"I think ABBA have a pure joy to their music and that's what makes them extraordinary" - Bono
Ring Ring (1973)
Ring, Ring/Another Town, Another Train/Disillusion/People Need Love/I Saw It In The Mirror/Nina, Pretty Ballerina/Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough/Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother/He Is Your Brother/She Is My Kind Of Girl/I Am Just A Girl/Rock And Roll Band
This was ABBA’s debut album, recorded before they were really ABBA. Initially, they were Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s vehicle for allowing their respective partners to add vocals to their sometimes folky but always melodic, pop songs. It is very much a work in progress- a band only just hitting on something and becoming a band, but it is none the less interesting for it. There are certainly some good songs on here.
Ring, Ring is well-known in the UK as the follow-up single to the monster 1974 hit, Waterloo. It pre-dates that song by quite a way, however. It has a catchy, singalong appeal of its own and was deservedly a hit.
Both Another Town, Another Train and Disillusion are examples of that songwriting talent. The former has typical Andersson/Ulvaeus lyrics about being stuck in another railway station - you know, those mundanely observational tales of everyday life against the background of a doomed love affair. The latter features a fine Agnetha vocal, a nice, bassy backing and a vague sort of early Elton John feel to it. Both of these are fetching, appealing songs.
People Need Love is a stomping, singalong Eurovision-style very early seventies song, with echoes of the sort of thing Blue Mink released at the same time. It dated from 1972. The tuneful I Saw It In The Mirror has the guys on most of the vocals (something more common in these early years). Check out that bass line too, it is very Beatles, think of Something. There is also a Beatles/McCartney feel to Nina, Pretty Ballerina, despite its cheesy “crowd noise” effects. It is a song that is half beguiling and half schlock. To be honest, there were quite a few of these type of songs dotted around on ABBA’s first five albums, something that damaged their credibility considerably.
Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough) is also very early seventies but when the chorus breaks out, the girls’ voices are immediately recognisable in that SOS/Mamma Mia fashion. Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother is a poppy piece of jaunty, singalong folky fare. Once more, it is typical early seventies chart-oriented stuff. You could see what direction the group were trying to go in here, but they hadn’t quite hit on that grandiose, neo-classical style that launched them into the stratosphere. He Is Your Brother also dates from 1972 and is a chugging but melodic rock-ish number featuring some comparatively heavy guitar (for ABBA). She’s My Kind Of Girl is from even earlier, 1970, and is a Bjorn on vocals lightweight pop song nothing like anything you would know as ABBA. It sounds like something from the mid-sixties. The same can be said for the floaty, carefree sound of the female vocal-led I Am Just A Girl. Rock And Roll Band sounds exactly what it is - a European group somewhat clumsily trying to be cool and rock. It still has a strange appeal, however, as indeed does the whole album.
Waterloo/Sitting In The Palmtree/King Kong Song/Hasta Mañana/My Mama Said/Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)/Honey, Honey/Watch Out/What About Livingstone/Gonna Sing You My Love Song/Suzy-Hang-Around
The seismic effect of the title track, the Eurovision-winning Waterloo, cannot be overestimated. I remember as a teenager sitting watching a show that was already becoming laughable turned on its head by these glam-garbed, platform-heeled Swedes. They really did blow the place apart that night in Brighton. It was a great pop song, let's be honest, and launched, after a short hiatus, the incredible career of ABBA. Its piano and saxophone-driven glam sound was mightily influential too.
Surprisingly, Sitting In The Palmtree has the band performing laid-back, summery reggae quite convincingly. Bjorn's vocal is a bit wishy-washy, as indeed is the song, but it showed an ability to diversify and not be pigeonholed. King Kong Song rocks harder and more riffily than you might imagine from its silly title, but it has a bit of a muffled sound and an indistinct male vocal. Hasta Mañana has Agnetha on winsome vocals on a folky, pleasant enough mid-pace song. It prototypes that recognisable female vocal-led ABBA sound.
