Get our free newsletter
The photo frontispiece of Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung may be the only famous picture of a rock critic. The scribe stands in front of shelves heaped with books and LPs, tearing his buffalo-plaid shirt apart superhero-style. Emblazoned on his chest is the source of all his powers: “The Largest Selling Group in the History of Recorded Music,” it reads: “ABBA.”
When Bangs died in April 1982, a disciple of chemical self-abuse for more than half his life, he couldn’t have been sure that squeaky-clean ABBA wouldn’t actively remain an opiate of the people, but within the year the Swedish foursome would expire, too, victim of internal tensions. Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus, married since 1971, had separated in late 1978 and divorced the following year. The marriage of Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad lasted from Oct. 6, 1978, to Feb. 14, 1981, by which time Andersson’s Valentine was Swedish TV star Mona Norklit. The group went into the studio for the last time in August 1982. Over the preceding decade, ABBA had released eight studio albums, all of which have recently been remastered and reissued by Polydor, along with 1986’s Live package and Frida’s 1982 Phil Collins–produced solo outing, Something’s Going On.
ABBA was a global powerhouse underappreciated in the U.S., where it had its greatest successes on the adult-contemporary charts. The image-savvy group sang in an English as inoffensive as that used by multinationals to name economy cars, dominating charts worldwide. By the time the four-disc Thank You for the Music was issued in 1994, manager Stig Anderson placed total sales in excess of a quarter-billion units.
Vital to understanding the ballyhooed “Magic of ABBA” is recognizing that all four members were road-polished studio hacks with established careers before they formed the group. With talent that never broached the question of genius and a work ethic that left recording engineer Michael B. Tretow complaining of 10 years of skipped lunches, the members of ABBA created the impression of being pros to whom everything came easily and nothing came naturally. Their handling of the pop Esperanto of English seemed charmingly unsophisticated and their mastery of song form both total and libertine, as they exploded a small arsenal of pop skyrockets, in an indiscriminate range of stylistic hues, against the backdrop of the early ’70s.
Ring Ring (1973) and Waterloo (1974) cover a lot of ground, but 1975’s relentlessly hummable self-titled release contained everything from the plodding riff rock of “Hey, Hey Helen” and the calisthenic Eurodisco of “Bang-A-Boomerang” to the chipper funk of “Man in the Middle” and the Mozart newsbreak of “Intermezzo No. 1” (OK, Debussy and Mussorgsky seem to be in there, too). There were also the “schlager”-pop stylings of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” and the country-flecked MOR balladry of “I’ve Been Waiting for You.” I don’t know why punk snobs make such a big deal about the Clash’s discovery of reggae; ABBA’s “Tropical Loveland” beat Messrs. Strummer and Jones to the Caribbean punch by several years.
ABBA was a consummate singles band whose hits have been repackaged into more than a dozen different collections. But to get the full ABBA experience, you have to go back to the albums. There you’ll find such oddities as Waterloo’s “King Kong Song,” a tribute to Fay Wray’s furry paramour, and “What About Livingstone,” a rebuke to those who would ridicule brave astronauts. ABBA embraced silly love songs, but also idiocy in many nonromantic forms, underpinning it with multilayered arrangements that always took up every track on the board but never lost sight of the exigencies of perfect pop.
The band’s stylistic wanderlust echoed in its affinity for lyrical make-believe. The play-acting was often blunt (“I am the tiger,” “I’m an eagle,” “I’m a marionette”) and patently implausible (“I was a fighter, always looking for trouble,” quoth noted pixie/badass Björn). When Ulvaeus tackled the trope of the rambler (“Another Town, Another Train,” “Move On”), he tried in vain to make you forget that he was a family man who shunned touring because he and Agnetha didn’t want to leave their daughter back in Stockholm.
ABBA was peddling bubblegum to the teenyboppers, but, like many grown-up acts in AM’s ’70s heyday, it was also appropriating teen fantasy to adult ends. After all, what did 36-year-old Alan O’Day need with “Undercover Angel”’s dream lover? Like ABBA, he was taking part in the pop narcotic’s backlash against rock’s self-righteous high purpose. When “Imagine” defined moral seriousness and the future of rock ’n’ roll growled things like “Man, there’s an opera out on the Turnpike/There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley,” any antidote was welcome.
Actual teenagers took ’70s cheese-pop differently. Adolescents respond to the form of adult emotions long before they internalize their content, and one way form introduces itself is via pop songs. One of the great shocks of growing up is finding out just how the future fails to jibe with a past you’ve known only through other people’s stories, memories, and cultural products. Teens found in ABBA’s theater a projection of their longing for things they had yet to know.
