Carry On, Constable (1960)

Constable

A flu epidemic means a trio of trainee officers are drafted in to help staff a local police station…

What’s it spoofing? The police. Popular drama Dixon of Dock Green had been running on the BBC since July 1955, so perhaps that influenced the choice of subject matter.

Funniest moment: Going undercover to sniff out some shoplifters in a department store, Constables Benson and Gorse dress up as old ladies – dubbing themselves Agatha and Ethel. Of course, they finger the wrong suspect and then the shop’s staff refuse to believe that they’re police officers.

The Big 10:

* Sid James (1) joins the team, playing Sergeant Frank Williams. It’s more of an honest, decent character than the ones he’ll become famous for. He’s the straight man, around whom all the chaos goes on.

* Hattie Jacques (4) plays Sergeant Laura Moon, who gets a sweet subplot with Frank.

* Kenneth Connor (4) is the superstitious Constable Constable, who falls for fellow officer Passworthy but can’t proceed until he knows her star sign.

* Kenneth Williams (4) pushes the buffoonery up a notch as Constable Stanley Benson, who’s obsessed with criminology and thinks he can identify villains by their bone structure.

* Charles Hawtrey (4) plays Special Constable Timothy Gorse, who gets a Hawtrey “Hello!” as he makes his entrance.

* Joan Sims (3) plays Policewoman Gloria Passworthy. Notably, Sims and Jacques’s characters are the most unruffled, confident and good at their jobs.

Notable others:

* Eric Barker returns from Carry On Sergeant to play the vague station chief, Inspector Mills.

* Leslie Phillips – in his third Carry On in a row but his last for 32 years – has fun as Constable Tom Potter (“Tom Potter, none hotter!” he quips). When we first meet him, he and his colleagues are searching for the police station, so he taps a jewel thief on the shoulder and asks for directions. He fancies a WPC called Harrison, but when she gets the flu he switches his attentions to Passworthy.

* Joan Hickson is hilarious as a well-to-do middle-aged woman who keeps getting arrested for being drunk. “I usually have that nice cell with the southern exposure…”

* Shirley Eaton makes a third and final appearance in the series. Despite her prominent credit on the poster, it’s only a cameo: she plays Sally Barry, a woman having relationship issues who gets mistaken for a burglar. Her opening scene is the first time there’s a topless woman in a Carry On movie. Lucky old Leslie Phillips gets an eyeful, but all we see is her back.

* Terence Longdon has one scene as Herbert Hall, a conman who tries to get £50 out of Constable Benson.

Top totty: Shirley Eaton. A hat-trick of wins in this category.

Kenneth Williams says: “First day filming. The location is a dreary house in Ealing. Water dripping everywhere. Rain pouring down. Charming. And me bum not v. pleasant.” – Monday 9 November 1959 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p157).

“Trade show Carry On Constable, Studio One. 10.30. It was mediocre and tired. I think everyone knew it. On to the Mirabelle for drinks and chatted with Kenneth Connor. He is without doubt the loveliest character of all. Must write him a note, to take it easy. He looked so tired and strained.” – Thursday 18 February 1960 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p161).

Review: Like the first three films, this is essentially sympathetic towards the profession it’s ridiculing. They might be buffoons, but these police officers are decent people. However, the series is evolving in other ways. There’s some nudity for the first time, for example. The male nakedness is played for laughs; the women are there to titillate. We also get an unusually large amount of location filming on the streets of Ealing. And the recognisable character types are also starting to emerge: Hawtrey’s friendly, effeminate mummy’s boy; Williams’s upper-class snob; Sid James’s jovial everyman… The film passes 80 minutes divertingly enough, though sadly it’s rarely actually that funny.

Five cold showers out of 10

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Carry On Teacher (1959)

Teacher

The headmaster of Maudlin Street Secondary Modern School wishes to apply for another job. However, first he must contend with two outside evaluators and a spate of pupil-led pranks…

What’s it spoofing? The education system, specifically the way in which it was changing in the 1950s. Whether or not caning is a good idea gets discussed, for example – it was on the way out, though wouldn’t actually be outlawed until 1987. Another influence must have surely been the successful school-based comedy movies The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) and Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957). Years later, Morrissey name-checked Carry On Teacher’s school in his song Late Night, Maudlin Street.

Funniest moment: The teaching staff get drunk on spiked cups of tea.

The Big 10:

* Joan Sims (2) plays games mistress Sarah Allcock, who’s full of simmering 1950s sexuality.

* Charley Hawtrey (3) appears as Michael Bean, the self-important music teacher.

