They are the gold standard for pop music, and Getintothis’ Richard Lackey explains exactly why they were so quintessential and runs through ten of their finest moments.
If you are an ABBA superfan in 2016 there’s been much to smile about. This year alone we’ve had two “reunions” with all four members (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) appearing on stage together, side by side, for the first time in years.
On one of those occasions the first ladies of pop even sang together once more for an emotional rendition of the very apt The Way All Friends Do, which was enough to send the internet into a frenzy and leave us long-life ABBA lovers blubbering wrecks. We never thought this would happen again, and it did.
Along with the quartet’s growing ease with public appearances, comes the continued re-packaging of ABBA’s inimitable back catalogue by Universal Music – namely a flurry of deluxe editions of the band’s eight original studio albums, remastered (with varying degrees of success) and jammed with demos, rarities and unreleased tracks (although they still refuse to include the lost ark of unreleased ABBA songs, Just Like That, much to fans’ dismay). Many of these versions are welcomed by ardent ABBA worshippers, others less so. How many copies of ABBA Gold should one sane individual have in his collection?
In 2014, we were even given the unthinkable – our first full-length live album – ABBA – Live at Wembley Arena – a two-disc LP of the Swede’s iconic 1979 concert – presented for the first time in its entirety, and silencing any doubters that ABBA were simply a studio band who fell short on stage. In the studio ABBA were masters of the scene (in large part thanks to the band’s sound engineer, Michael B Tretow), but Live proves just how dynamic they were in recreating their well-honed studio sound at a time when today’s trickery was just not at their disposal.
Behind all this, though – lies ABBA’s collection of foolproof pop songs that are as relevant today as they were when they were first laid to vinyl 40 years ago. Applauded during their short ten years together as the world’s biggest band (72-82). Derided during the 80’s as the uncool uncles and aunties of pop. And rediscovered and reappraised in the 90’s by the record-buying public and music contemporaries alike (everyone from Erasure to Elvis Costello, Kurt Cobain and U2). As we stand, ABBA are now rightfully hailed as purveyors of perfect pop music – providing the standard on how to craft a three minute masterpiece – something they did time and time again.
Which comes to deciding which ten songs show them at their absolute best. That’s not easy, especially for someone who has lived and breathed their music since clutching his ABBA Gold cassette tape back in ’92. Since then he’s absorbed every recording ABBA ever released, not to mention the countless videos, DVDs, books, even a 15-year-old ABBA soap purchased for ten quid at an ABBA convention (never has Swedish pop smelt so bad). Pop music is his thing, and encompasses everyone from the criminally overlooked Erasure, to Giorgio Moroder, Madonna and Stock Aitken Waterman. However, all fall under the shadow of the mighty ABBA.
But how can one turn his back on Dancing Queen – arguably the most heavenly pop anthem of all time? And will the majestic When All Is Said and Done ever forget being left on the cutting room floor?
Throughout their active years, ABBA’s studio albums leapt from style to style, progressing with every release, yet all containing that magic ABBA ingredient. From the glam pop of Ring Ring, Waterloo and ABBA, and the pop heavyweights of Arrival and The Album, to the disco of Voulez-Vous, and the grown-up break-up pop perfection of Super Trouper and The Visitors, ABBA’s anthology grew as the members themselves went from young lovers to two divorced couples in their mid-thirties, albeit via a fabulous night out at a French discotheque. This list covers all eras of ABBA’s fantastic career.
10. Should I Laugh Or Cry from One of Us B-side (1981) and The Visitors Deluxe Edition (2001)
There is only one way of making the band’s final opus, The Visitors, even more flawless than it is, and that was to add Should I Laugh Or Cry to the final tracklist. Instead, one of the band’s finest synthpop moments had to settle as the B-side on ABBA’s final UK hit, One Of Us.
Benny’s sublime synth stabs underscore the verses in which Frida takes on an angry vocal lead as the bored and “indifferent” protagonist who has grown “cold as a stone” with her volatile and destructive relationship. In contrast, the choruses contain the rousing ABBA melody and harmonies we’ve come to expect, suggesting all is not as first seems. Beneath the anger, she’s heartbroken.
9. Angeleyes from Voulez-Vous (1979)
For that pure ABBA sound – you can’t top this 1979 single – a forgotten classic which played second fiddle to Voulez-Vous, its more heavily promoted double A-side companion. Taken from the band’s dance album, also titled Voulez-Vous, Angeleyes demonstrates everything that set ABBA apart from their contemporaries. Combining a driving Anglo/American disco beat with Scandinavian schlager, resulting with a chorus that is simply a joy to listen to. On the flip side the lyrics are about another doomed relationship and a jilted ex – yet again showing their knack of hiding sorrow under the shimmer.
ABBA’s swansong LP, The Visitors, was released in the autumn of 1981 when the band was in its darkest chapter – both couples now divorced, and the bright pop stars of the seventies long gone. That doesn’t stop The Visitors undoubtedly being their crowning moment, an introspective and twisted album dealing with themes of divorce, ageing, death, lost childhood and even the murky world of dating. A perfect nine-track album, littered with early eighties’ magic.
The opener of the same name is ABBA like you’ve never heard them before. The Visitors is a weird and intense dance track, yet still irresistibly ABBA (just listen to those post-chorus synths!). Setting a scene of Cold War paranoia, Frida’s robotic vocals open with, “I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me / The sound so ominously tearing through the silence / I cannot move, I’m standing, numb and frozen…” It’s their most sinister track, whose brooding and otherworldly sensibilities have influenced everyone from Pet Shop Boys to Goldfrapp.
