An Appreciation: "Masters of the Scene"

by Andrew Kerr
28 July 2006

Thirty years ago ABBA unleashed "Dancing Queen" on an unsuspecting planet and changed pop music forever. Now, with increasingly sharpened 20/20 hindsight, it is reasonable to conclude that ABBA were the greatest band of the 1970s. This is a proclamation certain to ruffle the feathers of many a Rolling Stone reader, but the case is becoming clear. No 1970's band remains as emotionally relevant and perpetually contemporary as ABBA.

Your grandmother was probably a fan; so was one Kurt Cobain. Like no other group but the Beatles, ABBA enjoyed a cross-section of adulators both young and old. This allowed the band to sell millions of records—and make millions of dollars. But it would be foolish to hate ABBA for their financial success—many critically lauded "serious" bands have also raked in the dough, and done so with far less energy and effort, creative or otherwise. The simple fact is that ABBA worked hard at being great, and thirty years on we continue to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

They produced eight studio albums from which one could easily cull two CD's worth of "greatest hits." They also produced insufferably annoying tunes like "Money Money Money." But the worst you can say about ABBA is that their lows were matched by those of other pop music masters. After all, the Beatles punished us with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." And at the end of the day, it's fair to say that most of us would prefer to dine on ABBA's turds than Ashlee Simpson's—or Einstürzende Neubauten's—filet mignon.

ABBA are the only band of the 1970s that remains "current." Tell someone you're into Jethro Tull and that person will likely wrinkle his nose at the musty smell that hangs over such a confession. But the lustre of ABBA has never faded. Their songs continue to be sung and danced to by teenagers and twenty-somethings the world over.

How did a band that invested a fortune into state-of-the-art production manage not to create instantly dated music? One can understand why the minimal textures of Kraftwerk continue to intrigue us today—it's the minimalism itself that ensures that music's timelessness. A bleep is a bleep and will always a bleep be-ith. Punk rock has endured in much the same manner; by stripping the rock sound down to its core components and keeping the production raw the music of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and early Siouxsie and the Banshees speaks as loudly today as it did the day it was created.

But the opposite of this, studio excess, is almost always fatal to longevity. Consider Yes's late 1970's albums, which are masterpieces of musicianship to a few; unlistenable, self-indulgent drivel to most. Or, on a poppier slope, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which while incredibly appealing to this day, also sounds campy and dated when placed alongside such surreal dance-pop as ABBA's "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)." (Madonna, who plucked from that tune, clearly agreed; by contrast, one cannot imagine a smash Madonna single containing a sample of "Night on Disco Mountain.") In fact, ABBA never made a proper disco record; instead they embedded disco elements into several of their songs, resulting in a fresh, contemporary, but most importantly singular sound. I imagine Bjorn turning to Benny in the studio and asking, "We know all about the 'rules' of disco, but what should ABBA-disco sound like?" Theirs was simply a higher-order level of creativity, and it resulted in an incomparability that has allowed the band's music to endure.

No other band has won the Eurovision song competition and gone on to produce its most memorable work afterward. Truth be told, I never liked "Waterloo" much; its frantic tempo gave it an unpleasant scent of desperation (the group had failed to qualify as Sweden's representatives the year before with "Ring Ring," and considering their driven natures that must have irritated them a lot). But in retrospect I have to admire the song's commercial shrewdness: four Swedes sing an English-language song comparing a relationship to Napoleon's Waterloo. How pan-Euro can you get? (ABBA would continue to demonstrate this commercial awareness by penning the Italian-esque "Mamma Mia," the French-titled "Voulez Vous," and the Spanish-flavored "Fernando" and "Chiquitita"; they also rerecorded many of their songs in Spanish. Their concert movie focused on the continent of Australia. Their "Eagle" video prominently featured not just any eagle, but a bald eagle, the symbol of a country which had just celebrated its bicentennial the year before [bald eagles, it should be noted, do not live in Sweden]. And again, let's not forget that all those English-language songs were sung by Swedes.)

If the Beatles had an Achilles heel, it was their self-sabotaging propensity for "cleverness," which at its worst left us guessing when the band was being sincere and when they weren't. ABBA, on the other hand, knew that they connected best with their audience when they drew their lyrics from real emotional experience. "One Man, One Woman," perhaps the greatest tune excluded from the ABBA Gold CDs, is so affecting because of the brutal honesty with which the group explored the ups and downs of a long-term relationship (few couplets are so simple, wise, and bittersweet as "Our love is a precious thing / Worth the pain and the suffering"). As the marriages in ABBA unraveled behind-the-scenes, the group, demonstrating either super-human emotional strength or utter insanity, mined the turmoil to produce such pop classics as "The Winner Takes it All." Few critically lauded music acts have put so much on the line.

"Dancing Queen" is their masterpiece, but it wasn't until 1992 that I discovered why. The single had been re-released in the UK in anticipation of ABBA Gold, which saw ABBA mastered to CD for the first time. As I found out during my many visits to Bath's Island Club, "Dancing Queen" reliably created the dancefloor equivalent of a Summer of Love. The tune's slow, graceful beats and glossy synth sounds invited us to turn, twirl, and join hands as we sang ourselves hoarse to the words, "You can dance! You can dance! Having the time of your life!" In that song's glow, we looked strangers in the eye with a cheery comaraderie. "Dancing Queen" was musical ecstasy, it was the oldest best single of 1992, and it continues to make fools of us all today.

One of the best testimonies to the greatness of ABBA can be glimpsed in the film The ABBA Movie, a quasi-documentary directed by Lasse Hallström about the band's 1977 tour of Australia (and from which the images on this page were culled). In a stadium venue, the band wraps up a sing-a-long version of "Fernando," which the audience belts out with commendable competence. Then, either Bjorn or Benny (the speaker is off camera) announces that the group is going to play "a dancing number for you! 'Dancing Queen'!" The crowd predictably roars its approval as that distinctive swish of pianos, one of the greatest intros to any song ever, kicks off one of the greatest moments in pop.

A shot of the audience then reveals a girl, probably no more than 12 years old, clutching a sparkler and weeping uncontrollably. As I watched her sob, I asked myself, "Is there really any analog to this?" Would a 1972 performance of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," say, have made me cry like that? Led Zeppelin were a band that lived the life of rock giants, and for many of their fans that was a great source of their appeal. ABBA, by contrast, were two couples whose personalities were far from gigantic. They were quiet, retiring, hard-working. This flies in the face of the rock ethos.

One cannot separate Bruce Springsteen, the man, from his music. One cannot remove the sexuality of Jimi Hendrix from his guitar playing. Even the adulation shown for the Beatles in those early Ed Sullivan days was buoyed in part by the group's sex appeal. But ABBA carefully constructed a public image of dullness, putting their music far ahead of themselves.

As the tears stream down that young girl's face, we may be tempted to laugh at her naivety. But in fact, we are witnessing the power of music at its purest. She is elevated to this euphoric state not by a singer's sexuality, notoriety, or media-crafted saintliness, but by the power of a canon of songs, songs that were created and performed by people who insisted that they themselves be dwarfed by them. This had never happened before in the history of popular music. It has never happened since.

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