Monday, 11 February 2013

ABBA - A reflection

ABBA was never my thing. And, outside of a handful of songs, they're still not, really. They were, however, a group my mother was quite fond of. She was into them when she was in her mid-20s and a young mum, so I was really too young to see the huge buzz surrounding the band first hand.

Despite not being a massive fan, I watched Alan Brough's documentary "ABBA - Bang a Boomerang" last night on ABC iView. It eloquently outlined the story of ABBA's success primarily as it related to Australian audiences, who were probably the most rabid fans of the band on the planet in the 1970s.

As we all know, ABBA are the most visible and most successful graduate of that most (tongue firmly planted in cheek) prestigious school of pop culture and arts: Eurovision. These days, the Eurovision Song Contest gets national exposure in Australia, but in 1973, I doubt it got much coverage here at all. Nonetheless, I think both Eurovision and ABBA have benefited from their mutual association.

In Alan Brough's program, Ian "Molly" Meldrum, erstwhile producer and presenter of "Countdown", the most watched music show in Australia probably in the history of television, says that he flogged ABBA's videos on the show in the early days. Countdown was a live show that went to air every week and it was hungry for new music and talent. ABBA, being from Sweden, couldn't just pop into the studios in Melbourne and bang out a performance, so they made some music videos to be shown in their absence.

It's fair to say that Molly and Countdown were responsible for bringing ABBA to the Australian public (they were also responsible for inflicting Madonna and Culture Club on an unsuspecting Australian public as well, but that's another story). The were perfect foil for a pop show - the girls were cute, the songs were sharp and catchy, the melodies stick in your head for weeks.

ABBA's songs are remarkably well produced. They used the studio well and you can hear the layers of studio sheen they put into their work, if you're willing to listen hard enough. And full credit to them for learning to sing in a foreign language that is so at odds with their native tongue. I remember my dad telling me about his favourite ABBA song of all time, a track called "Tropical Loveland". I listened to it once - it's their attempt at Reggae. That may sound hard to process: a group of Swedes doing Jamaican music, but it just shows the depth and strength of the boys' ambition as songwriters, who were willing to attempt something new and different.

For me however, the Australian public's voracious demand for ABBA's music and the Media's willingness to cater to it means that, even now, their music is ubiquitous and that drives me mental. There is such a thing as "too much of a good thing" sometimes and having "Dancing Queen" played everywhere all the time really lessens its impact.

I hear that in the school yard the demarcation lines were set over which four-letter superstar band you were a fan of: ABBA, or KISS. You were either one or the other, never both. If that was me in those days, I'd be well and truly in the KISS camp - "Fernando", to this day, makes me break out in a bad rash.

I found it interesting that after their big tour of Australia in 1977 that the Australian public went soft on the band. They had turned their allegiances around and a backlash set in. Not long after, the same happened to KISS.

We really can be a fickle bunch, the Australian public. "Tall Poppy Syndrome" is a bitch - just ask Daniel Johns of Silverchair. However, I don't think the backlash was ABBA's fault. KISS' backlash was almost entirely their fault - they over-marketed themselves with merchandise and, by releasing no less than five LPs in 1978 alone (and two a year for ever year of their existence before that) they'd milked us for all we were worth...and then some.

In the program, Rockwiz host Julia Zemiro summed it up nicely when she said that by then, the young fans were well and truly teenagers and they needed music that made them feel "touched" - read: risque, or sexually charged. ABBA were releasing records like "The Winner Takes it All" and "One of Us" which told the story, albeit in thinly veiled code, of the breakups of the two couples within the band. The music was still sophisticated, but it was more grown up and less immediate than, say, "Dancing Queen". The band and their young fans had both grown up, but they were growing in opposite directions.

That backlash lasted a long time though. I remember starting school in the early 1980s and hearing some of the pithy parodies of ABBA songs going around:

"Mamma Mia,
I got diahorrhea,
open up the dunny door..."

The band's resurgence in the 1990s and beyond defies logic in some respects (it raises many questions regarding the dubious fashion sense of the era), but it demonstrates the power and quality of the songs (and the fact that a hell of a lot of people still really like the band!!!). The production on some of those songs hasn't dated at all: "Knowing Me, Knowing You" sounds like it was recorded yesterday - it still sounds fresh. It is harmonically beautiful in the use of chords and melody, but lyrically it is a very uncomfortable breakup song. "Dancing Queen" on the other hand, as well as "Voulez Vous" could only have come out of the 1970s - they still sound tied to their era. "SOS" has this gorgeous piano run at the end of each verse (as the build-up to the chorus) that sounds like it was lifted from Mozart, but it still sounds great.

The band is still so popular in this country that it can be said that 1-in-3 households own an ABBA album. Based on the Wikipedia article on the band, they have had 69 platinum certifications (platinum is 70000 copies) so that makes 4.83 million albums sold in a country of 23 million people. It makes the mind boggle.

Of course, if I never had to hear "Fernando" ever again, that day cannot come soon enough.

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