My Mama Said has a gentle, almost funky vibe to it - a forerunner to the group's disco-ish tunes of the late seventies. It is a bit of a hidden gem with a nice bass line on it too. Dance (While The Music Still Goes On) is melodic and pleasant in that mid-seventies Euro pop sort of way. It has a classy feel to it, though, that raises it above the rest. Honey, Honey was actually a hit for Sweet Dreams. It is a catchy pop song that already sounds a little dated, however. It is, I believe, the first ABBA song to feature their soon-to-be trademark "a-ha" backing vocal.
Watch Out has a heavy-ish guitar riff backing and a rock feel to it throughout. What About Livingstone is a lyrically perplexing number apparently about explorer David Livingstone, mining a historical vein similar to the one used in Waterloo. That old history book on the shelf was getting dusted off on this album. Gonna Sing You My Love Song is a grandiose ballad in what was now becoming typical ABBA style and Suzy-Hang-Around is a rather sad little tale of childhood.
This was a bit of a treading water album. Personally, I prefer its predecessor, but it is an interesting document of ABBA's progression, which would fully take hold on the next album.
Mamma Mia/Hey Hey Helen/Tropical Loveland/S.O.S./Man In The Middle/Bang-A-Boomerang/I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do/Rock Me/Intermezzo No. 1/I've Been Waiting For You/So Long
After the number one hit that won the Eurovision Song Contest in April 1974, ABBA trod water a bit for over a year until September 1975, with the third single from this album, S.O.S. Having been out since the previous April, this album then broke "big", so to speak. It eventually spawned four hit singles. After this release, people took ABBA seriously.
Mamma Mia is known to everyone, and, of course, is keyboard-driven pop perfection. Hey Hey Helen begins with a Glitter Band-style drum beat and some comparatively heavy (for ABBA) guitars. It is not a bad track at all and would have made a good single. Despite the cheesy, bubblegum-ish title, the song is about a single mother making it on her own after a divorce. Tropical Loveland is ABBA's only effort at playing reggae, as far as I know. It is not really very authentic, but is pleasant enough in its summery way.
I remember back in the autumn of 1975, upon hearing S.O.S., thinking that ABBA could do credible pop songs, not just Eurovision stuff. It raised the standard from their previous offerings. Those grandiose, classically-influenced piano and keyboard parts became part of their future sound. Again, it is a perfect pop song. Man In The Middle is a funky, cynical song about the corrupt wealthy. It largely features Benny (I think) on lead vocals.
Bang-A-Boomerang has a typically Eurovision title that invites ridicule and it isn't a great song either, both in its silly lyrics and its strangely muffled sound. The group would soon stop recording such tosh. I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do was the second single from the album and is a catchy enough song with haughty aspirations in its jazzy orchestrations. It has that European singalong feel to its chorus and indeed its verses. Rock Me is another infectious poppy, typically early ABBA song.
Bjorn and Benny always liked a bit of pseudo-classical doodling, and the give us that on the instrumental Intermezzo No. 1. I've Been Waiting For You is a solid, dignified ballad while the first hit single from the album was the jaunty, typically seventies pop of So Long. This is a pop album, nothing more, nothing less and, by and large, it is a good one.
When I Kissed The Teacher/Dancing Queen/My Love, My Life/Dum Dum Diddle/Knowing Me Knowing You/Money, Money, Money/That's Me/Why Did It Have To Be Me?/Tiger/Arrival
ABBA albums, in the mid-seventies, were, to a certain extent, vehicles for their magnificent singles. There were three here - the iconic Dancing Queen with its entrancing piano hook and the chorus everybody on the planet knows; Money Money Money, another known by the world and Knowing Me Knowing You and one of many “a-ha’s” finishing off yet another absolutely exhilarating chorus. These were pop singles without compare and more than capable of standing alone as classics whatever else was on this album. Did ABBA need albums? Actually probably not, to be honest, but they put them out, nevertheless, in a bid to be credible. Did they achieve that? Yes and no. Let’s see what the rest of the album gave us.
