Rock: ABBA, Swedish quartet, in New York debut. By John Rockwell

One way of looking at ABBA, the Swedish rock quartet that sold out Radio City Music Hall in its New York debut Tuesday night, is that it has turned itself into a deliberate caricature of what the world thinks Swedish people must be – beautiful, blond and coldly perfect. Clearly the world has responded to the group’s records with glee: ABBA makes the claim, however unsupported, of having sold more records than any other act in the history of music.

ABBA is an acronym for Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (nicknamed Frida) Lyngstad. The music they make on records is an extension of what was once known as “Euro-pop.” It lacks the drive and passion of real rock-and-roll, substituting busy textures of electronic keyboards and strings, guitars, percussion and the soaring, multitracked harmonies of the two women. The music is often just as clever and complex as the British progressive-rock bands, but is saved from their fussy pretensions by the hummable charm of the tunes and the innocent trivia of the lyrics (sung in lightly accented English).

Only once in its career did the group assay a sterner idiom, in its next-to-last album. But the climax of that album, I’m A Marionette, which suggests darker things about women and performers and specifically about the women performers in ABBA, went unsung Tuesday night.

ABBA hasn’t toured much. But the fact remains that for all its success around the world, it has never really “broken” in the United States, and touring is generally considered a necessity to sell lots of records here. Perhaps for that reason, ABBA is only now making its first United States tour.

Any complicated, lush, studio-crafted sound translates perilously to live performance. When in addition the performers seem rather stiff onstage, the result can sound crude and look tedious, as The Bee Gees proved recently at Madison Square Garden.

ABBA solved most of those problems very well. Augmenting its own singing and playing with six instrumentalists and three backup singers, it created reasonable approximations of its records. The ballads lost a little sheen, but the rockers were toughened up a bit – not enough to make them really convincing, to be sure, but to some advantage.

In addition, the sets and lighting looked spiffy, both in themselves and within the context of Radio City Music Hall. Mr Ulvaeus and the two women arrayed themselves in a succession of costumes that made them look positively pneumatic; Spandex has rarely served the cause of ogling so well. Yet for all their cavortings, the impression was never other than sanitized: they are marionettes, women and men alike, and seemingly proud of it.

Of perhaps they’re not; the trouble with ABBA is that whatever their own emotions may be has absolutely nothing to do with their music and their performance. It’s all a big, smooth-running, sparkly bright pop-music machine, both the actual music and the stiffly unnatural between-songs patter.

But finally, it never pretends to be otherwise, and those tunes really are captivating. As long as one doesn’t find oneself wishing for more, or realizing the group’s obvious limits, it can provide a sweetly innocent good time. And the crowd, which was full of people both younger and older than one normally encounters at a rock concert, gave every sign of being contented. Transcribed for ABBA World

Photo: Members of the Swedish group named ABBA during a recent performance in Portland, Ore.

The New York Times · Thursday, 4 October 1979 (Page 17)

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