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…)
* 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.