Got a problem with Abba? Go back to your Emerson, Lake & Palmer gatefolds
Proud Abba fan Donald Clarke on the music that makes Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
I am talking rubbish to a fellow Irish journalist when the room goes silent, the crowds part and a burnished figure makes her way regally down the corridor. It is Cher. I catch my colleague’s eye and sense – something later confirmed – that she’s half-wondering whether we should curtsey. We don’t. But it does feel as if we’re in Game of Thrones and the merciless Queen Kestrel has just passed on her way to the next public disembowelling.
The presence of Cher at the press junket for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – sequel to the unstoppable Mamma Mia! – can be read as the highest endorsement from the Kingdom of Camponia. I’m guessing they would have preferred Barbra Streisand. But the former Cherilyn Sarkisian will do well enough. Her imprimatur confirms the lasting appeal of Abba and blesses the jukebox musical structured around their songs.
The cold sums do more to enshrine the Abba legend. They are still the biggest-selling group from continental Europe and the biggest from outside the anglophone world. Indeed, no other European group managed sustained chart success in Britain or Ireland in the 1970s. Although they are still seen as a singles act, Abba secured a joint record of eight consecutive number one albums in the UK.
My problem was that I was into darker material. I was into jazz and rock, stuff like that. Abba weren’t suicidal enough for me, Stellan Skarsgård says
Mamma Mia! has its own place in the history of popular culture. Although there had been jukebox musicals before – Buddy, Elvis, Beatlemania – those shows tended to work as staged biographies of the featured acts. Mamma Mia!, which opened in the West End 19 years ago and still runs today, told an original story through the medium of Abba’s infectious melodies and uncomplicated lyrics. Despite the group never properly breaking the US, the Broadway version ran for 14 years. We have more. Phyllida Lloyd’s gloriously silly film – starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried, among others – took $616 million, or about €525 million, to become (for a while) the highest-grossing live-action musical ever and the highest-grossing film directed by a woman. And so on.
For all that there is still, for many, a Problem with Abba. When they won the Eurovision Song Contest, with Waterloo, in 1974, big serious people who cared about big serious music were simultaneously amused and appalled. The tune was strong, but much else had become skewed in translation. They dressed like glam-rock stars, but by the time of their victory that movement was already past its high period. David Bowie and Roxy Music fans looked back with no great interest. The long-haired students with their Emerson, Lake & Palmer gatefolds had already dismissed all pop music.
Pierce Brosnan, who returns in Here We Go Again as one of Seyfried’s three potential fathers, saw himself in the latter camp. He would have been just 20 then. “I remember them winning the Eurovision Song Contest,” he says. “I was at drama school. They came out singing this song Waterloo, which I didn’t understand then – I have a little more understanding now – but I was into Pink Floyd and a very different kind of music. I didn’t really connect with them until I was offered the movie, 10 years ago.”
The group also got mixed reactions in their home country. Although they arrived as fresh faces in Britain and Ireland, in Sweden Abba were seen as a supergroup. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who would become the core songwriters, had hits with, respectively, The Hep Stars and the Hootenanny Singers. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad also had healthy careers before they came together, both romantically and professionally, with the boys and helped create a national industry to compare with Volvo.
Just a few years older than Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, another of the three dads, was already a busy actor in Sweden when the group broke up. But he can’t pretend he was wholly on board either. “It was in the 1970s, which was very politicised,” he says. “Most of the Swedish music of the time was very progressive rock music. They were considered to be not political enough. My problem was that I was into darker material. I was into jazz and rock, stuff like that. They weren’t suicidal enough for me. So it took me some years to discover them.”
It initially looked as if the Problem with Abba would quickly cease to be an issue. At that stage the Eurovision contest granted a fleeting class of fame. The winning record was guaranteed enormous sales, but, unless they were already famous, continental artists tended to then encounter obscurity outside their home countries. Whither Udo Jürgens, Anne-Marie David or Séverine?
Abba sold millions of records, but a huge mass of the public pretended to dislike them. Many of those saw themselves as ‘proper music fans’
Sure enough, Abba’s singles after Waterloo underperformed. It was not until the release of SOS, in September 1975 – a year and a half after the Eurovision win – that Abba returned to the top 10 in the UK and Ireland. The songwriters confirmed the fecundity of their talent by including enough melodic hooks to generate at least three hit records. The cleanness of Fältskog and Lyngstad’s vocals would slice through discos for the succeeding decade.
The Problem with Abba was up and running. They sold millions of records, but a huge mass of the public pretended to dislike them. Many of those saw themselves as “proper music fans”. Nearly 20 years later, continuing snobbery caused the creators of Alan Partridge to make that loser an Abba aficionado.
“I began to listen to the music more closely because I was going to have to sing it,” an apologetic Brosnan now says. “Their love songs always had a joyfulness to them. You said you weren’t into Abba, but when you were at a party you ended up dancing to Abba.”
We need not detain ourselves with the progressive-rock bores. Their Problem with Abba extended to a problem with anything that didn’t weave nine-minute guitar solos around excerpts from the songs of Tom Bombadil. The snobbery from committed pop boffins was more puzzling. Abba were no more “manufactured” – indeed, arguably less so – than the various groups who, preened and polished by Berry Gordy, emerged to critical adulation on the Motown label. Dr Pop sniffed at the lyric of Nina, Pretty Ballerina and Bang-A-Boomerang, but were they any less disposable than those of Da Doo Ron Ron or Baby Love? The complex arrangements of Abba songs created an effect just as overpowering as that of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Abba: Dancing Queen
Christine Baranski, who returns to her Mamma Mia! role in the sequel, was a working actor in the United States when Abba hit. The group’s only number one in the US was Dancing Queen, but she still remembers them as a force.
