The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Their refusal to die, coupled with their refusal to be reborn, has ensured Abba’s longevity beyond facile camp. With the recent deaths of Joe Strummer and Maurice Gibb, Abba are now about the only iconic pop group whose original members are all alive and sufficiently compos mentis to feasibly reform (ruling out Barrett’s Pink Floyd but not necessarily any configuration of Fleetwood Mac) but all four are astute enough to realise that if they did reform, the spell would break and “Abba” would atomise. The easy Swedish aesthetic comparison with Ingmar Bergman is usually made, specifically in relation to the extraordinarily deep self-examination which characterised their later work, and the Bergmanesque compositions of their videos (typically featuring Agnetha and Frida’s faces in full shot standing at right angles to each other), but this is of course over-simplification; the reality is that Abba probably saved pop music and were careful to inject their art with enough cunning angst to ensure that they would be talked about and listened to decades hence, whereas operatives like the Osmonds simply were what they were, with no subtext, and thus didn’t transcend the dual traps of brief idolatry followed by intolerable camp ironic adulation.

How, you ask, did Abba save pop music? When is perhaps the primary question – specifically, in April 1974, at the Eurovision Song Contest held at the Brighton Dome Pavilion. Already veterans of various locally notable pop/folk groups of the ‘60s and early ‘70s – and some were already past 30 – Bjorn and Benny knew what was needed. They’d had a near-miss at Eurovision ’73 with “Ring Ring,” which was good if not yet distinctive pop; they then retreated to consider other elements to add to their assault on the then strangulating hegemony of, on one hand unregulated prog, and on the other, increasingly stale glam. Consider: in April 1974, Tales From Topographic Oceans and Brain Salad Surgery were inescapable; Bowie was musing about becoming a canine man in 1984; Bolan was retreating into non-ironic navel-gazing (“Teenage Dream”/Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow), Slade and the Sweet were already past their career peaks (two of Slade’s three 1974 single releases were, very tellingly, ballads) and Roxy Music past their first artistic peak. Everything was mouldering away steadily; the UK singles chart more or less having turned into a “Radio 2” chart (which it was to remain, essentially, until 1978); unchallenging, polite, miserable.

Consider the other leading Eurovision entries of that year; indeed, it was something of a commercial peak for Eurovision, in that no less than four of the songs made it into the UK Top 20, and of those the only one not to make the Top 10 was the UK entry – Olivia Newton-John’s oompah salute to the Sally Army “Long Live Love,” quite possibly the most embarrassing record the poor girl ever made (one really feels for Olivia in the early years; already having a much more profitable career in the USA, yet in Blighty condemned to gingham dresses and tasteful duets with Cliff. You have to understand the starchiness of the environment in which she had to work at this time to appreciate fully just what an absolute liberation her contribution to Grease must have felt, not to mention terrific sex-pop hits like “Physical”) which stalled at #11. Then again, two of the other three hardly justified any claims of improvement; Dutch duo Mouth and MacNeal’s “I See A Star” was equally Bavarian marching band in its outdated template; while 1964’s winner, Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti, had a melodramatic nervous breakdown to the torch song “Go!” which sounded like a lost Barry Ryan B-side.

So it’s against this background that you have to appreciate the earth tremors which Abba made with “Waterloo.” Freely influenced by Roy Wood’s work with Wizzard – which itself was a lo-fi midway point between Spector and Meek – Bjorn and Benny mixed in some standard war/sex analogies into the lyric, set it against a piano-driven riff which can only be described as knowingly joyful; and on they strode, Bjorn looking like a weekend tennis player on guitar, Benny resembling Robert Wyatt on keyboards – and Agnetha and Frida, both dressed in primary-coloured bacofoil and Donny Osmond caps and absolutely enticing in their come-on grins at the camera/you; completely dominant in their platforms and, to this ten-year-old viewer, astonishingly sexy (my other pop crushes at the time were Suzi Quatro and Lynsey de Paul). In the four minutes it took for Abba to deliver their death blow to rancid rot, you knew instinctively, even before the judges awarded their points, that this was the key moment in the 1970s when the pendulum turned back from rock to pop; a moment which may well have been much more influential in its eventual spread than, say, the Pistols on Grundy (which could only have been seen at the time if you lived in London). A fortnight later, the song was at number one, and no one could have objected.

Yet this could easily have been a singular blow, for Abba struggled for a while to follow it up. A reissue of “Ring Ring,” complete with English lyrics by Neil Sedaka, was only a minor hit; “So Long,” a dull rewrite of “Waterloo,” failed to chart at all. Bjorn and Benny were later to acknowledge that they had to stretch their art fully to avoid become just another Eurovision one-hit-wonder, and their music briefly fell into banality; 1975’s “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do” was scarcely different from the benign piffle being served up by the likes of the New Seekers or Guys & Dolls at the time.

