As London’s Southbank Centre celebrates a major ABBA exhibition Mike Atkinson takes a look at the legacy of Sweden’s hottest export
At any decent-sized Pride festival during the Nineties, the chances are that you’d have been entertained by Björn Again, the first of countless ABBA tribute acts. Even twenty years later, you won’t have to look far to find a similar bunch of sound-alikes playing at an unfashionable venue nearby. You know what you’ll be getting: platform boots, crocheted caps, star-guitars, appliquéd kimonos and extra-large dollops of cheese. There will be tipsy mums in abundance, and grandmas with glitter in their hair, and everyone will be singing along to Mamma Mia and Dancing Queen.
But if all ABBA ever represented was cheery, sparkly kitsch, why would they be so fondly remembered and universally admired? Granted, these acts reflect a part of what the Swedish foursome were about – and undeniably, ABBA could be camp. But like all of camp’s best exponents, they also retained an innocence, a sincerity and a sense of mystery that, coupled with an exquisite gift for songcraft, lifted them way above the herd.
As camp’s most finely tuned connoisseurs, gay men were always going to warm to ABBA. We were never overtly courted – although Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) does come close – but there is plenty in their catalogue that resonates for us in a particular way.
Having established their credentials with Waterloo, routinely hailed as the greatest of all Eurovision winners, they returned (after a worrying three flops) with SOS, the first in an unbroken run of eighteen Top Ten hits, spanning just over six years. Musically uplifting, but with an undertow of bleak melancholy, it introduced key elements of their signature sound. “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?” the girls sang, masking the histrionics with gleaming smiles. Eighteen months on from Waterloo, we were hooked all over again.
With punk about to break, ABBA’s appeal bypassed the credibility-seeking rock crowd, capturing generations both below and above. For kids, there were the sugary delights of Bang-A-Boomerang, Honey Honey and The King Kong Song. And for their parents songs like Knowing Me Knowing You mapped a more troubling emotional terrain. (“In these old familiar rooms, children would play. Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say.”)
That said, the torments of adolescence could also be addressed. Has there ever been a finer dissection of those first agonising longings than The Name Of The Game, their sixth chart-topper? For teenage gay listeners, lines such as “you make me show what I’m trying to conceal” must have packed a particular punch. The cute second-language clunkiness of some of Björn and Benny’s earlier songs had been replaced by a lyrical deftness, using simple words to describe complex feelings.
As for the girls at the front, Agnetha and Frida never over-sold themselves, always holding something in reserve. Agnetha might have been the very template of the gorgeous Seventies Swedish blonde, but her beauty wasn’t deployed crassly, and her eyes conveyed more sadness than sexiness. But if she was the ice queen, then Frida was the imp, flashing us mischievous, knowing side-glances. If Agnetha channelled our heartache, then Frida was the one we’d want with us at the bar, her face creased with comforting laughter.
For a good few years, ABBA’s twin marriages looked unshakeable, if perhaps a tad unlikely. We didn’t see the cracks emerging; Agnetha and Björn announced their separation in early 1979, but news of their divorce in 1980 came only a few months before Frida and Benny’s own separation, making the splits feel almost simultaneous. There were no confessional interviews, few shrill headlines. Instead, rightly or wrongly, we looked to the songs for clues. Band members might since have played down their lyrical significance, but certain conclusions were hard not to draw.
On the video for One Of Us, ABBA’s last big hit, a careworn, visibly older Agnetha glumly lugs boxes of stuff into an unexceptional-looking apartment, as she prepares to face life alone. “One of us is crying, one of us is lying in her lonely bed”, runs the refrain – but this is as nothing when compared to the previous year’s The Winner Takes It All, widely held to be the band’s masterpiece.
In a bravura vocal performance, Agnetha tells of the immediate aftermath of her divorce, using lyrics presented to her by Björn, her newly ex-husband. “But tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” he ventriloquises, to heart-stopping effect. It could almost feel sadistic, until you learn that this is Agnetha’s all-time favourite ABBA song, and that Björn drained a bottle of brandy while penning it. This was no longer the band who had given us Ring Ring, Dum Dum Diddle and Nina Pretty Ballerina; things had taken an irreversibly darker turn, and the end of the road was looming.
During those last couple of years, as tensions grew and chart positions slid, ABBA had just enough light left inside them to give us, at long last, two bona fide gay dancefloor classics. Lay All Your Love On Me – significantly beefed up by its extended Disconet remix – topped the US dance chart in May 1981. It was followed by the title track from the band’s eighth and final album, The Visitors: a slow-building epic, whose impressionistic lyrics hint at a mood of cold war paranoia.
The emergent art-house tendencies of The Visitors were given their fullest expression on The Day Before You Came, the last song ABBA recorded together. It’s a composition which resists easy interpretation. The singer details the mundane events of her humdrum life, in a way that suggests that everything has since changed out all recognition. But if the “you” in the song’s title refers to a new lover, then why does the track sound so downcast, almost elegiac? Could the “you” refer instead to disease, disaster or even death, its words beamed from the afterlife? Whatever the truth was, it provided a poignantly downbeat conclusion to a once stellar career.
The ABBA revival didn’t take long to happen, and the group’s standing has remained unassailable ever since. Dancing Queen was trendy nightclub-cool by 1988, and Erasure’s Abba-esque EP made Number One in 1992. Further chart-toppers came from Westlife, whose cover of I Have A Dream ushered in the new millennium, and from Madonna, who signalled her return to gay dancefloors with Hung Up, built on a hefty sample from Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!, in 2005. Even as recently as this summer, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now pays clear homage to ABBA’s style. Meanwhile, Abba Gold has been a permanent chart fixture for the last twenty-five years, and the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! has been a box-office smash on both stage and screen.
Despite being offered riches beyond mankind’s wildest dreams to reform, the four members have steadfastly refused all temptation, opting instead to leave our memories untainted by the almost unavoidable anti-climax of a reunion. They were finally photographed together last year, at a private function in Stockholm, where they sang an impromptu rendition of Me And I, an album track from 1980. “We’re like sun and rainy weather, sometimes we’re a hit together”, the song goes. “Gloomy moods and inspiration, we’re a funny combination,” it continues.
What better way to add a coda to an era-defining, record-breaking, game-changing career, whose impact still reverberates today?