvaeus), Bjorn (Ulvaeus), Benny (Andersson), and Anni-Frid (Lyngstad) - were just an agreeable little Swedish pop group with some pleasant harmonies and some nice songs. Big deal. "Waterloo" was a worldwide hit; its all-purpose upbeat sound gave it the broadest appeal. Not so incredible.
Well...since then it's been a fairytale. Abba have ostensibly sold more records around the globe than anybody, ever. Their releases are automatic hits everywhere, in just about every country that's ever seen a record player, in fact. When Abba announced an appearance at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1977, they got enough ticket requests to fill up the place 625 times. Even the United States, which resisted total Abbaitis at first, finally succumbed when "Dancing Queen" hit Number One in 1977. Along with this incredible success came incredible amounts of money and a business empire of almost mythological proportions to keep the revenues from grabby Swedish tax collectors. According to their authorized biography, Abba: The Ultimate Pop Group, Abba have all manner of holdings, from buildings, land, stock, and a record studio, to an import-export operation that converts profits from Eastern European sales to things like oil, since, for example, Polish currency is worthless outside of Poland. And, of course, you can buy a wide variety of Abba merchandise, including an Abba Watch, Abba Bracelet, Abba Wind Breaker Jacket, and Abba Disco-Visor (battery not included). Abba - sounds like a mantra, doesn't it?
The music? With Bjorn and Benny as songsmiths, Abba have given new respectability to the idea of pop music as a style quite distinct from rock'n'roll, showing that the genre can accommodate far more than the patronizing insipidities of Barry Manilow or the Captain and Tenille. "Connie Francis with Phil Spector" would be an oversimplified but not totally inaccurate description of their sound. Abba's lyrics have never been of any great importance one way or the other, though they do sing in English, naturally. But their music can be absolutely breathtaking, with perfect melodies that must have been written in heaven, earthlier but equally effective voices, and often amazingly complex production efforts that never lose their crystal clarity. Abba have come to epitomize Pure Pop. Ask Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello. The intro to "Oliver's Army" is a pure cop from Abba.
The ranks of the demi-gods get smaller all the time. So when Abba announced their first US tour - and only their second tour outside Sweden ever - it seemed natural to investigate. Are they real? I wondered. If so, what kind of people are they? How did they do it? After over a week of desperately attempting to reach Abba's representatives on the road, Atlantic Records' valiant New York office somehow arranged a phone interview with Bjorn Ulvaeus, who would call from Chicago one evening after their sound check.
Here's how it went:
BU: Hi, this is Bjorn.
TP: Thanks for calling.
BU: You're welcome.
TP: How's the tour going?
BU: It's been going good so far. We've really enjoyed American audiences.
TP: How do American audiences differ from those elsewhere?
BU: We haven't played anywhere for more than two-and-a-half years, so... We've done just one major tour in our career of five or six years.
TP: Why did you come to the US now?
BU: For one thing, we decided it was time to go on the road again. For another it was time to include America, because we've noticed that a lot of people have the wrong idea about us and what we are. We figured by coming here a lot of people would get to see what it is really about. Critics and a lot of people in the press tend to say "Abba is just shit," that it's nothing to listen to, nothing to see. We had to prove they were wrong. It hurts when you know they're wrong about us and they don't know it.
TP: Why do you think this attitude exists?
BU: I guess a lot of American critics have that attitude towards what's called Europop. They seem to think that it lacks depth and soul and everything, which is wrong. It's just another kind of thing.
TP: Who were your influences?
BU: We've had a very strong influence from American music for a long, long time. Sweden is probably the most Americanized country in Europe. The strongest influences have been the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
TP: Phil Spector?
BU: As a producer, yeah. In the beginning we used to play around with those kind of things. But then in the very beginning I started playing when I listened to the Kingston Trio and those kind of groups. Benny came in through the rock scene, but when he started playing he played Swedish folk music. So I would say there's a lot of folk music in it as well.
TP: Have you ever been tempted to do something more rock oriented to get more respect?
BU: Not really. We just do what we feel is real. I feel that if we would try to do that it wouldn't work out. We wouldn't try to release something just because people think that would be the way to break America. We just have to go by our own hearts and heads, you know?
TP: How has Abba's music changed over the years?
BU: It's changed with development - in the studio, for instance, with all the new things you can play around with, that changes the music a little. We listen to virtually everything that comes out. We have subscriptions for American Top 40, British Top 40, and any new artist that sounds interesting, we listen to the album.
TP: Is it harder to record now?
BU: You come to a stage where you feel you've done everything, or almost everything, and then it's much harder to get over the threshold and come up with something you feel is new. The Voulez-Vous album was recorded over a period of one-and-a-half years.
TP: Is it less satisfying now?
BU: Not in the end - that's why we work. But I myself would prefer if it took a little shorter time.
TP: Do business considerations make it harder to find time for music?
BU: We don't participate in the business. The only time we're there is when there are really big decisions to be made. But apart from that we've employed a lot of skilled people to take care of that, so that's not part of Abba at all. It's just a separate thing to invest the money that comes in, so we're working more now with our music than we were in the beginning.
TP: So there's no business pressure.
BU: Oh no no no. We've done it that way as a priority. Music is the fun in the whole thing, so I wouldn't get involved in the business ever. The same goes for Benny and Frida and Agnetha. People seem to forget that. It's like choosing to do it this way instead of putting all the money in the bank. But actually it's the same thing. People might have a picture of us sitting behind a desk but it's absolutely wrong.
TP: Did you ever expect to be this popular?
TP: What were your goals when you started writing with Benny?
BU: Of course, we were thinking about having hits abroad, but never to this extent, never in our wildest dreams.
TP: You've probably sold more records than the Beatles now.
BU: Well it's another time - the record industry has grown tremendously. If the Beatles had sold their records now it would really be staggering. But I don't like that comparison really. The Beatles are god to us.
TP: Will Abba go on for a long time?
BU: Right now it's really nice to work together and it's still fun. When the fun goes, we'll stop, that's for sure. But we all like each other and we feel we have a lot more to give.
TP: Why have you been off the road for so long?
BU: Because we're pretty lazy people and we like to stay home with our families. But every now and then it's nice to go out and see all the people that buy our records.
TP: Would Abba ever try a change of image?
BU: No, we never consciously adopted any image. It's very natural. I'm afraid that's the way we are.
TP: What questions are you getting a lot in America?
BU: I get one question that I hate. Some PR man spread a rumour saying that we were bigger than Volvo. A lot of people are asking far too much about the business. I worry about the money side taking over sometimes because people find it so very very interesting that we've sold so many records and made so much money. People seem to think it's far more interesting than the music and that's frustrating.
TP: How would you like Abba to be remembered?
BU: I think that Abba will be remembered by a lot of people who've been with us for up to five years now. I guess we've been an important part of their lives. Like when you look back at Elvis, or the Kingston Trio for me - that's the way I'd like to be remembered.
With that to go on, I approached Abba's New York appearance with less trepidation than I had originally entertained. Bjorn's mild impatience with the non-music side of the group and his unwillingness to expostulate at any length about even the music suggested that Abba were intent on - pardon the cliche - letting their art speak for itself. And if that meant a real-life version of their best recorded work, something special was in the offing.
Radio City was a perfect venue for Abba. Its well-preserved Deco interior exudes stylized class, just like the music, and the joint seems pleasantly enormous, as opposed to the gargantuan impersonality of the rock coliseums. Abba need a big-time place, but it would do to put them in somewhere that wasn't nice. Truth to tell, I was expecting a lot of blue-haired ladies, or at least whole families of slack-jawed rubes. In fact, the majority of the crowd appeared to be cheerful young people, maybe not always the coolest types, but certainly not exclusively Young Republicans either. Everyone was reverent and ready - an Abba concert is no everyday event, after all.
The hit the stage at 8:10 and vigorously worked their way into the brooding "Voulez-Vous," a song that typifies Bjorn and Benny's recent efforts to bring darker moods into their songs without losing the basic pop feel. The band was big: Bjorn played guitar, as did two others, Benny played striking keyboards and great synthesizer, along with another keyboardist, there were two percussionists, a bassist, and a three-member male-female chorus to echo Agnetha and Frida. "What do you think of our band?" Frida asked at one point, and in face, they were excellent. Apparently having rehearsed the music to the point of second nature, Abba and crew swung with ease, only occasionally yielding to the stiffness that can come with an outfit of this size. While they deviate little from the records, a couple of absolutely sizzling guitar solos came as one obvious surprise.
Visually, Abba looked like the Scandinavian ideal; clean and healthy. Clad in spotless white jumpsuits and glowing with an unaffected joy at being before their fans, Bjorn, Benny, Anna and Frida easily avoided the sickly sweetness that makes morons like the Osmonds so appalling.