“Abba has this lasting value, because the songs are melodic and orchestrally so rich,” she says. “Those voices together, the women’s voices – they were angelic and pure. The songs are all little stories. But mostly I think it is life-affirming music. It never descends into anger or cynicism. You get heartbreak. Regret, yes. But never eff-you kind of stuff.”
Unlike Brosnan and Skarsgård – whose singing remains, at best, utilitarian – Baranski was already a musical-theatre veteran when she came to Mamma Mia! Yet she remembers Andersson correcting her when she was just a “half-note off”. (Lord knows how he endured the boys.)
“He hears every single thing,” she says. “He’s a real artist, and his music means everything. He tells me that he hears every song exactly as it sounds. It just lives for all those decades.”
That precision fuelled the suspicion that Abba weren’t properly “authentic”. Motown was still a music of the streets. Abba emerged from prosperous, socially democratic Sweden. Yet they didn’t turn their European origins into a wry joke, like Kraftwerk. Nobody is yet sure how much fun Abba were having with themselves.
As the career advanced, the romances fizzled – Andersson and Lyngstad divorced in 1981; Ulvaeus and Fältskog split in 1980 – and the music took a more introverted, less frivolous turn. At the same time critical fashion shifted. The postpunk movement rejected the posturing of rock and embraced the purity of pop music. When Elvis Costello began performing Knowing Me, Knowing You live, a few fans thought he was giving in to archness, but Costello was as sincerely admiring of Abba’s skills as he was of the country-and-western artists he covered on his Almost Blue LP. Glen Matlock, late of the Sex Pistols, famously declared that he’d copied the riff on Pretty Vacant from SOS (although nobody has ever made much sense of the comparison). By the time Abba split, in 1982, they had finally achieved respectability with the cultural commissars at New Musical Express. Mind you, there was still a Problem with Abba. You were now supposed to like the group, but not every music fan knew you were supposed to like them.
The compilations continued to sell. The singles took on the quality of nostalgia triggers. Then something interesting happened. The group had always been at home to the fabulous, but in the 1990s the camp aesthetic fully embraced them and came to define their public image. Erasure had a number-one hit with Abba-esque, an Abba compilation, in 1992. The band’s colossal popularity in Australia – setting for Lasse Hallström’s nutty Abba: The Movie, from 1977 – was acknowledged when two 1994 films, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, used their music as emotional punctuation. At the close of the decade Mamma Mia! set up residence in the West End.
All this has worked out nicely for the group, but it has generated (or exacerbated) another Problem with Abba. There remains a bigoted strand of bro who suspects any entertainment disproportionately popular with women – such as Mamma Mia! – as being unworthy of serious attention. These are often the same fatheads who fail to grasp that the sheen of camp is often wrapped around an anchoring sincerity. There’s nothing trivial about Knowing Me, Knowing You or The Winner Takes It All (still less The Day Before You Came).
At any rate, as they anticipate the release of two new songs in December, the band can dry their tears with stacks of banknotes and warm their worries by recalling the adulation of millions.
“They were just one of the great musical sounds of my young years,” Christine Baranski says. “Preceded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys and Motown. After that you moved on to the Bee Gees and Abba. They were a soundtrack to your youth.”
There are still music fans who will snort at the comparison with those 1960s demigods. They’re not listening. The Visitors is better than the White Album. Dancing Queen is a better record than any single released by The Rolling Stones.
You got a problem with that? You got a Problem with Abba?
THE DEFINITIVE 10 BEST ABBA SONGS
1 Dancing Queen (1976) Let’s get this out of the way early. Dancing Queen is the most euphorically exciting pop-disco meld ever. The opening piano run is a literal stroke of genius.
2 The Name of the Game (1977) Apparently inspired by Stevie Wonder’s I Wish, The Name of the Gameagain shows Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s willingness to pack three great melodies in one song.
3 SOS (1975) Structured around a rock chorus, their second worldwide hit has devotees in all genres. Do we really believe Glen Matlock fashioned Pretty Vacant from its chords?
4 Knowing Me, Knowing You (1977) Did you just say “Aha!”? A weirdly complex, slightly miserable song with a choral refrain that asks more questions than it answers.
5 Take a Chance on Me (1978) The greatest train song that has nothing whatsoever to do with trains. Seriously. Just check out that chug-a-chug rhythm. Great video by Lasse Hallström (before he was captured by Miramax).
6 The Day Before You Came (1982) I suppose this is the relatively obscure Abba single (it didn’t break the Irish top 20) that real bores boast about liking. Fair enough. Morose enough for the near-contemporaneous Morrissey.
7 Super Trouper (1980) “I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Glasgow.” In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again Meryl Streep rises from the grave to sing Super Trouper with Cher. Spoiler, I guess.
8 The Winner Takes It All (1980) Björn Ulvaeus denies this song is all about his divorce. Yeah, they always say that. An even better “the band are throwing wine bottles at one another” song than Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way.
9 Honey, Honey (1974) Hear me out. The underperforming follow-up to Waterloo is a perfect pop song of the bubblegum variety.
10 Mamma Mia (1975) Well, in the current context, it would be wrong not to include one of the jauntiest songs ever written about infidelity and inappropriate desire. No, really.
Donald Clarke reviews Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again here