* Hattie Jacques (3) isn’t a million miles away from her matron character of the last film – here she plays Grace Short, the pro-caning maths teacher.

* Kenneth Connor (3) plays the vague, scatty science master, Gregory Adams. He gets lots of spoonerisms in his dialogue, which Connor deals with brilliantly.

* Kenneth Williams (3) has entertaining bursts of anger as pragmatic literature teacher Edwin Milton.

Notable others:

* Ted Ray, a huge radio star of the era, was drafted in to play the film’s lead – headmaster Mr Wakefield. It was intended that Ray become a permanent member of the team, but contractual issues put paid to that after this single appearance.

* Richard O’Sullivan, then just 15, plays the pupil with the most screen time. Robin Stevens is the ringleader of the ‘saboteurs’ (as they’re called in the credits). It’s not the most famous Robin the actor played – 14 years later, he appeared as Robin Tripp in entertaining ITV sitcom Man About The House and its spin-off Robin’s Nest.

* Leslie Phillips returns from Carry On Nurse, here playing child psychologist Alistair Grigg. He says ‘Ding-dong’ and falls instantly in love with Sarah Allcock. The way he says her surname is understated filth.

* Also back from the preceding movie is Rosalind Knight, playing Ministry of Education evaluator Miss Wheeler. She’s attracted to Gregory Adams.

* Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett in two Star Wars films) is one of the school kids.

Top totty: Joan Sims wins by default.

Kenneth Williams says: “Started filming Carry On Teacher at Pinewood. Funny feeling. I expected more warmth on set. Everyone seemed a bit withdrawn – nice enough but withdrawn – perhaps it’s just the first day.” – Monday 9 March 1959 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p149).

“Pinewood 5, for a party, end of film. Got rather drunk and behaved stupidly with some electrics [sic – does he mean a studio technician?] and said to meet here on Sat. Of course I shall have to be out.” – Tuesday 14 April 1959 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p149).

Review: There are decent acting performances in this, rather than the OTT turns of later Carry Ons. There’s also slightly more of a plot than the first two films, yet still loose enough to have an episodic structure. The slapstick is often the funniest stuff. There’s also a serious side concerning a satire of corporal punishment and, like in Carry On Sergeant, a touching, feel-good finale.

Six whistle peas out of 10

Carry On Nurse (1959)

Nurse

A few days in the life of a hospital surgical ward, following both the patients – an injured boxer, an undercover journalist, a down-on-his-luck aristocrat and others – and the overworked staff…

What’s it spoofing? The NHS, which when this film came out was less than 12 years old. The movie is a loose adaptation of a play called Ring for Catty by Patrick Cargill and Jack Beale. (Oddly, so was the 1962 comedy Twice Round the Daffodils, which was directed by Gerald Thomas, written by Norman Hudis and featured Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims and Jill Ireland – all of whom had worked on Carry On Nurse!) Another influence must have been the successful adaptations of Richard Gordon’s medical-based comic novels – so far, there’d been Doctor in the House (1954), Doctor at Sea (1955) and Doctor at Large (1957); another four followed after Carry On Nurse.

Funniest moment: A group of patients get drunk and decide to operate on Mr Bell’s bunion – they have a book to tell them the procedure, and a cylinder of laughing gas to knock him out…

The Big 10:

* Joan Sims (1) makes her Carry On debut as accident-prone nurse Stella Dawson (a role first offered to Dora Bryan). It’s easy to see why she became a part of the team: she’s very funny.

* Kenneth Connor (2) plays nervous boxer Bernie Bishop, who’s bust his wrist during a bout. Connor’s young son also cameos as Bernie’s son.

* Kenneth Williams (2) shows his acting chops (and keeps the campery switched off) as Oliver Reckitt, an academic who gets a romantic subplot.

* Charley Hawtrey (2) plays Humphrey Hinton, a dotty patient who constantly listens to the radio on his headphones: he laughs along at comedy, mimes playing the piano when it’s music, and gets wrapped up in soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary.

* Hattie Jacques (2) premiers her stern, officious matron, a character type she’ll return to later.

Notable others:

* One of the first two people you see – a pair of ambulance drivers more concerned with hearing the racing results than their patient – is played by character actor Fred Griffiths, who was my mate Johnny Hughes’s great uncle.