And yet, to these American ears, something was...off. All were in fine voice, at least until the encore of "Dancing Queen," where the strain of nearly two hours of singing began to tell on Anna and Frida. The material varied, as it does on record, from the heart-stopping to the banal. "Knowing Me, Knowing You," a stunning piece of melodrama that's reportedly been recorded by Elvis Costello, was the highlight, a sad epic right out of pop music heaven. Other hits, including "SOS" and "Take A Chance On Me" came to life as graceful interludes. The as-yet unrecorded "Gimme Gimme Gimme" even showed a sneering hint of punk aggression. But I also got the reminder that Abba can misjudge their strengths. The sunnily naive "Rock Me," from their early years, was self-parody, and lagubrious indulgences like "Chiquitta" never excaped their own ponderousness.
Still, can an American properly pass judgement when he's not "coming from" the same place as a Swedish band? That question was particularly relevant on "I Have A Dream," an inspirational tune (with shades of "We Shall Overcome") that's no doubt firmly in the Swedish folk music tradition. Abba ushered a children's chorus, courtesy of UNICEF, on stage to help sing along in the grating style one usually associates with children's choruses. It was the sort of gesture one ties to a maudlin embarrassment like the Jerry Lewis Telethon or Debby Boone's epochal rendition of "You Light Up My Life" on the Oscars with a deaf children's chorus. But there was no sense that Abba were patronizing either the kids or the audience. They meant it (I think), so don't snicker, I said to myself. Squiriming was unavoidable, however. It's a strange feeling not to know how to react to a performance.
Post-show parties to honour an act have been severly curtailed since the advent of the record-biz "crisis," but stars of Abba's magnitude will always rate. So off I trooped to the Atlantic Records building, where, after hearing Abba praised as "the nicest act we have on Atlantic Records," I blended into the crowd for one last shot at The Truth. Members of the road crew were acting like tourists, posing for snapshots in large groups, each person clutching a miniature Swedish flag. I overheart Ahmet Ertegun tell Benny that he'd meet him 40 minutes later and then they'd decide where to go. (Studio 54? CBGB? The mind boggles.) Finally I caught a glimpse of a radiant Bjorn as he disappeared out the door with a beautiful child in his arms. The kid, too, clutched a Swedish flag.
By the time you read this, Abba will be finished with an American tour that at the very least proved they're real human beings playing human music. It was tempting to wish for more, to search for some heavy presence to go with the titanic charm of "Waterloo" or the gloomy beauty of "Name of the Game." But in fact Abba aren't perefect even on their own terms. I would call Arrival a great album; otherwise Abba's LPs are consistently erratic. For every winner, there's a song that's seriously flawed in some way. In a way this is reassuring. Nobody really likes perfection in others. So I've finally convinced myself that Abba re just plain folks.
Then I hear "Waterloo" again and I'm not so sure.
'Abba Nears 1st US Tour' by Robert Hilburn, "Washington Post News Service", July 1979
The Swedish quartet, which continues to bill itself as the "largest selling group in the history of recorded music," has been a fixture on American pop charts since its "Waterloo" single in 1974, but the group has never toured this country.
That changes Sept. 17th when Abba begins a 16 city U. S. tour in Seattle.
Though Abba's claim of being the biggest selling group ever is scoffed at by most pop observers (what about the Beatles?), the foursome has enjoyed tremendous international success.
More people asked me about Abba during my Soviet Union trip with Elton John than about the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles combined. The band's latest album, "Voulez-Vous," is in the Top 10 in more than a dozen countries, including England, West Germany, Belgium, Australia and Spain.
The reason for the group's widespread success is that its records combine some of the most universally appealing elements of the pop-rock tradition: the exhilaration and extreme sentimentality of Phil Spector hits like "He's a Rebel" and the unrelenting cheerfulness of the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar." Even when the lyrics in Abba hits speak of disappointments (mostly romantic), the arrangements of the records are so bouncy and bright that they invariably make you feel good.
Despite this almost therapeutic charm, Abba has not been as powerful a commercial force in this country as elsewhere. That's partially because the band's approach is considered by many to be too lightweight, the kind of disposable pop you might listen to on the radio but not fork out $5 for in a store.
In a time of 6 and 10 million sellers, Abba has only managed to get one platinum album award (1 million sales). That came last year for "The Album," a collection that, ironically, was the group's least consistent work. Though it featured Abba's biggest single ("Take a Chance"), "The Album" contained a three-song "minimusical" that was a misguided attempt at artistic growth.
Abba, composed of writers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and singers Frida Lyngstad and Anna Faltskog, learned from last year's mistake. The group has gone back in "Voulez-Vous" to what it does best. The result should be the group's biggest success yet in America.
Song after song is crammed with the soaring female harmonies, uplifting melodies and festive instrumental touches that were found in such earlier Abba delights as "Dancing Queen" and "When I Kissed the Teacher."
Review of Abba's New York Concert debut by John Rockwell, "New York Times", 4 October 1979
One way of looking at Abba, the Swedish rock quartet that sold out Radio City Music Hall in its New York debut Tuesday night, is that it has turned itself into a deliberate caricature of what the world thinks Swedish people must be - beautiful, blond and coldly perfect. Clearly the world has responded to the group's records with glee: Abba makes the claim, however unsupported, of having sold more records than any other act in the history of music.
Abba is an acronym for Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (nicknamed Frida) Lyngstad. The music they make on records is an extension of what was once known as "Euro-pop." It lacks the drive and passion of real rock-and-roll, substituting busy textures of electronic keyboards and strings, guitars, percussion and the soaring, multitracked harmonies of the two women. The music is often just as clever and complex as the British progressive-rock bands, but is saved from their fussy pretensions by the hummable charm of the tunes and the innocent trivia of the lyrics (sung in lightly accented English).
Only once in its career did the group assay a sterner idiom, in its next-to-last album. But the climax of that album, "I'm A Marionette," which suggests darker things about women and performers and specifically about the women performers in Abba, went unsung Tuesday night.
Abba hasn't toured much. But the fact remains for all its success around the world, it has never really "broken" in the United States, and touring is generally considered a necesssity to sell lots of records here. Perhaps for that reason, Abba is only now making its first United States tour.
Any complicated, lush, studio-crafted sound translates perilously to live performance. When in addition the performers seem rather stiff onstage, the result can sound crude and look tedious, as the Bee Gees proved recently at Madison Square Garden.
Abba solved most of those problems very well. Augmenting its own singing and playing with six instrumentalists and three backup singers, it created reasonable approximations of its records. The ballads lost a little sheen, but the rockers were toughened up a bit--not enough to make them really convincing, to be sure, but to some advantage.
In addition, the sets and lighting looked spiffy, both in themselves and within the context of Radio City Music Hall. Mr. Ulvaeus and the two women arrayed themselves in a succession of costumes that made them look positively pneumatic; Spandex has rarely served the cause of ogling so well. Yet for all their cavortings, the impression was never other than sanitized: they are marionettes, women and men alike, and seemingly proud of it.
Or perhaps they're not; the trouble with Abba is that whatever their own emotions may be has absolutely nothing to do with their music and their performance. It's all a big, smoooth-running, sparkly bright pop-music machine, both the actual music and the stiffly unnatural between-songs patter.
But finally, it never pretends to be otherwise, and those tunes really are captivating. As long as one doesn't find oneself wishing for more, or realizing the group's obvious limits, it can provide a sweetly innocent good time. And the crowd, which was full of people both younger and older than one normally encounters at a rock concert, gave every sign of being contented.
Review of 'Chess' by Christopher Connelly, "Rolling Stone", 23 May 1985
For all the intrigue surrounding its recent world-championship match, chess hardly seems the sort of sport you'd build a splashy musical around. So imagine the sales job that lyricist Tim Rice-- of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita fame--must have pulled on Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in getting these two pop whizzes to make Chess their first non-Abba project. Surprisingly, the cold-war allegory the trio has developed for this work in progress--a musical without a staging-- is serviceable enough: The good-hearted Russian (sung by Tommy Korberg) plays for the title against the unlikeable American (Murray Head), whose aide is Florence (Elaine Paige), a Hungarian-born British subject. The aide splits from the American and falls in love with the Russian, who wins the title, defects and ... well, it goes on - and on - from there.
Chess is clearly a tour-de-force for Andersson, whose dazzling score covers nearly all the pop bases, from rock to cabaret to Broadway: "Argument," for example, recalls in just a few bars both Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and "Nothing" from A Chorus Line. Andersson has written more than his share of great songs in the past, though, and he now seems more interested in the formal challenges of the musical-developing signature sounds for each of the characters, or arranging lengthy instrumentals for a full orchestra- than in reprising his work with Abba. Rice's lyrics are sharpest in the ensemble numbers, especially the hilarious "Embassy Lament," where the Russian's defection is met with fluttery distress by paperwork-conscious bureaucrats.
