The first glimmer of ABBA was seen in 1970. Benny and Bjorn were doing a Swedish album and wanted female backing for a song called "Hej Gamle Man (Hey Old Man)." They asked Agnetha and Frida if they would do it. Little did they know they would be backing up the girls for the next 12 years. It was the girls coming to the front that catapulted them to fame. ABBA's uniqueness is the equality of the sexes. Men and women share the spotlight.
I recall the first time I heard "Waterloo." I was driving back to Louisville from Barbourville, Kentucky, where I was finishing my Bachelor's degree, when the song came on the radio. "Who is that?" I wondered. A couple of weeks later, I learned it was a group from Sweden.
I found the Waterloo album in a dime store. "Could the album be as good as the single?" I took it home and listened. "Yes! Quaint but not bad!" Little did I know this group would still be coming at me decades later.
For the rest of the 70s and into the 80s, this maverick band from Sweden continued to turn out consistently appealing albums. It always amazed me when, after the lapse of what seemed like a long period of time, I would come across another one. Occasionally, I saw them on TV. Regretfully, they departed as quickly as they had arrived.
The self-titled album came out in the fall of 1975. I call it the SOS album. The length of time between "Waterloo" and the SOS album necessitated a reintroduction. The people in Europe did not expect much because Eurovision winners were never heard from again.
Stig Anderson said the crisis at this time was their decision to compose in English. English may be the language of rock music, but it is a second language in Sweden.
The deeper I got into the compositions of Benny and Bjorn, the more amazed I became that they could write such great songs in English. Then I learned that English is spoken by virtually everyone in Sweden. Benny and Bjorn used a Swedish-English dictionary at first, and there was some awkwardness in the early lyrics. It did not take long to smooth things out. Benny wrote the music. Bjorn wrote the lyrics. They worked the music up first, then the lyrics.
Languages come easier to Europeans than to Americans. With all those countries on top of one another, there is a lot of lingual overlap. One can drive 3000 miles in the U.S. and encounter only English.
What about rough language? Before the 1970s, it was unthinkable to use cuss words in a pop song. The fiasco of Vietnam and the political corruption that followed brought profane outcries from serious writers.
ABBA used 4 letter words. In "I Wonder (Departure)," Frida sings, "But who the hell am I if I don't even try?" Her thoughts are self-critical. She is stirring herself to action! In "Man In The Middle," Bjorn complains, "She don't give a damn just as long as he pays the bills." Street language for a street scene.
Put downs like CCR's "Fortunate Son" were passe by the time "Waterloo" came out. Vietnam and Watergate were over. The Swedes were unaffected by the decade of chaos following the assassination of John Kennedy. They were good-natured, their looks invigorating.
When Arrival hit the States, ABBA could be found on juke boxes. I was glad to see them gain this popularity. I thought the cover of ABBA The Album was too abstract. Its artwork depicted scenes from The Movie filmed in Australia. By 1977, ABBA was such a force that large, smiling photos were in order. More aggressive marketing might have pushed "Take A Chance On Me" to number one.
There was a campaign to spread ABBAmania to the States. Even though they were played widely on radio, it was a thing of being heard and not seen. Older people had no inkling of them. Information was scarce, and the articles that appeared were short and sketchy.
Benny Andersson explained ABBA's half-hearted reception in America in terms of their unavailability. They were a Scandinavian group and toured infrequently. They could not make the splash in the States that The Beatles did. In fact, ABBA conquered Britain in much the same way that The Beatles conquered America. 8 albums topped the British charts.
ABBA's career invites comparison with that of The Beatles. Both started with exuberant love songs. A gradual cooling produced more solemn lyrics. Whereas The Beatles' concept album, Sergeant Pepper, is a drug-drenched masterpiece, Benny and Bjorn's CHESS musical is an example of character development and involvement with the world at large. The Beatles ended with suits and countersuits. ABBA ended with 2 couples going separate ways. John Lennon was the Beatle with meaningful solo work, aligning himself with the peace movement. Agnetha's and Frida's solo albums were good in the short-term, but faded in the long run. Benny and Bjorn remained creative by going into the theater.