* Terence Longdon returns from Carry On Sergeant. Here, he’s playing newspaper reporter Edward York, who has appendicitis but is urged by his editor to write about his hospital stay. This subplot was trimmed down and shorn of its exposé nature – originally, it was going to highlight nurses’ low pay and the like. Funnily enough, an insert shot of Edward’s feet is actually of future Carry On star Bernard Bresslaw, who was in Pinewood on the relevant day so – as it were – stood in.

* Joan Hickson plays the ward sister.

* Bill Owen, another Sergeant veteran, plays chain-smoking patient Mr Hickson.

* Shirley Eaton returns too – here as staff nurse Dorothy Denton, who has a flirtation with Edward York.

* Wilfred Hyde White gets a special credit for his role as the Colonel, a patient with a private room who gets the caretaker to place his bets and constantly calls for the nurses. The movie’s famous punchline is the Matron finding him with a daffodil up the bum (a practical joke played on him by the nurses).

* Norman Rossington cameos as a vague, punch-drunk boxing buddy of Bernie’s.

* Leslie Phillips shows up late on as Mr Bell, the guy with the bunion. “Ding-dong,” he says within seconds of arriving: one of Carry On’s earliest catchphrases.

* June Whitfield gets a scene as Megsy, Bell’s girlfriend.

* Rosalind Knight is very funny as naïve, ditzy Nurse Nightingale.

* Jill Ireland plays Oliver’s love interest.

Top totty: Shirley Eaton (who also won this category for Sergeant) is daydream pretty. And playing a nurse. Not a bad combination.

Kenneth Williams says: “Saw rushes of the love scene today. They are very good I think. Both [producer Peter] Rodgers and Gerry [Thomas, director] congratulated me.” – Friday 14 November 1958 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p146).

“Up at 630 for Pinewood call. Out there all day and never in one shot. Outrageous.” – Wednesday 3 December 1958 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p146).

Review: The tone of the series is now edging towards ribald humour – “What a fuss about such a little thing,” quips a nurse after she’s pulled a coy Bernie’s trousers down – and there are some fun bits of slapstick too. But this is still a largely innocent, gentle character-based comedy. The lack of a through-line means it can be a bit meandering, but it’s enjoyable enough.

Six daffodils out of 10

Carry On Sergeant (1958)

Sergeant

An Army sergeant who’s about to retire makes a £50 bet that his final group of National Servicemen will be named the best platoon. However, the recruits are a bunch of misfits…

What’s it spoofing? The concept of National Service conscription (every man between 18 and 21 having to serve two years in the armed forces). The year before, it had been announced that National Service would cease in 1960 – so this movie was marking an era soon to end. Another big influence was ITV sitcom The Army Game (1957-1961), a 154-episode monster hit that shared three of its cast and one of its writers with Carry On Sergeant.

Funniest moment: Captain Potts interrogating new intake James Bailey on the parade ground. Potts: “Who are you?” Bailey: “James Bailey, BSc, economics.” P: “Your number?” B: “I’m not proud of it; it was given to me. I earned my degree.” P: “Your rank?” B: “Well, that’s a matter of opinion.” P [tapping his officer’s pips]: “Look at this, man!” B: “You’ve nothing to complain of. Look at the suit they’ve given me…”

The Big 10: Of the 10 Carry On stars with the most appearances in the series, four feature in this first film.

* Kenneth Connor (1) is very funny as psychology-obsessed hypochondriac Horace Strong.

* Charley Hawtrey (1) gets an entrance where he says a polite “Hello” – we’ll see that again. He plays the meek, friendly, effeminate Peter Golightly. (Connor and Hawtrey have the distinction of appearing in the first scene ever filmed for a Carry On: a conversation in the mess, shot in March 1958.)

* Kenneth Williams (1) is excellent as the louche, laid-back, learned James Bailey.

* Hattie Jacques (1) appears in a few scenes as the camp’s unsympathetic medical officer, Captain Clarke. Most of her scenes are with Connor’s permanently uncomfortable Horace.

Notable others:

* Bob Monkhouse, in his only Carry On, is the de facto lead within the platoon. Charlie Sage is called up on his wedding day in the film’s opening scene.

* Shirley Eaton (later Goldfinger’s iconic Jill Masterson) plays Charlie’s new wife, Mary, who sneaks herself into the camp so they can have their matrimonial perks.

* William Hartnell is terrific as Grimshaw, the eponymous sergeant. The character is tough on the outside, but not an arsehole, and he has a touching final moment. Hartnell is the first of two Doctor Whos to appear in a Carry On.

* Norman Rossington, who was later in A Hard Day’s Night, plays the dopey Herbert, a simple, perennial National Serviceman.