The singers are quite good indeed. Head's vocal inflections are unquestionably British, but on the weirdo rap "One Night in Bangkok," his characterization is every inch the ugly American. Abbaphiles, of course, will be drawn to the ballads. "Heaven help my Heart" is a fine showcase for the incomparable Paige. She shines brightest on the LP's duets, particularly "I Know Him So Well," where the Russian's wife (Barbara Dickson) and Paige as his mistress unintentionallly reveal how little they understand the man they both love. Though much of Chess is torpid, shimmering moments like this make it worthwhile.
Review of 'The Visitors' by Thomas Gabriel, "Billboard", 13 February 1982
Abba's ninth album is their most consistently satisfying and poignant collection of songs - all as unfailingly catchy as any one of their worldwide hits. The group's two songwriters, Anderson and Ulvaeus, have also fashioned arrangements (though typically lush and dense) that are at least as distinctive as the songs they adorn.
Even the most opinionated, saddled with one-dimensional notions of what is and is not hip, may be hard-pressed to deny that this Swedish pop quarter has included one or two timeless, endearing tunes on each one of their previous eight albums. Unfortunately, much of the rest on those LPs was cluttered and cloying filler. Perhaps nine is a lucky number - far more likely is the inevitable culmination of introspection, experience and fantasy into a marrage of music and words that is Abba's first true masterpiece - song after song.
The title track opens the record in an eerie aural mood defined by synthesizer; the narrator unfolds in a voice of hollow resignation a story of torment and paranoia about real or imagined visitors. The concerted throb and pulse of bass and drums build the tension slowly until it is released into the relief of a characteristically well-crafted Abba chorus.
"Head Over Heels" is a breezy account in the first person of a woman "with a taste for the world" who does exactly as she pleases. A tango-like melody supports the story line, leading just enough flamboyance to convince us of this woman's willfulness. Two bars before the hook, the pace doubles and the tune cascades (head over heels) into full-blown refrain.
"When All Is Said And Done" leaves an indelible imprint at the very beginning of the song with a light-as-air childlike chorus (reminiscent of those in "The Wizard of Oz") by Abba's other half, Anna and Frida. The song is a small celebration by two lovers counting their blessings in an uncertain and unpredictable world.
In an album full of great songs, "Soldiers" is particularly conspicuous because of its simple yet ominous metaphors that envision impending nuclear holocaust. Emphasizing that although there seems to be so little one can do to prevent the machinations of soldiers and those who control them ("they blow their horns and march along / they drum their drums and look so strong / you'd think that nothing in the world was wrong"), we must "not look the other way / taking a chance / cause if the bugler starts to play / we too must dance." The off-beat cadence of the drumming holds dark, somber verses and the sing-song quality of the chorus together. Certainly very few groups can effectively handle a subject as serious as this, and still imbue it with all the qualities of great pop music.
"I Let The Music Speak" is the singer's personal acknowledgement of the wondrous trancendental power and sweep of music: "leading me gently, urging me like a lover... into a place where beauty will defeat the darkest day... where I'm one with every grand illusion."
"One Of Us" is a fresh wistful update on a familiar theme; a tender song of regret over the impetuous dismissial of the one person she now needs most.
The last two songs, "Slipping Through My Fingers," and "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," are related in their soft cry of sentiment in the face of an indifferent, relentless march of time: the mother who can't suppress the feeling of losing her little girl forever as she waves goodbye each morning, and the world weary soul clinging to twilight images of "love [that] was one prolonged goodbye."
Owing to Abba's image as "international pop's self-appointed ministers of good cheer," it is uncertain what, if any, impact this deserving record will have on those well-entrenched denizens who seem not only to resent that image, but also their instantly memorable music. If their enormous worldwide record sales of the past are considered, it hardly matters. "The Visitors" is Abba and pop music at its endearing best.
Review of "The Album" - 'Abba Takes A Real Chance' by John Rockwell, "Rolling Stone", 23 March 1978.
Since their 1974 Eurovision Song Contest victory with "Waterloo," Abba has laid convincing claim to being the world's largest-selling pop group. Certainly, it's a claim taken seriously outside the United States, but, in this country, the band hasn't done nearly as well. They topped the singles charts only once ("Dancing Queen") and have never broken through at the moneymaking LP level.
Abba's songs have always been a calculated blend of six elements: innocuously superficial lyrics, bouncy Europop music, rock energy and amplification, soaring melodies, Mamas and Papas high female harmonies and lavish sonic textures. That said, The Album represents an interesting departure from past formulas and will undoubtedly receive a mixed response. There are several songs on it - mostly on the first side - that are cast in the traditional mold and that are as fine as anything the group has heretofore recorded. But side two is a real attempt to do something different, and, if not everything on it works, the effort is still laudable.
Those of us who love Abba do so because the band is about as pure an example of smart/dumb pop imaginable. Significant rock is all well and good, but there is always a place for pop music that is fun. Most of Abba's past hits have been unadulterated pop, with lyrics - written in English by Swedes who've always had a slightly quaint conception of English syntax and pronunciation - that operate at the most basic level of childish/adolescent fantasy.
But what really counts with Abba is the music, and here the group shows genuine originality. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad may not have particularly striking voices, but both are cute and personable performers vocally and visually, and together they generate a sound that should warm the heart of any fan of the Mamas and the Papas or Phil Spector. However, the real talent in Abba is clearly that of the two composer/producers, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who also play keyboards and guitar respectively. Also, the work of Stig Anderson, the group's manager and colyricist, and Michael B. Tretow, the engineer, cannot be overlooked. Together, these men and women create the characteristic Abba sound, in which those almost invariably irresistable melodies and hooks are enriched with a sensuousness of instrumental and vocal color that may be unmatched for invention and consistency in the history of pop music.
That richness is richer than ever with this new record, and all four songs on side one benefit mightily from it. There is perhaps a slightly greater effort made with the lyrics than in the past, but essentially these are songs worthy of instant inclusion on any forthcoming greatest-hits LP. (For Abba neophytes, by far the best introduction to this quintessential singles band is Greatest Hits, even if most of the hits weren't hits in America. Anyone who could listen to this record five times and not wind up humming half the songs is an android.)
Side two begings with a prophetically titled song called "Move On," which blends a superb chorus with a text that poses the need for innovation and change like some pop Heraclitus. "Move On" is followed by The Album's one overt failure, a stiff attempt at rock & roll called "Hole In Your Soul." Abba may have toughened its Europop with rock energy in the past, but real, blues-based rock music is far from the group's sensibility, and this sounds both clinical and awkward.
But the last three songs - three scenes from a "minimusical," The Girl With The Golden Hair - are far more provocative. The lyrics trace the saga of the heroine (presumably Fältskog, though both women have appeared onstage in blond wigs) from introspection on what a nebbish she really is, to gratitude for the music that has justified her life, to reflection on that things might have been like without fame, to a renewal of ambition and an almost demonic bitterness about how her career has turned her into a mere puppet. The words make clever use of some of the idioms and phraseology of old-time Broadway musicals, and - especially in the finale, "I'm A Marionette" - seems surprisingly self-revelatory, given Abba's past impersonality. The music, too, stretches out to include elements of cabaret and musicals, and, in "I'm A Marionette," attains a dark frenzy that deepens Abba's image without distorting it.
Abba has taken a real chance with this LP. The group had a foruma which, if it hadn't yet quite caught hold in America, still sold millions of records worldwide. Now, by hinting at things beneath the bright surface of that formula, the band has opened itself up to criticism for not having been profound all along. But, with The Album, Abba makes it all work, and one hopes that record buyers in this country will respond to the quality and originality of the music presented here.
Review of 'Arrival' by Ken Tucker, "Rolling Stone", 7 April 1977
As I write, "Dancing Queen," the single from this album, is shing-a-linging its way up the charts, and Abba seems on the verge of completing the conquest of their last great frontier: America. At last, the Homogenizers will rule the land of the Heterogeneous. England, Europe and Australia have been collectively nuts for Abba for about five years. In this country, though the Swedish foursome has had a steady run of successful singles since "Waterloo" in 1974, they haven't provoked the clamor of a phenomenon. Arrival could do just that, since it's the smoothest, purest and, in this sense, most radical Abba album yet.
