We have a new Vice-Chancellor at work, and she’s instigated Tuesday Trivia sessions. One of the questions yesterday was “what has been hailed as the biggest musical comeback of all time?”
The answer: ABBA.
A little over a week ago, ABBA released new music for the first time since 1982’s underrated classic, “Under Attack.” That’s 39 years between songs.
For context, it was only 25 years between The Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” and “Free as a Bird,” remixed from a demo and released a good decade and a half after John Lennon’s tragic death.
I’m a longterm ABBA tragic. My first album was ABBA’s Arrival, released when I was a few months shy of turning 4. At 4 years of age, the “big kids” next door (the eldest was about 13) introduced me to ABBA and would play “concerts” which consisted of them playing the album while making little rag dolls dance to it, holding them above their heads and they hid behind the brick retaining wall that kept our Queenslander home safely above the concreted play area below. It was like a very Queensland version of Punch and Judy. At some point I must have received some cassettes of my own, because one of my earliest memories is of my dad panicking, hitting the brakes and yelling, “where is it? where is it?” when he heard the train whistle at the start of “Nina, Pretty Ballerina” play in the car.
Granted, we were approaching a railway crossing at the time.
That album, Ring Ring, was subsequently banned from the car.
And that wasn’t the only time my ABBAsession caused rifts at home. When I was 8, all I wanted for Christmas was Super Trouper. Post-holiday, when well-meaning adults asked me what I got for Christmas, I would enthusiastically reply, “Super Trouper, and a cassette player to play it on” which evidently annoyed the living daylights out of my mother, who viewed the player as the main gift and rather thought I was burying the lede.
Throughout the 80s, ABBA was considered pretty naff. Most people pretended they had been too cool to ever like them. Missing whatever protective social properties most folks have, I continued to openly love them.
Eventually, in the ’90s, the Queer community adopted their dance beats, Muriel’s Wedding came out, the Gold album was released and their rehabilitation was complete, ready for Mamma Mia and Cher to follow in recent years. ABBA was once again influencing popular culture in a significant way.
When our first child was born in late 1998, my husband used to sit up watching cricket with her in his arms. To even the score, I would only play ABBA in the background when sitting up with her for late night feeds. When she was a teenager, Ros and I were considering an academic conference in the Greek Islands. It was just post-the Global Financial Crisis, and the release of Mamma Mia. My daughter got wind of it and asked if she could come. Ros jokingly replied, only if she could join in as we sang and danced our way around the island. I relayed this to Jamie, who huffily replied, “Of course I know all the lyrics to all the ABBA songs! I’m YOUR daughter!”
Later, she would be the one to buy me the Mamma Mia soundtrack. And to drive us all to the movies to see Mamma Mia 2. The latter time, even her nowhere-near-as-interested brother was singing along in the back seat. Evidently ABBA is not cool in his world – and yet he can also recite which bands have played ABBA songs as part of their festival sets.
And, as you can see above, Jamie and I had a Cher/ABBA girls’ night in 2018. True to her word, she knew every word to every track. There are no words for the delight I feel when my kids know and appreciate the music of my youth.
Ros and I didn’t end up going to Greece, but about six years ago we made it to a West End production of Mamma Mia.
I loved every minute of it. Afterwards, I commented to Ros that I didn’t believe ABBA would ever reunite, despite the fact that there were people who would spend any amount of money to go to their concert. Ros replied: “Like you.” I said that as long as I’d covered the mortgage for the month, then yes. Anything beyond that would seem reasonable.
So I was stunned when news emerged in 2016 that the awesome foursome had, in fact, sung together at a party in Stockholm.
It seems that about that time, the seeds were sown for a reunion. Initially rumoured to be a hologram tour because of the quartet’s age and lack of interest in leaving their home for extended periods of time, it became apparent that holograms don’t travel as light as one might think.
And so gradually a plan formed to create “abbatars” through using the real, human, present-day singers, Agnetha Fältskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaues, all now in their 70s, to perform two new and an unnamed number of classic hits. These were filmed and then Industrial Light and Magic — yes, the power behind that other great seventies franchise, Star Wars–was brought in to “de-age” them back to their 1979 heyday.
These were used in the clip for the new single. Two songs were initially released, but eventually there was enough material for a new album, due to drop later this year. The B-side song, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” is the phenomenon that prompted the VC’s trivia question. It’s gone to Number 1 in Britain, forty one years after their last number one hit. It’s a great song, about complexities, loss and hope of reconciliation in relationships, a descendant of “Winner Takes It All” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” with just a hint of “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” The most suprising thing about this, for me, is that I think the other single, “I Still Have Faith in You,” is more quintessential ABBA: simple piano lines that are then overlaid with guitar, drum and tambourine sections and contrasted into sweeping orchestral moments, reminiscent of “My Love, My Life.” It has the simple sweet harmonies, and then moments when the boys are basically chanting an additional harmony, “Chiquitita”-style.
Alongside the album, plans were developed to create a purpose-built arena in London, for an immersive experience in lieu of a traditional album tour. Producer (and son of Benny) Ludvig Andersson has described the show as ‘An ABBA space church circus on steroids’!
So: not content with their already impressive impact on popular culture in the late twenty first and early twenty-second century, we have a third resurgence in popular culture. ABBA shapeshifts itself into de-aged, tireless performers who quite literally can’t hit a bum note, with a Las Vegas-style residency that changes the very notion of what an album tour and album publicity are.
And, as Ros predicted, I’m already planning to go.