* Eric Barker is good fun as the befuddled Captain Potts.

* Bill Owen – later Compo in 487 series of Last of the Summer Wine – plays Grimshaw’s second in command.

* Terry Scott has a cameo as the Paddy O’Brien, the sergeant with whom Grimshaw makes his bet. Ten years after this, Scott would join the Carry On team for several more films.

* Dora Bryan plays Nora, the soppy kitchen worker who befriends Mary and falls for Horace.

* Terence Longdon plays the aristocratic Heywood, who arrives at the camp in such a nice car (and with such a pretty girlfriend) that Grimshaw obsequiously assumes he must be an officer.

Top totty: Shirley Eaton is beautiful.

Kenneth Williams says: “Filming at Pinewood. Bob Monkhouse is sensitive and kind. Ken Connor is v. amusing, and Norman Rossington a good fellow. The director is Gerry Thomas. V. charming.” – Wednesday 9 April 1958 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p141)

Review: A likeable if gentle ensemble comedy. There are some ongoing plots – the bet, Charlie trying to get his end away – but it’s mostly a sketch-show format. Some bits are better than others, but it’s often amusing. More wry smiles than belly laughs, though. It’s brisk too: only 80 minutes.

Seven chits out of 10

I love Lost. Adore it. Totally.

Lost-Cast-700800-1

Well, not *totally*. In no particular order, here are 10 RUBBISH things about it… (Spoilers ahead.)

  1. Stranger in a Strange Land, the famous ‘Jack’s tattoo’ episode. It has a pathetic, boring flashback story with a terrible guest performance.
  2. Nikki and Paulo. If they’d only been in the one episode that tells us about their backstory then kills them off, the idea might have worked. It would have been a fun exercise in a new point of view. But having them turn up, unannounced yet seeming like they’ve always been there, a few episodes into season three was incredibly inelegant.
  3. Season three also has a number of redundant flashbacks – Locke joins a commune, Kate gets married, Sayid is recognised by a torture victim – that slot into what’s already been established but don’t shed much new light on anything.
  4. The ‘Australian’ accents are often horrifically horrible. Some American actors seem to think Australians talk like 19th-century cockneys. The show was shot in Hawaii. Was it really so difficult to fly some Aussie over for a guest spot?
  5. In a Desmond episode – Flashes Before Your Eyes – the production designer spells ‘honour’ the American way on a British Army recruitment poster. Sigh.
  6. On a similar note, we see Brixton in the episode Fire + Water. It looks nothing like the real Brixton. There are tramps huddled round a burning oil drum.
  7. Season six has a lot of walking back and forth across the island for not terribly exciting reasons. The show seems much more interested in the ‘flash-sideways’ at that point.
  8. Also, all the stuff at the temple in that final season is really dull. Who’s that Dogen guy? How can he bring people back to life? Why does he have an interpreter? Why do we never find out that the interpreter’s name is, according to Lostpedia, Lennon? Even if these had been answered, I’m not convinced we’d care.
  9. Actually… why *is* Walt special?
  10. Nope, can’t think of a 10th bad thing.

See, I didn’t even MENTION polar bears. (Because, despite what uninformed people will tell you, they demonstrably explained the polar bears.)

The Visitors (1981)

Visitors

Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.

Cover: The first album ever released on CD ironically has cover artwork that doesn’t really work when shrunk down to 144 cm2. The group are in a warmly lit room dominated by a giant mural and are so obscure you can’t really see them.

Best song: One of Us is lovely. Sung by Agnetha, it sounds fantastic. There’s a reggae bass guitar very high in the mix, some delightful vocal harmonies, and a charming melody.

Honourable mentions:

* The Visitors is an enjoyable dance-flavoured opening with a lyric about dissidents in the USSR. There are good synth sounds and a simple structure.

* Head Over Heels, conversely, is a melodically inventive pop tune with a strong bassline and an interesting arrangement. Like the best of ABBA, there are plenty of surprise turns in the music, which make it a fun listen. The lyric is about a headstrong woman.

* When All Is Said and Done. After Agnetha and The Winner Takes It All, this is now Frida’s turn to sing a lyric based on the breakdown of her marriage. She and Benny split as this album was being worked on.

* Soldiers has a lovely, laidback, lazy beat.

* Two For the Price of One – a comic story about a guy answering an ad in the personal columns – is sung by Björn. Never single material, it comes with a lame punchline, which is then followed by a bizarre fade-out horn section.

Worst song: The bland I Let the Music Speak is Benny and Björn road-testing the musical-theatre idiom that was fascinating them at the time. Their famous collaboration with Tim Rice, Chess, followed three years later.

