Cold war, energy shock, stagflation and food shortage: all that is missing from the current revival of the early 1970s is Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo”. Lo and behold, the Swedish band take to the stage on Friday night in London for their first live performance in decades.
Well, not quite. The Abba Voyage show does not feature the pop quartet themselves, but four avatars created by special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, performing with a 10-piece band in front of 3,000 spectators. It’s a digital metaverse extravaganza that could easily fail, but the tunes are sure to be catchy; it is Abba, after all.
Almost half a century later, it remains a pleasure to watch the band on the recording of the 1974 event. . . a country full of mountains, lakes and forests,” the TV commentator condescendingly explains when they appear on stage: Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Björn, the latter wearing silver boots and strumming a starry guitar.
Propulsive chords give way to the opening “My, my!” sung in unison with two rhythms echoing the group. They’re only five seconds away, and the first rhyming hook has landed before the audience knows what’s going on. A song sung in English by a Swedish group blithely compares the Anglo-Prussian defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 with a thunderbolt.
It was joyful, escapist and fun at a time of great anxiety, but only now is it clear how influential it was. A band that was derided by many critics at the time was performing something deceptively sophisticated under the guise of cheesy Europop. One only has to watch the dance floor at parties when the piano glissando of “Dancing Queen” sounds to know who laughed last.
A timeless catalog is the ultimate source of value in the modern music industry – Pink Floyd is negotiating the sale of its own, after deals including the sale of Bruce Springsteen’s catalog to Sony Music for $550 million. Abba’s nine UK number one singles between 1974 and 1980 formed the heart of his 1992 Abba Gold compilation, which sold 30 minutes of copies.
Abba was highly effective, dishing out blows in a sustained flurry before splitting in 1982 and entering a four-decade hiatus, unexpectedly ended by the last year. Travel album. Both couples in the group had just gotten divorced so there was more to it than business acumen, but it saved a lot of effort.
Absence did not negate Abba’s influence. Not only has the lifespan of songs been extended by the Mama Mia! musical jukebox, which has grossed over $4 billion since 1999, but the group began the country’s global takeover. Max Martin, the Swedish producer who created addictive hits for Britney Spears, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, took Abba’s formula and developed it further.
The first element was English. The first Eurovision singer to drop his mother tongue and sing in the world language was Ingvar Wixell, Sweden’s entry into the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. The contest then banned such disloyalty until 1973 , in time for the pan-European mix of “Waterloo”.
It was the expression of a larger ambition: to get Scandinavia out on the world stage. “Leaving Sweden at that time was absolutely impossible,” Björn Ulvaeus said last year. A language decision was worth billions in worldwide recognition.
The second element was a serious devotion to the eye-catching. I’m still humming the lines from “Waterloo”: “The history book on the shelf/always repeats itself” and that’s just the start of its memorable chorus. Like Abba’s, Martin’s songs cut right to the chase: the three beats that kick off Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” reach out and grab you.
Martin has made hook density a science. ” That was all. Keep them on the [disco] floor”, he remembers one day the approach of his mentor, the Swedish DJ Denniz Pop. Swedish pop blended the melancholy of folk music with American rhythm and blues, and sheer exuberance: who cared if the lyrics didn’t always make sense when the music was so compulsive?
The 1970s were an era of rock intellectualism: Pink Floyd released The dark side of the moon the year before Waterloo. But while the concept albums faded, the hit singles endured. The Rolling Stones still tour live, although their surviving members are well past retirement age, but their best-known acts date from the 1960s and 1970s.
I don’t blame Abba for trying to avoid performance stress and relying on technology to deliver the old numbers. While Ulvaeus relaxes on his island near Stockholm, his “Abbatar” will perform five times a week in east London. The band members may age but their avatars represent them in their prime and the songs remain the same.
Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson looked pretty laid back on their comeback publicity tour, as good as they could. They defied 1970s fashion and embarked on another Swedish pop experiment. “I thought it was the end, I really did,” Ulvaeus recalled of Abba’s lull in the 1980s, but you can’t keep a good melody down.