Even more than their three previous American releases, Arrival is Muzak mesmerizing in its modality. By reducing their already vapid lyrics to utter irrelevance, lead singers Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog are liberated to natter on in their shrill voices without regard to emotion or expression, and the language barrier is broken. Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjöln Ulvaeus are indeed apt students of the American white pop hook, but their expansion of the hook to envelop the entire song into a single narcotic hug - as on Arrival's "Dancing Queen," "Dum Dum Diddle" and "Money, Money, Money" - is perhaps the most infuriating thing about this cheery group.
Since they are so cheery and determindly inoffensive, however, one cannot really hate them. The strongest emotion a dissenter can muster is resentment that these charming twerps will attract enough attention to help obscure the achievements of adventurous artists.
'Who's Bigger Than The Beatles, Bay City Rollers, Kiss or Ted Nugent?' by Richard Robinson, "Hit Parader", December 1978
The Russians asked them to make a 100 concert tour of the U.S.S.R.
They're the most profitable industry in Sweden, ahead of giants like Volvo and Saab.
I'll give you a hint: Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog / Ulvaeus.
Never heard of any of these people? Not surprising, for this superist of super groups remain strangely anonymous in the U.S. despite their wild successes.
Then, ABBA is a strange group: their glossy music machine sound is utterly unmemorable; their conglomorate reality (they own an art gallery, a movie theatre, a film studio, many hotels and restaurants) gets paid royalties in oil and grain; you wouldn't recognise them on the street, they're hardly recognisable on their album covers. Despite this, they are the universal pop group of the 70's, as universal as The Beatles in the 1960's.
Their secret is Abbamusik. Record after record, they slide plastic sex and haunting melody against an insane electronic symphony. They don't say anything important, their music has no meaning, but you can dance to it and if you turn it up loud enough and lie down on the floor you can get lost in it.
Did I mention that they look like they order their clothes from Sears & Roebuck?
Abba is my favourite pop group because when Anni-Frid (she likes to be called Frida) and Agnetha (she's Anna to her pals) sigh, whisper, swoon and wosh, I get crazy, especially when Benny, Bjorn and manager/lyricist Stig Anderson unleash their computerized classical melodies for Frida and Anna to play against. In more rational moments, I realize what a giggle it is that a piece of plactic can envite me, because in real life I don't find anybody in the group the least bit sexy. So it's not them that turn me on, but the purely electric sound they generate.
You'd be amazed at the number of otherwise underground / new wave artists hooked on Abba's sound. It's a continuation of the Phil Spector consciousness reinforced with Sgt. Pepper, without the lyrical intensity of Bruce Springsteen, but the kitchen sink thrown in. I've worked with a few such rock phantoms who grew rapturous at the thought of the complexity and textures of the layers Abba use to achieve their sound.
Listen to an Abba record, any Abba record (although their hits are always better than their more pompous album cuts). Listen to their most recent hit, "Take A Chance." Hear the lead vocal in unison, the background vocals in counterpoint, the lush female voice talking, the voices getting closer, then moving away, the ten rhythms (at least) locking into one sexy pulse. The echo chambers, tape delay, digital delay. The violins, harpsichords, synthesizer strings and real strings. And if you losten close: one or two rhythm guitars, electric guitar, bass, and drums. Who knows what else is in the forest of sounds above which the vocals float. It's beautiful. Exquisite cheap sentiment.
And the lyrics, whatever they are (Abba is second only to Kraftwerk in the repetition of English slang as lyric), the lyrics - what can I say about them. They mean nothing, they mean everything. They prove English is better than Esperanto.
They also demonstrate the remarkable abilities of Stig Anderson - described by Abba as their "manager / lyricist / friend." Here's the guy sitting in Stockholm. Not a young man, with lamb chop side burns and hair combed forward over a thinning pate. Banker to the Abba millions, at the same time scribbling out lyrics in English that express just how you and your hunny feel about each other in the backseat at a drive in movie in Toledo.
Abba cleaned up in just four years. In 1974 Benny and Bjorn's "Waterloo" won Abba the best song in the Eurovision Song Festival Contest. Outside of the U.S., this introduced Abba in a big way: the Song Festival is seen on tv by half a billion viewers in 32 countries. From "Waterloo", the group went on to their other international hits: "Honey Honey," "Mamma Mia," "SOS," "Fernando," "Dancing Queen," "The Name of the Game." But in the U.S. fame came slower. Where they were selling albums in the millions worldwide from 1974 on, it wasn't until late 1976 that the group had their first gold record in the U.S., Abba's Greatest Hits, and their first top ten single, "Fernando." Doubly difficult to understand why it took so long when you consider that AM radio in America thrives on pop pap.
Now that they've got their rent paid for the next hundred years, Abba have tried to get "Valid." You know, has-beens and pure popers also want to get played on "FM radio" and have kids dig their message, and be an "album band." I've seen this thirst for critical acceptance destroy some bands, while others only look stupid. Can you imagine, making millions of bucks, living your dreams as a pop superstar, and at the same time staying up late nights worrying about whether Rolling Stone likes your new album.
Abba's version of this phobia is best quoted off their Atlantic Records handout: "ABBA has also made their first major inroads into AOR/FM radio, which has focused on tracks like the majestic "EAGLE" and their adventurous 3-part closing suite, "THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN HAIR". Thus they have proved what the critics have been saying for years - ABBA is a major rock band, with appeal on all levels - from "easy listening" to Top 40 to hard-line progressive."
Of course none of that is true. Abba are certainly not "hard-line progressive," and the only thing "adventurous" about "The Girl With The Golden Hair" is the way the titles are printed on the album sleeve. Which says something about the 1970's. In the 50's you had to be Elvis, in the 60's The Beatles to sell as many records as Abba. In the 50's and 60's you had to be new, different, outrageous, original, distinct, etc. In the 70's it seems as if you're better off being unrecognizable in crowds of four or more people.
I remember Patti Smith explaining it at about 5 o'clock in the morning in the lobby of the Palladium after her 1976/77 New Years Eve show. A group of friends and New York rockers like John Cale, Tom Verlaine, David Johansen, Lisa Robinson, Lenny Kaye, and Bob Gruen were standing around munching Ron Delsener's Blimpie delicacies, when Pattie waxed poetic over a toast to the New Year. She talked about what was happening to rock and roll. She explained how radio played fascist rock. "You think you're free and boogying, but actually there's a giant hand holding you in place."
I've thought about that a lot since. I've watched FM radio join AM radio in the soft pap industry. I've watched rock and roll go underground because radio stations don't like electric guitars and upbeat tunes. The truth is that rock and roll is underground now, and the likes of Abba rule the airwaves.
So as much as I like Abba, as much as I get a giggle and static charge from their silly records, I remember what Patti said. I understand that this music says nothing, should not be confused with the heritage laid down in the 60's. I'd also put Frampton, and F. Mac on the same list, of course, and The Eagles too. So you might not agree with me. But think about it. Think about why there's a new wave music, why men and women would rather have a band that plays in toilets than sell the energy out singing about "tropical love-lands." Richard Hell says he's a member of the blank generation, but personally I think it's the opposite, I think AM radio is the blank generation. How's that for life in the fast lane. There's no fast land when the speed limit says 55. The fast lane is found in the Bowery and the backstreets of Convent Gardens, like it or not.
Now that I've had my say about the Abba phenomenon, let me say that as a record producer, I have an immense respect for Abba's records. They make it too easy, I know how impossibly hard it is. These people are hot and they've achieved something of a record in the music biz by staying hot longer than most hot acts. But I get caught up in the phenomenon of it all as much as I do in the technical perfection. And because I see how mindless these melodies are, I must speak up, defend rock and roll. Say there's an alternative to this that is worth consideration. As inspired as Abba's productions are, there are genuinely brilliant talents among the new wave who have something to say about their lives that goes better with electric guitar than the Abba lyric.
I could have titled this story: "What happened?:" What happened to the responsibilities to rock energy that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Velvet Underground and Nico fought for. I gave up after David Bowie (Clockwork Orange version). When I went back out into the night, it was to see Patti Smith and Television, The Heartbreakers, The Dolls, bands that knew how to rock. So, while a generation of new rockers is fermenting in basements in London, Paris, New York, LA, and Tokyo, I watch the bland sound, the safe sound, the every-hair-neatly-combed-inplace sound take over the airwaves. Some of it I enjoy: Abba tops the list. But every time I hear an Abba song on the radio I think about the 1970s, and wonder who's running the airwaves...
Review of 'ABBA' by Robot A. Hull, "Creem", January 1976
Sound waves encircle the globe mesmerizing the populace of countries like France, Greece, Italy, England, etc., international explosive pop, created by Swedes (Abba for short), while over here in America we quietly suffer, enduring synthetic mania from the likes of the Bay City Rollers (ouch!). ABBA IS TAKING THE WHOLE GOD-DAMN WORLD BY STORM AND WE'RE JUST SITTING AROUND JERKING OFF! Rumors keep sifting over from Europe that Abba has around forty albums in the can, and it's certainly no lie that strange records by Abba keep popping up in unknown areas of the global pop scene. Listen, teens, it's right near impossible to keep track of every one of this band's albums; their course has just not been plotted.
