Something different, gentle reader. A few months ago I was asked to write an appreciation of Abba The Album for Vision, the magazine of the OGAE UK (British Eurovision fans fan club). I wasn’t sure if it was to be brief or lengthy, so I went for lengthy; and it turned out that the brief was for it to be brief. So I drastically shortened it for publication; and now that it has been been published I thought I would treat you to my fully unabridged thoughts about that particular long=playing record. So sit back and enjoy the memories!
Memories…light the corners of my mind….. No that’s something completely different. But revisiting Abba the Album has been a real trip down memory lane. Its UK release was in early 1978, and I can remember buying it from our local Record House (don’t see those any more) and cosseting it all the way home before closing all the doors and windows to give it a full loud play on my top quality hi-fi of which I was so proud.
In many ways Abba the Album was considered the soundtrack to Abba the Movie, which 36 years on, I regret to say I still haven’t seen. The girl I was going out with at the time was desperate to see it, but I wasn’t over keen for some reason. By the time I’d finally given in and agreed to go, she’d got bored and I’d been dumped. Hence the film has never played a big part in my life. But the songs! They surely have.
In those days, for no reason whatsoever other than to look flashy, single LPs would often be packaged like a double, with the front sleeve an empty dummy just to display the pictures and lyrics, and with only the second part of the sleeve actually containing the record. You youngsters who know nothing other than CDs or, Heaven help us, Mp3s, might find it hard to appreciate the tangibility and sense of true ownership that owning a record brought with it. And you had the excitement of watching the grooves as the record spun round on the turntable. The patterns it made told you in advance whether there’d be a strong regular drum beat, if it would be quiet and gentle, or whether it would be a hotch-potch of many different styles. You don’t get that kind of visual clue from a computer file.
So when you put Abba the Album on for the first time and realised that the first track was absolutely massive it stopped you dead in your tracks. It broke all the rules for a pop group to have a track – particularly the first one on the album – as long as 5 minutes 50 seconds. That in itself was a challenge to the 17 year old me, my pop attention span already being moulded into a Eurovision-style sub-three minutes. But Eagle, that first track, hits you with that wonderfully relaxed and evocative instrumental introduction, suggesting wide empty skies, through which a majestic bird might fly, just as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross had done about ten years earlier. Frida and Agnetha’s voices rise and fall in the eagle’s slipstream as they imagine sharing in its freedom. Apparently Bjorn had read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and took the book as his inspiration for the lyrics. Rarely does 5 minutes 50 seconds pass so quickly.
If you’re of a certain age, like me, where you were able to enjoy every stage of Abba’s career exactly as it was happening, it’s impossible to look back at their songs without remembering what they actually meant to you at the time. Eagle reminds me of visiting a friend’s house in the school holidays, mainly because he was trying to learn how to play it on the piano; quiet, happy, worry-free memories of no work and all play. Playing football in his garden, followed by afternoon tea in the drawing room. All very nice. The next track on the album has much more exciting memories though. In the summer of 1978 I took five weeks off between school and university and travelled to Canada, where I stayed with some distant relatives I’d never met before. I had a fantastic time – it seemed that every day of those five weeks held a new exciting experience for me. I felt so cosmopolitan. I remember being driven by my cousin all the way from Toronto to Virginia in one day – that’s one heck of a drive – and stopping somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the USA to fill up with petrol (I mean pump some gas) when a familiar sound came over the radio.
That instantly appealing introduction to Take a Chance on Me had followed me to Virginia, and snuck up on me via some east-coast radio station; sixteen seconds of vocals before any instrument gets played. Much has been made of the relationship difficulties between the two couples as being an influence and catharsis behind their music. Whilst the tone and sound of this song sounds irresistibly happy, if you watch the classic “talking heads” video, Agnetha’s expression and plaintive plea for being taken seriously as a lover absolutely melts your heart. A little bit like the Beatles, Abba often had a “sweet and sour” taste to their songs. Take away the light-hearted tune and the verbal dexterity of the guys’ backing accompaniment, and the one-sidedness of the couples’ relationships is really clear – the girls are good to go, the guys really aren’t keen. It gives you a subtle insight into how two people can want very different things from the same relationship. And all this is covered over by a poptastic musical arrangement. Here’s a nice trivia moment for you: guess how many times the guys sing “take a chance, take a chance, take a chuckachance chance”? I counted 64. Rumour has it that that “chuckachucka” rhythm used to go through Bjorn’s head when he was out on a run and it became the inspiration for the backing to this song. Sounds perfectly plausible.
Two tracks in, and you’ve already chalked up two fantastic songs. Next up is One Man One Woman, which you can see as something of a companion piece to Take a Chance on Me. Whereas “Take a Chance” sounds jolly but conceals potentially irrevocable differences within the couples, “One Man” sounds sad but the lyrics actually point forward to a potential solution to those problems – “You smile and I realise that we need a shake-up, our love is a precious thing worth the pain and the suffering, and it’s never too late for changing”. There’s no denying the real angst in Frida’s vocals though, and this is a highly emotionally charged piece of music.
I mentioned earlier how I associate many of these songs with particular memories. The last song on Side One (how 20th century to think of it in that way, but that was the original structure) is The Name of the Game. Before buying this album, I already had the single of The Name of the Game and I absolutely loved it. In early December 1977, when the days were short, dark and cold, a lonely me, in Oxford in order to take a terrifying university interview the next day, went into an old-fashioned sheet-music shop (sadly no longer there) in the High Street, and there I bought the sheet music for The Name of the Game. “I have no friends, no one to see, and I am never invited….” I took it back to the college room where I was staying overnight, a barren, cold and comfortless room, and I read through it, and somehow it gave me security. I couldn’t wait to get home a couple of days later to play it on the piano. So I associate this song with reaching out for comfort and support at a time when I was really scared. And it has stayed with me ever since. This is my favourite Abba song.