That's Me saw the beginnings of that bassy, thumping “Euro-disco” sound that would feature considerably in their music later in the decade. It contained the usual immaculate vocals, of course, and maybe if this had been a single we would all have been singing it. Somehow I doubt it though. The choices for singles were just inspired, it would seem, in retrospect, because these other tracks just don’t cut the mustard. For some reason, many people remembered When I Kissed The Teacher, even though it was not a single. Furthermore, it was twee and generally awful. As too, was Why Did It Have To Be Me, with what sounds like a kazoo solo, would you believe. It sounded like a Eurovision entry that finished half way down the voting chart.
Tiger was another upbeat, pounding, Euro-poppy tune, albeit with a great hook. All these tracks are singalong, pleasant enough, totally harmless, but they lack that real gravitas and je ne sais quoi that the three great hits indisputably had.
My Love, My Life is probably “the best of the rest” and would have made a possibly acceptable single, to be fair. The less said about Dum Dum Diddle the better. Very much a poor Eurovision contender. The “other tracks” on this album are very much second division compared to the classics. Just listen to Dum Dum Diddle followed by the majesty of Knowing Me Knowing You. The difference is seismic. The ridiculous to the sublime. ABBA would produce a couple of reasonably good, balanced albums right at the end of their career, but not yet.
Arrival is a Celtic-influenced instrumental that is tuneful enough, but now sounds very shrill and tinny and although it has some grandiose appeal, it was more than a little throwaway. The sound on all this album, supposedly remastered, is pretty trebly throughout, maybe is just the reliance on strings and keyboards, but there is not much warmth or punch to the sound. Punk arrived in 1976, as a reaction to over-indulgent rock music. Maybe it was stuff like this it also needed to sweep away. Three undoubtedly magnificent singles does not a credible album make, unfortunately.
Abba: The Album (1977)
Eagle/Take A Chance On Me/One Man One Woman/The Name Of The Game/Move On/Hole In Your Soul/Thank You For The Music/I Wonder (Departure)/I'm A Marionette
Released at the height of punk, that didn't matter a jot as this album saw ABBA at the peak of their poppy, commercial powers. Despite all the musical changes going on all around them, this obliviously sold mega-millions. Opting for a minimalist album title that reeked a bit of "we know we are untouchable" pretension they conquered all before them with this. Yes it was a poppy album, but not just Europop, there were rock influences, classical overtones and even a bit of progressive rock echoes in small places. This was now big production music as befitted the group's now huge stature. People expected big, and they got it.
As with all ABBA albums, they contain the hits and the rest. The hits are the iconic, dramatic ballad The Name Of The Game (even as a punk I liked this at the time); the instantly recognisable a capella vocal introduced and singalong Take A Chance On Me and the twee but anthemic Thank You For The Music. All have gone down in history and dominate the album.
The "rest" includes the regal and melodic Eagle, which actually would have made a good single; the typically ABBA kitchen sink romantic break-up of One Man One Woman; Move On, which is blighted a bit by its introductory spoken vocal, but redeemed by its perfect harmonies and hooky refrain; Hole In Your Soul is a guitar-driven rocky number that they regularly played live. It sounds a bit like a Suzi Quatro or Rubettes glam single, to be honest and feels as if it dated from 1974 as opposed to 1977.
The final three tracks form a "mini-musical" concept beginning with Thank You For The Music and continuing with the grandiose, musical-style I Wonder (Departure) that sounded like a Barbra Streisand song. It contrasted considerably with the blatant pop of what had gone before. It featured some sumptuous classical-type piano in the middle too. The trilogy ends with a rumbling slightly funky bass intro to the quirky, dramatic, stagey I'm A Marionette, All very Berlin 1930s influenced and again at odds with the main part of the album.
In conclusion, this is a deceptively interesting album that in places goes beyond its pure pop perfection to offer some unusual material.
As Good As New/Voulez Vous/I Have A Dream/Angeleyes/The King His Lost His Crown/Does Your Mother Know/If It Wasn't For The Nights/Chiquitita/Lovers (Live A Little Longer)/Kisses Of Fire
In 1978 and 1979, it seemed everyone got in on the disco trend - groups like Roxy Music, artists like Elton John and even The Rolling Stones were releasing disco-influenced tracks, ABBA, somewhat belatedly, and at the height of punk/new wave, put out this album which contained several disco numbers, with synthesised disco/funk beats and Bee Gees influence all round. In many ways, it is the least typically "ABBA" of their offerings, but only in places.