Damn shame, too considering that every song on this album has hit potential. "SOS" finally crept to semi-hit status, despite a very sloppy promotional campaign. FM stations everywhere dug the spiced, clean feel of the song and those embryonic interludes on the synthesizer. But "SOS" is surrounded on this elpee by so many good tunes that the mind boggles. Likewise Abba's first album (the one with "Waterloo") in this country was a perfect blend of exceptional, lovable compositions, ranging from bubblegum to psychedelic freakouts (no mean achievement in '74). This album would stand alone as an immortal brushstroke except that Abba has tried it again (and who knows how much more they got up their sleeves?).
Understanding Abba is simple. You gotta squeeze their name. Their a stuffed-toy band without being cutesy. "Bang-A-Boomreang" bounces, embraces, and then returns just like its name implies. "Rock Me" is like a merry-go-round with carnival atmosphere intact. "Mamma-Mia" could be the theme song for a teevee sit-com. The catch is to be abstract; versatile and always open to the kiddie market, Abba remains formless as an identity but completely matured in terms of production and professsional craft. "Hey, Hey Helen" on this album, for example, is dance music that counters the disco trend by killing 'em with funk. In contrast, "So Long" splinters into so many directions that its energies crack the world.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this pop sensationalism, Abba remains cool and collected, Benny and Bjorn are no idiots like Flo and Eddie (a jealous duo), especially when ya consider the luscious pair of young ladies they've attached themselves to. Representing the "A's" in Abba, these girls sandwich the total sound of the group, sustaining the vocal style on a purifying plateau. Proof that girls (and their voices) were made in Sweden.
So don't be fooled. Abba may sound like the Archies, but "Sugar, Sugar" was a catchy song constructed by cartoon mentalities. Abba is putting new life into this "cartoon" pop formula and making some of the happiest music around today.
Billboard Magazine Capsule Reviews of Singles
ANGELEYES - 15 September 1979:
Atlantic flips over the foursome's "Voulez-Vous" single to push this sprightly side, a recent hit throughout Europe. Fulsome harmonies and a lilting melody highlight the track by the group that begins its first North American tour Sept.13th in Edmonton.
VOULEZ-VOUS - 18 August 1979:
The foursome shoots for its 10th top 20 single with this driving rhythm number which features intriguing, almost Russian sounding musical accents. The brassy backup makes this one of the group's most dynamic tracks.
DOES YOU MOTHER KNOW - 19 May 1979:
The latest from the Swedish foursome is a fun, rollicking number along the lines of last years "Grease" singles. The sweet, airy vocals contrast effectively with the rocking instrumentation.
TAKE A CHANCE ON ME - 29 April 1978:
The consistent hitmakers offer one of its most busy, fast paced productions to date, an effective change of pace followup to the ballad "The Name of The Game" which peaked at number 12. An effective tension and sense of urgency is created by the sexy female spoken parts.
THE NAME OF THE GAME - 24 December 1977:
Abba follows the rather gimmicky "Money, Money, Money" with a more mainstream pop ballad which better shows off the group's fine harmonies. This is one of Abba's most stately, dramatic works to date, complete with royal instrumental flourishes.
MONEY,MONEY,MONEY - 8 October 1977:
Typically crafty Abba production is the highlight of this song about the quest for the easy dollar. Like most of Abba's records, this is fast-paced with lots of good-natured gimmicks, and a sly, prancing, piano break hook.
KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU - 7 May 1977:
With a long string of hit singles behind it, Abba ploughs forcefully into a melodically energetic but sad-worded ditty about a romantic breakup. The massed choir vocal effects and studio instrumental brightening gimmicks are used with lavish fullness in this singing Swedish foursome's distinctively commercial style.
DANCING QUEEN - 4 December 1976:
The goodtimey Swedish group that makes the top 20 with just about every single returns to its most characteristic novelty groove. Although the melody is Abba at its bounciest, the lyric has considerable substance, dealing with a youthful peak experience of being belle of the disco ball at 17. The sweep of the vocal harmonies almost recall the heyday of the Mamas and the Papas.
FERNANDO - 4 September 1976:
Already a major hit across Europe, this is not the usual happily simple novelty tune associated with Sweden's Abba. Instead, it is a pretty lilting love ballad with just a touch of mysteriousness. An unusual military-drum introduction starts off production with something of the feel of "One Tin Soldier" before the melody moves through Joan Baez melancholy into a cheerier second theme which suddenly brings the listener into a more smiling frame of mind.
MAMMA MIA - 15 May 1976:
Those Swedish oddballs with their surrealistic bubblegum hit factory have done it again. Direct from conquering Europe with this wonderfully silly ditty, Abba is about to attack the U.S. with another irresistible bouncing-ball melodic novelty.
HONEY,HONEY - 15 September 1974:
Taken from their LP, Swedish group rocks through this uptempo cut in the same vein as "Waterloo." Sweet Dreams are already on the charts with this, but Abba's is the original version and is powerful enough to stand on its own. Ideal for AM airplay.
SUPER TROUPER - 28 March 1981:
Abba follows the top 10 "The Winner Takes It All' with a catchy hook-laden tune which has been a big international hit. The cut lacks the dramatic tension and compelling storyline that made "Winner" such a treat, but is still a delectable piece of ear candy.
ON AND ON AND ON - 6 June 1981:
Third single from "Super Trouper" is the most rollicking 45 yet from Abba, out-rocking even 1979's "Does Your Mother Know." It's a sassy, somewhat funky change-of-pace from Abba's usual sprightly effervescence.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - 26 December 1981:
From the new "The Visitors" LP comes this melodic, uptempo track on which the consistent chart toppers again showcase their pretty harmonies, and keen sense of accessible yet polished pop textures.
THE VISITORS - 17 April 1982:
The title song from the Swedish quartet's most recent album offers their darkest, most mysterious single yet, a brooding minor-keyed confession that bursts into a propulsive gallop on the choruses, punched up with vocal harmonies and handclaps.
I KNOW THERE'S SOMETHING GOING ON - 25 September 1982:
The Abba songstress breaks out on her own in a daring collaboration with Phil Collins, whose production builds on his own thundering drum riffs. Nodding to techno-pop in its phased vocals, the track still boasts rock muscle and enough pop lyricism to span AOR and pop neatly.
ONE OF US - 5 February 1983:
This release comes from the double LP that celebrates Abba's 10 years of worldwide success, yet the group performs with the same freshness and elegance that characterized its earliest hits. The four-part harmonies are attractive as ever in this wistful mid-tempo love song.
HERE WE'LL STAY - 23 April 1983:
It took Frida nearly six months to crack the top 20 without the rest of Abba, but this second single from her solo album should take off a bit faster. With familiar harmonies and interresting string arrangements, it's lighter in tone than the rockish "I Know There's Something Going On", and should appeal to both pop and AC programmers.
Capsule review of 'Wrap Your Arms Around Me', 27 August 1983
Her name may be new to most dealers, but the voice is immediately recognizable as an integral part of ABBA. Like bandmate Frida, whose own earlier English language solo outing proved a sleeper hit last year, Fältskog has chosen a strong rock producer (in this case, Mike Chapman) to help carve out a new musical identity, as well as songs from a variety of other writers. Among them, Russ Ballard stands out through "Can't Shake Loose," a sultry midtempo rocker that should fare well on mainstream formats.
Review of 'I Stand Alone' by David Keeps, "Star Hits", May 1988
Ah, the glories that were ABBA, those soaring Swedenglish harmonies and those perfectly dur-eadful outfits! But now ABBA's Agnetha has gone New Wave in a black getup and blonde chop crop! But what a fibber! She's not standing alone here at all! She's enlisted the services of that Herman Munster of Pop, Mr. Peter Cetera, who's produced these mushy mid-tempo numbers and howls along on "I Wasn't The One (Who Said Goodbye)". Well, he should have been, having stuck our Agnie with one of his "songs" for the title track and smothered her in adult-contempo slush. Only the semi-spunky "We Got A Way" does any justice to Agnetha's precious pipes. Such a shame!
Review of 'Wrap Your Arms Around Me' by Christopher Connelly, "Rolling Stone", 27 October 1983
As a tireless booster of Abba, it grieves me greatly to report what a disappointment Agnetha Fältskog's first solo album is. Agnetha is the ruby-throated belter behind such Abba classics as "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen," but Wrap Your Arms Around Me is a treacly, string-sopped outing that doesn't begin to do her justice. Chief culprit is producer Mike Chapman, who seems to see Fältskog as some sort of Swedish Sylvia ("Pillow Talk") Robinson.
