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ABBA's Essential, Influential Melancholy

The members of ABBA (from left): Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson at Waterloo station in London in 1974, the year the group won the Eurovision contest with the song "Waterloo."
John Downing
Getty Images
The members of ABBA (from left): Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson at Waterloo station in London in 1974, the year the group won the Eurovision contest with the song "Waterloo."

Dressed in black and greeted by Barry and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, former ABBA members Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson took their 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seriously and sincerely. While Lyngstad definitively dismissed reunion rumors, Andersson spoke of the quartet's musical roots and emotional core. He explained that there was only one radio station when they were kids in 1950s Sweden, and it played one, maybe two hours of music a day. During this program of classical music, jazz, Swedish folk, Italian arias, French chanson, German schmaltz and John Philip Sousa, there might have been one current song. While acknowledging the influence of the Leiber/Stoller, Goffin/King and Lennon/McCartney songwriting teams, as well as The Beach Boys, Motown, Joni Mitchell, Chuck Berry and The Kinks, he admitted an absence of American blues. He didn't mention his band was derided for this by authenticity-fixated critics during their '70s/early '80s heyday: Otherwise rightfully esteemed Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once wrote of ABBA, "We have met the enemy and they are them."

What Andersson did point out was that his group possessed a rarely acknowledged capacity for the sorrows of artists living within the "melancholy belt" above the 59th latitude, where the sun virtually disappears for two months and snow falls for nearly half a year. He argued that this despondency runs through Swedish folk, Russian folk, classical composers like Finland's Jean Sibelius and Norway's Edvard Grieg, Ingmar Bergman movies, the voice of Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo and, sometimes, the harmonies of Lyngstad and her front line vocal partner Agnetha Fältskog.

Music of the 20th century is so rooted in African-American suffering that it's no surprise that most U.S. critics were deaf to any other culture's sadness. ABBA may have sold more records elsewhere than any band since The Beatles, but America rarely gave them respect: Here, these purveyors of ostensibly cheery AM radio bubblegum scored far more successfully with singles while heavier trends like metal, progressive rock and punk proliferated in the age of the album.

Although they've been retroactively deemed a disco act, ABBA were shunned even by our club DJs until the early '80s, when Björn Ulvaeus's lyrics reflected the recent unraveling of both domestic unions that gave these two sets of married couples uncommon cohesion. This sense of gravity showed up not only in far more serious lyrics, but also in much weightier beats. Rather than sticking them in a rut, sorrow helped ABBA progress. Emphatic rhythms played out their post-amorous tension in "Lay All Your Love on Me" and "The Visitors;" hi-NRG anthems that blueprinted the sound of gay dancefloors in the 1980s until house music took over. But until that point, it was as if the brightness of ABBA's famously kitschy costumes had blinded the media to any spiritual depth or darkness.

To be fair, for years their camp aspects were quite glaring — Ulvaeus's star-shaped guitar, Lyngstad and Fältskog's clunky choreography and far-from-subtle makeup and initially inane lyrics written to transcend language barriers with alliterative and/or onomatopoeic titles like "Nina, Pretty Ballerina," "King Kong Song," and "Bang-a-Boomerang." 1960s girl-group references announced a crucial shift from their tentative early collaborations to the femme-centric and far friskier troupe they became with 1974's breakthrough "Waterloo." Critics of the day genuflected when Bruce Springsteen recreated the same Phil Spector production techniques with a gruff voice and a deluge of manly descriptive language to frame his own Wall of Sound. As befitting a boy-girl/boy-girl combo from a country far more civilized than our own, ABBA avoided machismo; their ESL lyrics to songs like "Dum Dum Diddle" were no less feminine or more finessed than Spector's "Da Doo Ron Ron."

Instead, ABBA epitomized a pop maximalism that masqueraded as intellectual and musical simplicity. Further culturally removed from their sources than The Beatles and the Stones, they nevertheless studied and reshaped them with the exactitude of scholarly vets. Before they came together in what Scandinavians understood as a supergroup, each member achieved considerable regional success: Keyboardist Andersson wrote hits for his "Swedish Beatles" quintet, the Hep Stars. Guitarist Ulvaeus's Hootenanny Singers also scored with Swedish-language covers and originals crafted by their future star; eventually the pair contributed to each other's bands. Ulvaeus's future wife, Fältskog, topped the charts as a teen with her own self-written schmaltz; the two worked together on her early '70s solo output, while Andersson similarly penned and produced home-tongue hits for his partner Lyngstad. When all four pooled their talents and experience, the outcome couldn't help but be densely packed. They were what Fleetwood Mac was to soon become — double-lovin' ladies and dudes who sang of romantic rumors.