ABBA's 1979 American tour began in the west and came east.
21 Los Angeles/Anaheim
22 San Diego
24 Las Vegas
27 Minneapolis/St. Paul
2 New York
4 Washington, D.C.
Karen and I were in Las Vegas that summer. ABBA brought their show to the Aladdin Hotel 2 months after we left. Had we stayed, we might have seen them. Back in Nashville, I picked up a copy of Voulez-Vous.
The concerts offered 2 hours of hits with Agnetha and Frida fronting the group. Agnetha was the typical Swedish blonde, demure and vulnerable. Frida was more physical. When she twirled, she exploded into Wonder Woman.
The ladies allowed for each other. They added to each other's charisma, voluptuous and sometimes erotic. They seldom competed. Agnetha glided as Frida pumped her fist into the air.
For all its problems, the women's movement had some pluses. In the 1970s, women got jobs. They spoke their minds and exercised a physical freedom never thought possible. Can you imagine Connie Francis working the stage as aggressively as Frida?
The guitars of Lasse Wellander and Mats Ronander added chemistry to the concerts. They never tried to blow us out with volume. On video, Wellander is the one with the beard and receding hairline. Ronander is the smooth-shaven guy.
ABBA took 14 musicians to Australia. Some of the people who played with them were Lena Andersson, Ola Brunkert, Anders Eljas, Rutger Gunnarsson, Per Lindvall & Mike Watson. Each contributed to that inimitable sound!
After the American tour, ABBA began to lose ground in the States. The political climate following the Iran hostage crisis did not favor them. The Reagan Revolution cooled the Ayatollah but wreaked havoc on good rock n roll. There was one more Top 10 record. "The Winner Takes It All" went to number 8.
By 1981, I had parenthood in mind and neither bought Super Trouper nor The Visitors when they were released. It was 5 years before I heard them.
The Visitors is apocalyptic! The angel on the cover is not a Cupid symbol like we have seen before. It is Gabriel come to blow his horn. ABBA has ascended into heaven on the cover of The Singles: The First Ten Years.
I pondered the change in Benny and Bjorn's songs from "Ring Ring" to "The Visitors." It is a long way from "Honey Honey" to "The Day Before You Came." Compare the people walking away at the end of the Bang-A-Boomerang video with the ones walking away at the end of Under Attack. It is the difference between being free and in love and feeling the responsibilities of marriage, children & middle age. They would deny it was because there was no more ABBA, but that was part of it. Bjorn grew sensitive to criticism that his lyrics were fluff and started cramming in as much meaning as he could. The later material is of high quality even though it is more serious.
What about religion? Is ABBA Christian? References to God are parenthetical: "Thank God, it's true" in "As Good As New," "God knows that we've been trying" in "Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)," & "Go away, God Bless You" in "My Love, My Life." It seems they call on God when they are desperate about their love lives. Faith is an issue in "People Need Love," and prayer is resorted to in "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" The piper is like a priest, and a minister turns up in "On And On And On."
Other theological scraps are: "Deals with the devil" ("Man In The Middle"), "In the 7th heaven" ("When I Kissed The Teacher") & "Touch my soul" ("Andante, Andante").
These are signs that the music was at least conceived within the bounds of Christendom. Swedes are overwhelmingly Lutheran, a legacy of the Protestant wave that spread across northern Europe in the 16th century. ABBA music being humanist, conclusions regarding deeper convictions are hard to draw.
Does ABBA drink? Socially! "When the rest of us drink a beer" ("Man In The Middle"), "Won't you have a drink with me?" ("That's Me"), "We had a drink in each cafe" ("Our Last Summer"), "No more champagne" ("Happy New Year") & "One more toast" ("When All Is Said And Done").
