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A phenomenon, or just a guilty pop pleasure for pseudo-rock acts to salivate about, Swedish stars ABBA were to the 70s what The BEATLES were to the 60s, albeit with added glam appeal. It’s not in any doubt that their attraction was eye-candy singers, Agnetha and Anni-Frid, but with class songwriters Benny and Bjorn there were four aces in the pack. Simultaneously one of the most cherished groups ever to come out of the continent, and one of the most readily identifiable icons of 70s cheesiness, ABBA were a one-off, plain and simple.
When the Eurovision Song Contest was not a political charade of wannabes, ABBA won over fans from all over continent – and beyond – when taking the once prestigious prize with `Waterloo’ in 1974 (their first No.1 hit). For several subsequent years, couples Agnetha and Bjorn, and Benny and Anni-Frid (first letters spelling out ABBA), enjoyed a plethora of European chart-toppers, British ones stemming from `Mamma Mia’, `Fernando’, `Dancing Queen’, `Knowing Me, Knowing You’, `The Name Of The Game’, `Take A Chance On Me’, `The Winner Takes It All’ and finally `Super Trouper’. When the heart-breaking divorce of Bjorn and Agnetha was announced to the media early in 1979, and then Benny and Anni-Frid (Frida) split almost exactly two years later, the writing was on the wall for the group; “The Visitors” was their swansong studio album (a fifth consecutive No.1), although ABBA’s legacy continued long after their official disbandment late in 1982.
Formed in Stockholm, songwriting duo from the mid-60s, Benny Andersson (on keyboards/vocals) and Bjorn Ulvaeus (on guitar/vocals) teamed up with respective partners Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog in early 1972. Each individual had developed their singing skills under various groups and activities: Benny with The Hep Stars and Bjorn with folk-pop outfit, The Hootenanny Singers, while Agnetha had significant home-soil solo hits through `I Was So In Love’ and `I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, the latter taken from her starring role in the Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar; Anni-Frid had come through the ranks as a jazz-pop singer.
Initially concentrating on their native Swedish market, the harmony-driven pop quartet delivered a string of 45s, and an album, RING RING (1973) {*5}, under the Bjorn Benny & Agnetha Frida billing. Although not released in Britain, `People Need Love’ had already reached a wide audience on the continent, and spurred on by its success, `Ring Ring’ was chosen as their country’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest – it achieved third place. Of the aforementioned attendant album, other singles `He Is Your Brother’, `Another Town, Another Train’ and `Rock ‘N Roll Band’, recalled international pop combos at the time: MIDDLE OF THE ROAD and The CARPENTERS. Manager/guru Stig Anderson was assigned to turn his country’s most promising act into international stars.
Chosen to launch ABBA’s career on British soil (they’d inked a deal at Epic Records), a fresh version of `Ring Ring’ failed to register in the charts that October, record buyers swaying with either glam-pop, prog, reggae or soul. Six months passed while the boys went to work on a follow-up record. Refreshingly catchy and boosted by the sex appeal of blonde Agnetha and brunette/redhead Frida, `Waterloo’ caught the imagination of Eurovision once again, but this time they sailed away with the prize, while the platter zoomed up to No.1 in many countries around the globe. The single also reached Top 10 in America, a unique occurrence for a “Eurovision” act.
At a time when glam was fading fast, the WATERLOO (1974) {*5} album, struggled to keep pace with the UK Top 30, while in America – despite being boosted by another Top 30 hit, `Honey, Honey’ – it stalled at No.145. Britain, meanwhile, gave `Ring Ring’ another chance to shine in the charts. Benny and Bjorn possessed a penchant for pop, but in songs such as the cod-Caribbean exercise `Sitting In The Palmtree’ and Stig’s co-contribution, `Hasta Manana’ (catchy as they were), ABBA were not yet ready to conquer the world.
Despite non-starter `So Long’ and the deliciously nostalgic `I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ minor hit, it took just more than a year for ABBA to get back on track commercially. The plangent `SOS’ (from their eponymous ABBA (1975) {*7} LP) achieved this in fine style, while `Mamma Mia’ made it to No.1 that Christmas. The ABBA rollercoaster had now kicked into gear, the said album re-promoted to healthier sales and a Top 20 position. With their gorgeous lovelorn melodies, glossy harmonies, kissing couples charm and occasionally pigeon English, ABBA captured the hearts of everyone from teenyboppers to grannies… hell, even John Peel!