Whereas bubblegum glam contemporaries like Sweet and Suzi Quatro initially relied on outside producer/songwriters, ABBA were largely self-contained. With a little English-language assistance from manager Stig Anderson, Ulvaeus and Andersson wrote their own material; they arranged, produced, sang and performed them alongside skilled session musicians akin to those who played with Steely Dan. ABBA amassed more music videos than most pre-MTV acts because they didn't like touring. The recording studio was their home, and they were among the first to have one built, Stockholm's Polar Studios. Like Queen and 10cc, ABBA constructed fastidiously overdubbed arrangements that exploited the symphonic and choral possibilities of newly expanded multi-track recording. Their richly textured renderings of seemingly straightforward hooks were the aural equivalent of Dolly Parton's axiom: "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap."

Masters of the earworm, Andersson and Ulvaeus boasted considerable harmonic complexity that mixed bitter and sweet. Like Motown's classic songwriters, they excelled at juxtaposing sprightly melodies with aching lyrics ("S.O.S.," "Money, Money, Money") and sometimes slipped into sappiness with the opposite combination ("I Have a Dream," "Chiquitita"). Even their happiest hits encompass more than a few blue notes. Strip away the euphoric strings and rhythms of "Dancing Queen" and their sole U.S. chart-topper would be a much sadder tune, but it's arranged to feel ecstatic: When the harmonies crescendo for that "Feel the beat of the tambourine, oh yeah" chorus section, the frisson between notes is disproportionate to the lyrics. And that's just as it should be; life is full of emotions far larger than their situations.

An ABBA billboard in Los Angeles in 1978, the year after the group had its only U.S. No. 1 single, "Dancing Queen."
Imagno / Getty Images
Getty Images
An ABBA billboard in Los Angeles in 1978, the year after the group had its only U.S. No. 1 single, "Dancing Queen."

As any of you who've attempted them in karaoke already know, ABBA classics can be challenging, a fact proven by just about everyone in the film version of ABBA's jukebox musical Mamma Mia! who isn't Meryl Streep. Punk and hip-hop arguably reduced the melodic complexity of much modern pop, particularly during the verses, where tunes now tend to see-saw between a small number of notes within a marginal interval. ABBA verses are considerably more melodically developed than today's typical chorus.

They were built that way because Fältskog, a soprano, and Lyngstad, a mezzo-soprano, each possessed a wider range than average rockers. Often engineered into full-on choirs, their voices aligned to create something larger than the sum of their parts, like when Freddie Mercury trilled in superhuman harmony with Queen's falsetto-voiced drummer Roger Taylor. Faith Hill's Andersson-accompanied version of 1980's "The Winner Takes It All" at ABBA's aforementioned RRHoF induction ceremony is what happens when even a multiplatinum belter tries to tackle the tune without modification. It's a disaster.

That song — one of the most operatic of its era without announcing itself as such — underplays its pathos by fluctuating between piano balladry and disco propulsion, as if Fältskog can't decide whether to weep in the mirror or wail defiantly at her former partner à la Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

Another hit built on contrasts between verse and chorus, 1975's "Mamma Mia" commands attention when the intro's nagging marimba and the verses' glam-slam guitars abruptly drop out for the first bars of the chorus. Suddenly Fältskog and Lyngstad are alone with Andersson's staccato piano chords that beat in time to pangs of desire the pair cannot control. "Here I go again," they lament before the ticking marimba returns. These abrupt dynamic shifts weren't unprecedented; they were likely inspired by the most radical European hit of the previous year, Sparks' galloping "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us." Yet they're a quintessential example of how ABBA pumped up the drama with every lick and countermelody.

I was barely a teen when their hit streak began, and typically more drawn to acts like David Bowie and Roxy Music that favored fantasy, alienation and eccentricity over earnest renderings of love I was too young or cautious to experience. For ABBA I made an exception because their sonic palate was so vivid; like the art-rockers, they made my humble teenage stereo sound great, like when the reverb and most of the instrumentation in the practically punky "Hole in Your Soul" recede so that vocals and drums seem to leap right out of the speakers. In my mind, there wasn't much difference between glam's allure of doom and songs like 1976's "Knowing Me, Knowing You," ABBA's first melodramatic milestone of melancholic longing. "No more carefree laughter/Silence ever after," it opens, and gets gloomier from there as insistent Wurlitzer electric piano riffing swirls in a psychedelic haze while an orchestra of multi-tracked guitars strum, scrape, buzz and hum. "Knowing me, knowing you, uh-huhhhh," go the girls suggestively again and again, as if the existential ache of a relationship's dead end naturally triggers residual erotic fallout.