7. SOS from ABBA (1975)
From the third album, ABBA, SOS is a game-changer in the ABBA cannon. Not only did SOS give them their biggest hit since Waterloo a whole year later – stylistically it sets the template for what would become the ‘ABBA sound’ – the minor chords, the melancholy, Agnetha’s sombre tone, the soaring chorus, the piano flourishes. Mid-seventies’ pop was in need of rescuing, and ABBA’s SOS was to be its saviour. World domination followed.
6. The Name of the Game from The Album (1977)
Listening to this hit single from the band’s fifth studio album, ABBA: The Album, you can’t help but marvel at just how complex the songwriting had become in just a few years (it’s a world away from Nina, Pretty Ballerina). The Name of the Game is ABBA all grown up. A pop song with rock virtues that pop snobs can’t help but admire. With the now iconic riff (famously sampled by The Fugees on Rumble in the Jungle), sultry vocals from Agnetha and Frida on shared lead, delicious harmonies, and a water-tight arrangement, it’s the consummate mid-seventies pop track to kick back to. It’s made all the more cooler for its inclusion on the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s 1983 horror flick, Christine.
5. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) from The King Has Lost His Crown B-side (1979)
Contrary to popular belief, ABBA were never a disco band, but boy, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) is up their with Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as one of the greatest ditties to ever rip through the dancefloors of Studio 54. It’s also their sexiest track – the down and dirty instrumental bridge and our narrator, Agnetha, desperately declaring her need for a late-night hook-up, is pure filth.
The opening instrumentals (which relight Madonna’s career on her 2005 tour de force album, Confessions on a Dancefloor), and the frantic Bee Gees-style harmonies in the choruses are among ABBA’s best moments.
4. Lay All Your Love On Me from Super Trouper (1980)
One of ABBA’s foremost “tears on the dancefloor” anthems, Lay All Your Love On Me is an elegant slice of early-eighties electronic dance music and at the time the biggest-selling 12” record in the UK. The euphoric synths towards the end of the verses, followed by the descending vocal distortion, the hymn-like melody of the chorus, the jaunty violins in the fade out, Agnetha playing the vulnerable and possessive woman left damaged by a rogue she can’t say no to, (“I feel a kind of fear / When I don’t have you near / Unsatisfied, I skip my pride / I beg you, dear…” she pleads)… it’s impossible not to be lured by the song’s extraordinary beauty.
3. Knowing Me, Knowing You from Arrival (1976)
If you had to capture the one single ABBA moment when the Swedes were untouchable, it would be Knowing Me, Knowing You. Released in 1976 at the height of their fame, everything was right in the world of ABBA, from the relationships within the band through to the sound and look. The song’s accompanying promo video is arguably their most iconic and gave us two young couples in love, interchangeable face profiling (an ABBA trademark), and Agnetha and Frida provoking much playground debate. – the blonde or the brunette?
In terms of all-important song structure, Knowing Me, Knowing You was another turning point in the band’s progression, and among their first songs to deal with divorce and loss (“Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes / Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” sings Agnetha in a dramatic first pre-chorus). The psychedelic synths in the verses and the seminal instrumental bridge are just two elements that help secure this track as being one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
2. The Winner Takes It All from Super Trouper (1980)
As blue as Agnetha’s eyeshadow in the music video, The Winner Takes It All is unbelievably sad – the emotional investment one pays into a relationship, only to have it all taken away in a flash, “Nothing more to say / No more ace to play…” And then that tragic final verse, Agnetha on the verge of tears, as she declares, “I don’t wanna talk / If it makes you feel sad / And I understand / You’ve come to shake my hand / I apologise / If it makes you feel bad / Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence / But you see / The winner takes it all / The winner takes it all…” She’s a broken woman. A victim of love.
1. The Day Before You Came from The Visitors (1981)
ABBA really did save the best til last. Recorded in the latter part of 1982, The Day Before You Came would be the band’s final song. Both now divorced, with new partners on the scene, the energy for ABBA had gone. Agnetha and Frida pursuing solo careers. Benny and Bjorn already eyeing up the West End with the sublime musical Chess. But that doesn’t stop their last recording being the grand old lady of synthpop – epic, tender, mournful, simply perfect. In the ABBA catalogue, The Day Before You Came is unsurpassed.
A song recounting a very typical, working day in the life of a very typical, working woman, Agnetha tells us about her morning commute, lunch with the “usual place, the usual bunch” her half past two cigarette, the train back home again, and an evening consuming Chinese take-away and soaps. But then, in a deliberately fragile Victoria Wood-esque delivery, she tells us, “It’s funny, but I had no sense of living without aim / The day before you came.” And herein lies a big part of the song’s appeal. It’s meaning, shrouded in mystery. Is the “you” a person who frees her from her gloomy existence – or despite her boring routine, was she ironically happier then before “it” entered her life? Is it death?
As minimal as they come, the song is made up largely of Benny’s synths, which lightly, clickety-click through like that aforementioned morning train. Frida’s operatics during the outro are hauntingly beautiful. Its influences can be heard in the decade that followed and beyond (just listen to Propaganda’s Duel, Blancmange’s quirky cover version, and Modern Talking’s You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul).
The saddest bit of all? If The Day Before You Came was a sign of where the band was heading, had they stayed together, then this top ten might look very different. We will never know.