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Abba's Abba Gold
Abba's Abba Gold
Elisabeth Vincentelli

Elisabeth Vincentelli is music editor of Time Out New York. She has also written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly among many other publications. She grew up in France and has loved Abba since watching them triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2004

Artists:

Abba

Content Type:

33 1/3 Books

Music Genres:

Pop Music

Place:

Europe, Sweden

Table of Contents

Related Content

“Waterloo”: This Beginning Is Not the End

Authors:

Elisabeth Vincentelli

Elisabeth Vincentelli is music editor of Time Out New York. She has also written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly among many other publications. She grew up in France and has loved Abba since watching them triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
DOI: 10.5040/9781501396687.0012
Page Range: 115–132

It seems like a perverse move to end both the compilation and the book with the hit that revealed Abba to the European public, but it’s also a highly symbolic one: “Waterloo” is the key that unlocks Abba. It illustrates the band’s appeal and its melodic genius, and it launched a career that would reshuffle the cards in the pop deck for the following two decades. Indeed, at the start of this century, Sweden had become a major player on the world pop-music scene: Despite its small size, it ranked third—behind the U.S. and the U.K.—as “a source of international repertoire.”[54] And that supremacy can be pinpointed precisely to one evening in April 1974.

There was a lot of pressure on “Waterloo” from the beginning. It’s hard to grasp now, but in the early ’70s it was simply unfathomable that a band from a non-English-speaking country could reach the same level of planetary popularity as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys. Singing in English wasn’t enough to guarantee more than a brief, novelty-like success that couldn’t possibly lead to a lasting career. Rightly or wrongly, the Eurovision Song Contest, which had been inaugurated in 1956 as a way to foster ties between European nations, was perceived by Abba and its team as the route to stardom outside of Sweden.

Now, of course, the contest is tainted with the unmistakable whiff of overripe cheese, its aura as a star-making enterprise intact only in Baltic countries and republics from the former Yugoslavia. But back in the early ’70s, the contest was hot and Abba was really, really keen on entering. Starting in 1969, when Frida’s “Harlig ar var jord” placed fourth, one or more of the future Abba members would be semi-regular presences in the Swedish heat, called Melodifestivalen—the Melody Festival. In February 1973, Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida’s “Ring Ring” came close but again they didn’t make it past the national elimination process. Undaunted, the group went back to the drawing board and tried again. Never mind that “Ring Ring” was a sizable hit in Sweden and in several European countries—except England—and thus could have made a solid base from which to expand: According to Björn, “We knew that the Eurovi-sion Song Contest was the only route for a Swedish group to make it outside Sweden.”[55]

And so the recording session for “Waterloo” (or “Honey Pie,” as it was known before lyricist Stig Anderson settled on something so much more pop—the name of an early 19th century battle) started on December 17, 1973, at Metronome Studio. The musical nucleus we are now familiar with was already in place: Janne Schaffer, Abba’s preferred guitarist in the early ’70s, is credited for coming up with both the main guitar and bass parts, while soon-to-be-Abba-stalwarts Rutger Gunnarsson and Ola Brunkers were also on board. The texture of the song is incredibly dense, and Tretow is open about the Phil Spector influence. Indeed shortly before recording “Ring Ring,” Tretow had read Richard Williams’s book Out of His Head: The Sound of Phil Spector, which gave him the idea to overdub instruments. This proved to be one of the most influential factors in what would become the Abba sound.

On March 4, 1974, a few weeks after the band had finally managed to win its ticket to Brighton (where the Eurovision contest was to be held that year), both “Waterloo” and the album of the same name were released; they were the first to bear the name Abba. On April 6,1974, the song easily won that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, held at Brighton’s Dome, in England. Abba’s closest rivals had been Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with “Si” and the Netherlands’ Mouth and MacNeal with “I See a Star” (both songs, like “Waterloo,” made the British Top Ten). “Waterloo” turned out to be Abba’s first No. 1 hit in several countries: England succumbed in May and the group’s first British gold single was awarded, and the American charts were conquered as well with a No. 6 rank. A German version was recorded in March and a French one in April, a couple of weeks after the victory (the latter was a brilliant coup, selling the French a song named after one of their most famous defeats). The French adaptation was done by Claude-Michel Schonberg, who would go on to co-write Les Miserables—just one more in a series of serendipitous musical-theater associations (after all, it wasn’t someone hip like, say, Serge Gainsbourg who was asked to do the adaptation).

In retrospect, it’s funny that Stig and the boys thought the Eurovision could bring them world success, as historically the contest has failed to launch long-term careers. Few established stars have ever subjected themselves to the competition, and few fledgling artists have succeeded because of it. Julio Iglesias’s fourth place in 1970 isn’t what turned him into a global sex symbol; Celine Dion won in 1988, sure, but she was already doing quite well in Francophone countries and her ensuing English crossover success would be triggered by her association with Disney (when she sang “Beauty and the Beast”), not a much-derided song contest.

