As a child, although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, music was a contentious subject in my family. At an age where I didn’t think of such things, my parents had already pitched their flag in the cultural landscape of conservative (in a political as well as musical sense). In this middle of the road, anything from the mid ‘60s onwards was often viewed with an element of suspicion. If a music artist was male and had a good classic voice, they were acceptable to my mother’s ears (Tom Jones was about as radical as she got). The Beatles, incidentally, where shunned, and still are, no matter how many accolades they get. My Dad’s taste was broader, but his nostalgic affinity with the ‘40s Big Band sound eclipsed any possible awareness of then current sounds. The counter cultural revolution of the late ‘60s was the epitome of everything wrong with the younger crowd. Older than the average parents for my generation, Mum and Dad’s entertainment tastes were firmly rooted in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
There was an exception, however; a contemporary music act who my parents happily tolerated, even if they rarely bought their music. I speak of a band with a name I could remember mainly as it was a simple and potentially meaningless moniker: ABBA. Through some act of immunity, this artist’s music escaped the culture filter that parents often unknowingly surround their young children with. So this band came to my attention at a very young age, and became my first musical love. In honesty, their place in my affections has not dimmed in over thirty years, no matter how seriously or fervently I’ve pursued other musical attractions. They also rose above any other sounds I was hearing at that time, by pure virtue of their unique qualities; qualities that at such an impressionable age are likely to cause a second listen. They sounded harmonious, catchy and oddly different. I didn’t really know what the female voices were singing about either, except it sounded vaguely glamorous and grown up, sometimes slightly forbidden. Only now, do I appreciate how adult ABBA are. They didn’t concern themselves much with the usual deviant topics of rock n’ roll, but rather the more mature themes of marriage, divorce and sometimes (let’s be frank) sex. However, by ‘sex’ I mean the grown up responsible kind, not usually the kind the likes of AC/DC may have been screaming enthusiastically about. Still, ABBA could do frisky. ABBA aren’t obviously the most sexual group out there, but listen to the Glam rock stomp of “Rock me”. They’re not singing about ordering pizza. Elsewhere, the group could actually be downright silly. Whereas “Summer Night City” positively reeks of beer and sex, the likes of “Bang-A-Boomerang” tread a bold lyrical path on the edge of the ludicrous.
Aged seven, the highlight of attending my father’s Christmas party, ostensibly put on for the benefit of workers’ kids, was dancing to “Super Trouper”, which for years after I insisted on singing as “Super Dooper”. There was a lot of great pop music out in 1980, much of it I’m now aware of and besotted with, but at the time only ABBA rose high and mightily over this crowd of pop pretenders; they were the masters of the catchy hook and killer chorus. I grew older and almost forgot them, until just short of my 13th birthday I discovered my uncle’s cassette of The Singles: The First Ten Years. Despite only being the second tape of the set, this proved quite fortuitous as it covered the era of ABBA that I’d most recall from being a child. The music sounded just as good as the stuff that was then in the top ten, including a new band called Erasure, whose debt to ABBA would become obvious in the coming years. Into my late teens and there came the realisation that not everyone shared my treasured memories of ABBA as part of a ‘70s and early ‘80s childhood. But for me, it was a pivotal cultural reference , along with Star Wars action figures, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Buster comic, brown and orange curtains, woodchip and Tom Baker in Doctor Who.
At a house party in 1992, a close friend baulked at the suggestion of playing the ABBA album I’d found in amongst the family collection. Despite the fact that ‘Summer Night City’ and ‘Voulez Vous’ could wipe the floor with the dance music then in vogue, ABBA were viewed as kitchy cheese, the very epitome of musical naffness. Cool they were not. Similarly, when I was caught in Bolton town centre by a friend insistent on a quick chat, the fact I had vinyl copies of Arrival and The Album in the record shop bag was met with ridicule. Their presence was only nullified by the appearance of Nirvana’s In Utero and Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in the same bag. The ABBA albums were still mentioned, and not in a complimentary way. “What are you listening to that shit for?!”, was the incredulous question. At a time when a night of musical appreciation probably involved dancing drunkenly to The Smiths or punching the air exuberantly at a rave, ABBA were the sound of the kindergarten; I was made to feel wrong about liking them. I was meant to have left them behind; they had no more relevance or worth to my young adult self than afternoon milk or a game of cowboys.