Best CD extra: The best ABBA song not on a studio album – but available here as a bonus track – was the last they ever recorded (in August 1982). The Day Before You Came is a *masterpiece* of melancholy. The lyric, sung brilliantly by Agnetha with dry detachment, tells the story of the boring, monotonous life the character led before she found happiness. Anyone who’s ever commuted, had a boring job, been lonely or felt trapped – ie, pretty much all of us – will surely feel huge empathy with her plight. The deliberately dull narrative is peppered with telling details – the references to Dallas, Chinese takeaway and evening papers – while the repetitive, pulsing backing track is a perfect fit. To pull off storytelling this powerful and poetic in a six-minute pop song is an extraordinary achievement. (Another theory, suggested by my friend Johnny, is that the singer has committed suicide – the ‘you’ of the title being death.)

Best video: As we’re in the 1980s now, ABBA promos are using actual videotape rather than film, while the women’s hair is often terrible. Videos were made of When All is Said and Done and Head Over Heels, but the most interesting is for One Of Us. It features footage of a sullen Agnetha unpacking boxes, hanging pictures, putting up wallpaper, and generally setting up her new home. During the choruses, there are split-screen shots where we see two or more of each girl at the same time (the videotape editor was really enjoying his new tools). The boys appear too, looking moody.

Review: ABBA ended their career edging towards ‘musicals’. At times this album feels like the cast recording of a stage show, with some ornate but sadly rather soulless melodies. The vibrant attack of earlier albums has been toned down. When it’s good it’s very good, but some tracks are on the boring side.

Seven matrimonial advertising pages out of 10.

Super Trouper (1980)

SuperTrouper

Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.

Cover: The band, all dressed in white, are at the centre of a crowd and being picked out by a spotlight. Various circus performers surround them, while in the foreground a photographer crouches down to get his snap. The original idea had been to shoot the cover in Piccadilly Circus, but they couldn’t get permission.

Best song: The best song by ABBA – maybe the best song by *anybody* – is The Winner Takes It All. It was written overnight because the band had a studio session booked in a day’s time, which might explain its elegant, simple structure. Benny later added a descending piano part, while it’s the only track on the album to use real strings as opposed to synthesisers. The music starts out stripped down – just a soulful piano, some voices, then a strummed acoustic guitar – but builds its intensity across five minutes. By the end, there’s a powerful crescendo of orchestra, drumming, bass guitar, piano and multiple vocal parts. After the backing track was sorted, Björn wrote the lyrics quickly (having had a couple of snifters!). He clearly based them on his recent split from Agnetha, and initially it was suggested that Björn himself take the lead vocal. “It’s a good thing I didn’t,” he later said, winning a prize for understatement-of-the-century. Agnetha ‘acts’ the song as much as she sings it, and her vocal is staggeringly, breathtakingly, orgasmicly perfect. It’s the story of accepting pain, dealing with heartbreak, coping with life. Emotional, poignant, tender, defiant, brave, innocent and beautiful… It’s possibly the best-sung song of all time. (Every subsequent cover version where the singer misunderstands and thinks *they’re* ‘the winner’ is a crime against humanity. And don’t even mention Meryl Streep…)

Honourable mentions:

* Super Trooper is a terrific opener, with a nice singing-only intro, a pulsing bassline and some fun backing vocals (“Su-per-per trou-per-per!”). The lyrics mention Glasgow.

* On and On and On is an interesting little song, being a clash of old-school rock’n’roll and modern electro-pop. It has some Beach Boys-like backing vocals sung by Benny. Coincidentally, Mike Love of the Beach Boys visited ABBA around this time and was so tickled by this song that he recorded his own version. Despite sounding like distorted guitars, the intro is played on a synthesiser, which Benny was becoming obsessed with around this time. (After seeing Led Zeppelin’s mammoth Yamaha GX-1 up close in November 1978, he’d bought his own for something like £163,000 in today’s money.)

* Andante, Andante is another song that harks back to before the previous album’s disco fixation. Frida’s vocal is very good.

* Conversely, Me and I looks forward. It sounds like a sci-fi opera, with lots of dramatic synths and vocoder effects.

* The initial idea for the album – cooked up on the way to the Bahamas for a songwriting sojourn – was for a musical based on New Year’s Eve and looking back at the previous 12 months. Benny and Björn asked John Cleese, who was also hanging out on the island, to write the ‘book’ but he turned them down. What a bizarre thing that would have been. The song Happy New Year is the remnant of that concept. It’s a call for positively in the face of a scary future (“What lies waiting down the line/In the end of 1989…”) and is nice enough.