What was important in the Eurovision mystique was that it functioned as both an over-heated European reaction to the Anglo-American domination of pop music in the ’60s and ’70s and as something that couldn’t possibly compete with said domination. As Simon Frith and Peter Langley wrote, “Rock is an essentially Anglo-American enterprise, and most other countries do have their rock groups. Abba, by entering the Eurovision Contest, made clear they weren’t one of them.”[56] Not only did they not “rock”, but there was the issue of the band members’ utter Swedishness. For instance, they never worked with hot-shot American or British producers (except for the trip to Miami); they collaborated with Swedish musicians in Swedish studios. This explains why Benny remarked that “It was very hard to maintain, even in your own eyes, that the song we were working on was just as good as the one that for example the Hollies were having a hit with at the same time.”[57]But to its credit, the band never relinquished its identity as a non-English, non-American group. For those of us who are Continental Europeans, this was as important as the songs themselves.

In a 2002 interview, Björn noted that “For the main part of the group’s lifespan, the critics despised us.”[58] You only have to read Robert Christgau’s reviews of the band in the ’70s to encounter beautifully preserved American scorn. In a review of Greatest Hits, he sneered that “Americans with an attraction to vacuums, late capitalism, and satellite TV adduce Phil Spector and the Brill Building Book of Hooks in Abba’s defense, but the band’s real tradition is the advertising jingle, and I’m sure their disinclination to sing like Negroes reassures the Europopuli. Pervasive airplay might transform what is now a nagging annoyance into an aural totem. It might also transform it into an ashtray. God bless America, we’re not likely to find out which.”[59] (Of course, it’s always satisfying to see how rock fans and critics are always the first to cry censorship when their defiant posturing is met with hostility, only to absurdly feel that their very identity is threatened by pop songs.) There’s no denying that Abba represented the exact opposite of rock values: It came from one of those sissy Scandinavian countries, softened to the point of disgusting weakness by social-democracy; it was clueless when it came to rebellion (by then written up as the most desirable form of expression); and, jeez, look at what they were wearing! Erasure’s Andy Bell hit it squarely on the head when he said “I think the European public were a little more open to the Abba phenomenon, seeing that they had become well-known throughout the continent via the Eurovision Song Contest—it has a certain cachet with the queens but there’s still a certain naffhess being associated with the competition. In the eyes of the macho rock fraternity, the band was never able to shake off this stigma. For me, I embrace any kind of stigma and try to empower myself with it a bit, like reclaiming the word queer. Being a total nelly in school, I made it cool to like Abba.”[60]

Abba fared better when the revival rolled around, but new lines of attacks were at the ready. This time, the group came to embody the money-making exploitation of old songs by greedy labels. A Time magazine article that came out just after the U.S. version of Gold is comically bilious: “Abba was always easy to enjoy, if you could just put aside the unnerving sense that they were hastening the decline of pop music into commercial calculation and mindless buoyancy (not that much of a plunge to begin with).”[61] On its 1993 single “Pop Is Dead,” Radiohead mocked “Oh no, pop is dead, long live pop/It died an ugly death by back catalogue.” And yet that back catalog, cannily exploited, is what turned a great pop band into a classic, timeless one. Abba Gold may have been just a compilation, but it completely recreated the band by introducing it to a whole new generation of fans (affectionately dubbed “Goldies” by their older peers). And those fans came in all stripes and ages. A few years ago, a retired Florida college professor sent me an unpublished article titled “Discovering Abba: A Senior Citizen Finds the Meaning of Life Listening to Abba Continuously for Three Weeks.” The piece related how its author had discovered the Swedish group and fallen in love with it. Intrigued by the songs in the 1994 Australian movie Muriel’s Wedding, the professor had picked up Abba Gold and become obsessed with it. (Listing a series of possible reasons for his new consumating love, he mischievously concluded with “Senility: My obsession with Abba signals a breakdown in judgment.”) This was a man in his sixties who had completely missed out on the band the first time around and whose introduction to it had been through its best-known album.

The downside to this phenomenon is that Abba became closely identified with a compilation. This particularly hits home when you think about The Visitors, a great album that has only one track on Gold. Sticking with Gold also means missing brilliant songs such as “If It Wasn’t for the Nights” from Voulez-Vous, “On and On and On” from Super Trouper, or “Honey, Honey” from Waterloo. Of all the people who discovered Abba in 1992, how many were content with just the compilation? How many bought More Gold, which came out in 1993 and included the lesser hits and some B sides? And since the Gold liner notes don’t actually specify which studio album each song was taken from, how many bothered to look them up? In other words, did the success of Gold overshadow the scope of Abba’s achievements?

