The Noisey Guide To ABBA
Know this: ABBA are not disco schmaltz. For starters, their songs are full of perfectly pitched pathos and they've never once sold out. No wonder Bob Dylan loves them…
I still remember the first time I heard ABBA. I was 18 and evenly immersed in the superficial, nationalist vibes of Britpop and the mostly anti-commercialist platform of American indie rock. The name ABBA had only crossed my eyes as a nonsensical word on some black-covered album that had been out for a few years at that point. I didn’t know a lick of their music. Looking back on it, such ignorance seems almost impossible, but it’s the truth. It took an out-of-the-blue suggestion from my friend—an unlikely ABBA fan in his own right, and also the biggest Cobain obsessive and conspiracy theorist I knew—to finally hear their music. And I’ll admit it: at first I thought ABBA was trite bubblegum pop with a hint of exoticism because of their Swedish heritage. I hated it on principle. Boy was I dumb.
I get why some people are so quick to dismiss ABBA’s music. It’s an easy target. For one thing, their image was all over the place. Most of the time they looked like two sets of your friends’ parents (not the cool ones that let you drink in front of them) who decided to dress up in homemade costumes and give that open mic night a try. Though put them in Canadian tuxedos or just a roll of aluminum foil and they could be style gods. Musically, their songs have been linked to what is often seen as the uncool crowd: easy listening squares, baby boomers and anyone who saw Mamma Mia repeatedly. ABBA were misunderstood as kitschy because they made pop music that was soft, sentimental, accessible, explicitly polished and on the surface, frustratingly optimistic. But beneath that surface festered a sadness that seemed to transmit throughout their entire catalogue. “Dancing Queen” may be your mom’s favorite song, but underneath that shuffling rhythm, twinkling piano and syrupy chorus façade was a devastating song meticulously arranged and disguised to give the listener a false sense of happiness. It’s also a favorite of legitimately cool artists like Redd Kross, Robyn, the KLF (as the JAMS), Belle & Sebastian, Kylie Minogue, the Sugarcubes and Girls’ Generation, who have all covered it at some point.
Once I got to know their music better, ABBA became inescapable for me. The more I brought them up with friends I realized that no one I knew really disliked them. When I finally ventured outside of Gold I found myself listening deeply, almost neurotically to albums like The Visitors and ABBA, and it became apparent just how poignant every song was. Be it through the lyrics or the immaculate production of Benny and Björn, there was a gravity underneath all of the slick production and disco-friendly rhythms. They weren’t making cheese; they were geniuses writing immediately identifiable earworms that featured the greatest pop choruses, melodies and arrangements ever.
If you think ABBA is simply Meryl Streep and sober wedding music, read on…
ABBA IS AN ACRONYM
Ever wonder out loud, “What does ABBA mean?” Well, it’s really just a name for the band using the first initials of the four members. Yep, that’s it. ABBA is an acronym: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Hey, it’s better than their original name: Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.
ABBA SURVIVED TWO MARRIAGES AND TWO DIVORCES
Agnetha married Björn. Anni-Frid married Benny. I guess it only made sense to marry each other? But in the end neither lasted. Agnetha and Björn lasted nine years and spawned two children, while Anni-Frid and Benny lasted just two years. Why do you think there were so many sad songs?
THERE IS MORE TO ABBA THAN JUST GOLD
Your first introduction to ABBA was more than likely listening to one of the 29 million copies of ABBA Gold that have been sold since 1992. But that comp was just the tip of the iceberg. Because of that album’s popularity and dominance over their catalogue, basically anything that didn’t make the tracklisting can be considered a deep cut. If you ever want to impress someone who asks you what your favorite ABBA song is, just answer “Intermezzo No. 1.” Not only is it an instrumental (more on that later), but it’s classically influenced, goes a bit off the rails and is buried behind all of the hits on their seminal third album, ABBA. That said, I will fight someone to the death to defend “Ring Ring”—which astonishingly did not make Gold—as the band’s greatest hit. That being said, ABBA Gold is still one of the best albums of all time.
NO ONE REALLY KNOWS HOW MANY RECORDS ABBA HAVE SOLD, BUT IT’S A LOT
The estimates are anywhere between 300 and 500 million records sold—albums and singles combined—but it’s hard to pin down an approximate number. In the UK, though, ABBA Gold is the second biggest selling album, behind only Queen’s Greatest Hits. They also hold the record along with Led Zeppelin for most consecutive #1 albums. One Direction never did that.
