It’s nothing to do with kitsch, my love for ABBA. Kitsch is an ironic appreciation for low brow culture, mass produced or popular media. There’s also elements of camp involved in kitsch and while I can understand that, for me ABBA has nothing to do with camp. Abba are pop music, proper adult pop music dealing with themes of love, loss, escape, fear and transcendence. That isn’t camp, that isn’t kitsch.
You see, ABBA are part of my life and have been for a long long time. I was five when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and when you are that young, you don’t make judgements on whether you think a song is tacky or tasteless or silly. You just know whether you like it or not. In a way that innocence, that purity, the sheer black or white decision on something is hard to return to. Now I’m older I envy that innocence – there’s so much pressure to appear cool or hip, to think how your opinion appeals (and correlates) to others’. But sometimes it’s nice to say a big up yours to the cool brigade, the taste makers and the media who will inform you what you should be listening to. Sometimes you’ve got to listen to your heart.
But I digress. Looking back at the seventies, it seems that Abba were the first band I followed in real time, and also the first band that I saw as my own music. Not that I actually bought any of their records at the time. My parents bought the albums and we would listen to them all the time, at home or out and about in the car. They were always there, and I was always listening and soaking all the music in. My parents were big music fans (they still are actually, my father goes to more gigs than I do these days) and grew up with Elvis, Buddy, Phil and Don, John, Paul, George, Ringo, Paul and Artie… the best music the 50s and 60s had to offer. And I absorbed all of that music too, but I knew that The Beatles and The Who were old, they weren’t in the charts, and Abba were. This was new music, current music, Abba were mentioned in Look-In magazine (to which I subscribed), they were on Top of the Pops and Swap Shop, they were in Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s “Book of Pop” which was my gateway into the world of music books when I was six. Hell I had Abba posters on my bedroom wall, the icy glare of Agnetha and Frida casting a chill in the room.
It all began with “Greatest Hits” in 1976. I vaguely remember “Waterloo” but the two big singles of ’75/’76 are ingrained in my memory. The descending opening of “SOS” was startling, as was the flurry of synthesised notes leading into the chorus. And there was such sadness in the words and the singing. I loved that song and bounced around when it was played. “Mamma Mia” I always associate with the winter of ’75 leading into the new year, there’s a desperate air to the song. And the first “Greatest Hits” album is a perfect summation of their career up to that point, not that I realised it. Sure the big singles stood out and there was a hint of Euro Pop within songs like “Ring Ring” and “Bang a Boomerang”, but there was hints of hippie idealism within “He is Your Brother” and “People Need Love”. And there was melancholy too, even at this point. “Another Town Another Train” was desperately sad and “Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)” broaches the idea of temporary escape within dance and music, an idea they would return to very soon in their career.
The “Arrival” album arrived at the end of 1976 and was everywhere. I remember visiting friends’ houses in our street that Christmas and everyone had that album. It was inescapable, and frankly why would you want to escape from such a perfect pop artefact? Overexposure has made the singles lose their power – but concentrate on the songs and they are still strange hit singles. The gentle sway of “Dancing Queen”, the irony of “Money Money Money”, the gloom surrounding “Knowing Me Knowing You” … these were huge hits and still get played now but they are so peculiar. Also, the chord change and melody for the line “having the time of your life” in the chorus of “Dancing Queen” is SO SAD!
But I rarely think of the singles outside of the context of the album. OK in retrospect the opener “When I Kissed the Teacher” does sound slightly dodgy but captures that giddy joy of teenage love well. And “Dum Dum Diddle” is a bit silly. But I would forgive Abba everything for “My Love My Life”, a beautiful ballad of heartstopping chord changes and a passionate vocal from Agnetha. The album closes with two highlights, the powerful rocker “Tiger” and the semi-instrumental title track, a strident piece of music which hints at their Scandinavian musical heritage and is the perfect soundtrack to the album image, the four members readying themselves for take off at dusk in a helicopter. If you need one Abba album in your life (besides “Abba Gold” or any decent hits compilation) then “Arrival” is the one.
