In search of ABBA: C’mon now, surely someone has got something besides the fact that Agnetha has got one of the sexiest bums in Europe!

By Felicity Surtees - RAM 13 February 1976

So. You’ve been finding that dirty punk rock ‘n’ roll a little hard on the delicate eardrums. Offensive, even. You need a better alternative than a mothers little helper and you’re sick to death of your record collection springing nasties on you ‘bout O.D.’s, pain, death and decadence, not to mention political protests and sociological solutions.

What you need is ABBA. (Repeat three times and read on.)

ABBA currently have the Australian charts in a vice-like grip not equalled since the days of you-know-who in the Sixties. To be specific, ABBA have had the No.1 album (ABBA), as well as three singles in the Top 20 – Mamma Mia, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do and S.O.S.

Before ABBA it was simply Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid. Each had previously enjoyed successful careers in their home country, Sweden. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad as solo vocalists, Benny Andersson in the group The Hep Stars and Björn Ulvaeus as a member of the folk group The Hootennany Singers. Björn (guitar) and Benny (keyboards) met and began to write together sporadically until 1970 when their co-operation became more systematic. As it happens, Björn is married to Agnetha, and Benny and Anni-Frid have been engaged for some time (all very neat, this). In 1972 the four joined up, released their first two singles (People Need Love and He Is Your Brother) and pretty soon – hey ABBA!

They were successful around Scandinavia and then in 1974 the Andersson/Anderson/Ulvaeus composition Waterloo was entered in the Eurovision Song Contest. ABBA packed themselves off to Brighton where the contest was being held, taking with them their conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff, whom they imaginatively dressed as Napoleon. They won, and Waterloo became a world smash, selling between 4 and 5 million copies. Quite apart from the loot, it opened the doors to the world charts and their subsequent records have enjoyed growing success.

And that makes ABBA out as something of a rarity. Traditionally the Eurovision Song Contest serves as a useful launching pad for the winning record and not much else. There is a tendency for the winning artist to flicker briefly and then disappear completely when the follow-up single bombs dismally, which it invariably does. ABBA were the first winners to write the winning song themselves, the first rock band to win – and not only have they remained visible but they’ve developed an international reputation which is now spreading to America.

Their skyrocketing reputation and success has been proportional to ABBA’s musical development. (Incidentally, although Waterloo was their first album as ABBA, they had recorded one before as Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida which has been released as an ABBA album under the title of Ring, Ring – a trifle dishonest that, considering many punters would have snapped it up as a bone-fide ABBA album.) Anyway, the development of the bastardised Ring, Ring through Waterloo to ABBA is marked. Ring, Ring is almost entirely forgettable. There’s scarcely a trace of the smooth Super-Pop that was to come some years later.

Waterloo was better, it did hint of what was to come but the one standout track was Waterloo itself, the rest of the album is unremarkable by comparison.

But by the time ABBA rolled ‘round, the arrangements were more complex, varied and infinitely more interesting. That elusive hookline had been pinned firmly down and with things like the driving fuzz bassline on Hey, Hey Helen they ventured (just a little) from the bland inoffensiveness that normally marks top forty fodder. The material was strong enough to yield three hits singles (Mamma Mia et al) – something that hadn’t happened since The Beatles and Skyhooks.

The latest ABBA album is a compilation The Best of ABBA. It consists of four tracks off Waterloo: Waterloo; Honey, Honey; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On) and Hasta Mañana; five tracks from ABBA: Mamma Mia; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; S.O.S.; Bang-A-Boomerang and So Long; plus three pre-Waterloo tunes – People Need Love, Ring, Ring and Nina, Preety Ballerina. It was very much like one of those “catch the Christmas rush” jobs. Presentation for one thing is absymal. No credits and the cruddiest of cheapo studio photography grace the cover. And also the title is a misnomer. The best of ABBA is the ABBA album itself. Comparatively speaking, everything up to and including Waterloo was a mere rehearsal. The quality of the pressing is also suspect. In short, as a ‘best of’, it really isn’t.

The ABBA hit machine is operated by Björn and Benny who, as well as producing and arranging, write all the material, often in collaboration with lyricist Stig Anderson. The stuff they turn out is made to measure top forty – commercial and super slick. It’s tight, polished and excellently produced. There’s evidence of much hard work. Their music, in fact, is a good example of what can be achieved within the boundaries of MOR pop. Their command of musical styles is diverse – the general procedure seems to be to dilute original influence to very clean, acceptable proportions. F’r instance the reggae feel of Tropical Loveland, swathed under layers of sweet ooo-oohs and the like; and the mild funk that graces Man In The Middle (both on ABBA). The staccato bop is just the thing y’ might like to jerk spasmodically along with…great foot-tapping music. Agnetha and Anni-Frid bell out their moral little homilies, embellishing everything with pleasant, if unspectacular harmonies. The sum total is a bright, inoffensive sound that bounces and bubbles its way through the tranny speakers. With a flourish it prints an indelible mark on the minds of listeners. Voila! Twenty thousand people fall out of bed next morning to hum Mamma Mia through their mouthwash.

Pleasant stuff, tasteful even, if slightly lacking in nutritional value.

Top forty radio stations consider an ABBA single the greatest thing since payola and any teev rock show just drools at the thought of screening an ABBA film clip for as many consecutive shows as is thought decent. Strange thing tho’ – outside of Scandinavia the music press has all but ignored them. In the days of hype and super-hype it’s a mite strange to stumble across a group that has such a low public profile – particularly a band of ABBA’s popularity. What little info there is that does filter through to Oz is confined to those helpful little bios (did y’ know they all like sailing?) and the details of their myriad smash hits.

ABBA’s live concerts have so far been confined to Europe, though they’ve recently been inundated with offers to tour Australia. Backed on stage by The Beatmakers, their show is one of those colourful affairs guaranteed not to offend Mum. Apart from their musical assets, the visual aspect of their shows is a major contributing factor to their success on the continent. The pace is fast, and a lot of the impact hangs on the dancing, singing, good looks and spectacular wardrobes of Anni-Frid and Agnetha. Invariably the reviews of their concerts are divided into thirds. One third sets the scene, one third describes the music and the other third admires the clothes and Agnetha’s bum. According to Scandivavian press, it’s a toss-up between Agnetha and Suzy Quatro for the exalted title of “The Sexiest Behind In The Pop World”. Perhaps you’d better not take your mum after all.

Photo: Benny and Anni-Frid energetically pursue pre-marital bliss whilst not even Agnetha’s wrigglings of her famed sexy rump can distract hubby Björn from morning newspaper. It’s always the way punters…

© 1976 RAM. Thanks to Samuel Inglles