* The dark and mysterious and folky The Piper has lyrics influenced by Stephen King’s The Stand. It sounds like it could come from the soundtrack to a film like The Wicker Man.

* Lay All Your Love On Me is a fantastic disco throwback, with lots of synth stabs and pads. The urgent backing track is infectious.

Worst song: Recorded live at Wembley Arena in 1979, album closer The Way Old Friends Do is quite boring.

Best CD extra: Another futuristic-sounding track recorded around this time – and released as the B-side to The Winner Takes It All – is the fun Elaine, available as a bonus track on the CD.

Best video: The promo for Super Trouper recreates the album’s cover art, but also shows us the band in other locations. In her solo shots, Frida’s wearing a Gyles Brandreth sweater. Fun fact: rather than an actual ‘super trouper’ (a type of spotlight used for big concerts), the video features a ‘CCT Silhouette follow spot’. There were also videos made for On and On and On, The Winner Takes It All and Happy New Year.

Review: If Voulez-Vous was the nightclub album, this is the LP for the chill-out room. There’s one stone-cold classic and a couple of other very good tracks.

Eight beams are going to blind me out of 10.

Voulez-Vous (1979)

VoulezVous

Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.

Cover: After the high of 1977 – a tour of Europe and Australia, a successful movie, their best LP so far – it seems ABBA started to stumble. The 12-month recording period for what became Voulez-Vous was littered with tracks that had to be remade or were discarded; the songwriters struggled to come up with material; and Björn and Agnetha announced their separation. But none of this uncertainty or disquiet is evident in the album’s artwork, which shows the band looking confident and composed in eveningwear. The reason the bow-tied Benny is holding onto a neon tube like it’s some kind of lightsaber is probably because ABBA were now moving more and more into disco territory…

Best song: The most likeable by a smidgen might be Angeleyes, which has a trace of bubblegum pop but with a dance beat. It sounds superb, but oddly neither Benny nor Björn were especially happy with it at the time. And they weren’t the only ones. When the song was reviewed on the 30 June 1979 episode of Juke Box Jury, the panel of Johnny Rotten, Joan Collins, Alan Freeman and Elaine Page all voted ‘miss’. (No, seriously: this actually happened.)

Honourable mentions:

* As Good as New uses orchestral sounds, a funky bassline, and a key change.

* The dramatic title track. Its backing track was recorded in Miami when the boys were on a songwriting holiday in the Bahamas and wanted to record their new material quickly.

* I Have a Dream changes the pace. Less disco, more Germanic, its acoustic feel and plodding bassline are very nice. (This track and As Good as New were both written and recorded in March 1979, the month I was born.)

* The King Has Lost His Crown is strident, confident power-pop. It’s sung terrifically well by Frida and is one of her favourite ABBA songs.

* Meanwhile, Björn gets a rare lead vocal on the pumping Does Your Mother Know. The masculine-POV lyrics are about a man turning down a young girl’s advances: refreshing to hear from a 1970s icon.

* If It Wasn’t For the Nights is light, breezy, effortlessly crafted pop music. Björn wrote the insightful lyrics about loneliness during the breakdown of his marriage.

* Chiquitita’s quite pleasant. ABBA chose the song as their contribution to a special event put on by the UN in January 1979. They performed it as part of a bill that included the Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Earth Wind & Fire, Donna Summer, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson; ABBA were introduced by Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner. (Did any of these people think, ‘Bit similar to Fernando, isn’t it?’) Fifty per cent of the song’s royalties were given in perpetuity to UNICEF.

Worst song: Lovers (Live a Little Longer), the only poor song on the LP, is quite tiresome.

Best CD extra: The bonus DVD features a lengthy clip of Björn and Benny being interviewed by Noel Edmonds on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on 10 November 1979. The lads look and sound tired: the band had been on tour for two months and had played Wembley Arena the previous five nights. In the TV tradition of the time, they hold up telephones to their faces as they answer questions from eager viewers called Sarah, Claire, Sarita, Katie, Tracy, Julia, Debbie and Janice. When asked for their biggest influence, Benny cites Paul McCartney and John Lennon. To swap, they’ve brought in a jogging sweatshirt, a cassette recorder, some LPs and a couple of ABBA mugs. The question they pose for viewers is: where was King Charles XIV of Sweden born? (The answer is Pau in France. On 26 January 1763. You had to work hard for your freebies in 1979, didn’t you?)