ABBA ruled easy listening radio with nuanced, nearly subversive stuff because they seemed so quaint on the surface. Could they otherwise have gotten away with a sexual predation theme as blatant as the one that animates "Tiger"? If Robert Plant had sung it, Gloria Steinem would've surely accused Led Zeppelin of glamorizing rape. "Look around the corner and try not to scream/It's me," wail the girls while wallowing in the penetrating power of uncommonly piercing shrieks. Check their practically glass-shattering but flawlessly harmonized final cry.

ABBA packaged themselves as family-friendly entertainment as wholesome as the TV variety shows on which they appeared even as Benny and Björn wrote their wives songs in which women renounce passivity. "As I held my breath, the world stood still/But then he just smiled," they sing in "When I Kissed the Teacher" as they rupture the social order with lips on forbidden skin. "Can't resist the strange attraction from that giant dynamo," they admit in "Summer Night City" as if picking up tantric signals from surrounding skyscrapers. "Can you make it alone?" they ask of single moms represented by "Hey, Hey Helen" before answering, "Yes, you can" as fuzz guitars blast out defiant power chords.

"Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" — the single Madonna sampled for "Hung Up" — is more lyrically depressed than any of ABBA's divorce-phase ballads, yet even more assertive than the ensemble's norm. A synth piccolo suggests Fältskog is about to shout from atop the Scandes like Julie Andrews twirling through the Salzburg hills in The Sound of Music. Instead she's alone in her flat, bracing herself against autumnal chill. She walks from the TV, throws open the window, gazes into the night, and prays for a sensual savior. "Take me through the darkness to the break of the day," Fältskog roars to everyone and no one with her disco mating call.

In 1994, I traveled to Stockholm to interview Ulvaeus, meet Andersson, tour their office and recording studio and soak up firsthand the ABBA-ness I'd dreamed of from afar. My idols were surfing a second wave of unplanned prominence: In 1992, Erasure had topped the U.K. singles chart for five weeks with their Abba-esque EP of covers. Universal Music, which now owned ABBA's catalog internationally, responded with Gold: Greatest Hits, which not only became the act's biggest title, but — with sales at over 29 million worldwide — now also ranks among the best-selling albums of all time. Later in 1994, a pair of campy Australian comedies — Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — would feature ABBA's music, earning both acclaim and considerable box office.

All ex-ABBA members shun publicity; they don't need it. But Ulvaeus liked a Village Voice essay I'd written about Gold, and wanted some explanation as to why without effort his old band had once again became phenomenally famous, particularly in the LGBT community, which had adopted ABBA as honorary patron saints like Judy Garland and Madonna. At the time, gay men of my generation were dying of AIDS in unprecedented numbers, and so my explanation of ABBA's largely gay-driven resurgence focused on escapism, cheering grieving spirit and the group's accidental humor. Our people can't resist a dancing queen.

Today, as a recent live album, vinyl box set and bilingual band-centric edition of the Monopoly board game attest, ABBA's appeal and influence goes much further than their gay following or the next generation of fans acquired via Mamma Mia. Twenty years after their victory at 1974 Eurovision Song Contest put them on the path to worldwide superstardom, Sweden's Max Martin began writing and producing a slew of songs that — from Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life" to Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" — define contemporary pop. Robyn, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Usher, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Icona Pop and other chart champions scored many of their most beloved hits while working with Martin and/or other Swedish associates like Andreas Carlsson, Rami, Shellback and Klas Åhlunn. All of these acts and producers retrace ABBA's templates.

One such student, Tove Lo, became the highest charting Swedish act since Ace of Base with her 2013/14 sleeper smash "Habits (Stay High)," which flaunts musical exhilaration as one more means to overcome despair. Lo explained to The New Yorker that her country's indigenous pop has "clear but simple lyrics, is a lot about the melody, and also having a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum."

Even an exceptionally self-aware hit like "Habits (Stay High)" may not be as harmonically sophisticated or as layered as ABBA's, but today's Swedish talent nevertheless learned from their countrymen how to use the studio as their instrument as they maximize the impact of every melodic and rhythmic element using tools and allusions that go way beyond rock. When it comes to pop, ABBA have been for the last several decades far more influential than The Beatles.

All of this connects with Andersson's acceptance speech about the role of melancholy in ABBA's musical gestalt, as well as its function in the Swedish hit factory. Whether it's "Dancing Queen" or Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," "S.O.S." or the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," there's a yearning in these records that gives them ballast and helps them endure, one that years ago escaped me when trying to explain ABBA's LGBT connection. Gay people particularly respect entertainers who cloak suffering behind carefully constructed artifice because it's a skill most of us are still forced to learn. ABBA concealed the distress of their ditties with as many deliciously gaudy overdubs as the era's analog recording techniques could muster. Embedded in some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known, ABBA invented their own blues, one that hasn't left the radio. They whispered private anguish in the midst of the party.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barry Walters