ABBA looks back on its first decade. By Stephen Holden

ABBA: The Singles - The First Ten Years – (Atlantic 80036-1-G) sums up the first decade in the career of the Swedish pop quartet that claims to have sold more albums worldwide (well over 100 million) than any group since The Beatles. With 23 songs sequenced chronologically, the two-disk set traces the development of ABBA’s sound from a jingly hard-edged pop toward a grander, texturally more expansive mode of synthesizer pop.

ABBA’s success is attributable above all to its irresistible tunes. Written mostly by the group’s songwriter-producers and instrumentalists Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, ABBA‘s melodies have the indelible charm of Christmas carols like Jingle Bells. These assertive, happy melodies that practically flaunt their clichéd turns of phrase, are ideally suited to ABBA’s lead singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, both sopranos with clear, light voices and careful diction. Just as ABBA’s songs seem remote from any sense of personal involvement, the women in the group sing from the polite distance of choir-mistresses.

The combination of simplicity and formality in ABBA’s music jibes with the group’s goal of crafting a global pop style that’s a sort of pop music answer to Esperanto. Instead of Swedish, the group has written and re-recorded most of its material in a grammatically correct but non-idiomatic English, using the simplest of vocabularies. Pronounced phonetically, the lyrics become a kind of computer language, made all the more abstract by ABBA’s faraway pose of gleaming angelic cordiality.

The earliest songs on the anthology, Ring, Ring, So Long, Waterloo and I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do echo American hits from the late 1950s and early 1960s by Pat Boone, Connie Francis and other singers who used rock and roll as the basis of a tinny, bland-sounding American pop. Waterloo, the international hit that launched the group when it won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, is their most appealing early song, with its penny marching tune and grand choral vocal arrangement.

As ABBA’s sound grew more spacious, the group’s aural models became more fashionable. The exuberant female choruses and airy textures of such hits as Knowing Me, Knowing You, S.O.S. and The Name Of The Game, look back to the producer Phil Spector’s hits with The Ronettes and The Crystals. The harmonized syllabic incantations of songs like Take A Chance On Me recall such Beach Boys hits as Barbara Ann and Good Vibrations. During the same period that ABBA parodied American rock and roll from the mid-1960s, the group also cultivated specific European markets with songs like Mamma Mia, Chiquitita and Fernando, whose melodies adopted traditional Europeans flavors.

With the singles Dancing Queen and Voulez-Vous, ABBA’s music also incorporated Afro-American inflections, as they bowed to the late 1970s disco craze. Their verses of Dancing Queen features a Bo Diddley riff, while Voulez-Vous uses snappy light funk horn charts. In both songs, the combination of airy dance rhythms and candied studio textures suggests a giant singing merry-go-round.

As the disco craze waned, ABBA’s music once again became more European in feel. With their lavishly harmonized vocals and such florid touches as choirs of mandolins and electric sitar, songs like Super Trouper, I Have A Dream and The Winner Takes It All suggests a massive children’s chorus echoing through the Alps.

Stylistically, ABBA’s music has proved to be a decisive bridge between the 1960s, when American pop styles dominated international markets, and today’s synthesizer pop which is more European than American in its orientation. ABBA’s sketchy skeletal tunes with their childlike repetitions were obvious forerunners of the electronic chants of contemporary English techno-pop groups like Human League and A Flock Of Seagulls. Even Elvis Costello, the foremost singer-songwriter of the British new wave, has acknowledged ABBA as an important influence on his songwriting. Many of Mr Costello’s tunes share with ABBA’s a staccato-like matching of note to syllable.

Most importantly, ABBA was the first group to market itself successfully as a musical entity with a global point of view. While other groups, notably The Clash and The Police, have carried the concept of internationalism further by writing socially relevant lyrics and bringing African and third world rhythms to their music, it was ABBA who pointed the way. Never in the annals of modern pop has a major group had so little to say of literary interest, yet been so influential. ABBA-The Singles is a testimony to the unstoppable power of the catchy tune. Transcribed for ABBA World

The New York Times · Sunday, 13 February 1983 (Page 28)

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