ABBA TURNED DOWN A BILLION DOLLARS TO REUNITE
There aren’t many bands at this point that haven’t broken up or gone on hiatus and later reunited. (Save The Beatles, who’ve had death stand in their way.) But even though all four members are alive and still kicking in the music biz, ABBA decided that one billion dollars wasn’t enough to get them back on stage. It doesn’t matter whether the reason was integrity, already being rich enough or just being too old, saying no to a billion is a badass decision that no other band would ever make.
ABBA HAVE THE BEST TRIBUTE BANDS
Every band that matters (and even some that don’t) have a tribute band. But few can contest ABBA’s diverse homages. The best of the bunch is Björn Again, who have been around longer than ABBA—28 years to ABBA’s 11 years. The only gimmick they used was becoming ABBA incarnate, mirroring the quartet to a tee. For nearly 30 years these Australians have given fans the closest experience to the real thing. At the end of the 1990s, a group of teenagers from Stockholm were assembled to basically cover ABBA Gold. Originally they were called ABBA Teens, but obviously Benny and Björn weren’t cool with that so they became the A*Teens. They sold a few million records, but once they stopped covering ABBA the novelty wore off. And of course, there was Gabba, an English band that fused the leather jackets and NYC punk of the Ramones with ABBA’s songs. Yes, a Ramones/ABBA hybrid band actually existed and they were awesome.
EVERYONE LOVES TO COVER ABBA
Chances are if your favorite band knows a thing or two about melody, they’ve covered an ABBA song. The list of acts that have put their spin on an ABBA classic is as weird and wonderful as it gets. There are the obvious pop acts like Kylie Minogue (“Dancing Queen”), the Chipmunks (“Take A Chance On Me”), and the cast of Glee (“Mamma Mia”). There are the cool indie acts that made the ABBA covers their own like Ash (“Does Your Mother Know”), Lush (“Hey, Hey Helen”), Camera Obscura (“Super Trouper”), First Aid Kit (“Chiquitita”) and Evan Dando (“Knowing Me Knowing You”), above. And then there are the unlikeliest covers from Portishead (“S.O.S.”), the Sisters of Mercy (“Gimme Gimme Gimme”), Television Personalities (“The Visitors”), and Ghost featuring Dave Grohl (“I’m A Marionette”), below.
There are even a few ABBA covers albums that are worth your time. Erasure embraced the campy side of ABBA and released a five-track EP of covers in 1992 called ABBA-esque. Jive Bunny and the Master Mixers’ Non-Stop ABBA Party is exactly as advertised: a one-hour medley of Jive Bunny running through the hits. German label Nuclear Blast issued a compilation of metal covers called ABBAMetal: A Tribute to ABBA featuring a selection of Scandinavian and European metal acts. And best of all, Flying Nun’s 1995 compilation, Abbasalutely, featuring the 3Ds, Tall Dwarfs and Headless Chickens slapping some fuzz and distortion onto ABBA classics.
YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHO LOVES ABBA
“I love ABBA. To listen to those songs, they're incredible. And the way that they sound is even more incredible. I never understood the kitsch tag that ABBA have. People seem to look at them in an ironic way." Those words belong to Noel Gallagher, the biggest trash talker in music ever. But Noel loves ABBA. And he's not alone. Your guitar teacher or older sibling might have tried to influence your tastes because they felt ABBA made "cheesy disco pop," but they'd have an army of famous musicians ready to fight such an empty claim. When asked to admit something that would completely surprise someone, late Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister told the Huffington Post that ABBA were one of his favourite bands. Joey Ramone admittedly lifted those bubblegum melodies from not just the Beach Boys, but also ABBA. Elvis Costello asked Nick Lowe to help him make his third album, Armed Forces, sound like ABBA. Blondie admitted that their hit “Dreaming” is “a cop of ‘Dancing Queen.’” Madonna begged members of ABBA to let her sample "Gimme" for her song "Hung Up," which coincidentally was the last great song she has released. Even John Peel, the most important DJ and greatest tastemaker of all time, couldn't stop humming ABBA.
But the most surprising praise of all came from Bob Dylan during a gig in Sweden: "Thanks everybody! It's really a great pleasure to play here. One of my favourite groups of all times is ABBA. ABBA!!" Oh, and although there is no evidence that they were fans of the music, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did enjoying hanging with Benny and Björn. Likely because when they visited Sweden, the ABBA dudes would take them to live sex shows.
