ABBA – Today the world, tomorrow the U.S. By John Rockwell

ABBA, the Swedish pop-music quartet, finds itself in a most curious position. Not really well-known in the United States, it is a superstar everywhere else. In fact, with all due respect to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, ABBA can lay convincing claim to being the best-selling pop-music act in the world.

The group’s new record, ABBA-The Album, made in conjunction with a classily produced film, may change its status in this country – which is, after all, by far the most lucrative pop market. Besides that, conquering America is a challenge to the prestige of even the richest and most self-satisfied of foreign rockers. The trouble is that ABBA has reached such a level of success elsewhere that the group doesn’t want to tour here until it is hugely popular – yet touring helps promote the recorded product. In addition, the very nature of ABBA’s music has sometimes seemed to make the group’s live shows cumbersome and artistically problematic.

That music is readily available to record buyers in this country, however, and enough have responded that one can hardly feel too sorry for the band. Those who do respond find something very appealing, since ABBA’s music is both rooted in basic rock traditions and remarkably fresh and original.

ABBA represents a healthy challenge to the two-decades-long dominance of Western pop music by Britain and the United States. The musical context from which ABBA evolved is that of so-called Euro-pop – a flossy, bouncy, sometimes triumphantly silly fluff-music that derives not from the urgency of American blues (the source of rock) but from older forms of European folk music.

ABBA was formed when four successful Swedish pop performers came together in 1969, first personally and then professionally. Agnetha Fältskog is now married to Björn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad lives with Benny Andersson. ABBA is an acronym of their first names, although they first had doubts about it, since it is also the name of a well-known Swedish brand of pickled herring.

The group broke through internationally – with the aid of some shrewd advance planning by the band’s “fifth member” and frequent co-lyricist, Stig Anderson – after it won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England. The contest is a ritual event in Europe, watched by millions, and serves as a promotional mechanism in an area divided by language and lacking the commercial radio outlets of the United States.

“Everybody looks on us as a product of the Eurovision thing, but we’re not,” Benny Andersson argued. Our conversation took place recently in Stockholm’s lovely Stallmastaregarden restaurant, a former royal stable surrounded by gardens. It was an interesting comment on Sweden’s fabled reserve that although the members of ABBA are probably as well known as any living Swedish citizens in their own country, they were not bothered by anyone in the restaurant – a few distantly gazing, awestruck children aside.

“Eurovision helped us,” Mr Ulvaeus qualified. “It was a way to make it quickly on the outside, but we were on our way anyhow.”

“It was a fantastic experience,” Mr Ulvaeus added. “Everybody’s watching it and everybody’s into it – in Europe, at least.”

Because of the language problem and the continued dominance of English in international discourse and Anglo-American pop music, ABBA’s members had decided even before their Eurovision victory to write and sing all their songs in English – which they do with only a slight, and charming, accent. In turn, that has meant that most of ABBA’s lyrics have been rather inconsequential, moon-June stuff.

But the group believes that in most instances it’s the music that sells a pop record, and they are surely correct. And in ABBA’s case the music is very appealing indeed. The debts to the past have mostly to do with the density and grandiosity of their production values. Mr Ulvaeus describes the group as “Spector freaks,” and the massive, multiple-overdubbed effects certainly owe much to Phil Spector’s Wagnerian “wall of sound” approach of a decade ago. But in conjunction with their invaluable engineer, Michael B. Tretow, Mr Ulvaeus and Mr Andersson have updated Mr Spector’s technique with sounds that could only be obtained from modern instruments (especially synthesizers and other electronic keyboards) and in modern recording studios: the shimmering exoticism of texture supporting nearly every ABBA song is both deceptively progressive and sweetly compelling.

If all this sounds as if the women in the group are slightly extraneous, that’s partly true – at least in the creative sense of Miss Fältskog and Miss Lyngstad have their frisky sides, which is amusing for a group that projects such a squeaky-clean image and appeals to children and older people as well as youngsters. Much is made of Miss Fältskog’s wiggling bottom in concert, and Miss Lyngstad was sporting a graphically pornographic pendant during our luncheon. She also put out a solo disk in Sweden with a cover that is probably the most implicitly sexual in the history of album art. But the two women remained mostly demure during our talk and disclaimed any interest in contributing to the group’s songwriting.