Even the modest tempos of such tunes as "Mr. Persuasion" and "Once Burned, Twice Shy" sound positively incendiary next to the bogus cooing of "Stay"--or, for that matter, all of side two.
Only the Caribbean-crafted textures of "THe Heat Is On" and the solid, punchy rock of Russ Ballard's "Can't Shake Loose" sweep away the saccharine taste. Fältskog's own "Man" suggests that she has a way with a melody; maybe her next solo project will bring her talents more to the fore. Wrap Your Arms Around Me would be a hard invitation to resist from Agnetha Fältskog--but the guy I'd really like to get my hands on is Mike Chapman.
Review of 'The Visitors' by Joel Vance, "Stereo Review", May 1982
Each successive ABBA album has been a little more gloomy than the last, despite the Swedish group's beginning as a cheerfully frivolous quartet borrowing American and British pop forms. Though ABBA is careful to include at least one potential hit single on every album (When All Is Said And Done and One of Us are the candidates on their new "The Visitors"), lately these have been ballads of remorse and regret.
There's absolutely no levity at all on "The Visitors," except perhaps for the dark humor of Two for the Price of One, in which a railway station attendant answers a sex ad. The title song portrays a woman on the brink of insanity, Slipping Through my Fingers describes a young mother's feeling of failure with her baby daughter, and Head over Heels introduces a chatterbox dominatrix.
Peerhaps ABBA is feeling the burdens of success. They are the most financially successsful music group in the world, according to their own press handouts, with their name registered as a trademark and ownership vested in a diversified holding company that actively trades on the Swedish and international stock markets. Then, too, they may be sharing their countrymen's insecurity since that Soviet submarine surfaced in a militarily sensitive Swedish harbor and was allowed to depart without being inspected ("I got lost," said the Captain).
Whatever the source of their woe, with "The Visitors" ABBA has once again written, arranged, performed, and produced an album that for sophisticated pop entertainment far surpasses what most American and British groups can manage these days.
Review of 'Super Trouper' by Stephen Holden, "Rolling Stone" magazine, 1980
With its higher-than-average share of catchy pop abstractions (minus the usual gloppy, ersatz-Sound of Music ballads), Super Trouper is Abba's most engaging music lesson since Arrival. The title tune – which boasts airy harmonies, a goose-stepping beat and images of angelic übermenschen pining in the spotlight for their long-distance lovers–evokes a tinselly fantasy of Europop Über Alles. "The Winner Takes It All," with its "O Solo Mio" declamatory style, amusingly compares puppy love to gambling and contains one priceless couplet "The judges will decide/The likes of me abide." "On and On and On" is the quartet's punchiest Beach Boys imitation yet.
Abba will have a go at anything, if it tickles them. "Me and I" explains schizophrenia to preschoolers. "The Piper" sweetly warns against fascist seducers. "The Way Old Friends Do" is a Europop echo of "Amazing Grace." Ultimately, though, Abba are as expendable as they are exportable. In treating pop music as a computer game, they're Sweden's answer to Space Invaders. (RS 342)
Review of 'The Visitors' by Christopher Connelly, "Rolling Stone" magazine, 1982
An occasionally bouncy chorus and still-on-target singing can't disguise the fact that the boys and girls of Abba are in a slump. Synthdrenched, mellow-dramatic balladeering seems to have supplanted almost entirely the perky pop that first made these Swedes Croesusrich. But it's hard to pull off slow, sensitivo stuff when you're writing in your second language, as the beach-poem, Berlitz-class lyrics here attest. Add to this the disconcerting effect of having all the material penned by the boys and sung by the girls, and one's longing for a little old-fashioned DOR becomes much stronger. Only the album's title tune – appropriately subtitled "Crackin' Up" – comes close to filling that bill. The Visitors is a pretty lousy LP, but given the current state of Abba's portfolios, I guess we should be glad they're doing it at all. (RS 365)
Review of 'Something's Going On' by William Cooper, "All Music Guide".
Fans of Abba's sugary-sweet pop songs will no doubt be surprised by Something's Going On, the remarkably hard-edged 1982 solo album by Abba vocalist Anni-Frida Lyngstad, better known simply as Frida. Produced by Phil Collins, Something's Going On includes a wide range of material, including songs written by Bryan Ferry ("The Way You Do"), Stephen Bishop ("Tell Me It's Over"), and Gerry Rafferty ("I See Red"), and even includes a Dorothy Parker poem set to music ("Thernody"). Something's Going On boasts impressive guitar work by Daryl Stuermer, who has toured with Genesis as well as appeared on several Collins solo albums. Collins' drum work is also outstanding, particularly on the hard-hitting hit single "I Know There's Something Going On." Frida herself shows an unexpected emotional range given Abba's two-dimensional pop gloss. Sure, she still chirps and tweets like a bird, but the diversity of the material and the freedom of recording solo obviously allows her to enter different musical territory. Frida escapes the creative limitations of being a member of one of the world's most popular groups on this solid and often riveting album.
"Abba - Today The World, Tomorrow The U.S." by John Rockwell, from the New York Times, 5 March 1978
Abba, the Swedish pop-music quartet, finds itself in a most curious position. Not real well-known in the United States, it is a superstar everywhere else. In fact, with all due respect to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, Abba can lay convincing claim to being the best-selling pop-music act in the world.
The group's new record, "Abba-The Album," made in conjunction with a classily produced tour film, may change its status in this country - which is, after all, by far the most lucrative pop market. Besides that, conquering America is a challenge to the prestige of even the richest and most self-satisfied of foreign rockers. The trouble is that Abba has reached such a level of success elsewhere that the group doesn't want to tour here until it is hugely popular - yet touring helps promote the recorded product. In addition, the very nature of Abba's music has sometimes seemed to make the group's live shows cumbersome and artistically problematic.
That music is readily available to record buyers in this country, however, and enough have responded that one can hardly feel too sorry for the band. Those who do respond find something very appealing, since Abba's music is both rooted in basic rock traditions and remarkably fresh and original.
Abba represents a healthy challenge to the two-decades-long dominance of Western pop music by Britain and the United States. The musical context from which Abba evolved is that of so-called Euro-pop - a flossy, bouncy, sometimes triumphantly silly fluff-music that derives not from the urgency of American blues (the source of rock), but from older forms of European folk music.
Abba was formed when four successful Swedish pop performers cane together in 1969, first personally and then professionally. Agnetha Faltskog is now married to Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad lives with Benny Andersson. Abba is an acronym of their first names, although they first had doubts about it, since it is also the name of a well-known Swedish brand of pickled herring.
The group broke through internationally - with the aid of some shrewd advance planning by the band's "fifth member" and frequent co-lyricist, Stig Anderson - after it won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England. The contest is a ritual event in Europe, watched by millions, and serves as a promotional mechanism in an area divided by language and lacking the commercial radio outlets of the United States.
"Everybody looks on us as a product of the Eurovision thing, but we're not," Benny Andersson argued. Our conversation took place recently in Stockholm's lovely Stallmastaregarden restaurant, a former royal stable surrounded by gardens. It was an interesting comment on Sweden's fabled reserve that although the members of Abba are probably as well known as any living Swedish citizens in their own country, they were not bothered by anyone in the restaurant - a few distantly gazing, awe-struck children aside.
"Eurovision helped us," Mr. Ulvaeus qualified. "It was a way to make it quickly on the outside, but we were on our way anyhow."
"It was a fantastic experience," Mr. Andersson added. "Everybody's watching it and everybody's into it - in Europe, at least."
Because of the language problem and the continued dominance of English in international discourse and Anglo-American pop-music, Abba's members had decided even before their Eurovision victory to write and sing all their songs in English - which they do with only a slight, and charming, accent. In turn, that has meant that most of Abba's lyrics have been rather inconsequential, moon-June stuff.
But the group believes that in most instances it's the music that sells a pop record, and they are surely correct. And in Abba's case the music is very appealing indeed. The debts to the past have mostly to do with the density and grandiosity of their production values. Mr. Ulvaeus describes the group as "Spector freaks," and the massive, multiple-overdubbed effects certainly owe much to Phil Spector's Wagnerian "wall of sound" approach of a decade ago. But in conjunction with their invaluable engineer, Michael B. Tretow, Mr. Ulvaeus and Mr. Andersson have updated Mr. Spector's technique with sounds that could only be obtained from modern instruments (especially synthesizers and other electronic keyboards) and in modern recording studios the shimmering exoticism of texture supporting nearly every Abba song is both deceptively progressive and sweetly compelling.
