Guide to getting into ABBA illustration VICE
Illustration: Joel Benjamin

The Guide to Getting Into ABBA, History's Most Enduring Pop Group

To celebrate the release of their first album this century, we took a deep dive into ABBA's legacy of creating perfect – yet oddly polarising – pop.
JB
illustrated by Joel Benjamin
November 17, 2021, 9:00am

When Sweden’s entry to the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest skipped onto stage in shimmering platform heels, the very fabric of pop music changed forever. The Swedish supergroup ABBA – an acronym for the members’ names (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who would later romantically couple up) – stormed the world with their maximalist disco hits, glam rock tendencies and soulful ballads. Derided by American music critic, Robert Christgau, as “the enemy”, ABBA were dismissed as one-hit wonders throughout their career – yet they just so happened to locate the alchemy of perfect pop time and time again.

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Spanning eight records (we’ll get to their more recent ninth), ABBA set the blueprint for what later pop titans would run with: the collision of sonic euphoria and lyrical melancholy, a musical sensibility that ABBA’s spiritual successor and fellow Swede, Robyn, would crystallise as crying-in-the-club dance pop. 

The music of ABBA is about as maximalist as pop gets. Falling in love is a 19th century battle, falling out of love is a haunted house, and the dance floor is where everything that matters happens. The quartet are often dismissed as pure retro cheese, but ABBA, like all lovers of pop, get why the genre matters: our emotional landscapes, from ecstasy to heartbreak, should be urgently and joyously celebrated; life’s finite moments bottled into three-minute songs. Because, after the age of 17, or after the stroke of midnight, or after the club lights come on, ABBA knows that everything changes. 

Nearly forty years after the group quietly disbanded in 1982, ABBA has regrouped to release a new album, Voyage – their first record this century. There couldn’t be a more perfect time to revisit the smash-hits, fan favourites and deep cuts of pop’s most polarising band.

So you want to get into… fresh-faced, glam rock ABBA?

When ABBA were crowned the winners of Eurovision in 1974 with the Phil Spector-inspired “Waterloo”, it was, in fact, their second go at the competition. One year earlier, the group had entered Sweden’s contest, Melodifestivalen, where national artists compete to represent the country on the European stage, with “Ring Ring”. They finished third – but “Ring Ring”, and their debut album of the same name, became hits in Sweden. Although “Waterloo” is far denser and more sonically sophisticated than the classic ‘60s pop structure of “Ring Ring”, the two songs set the lyrical foundations for ABBA: doomed lovers bloodied by Cupid’s arrow. 

The piano crashes on “Waterloo” evoke the group’s glam influences, which included David Bowie and Wizzard. “Hole in Your Soul”, a track from their 1977 pop-rock album, aptly titled, The Album, is an ode to the genre. “It’s gotta be rock and roll / To fill the hole in your soul,” grumble Ulvaeus and Andersson, while Fältskog exclaims, “They only spit in your eye!” accompanied by a shrieking electric guitar. 

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The finger-wagging, thumping “Does Your Mother Know” might be the only ‘70s song to ever turn down a fan’s sexual advances because of their youth, while the band’s stomp-along 1974 track, “King Kong Song”, is a truly demented work of rock and roll. ABBA pivoted away from rock to embrace disco on their later records, but the group’s love of a glam power-chord and straining, anthemic vocals remained, found on songs like “Hey, Hey Helen”, and “When I Kissed the Teacher”.

Playlist: “Waterloo” / “Ring Ring” / “Hole in Your Soul” / “Does Your Mother Know” / “King Kong Song” / “Hey, Hey Helen” / “When I Kissed the Teacher”

So you want to get into… maximalist disco-pop ABBA?

Entire orchestras lurk in some of ABBA’s biggest hits. Layers of doubled vocals, pianos, strings, guitars and, of course, a marimba rage forward on “Mamma Mia” – a song that twists around that addictive, central exclamation: “My my!” Everything drops away for the chorus as Fältskog, Lyngstad and the teasing marimba despair in their fatalism: “Mamma Mia, here I go again.” 

ABBA’s hyperactive, maximalist pop songs are disco balls, throwing off hundreds of interpretative reflections. These tunes can be emancipatory dance-floor anthems or desperate, despairing pleas with the night. The a cappella opening on “Take a Chance on Me” gives in to a love-struck (and stuck) promise: “Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me,” while jealousy is the emotional currency on the rapturous “Lay All Your Love on Me”. 

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Wealth is the subject of “Money, Money, Money”, an example of ABBA’s roots in sing-along schlager music, the European genre of easy-listening, key-changing pop that can be found every year at Eurovision. But it’s on their shimmering 1979 album, Voulez-Vous, where ABBA swoons into disco. The sultry “Summer Night City” and surging guitar-led title track are the soundtrack of nights spent on light-up dance-floors, while the album’s final song, the pulsating, synth-driven “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”, has become a gay club staple, capturing late-night, frantic desire – as well as the second only ABBA song to ever be sampled, on Madonna’s 2006 single, “Hung Up”.