The live album was an afterthought. There had been rumors for years, and a German guy once got 50,000 signatures calling for a live album. Benny regretted its lack of authenticity.
ABBA did 110 songs in 10 years. When a group records that long, there is stuff left over. There are fragments, fragments stuck together to make songs and different versions of the same song. They have all of these! There were unreleased gems in "DreamWorld," "I Am The City" & "Just Like That."
It is hard to say how many records ABBA sold. Figures of record sales are unreliable. There is an estimate of 400 million. Stig Anderson got them on various labels around the world. Atlantic released their records in the U.S.
In their day, ABBA was the only big rock group not from the U.S, Britain, Canada or Australia. They opened things up, and Swedish Roxette and Ace Of Base ultimately emerged. Roxette showed a Beatles influence. Ace Of Base was second generation ABBA: 2 girls, 2 guys. They were a family, 2 sisters and a brother.
I got into Shania Twain in the 1990s. I saw Shania and her husband, Mutt Lange, as picking up where ABBA left off. They brought their magic to Nashville.
Elvis Presley started it. The Beatles enlarged it. ABBA took it across Europe and into the Third World. Shania brought it home. Then came Little Big Town and Luke Bryan. Elvis, Beatles, ABBA, Shania, LBT & Luke! These are the ones that matter.
I did not mean to write about ABBA. After searching the libraries and book stores in vain, I started compiling my thoughts. I began with an overview of the music, presenting it as a unified whole rather than as a collection of singles and albums. It meant interpreting the songs individually and collectively. The misconception is that ABBA lyrics are superficial. Melt down the albums, merge the songs, and you will see recurring themes, statements of life style and philosophy.
Swedish ABBA was generally misunderstood in the U.S. They looked European (Scandinavian), and their speech and syntax often seemed odd. Even though they wrote in what was a second language, many of their songs are masterpieces. They wrote on several levels.
ABBA was The Beatles with women! ABBA songs are female, although written by Benny and Bjorn. After all, the 70s was the women's decade. ABBA took the rock n roll of Elvis and The Beatles around the world.
ABBA combined rock n roll with classical music. Benny was playing rock n roll with The Hep Stars before ABBA, and both Benny and Bjorn wanted to be like The Beatles. By 1970, The Beatles were done. Benny and Bjorn had to come up with a different angle and did it by bringing girl friends, Agnetha and Frida, to the front. They were The Beatles of the 70s. 110 songs in English in 10 years! 400 million records sold! Tours on 4 continents! Books, magazines & fan clubs worldwide! ABBA pioneered the use of video clips to promote singles.
I have heard all the arguments against ABBA. They melt in the heat of ABBA's massive appeal. The group sold in every country except communist China, North Korea & North Vietnam. They sold in Russia and Poland during the Cold War.
The members of ABBA went on to successful solo careers. Benny and Bjorn went into the theater with CHESS and Kristina.
I listed the 110 songs from best to worst. Even the worst songs contributed to the puzzle. ABBA music as a whole looms like a large tapestry. It could be hanging on the wall in some renown museum. Theirs is the most artistic pop music ever composed. Each song is a mini-drama, a play with characters and scenes. When we gaze at this colorful tapestry, we see our own lives reflected. We see themes of love, breaking up, reconciliation, war, women, music, night life, children & travel. Their music is an outgrowth of the personal experiences of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn & Frida during their decade, but it also mirrors the experiences of baby boomers worldwide.
ABBA brought sanity back to music. They were unaffected by the decade of chaos in America. Their music was innocent, a throwback to Neil Sedaka, who helped with the English lyrics of "Ring Ring." Disco ushered in a style and grace long absent! People again took pride in their dress. Contrast John Travolta's preoccupation with his appearance in Saturday Night Fever with the slovenly hippies of Hair. ABBA was at the front of 70s glamor, and the Voulez-Vous album was its peak. Then came a backlash, as if good times can only last for a while. When disco records were burned at Comiskey Park in Chicago, it was like book burning in Nazi Germany.