Then public favour towards the Swedish/Norweigan group started to change, which to be fair, it had been already. Gold: Greatest Hits struck the same rich vien of nostalgia I knew about, and managed to convince a new generation as well. It has been on the UK charts, on and off, for twenty years and is now this country’s bestselling album. Long before the Mamma Mia! Musical, ABBA started to become recognised for their many strengths. Even the terrible costumes and occasional forays into twee cringe-worthiness are, more often than not, viewed with more acceptance. And why not? If we’re ok with Slade and The Stones’ post ’74 career, ABBA should pose very little problem. Obviously their inclusion in the superior, but unashamedly camp comedy drama films, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, probably cemented their ‘gay friendly’ image, and just made liking them a little more of a challenge for straight men or more mature women (who may not be expected to like a group singing “Happy Hawaii”).
So the rehabilitation isn’t quite there yet, and may never be. ABBA were never cool, even at the height of their success. Bands that are married to each other, have kids and don’t regularly throw tellies out of hotel windows, were not likely to be perceived as such, particularly as Punk broke. Yet still they remained huge, pretty much ‘til the end when a few creative mis-steps and post-divorce tensions resulted in diminishing chart returns. They even briefly broke America, but outside of Europe it was bizarrely Australia that loved them the most. They peaked a lot earlier there, and like an intense whirlwind affair, the populace seemed to eat, sleep, drink and screw ABBA for eighteen months, before realising they’d had way too much of a good thing (like a frenzied sugar binge). After the end of 1976 they never had an Australian number one again, but considering “Fernando” alone spent 14 weeks at the top, you can sort of understand why they’d had enough of them. In the UK they managed an impressive 9 chart toppers, and 12 in Ireland, not to mention two sell out live tours. Therein, I think, lies ABBA’s problem: no band that huge, popular and unashamedly different, could ever be so without inviting some degree of parody and (to be quite blunt) piss taking.
But, listen, sometimes you grow out of trying to be ‘cool’ and rightfully feel slightly embarrassed for ever saying I didn’t like them that much, more than anything my friends thought. The arrangements of Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaus’ music is as sophisticated as anything The Beatles did, arguably even more so. What ABBA lack in cultural impact (no one comes close to the Beatles after all) they make up for in the quality of their music, a distinctive blend of everything from Scandinavian folk to disco, yet done their way. Agnetha and Frida’s vocals will always be higher in my affections than any number of Mariah Carey’s; there’s a warmth and maturity in their delivery that you don’t often find, and what beautiful voices. The combination of Agnetha’s soprano and Frida’s mezzo-soprano voice remains the band’s greatest asset; when that combination really worked, wow, how it worked.
So, for the record, let me say it: ABBA are brilliant. Some of their songs remain the greatest pop songs ever recorded, in my view, and their apparent lack of any type of irony and credible fashion engagement actually enhances their appeal. They really mean it, no matter who is sniggering at the back. They do feel the beat of the tambourine, there really was something in the air that night, they really are meeting their Waterloo, and feeling the strange attraction from that giant dynamo. As they matured, the lyrics did get better and the pain of their own personal lives left us with some heartbreakingly lonely but essential pop moments. I’m with Pete Waterman, when he describes “The Winner takes it all” as the perfect pop song. You can’t fake heartbreaking emotion like that, and what music to accompany it.
But you know the best thing about ABBA for me? When they aren’t making my heart ache, they make me want to dance and they make me smile. The former may alarm many people out there, but the latter quality isn’t something you can put a price on. As fellow blogger Daisy Buchanan said, over on Sabotage Times, in a similar declaration of adoration, “I’m not ashamed to love ABBA. I’m ashamed of every time I ever pretended I was too cool for them”.
I’ll never be cool enough to love ABBA, and that’s paradoxically the coolest thing of all.