But it’s “Dancing Queen”, a song that can trigger a dopamine rush with just its opening piano notes, that has cemented ABBA in pop history. It’s the group’s most famous track, without which a wedding party isn’t complete, and with its swirling pianos and euphoric strings, the quartet present their pop manifesto: that time is finite, that the dance floor is a fantasy and that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. Lyngstad wept when she first heard the song in 1976, “out of pure happiness.”

Playlist: “Mamma Mia” / “Take a Chance On Me” / “Lay All Your Love On Me” / “Summer Night City” / “Money, Money, Money” / “Voulez-Vous” / “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” / “Dancing Queen”

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So you want to get into… heartbroken ballad ABBA?

ABBA’s divorce songs rival any of those by Fleetwood Mac or Joni Mitchell. As the group continued to find fame and success in the late ‘70s, both couples’ marriages broke down and their music turned increasingly morose. A mature twist on “Waterloo”, “The Winner Takes It All” returns to love as a battlefield, as Fältskog and Lyngstad offer up their romantic fate to cruel gods and Ulvaeus’s piano line descends with despair. 

Heartbroken nostalgia and a desire to historicise the recent past has always been ABBA’s favourite motif. “How can I forget you when my world is breaking down?” sings a mournful Lyngstad on “Disillusion”, a song from the band’s debut album that was an early indicator of how dark their lyrics would get on later records (“Disillusion” also marks Lyngstad’s only ever writing credit on an ABBA song). “Our Last Summer” wallows in a walk along the Seine, while “Chiquitita”, inspired by Peruvian folk music, is sung in solidarity with a heartbroken friend: “You'll be dancing once again and the pain will end.” Arrival’s “Fernando” was similarly inspired by Latin America, as Lyngstad’s vocals are the ventriloquism for two veterans recalling their days fighting in the Mexican revolution.

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Gorgeous ‘70s harmonies accompany ABBA on a final walk through an empty, childless house on “Knowing Me, Knowing You”. The melodramatic lyrics – “Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” – are the words of a mourner, and recall the grief-stricken lyrics of the band’s beloved song, “SOS”. Both songs have classic ABBA construction, with Ulvaeus and Andersson creating unbearable tension between hushed quiet and crashing choruses. That sensibility returns on 2021’s “I Still Have Faith In You”, as the now 70-something Fältskog and Lyngstad tear through the lyrics, “We do have it in us / New spirit has arrived.” Heartbreak is a distant memory on Voyager, as the quartet reflect fondly on their shared past, old lovers reminiscing over faded scars. 

Playlist: “The Winner Takes It All”, “Disillusion”, “Our Last Summer”, “Chiquitita”, “Fernando”, “SOS”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “I Still Have Faith In You”

So you want to get into… melancholic, middle-aged ABBA?

“I was sick and tired of everything / When I called you last night from Glasgow,” sighs Lyngstad on the title track of 1980’s Super Trouper. Both couples now divorced, ABBA poured their sore hearts into songs like “Super Trouper”, its lyrical protagonist, under the spotlight, wishing every show was the last. On “Happy New Year”, ABBA capture afterparty blues, as Fältskog and Lyngstad sing, “May we all have our hopes, our will to try / If we don't we might as well lay down and die” surrounded by empty champagne bottles. 

ABBA have always been a band filled with Nordic melancholy, but it's on their eighth album – also their final of the 20th century – when their music gets weird. Set in a haunted house or a totalitarian state (or perhaps, both), The Visitors opens with paranoid foreboding and distorted pitchy vocals: “I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me… They've come to take me / Come to break me.” 

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Ghosts recur throughout the record. With its ticking clock and creepy nursery rhyme structure, “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” is haunted by “long forgotten scenes… the present runs into the past.” There’s wintry pensiveness elsewhere, too: “When the summer's over and the dark clouds hide the sun / Neither you nor I'm to blame when all is said and done,” sings Lyngstad on the wise and autobiographical “When All Is Said and Done”, while a woman regrets her independence, lying in an empty bed, on “One Of Us” (uncomfortably written by ex-husbands). 

As ABBA’s personal life unravelled in public, and their musical sensibilities got more art-pop than commercially viable, it was time to say goodbye. The bandmates quietly disbanded after The Visitor, yet their music, distilled into the 90s greatest hits album, ABBA Gold, made them immortal. “A giant creature that forever seems to grow in size,” is how ABBA describes themselves on one of their last songs, “I Am The City”. Musicals, movies and decades later, the group’s music has never dimmed, finding new life with 17-year-old dancing queens of every generation, their influence creeping its way into nearly every modern musical genre, from goth, to K-pop, to the neo-disco revival we’ve been stuck in ever since Daft Punk released Random Access Memories in 2013. 

On Voyage’s lead single, “Don’t Shut Me Down”, ABBA are less naive, but just as determined as they were on that Eurovision stage nervously gripping mics in 1974. “I'm fired up, don't shut me down!” sing the women over gloriously self-aggrandising horns. We wouldn’t dare. 

Playlist: “Super Trouper”, “Happy New Year”, “The Visitors”, “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”, “One Of Us”, “I Am the City”, “Don’t Shut Me Down”

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