Sunday 13 May 2012

ABBA: Greatest Hits

(#169: 8 May 1976, 9 weeks; 16 October 1976, 2 weeks)

Track listing: SOS/He Is Your Brother/Ring Ring/Hasta Manana/Nina Pretty Ballerina/Honey Honey/So Long/I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do/People Need Love/Bang-A-Boomerang/Another Town, Another Train/Mamma Mia/Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)/Waterloo

(Author’s Note: The track “Fernando” was added onto the end of the UK issue of the album following its success as a single. Although the addition doubtless aided the album’s long run at the top, the song was not part of the original concept of the album, and as there will be ample opportunity to discuss it in at least one later entry, I have decided to base my assessment on the album as it was originally released and charted.)

On the face of it, it does look like a bit of a cheek, not to mention a conceit. One of the major acts of the seventies – on a global scale, the major act of the seventies – opens their number one album account with a Greatest Hits collection, although only five of its fourteen tracks were hits in Britain, and only about half the songs on the album in total charted significantly anywhere (there was a sixth hit, “Fernando,” climbing the charts at the time of the album’s British release, and this would eventually become a fifteenth track, although a cover version of “Honey Honey” by the duo Sweet Dreams did make the UK top ten in 1974). What amount of chutzpah does that sort of gesture necessitate? Who did this group Abba think they were – a question which never really went away during their performing lifetime.

Of course, it was never that simple. The original Greatest Hits package – in reality a pocket introduction to the first three years of Abba, compiling tracks from their first three albums – was rush-released in Scandinavia in late 1975 as a response to compilations coming from elsewhere, including France, Germany and Australia. The album was released everywhere else, albeit with varying track listings in different territories, in the spring of 1976; it may be crucial to note that the familiar cover as reproduced above was not the cover of the original Swedish issue – this was an illustration by the artist Hans Arnold, and a rather crazed and disturbing one at that, depicting Frida as a cartoon Goth and Benny cheerfully banging the keyboard attached to a lederhosen-clad Napoleon, with bats in the belfry circling around their heads.

So the image of Abba as conveyed elsewhere was a very different and noticeably softer one. But despite the frantically reassuring group shot in the gatefold sleeve, all grinning and laughing, the shot remains a disturbing one; they are seated on a park bench, it is late autumn. Björn is engrossed in a medical journal concerning antibiotics. Agnetha sits next to him, bolt upright and staring with ghostly terror directly at the camera. They are clad largely in reserved blue denim. Next to them, and present on the back cover, we have Benny and Frida, dressed in exuberant red and white, passionately embracing. It is not reassuring, but then neither is much of the music.

It is one thing to speak, as David Thomson does in his entry on Ingmar Bergman in A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, of “the rather precious political neutrality and social enlightenment that Sweden embraced, and…its overriding sense of guilt,” except that at least two of the songs on Greatest Hits are effective manifestoes for socialism; perhaps the group’s eventual (and not voluntary) realisation that their personal anguish could be refracted out into the world and made universal is more relevant. But to say, as Lester Bangs does in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll, that Abba “have been releasing what amount to bubblegum records for years” and that the “real truth” of bubblegum “is that there will always be at least one tender spot deep in the heart of rock and roll which should never grow up and never will,” is not really justified, since nearly all the songs on Greatest Hits are to do with growing up and becoming less tender. I quote some lyrics, not quite at random: “Though I try, how can I carry on?” (“SOS”), “How can I go on here without you?” (“Ring Ring”), “I can’t do without you” (“Hasta Manana”). In the nearest song to come to a happy ending, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” the central and opening premise is “Love me or leave me/It’s your choice.” In at least two key songs – “Waterloo” and “Mamma Mia” – the singers gain happiness only at the cost of some sufferance.

