Abba purists (and you know who you are) will argue that the beginnings of the band can be traced back to the 1970 Swedish hit “Hej Gamle Man!” It was the first time that Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad recorded together in a studio. The record was a moderate success in the Swedish charts.
I prefer to think that Abba as we know it began on April 6, 1974, when the band appeared at the Eurovision Song Contest and began its satin-paved path to world domination. On the 40th anniversary of the Eurovision win, the quartet’s achievements are almost too staggering to list. Abba has sold over 380 million albums and singles worldwide. “Mamma Mia!,”a jukebox musical featuring the songs of Abba, has grossed more than $2 billion since its West End debut in 1999, and a 2008 film adaptation made millions more. Last year, Abba: The Museum, opened in Stockholm. There are omnipresent rumors of an Abba reunion. A hopeful fan base silently prays that perhaps their heroes may perform together once more.
But back to that April night in 1974. Fältskog and Lyngstad smiled brightly as they sang the bubblegum delight “Waterloo.” Track down the video on YouTube and, as cornball as it sounds, these women were radiant. Everyone in the band was in love, and the neo-wall-of-sound that Andersson and Ulvaeus crafted created an unavoidable avalanche of happiness. It’s no wonder that competitor Olivia Newton-John didn’t stand a chance.
Here is the disconnect that many experience with Abba. The four didn’t just produce hits such as “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and “Lay All Your Love on Me,” they changed the pop music landscape forever. Go ahead and roll your eyes. Once you get past the clothes — and that’s a lot to get past — the members of Abba were pioneers. They slipped on their platform boots and smashed walls that previously prevented international bands from achieving world success.
Previous to Abba, there were few non-native English-speaking acts that regularly charted outside of their countries. But Abba’s manager Stig Anderson had his sights on America and England, and the band switched its musical language from Swedish to English. Would there have been an Ace of Base or a Robyn without Abba?
Last year, the Atlantic published the story “Why is Sweden so good at pop music?” in honor of Ace of Base’s 20th anniversary. The piece, by Nolan Feeney, points out that in May 2012, half of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100 were written or produced by Swedes. Currently, Sweden is the third largest music exporter of music, behind the US and the UK.
But the answer to “Why is Sweden so good at pop music?” has little to do with Ace of Base and everything to do with Andersson and Ulvaeus’s meticulous talents for writing perfect melodies. The two labored over songs in the studio while experimenting with technique (they once recorded a guitar riff in a swimming pool). They let the women take the spotlight, and grinned in the background on their “American Bandstand” appearances. Perhaps they were smiling because they were earning enough krona to buy their own island?
Today, Swedish super-producers such as Max Martin, who has written 17 Billboard number one singles, can thank Abba for writing a guidebook on how to produce the perfect pop confection.
You can also thank Abba for pioneering the music video. There were music videos in one form or another prior to Abba — most notably films in the Scopitone jukeboxes of the 1960s. With a global fan base, Abba was unable to continually tour the world and write and record new music. The answer was promotional films shot by director Lasse Hallstrom (who later directed “The Cider House Rules” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) that could be shown everywhere. The video for “Waterloo” features a series of quick zoom shots on each member of the band (later seen in every 1980s video on MTV). The video is so iconic that portions were later re-created in the film “Muriel’s Wedding.” Erasure’s video for its cover of Abba’s “Take a Chance on Me” was almost a shot-for-shot re-creation of the original.
“We were very lucky,” Ulvaeus said in a 1994 interview. “Because of his work we had major success in far-off places were we couldn’t go but could send the videos.”
This week’s 40th anniversary includes the reissue of the “Waterloo” album, along with parties at Abba: The Museum, an ABBAversary at the Brighton Dome (where the band won Eurovision), and a party at London’s Tate Modern museum. “Waterloo” was a watershed moment in pop history. It’s time to set aside those images of sparkly harem pants and elephantine bell bottoms and give Abba another well-deserved listen.
Further Abba listening:
The cover versions
Erasure, “Take a Chance on Me”
The Czars, “Angel Eyes”
Nashville Train, “Waterloo”
Information Society, “Lay All Your Love on Me”
The Wondermints , “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Salma & Sabina, “Pehli Pehli Preet (Super Trouper)”
Laura Branigan, “The Winner Takes It All”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.