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.

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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.

ABBA (1975)

Abba

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

Cover: The band are crammed into the back seat of a car – Benny has a hat and cane, the girls have champagne glasses, and a bored-looking fan peers through the window. This is the first of two eponymous ABBA albums.

Best song: SOS is *magnificent*, from its cute piano intro via its synthesizer foundation and chiming acoustic guitars all the way through to its slowing-down coda. There’s a poetic sense of melancholy throughout the whole thing, yet it surges defiantly into a higher gear for the chorus… then an even more intense section after that (“When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”). Agnetha’s singing is absolutely ace – it’s one of her great ‘acting’ vocals, where she sells the story of the song just as strongly as its music. As others have pointed out, she sounds like she’s on the verge of tears at times. There’s detail in every nook and cranny of this track, while the mix is just wonderful. John Lennon once said it was one of his favourite pop songs, though this may be the only time that ‘fact’ has been mentioned on the internet and the writer freely admits he has no idea where or when.

Honourable mentions:

* Like all classic ABBA songs, Mamma Mia has a *killer* intro. Really, Benny and Björn might be the best ever songwriters in this regard. Piano and bass get the party started, then a guitar riff bursts onto the scene. The song powers along, taking dark turns before a surprisingly sparse chorus. The lyric is about being unable to resist someone you know is bad for you. Apparently, a stage show and a movie of the same name have been quite successful.

* Bang-a-Boomerang was written as another Eurovision entry – but this time for another act. Svenne & Lotta didn’t get through the Swedish heats of 1975, so ABBA took the song back and released their own version. It has a driving proto-disco beat, but quite what the title means is beyond me. When this album was released on cassette in the UK, this song had to be cut in two – one half on each side!

* Rock Me – another example of the group’s fondness for glam-rock anthems. It’s sung by Björn, who often sounds like Noddy Holder.

* Intermezzo No. 1, a bizarre lyric-less interlude that combines dramatic orchestral movements with rock instrumentation. It’s ABBA doing prog rock and is brilliantly bonkers.

Worst song: Hey, Hey Helen is dreary heavy rock about a single parent.

Best CD extra: Crazy World, worked on during the sessions for this album, was eventually released as the B-side to Money, Money, Money in 1976. It’s pleasant enough and is sung by Björn.

Best video: Four promos were filmed to accompany this album. Mamma Mia’s introduces the motif of seeing two band members in the same shot but with one in profile. Bang-a-Boomerang’s is filmed on location in Sweden and energetically crash-zooms on shots of superhero comic panels. I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’s uses a lot of soft focus. But the best is the video for SOS. After a close-up of Benny’s hands on the piano, we get Agnetha singing her opening line while looking plaintively straight down the lens. The video then features various shots of the band filmed from a high angle, so they’re looking up at us, and it sometimes uses mirrors to distort the close-ups.

Review: The cliché about ABBA albums – that they consist of two or three famous and tremendous tracks, but are filled out with also-rans – is both true and misleading. The quality of Mamma Mia and SOS stands out a country mile. But there is fun elsewhere.

Seven happy days (they seem so hard to find) out of 10.

Waterloo (1974)

Waterloo

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

Cover: After the success of Ring Ring, the group shelved their solo careers and put all energies into what was now labelled ABBA. The cover image of this, their second album, features the foursome in the costumes they wore at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Napoleon is stood behind them, looking out of the window.

Best song: Again, it’s the title track. Waterloo has an odd lyrical metaphor, Napoleon’s famous defeat in June 1815 standing in for an addictive romance. But the song is catchy, energetic and full of attack. In effect, it’s just one three-minute-long ‘hook’. After it stormed Eurovision in Brighton on 6 April 1974, it became a global hit single.

Honourable mentions:

* Hasta Mañana is a gentle, swaying, effortlessly pleasant ballad. The lyrics were written by ABBA’s manager, Stig Anderson, while on holiday in the Canary Islands. For a time, it vied with Waterloo as the song the group wanted to enter for Eurovision. It would have been a safer choice – the previous four winners had been female-sung ballads – but they decided to risk the rocker Waterloo and it paid off. Nonetheless, Hasta Mañana has a terrific lead vocal from Agnetha, a nice spoken-word interlude, and a general feel of Mediterranean bliss.

* My Mama Said has a hip, jazzy vibe, a cool bassline and delicate high vocals during the verses. (The recording session for the song was the first time the band called themselves ABBA.)

* Dance (While the Music Still Goes On) steals its beat from the Ronettes classic Be My Baby. It’s powerful, multi-layered pop, let down perhaps by the vocals being shared around. It took the group a while to learn that the girls should just sing everything.