Best video: The promos for Does Your Mother Know, Voulez-Vous and non-album single Summer Night City are all set in a disco. For Chiquitita, the band are performing in front of a massive fake snowman and Agnetha has a huge pair of Deirdre Barlow specs perched on her head. All four videos seem like they were bashed out quickly with little time for creativity, so let’s cheat and choose contemporary 7” Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) as having the best promo. It’s similarly lacking in ambition, being simply the band miming along in a recording studio, but as least it has novelty factor.

Review: There are many good songs, but none to equal the grandeur of, say, SOS or The Name of the Game. Solid rather than spectacular.

Seven masters of the scene out of 10.

ABBA: The Album (1977)

Abba-The_album

Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.

Cover: Released as a tie-in to ABBA: The Movie – a concert film with some fictional material weaved in – this superb album has bonkers cover art. In amongst the colourful swashes are images of the band’s faces, an aeroplane, a kangaroo, a taxi, a marionette and other things vaguely connected to the music or movie. Next to the logo is a full-black illustration of the band as cartoon stick figures.

Best song: The opener, Eagle, is thrilling. It’s the longest track the band ever recorded (5.51) and it’s not just the running time that makes it feel enormous. From the powering-up intro, the song sounds like it’s landing from outer space. There’s extensive use of guitars, which chime, jangle, ping, sweep and soar, while the multi-tracked vocals are *beautiful*. The title seems like it’s a reference to the band the Eagles. The music is vaguely reminiscent of their 1975 song Journey of the Sorcerer, and Eagle was written soon after Benny and Björn visited a soft-rock-obsessed LA in May 1977. However, Björn denies this. He says his lyrics – a simple but highly effective metaphor for freedom and escape – were written while surrounded by ‘nature, water and space.’ Whatever the inspiration, it’s a brilliant song. A tremendous evocation of mood and feeling. *Great* bass sound too.

Honourable mentions:

* Take a Chance on Me. Björn had the idea for it while out running and a ‘tck-a-ch’ rhythm occurred to him. Adapting it to the phrase ‘take a chance’, he and Benny fashioned one of ABBA’s most appealing songs. It’s catchy, fun and extremely well put-together. The ‘cold open’ of clashing vocal parts is fantastic, while Agnetha gets some sultry spoken lines (“That’s all I ask of you, honey…”). There’s also great use of synthesisers to add sparkle to everything.

* One Man, One Woman, a power ballad, is sung beautifully by Frida. Björn was affronted by criticism of his ‘simplistic’ words so wrote this narrative-driven lyric, which acts as a flipside to Knowing Me, Knowing You’s coin.

* The absolutely sensational The Name of the Game has a very complex arrangement. There’s a deliciously laid-back bass/synth-riff opening (inspired by Stevie Wonder’s sublime I Wish); the drumming is used really well; there are lots of guitars; we get bursts of horn instruments; Agnetha and Frida share and swap the vocal lines; and the structure features a few ‘breakdowns’. It’s therefore never dull, never cliché. Björn says that Boston’s FM-radio favourite More Than a Feeling was an inspiration.

* Move On has an arch spoken-word verse sung by Björn like he’s Orson Welles introducing a ghost story, then Agnetha takes over.

* Hole in Your Soul has a fun quick/slow/urgent/relaxed structure throughout.

Worst song: Thank You For the Music, a sugary, earnest, inexplicably popular piece of musical-theatre. It’s the start of a three-song medley that closes the album – a mini-musical called The Girl With the Golden Hair, which ABBA used in their live set around this time. After Thank You For the Music, there’s the dull I Wonder (Departure) and the up-tempo I’m a Marionette. (When performed live, the sequence was narrated by Captain Scarlet himself, Francis Matthews, and there was a fourth song – Get On the Carousel – which was dropped from the album because it was too repetitive.)

Best CD extra: Amongst other treats, the bonus DVD allows us to see the band… missing their cue as they mime to Take a Chance on Me on West German TV… mime The Name of the Game for Japanese telly in front of a huge semi-circular tube full of balloons… mime to a stripped-down mix of Thank You For The Music on The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show… and chat rather timidly with Lesley Judd on Blue Peter in February 1978. But the highlight is a clip from a Swedish TV show called Gomorron Sverige, broadcast on 17 September 1977. A reporter takes a young ABBA fan called Fredrik to meet Benny and Björn in the studio as they work on their new album. Benny shows the boy how to play Fernando on the piano, then he and Björn give him a preview of the yet-to-be-released The Name of the Game.