That said, there is still some decidedly recognisable ABBA Euro-pop in the somewhat cheesy Does Your Mother Know (which actually sounds dated, even then), and the singalong Northern European folkiness of I Have A Dream (Bjorn was very much a folky in the mid-late sixties/early seventies). The evocative Chiquitita also ploughs the now-familiar Latin/nostalgic narrative tale begun with Fernando, and has Latin flavoured lyrics merging with a Germanic, nickelodeon keyboard sound.
As Good As New kicks off the album in full on disco mode, however, and this is continued in the hit single Voulez Vous (a-ha). The former, despite its disco rhythms and verses, has a very ABBA chorus and the latter is certainly poppily singalong too. It is actually of atmosphere too.
Angeleyes is far more typically ABBA, with its deliciously irresistible hooky chorus, than it is disco. Although they are trying to get in on the disco thing, they just can't help being ABBA, especially on the hooks and choruses. Bjorn and Benny just continued trotting out killer refrains. Actually, more overtly disco songs like Gimme Gimme Gimme, Lovelight and Summer Night City were released as stand alone singles and not included on this album, leaving room for songs like I Have A Dream, Does Your Mother Know and Chiquitita.
As on all ABBA albums, there are the "other tracks" - these are the grandiose Euro pop of The King Has Lost His Crown; the polished mid-tempo disco pop ballad If It Wasn't For The Nights; the slightly funky Get Up And Boogie vibe of Lovers (Live A Little Longer) and the lively vaguely disco pop of Kisses Of Fire.
All in all, every now and again this is an enjoyable enough listen, although, back in 1979, it really was far too incongruous for punks/new wavers like me to pay much attention to.
Abba Live At Wembley (1979)
Recorded at London's Wembley Arena in November 1979, this live album (a comparative rarity from ABBA) finds them performing at the peak of their powers and popularity, to a sell-out, enthusiastic crowd. The sound quality is truly outstanding throughout, as is the musicianship from Bjorn, Benny and their top-notch band. Agnetha and Anni-Frid are on their usual harmonious and crystal clear vocal form.
Now, I am not a fully paid-up ABBA fan, so to speak, but I have to own up to a liking for them, however uncool hat was as a punk in 1979. Still, I was in good company with Elvis Costello. I get this album out every now and again and play it through and it is just such a pleasurable experience. As well as all the hits, there are some interesting rarities (non-single album tracks) as well, such as If It Wasn't For The Nights ; As Good As New (both from Voulez Vous); Why Did It Have To Be Me (from Arrival); I'm Still Alive (sung live here, but never recorded in the studio); Hole In Your Soul (From ABBA: The Album); and Intermezzo No. 1 from ABBA.
The great hits are all here, nearly all great, but the children's choir version of I Have A Dream is a huge chunk of Swedish cheese and I have to declare a loathing for Does Your Mother Know. Those minor qibbles aside, it is a thoroughly enjoyable album. Nicely presented in a hardback CD cover too, with some excellent pictures from the gig, one of which, refreshingly, clearly shows Agnetha to be a true girl of the seventies. It's all in that blue jump suit shadow, you see.
Super Trouper (1980)
Super Trouper/The Winner Takes It All/On And On And On/Andante, Andante/Me And I/Happy New Year/Our Last Summer/The Piper/Lay All Your Love On Me/The Way Old Friends Do
They were a strange thing, ABBA albums. The group were just so very much a singles one. Their singles were so good, and each album produced three, maybe four singles or, if not as many, a ‘b’ side that became well known. So, each album had its exceptionally well-known tracks and the others invariably became thought of as “filler”. Given the quality of those singles, it was not surprising. This album, as with all the later ones, is not a bad collection, to be honest.