To see this dynamic, look to Muriel’s Wedding, a black comedy that depicts weddings as excrescences of delusion. P.J. Hogan’s 1994 feature centers on 22-year-old shoplifter Muriel Heslop, who is overweight, unemployed, and enduring a protracted adolescence at home, where she is belittled by her father, a corrupt, philandering Porpoise Spit, Australia, council official, and ignored by her dazed, drifting mother. Muriel’s only solace is her pink boombox and her mid-period ABBA tapes. When she dreams of marriage—though she’s never had a boyfriend—she imagines herself the “Dancing Queen.” She and the girlfriend who will change her life bond over a talent-show lip-sync of “Waterloo” (though they perform in “Mamma Mia” costumes), and Muriel confesses her lifelong failure after a drunken, starlit, a cappella rendition of “Fernando.” When she accepts $10,000 to wed a South African Olympic hopeful who wants to swim for the Aussies, her bridesmaids stagger down the aisle to the strains of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”
“Dancing Queen,” the latest of Muriel’s ABBA faves, was drawn from 1976’s Arrival. The album, which introduced most U.S. fans to the group, showed the foursome to be in transition. “Dum Dum Diddle” (rhymes with “to be your fiddle”) was strictly old-school bubblegum. “When I Kissed the Teacher” continued the line of schoolyard fantasy (also an early-’70s AM staple—think of Melanie’s “Brand New Key” or Clint Holmes’ “Playground in My Mind”) begun with Ring Ring’s “Me and Bobby and Bobby’s Brother” and Waterloo’s “Suzy-Hang-Around.” But “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Money, Money, Money” hinted that the graying skies of the album’s jacket wouldn’t soon be turning blue.
The band’s visual presentation would eventually darken and turn inward, culminating in the gloomy nocturnes on the covers of 1980’s Super Trouper and 1981’s The Visitors, but first the band’s maturation would involve another transitional record. Though 1977’s The Album was so named to pair it with The Movie, filmed during the band’s Australian tour, the title also indicated a new eagerness for concept. Indeed, The Album closed with “The Girl With the Golden Hair—3 Scenes From a Mini-Musical.” It announced Björn and Benny’s Broadway aspirations, which in the 1980s would lead to Chess, a turgid, wordy collaboration with Tim Rice that would fare better in the U.K. than on the Great White Way. More ominously, lyrics such as “I am the girl with the golden hair,” delivered by Agnetha, marked an end to ABBA’s delirious role-playing, which had shifted its concerns from the impossible to the likely to the sadly verifiable.
In 1979, the band rebounded with Voulez-Vous, a masterpiece of high disco, but by then ABBA was a different animal. The group had first heralded the transforming power of public dancing in 1973’s “Nina, Pretty Ballerina,” and 1974’s “My Mama Said” was its inaugural attempt at disco style, but the façade of pop innocence, sham yet earnestly so, didn’t fall away until late in the decade. Disco, the apotheosis of ’70s generational slumming, saw adults resexualizing their appropriation of teen dreams. Romance was out; fucking was in.
As a lad, I lusted after Agnetha the way I imagine some churchy pubescents now do after Roma Downey, regarding her as an untouchably lovely pre-Raphaelite maiden. Had I seen Ring Ring’s photo of a terribly enceinte and earth-motherish Fältskog, I surely would have been shocked into a life of Ruskinian abstinence, but, thank goodness, that record was not widely available stateside until the mid-’90s. Voulez-Vous forced a renunciation of childish ways. The textural sandwich of shrill ’n’ bump had served acts from the Bee Gees to Cheryl Lynn well, and ABBA could handle that combo, no problem. But with “Lovers (Live a Little Longer),” my artificial angels were grounded, surging with earthly passion and adult desperation in the face of death. Viewed from the distance of 20 years, the song is illuminated by a dramatic irony that is positively demonic.
Other dance-floor dangers were seen clearly at the time. Like everybody, Björn had dug the scene of the 17-year-old dancing queen; now he turned paternalistic. ZZ Top may have sung the praises of “Francine,” who “just turned 13,” and “Livingston Saturday Night”’s Jimmy Buffett may have brushed aside warnings that “Fifteen’ll get you 20,” but Mr. Ulvaeus was on to his piece of jailbait, quizzing her, “Does your mother know that you’re out?”
ABBA’s last two studio albums were dominated by the emotional Realpolitik that would characterize post-breakup output from Chess to Frida’s divorce album. Super Trouper’s “The Winner Takes It All” is the most familiar song in this vein, but “Happy New Year,” “Our Last Summer,” and “The Way Old Friends Do” drew from the same source. Imagery on The Visitors turned autumnal, and a schoolgirl showed up in “Slipping Through My Fingers,” now seen from a syrupy, maternal point of view. Three post-album recordings collected on Thank You for the Music continued ABBA’s spiritual decline, though they were respectable pieces of songcraft. Ever since Nina left the office for the discotheque, ABBA had had a thing for train songs stripped of all sense of adventure, but “The Day Before You Came” carried the welfare-state tristesse of the suburban commuter to an extreme, its hour-by-hour timetable less evocative of prelude than aftermath.
It couldn’t have lasted forever. If you’re looking for the seeds of ABBA’s destruction to have been sown at the time of its birth, you can find them in “Rock ’n Roll Band.” Instead of using the I-IV-V progression such a title would have you expect, Ring Ring’s closing track went with I-VI-V, alternating from major to relative minor with each line of the chorus, underscoring pop evanescence with each cycle. With its flashes of David Gilmour–style guitar, it’s an anti-blues, a dumb, chirpy song too smart and sad to buy into the propaganda that rock ’n’ roll will never die.
Real life was always a threat to ABBA, and ultimately it could no longer be held at bay. Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Frida had always insisted the music was bigger than they were, but eventually the mundanity of their conflicted loves and ambitions conspired to turn their magic show to kitchen-sink melodrama. The gleefully patent phoniness that had given their early work a supernal glow was supplanted by a resignation born of disappointment, weariness, and compromise. But hard truth is a poor substitute for shimmering lies, and they knew it. True to the topsy-turvy scruples of an empire built on artifice, they kept it real by throwing in the towel when they couldn’t fake it anymore. CP