Being the textbook sort of musical snob I like to think of myself as, I have a hard time admitting to some of the more decidedly “un-hip” sides of my music palette. At least in public anyway.
Some would call my continuing fondness for overblown, pretentious seventies progressive rock bands like Yes, Marillion, and Peter Gabriel era Genesis a flaw in my taste for example. Hell, for that matter they would probably nail me for the fact that in this past year alone I’ve written about a disproportionate number of seventies classic rock bands period.
And what about that Springsteen guy, some may find themselves asking. You know, the guy whose continuing “relevance” was a subject of some debate recently right here at Blogcritics Magazine? After all, isn’t Springsteen — the guy whose songs champion the values of the working class — a bloated millionaire liberal himself?
Well, why some might find themselves a little ashamed to admit to enjoying artists such as these, I myself choose to wave that fact as a flag of some honor. But for me, there is no guiltier pleasure in all of music than that of the perfectly constructed three minute or so pop song. I here and now confess that I am an absolute sucker for this type of sugary sweet ear candy.
You know the sort of songs I’m talking about. Many of them by one hit wonders such as The Raspberries (“Go All The Way”), and The Outsiders (“Time Won’t Let Me”) on the rock side, or a guy like Lou Christie (“Lightnin’ Strikes,” “Rhapsody On The Rain”) on the more pop sounding side. Okay, so Lou Christie had more than one hit (actually so did the Raspberries).
Anyway, for me these sort of perfect little pop tunes can represent every bit the sort of audio bliss that something as meticulously constructed and put to tape as say, Born To Run or Pet Sounds does. And over the past thirty years or so, nobody but nobody has made a greater string of these largely unheralded little pop masterpieces than Abba. That’s right, I said Abba.
So for this edition of The Rockologist, I am going to remove that particular hat, and replace it with that of the Popologist. Let’s talk about Abba for a few minutes shall we?
First of all, what a lot of people don’t realize about Abba is that they have more than a few fans amongst the more “respectable” members of the rock community. I remember meeting Nick Lowe for example backstage in the seventies at a concert, where I noticed he was wearing an Abba button. Lowe at the time was one of the most sought after producers in music, in addition to crafting his own little pop gems such as those found on his album Pure Pop For Now People. So when I remarked about his Abba button, Lowe gushed about how he was then producing an album for Elvis Costello and that the sound he was looking for would be to make an “Elvis Costello Abba album.” That album tuned out to be Costello’s brilliant third album, the pop masterpiece Armed Forces.
What Abba did so flawlessly for most of the seventies was crank out hit after hit after hit in the form of these beautifully crafted great pop singles. Many of them you know of course — there’s “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me,” “Mamma Mia” and all the rest. A lot of these great songs owe more than a little to Phil Spector, such as “SOS” with it’s swirling production resembling nothing so much as it’s own “wall of sound.”
Other songs you may not know as well, as not at all of them were near the big hits in America that they were in Europe. Take “Honey, Honey” for example. Notice how, in the video for the song, Agnetha and Annifrid (or “Frida” as those of us who love her know her), sing the lyrics in such an innocent sort of way, even as they coyly sway their hips in what is damn near a “come hither” sort of suggestion.
The song itself cleverly disguises itself as a sweet sort of little “I love you,” while still managing to mask it’s more erotic intent. On the one hand there’s a line like “I’m gonna stick to you boy, you’ll never get rid of me,” while on the other there’s “Honey to say the least, you’re a doggone beast.” So you tell me what they are really singing about here.
Simply put, Abba’s best songs were about sex. But they were so cleverly packaged as sweet, innocent little pop songs — with Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Frida themselves the very embodiment of such wholesome innocence — that the majority of the world never got it, even as they gobbled up this ear candy to the tune of something like a billion records sold. Again, take another song like “Knowing Me Knowing You.” Now you tell me what this song is really about.
Well okay. Maybe “Knowing Me Knowing You” isn’t about sex. But have you ever heard a song about breaking up sung in such an erotic way? The way Agnetha sings the backup vocal as a breathy sort of whisper makes you want to skip past the breakup altogether and get straight to the make-up part.
If it sounds like I’m fixating on the sexuality of Abba’s two female singers here, I actually have a confession to make. In my twenties, and supposedly all grown up and past such things, I actually had something of a teenybopper’s crush on Frida. You think I’m kidding? Try this on for size.
When Abba finally toured America in what I want to say was about 1979, I scored third row tickets and took the girl I was seeing at the time to the show. Well, when Frida would make her way over to our side of the stage, she kept making eye contact with me. This actually caused me to squirm in a way not at all unlike that of a teenage girl at a Clay Aiken (or back then, Shaun Cassidy) concert. As I went on and on about how “Frida was looking at me,” my date’s anger rose just as steadily. I never saw her again after that night.
So these days Abba finally appear to be getting some respect. Touring Abba tribute bands like Bjorn Again do pretty big business on the concert curcuit, and the musical Mamma Mia, based on Abba’s songs, has been a box office smash all over the world.
But more importantly, the bands songs and the way they were produced are also finally getting their rightful due. People finally seem to have come around to the fact that Bjorn and Benny share as much with people like Brian Wilson, John Phillips, and Phil Spector as they do with Barry Gibb and the other disco song-smiths they were lumped into a category with back in the seventies.
So go ahead and dust off that copy of Abba Gold you’ve been keeping in the closet and give it a spin. Go ahead and admit it. You love it.
It’s okay. Honest.