`Fernando’ was the group’s third chart-topper, an exclusive track that held the key to the success of the No.1 “Greatest Hits” compilation. There was something about the ABBA sound, something undefinable that made their records magical and timeless; there were songs which, for anyone who grew up in the 70s, could conjure up long forgotten memories more vividly than any photograph. There was no doubting the class of `Dancing Queen’ (number one on both sides of the Atlantic), and in only a couple of years, ABBA were Sweden’s biggest export, cultural icons and now rich beyond their wildest dreams. Featuring the “Cabaret”-styled Top 3 smash, `Money, Money, Money’, parent set, ARRIVAL (1976) {*8}, marked the group out as not just a throwaway singles act, although yet another sophisti-pop No.1, `Knowing Me, Knowing You’ (plus tracks `When I Kissed The Teacher’, `My Love, My Life’ and `Tiger’), kept the set in the charts for months to come.
The conveyor-belt of number ones rolled on with `The Name Of The Game’, `Take A Chance On Me’ and multi-million-seller THE ALBUM (1978) {*8}; “Abba – The Movie” was also delivered to coincide with its release. Bolstered by a handful of carefree and confident cuts in `Eagle’, `Thank You For The Music’ and `I’m A Marionette’ (the latter two segued into “The Girl With The Golden Hair – 3 Scenes From A Mini Musical”), ABBA were pop music’s answer to the punk era.
Not featured on the band’s follow-up set, VOULEZ-VOUS (1979) {*7}, `Summer Night City’ stalled at No.5, while Americans didn’t bother to reach into their pockets at all. In the midst of Agnetha and Bjorn’s untimely split and consequential divorce, the album was probably a difficult one to make. However, the shifting tides of the fickle music world saw ABBA maintain an alliance with BEE GEES-styled disco, as the title track (doubled with `Angeleyes’) danced its way into the Top 3. Having already secured further Top 5 smashes, `Chiquitita’ and the cod-disco of `Does Your Mother Know’, their material tended to opt for an MOR sing-a-long approach, as the belated schmaltzy hit, `I Have A Dream’, suggested. Released a few months prior to the song, the Top 3 `Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’, became something of an iconic gay tune (soon-to-be included on their “Greatest Hits Vol.2”), while Messrs Vince Clarke and Andy Bell of ERASURE were suitably impressed to record the track for a B-side to 1986 hit, `Oh L’Amour’; incidentally the same synth duo completed a 4-song EP, “Abba-esque”, in homage to their Scandinavian idols.
Defined by opening salvos, `The Winner Takes It All’ (complete with heartbroken piano chords) and its title track, parent album SUPER TROOPER (1980) {*7} toasted yet more British and European chart-toppers. Pushed out to reach fans not already acquainted with the set, `Lay Your Love On Me’, failed to reach the Top 5 – their first to do so in six years. Like FLEETWOOD MAC, the stormy inter-band relationships in ABBA fuelled their most affecting, poignant work and, as the decade wore on, the sad songs became even sadder; the heartstring-puller `One Of Us’ (spawned from THE VISITORS (1981) {*7}), a perfect example. The album itself spoke volumes of a band in emotional turmoil (Benny and Frida had also split), tracks `When All Is Said And Done’ and `Slipping Through My Fingers’, songs of lost love as powerful as any ever written. Sadly, when the formulaic `Head Over Heels’ failed to crack the Top 20, and the `The Day Before You Came’, plus `Under Attack’ suffered similar fates (the latter two featured on “The Singles – The First Ten Years” compilation), the band hung up their microphones and drifted into solo ventures.
Unmentionable in the style-conscious 80s, the ABBA legend had become almost an industry in itself by the mid-90s. Part of an overall 70s revival, ABBA’s elevation to gurus of “the decade that taste forgot” was fuelled by Australian parody outfit Bjorn Again, as well as a multi-million selling retrospective compilation “Abba Gold”(1992). In the meantime, Benny and Bjorn collaborated in 1984 with Tim Rice on the production of the musical “Chess”. Released as a double-set, the record hit Top 10 status, while it also featured many singers, including MURRAY HEAD, who scored a global smash with `One Night In Bangkok’. To end the year, the pairing of ELAINE PAIGE & BARBARA DICKSON hit the top spot with `I Know Him So Well’. In 1986, both wrote and backed brother/sister duo, Gemini. Solo albums by both AGNETHA FALTSKOG and FRIDA appeared in the 80s and beyond, although the cult of ABBA stretched to new limits when “Mamma Mia” was made into a stage show, and later a film musical, starring Meryl Streep. Compared to subsequent modern-day purist pop groups, ABBA are just in a different class. Thank you for the music.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Sep2013

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