Once again, I am not sure that the track ordering is conducive to revealing a full picture of the development of Abba, so the only solution is to assess chronologically. The reason why four of the album’s tracks are not credited as belonging to a parent album is that the album in question had not at the time been released in Britain. 1973’s Ring Ring is not even credited to Abba as such, but to the somewhat ungainly umbrella title of “Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.” The reason for this is that the Björn and Benny duo were to some extent the senior partners in the group; both women had been discovered by them, as artists, and only then did love and marriage follow. Tracks like “People Need Love” and “He Is Your Brother” reveal the early Abba as a sort of Swedish Blue Mink/New Seekers crossover, with plenty of folk influence from their Hep Stars days but also a liking for jaunty, utopian sing-alongs. But even here there is some refusal to accept things as they are. Both men and women get a verse in “Brother,” both leading to the same conclusion (the men get into a fight, the women meet a beggar in the street); the bridge is unexpectedly reflective and the thudding bass drum could have been taken straight from “Admiral Halsey.” Likewise there is an equitable distribution of male and female vocals for “People Need Love,” with snarling backwards guitar pauses inserted before the second and third choruses and a bizarre “Edelweiss”/yodelling fadeout.

There is also “Nina Pretty Ballerina” with its train whistle and crowd noise effects which in its “Cinderella” setting manages to foresee some of the group’s future; indeed, one of their last songs is foreshadowed in the backstory of ordinary woman stuck in a dreary commuting/office loop (“The Day Before You Came”) and part of the song’s exultant chorus states “Now she is the queen of the dancing floor.” The ingredients are all there but not quite fully cooked as yet (“This is the part that she likes to play/She would like to play it every day”). Meanwhile “Another Town” is a rare Abba end-of-affair song sung from the man’s viewpoint; Björn and Benny sound almost Irish (especially with the recorder backing), although the lyric’s semi-fractured English (“You and I had a groovy time,” “You would have to find me gone,” “Guess I will spend my life in railway stations,” “the dreams we dreamed were made of sand”) suggests a not yet fully understood Simon and Garfunkel songbook in translation.

The version of “Ring Ring” featured here is the remodelled, remixed edition from their second album, 1974’s Waterloo, with some lyrical/translational help from Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody (in other words, the quartet, already highly influenced by sixties girl groups, were heading straight for the Brill Building source), and sounds more exuberant in its desperation, and especially its sinister bridge (“Can you please understand the need in me?”), with florid bells and elbow-to-keyboard piano which I note is taken at the same tempo and in the same key as Mungo Jerry’s “Baby Jump.” From the same album we get the original “Honey Honey” – a sneaky variant on “Sugar Sugar” which nonetheless exhibits the same ambition to jump boundaries; the gasping “Nearly kill me,” the unexpected male response vocal in the middle-eight and the sophisticated dreaminess into which that same middle-eight drifts (the “where I would rather be” section). “Hasta Manana” was an obvious Eurovision attempt – “Ring Ring” had only made third place in the local primary Eurovision rounds – and for some time was preferred over “Waterloo,” but it was wise to keep it as an album track (and a single in some territories; it hit particularly big in South Africa and Australia); an oddly old-fashioned campfire farewell ballad, borrowing its mood in equal parts from “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and “We’ll Meet Again” with a vocal pitched somewhere between Julie Andrews, Nana Mouskouri and Olivia Newton-John, complete with banjo and a spoken word section, though note how “until then” is made to sound like “until death.”

“Waterloo” won through in the end, but at this stage I have to question whether the performance at Brighton, and the record, really did mark the moment where pop displaced rock, as the late Richard Cook opined at the end of 1982, a time when such things were urgent matters of debate. To begin with Eurovision itself, the song undeniably shattered a lot of barriers; ebullient uptempo replacing gloomy balladry, sung in a non-native language, sung with platform and satin attitude. But the 1974 Eurovision field was a particularly strong one; Gigliola Cinquetti, Italy’s 1964 winner, nearly stole the show with her “Go (Before You Break My Heart),” while Dutch stars Mouth and MacNeal made a lot of friends with the catchy but non-trite “I See A Star.” The only real lame horse in the race was, alas, Britain; Olivia Newton-John represented, but had to go with the British public-selected “Long Live Love,” a hopelessly dated oompah frolic about Salvation Army bands. As someone who in the States had a parallel and far more successful career at the same time as a credible country-pop crossover artist, this must have been particularly embarrassing for Olivia, an embarrassment not helped by the fact that, of all the songs I have mentioned, “Long Live Love” was the only one not to enter the UK top ten as a stand-alone single (it symbolically peaked at #11).