ABBA WROTE COMPLEX LOVE SONGS NOT SCHMALTZ
During an interview with Primal Scream frontman and known ABBA fan Bobby Gillespie back in February, he told me, “[ABBA is] pop music but it’s very moving. I love ABBA when there is sadness there. ‘Dancing Queen’ is ecstatic, but it’s sad. It’s got that duality that I love in music. My favorite is ‘Knowing Me Knowing You.’ It was just such a classic, dark pop record. It’s fucking beautiful, you know?”
Yes, ABBA did write music for dreamers and romantics and the music could be schmaltzy at times: they once released a compilation called The Love Songs on a label called Hallmark. But like the music of Phil Spector and Motown, their love songs were intricate onions that put the sentimental slush on the outside. Peel back the layers and there was no shortage of songs written about some real melancholy shit. Divorce was a favorite theme of theirs, understandably. Behind the gooey melodies and sing-along chorus of a song like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” are a set of lyrics that foreshadowed the divorces that would shake up both marriages in the band. And both couples confronted the theme individually. Benny wrote “When All Is Said And Done,” but it’s Björn’s “The Winner Takes It All” that delved deeper. Sure, he denies it was about him and Agnetha, but damn, you can just feel that she was thinking the opposite when she hits that coda.
INSTEAD OF TAKING DRUGS, JUST LISTEN TO ABBA
An investigative piece published by the Bismarck Tribune, discovered that “the glossy production and compositional patterns of Sweden’s fab four set off different neurological reactions that have medicinal powers. In the most upbeat of the group’s songs, like ‘Money, Money, Money,’ the simplicity of ABBA’s lyrics makes them easy to sing along to. In addition to the fizzy melodies, that participation, says [McGill University Professor] Daniel Levitin, gives listeners ‘an even more powerful hit of happy juice in the brain from dopamine.’”
ABBA COULD GET REALLY WEIRD
One thing about ABBA that often gets ignored in their history is just how weird they could be. In hindsight, all of those get ups they wore definitely seemed strange, but they were par for the course in the 70s. Instead, ABBA’s weirdness was a natural part of their music’s progression and it didn’t get weirder than their final album, 1981’s The Visitors. From the opening post-disco bliss out of the title track through to the butt naked minimalism of “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room,” ABBA contradicted their reputation as a cheery pop group for the masses by going out with a dour-as-fuck collection of songs. The Visitors became their worst selling album for obvious reasons, like the fact that they used the Cold War as one of its themes.
But there were also plenty of songs that seemed really out there. “What About Livingstone?” is bizarre enough for its subject—deriding Swedish youth for their ignorance towards the great explorers—but if you strip it of the vocals, those melodies and production could now be mistaken for leftfield pop weirdoes like Ariel Pink or Unknown Mortal Orchestra. And really, half of the time ABBA were trying to be a glam band with overtly riff-ravaged rockers like “Rock Me,” “So Long,” “Hole in Your Soul,” “Rock 'N' Roll Band,” and “King Kong Song.” Seriously though, listen to the heat Björn brings as he shreds the shit out of “Watch Out.”
The weirdness could also be misconstrued because ABBA were the masters of genre tourism. There was “Arrival,” a three-minute instrumental of new age gumminess that was so effective it made the master of that genre himself, Mike Oldfield, cover it for a 1980 single. “Intermezzo No. 1” was an even weirder ABBA instrumental and probably weirdest ABBA song overall, due to its hyperbolic attempt to mimic Benny’s love for classical music. But there were also charming attempts at reggae (“Tropical Loveland”), funk (“Man in the Middle”) and yacht rock (“Two for the Price of One”).
MOST IMPORTANTLY, WE HAVE ABBA TO THANK FOR ALAN PARTRIDGE
Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge remains one of the greatest comedic characters ever imagined. And it’s all because of ABBA. As The Guardian puts it, the British character's love for ABBA is “the key cultural touchstone to understanding Alan Partridge.” Although there are so many loveable traits, Partridge’s fixation with the Swedish group was so hilariously intrinsic to the character: his talk show was titled Knowing Me, Knowing You, his catchphrase “Aha!” was lifted from the chorus of “Voulez-Vous” and his son was naturally named Fernando.
Cam Lindsay is currently probably listening to ABBA in Canada. He's on Twitter.