“I helped write a song on our first album, but I think it’s the boys’ business to write the songs for ABBA,” Miss Fältskog offered, although she too put out a solo album for which she co-wrote most of the material.

“We do take a big part in the studio,” Miss Lyngstad added. “We often come up with ideas.”

What they come up with even more, however, is singing – and, in the stage show, their flirtatious sexuality dominates the group’s act. Both women have classic pop sopranos, capable of evocative work in solo passages but even more suitable for the soaring harmonies the group favors, which are highly reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas.

All of this would go for naught, though, unless the two composers could come up with winning melodies and clever twists. (or “hooks,” in pop-music parlance). And that – despite growing “pressure, from inside and outside,” as they put it - they have consistently been able to do. Most ABBA songs sound like potential (or actual) hit singles, and the reason is that the chorus is almost invariably a tune that has listeners humming compulsively after only a couple of hearings.

The result of all of this has been a level of success that few groups outside the Anglo-American axis have enjoyed. Stig Anderson, the group’s manager, says that ABBA surpasses all previous pop acts in terms of sales, although he admits that statements of that sort cannot be proven. “It is possible to say that we are the most successful band in the world, because we have sold more records than anybody else,” he explained. “We have sold between 75 and 100 million singles, albums, cassettes and eight-tracks. Most figures that you hear are just figures. We are trying to cut it down to what we have sold. We know that we have sold more than the Beatles or Elvis Presley.”

Since ABBA hasn’t fled Sweden, which has as severe a tax structure as Britain, Mr Anderson has diversified the band’s income into a number of different enterprises. There is even a barter agreement with Eastern Europe to receive royalties in such goods as oil and vegetables. According to Affarsvarlden, a Swedish business weekly, ABBA is the most profitable corporation in the country, bar none.

Although the group has appeared here for promotional purposes and has been seen performing on American television, there are no plans yet for a tour of this country. Which in turn means that there probably won’t be much of an audience for the group’s new film – which is doing booming business in countries like Britain (where the album is already No. 1) and Australia (where the tour footage was filmed).

Part of the problem is that ABBA members value their private lives and the time devoted to composing in a little island shack near Stockholm. And their growing perfectionism means that nearly a year is spent recording each new album, leaving little time to tour if an annual album is to be made. “Each record takes double the time of the one before,” Mr Ulvaeus said worriedly.

In the meantime, the new disk (the title, ABBA–The Album goes with ABBA–The Movie and the sheet music version, ABBA-The Folio) is no letdown. As lyricists, the three men (counting their manager) have attempted somewhat bolder themes, and by and large seem able to encompass them without stumbling into pretension. And the music – one slightly stiff and strained rock attempt aside – is as heartfelt and lush as ever.

It would be nice if ABBA were to finally catch on here with the same magnitude that the group has elsewhere – catch on massively and consistently, that is: ABBA has had its successes here, including one No. 1 single last year, Dancing Queen. Because this band represents as refreshing an example of pure pop as anything being done today. Pop music used to be simply and unaffectedly entertaining, back before rock-and-roll. At its best, rock still lifts popular music into a new seriousness and intensity. But too often it’s merely raucous or pretentious, and in the meantime, middle-of-the-road alternatives wallow in sentimentality and schlock. ABBA is both energetic and mightily fun – rather like Fleetwood Mac, although stemming from a different set of traditions. It’s a lovely combination, and one can be heartily recommended to get a hold of this new album – or the band’s Arrival disk or its Greatest Hits collection. All of them are a testimony to vitality and charm. Transcribed for ABBA World

ABBA-The Album. Atlantic SD 19164.

Photo: ABBA (l. to r.): Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus.

The New York Times · Sunday, 5 March 1978 (Pages 16 D & 20D)

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