As far as Abba goes, you could say that Gold was a blessing in disguise, freezing the band in top-ten amber forever at the detriment of the quirkier tracks to be found in its albums. “When they were still around as a group, the members of Abba often said that they wanted to become ‘an album band’ and not be recognized only for their singles,” Potiez says. “Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with the revival since Abba Gold became unavoidable. Personally, I find this too bad since the albums feature wonderful songs, with arrangements as complex as those on the singles. Many people also ignore that Abba tried out reggae, rock or tango.”[62] Did the compilation eradicate the need for new converts to buy the original albums, ensuring that said albums took a backseat to the singles, and making the “singles band” appellation a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did Gold offer a reductionist view of the band, making it only a hit machine and not an organic entity capable of artistic growth?

Another problem is one evoked earlier: Abba Gold unwittingly helped ensure that the band’s image would stay stuck in the ’70s. The artwork tried to clean up the most embarrassing visuals but the group’s ’70s image remains the prevalent one. The clip for “Waterloo,” for instance, was classic glam, and it remains among the most influential elements in the Abba mythos. The band members teetered in their platform shoes and looked half-uncomfortable, half-giddy in their flashy costumes. Sure, Frida was in a fairly reasonable long skirt, but Agnetha’s blue satin pants were tucked into knee-high white boots. And could Benny and Björn really be wearing metal epaulets? Björn shot the confident smirks that would reappear in countless clips, but why shouldn’t he have looked pleased with himself? After all, he’d just co-written a perfect pop song. As if this weren’t enough, his guitar was not only silver but shaped like a comicbook “Pow!” The “Waterloo” video left an enduring mark, and even slapping a black cover on Gold couldn’t erase it. Despite Polygram’s valiant effort to distance the quartet from the stylistic excesses with which it was associated in its heyday, the revival was linked to a rediscovery of the hits, which meant a rediscovery of the videos. In the ’90s, Abba remained identified with the ’70s. “The look” wasn’t much in evidence in the Gold booklet, and yet it was there, making its presence felt like a spectral imprint: There was no running away from it. Upon meeting Björn in 2001, for instance, an American journalist expressed surprise that he was “dressed in head to toe black” instead of the expected “ruffled shirt or bell bottoms.”[63] (That clueless condescension permeated the article, as the writer couldn’t remember who was married to whom, and wrongly paired Björn with Frida and Benny with Agnetha.) Along the same lines, Lucy O’Brien wrote that “ABBA’s prominence in mainstream pop, however, rested on a stylistic nightmare: two female singers Agnetha (Anna) Faltskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad who encapsulated the crude certainties of ’70s teen-girl culture with their luminous blue eyeshadow, shiny pants and platform shoes.”[64] For better or worse, the visuals and the music remain completely intertwined. All the Abba tribute bands currently circling the globe peddle a ’70s look that’s sometimes directly copied from the Abba outfits, sometimes merely inspired by them. Even Mamma Mia!, the musical set in motion by Benny and Björn themselves, heavily plays on that aspect, even though the plot doesn’t require it.

On his web site, Carl Magnus Palm remarks “Abba are, to some extent, still stuck in the ‘superficial kitsch lightweight airhead’ department. Part of the problem is, I think, that if you compare them with acts like the Beatles or Bob Dylan, they got recognition and were held up as ‘important’ very early in their careers. Several hundred books have been written about them over the years. With the Beatles, for instance, there are a number of biographies of the group, of the individual members and their manager, books written by people who worked with them and by ex-wives and ex-lovers, countless discographies, volumes on their recording sessions, their live concerts, their films, their radio and TV appearances, etc.” He expands on the same topic in his biography of the band: “The best Abba can ever hope for—assuming they even care about approval from the cognoscenti—is intermittent rehabilitation. The Nineties revival angle has seldom gone far beyond ‘they were actually quite good,’ which fixes them to the mast as an act that needs defending rather than one that might take their natural place in the pantheon of rock (...) Try as anyone might, the majority of music writers will never regard the group as anything but a particularly tasty creme caramel to be enjoyed after the more substantial meat and potato course provided by rock’s ‘true’ giants, however minor their international impact in comparison with Abba.”[65]