* Similarly influenced by 1960s girl-group pop, Honey Honey and What About Livingstone are both good. The former has a nice, light-touch bridge section, while the latter sounds like prime Motown.

Worst song: King Kong Song is a lumbering rock track with muffled singing and some strange bass-deep backing vocals. An irritating comedy song. (After I’d written a draft of this review, I read on Wikipedia that Benny and Björn consider King Kong Song to be the worst thing they ever wrote. Great minds…)

Best CD extra: The disc comes with a bonus DVD, which features the band’s triumphant Eurovision performance. The BBC’s David Vine tells us accurately: “If all the judges were men, which they’re not, this group would get a lot of votes.” He’s then taken by surprise because conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff walks onto the stage dressed up as Napoleon Bonaparte. ABBA then burst into action – the costumes are as camp as anything, but the performance is committed (if not as polished as the LP version). They look like they’re having so much fun! They sing the song in English, unlike during the Swedish heat also available on the DVD.

Best video: The group’s promo film for the title track has a dramatic opening. It’s quickly cut and full of crash-zooms. But then it calms down for a reasonably straightforward performance of the song. Like the video for Ring Ring, which was made at the same time, the group are in a blank, white room. But they’ve changed into their Eurovision costumes and lost the backing band.

Review: There are traces of both 1960s Phil Spector and contemporary glam rock. The album is full of energy, is very dynamic, and is generally great fun.

Eight history books on the shelf out of 10.

Ring Ring (1973)

abba-ring-ring

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

Cover: Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus met in 1966 while members of separate Swedish pop bands. Around the same time, each started a relationship with a solo singer: respectively, Anni-Frid ‘Frida’Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. The four friends began working together on new material – the men as songwriters, the women as lead vocalists – and this debut album was released in March 1973. It was only retrospectively credited to ABBA, though. At first, the group called themselves ‘Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida’, partly because no one was thinking this was a permanent arrangement. The LP cover shows the two men hugging their other halves. The image is duplicated twice in increasingly smaller scales and added over the top – the blurring of the colours between the iterations (Benny’s burgundy jacket, Björn’s yellow sleeve and cowboy frills, the greenery behind the foursome) works really well.

Best song: The title song, which was written as a potential Swedish entry for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, is tremendous. It’s a power-pop track that uses Phil Spector-like production to create an urgent sound of guitar riffs, piano stomps and pounding drums. Neil Sedaka helped with the English-language lyrics. However, as good as it is, it came only third in Sweden’s Eurovision heat, being beaten by Sommaren Son Aldrig Säger Nej (The Summer That Never Says No) by a duo called Malta, who then came fifth in the finals.

Honourable mentions:

* Disillusion is a melancholic ballad with a lovely bass sound. It’s well sung by Agnetha, who co-wrote it with husband Björn. It’s the only ABBA song she wrote.

* The first recognised ‘ABBA’ song to be recorded, People Need Love is a cheery sing-along with a rock foundation and a strange yodelling fade-out.

* I Am Just a Girl is actually a new vocal added to an old Benny/Björn track they’d written for an actor – but that vocal is a deliciously warm, reverb-heavy stage-whisper. It’s as ‘European’ as they come, sounding like the theme tune to a sexy 70s caper film set in Monte Carlo.

Worst song: Another Town, Another Train is a dippy folk-pop song with some badly sung sections.

Best CD extra: Santa Rosa was the B-side to one of the album’s singles, He is Your Brother. It’s not just the name that evokes West Coast culture – the guitar intro and general arrangement feels like mid-era Byrds, while there are some Beach Boys-style ‘ba-ba-ba’ backing vocals.

Best video: No promotional videos were produced at the time, but once ABBA had become huge a film was made of them performing Ring Ring. Like most ABBA videos, it was directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström (who went on to make The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). The first image is Benny’s hands hammering out the song’s rhythm on the piano, then we cut to the group – plus a guitarist, bass player and drummer – on a blank white space. Add a shelving unit and a couch and it could be the Blue Peter set. Basic, and clearly made on a budget, it’s nevertheless great fun. They all mime away enthusiastically, while the girls have a few minor dance moves. And the group’s outfits are brilliantly ridiculous. Björn has a camp, silver, space-man costume (with a cape!) and is playing a star-shaped guitar; Frida’s in a plastic catsuit with huge collars; Benny has a blue frilly jacket with feathers on it; and Agnetha is totally selling a look of red hot pants, knee-length boots and an exposed midriff. (The session players, meanwhile, are in jeans and bland shirts.)

Review: An enjoyable enough pop album. The opening track stands out with its energy and attack – and there are some other nice songs. Generally, the glossy, polished production is better than the writing, which often strives for safe cabaret showmanship. But there are better things to come.

Six flowers in a desert out of 10.