Posted inCultures

Revisiting the Classics: And I say thank you for the music—ABBA in focus

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad all had solo success prior to the series of happy coincidences, chiefly two marriages, which brought the band together in the early 1970s. Small successes in Japan with now forgotten songs paved the way to the first track attributed to ABBA: People Need Love. An instant hit across Scandinavia, owed perhaps to its yodelling towards the end of the song, its stunted tune and sometimes confused lyrics were a far cry from their more familiar songs. However, People Need Love revealed Agnetha and Frida’s close harmonies to the public, something on which the band would capitalise in future years. 

1974 was a turning point in ABBA’s history since the band moved from Swedish folk to a more energetic style suited to international taste. Sweden’s defeat at Eurovision in 1973 did little to dampen the nation’s spirits and, the following year, a jury made up of members of the public, selected ABBA to represent the nation. The Waterloo phenomenon was born. The track, which sees a heartbroken lover compare their experiences of unrequited love to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), is a milestone in ABBA’s career and became the band’s first UK number one, despite the UK’s Eurovision jury scoring the song nil points. 

A clash of the musical titans in March 1975 saw ABBA’s Mamma Mia beat Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for the top of the UK’s music charts. With influences from Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ technique, the track became a cornerstone in ABBA’s history and familiarised the public with the sounds used in tracks like Knowing me, Knowing you and Take a Chance on Me ­– both of which climbed the UK charts with little difficulty. 

However, the beams began to blind ABBA in the late 1970s. Super Trouper, a song which I interpret as a mother’s plea to her children as she embarks on an international tour, reflects this. With Agnetha and Björn’s disagreeing over the 1978 Japan tour (Agnetha wishing to stay in Sweden and look after their children as Björn willed the band on), it seemed that the band’s permanence was no longer certain. Nevertheless, classic tracks such as Voulez-Vous, Angel Eyes and I Have a Dream were all born during this time. 

ABBA’s progression into the 1980s represents yet another turning point in the group’s career. The somewhat sombre 1980 album Super Trouper included medieval jig alongside themes of ageing, existentialism, and death in the form of The Piper, Our Last Summer and Me and I, respectively. In the middle of this was the melancholic ballad The Winner Takes It All. Although this song alone revitalised ABBA’s chart career, the track laid bare the band’s heartaches. The irony and pathos of Agnetha’s singing Björn’s lyrics (the couple had divorced the year before) credits the song with a poignancy which makes it a gold standard of break-up pop songs.

Continuing their tone of sentimentality, ABBA’s final album The Visitors (1981) blended experimentation with the band’s yearning. On this album, Frida’s operatics and sobre tone shine in I Let the Music Speak, One of Us and Like an Angel Passing Through My Room. However, the harmonies between Frida and Agnetha are at their best in the band’s masterpiece The Day Before You Came which captures the essence of ABBA’s lost energy of the early 1980s. The song’s haunting nature is owed to the video’s expressionist nature (featuring industrial spaces like car parks and train stations); hazy memory recollection (with phrases like ‘I must have…’ and ‘I’m sure…’) and elusive subject matter. A song about rape? Murder? Capitalism? Björn refuses to confirm. The mystery which shrouds the track may be why it is regarded by critics today as the band’s greatest work, although it failed to chart in the UK top 30 back in 1981.

Regrettably, many of the band’s tracks have little more exposure than in ‘guilty pleasure’ playlists which are rarely taken seriously. As I have shown, each of ABBA’s songs capture a unique crystallisation of talent, technology and emotion which cannot be disregarded as cheesy pop music from a bygone age. Looking forward, and with the release of new music ‘definitely’ taking place in 2021 (according to Björn), it could not be more wrong to suggest that the ABBA story is all said and done.