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.)
* 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.