When ABBA was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Benny and Frida showed up for the ceremony. Country singer Faith Hill performed "The Winner Takes It All."
As Agnetha and Bjorn drifted apart, Bjorn spent late hours in the studio because he hated to go home. Agnetha made the first move, walking out on Christmas eve, 1978. A week later, Bjorn had found his second wife.
I understand why Americans have a hard time with ABBA. They are Scandinavian and flourished in the disco era. But Benny and Bjorn were influenced by American and British rock n roll! The first record Benny bought was "Jailhouse Rock," and both he and Bjorn strove to emulate The Beatles. Agnetha's favorite was Connie Francis. I live in Nashville, but unusual circumstances drew me to ABBA. I went to Stockholm after writing a book about them.
Bjorn fathered 2 children by his second wife. Agnetha had a rocky road romantically, going through a series of lovers before marrying a Swedish physician. Their marriage lasted 2 years, and again Agnetha was at the mercy of her emotions. Oddly enough, she got involved with a Dutch fan obsessed with her since Eurovision. Gert van der Graaf traveled to Stockholm and to Ekero, where Agnetha lived. They met, and there was a relationship. When Agnetha wanted out, the Dutchman had to be deported.
Agnetha did 3 solo albums after ABBA. Peter Cetera produced an album with her in Los Angeles. He thought Agnetha was going to stay and promote it. She flew back to Stockholm. After listening to interviews, I think Cetera had intentions!
Agnetha had a long war with the Swedish press. She was the focal point of ABBA, and the press constantly published details about her love life. She secluded herself in a farm house in Ekero.
After ABBA, Benny and Bjorn teamed up with Tim Rice for the CHESS musical. CHESS did well in London's West End, but bombed on Broadway. Rice spent years trying to rework CHESS and finally came up with CHESS In Concert.
After CHESS, Benny and Bjorn wanted their next musical to have a strong story. They adapted 4 Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg. His books are about the Swedish emigrants who came to the United States in the 1850s. Kristina is Swedish folk music.
Kristina was a sensation in Sweden 1995-99, and Bjorn did an English translation. The plan was to do a full production in New York. It never happened, but Kristina In Concert played Carnegie Hall in 2009, and my son and I were in the audience. I wrote a summary of Vilhelm Moberg's books, and it is linked to his Wikipedia article.
Benny and Bjorn were the real couple in ABBA. The Kristina musical gave them something to work with indefinitely. They staged it in Helsinki, Finland.
TO TURN THE STONE
Frida did a song by Giorgio Moroder called "To Turn The Stone." I pondered the title! "To turn the stone" means to flip a rock over to see what lies beneath, previously hidden. Music was changing in 1982, and bands like ABBA and Fleetwood Mac were winding down. The future was up for grabs. "Mystery replaces what we thought we knew."
"To Turn The Stone" is about change. Moroder gives life to his moon and darkness. The moon retreats as darkness throws its cloak. The moon, representing knowledge and enlightenment, disappears.
Life is a kaleidoscope. "Eternal sands of time shift endlessly." Nothing is permanent! Not only does the objective world change, but the subjective world changes as well. Perceptions change! "Do we see the same through different eyes?"
Life is transitory, and changes come quick and without warning. Only an "eyelid flash" is needed to turn the stone. Much insight is packed into these lines.
Bjorn Again came from Australia. They were the first of the tribute bands. Of course, the personnel has changed several times. ABBA sold records almost everywhere on the planet, and the tribute bands testify to the universality and timelessness of this music. ABBA combined classical music with rock n roll. Their songs are autobiographical from the female point of view, reflecting Agnetha and Frida although written by the men. ABBA's music is art! It has literary, poetic & dramatic qualities that exist nowhere else in pop music. Each song is a mini-play, a painting hanging in a gallery!
Originally written 1989