Still, “Waterloo” deserved to win; it demonstrated a force and even a sexiness that had hitherto been dormant in the competition, and may have been almost completely extinct in 1974 pop (most of the glam heroes and heroines now overstretching themselves, wanting to become Serious Artistes). But, given its admitted debt to the work of Roy Wood and Wizzard, it has to be said that, just as the cover of Greatest Hits is abundant in denim, so Abba’s work is a lot closer to rock ‘n’ roll than is usually admitted; it is fair to say that the fifties rockers, the girl groups and the Beatles all helped make Abba what they were – only it was down to Abba to twist them into new, unfamiliar, Swedish shapes. And dour, indigestible prog rock did not suddenly curl up and fly the white flag when “Waterloo” triumphed; rather, the song initiated some changes in music so slow and subtle that their influence would take some considerable time to filter through. It did prove that pop was not quite over, and that it was perhaps time to speed up the tempo, laugh and party again.

Yet, even as the osmosis took the best part of a decade to spread, what a strange song and record “Waterloo” is. Its slashes of close-miked acoustic guitars and echo-aided piano cut like scimitars; there is little doubt that these people mean business. There are the handclaps and the saxophone. There are the “My, my”s. And yet the girl is not winning; she is constantly and evidently being led up the garden path by her Other, and probably knows that this is not the ideal situation, in fact quite far from it, but in the end accepts it – and the song contains the most revealing and definitive line in the whole of Abba’s work: “I feel like I win when I lose.” Bear in mind that this, as with all the songs here, is the work of men, writing for female voices. How much of this work is an attack, how much a knowing inversion?

“Dance (While The Music Still Goes On),” also from Waterloo, is the one that inspired Lowe and Costello to do “Oliver’s Army” – it’s pretty much the same riff and arrangement – but its sentiments are very different; it is the end of the affair and the lovers urge each other for one last dance, to the music that brought them together in the first place. There is undoubted poignancy in lines like “Dance and forget our time is gone” – not to mention two key changes to underline that this is The End Of Something, and a couplet (“God knows that we’ve been tryin’/But we didn’t make it”) which shockingly leaps out from the ghost of Gaye’s “Just To Keep You Satisfied” – but there are also constant comments which suggest that neither partner really wants it to end (“You tell me it’s over/What more can I say?,” “Why did things turn out so bad?/Was it just a dream – everything we did, everything we had?”). Who knows – perhaps the dance will last so long that they’ll resolve to give it another go.

1975’s Abba, however, from which the album’s remaining five tracks are taken, represented a major advance. Despite the huge success of “Waterloo” - #1 in Britain, #6 on Billboard - it proved, like most Eurovision winners, a tough act to follow; “Ring Ring,” rush-released in Britain as a follow-up, made only #32, and the next single, and the first fruits of the group’s next phase of work, “So Long,” failed to make our chart at all, and performed relatively poorly elsewhere. Dismissed at the time as a pallid copy of “Waterloo,” it is actually nothing of the kind, and indeed is one of their most ambitious singles; with a shrieking, ascending electronic wraith of an introduction (and instrumental break) straight from “Telstar,” this is a far more aggressive song and performance, as it is to do with rejection rather than acceptance. Agnetha sounds agonised and even angry over the minor key bridge; the tempo is slightly too fast to be comfortable. The backing vocals appear to be a fervent chant of “Money, money, money.” The handclaps return, but the discomfort remains; at the song’s natural end, there is a rubato piano passage which, as with so much else of Abba’s work from 1975 onwards, leads directly into the work of Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn – and meanwhile, as the song fades, the horn section begins to play a Mingus riff.

The adventure continued. “Bang-A-Boomerang” was hardly the group’s crowning lyrical achievement – although I gather it has something to do with Australian aborigines, perhaps a nod to Abba’s increasing popularity in that land at the time – but musically is bristling with invention and artfulness; its “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe” bassline blends with the shuffling express train drums, and the whole is far more opulent than had been the case two years previously, with mature pauses for bridges, a general floating feeling which looks forward to eighties American AoR and a shrill organ which builds a path to Blondie. “I Do, I Do…” is maybe the record’s most exuberant track (and it was a much bigger hit in the States than in Britain, where it was still a little out of synch with the times) with clanging wedding bells, Fats Domino piano and a palais band sax section, inspired in equal part by fifties bandleader Billy Vaughn and the Germanic schlager song tradition (although I also detect some Hurricane Smith influence and, again, Wizzard).