Best video: Take a Chance On Me. The song’s vocal-gymnastics opening is represented by the screen being split into quarters: each band member singing their part. We then get a montage of bizarre and brilliant images… The band on a blank white space with the boys looking glum and the girls dancing and singing joyfully into the camera… Soft-focus close-ups, during which Agnetha and Frida wink at us… Frida listening on headphones to her home stereo system… And some sensationally sexy shots of Agnetha’s head popping up into view having been ducked out of shot… Also given the music-video treatment from this album were The Name of the Game, Eagle, Thank You For the Music and One Man, One Woman. Eagle uses lots of then-ground-breaking video effects.

Review: Sumptuous. It perhaps tails off in the second half, but the opening five tracks are very, very strong. Experimental, bold and classy.

Nine mountains and forests and seas out of 10.

Arrival (1976)

arrival

Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.

Cover: Last time, the cover art depicted the group as old-fashioned fops in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car. Now that they’re global superstars, they’re in a fucking helicopter. They’re dressed all in white, while the sun is low and in their eyes, giving them an angelic glow.

Best song: Well, it’s clearly Dancing Queen, isn’t it? It was originally called Boogaloo and was a deliberate attempt to ape the then-current disco scene. All four band members have spoken of knowing instantly that they had something special. It starts with an infectious piano-slide intro, then there’s a driving hi-hat beat and cut-glass vocals. The way the track seems to endlessly wind its way upwards is mesmerising. Dancing Queen is a legal high.

Honourable mentions:

* When I Kissed the Teacher opens the album with some acoustic guitar strums, then becomes a foot-tapper reminiscent of 1960s girl-group pop. The vocal parts pile up, and there’s even a breakout line (“One of these days…”) where the track slams to a halt.

* My Love, My Life has a lovely, soft harmony intro.

* Knowing Me, Knowing You is a blockbuster. It was actually written before either of the group’s two couples split up, but the lyric – part resignation, part defiance – is the quintessential ‘divorce’ song. Frida’s characterful lead vocal is superb, as are the detailed backing parts. And the invention in the arrangement is breathtaking. Check out the delayed strikes of a guitar that open the song, the bass guitar complementing the singing line, the dramatic rise in intensity before the chorus, the ‘A-ha!’s, the neat little guitar solos, and the sexy whispered backing vocals (“They’ll be… with me… always…”). Fantastic stuff.

* Money, Money, Money. Effortlessly brilliant.

* That’s Me – a jaunty, likeable track, which is one of Agnetha’s favourite ABBA songs.

* The album closes with an instrumental that has wordless vocals and a vaguely folk or Celtic feel. It was called Arrival because that had already been chosen as the LP’s title.

Worst song: Dum Dum Diddle is a saccharin-flavoured throwaway.

Best CD extra: There’s loads of good stuff on the album’s bonus DVD. The contemporary Swedish TV special ABBA-DABBA-DOOO!!, which is a mixture of filmed performances, old clips, biography and interviews, is a hoot. You can also see Noel Edmonds introduce Fernando on Top of the Pops. But the highlight is an extract from a 1976 documentary that was the only time ABBA were ever filmed in the studio. There’s footage of Benny and Björn talking Frida and Agnetha through the vocal melody of Dancing Queen – and then, wonderfully, a clip of the women singing a verse that was cut from the finished song (“Baby, baby, you’re out of sight/Hey, you’re looking all right tonight…”).

Best video: Like so many ABBA videos, the promo for Money, Money, Money begins with a close-up of piano keys. We see lead vocalist Frida rushing through city streets, then cut to a film studio, where she’s standing moodily in an artful spotlight while wearing a big hat. She’s alone and mysterious and exotic and very sexy. Her bandmates appear whenever the song kicks into the chorus, all dressed in flamboyant white disco-karate outfits. At one point, Frida and Agnetha stand face to face so closely that you’re certain they’re going to kiss. Sadly they choose to carry on singing instead. The video has insert shots to hammer home the theme of the lyric – we see shiny coins, dollar bills, diamond rings and the group driving along in a convertible. From this album, the band also shot promos for Dancing Queen (set in a night club, handheld camera, the band on a tiny stage), That’s Me (lots of the couples hugging each other, long two-shots of the girls looking down the lens, shots repeated from Money, Money, Money) and Knowing Me Knowing You (filmed in the snow, Frida wearing a massive furry hood, more hugging and two-shots).

Review: The highs are higher than ever before. But there are still two or three tracks we could do without.

Eight laws of geometry out of 10.