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The importance of being ABBA

The gateway drug to the 1970s, the darkness and light of ABBA's music sometimes makes more sense when you're older

The iconic Swedish band, ABBA, reunites after 35 years. Photo: Alamy
The iconic Swedish band, ABBA, reunites after 35 years. Photo: Alamy

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find, I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind," Agnetha Fältskog sings over a plaintive piano melody. “Whatever happened to our love…. It used to be so nice, it used to be so good," before a careening synthesizer melody leads up to the heavens and Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad burst out, “So when you’re near me darling, can’t you hear me, S.O.S.".

The best pop songs are love songs. The best love songs are those of longing and heartbreak. And the best heartbreak songs are the ones you can dance to. To me, the best purveyors of this kind of music were the Motown bands and the girl groups of the 1960s. From The Ronettes’ Be My Baby to The Supremes’ Stop! In The Name Of Love, longing and desire poured out with melody and force in song after song. Now I know that I hadn’t paid much attention to the claims of ABBA, a band I had regarded with some disdain.

Of course, I knew the hits; they’re practically inescapable. Dancing Queen, Money Money Money, The Winner Takes It All—these are songs that could only be avoided if you’re living under a rock. At parties, I would sing along. But listening to them for pleasure? That was a step too far. My generation of musos had been brought up to consider all things ABBA, and also disco, as the aesthetic antithesis of “art" and “good taste". Moreover, in my teens and 20s, money was tight, choice was limited, and rock was Queen.

How wrong I was.

The news that the band will re-group and tour again later this year—as a hologram—and that they would drop two new songs, led me to download their Gold: Greatest Hits (1992) album on a whim. I’ve been listening to little else since.

Beneath the tacky costumes, the earworm melodies and the grins of songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and singers Fältskog and Lyngstad, lies a heart of pain and darkness which makes ABBA, to my ears, one of the most adult performers of pop ever. Just listen to the nasty synthesizer line, channelling Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, that bubbles up in the otherwise sweet Super Trouper (1980), and it’s clear that this was a band that celebrated melancholy. In Take A Chance On Me (1978), another synth-inflected dance-floor stomper, the protagonist pleads with the man she’s in love with, but the song is a mass of plaintive desire couched as an internal monologue. It’s never expressed, and that’s what gives the song its power.

ABBA’s multi-platinum selling music was of its time, coexisting with the rollicking piano pop of Elton John, the electronic experiments of Kraftwerk, the country rock of The Eagles, the lush romanticism of Fleetwood Mac and the shape-shifting styles of David Bowie. It also competed with funk, soul and disco, from The Bee Gees to Sister Sledge to Chic and Gloria Gaynor, to name just some of the leading lights. Yet, ABBA didn’t fit into any neat category. Ulvaeus and Andersson cherry-picked the best ideas, dressed them up with swathes of melody and killer arrangements, and let loose the high, keening voices of Fältskog and Lyngstad. It’s no wonder that between 1975 and 1981, they hit home run after home run.

ABBA’s music also dripped with sexuality, hidden behind the faux-naïve expressions of Fältskog and Lyngstad. Thus their break-up anthem, Knowing Me, Knowing You (1977), punctuates the chorus with post-coital “ah-ha"s that seem incongruous and charged at the same time. The disco blowouts Voulez-Vous and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), both from 1979, positively ache with carnal desire, where the beat and melodies transform the longing into something luminous and life-affirming. ABBA could be empathetic and inclusive (as in Chiquitita, 1979); camp (as in Waterloo, 1974, or Mamma Mia, 1975); and swooningly romantic (Fernando, 1976). No wonder the LGBT+ community has a special place in its heart for the four Swedes. The American journalist Barry Walters writes of the 1980s in an NPR Music article, “At the time, gay men of my generation were dying of AIDS in unprecedented numbers, and so my explanation of ABBA’s largely gay-driven resurgence focused on escapism, cheering grieving spirit and the group’s accidental humor. Our people can’t resist a dancing queen."

There are many reasons to fall in love with ABBA, but, for me, it turned out to be the ability to finally grow out of false dichotomies of what’s cool and what isn’t. In a way, I’m glad I discovered the band in my mid-30s. They made pop for grown-ups; the bubblegum pianos were just prime window dressing. As of 2014, it was estimated that Gold: Greatest Hits had sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the highest-selling albums of all time. In the UK, it sits behind Queen’s Greatest Hits and ahead of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the most popular album ever. I’m glad that I shifted another unit on iTunes the other day. Knowing me, knowing you, indeed.

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