Like Eagle, it has the most superb instrumental introduction. To be honest, that’s the part I really love. If it were to stop when the singing starts, it would still be a great record as far as I’m concerned. It’s slinky and sexy but also very disconcerting. The constant 4/4 drum beats are almost like footsteps creeping up behind you; there’s a sense of claustrophobia, and being trapped; but then Agnetha’s pure clear voice comes out of nowhere to cut through this oppression. Back in those days, every guy my age I knew, myself included, was in love with Agnetha. And here she is singing so directly and honestly to you – it still goes straight to my heart whenever I hear it. There’s a lovely juxtaposition between the tentative message of confused love in the lyrics with the jovial video where all four members of the group are sitting round joking and laughing over some simple board game. But each one breaks off from the game to recite some of the lyrics and you realise they’re all in an equal state of confusion, despite looks to the contrary. It’s a stunning melody with heartfelt words and for me ranks amongst the best pop songs of all time.
End of Side One. In the old days, you’d now have a physical break when you’d get up and turn the record over. A bit like the interval at the theatre, or half-time at a football match; only probably a lot shorter. To start Side Two you would expect a change of style perhaps – and it starts off with Move On. It’s a lovely anthemic tune which has for me qualities of a modern hymn; a very flowing rhythm and perceptive lyrics about the nature of life. I have to say though, Bjorn’s spoken introduction always sounds a bit creepy to me, and I think it’s one of those rare occasions where I’m not entirely happy about the arrangement. The piano and wind instruments sound thin and weedy, giving an overall impression that this isn’t as moving and as forceful a piece of music as it could be. So overall, I’m slightly on the fence with this one.
Track Two is Hole in Your Soul, another track where the keyboards can sound a bit too syrupy for my liking. When the verse kicks off you feel that this is going to be a top quality bubblegum rock song, but when it comes to the chorus there’s a huge disappointment that they didn’t seem to quite come up with an appropriate tune. It just tumbles along, not getting anywhere. A definite pot-boiler.
The Girl with the Golden Hair – Three Scenes from a Mini-Musical. I wonder what The Girl with the Golden Hair would have been like, had they made it? Abba’s Magical Mystery Tour perhaps? If you’re very old like me you might remember Keith West’s Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (1967) – that project never came to anything either. Apparently the Girl with the Golden Hair was to be a short story about a girl leaving her hometown to go out and become a star. It’s probably wise that they backtracked and never made it. The final three tracks on Abba the Album are all songs from this mysterious mini-musical that never was. In fact the previous track – Hole in your Soul – was a reworking of Get on the Carousel, another song from the mini-musical, that never made it to the album.
With the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t it have been great if Thank You for the Music had been the final track on the album. It’s the epitome of a “goodbye” song. The end of a show, a concert, a party, a disco – it winds the night up perfectly. It sentimentally looks back on the past – the things Mother said, the girl’s history of bad joke-telling, the music we’ve enjoyed – and gives thanks for what we’ve got now; but crucially, it doesn’t look forward. There’s only yesterday and today in this song, no tomorrow. And that feels quite weird – probably another symptom of the group’s cohesion falling apart due to divorce. Even when this first came out, I remember wondering why they started the three songs from the mini-musical with the song that must obviously come as the finale. It uses the rather gloopy piano tones of the previous two songs, which gives a too-rich, over-ripe quality to the quieter arrangements; but then it becomes quite “pub singalong” in its choruses. There’s also something of a religious aspect to the song. If you were to say “thank you for the music, for giving it to me” who would you say it to? A singer/composer/musician? Perhaps – although Agnetha’s not really thanking other musicians for their work, she’s thanking a Much Higher Being for the gift of music, her ability to perform. Deep down, this is a prayer.
So where to go from there? I wonder (Departure) apparently, the penultimate track. That looks like an interim title for starters. Should they call it “I wonder”? Should it be “Departure”? Let’s go for the middle path of calling it “I wonder” but keep the Departure bit in, as that’s the role it plays within the structure of the mini-musical – the moment she leaves (wherever it is she’s leaving and wherever it is she’s going to). It’s a delicate little song of uncertainness and anxiety, and I’m not sure it stands alone particularly well outside of the wider context of its place within a musical. However, Frida sings it with great conviction and sincerity, and it is said that there is an autobiographical element to this song, having parallels with Frida’s leaving her young family to start her music career.
Final track, of both the mini-musical and the album, is I’m a Marionette. It’s quite a spiky and quirky song with lots of attitude and chances for both Agnetha and Frida to show off their vocal abilities. But energy saps in the middle with a rather boring instrumental section, and it ends in the same place that it started, with no sense of progress. If you seek out youtube videos of Abba performing this in Australia in 1977 (from Abba the Movie I guess) I reckon it would have been sensational live. However, on the album it feels a bit flat.
And that’s it! A game of two halves if ever there was one. In the first half, they hardly put a foot or a note wrong, with four really rewarding tracks. On Side Two things get a bit patchier. It really marks a midway point in their recording career – there’s less of a disco theme to the majority of these tracks than previously, and we start to catch sight of their darker side, which would develop over the next four years. On a personal note, I’d like to say thank you for both the music and the memories – it was great to be there at the time. The best of these songs will last forever.