Hip to be Square
“Take a Chance on Me” by Abba (1977)
Back in the day, I would sometimes buy albums on spec. I had maybe heard one song on the album; not really knowing what it was. Sometimes you were pleasantly surprised. This was one of those times.
Peeling it out of its cellophane the album cover showed (to me) a more mature set of two couples enjoying some champagne in the back of a limo....So I threw on the album (o.k. gingerly placed), not expecting a lot really.
A funky piano intro and this weird sound on the stereo leading into this punchy bass beat and this exotic euro sound floating around on top of it with those voices. Those voices – controlled yet somehow evocatively emotional. What was going on? Who the hell was this band? ‘Mamma Mia’ what the hell is that? Some Italian thing?
How did they get that exotic sound? I read all the notes on the album – must be the clavinet and the synthesizer - but really these are not too exotic. How did they do it? The vocal harmonies were very tight. The voices blended flawlessly. The lyrics sounded slightly exotic also as some of the words seemed to suggest a different accent; a Stockholm accent. The lyrics sounded a bit naive by North American standards. Songs like “Topical Loveland” and “Intermezzo no. 1” - Really?
So the next day I have this album on the stereo in the living room again and Glen’s cousin Randy is there dropping off the beer (I will not explain this part), and he hears this album playing. He says “Cool, this is that new Swedish band right?” I thought I was in my own little world with this weird album so I was a bit shocked – “Ya, I just got it”. I was impressed as Randy was in a band and wore cool platform boots and drove a Dodge ‘Superbee’ - so this felt like high praise for my musical choices.
All the songs seemed to be written by some guys called Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. Who were they? Why had I not heard of them before? “Mamma Mia” was solid, albeit odd sounding at first.
Part of Abba is that slightly off euro thing. Eclectic sounds and lyrics. Unique and sometimes bizarre. A throw-back to an earlier time here, a very odd arrangement there. It is a journey. It is ABBA.
Benny and Bjorn growing up were listening to classical music, schlager music (Northern European ballads mostly), and later on more the British and American music. There is something uniquely Swedish there though...
As in any country there can be a ‘sound’ but it is not that simple. You cannot just say it sounds ‘Swedish’. In a large country like Canada where I live there can be huge geographical differences, yet somehow there is still evidence of cross-pollination of music, as well as a clear influence from the U.S as it is our giant southern neighbor. There has been music noted to have a ‘Canadian’ sound, which may seem a bit insulting if you are a Canadian musician. It is like saying it sounds African. That is an insult to musicians on that continent which has a vast array of musical styles.
So when I heard ABBA and thought this has a real ‘Swedish’ sound I had to be cautious. There are many regional and rural vs. urban influences to the music. There is a clear folk feel to ABBA for sure.
In the sixties there was a Swedish folk music revival among the youth, not unlike North America. Unlike North America though, this ‘polska’ music focused on a Nordic form of dance music based on a lot of 16th and 8th notes. Music festivals started in the early seventies in Stockholm which I would be quite sure some members of ABBA attended.
Much had been said and written about ABBA. It is still one of the most important bands of the seventies. The same year the Swedish band Blue Swede blew up the charts with B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling”; ABBA won the Eurovision song contest with “Waterloo”. The band went on to sell some 370 million records, the top selling artist of the seventies, strangely “Dancing Queen” being their only number one hit. I hear Sweden has very high tax rates so they probably have the distinction also of paying the most taxes of any band in history.
Hit after hit followed. You know them all. The toll on the band was massive. Both couples’s marriages ended while they were in their most productive period. Their personal strife, like any good blues player will tell you, got embedded in their music with fantastic results.
One thing I don’t think most people know about ABBA is that they were all very successful in music before they became ABBA. Benny Anderson had written huge hits for his band the Hep Stars which was Sweden’s answer to the Beatles in the mid sixties. Bjorn Ulvaeus was the lead singer of The Hootenanny Singers, a folk-skiffle group he convinced to perform songs in English that he had written.
In 1970 after Benny came in second in the Eurovision song contest, he met and recorded his first album with Bjorn. Agnetha Fältskog had the number one song in Sweden when she was 17, loved Connie Francis and often sang covers of English pop songs. Anni-Frid Lyngstad was actually from Norway where she had been singing in bands since she was 13, and in the summer of ’67 she won a national talent contest that sent her to the EMI studio to record with none other than Benny Andersson. They had all crossed paths at various concerts and contest but by 1970 they all knew each other. Their first Swedish hit together was huge.
Kind of like the Brian Epstein of Sweden, Stig Anderson was the manager of the Hootenanny Singers and started Polar Music record company, becoming ABBAs agent he encouraging the band to write and perform original music. He told Benny and Bjorn, “"One day the pair of you will write a song that becomes a worldwide hit". As they were working on doing just that strangely their first foreign success kind of came out of nowhere. Their single "She's My Kind of Girl" went to the top ten in Japan.
Much perseverance followed until the group released the album “Ring, Ring” in 1973. Once again not winning the Eurovision song contest they went back to the drawing board. Although Abba was a well-known fish cannery in Sweden the band went with Abba as their name, tired of all the other crappy names people had come up with, and thinking that outside of Sweden no one would know.
In 1974 they were ready and hit it the Eurovision Song Contest hard with ‘Waterloo’. The floodgates opened and the international phenomenon has now been heard everywhere including the deepest part of Africa I’m sure.
Abba really opened the door for other Swedish bands known outside of Sweden like Roxette, Europe, Ace of Bass, the Cardigans and even more recently bands like The Sounds.
I still have my original copy of that album simply titled “ABBA” that I played in my parent’s living room oh so long ago. Still sounds unique!
A few ABBA gems worth a listen are:
· So Long
· When I Kissed the Teacher
· If It Wasn’t For the Nights
· I’m a Marionette
· Under Attack