If all this sounds as if the women in the group are slightly extraneous, that's partly true - at least in the creative sense. Miss Faltskog and Miss Lyngstad have their frisky sides, which is amusing for a group that projects such a squeaky-clean image and appeals to children and older people as well as youngsters. Much is made of Miss Faltskog's wiggling bottom in concert, and Miss Lyngstad was sporting a graphically pornographic pendant during our luncheon. She also put out a solo disk in Sweden with a cover that is probably the most implicitly sexual in the history of album art. But the two women remained mostly demure during our talk and disclaimed any interest in contributing to the group's songwriting.
"I helped write a song on our first album, but I think it's the boys' business to write the songs for Abba," Miss Faltskog offered, although she too put out a solo album for which she co-wrote most of the material.
"We do take a big part in the studio," Miss Lyngstad added. "We often come up with ideas."
What they come up with even more, however, is singing - and, in the stage show, their flirtatious sexuality dominates the group's act. Both women have classic pop sopranos, capable of evocative work in solo passages but even more suitable for the soaring harmonies the group favors, which are highly reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas.
All of this would go for naught, though, unless the two composers could come up with winning melodies and clever twists (or "hooks," in pop-music parlance). And that - despite growing "pressure, from inside and outside," as they put it - they have consistently been able to do. Most Abba songs sound like potential (or actual) hit singles, and the reason is that the chorus is almost invariably a tune that has listeners humming compulsively after only a couple of hearings.
The result of all of this has been a level of success that few groups outside the Anglo-American axis have enjoyed. Stig Anderson, the group's manager, says that Abba surpasses all previous pop acts in terms of sales, although he admits that statements of that sort cannot be proven. "It IS possible to say that we are the most successful band in the world, because we have sold more records than anybody else," he explained. "We have sold between 75 and 100 million singles, albums, cassettes and eight-tracks. Most figures that you hear are just figures. We are trying to cut it down to what we HAVE sold. We KNOW that we have sold more than the Beatles or Elvis Presley."
Since Abba hasn't fled Sweden, which has as severe a tax structure as Britain, Mr. Anderson has diversified the band's income into a number of different enterprises. There is even a barter agreement with Eastern Europe to receive royalties in such goods as oil and vegetables. According to Affarsvarlden, a Swedish business weekly, Abba is the most profitable corporation in the country, bar none.
Although the group has appeared here for promotional purposes and has been seen performing on American television, there are no plans yet for a tour of this country. Which in turn means that there probably won't be much of an audience for the group's new film - which is doing booming business in countries like Britain (where the album is already No. 1) and Australia (where the tour footage was filmed).
Part of the problem is that Abba members value their private lives and the time devoted to composing in a little island shack near Stockholm. And their growing perfectionism means that nearly a year is spent recording each new album, leaving little time to tour if an annual album is to be made. "Each record takes double the time of the one before," Mr. Ulvaeus said worriedly.
In the meantime, the new disk (the title, "Abba - The Album" goes with "Abba - The Film" and the sheet music version, "Abba - The Folio") is no let-down. As lyricists, the three men (counting their manager) have attempted somewhat bolder themes, and by and large seem able to encompass them without stumbling into pretension. And the music - one slightly stiff and strained rock attempt aside - is as heartfelt and lush as ever.
It would be nice if Abba were to finally catch on here with the same magnitude that the group has elsewhere - catch on massively and consistently, that is Abba has had its success here, including one No. 1 single last year, "Dancing Queen." Because this band represents as refreshing an example of pure pop as anything being done today. Pop music used to be simply and unaffectedly entertaining, back before rock-and-roll. At its best, rock still lifts popular music into a new seriousness and intensity. But too often it's merely raucous or pretentious, and in the meantime, middle-of-the-road alternatives wallow in sentimentality and schlock. Abba is both energetic and mightily fun - rather like Fleetwood Mac, although stemming from a different set of traditions. It's a lovely combination, and one can be heartily recommended to get ahold of this new album - or the band's "Arrival" disk or its Greatest Hits collection. All of them are a testimony to vitality and charm.
"Money Money Money - How Abba Won Their Waterloo" by Simon Frith & Peter Langley, "Creem" magazine, March 1977
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 masterminds. 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 runny. 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 Europhrases- "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.
(Photo caption) If nothing else, Abba just maybe the cleanest group in the world. Look at this picture. They make John Denver seem like one of the Sex Pistols.
Review of 'The Visitors' by Jim Feldman, "Creem" magazine, May 1982
Ya just gotta take a stand now and again, and epithets be damned. So call me insane, call me peculiar, call me Sven (call me next week, Mom) I don't care, I think ABBA is the greatest pop band in the history of the universe, which happens to be their philosophical and musical stomping ground. Oh, Benny , Bjorn, Agnetha, and Frida (much catchier names than John, Paul, George, and Ringo) do have more than a tenuous connection to the comparatively microscopic world of 12" and 7" bits of vinly. Just invert your lens and you'll realize that, after all, ABBA relates to a very specific brand of catchy harmony-gilded 60's pop say, the Chiffons, geometrically extended to the nth degree. Listen to any ABBA album; it's pure soul on ice (for which phrase I don't think I'd better thank Eldridge Cleaver) Yeah, they're the ultimate hook machine. Benny and Bjorn press the magic buttons once a year and out come some absurdly excessive pop tunes, a couple of disco epiphanies, and one or two slower numbers that define untreatable melancholia. But detached, hollow, nothing but unfeeling, synthesized manipulation? You're just not paying attention. Remember, these guys and gals were brought up on endless winters and glaring summers, the intesity of which can lead to a distanced clarity of perception. And then, their English isn't what you'd call idiomatic. It necessarily suggests self-conscious precision afore-thought, but imagine how detached it would seem in Swedish.
Remote? For pop music, sure. But definitely not removed. ABBA care, ABBA feel, ABBA are socially concerned. In fact, ABBA take things so serioulsy and react to life and love with such overwhelming intensity that Ingmar Bergman would do well to sign them on for a soundtrack. Neuroses and angst direct Benny's and Bjorn's songs and are never hidden from view with shame. On their current album, The Visitors, paranoia results from their ever-aware acknowledgement of the impending apocalypse ("Soliders") or from an unspecified, deep-rooted psychotic condition (The Visitors," subtitled "Crackin Up"), images of aging, autumn, night, shadows--in other words doom--abound. Desperation arises as the past, present, and future collide In "Slipping Through My Fingers, a mother longs for a past that hasn't occurred yet, as she watches her daughter grow up. And in "When All Is Said And Done," a seemingly healthy attempt to not regret the passage of time and romance, cheerfulness stands as a mask for giving in to the inevitable "Standing camly/ At the crossroads/ No desire to tun/ There's no hurry/ Anymore/ When all is said and done."
The Visitors is, however, not at all oppressive. The group's keening harmonies counterbalance the existential point of view. Under layers of drums and synthesizers, "One Of Us," is revealed as a touching, realistic pop lament--the mandolins are a clue. And while "The Visitors" confronts insanity, it is, at the same time, ingeniously bouncy, a major disco delight. ABBA catch you by hook(s), but never by crook. Ya gotta know which magic buttons to push.
Review of 'ABBA - The Singles' by Christopher Connelly, "Rolling Stone" magazine, 1982
This twenty-three song collection (singles plus two new cuts) confirms what a lucky few in the US have known for some time ABBA is the greatest pop band of the last ten years. There are more infectious melodies, grabby hooks, and danceable drum beats on one side of this two-disc set than in most artists' entire catalogs.
Even a casual listen to side one's first five songs - "Ring Ring," "Waterloo," "So Long," "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," and "SOS" - should make for one of the peppiest sessions you're likely to have in a long time. The lyrics may provide additional, though unintentional, entertainment - some American idioms still hilariously escape them - but even Pete Townsend thinks "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is terrific. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' production is so pristine it makes Peter Asher sound like Nick Lowe, and Frida and Agnetha either solo or blending together, is as refreshing as a blast of Scandinavian air.
ABBA has always been better at making 45's than albums, so The Singles provides an ideal introduction to this talented and highly influential band (Human League is unimaginable without them). And though I miss the dance-club whomp of "Lay All Your Love On Me" and the sheer sonority of the lovely ballad "One Man, One Woman", why quibble? Besides, one of the new tracks, "Under Attack," is the best thing they've done in three years. Buy this, okay?
Review of 'Something's Going On' by Christopher Hill, "Rolling Stone" magazine, 1982
Phil Collins, British art-rocker with a taste for funk, is perhaps the ideal producer to give ABBA component Anni-Frid Lyngstad (or Frida) --husky-voiced brunette half of the ABBA show--a fully fleshed musical persona. The woman that emerges on Frida, while no artiste, is at leat a versatile and highly polished entertainer.
