Monday 11 January 2021

ABBA: Gold: Greatest Hits


(#461: 3 October 1992, 1 week; 17 April 1999, 1 week; 1 May 1999, 2 weeks; 29 May 1999, 2 weeks; 3 August 2008, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Dancing Queen/Knowing Me, Knowing You/Take A Chance On Me/Mamma Mia/Lay All Your Love On Me/Super Trouper/I Have A Dream/The Winner Takes It All/Money, Money, Money/SOS/Chiquitita/Fernando/Voulez-Vous/Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)/Does Your Mother Know/One Of Us/The Name Of The Game/Thank You For The Music/Waterloo


(Author’s Note: The original 1992 edition included edited versions of “Voulez-Vous” and “The Name Of The Game,” but the 1999 reissue, which was the edition I used, incorporates full-length versions of both songs.)


There is something about the enduring – many would say unrelenting - popularity of ABBA which helps to explain how pop music can be so attractive to fascists. I do not mean to impugn any of the group’s members, who are all, I do not doubt, kind and liberal souls very keen on leaving party politics out of their music. But there is a way in which anything remarkable about pop – humour, sex, colour, life – can be routinely pummelled into non-existence for the sake of moderately pleasing an unfussy but fearful middle ground of the public, and in large part this tale concerns itself with what happens when that comes into being, which as far as the British album chart is concerned is far too often.


As you have no doubt long since gathered from reading this tale, album buyers, being fundamentally conservative, want to know exactly what they are getting for their allegedly hard-earned cash. They want things they already know, ideally put together in one place for the sake of easy convenience, or things which sound like things they already know. They desire no real extremes other than faint reminders of such things as they might have occurred in the pre-responsibility days of youth. They will brook no leakage of boundaries, tolerate no nonsense (or anti-sense), wish things simple and foursquare.


In Germany there is a term for the type of music which this attitude in part summarises and that is schlager. It is probably the most popular musical form in the Western world and if you’re honest you all love it. Sentimental, simplistic, purposely and selectively nostalgic, blotting out any awkward talk of politics or sex. Germans of a certain generation and bearing went for it in the fifties as the pronounced antidote to American rock ‘n’ roll, but it is creepy as though trying to stand in front of 1933-45 Germany, awkwardly gurning (members of Kraftwerk, Faust etc. will tell you that the Third Reich and the war were not taught in fifties schools and that the proscribed history books furnished to classrooms did not mention either). Schlager, like most of what is wrong with the world today, is a manifestation of simplified nostalgia, defined by what it excludes as strongly as, or more strongly than, what it incorporates, powered by an imagined golden past which never existed.


ABBA are somewhat more ambiguous and multifaceted than that, but it is a matter of record that in their early, pre-ABBA days they were very strongly influenced by schlager, so much so that the young Agnetha Fältskog recorded several singles in that mode (for instance, 1969’s “Zigenarvän” and 1970’s “Om tårar vore guld”) and I suspect that their ongoing international worship, over thirty-eight years after they essentially stopped functioning as a group, is based on a simplistic misappropriation of their work which for many harkens back to alleged times of glory with no strikes, no punk rock and no energy crises getting in the way.


Yet it is key to remember that it was not until 1992 when it was decided that ABBA could be loved. Before then they were regarded with the deepest of suspicions. They were not hip, not even ironically lovable. They were detested and mostly ignored. But then Erasure’s covers E.P. ABBA-Esque turned the table around (see entry #467), and various tribute acts, most noticeably Australia’s Björn Again, began to sell out hitherto “trendy” concert venues. People started to imagine they liked ABBA – and hence ABBA Gold, as it is popularly known, became the go-to album of theirs to have. It contains everything you would expect, and nothing you wouldn’t, and served as its own metaphysical schlager table mat, for those scared of the present and the future, looking back to simpler, warmer times. It topped the chart in three separate years; it returned in 1999, when reissued to mark the 25th anniversary of their Eurovision triumph, and again in 2008, when the film version of the stage musical Mamma Mia was released. It remains in the chart to this day and is unlikely ever to venture outside it.


The record, and the attendant industry which has grown up around it, has arguably traduced the work of ABBA to the point where their appeal lies in their questionable stage wear, vague memories of dancing around handbags at school discos – before “we” were expected to be adults. However, professing to like ABBA before the onset of their “revival” was less of what was subsequently termed a “guilty pleasure” and much more of a passion of shame. If you liked or even loved the group’s music, you kept it to yourself. That is one of post-war pop music’s two fatal flaws – the inability and unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that most of the profoundest and most genuinely popular post-war pop music was, and is, primarily loved by women (the second fatal flaw is, of course, endemic racism).