Despite great international success, Björn and Benny (and the silent third man, the group’s manager Stig Anderson) were peeved that they couldn’t get another major hit in Britain (“it meant a lot to us to be successful in the home of the Beatles”) and so sat down to write “SOS” with the specific intent of achieving this. It worked, restoring the group to our top ten in the autumn of 1975, and justifiably so; there was nothing like it in these charts, or anywhere in pop. Constructed on a near-classical level, with subtle phasing permeating the entire track, and solemn but decisive piano, Agnetha sings as though already nearing the end of her tether (“It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”). Spring flower Minimoogs pop out of the picture, introducing colour and life, and everyone joins in for the chorus, underpinned by powerful, pervasive lead guitar (towards song’s end, the guitar begins octave leaps). The keyboards reinforce the final chorus before everything falls away like petals of glass, leaving the original, damaged flower, but the Minimoog, and the song’s insistence on quiet-loud-quiet alternations, eventually travel towards Buggles; the record sounded futuristic enough at the time, and now sounds prophetic.

“Mamma Mia,” the song which brought them back to number one in Britain, is a partial reversal of “SOS” with its tick-tock rhythms now shared by a marimba, its speed doubled, and its dominant key now major. And yet the victim of love continues to suffer, and endure it; he keeps cheating on her and walking out, or is thrown out, but she can’t handle things alone, without him, and so with some reluctance she keeps taking him back. The “why, why did I ever let you go”s are clearly rhetorical, and as the arrangement builds and builds, clues begin to accumulate; the unexpected violence underlining the delivery of phrases such as “slam that door” and “not that strong,” the referral back to previous desperations (“I can hear a bell ring”) and the realisation that it might just all be bullshit (“It’s a game we play,” “Leave me now or never,” “Just one look and I forget everything,” and, almost beneath the level of hearing, and towards the end, “Does it seem forever?”). The message: this will do for now, but something has to crack and break soon, so in a lot of senses “Mamma Mia” is the most ominous and unsettling of these fourteen songs, in that in its supposed jollity it clearly, and starkly, highlights what is to come in the group’s work.

“Mamma Mia,” of course, was the record that displaced “Bohemian Rhapsody” from number one, and it is tempting to see its triumph as a moment of transition in pop; if the Queen record represented the culmination and end of something, then the Abba record stood for the beginning of the next, new phase. But a lot of Abba doesn’t really fit any known pattern in pop; they were perhaps the most disruptive of all pop groups, maybe in their own way more so than the Beatles or even the Pistols, because they neither spring from nor fall into a known tradition. There’s the rock ‘n’ roll and there are the girl groups but Abba do not sit comfortably in any “tradition”; indeed, their success raised a number of important questions about the uses and purposes of pop music. Why Sweden? What do men write for women to sing, and how do either feel when they are writing or singing it? What do we want or demand from pop music? Is it illegitimate or unworthy to say that advances in pop can be made by musicians who are neither American nor British? And how difficult was Abba’s example to follow? As this album made its way to number one, another Eurovision winner was topping the singles chart, performed by the Brotherhood of Man, a group who had recently been given first refusal by the composers on “Mamma Mia” and who subsequently proved with their own work that no group was harder to emulate than Abba.

For Abba represent another important bend in the road; in a greater sense than the Carpenters, and excluding practitioners of soul, R&B and country (and nascent punk), they represent the most prominent voice for women in the pop music of this period. Like the Rollers, they appealed far more to girls than to boys. Unlike almost any other group I can think of, they were self-contained with two married couples. Note that “almost”; there is one other important group (to whom I’ll be getting in good time) which shares this status, and possibly took it to greater extremes. And yet, they take over; in the context of this tale they are without question the decade’s predominant act. Who did this group Abba think they were? And how guilty did they feel about thinking, if thought and guilt are mistakenly perceived to be two sides of the same, glaring coin?