After a brief flirtation with disco and its layered, synthesised rhythms on the previous album, a more “back to what made them famous” approach was taken here, and a sort of return to that melodic pop-rock sound was seen. There was, however, a bit of Swedish melancholy to be experienced here in Bjorn and Agnetha washing their dirty linen in public in the dramatic and, despite its miserable message, strangely uplifting The Winner Takes It All. Agnetha deliberately accentuated her Swedish accent in the song just to bug Bjorn, because she knew he hated her doing that. The ostensibly joyous Super Trouper was actually quite morose in its verses, Agnetha describing how alone she felt calling someone (presumably her new lover) from a gig in Glasgow and how lonely she felt singing to twenty thousand of her fans. The Beach Boys-influenced On And On And On was really quite a cynical, “brassed-off with the whole fame thing” song that reads as quite a surprise if you read the lyrics. All about meeting tedious people at showbiz parties in Stockholm society. Not very Dancing Queen at all.
In addition to these world-weary observations there are the nostalgic songs, wishing things were like they were before - Happy New Year, the lovely, melodic Our Last Summer and the almost tear-jerking and anthemic Like Old Friends Do.
Lay Your Love On Me is the only nod to the sort of dance grooves that had influenced the previous year’s output. It was actually pleasant enough. Personally, I didn’t mind any of their disco stuff. Everyone was doing it in 1979. It always had a great hook, as you would expect from Ulvaeus and Andersson.
That leaves Andante, Me And I and The Piper. Andante has an almost classical intro and is generally a light, loved-up typical ABBA song, with perfect harmonies. It could have been from 75-76. Something sad about its descending strings though. Behind the apparently joyful sheen is a mournful nostalgia. Me And I is a dramatic, somewhat overblown piece of Euro-pop. Again, it is a throwback to the pop glory days but it utilises some disco electronic brats and those strange “spacey” engineered vocals. The chorus is very Brotherhood Of Man, sounding a lot like Angelo from 1977. The Piper has those immaculate harmonies again, some military drums and some medieval-style flute over a typical early 80s disco-ish bass. A bit of an odd song to categorise, particularly with its Latin lyrics in the middle. God knows what it was all about, to be honest.
As I said, strange things, ABBA albums.
The Visitors (1981)
The Visitors (Cracking Up)/Head Over Heels/When All Is Said And Done/Soldiers/I Let The Music Speak/One Of Us/Two For The Price Of One/Slipping Through My Fingers/Like An Angel Passing Through My Room
This was ABBA's final album and although the personal, inter-member dynamics within the band had completely changed by now, this is a surprisingly coherent, unified album, with no angst-ridden turmoil played out as on The Winner Takes It All. in many, many ways, it is their finest album, certainly their most credible. It also had an enigmatic cover to go with it.
The Visitors is a Beatles-esque (at times), grandiose track about Russian dissidents (or so I read, I can't hear it myself in the lyrics, but never mind). It is extremely catchy, as so many ABBA songs were. Head Over Heels is a very European-sounding, keyboard-driven number with a Germanic-influenced verse melody and a harmonious vocal chorus.
When All Is Said And Done, despite its uplifting refrain and great vocals, is a somewhat sad, nostalgic song with an underlying melancholy. As with many ABBA songs, it has been forever tarnished by the abysmally dreadful performance of it in the totally execrable film, Mamma Mia.
Soldiers is a mysterious, atmospheric song with more vague Beatles echoes. It is said to be an indictment of communism. The upbeat nature of the backing tends to deflect from that, however.
I Let The Music Speak is another Teutonic-sounding song, that sounds a bit as if it had come from a stage show. Maybe not surprising as Andersson and Ulvaeus were also composing material for the musical Chess at the time.
One Of Us is the album's big hit single and is the most typically ABBA number on here, with an appealing melody and singalong chorus. Two For The Price Of One is a wry. lyrically perplexing song about a man answering an ad from two call girls, sung by Ulvaeus with excellent backing vocals. The harmonies on the sad Slipping Through My Fingers are also excellent. Like An Angel Passing Through My Room was a haunting, moving final track to ABBA's final album.
Non-album tracks from the same period include the stunning, beguiling The Day Before You Came and the upbeat Under Attack and Cassandra. There was also their final track for their aborted ninth album, the excellent I Am The City. That then, was that. The sound of the seventies/early eighties was no more. Thank you for the music - tack för alle sånger.