It took the 1992 revival both symbolized and fed by Gold to lead to a critical reappraisal of the band’s qualities. Tobler points out that “the release of Abba Gold brought Abba to a fresh generation, whose parents remembered Abba, and both parents and children could relate to their music.” He then sarcastically adds “Abba Gold was so successful that any critic who dared to criticize it looked like an idiot.”[66] Typically, Mojo, a British magazine best-known for in-depth articles combing the oeuvres of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, the Velvet Underground or Elvis Costello, waited until 1999 to put Abba on its cover. The career-summing article that followed treated the band with a mix of respect and awe. The piece drew predictable ire from some readers: “How dare you put an out-of-date pop band on your cover? What next? KISS?” (I can only assume the reader would have been fine with an out-of-date rock band.) But unsurprisingly, most letters expressed support. Equally significant was the inclusion of Abba in the SPIN Alternative Record Guide. [67] The Beatles weren’t in; Brian Wilson wasn’t in, with or without the Beach Boys. But Abba had an entry, meaning it was recognized as an influence on “alternative rock” on a par with, say, Fela Kuti, Can or Sun Ra. AbbaThe Singles even ranked No. 80 in the book’s Top 100 Alternative Albums, a list topped by the Ramones’ self-titled debut. This type of recognition would not have been possible in 1991, let alone in 1985 or 1977. This leads, once again, to the idea of pop redemption and to, perhaps, the inability of many critics to appreciate pop music on its own terms when it comes out: Why does it take an average of ten years for a pop band to be recognized by the cultural establishment when that delay doesn’t exist for a rock band? Quoted in an article about the television series American Idol, Joe Levy, Rolling Stone’s assistant managing editor for music, blamed the show’s gaudily mediocre musical selections on its British origin: After all, “The British charts are always full of treacly pop music.”[68] Yes, the British charts are full of pop music, but is it any more treacly than the inane rockers—try Linkin Park—lodged in the U.S. Top Ten at the time of Levy’s declaration?

In some way, Gold made pop history while rewriting Abba’s at the same time. Take “Dancing Queen” for instance: Granted, it had been one of Abba’s most popular singles, but Gold helped cement its reputation as the group’s signature song simply by putting it first, ahead of 18 other numbers. At the same time, this highlighting of “Dancing Queen,” the song most embraced by the gay community, also acknowledges Abba’s crucial place at the crossroads between mainstream and underground. Sure, the band was non-threatening and kids loved it, but saying you were into Abba implied a certain thing that could get you bashed. “Which non-cock-sucking straight rock fan could wear thigh length suede boots and satin culottes and not get called a fag!” Andy Bell wonders.[69] In the early ’90s, professing to like Abba made a specific kind of statement, and having “Dancing Queen” as the leading track on Gold tacitly supported it.

But the best way to end a book about Abba Gold may not be to ponder its impact on the group’s reputation but to go back to the song that started it all, and observe how it was used 20 years after its inception. “Waterloo” played a key part in Muriel’s Wedding, in a scene that was very funny but also carried narrative weight, since the transformation of the title’s character happened midway through her mimed performance of the song. In the movie, Muriel (Toni Collette) is a wallflower cruelly mocked and shunned by her so-called friends-she is a caricature of the asocial loser who was supposed to like Abba when Abba was uncool. But at one point, Muriel goes to a tacky resort and there runs into Rhonda, a classmate she didn’t know that well in school. Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) talks Muriel into entering the Hibiscus Island Talent Contest; they both lip-synch to “Waterloo” and win over the vacationing crowd’s approval. This is the turning point of the film and examplifies what Abba came to represent in the early ’90s.

The two women are dressed like Frida and Agnetha but while Rhonda throws herself into the performance right away, Muriel is awkward, mortified by the unflattering clothes, the glare of the spectators. Midway through the song, though, she visibly relaxes and starts enjoying herself. By the end, she’s having a blast and for the first time in her life, she’s comfortable with who she is—even if who she is happens to be encased in an outfit that makes her look like a silver-lame sausage. That single scene encapsulates Abba Gold: It epitomizes a transition from desperately uncool to popular, but it also affirms loudly and clearly that it’s okay to be a dork, a geek, a freak, a queer—you don’t have to abide to commonly accepted definitions of hipness to be happy. There are worse ways to define a classic album.



[54] Jeffrey De Hart, “Spotlight on Stockholm: Sweden Rising” in Billboard , November 24, 2001.

[55] Paul Gambaccini, Jonathan Rice and Tony Brown, The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion (Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1999, p. 7).

[56] Simon Frith and Peter Langley, “Money Money Money: How Abba Won Their Waterloo” in Creem, March 1977.

[57] AbbaThe Recording Sessions, p. 63.

[58] Paphides, “Supertroupers.”

[59] Robert Christgau, Consumer Guide review, 1976.

[60] E-mail exchange, June 2003.

[61] “Richard Lacayo, “What’s that Chirping?” in Time, October 11, 1993.

[62] E-mail exchange, May 2003.

[63] Kristin Hohenadel, “What Would Muriel Think?Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2001.

[64] She Bop II, p. 213.

[65] Bright Lights, Dark Shadow, p. 521.

[66] E-mail exchange, April 2003.

[67] Eric Weisbard with Craig Marks, eds., SPIN Alternative Record Guide (Vintage, 1995).

[68] New York Times , “Fox Mulls How Best to Exploit the Mojo of ‘American Idol’,” May 23, 2003.

[69] E-mail exchange, June 2003.