Paul Hopkins: Gimme, gimme, gimme ... Abba after 40 years
In a country known for producing luminaries in pop music like Avicii, the hitmaker Max Martin, and Roxette, Abba still looms the largest. Between 1973 and 1981, the Swedish quartet released eight albums filled with meticulously crafted melodies, harmonies and strings that spawned 20 hits on the global charts, sold tens of millions of albums around the world and built a passionate fan following.
But their paradigm-shifting impact can not be measured solely in numbers. The group was noted for taking a chance with then emerging technology when, in the mid-1970s, it was one of the first acts to make elaborate promotional mini-films — what we now call music videos that proliferate YouTube. The group's 1981 album, and last, 'The Visitors', was the first release on the then new-format compact disc. The 1999 musical 'Mamma Mia!' paired the group’s hits with an unrelated plot, prompting a slew of imitators and two films that brought us the spectacle of Meryl Streep singing 'Dancing Queen'.
When Abba released that last album in 1981 Charles Haughey, for better or for worse, was Taoiseach (until June 1981 and back in again the following March for another nine months). It was the year he didn’t want them pesky Germans to think Ireland was neutral so he told Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that Ireland was "not necessarily neutral either politically or ideologically" and that the country "would consider taking on a military defence role in Europe if necessary". CJ's 'friend' Maggie Thatcher ruled Britannia, while the same year 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' ruled the box office, Bobby Sands died on the 66th day of his hunger strike, Thin Lizzy played the first ever Slane, and Britney Spears was yet to be born.
A lot has changed in the 40 years since 'The Visitors' album but Abba isn’t one of them. Their new record gives us — bar some septuagenarian tweaks, — the Swedes we know and love. Or, rather, pretended to hate for ages and only admitted to loving around about — let's see now — a summer's day in the early Noughties.
Now the Swedish blondes are risking perhaps the group's most valuable asset — its legacy — by not only releasing their new album, and they all in their mid-70s, but also planning a stage show that features not one of them in the flesh. In a custom-built London venue next May, the group will perform as highly sophisticated avatars (or should we say Abbatars?) designed to replicate their 1970s' look — that fickle and feckless era of feathered hair and flamboyant threads.
The quartet just might have had some inkling a reunion would spur interest. Since they went offstage after 'The Visitors', Abba have continued to thrive. Conversations about pop have shifted somewhat down the decades since, in no small way helping the group overcome the 'cheesy Euro pop' (think Brother Of Man) tag that often stuck to them during their '70s prime.
Abba are now widely respected as a purveyor of sophisticated pop craftsmanship, and their enduring popularity transcends generations and borders. The late, and erudite, rock critic George Byrne (Irish Independent, Hot Press, The Tom Dunne Show) argued many a Friday night with me, over copious pints and other questionable substances, that Abba — no debate, period — wrote better songs and melodies than the Beatles ever did. If old enough to recall Abba's greatest hits, you just might concede the point to our George.
Are Abba simply one of the biggest groups in the history of popular music? A global phenomenon since they won the Eurovision what-have-you in 1974 with ‘Waterloo'?
Very likely. And drawing in fans, too, that include artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Jarvis Cocker, Kylie Minogue and Madonna.
Forty years on, 'Voyage' is a comforting, familiar blend of clear-eyed sentiment, outrageous musicality and utter indifference to fashion. Like much of Abba’s back catalogue, these songs can sound somewhat, eh, naff on first listen, yet I find myself pulled in by Benny Andersson’s melodic oomph and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s eccentric lyrical insights. Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad share vocals, and their voices, a little lower perhaps, are still melodious and moving.
The album is reassuringly retro, with many nods to the halcyon days with its themes of ageing and disillusionment, although the lines between frivolity and seriousness are somewhat blurred.
And to think such was once viewed as embarrassingly kitsch, when a love for Abba's songs meant automatic disbarring from a certain serious company.