Soundwise, Collins is influenced to a degree by ABBA's pop-wizardry. At times he even out-artifices Bjorn and Benny in deliberately emphasizing the produced, non-natural quality of the sound. The ambience on a song like "Something" is so bright and brittle, the studio effects so artfully obvious as to feel almost claustrophobic. Where Collins parts company with ABBA is in his care for texture, the jagged staggered drumming of "Tell Me That It's Over," the ringing guitar fill in "Something," the mandolins of "Threnody" --all would have disturbed the chromium sheen of an ABBA album.
As a singer, Frida is indeed shown to be more interesting than in her ABBA work - but not a lot more. The eclectric material --from Brian Ferry to Russ Ballard --is finely calculated to stretch her talent without revealing it's breaking point. On "Threnody," with lyrics from Dorothy Parker, she captures a bittersweet Norther poignancy; "Something" develops the sultry quality that gave ABBA it's only darker colors. But a song like "I See Red" shows clearly her weaknes as an interpreter. She runs right through this wry reflection on success with nary an ironic inflection. It's the old ABBA habit of giving herself wholly to a song without any sensitivity to it's meaning.
Something's Going On offers intelligently and skillfully crafted pop. No more, and no less.
Review of 'Waterloo', "Billboard" magazine, 1974
Quite commercial and thoroughly enjoyable is the best way to describe this effort from the foursome who are currently riding the charts with the giant title cut from this set. Bjorn & Benny have been major figures on the Swedish and European rock scene for several years, and now should break worldwide. LP is essentially 12 good singles, with no effort made at pretension. As simple as the material may be, however, it is still well done vocally and instrumentally. The type of set that should appeal to fans from bubblegum to the older set. Best cuts "Waterloo," "King Kong Song," "Honey, Honey," "Gonna Sing You My Lovesong." Dealers Play in store. Good-time feeling is infectious.
Review of 'ABBA', "Billboard" magazine, 13/09/1975
It's really a shame this band has not received the credit and airplay they deserve, for their brand of fun "don't take it all too seriously" music is really what rock is all about. Core of the group are the two ladies who handle most of the vocals with a fine, bouncing harmony. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus take care of writing and instrumentals, getting their prime showcasing on one long, almost classical instrumental. Highlight, however, are the girls, who sing with an enthusiasm that reminds one of the early days of rock. Deceptively simple words, with the best cuts dealing with rock's favorite subject--love. Basically an LP full of potential hit singles, which is the stuff rock's made of. Spector and Beach Boys influence heard from time to time as well. Best cuts "Hey, Hey Helen," "Tropical Loveland," "SOS," "I've Been Waiting For You," "So Long" (good potential single.) Dealers This is the group that scored big with "Waterloo."
Review of 'Greatest Hits', "Billboard" magazine, 04/09/1976
Well packaged 14-song anthology from the Scandinavian outfit that has racked up five Top 40 hits in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Some may regard Abba's sweet, sparkling, highly commercial pop-rock sound as lightweight, but the group was considered hip enough this past season to get a guest spot on "Saturday Night." And it does put together consistently entertaining singles that sell around the world. Best cuts "Waterloo" (a 1974 monster), "SOS," "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," "Honey, Honey," "Mamma Mia," "Fernando" (which leaps on the Hot 100 this week at a starred 77).
Review of 'Arrival', "Billboard" magazine, 15/01/1977
Abba is the consummate singles band and the new Abba LP is chock full of new songs that will be welcome on the radio. The band's vocals are as good as anybody's and here they receive as good an instrumental background as ever they've had. While the band hasn't completely broken away from bubblegum, the album does show signs of artistic growth. Best cuts "Dancing Queen," "My Love, My Life," "Dum Dum Diddle," "Money, Money, Money," "Arrival." Dealers Expect good radio support.
Review of 'ABBA - The Album', "Billboard" magazine, 04/02/1978
Once again, Abba has created an LP of intricate arrangements filled with vocal and instrumental surprises. Infectious rhythms pervade all 10 cuts, particularly "Name Of The Game" and "Hole In Your Soul." The group's catchy, thoughtful lyrics are never lost beneath the heavy keyboard/synthesizer support, backed with strings, guitar and bass. Best cuts "Eagle," "Take A Chance On Me." Dealers Abba fans have been looking for this one.
Review of 'Voulez-Vous', "Billboard" magazine, 23/06/1979
This LP should cement Abba's American popularity, which was established through last year's platinum "The Album." Mining the rich vein of "Europop" which the band has all but invented and polished to perfection, Abba uses a mixture of American rock funkiness, disco's slick pervasiveness, European pop sentiments, and a dose of universal sex appeal to create a package appealing to a broad demographic. With a heavy emphasis on the group's charming vocal harmonies, this LP is not so much an advance as a culmination of Abba's previous musical achievements. Best cuts "Does Your Mother Know," "Chiquitita," "Voulez-Vous," "I Have A Dream." Dealers Expect promotion and future U.S. tour to reflect Abba's superstar status.
Review of 'Greatest Hits Vol. 2', "Billboard" magazine, 01/12/1979
The group's first greatest hits compilation in three years is a generous outlaying of 14 tunes, five of which were major top 20 hits. Included are both of the group's gold U.S. singles, "Take A Chance On Me" and "Dancing Queen," widely regarded as one of the most immaculately produced singles of the '70s. The album documents the vocal group's move to rockier textures, as exemplified by the slightly funky, raucous "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," which should be the group's next 45. Even the cuts here which weren't runaway hits are first-rate musical experiences thanks to the writing, arranging and production skills of the group's kingpins, Andersson and Ulvaeus. Best cuts "Does Your Mother Know," "Dancing Queen," "Gimme Gimme Gimme," "Angeleyes," "Chiquitita" (the current U.S. single).
Review of 'The Visitors', "Billboard" magazine, 12/12/1981
Abba follows its top 20 LP "Super Trouper" with another set of impeccably-recorded mass-appeal pop. Abba's lilting melodylines, pretty harmonies and universal lyrics have made it one of the few acts able to transcend all language and cultural barriers. The lead vocal chores are split amongst the four members, with each bringing a distinctive edge to the material. Best cuts"The Visitors," "Head Over Heels," Soldiers," "I Let The Music Speak," "Slipping Through My Fingers."
Review of 'ABBA - The Singles', "Billboard" magazine, 04/12/1982
Subtitled "The First 10 Years," this double set begins with "Ring Ring" and "Waterloo," the quartet's first hits from the early '70s, and ends with the new and previously unreleased "The Day Before You Came" and "Under Attack." In between are such Abba gems as "Mama Mia," "Fernando," "Dancing Queen," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Chiquitita," "Voulez Vous," and "Super Trooper." Abba probably has been the most successful "singles" act worldwide in the last decade, and this generous anthology shows why.
Review of 'I Love ABBA', "Billboard" magazine, 30/03/1984
Umpteenth anthology by the Swedish supergroup offers a generous 14 tracks on a single disk, focusing mostly on lesser known album tracks. The best-known tracks are already overexposed, unfortunately.
Review of 'Something's Going On', "Billboard" magazine, 02/10/1982
Abba's auburn-haired songstress makes a bold solo project a stunning success, thanks to her collaboration with Genesis' Phil Collins, who's emerging as a first-rate producer. Songs from Stephen Bishop, Russ Ballard, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Belotte, Bryan Ferry and Collins himself sustain the same high standard she enjoys with ABBA itself, while arrangements and production span melodic pop, hardedged rock ripe for AOR and even a soulful duet with Collins.
Review of 'Chess', "Billboard" magazine, 09/02/1985
Not a soundtrack or a cast project, but rather a "work in progress," this ambitious venture between Abba's chief architects, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice takes an unlikely setting-the high-pressured world of championship chess-and lavishes an eclectic, diverse score and songs upon it. Features the London Symphony Orchestra and a vocal cast headed by Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Barbara Dickson.
Review of 'I Stand Alone', "Billboard" magazine, 27/02/1988
Best shot at airplay on this AC-oriented effort from one-fourth of ABBA is engaging duet with Cetera, "I Wasn't The One (Who Said Goodbye)."
Review of 'Shapes', "Billboard" magazine, 08/02/1997
If Abba had recorded an album in the '90s, this would have been it. With songs written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, production by Andersson, and a roster of musicians who played on Abba albums, the only difference is Nilsson's vocals, which have a smokier texture than Agnetha's or Frida"s. "Shapes" doesn't repeat Abba, but the production, the musical inflections, and the layered vocals all brilliantly invoke the much-missed Swedish group. The same pop programmers who embraced the Cardigans and Donna Lewis should adore "We Won't Be Going Anywhere" and "Midnight Dancer" as well as find other singles by hitting random play.