To us pathetic ex-punk kids--who always wanted to admit to liking "Dancing Queen" and "Chiquitita" but never had the nerve, certainly not in the presence of so many unsmiling '70s skinheads and spike-heads--this was surely the pinnacle of pop journalism perks. (Also, we never did quite believe the rumors about him and Chrissie Hynde.) Never mind that my editor, an old, unrequited pub/Stiff rocker, almost certainly reviled ABBA's production-line values and perceived their pristine, polished pop as kitsch. His hand had been close to--if not actually rested upon--the Arse of Agnetha!
Libidinous, sad teenage sexual fantasies aside (Agnetha was constantly being awarded the U.K.'s Rear of the Year back in the '70s), ABBA were, and are, highly underrated. A band formed out of love (Agnetha and Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid), ABBA sang with a joyful innocence few bands have managed before or since. Why was it that only a few years later Blondie could be (rightfully) rhapsodized over by a succession of heavy-duty critics from Lester Bangs downward, yet the Swedish quartet were never given the kudos they deserved? The two bands' pop sensibilities were almost identical. Were ABBA too consistent? (Anyone else remember Blondie's dreadful swan song The Hunter?) Did Blondie's peroxide makeover and thin veneer of N.Y.C. street cool count for that much?
Or maybe ABBA were seen as too "perfect." How absurd. Leaving aside the obvious merits of pop hits such as "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "Voulez Vous" for a moment, their final album, The Visitors, recorded after the group's two couples had split up, was an incredibly chilling document--the pathos and emotional range of Irving Berlin's showtunes matched to a gritty reality which was spellbinding in its nastiness, the way the boys forced the girls to sing their words of hatred. The whole record echoed with the sound of empty hallways and meaningless opulence, false laughter and choked-back tears.
The actual divorce album, 1980's Super Trouper, meanwhile, contained the peerless, dark, and sarcastic "The Winner Takes It All." How can anyone hear it and not have a tear in their eye? In the video, they don't look at each other once.
Even without their latter-day pain, ABBA left a legacy few bands can match. Forget the ridiculous recent veneration of "The Glam Years": almost all those bands were one-hit wonders, and those who weren't (Bowie, Reed) ripped off their peers shamelessly. ABBA were glam personified, but you don't see The Village Voice waxing lyrical over their sense of (non-) style. Yet on hit after hit after hit, Agnetha and Anni-Frid never faltered, never once clashed--and, most crucially, never once wasted precious air time by showing off their vocal prowess. (Tell that to this generation's crop of "soul" singers. If you're so fucking great, why do you feel the need to keep reminding everyone, Mariah and Celine?)
ABBA had a sweet, seductive naïveté to their early songs, equaled only by that other great despised band of the '70s, the Carpenters. No one else could have made war atrocities (1974's "Waterloo") sound so darn chirpy. No one else could have made armed robbery ("Fernando") sound so poignant. No one else could've gotten away with those silver hot pants! It would take the gay hardcore disco of the Leather Nun, over a decade later, to sully the sentiments of their irresistible (and decidedly dodgy, in retrospect) stomper "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." And try not dancing, even now, to "Mamma Mia" and "Super Trouper."
All right, so occasionally Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid could go a little over the top ("I Have a Dream," "Thank You for the Music"; and Bjorn and Benny were later responsible for the music to the godawful Tim Rice musical Chess), but who'd begrudge them the occasional failing? ABBA had such range, such passion. Does anyone else yearn for the time when good music was popular, and popular music was good?
Does anyone else yearn for ABBA?