Abba were poised for take off in 1977 and that’s exactly what they did – Abba dominated the late seventies with a string of worldwide hit singles and albums. Even America let them have a hit there. 1978 saw a double whammy of “Abba – The Album” and “Abba – The Movie”. I desperately wanted to see the film in the cinema but never did, but the album was full of more gems which was compensation for me. (Of course when I did finally see “Abba – The Movie” in the late 80s my initial reaction was “How come Lou Carpenter is their tour manager?”). But the album… well any album that starts with the glorious soaring “Eagle” can’t go wrong. The video for this was played on “Swap Shop” all the time and I adored it, another glacial beauty. The singles “Name of the Game” and “The Winner Takes It All” are as perfect as late 70s pop gets. There are even songs from a mini musical, including “Thank You for the Music” (a fine sentiment if slightly slushy) and the wonderful prescient “I’m a Marionette”, picking apart the star system and pop process in four minutes. This was the second song in my parents’ collection with “Marionette” in the title (the other is on Mott the Hoople’s “The Hoople” album) and these two songs painted pop stardom as not quite the Ideal job after all. Then I read my father’s copy of “Lennon Remembers” …
1979 brought the “Voulez Vous” album and a constant stream of non album singles which would end up on “Greatest Hits Volume Two”. If I had known about the concept of disco at the time I would have said this was Abba’s “disco album” and certainly the tempos are danceable, the arrangements more sophisticated, there’s hints of Chic and “Saturday Night Fever” within the grooves. But the songs are becoming more adult in theme, lyrics about one night stands, desperately seeking solace in bars and nightclubs. “If it Wasn’t for the Nights”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme (a Man After Midnight)”, “Voulez Vous”, “Summer Night City” … these songs take place at night, neon lit and slightly scared. Not that I noticed, of course. My main memory of this period of Abba is “Voulez Vous” playing on our coach on a school trip and me singing along and everyone telling me to shut up.
Abba were in their imperial period now, every single a hit, every concert sold out, every album a number one, but as the 70s gave way to the 80s, Abba turned a corner from which they would never return. 1980’s “Super Trouper” album was the first Abba LP that my parents didn’t buy. What had changed? Well the singles didn’t help. “The Winner Takes It All” is a remarkable song of strength through heartache and despair, which is still an uncomfortable listen three decades on. “Super Trouper” hides a tale of stage fright within its bright surfaces. As for “I Have a Dream” … I never liked Abba’s mawkish side, from “Fernando” through “Chiquitita” onwards, those songs stuck in my throat. And “I Have a Dream” was picked as the theme song for Year of the Child, so my primary school were given special music books for the song and we sang it in assembly. And I bloody well hated the song before this, imagine how much I loathed it after singing it week after week in school. But besides that aberration, “Super Trouper” is a very adult album, there are more desperate songs, songs about fear, multiple personalities… “Happy New Year” gets played every New Years Eve but is far from cheerful. Of course I still heard the album, but my memories of it are linked to that dark Christmas of 1980, still shocked at the murder of Lennon. Dark days and dark nights. Maybe I should have been listening after all.
By 1981 I was more aware of what was happening in the pop charts, I was reading my classmates’ copies of Smash Hits, listening to the radio every morning and night, starting to develop my own taste in music. Pop seemed brighter, more varied, about to burst open at any minute – there was synth pop and hard rock and Britfunk and Two Tone and all manner of interesting strands of music, and somehow Abba didn’t seem as interesting to me. “One of Us” sounded like “The Winner Takes It All” part two, and their ’81 album “The Visitors” was darker than ever, with more songs of fear, ageing, despair, letting go of your children, letting go of your past. And an odd song about a threesome. My father borrowed the album from a friend but didn’t record any of it onto our Abba tape for the car.
Even so I adored a lot of the singles they issued at this time – “Under Attack” has a fixed grin, like a death mask, “Head Over Heels” tries too hard to bring back the joy which was so effortless before. “The Day Before You Came” was a dark diary entry of loneliness, backed by some of the saddest synth chords in history. These singles stumbled around the lower regions of the charts in 1982 and it felt like something was ending, the era of Abba was over, their dominance no longer guaranteed. They made a few appearances on TV late in 1982 and looked like they couldn’t bear to be in each others’ company. Then they just disappeared – no statement, no news, just solo projects and musicals and escape and retreat.
In a way Abba gave me a grounding in how this business of being a pop fan works. The discovery, the initial rush of joy, the great music, the great memories, the decline and fall, the records which are initially disappointments but which reward repeated listening. And I suppose they were my Beatles, the first artist I followed through on. I was six when I “discovered” them and thirteen when they ended. Through those years they were the constant soundtrack to my life. But they had served their purpose by the end in an odd way. By Christmas 1982 I finally had my own record player, and within a few months HMV would open their first store in my home town and a whole world of possibilities would be open to me. And then I bought a Walkman and no longer had to listen to the same music as my parents on car journeys. One era ended and another started that Christmas – I now had autonomy in my musical choices and the future looked rosy.
Ah the foolishness and folly of youth. Nobody really bothered thinking about Abba during the 80s, but by the early 90s the Mamma Mia musical, the tribute act Bjorn Again and Erasure’s “Abba-Esque” EP of covers raised their profile and a generation of former fans realised Abba weren’t as bad as they thought. I had my own realisation of my love for ABBA in the late 80s, buying a tape of “Arrival” in 1988 and having a huge rush of memories while listening in my halls of residence. It wasn’t hard to locate all the albums, usually in charity shops, and being older I took the music more seriously. It’s been wonderful watching the world change its mind and decide that it’s ok to like Abba. For some of us, we didn’t need “The Nation’s Favourite Abba Song” to remind us of their greatness. Go ahead and buy “Abba Gold” and watch “Mamma Mia” on ITV2, but digging deeper will give immense rewards.