However, as Guys & Dolls eventually beget Dollar, so Bjorn and Benny began not to be so happy and allowed doubt to enter Abba’s pop. The first result, 1975’s “SOS,” returned them to the Top 10; a grievously wistful plea for the Other to return which alternates between staccato classical piano lamentations, bridged by a subtle synthesiser motif into an ecstatically despairing chorus, its impact doubled by the guitar which underscores the cry of “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?” – a daring sentiment to utter in the feel-good-or-else charts of 1975.

After that, Abba were joyful again, but with conditions attached; “Mamma Mia” displaced “Bohemian Rhapsody” in early 1976 to give them their second number one; their ecstatic vocals trying to keep up with the unstinting piano to express their dependence on sexual fulfilment: having been evidently deprived of it for so long, the rewards are so much more tangible and greater.

But they kept a hand free for the mums and dads; consider “Fernando,” another 1976 chart-topper, a seemingly sentimental ballad about a retired freedom fighter (country unspecified; Abba were always careful to avoid becoming politic-specific) and his wife which could easily have been sung by the old Seekers. But listen carefully to the sad, resigned swoop from major to minor in the second half of the chorus: “Though I never thought that we could lose/There’s no regrets” – before it quickly assumes its façade and returns to major – “If I had to do the same again, I would…” In other words, they fought and didn’t win; they lost, may well be hiding in exile in the remote mountains, may still be discovered and killed. It’s that which elevates the song and performance and makes it genuinely poignant.

But all of this could well be construed as warming up for the song, the record, in which they made the quantum leap into greatness. How many times have you heard it? Thousands, probably – usually at drunken Xmas parties or wedding receptions. And how many times have you listened to it – not just sung along with it, but listened to it as a pop record? It arguably outdoes “Anarchy In The UK” as the most radical and influential pop record of 1976; it may well be the first pop record to shake off completely any evidence of American influence (and ironically it was the only Abba record to become a really major hit in the USA), to sound wholly and indisputably European (even Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” acknowledged its considerable debt to the Beach Boys), to sound completely futuristic and warm at the same time (the two are not frequent partners in pop), to sound machine-made yet unutterably human in its ecstasy: “YOU can dance! YOU can dance! Having the time of your life!” A decade before Madonna updated the sentiment for “Into The Groove,” it differs from all other love songs in that it’s a love song to yourself; you are free to be your own idol. You want to talk about dancing about architecture? It sounds as though that’s exactly what the song’s progenitor is doing; against mammoth arches, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or the Great Gate of Kiev. It flooded, reluctantly acknowledged, if acknowledged at all, into post-punk, and more fully acknowledged into ‘80s New Pop, electro and everything which came afterwards. Simple Minds’ “Glittering Prize” is an act of worship to the subject of this song, so instinctively known, so deeply inscribed in everyone’s bones, that I don’t even need to tell you its name.

With that, Abba were free to explore other avenues of angst. “Money Money Money” takes its obvious lead from Cabaret, yet is Frida’s desire particularly ironic? (Frida’s was always the more compassionate and the more sinister of the two lead voices – if not always the deeper) And then, just as Fleetwood Mac battled with each other and recorded the results as Rumours, so did the two married couples start to drift apart and grow up. Now a darkness comes across Abba’s music. The haikuesque monosyllables of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” which say more in their desolate minimalism than the complete works of Elvis Costello; the avant-garde strut of “The Name Of The Game” which foresees contemporary R&B (and the Fugees later acknowledged as much) – both number one singles in 1977, and in their own way just as nihilistic as “God Save The Queen.” Not to mention album tracks like “Eagle” (speed me towards death?).

The pendulum swung back somewhat in 1978; “Take A Chance On Me”’s electro-burble gives us their most innocently joyous invitation to consummation since “Mamma Mia”; a fantastic tonic, running at the same BPM as the contemporaneous “Stayin’ Alive,” with even some Sparks influence seeping through. They followed that up with what remains my personal favourite among Abba singles; the astonishing sonic multiplex that is “Summer Night City.” Dismissed at the time as a disco cash-in attempt, it’s so much more sophisticated than that – easily as sophisticated in its own way as Chic were in theirs – the production leaps and bounds ahead of most other mainstream pop of the time in its adventurousness, looking forward very fixedly to what Trevor Horn would achieve in the ‘80s (especially The Lexicon Of Love). And are they really singing “fucking in the moonlight” at the fadeout?

