AH, ABBA. The first band I remember loving. I was 10 when the Swedish foursome – Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid – won Eurovision in 1974 with Waterloo. On a school trip to Germany three years later I remember buying an album of their greatest hits. It was only when I got back on the bus that one of the older kids pointed out to me that it was actually an album of German covers of Abba songs. You may not be surprised to learn I dropped German soon after.
I drifted away from the band too, before they split in 1981. Still, I couldn’t help but tune in for yesterday’s announcement that for the first time in nearly four decades ABBA are releasing a new album and staging a concert series with holograms of their younger selves.
Of course, for some it may have felt like they’ve never been away.Somewhere even now, Dancing Queen is playing on the radio. And yet the fall and rise of ABBA’s reputation is an interesting lesson in the swirling currents of cultural taste-making.
For all their post-Eurovision success in the 1970s you could never say they were ever hip. ABBA’s original crime was their inauthenticity. By the punk years they were fully immersed in the world of light entertainment and as such beyond the pale.
Never mind that Elvis Costello admitted a musical debt to the Swedish quartet, the critic Robert Christgau said of the band in 1979: “We have met the enemy and they are them.”
That attitude towards ABBA took a while to go away. When the Sex Pistols staged a reunion show in 1997 on the 20th anniversary of their album Never Mind the Bollocks, they pre-empted their appearance on stage by playing Dancing Queen, a symbol of everything they overthrew when they had their own moment in the sun
Even as they conquered the world, Abba were dismissed as kitsch and sentimental. It’s true that their music and image contained both those aspects. But what struck even the youngest of listeners (and, yes, my hand is up here) was how grown-up they could sound.
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Songs like Knowing Me, Knowing You and The Winner Takes It All were slices of Ingmar Bergman pop that spoke to adult sensibilities and situations. They were not about the joys of first love but the final limits of it. The fact that the two couples in the band themselves split suggested the emotional depths of the songs came from personal experience.
But in the years after the band broke up that depth wasn’t much acknowledged. In fact, initially, the band’s reputation seemed to fall off a cliff. In the 1980s, Bjorn Ulvaeus once admitted, “ABBA were distinctly ‘uncool’, totally out of fashion. And I thought ‘Well, that’s it. It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s over’.”
And yet by the 1990s the band in absentia were on an upward trajectory. A lot of that had to do with the gay community’s love of ABBA. (A love that continues to the present day. Gay Times prefaced yesterday’s announcement with the immortal line: “Get ready dancing queens!”)
But they weren’t the only ones. Indeed, the ageing punks at that Sex Pistols gig rather than jeer Dancing Queen, as the Pistols might have hoped, all sang along.
And, of course, the mums and dads who loved ABBA back in the 1970s still loved them in the 1980s and 1990s and were the perfect audience for Judy Craymer’s 1999 jukebox musical MAMMA MIA!
These days the band’s appeal is wide enough to encompass both Gary Barlow and Jarvis Cocker.
Their reputation doesn’t really need this latest fillip. But who knows? Maybe the four people behind it did. Doesn’t everyone want an encore?
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