The music contained on ABBA Gold is perfect in ways which come across as intimidating. Here are nineteen pop songs which are better constructed, executed and realised than any other pop music you have ever heard, arguably including other pop music made by ABBA. It is easy to see why this has become the second biggest-selling album in the history of the British album charts, outsold only by Queen’s first Greatest Hits collection – 5.7 million sales and counting. It serves as a pop Bible; you think you know how to make pop music? This guide explains how, and underlines precisely why you never will.


Since I have already written about ABBA on eight separate occasions, I see no reason to revisit the contents of this collection song-by-song. You probably know how it all goes without my needing to tell you anything. I would merely reiterate how this is not quite the equitable partnership that it might initially seem; the women do most of the singing, but the men do all of the writing. Balanced against this apparent imbalance is the impression that most of these songs take an extremely dim view of men.


Yet the songwriting here is some of the most unanswerably assured since the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it is also attractive to view ABBA Gold as the end product of what might have happened to post-war popular music had it not been rudely intercepted by rock ‘n’ roll – here, only “Waterloo,” which comes right at the end of the album as a reproving reminder of a forfeited shared memory, illustrates how much of the group’s early work was rooted in fifties notion of “rock.”


But it is one of the easiest things in the world to be overwhelmed by the pow-pow-POW! one-after-the-other flawlessness of these songs (or most of them, anyway – it is perhaps best to view “Does Your Mother Know,” the only one of the nineteen songs to be chiefly sung by a man, as a cynically rationalist response to the protagonist of “Dancing Queen” – she sees herself as a nascent goddess, but all he sees is a deluded teenager) which explains the ongoing attraction of ABBA Gold perfectly. The steely precision of the songs is engineered with the precise purpose of inspiring awe.


I did mention pop’s second fatal flaw of endemic racism, although optional or conditional racism might be a factor at work with British record buyers. In ways which have been both subtle and not so subtle, ABBA have never really been forgiven for not being American or British. A huge part of that passion of shame lies with the group’s inherent otherness. Recall that their rise to fame here coincided approximately with Britain’s entry into the Common Market, and regard their continued success in post-Brexit Britain as a melancholy illustration of the high likelihood that the British like elements of Europe, in fact may even love them, but at the same time do not want to be part of Europe.


In terms of the group’s “best bits,” the music on ABBA Gold is so immaculate that it perhaps blinds the unwary listener (if that is not a contradiction) into imagining that all of the group’s work was similarly free of flaws. With a total running time of 79 minutes and eight seconds, it was impossible to include absolutely all of their UK hits – even quite large ones such as “Summer Night City” and “Angeleyes” – on one CD. In addition, “Thank You For The Music,” though only a minor “posthumous” hit single in the UK in 1983, fits the general pattern of ABBA Gold better than “The Day Before You Came” would have done (too emotionally disruptive by half). This problem was solved in 2002 when a European reissue included a bonus CD which rounded up the missing songs, but this was not released in Britain, since a sequel – More ABBA Gold – had already been issued in May 1993.


Why not have just released a 2-CD collection in 1992 and have done with it? Well, as I intimated above, I am not sure that anybody involved in putting ABBA Gold together was sure that it was going to be a success in any form; for various contractual reasons, the group’s back catalogue had actually been absent from circulation at that time, so I’m sure many consumers rushed to get all these songs in one place.


Moreover, More ABBA Gold illustrates, rather grimly, that the group could, if they wanted, be a lot less than perfect; too many cheesy early-seventies romps which illustrate why they had little residual credibility, too many landlocked album tracks marooned out of their context, too few memorable hooks. It is rather like when one wonders why the BBC reruns the same few Morecambe and Wise sketches again and again, and then you watch the original shows in full and realise exactly why that happens. More ABBA Gold never bothered our top ten and barely turned platinum, and its relative failure is sadly very explicable.


Really it is hard to come to a satisfactory conclusion with regards to ABBA, and this inconclusive and in places deeply contradictory blog post does little to clear away the clouds. Were Then Play Long to become an alphabetised book, they would be the first act in it, be one of the most sheerly successful acts in it, and shadow the rest of the book like a lion might shadow a nest of egrets. It is entirely possible that their mission was to subvert schlager, to make it matter, even if only to one person. But I am not sure that they were, or are, loveable. Be indifferent to ABBA and you run the risk of sounding as though you are indifferent to all pop music. Consider their work, however, as a warning from history, and you may wonder why you didn’t just stick with jazz. Perhaps, as an observer, that is my final failing.