After that peak, the quality of their records dwindled somewhat in 1979. “Does Your Mother Know” boasted a Bjorn lead vocal, but that merely served to make them ordinary again; you could just as well be listening to Racey. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” is “Money Money Money” rewritten to accommodate sexual frustration without the allegory; “Chiquitita” is a dreary retread of “Fernando;” “Angel Eyes” suffers against the contemporaneous Roxy Music hit of the same name; “Voulez-Vous” sees them trying disco again, but at considerably greater length and lesser impact. Ironic that, momentarily reduced to the children’s choir campfire singsong of “I Have A Dream,” they were kept off the Xmas #1 spot at the close of the decade by a far less comforting deployment of a children’s choir – Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2).”

As the 1980s stumbled into existence, Abba were suddenly starting to look old-fashioned, hammy, platitudinous, clichéd. Something had to give; and give it did in their astonishing 1980 “comeback”/”go away” single “The Winner Takes It All.” I’m still not sure about the mechanics behind this and their subsequent autumnal work; what I mean by that is, were Bjorn and Benny getting off on making their lately divorced wives sing songs about betrayal and the death of love/life? My feeling is that Agnetha and Frida fully knew what they were expected to sing and did not have any problems going along with it. Their relationships were over; they were, after all, professionals, impartial. Even if Agnetha’s “I don’t wanna talk” (first whimpered, then spat out later in the song) or the whole sequence beginning “But tell me, does she kiss…” sound like the razor’s poised just above the wrist, and not necessarily her own. Group therapy through music? Pop as a marriage counsellor? Hard to tell.

“Super Trouper” was another very big hit (and incidentally, their biggest-selling single in Scotland, presumably because of the mention of “Glasgow” in the first verse) but the jollity here is audibly strained. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is another hymn-as-disco which doesn’t quite convert. It was time to drop the pretence.

Thus, the astounding final testament of an album that was The Visitors. I do not propose a detailed analysis of this record here as the definitive word on it was written by Taylor Parkes in the Melody Maker’s “Unknown Pleasures” booklet (which cries out to be properly published). Suffice it to say that Parkes is painfully right to compare it with Closer; the faces in the half-light on the sleeve, situated galaxies away from each other, all staring at nothing; the loss of a future so clinically described in “Slipping Through My Fingers”; the final waiting for the world to end, for the cupboard to explode, that is “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” – perhaps to be listened to while watching Richard Bennett’s Major Amberson dying in front of the flickering fireplace, gathering together his theories about the sun and the Earth before his candle is likewise snuffed out.

And then there’s the codicil, or envoi, “The Day Before You Came”, an isolated single released in the autumn of 1982 which few noticed and fewer still bought. The unalloyed grief here was too much for most record buyers, least of all Abba fans. Over five-and-a-half unhurried minutes, Agnetha’s barely concealed wreck of a vocal describes the trivial details of an average day, an average living death, as, the implication goes, her life was in total before “you” came. Timings, subject matters, novels by Marilyn French “or someone in that style.” Think of this song in parallel to Tom Waits’ “Soldier’s Things” or even the 253 words to describe each doomed bastard of a passenger in Geoff Ryman’s 253; think also how Bacharach and David would have approached the subject matter. Dionne Warwick would have sung it (maybe even identical lyrics) and made it sound warm, inviting, thankful; the tenor of the song would be that she is thanking her Other for bringing light into her hitherto banal and uneventful life. But there is no joy at all in Abba’s “The Day Before You Came.” The conclusion? Something has happened. “You” are no longer there, may no longer exist. And who, or what, precisely, is “you”? Which “you” came? Disease? Death? Is the singer already dead, or dying by her own hand; frantically itemising the contents of her life, desperately trying to render some last-breath meaning out of them? Self-autopsy, like Greenaway’s The Falls. It was a sombre epitaph to the New Pop which Abba had helped beget; Abba, likewise, could not physically say any more after that. How could they? Go back to being happy?

They all kind of did, in a way; Agnetha did some singles which sounded like inferior rewrites of Blondie’s “Island Of Lost Souls” and then retreated into reclusion; Frida’s debut solo single, the astounding “I Know There’s Something Going On” (released more or less simultaneously with “The Day Before You Came”), suddenly unleashes all the pent-up rage she had felt in Abba but could not express, Phil Collins’ hammering drums being put to purposeful use. Then she married rich and royal; there was still tragedy to come, but she survives. Bjorn and Benny write musicals; “I Know Him So Well” from Chess, a number one for Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson in early 1985, is an Abba record in all but name and vocals. And the Nordic melodic influence carries on: witness their most obvious aesthetic descendents, A-Ha – and, far more widespread, everything ever written and produced by Max Martin and/or Stargate; Abba writ through everything like a stick of rock (“Baby One More Time,” the cynical granddaughter of that same 1976 ode to self-love). If you want a monument to Abba, look around you.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .