Review: Abba Night, Channel 5, Friday 13th December

In my mind, there’s an alternative universe where Abba never wrote any of their happy songs. Instead, they churned out hit after dark side-tinged hit, from My Love, My Life, and Knowing Me Knowing You, from their first album, Arrival, through to The Day Before You Came (incidentally, a much underrated song) and then One of Us on their final, greatest album, The Visitors, a brief five years later. They never even entered Eurovision, because it was just too cheery for them.

In this alternative universe, the guitarist guy still threw rock star shapes, but clad in black leather; the piano guy looked like a cross between Alice Cooper and a particularly angry hobbit. The girls, of course, also wore black, and looked stunning with their raven hair and more black eyeliner than even the most dedicated stalker could shake a stick at.

Breaking up at the height of their success, the four were credited with inventing Nordic Goth-pop, which heavily influenced later Scandinavian crime writing and the subsequent rise of the Swedish death metal scene, where The Winner Takes It All remains almost a compulsory encore for most bands.

Somewhat disappointingly, Channel 5 chose to ignore this alternative universe, apart from a brief aside from the guitarist guy (or it could have been the piano guy) about there being ‘a sadness’ to Scandinavian people, born of the dark days of winter, which ‘you don’t have in England.’ Dunno about England, mate, but it kind of strikes a chord with your distant cousins here in Scotland. Depression, drink and a preference for the dark side? Stockholm and Sighthill have surprising similarities.  

I’ll share my theory about your typical Scottish male’s characteristics being born of a genetic mix of unwanted Viking second sons, and the rowdy elements even the Irish didn’t want, at some later date. Meantime, for this particular second son, growing up in the Seventies, it was never clear which was Bjorn and which was Benny. More particularly, it didn’t really matter, given that the full force of my teenage hormones were focused on Agnetha and Anna-Frid, or, more particularly, Anna-Frid. That’s the red-headed one.

Back in the Seventies, of course, Bjorn and Benny looked different. The piano-playing guy had a beard; the guitarist guy didn’t. It was that simple. However, as The Abba Years showed, in middle age the two of them, like an old married couple, or a dog and their owner, have started to look more and more like each other. To a certain extent this doesn’t really matter now either. They’re joined at the hip, Siamese twin pop god geniuses, bearded like the pard, and raking in royalties like there’s no tomorrow. I’m not sure if they’re still bigger than Volvo, but with the musical, the movie, and no doubt the Xbox game, they very possibly are.

In the Seventies, there was only one reason to know which one of them was which for me. The guitarist guy (let’s call him Bjonny, to avoid any confusion) was married to the blonde, Agnetha. That meant Anna-Frid was married to Bjerny on the keyboard, lucky fellow, so it was his tea I had to slip something into, in the alternative universe where I met them all and Anna-Frid showed a surprising taste for gawky Scots teenagers.

Back in the generally available universe, Agnetha and Bjonny got divorced first, whereupon Bjonny and Bjerny forced her to sing the lead vocal in The Winner Takes It All, wearing more blue eye-liner than anyone could feasibly shake a stick at. The Abba Years took us through the familiar story up to that point: the four of them forming a ‘supergroup’ from other Swedish bands called unlikely things like The Hep Stars; Waterloo winning Eurovision in 1974; then the years of success, touring, then divorce, fading popularity in the face of punk, new wave and other unstoppable forces, and that melancholy Winner video, with Agnetha singing her wee heart out.

By which time your reviewer had gone to University and discovered, in no particular order, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Dylan, Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, and Lene Lovich, to name but a few. Abba was a guilty pleasure not to be shared with any friends who took their music seriously. The documentary touched on this aspect – young folk seem to be a lot more relaxed these days about liking pop stuff, but back then you half expected some safety-pin wearing Witchfinder General to come round your house and have you burned at the stake for possession of a Wishbone Ash album (as the flames licked higher, the accused’s piteous cries of ‘I always secretly knew King Crimson was pish!’ were drowned out by the congregation singing the sacred hymn Anarchy in the UK…)

Anyhoo. I think the documentary touched on this aspect, although I may have been out making the coffee at the time, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same documentary I saw before. Did I mention this review’s a bit more impressionistic in nature than most? To be honest, if you want a clear picture of the Abba story, let me commend to you Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: the real story of Abba by Carl Magnus Palm (London, Omnibus, 2001). Amongst other things this tells of Anna-Frid’s difficult early life in Norway due to her father being a German soldier – the kind of uncomfortable legacy of Nazi collaboration that Jo Nesbo uses to such good effect in his novels.

What struck me this time about the documentary was the different impact the experience of being in Abba had on the men and women in it. For Agnetha, in particular, the vagaries of touring, promoting, and generally being a pop star were a less than welcome distraction. She wanted to stay at home and look after her kids, and increasingly did, forcing the band to turn to the new medium of video to get their message out.

From the perspective of the Noughteens, this seems a very reasonable approach, but to a 1970s Swedish man, it wasn’t, obviously. Bjonny talks in the interview about not understanding how they couldn’t have it all; they’d be away from the kids for a few days, but couldn’t they just get a nanny? Divorce too, in Sweden, was for him no big deal – ‘You marry someone else, become part of their family, and then you have another family…’

Agnetha might not have felt that way. At one point she talks about being afraid of the crowds that came to see them, especially when they toured Australia in 1977. A contemporary camera shot from a hotel window in Perth showed an hive-like, boiling mass of fans gathered below the balcony, mirroring countless bits of footage in relation to bands like the Beatles. It did occur that all that attention might be different, for an attractive woman in a stable relationship, compared to your more conventional band of young lads being mobbed by hysterical female fans. No wonder she moved to a remote part of Sweden when it all fell apart.

Saying that, I don’t want to sound too judgemental about old Bjonny and Bjerny. Think about what they’d achieved for a minute. Almost without parallel in pop history, they’d broken out of the non English-speaking world, written songs in English, and achieved global superstardom with them. No one laughs at their lyrics, do they? Anyone fancy writing something as good in Swedish, if you’re not, like, Swedish? Thought not.

So when Waterloo opened all sorts of doors for them, too right they worked their socks off, and too right they would want to make everything they could of their prodigious songwriting talents. This next album was going to be global, and there should be some free time afterwards, but the record company needed them there to promote it, wherever there was. Couldn’t they just get a nanny, really?

It was one of the things which made Abba so definably different. Most rock and pop bands – even those with females in them – are formed when the main participants are in their late teens, and unmarried; the early years of tour buses, trying to break the States, being chased through taxis by adoring fans, and experimenting with various substances, happen from then into their early twenties – in other words, the same sort of period your average student has to grow up a bit. Agnetha was 24 in 1974, Anna-Frid 29; the boys about the same. They were married, and had kids, when the tsunami of fame hit them.

The end of Abba didn’t seem to faze Bjonny and Bjerny much. Soon after they were off, working with Tim Rice on Chess, perhaps then some wilderness years (I like to imagine their low point being some cocaine-snorting frenzy off a hooker in a Hong Kong hot tub, but that probably never happened in this universe). Before long Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Abba Gold, Mamma Mia! the musical, the movie, and endless more franchising opportunities. It was kind of touching to see them going back to their roots and mucking about in a Swedish folk band, but you kind of thought if the call came from Sir Cameron Mackintosh, they’d be on the red-eye from Gothenburg before you could say accordion polka.

Back on Friday night, I decided watching the English cricket team getting thrashed was more important than Abba: Absolute Image, which dealt with the band’s look, from their slightly batty Swedish take on glam rock costumes, through their album covers, to their videos, some of which Lasse Halstrom directed. Growing up, it was definitely that sense of slight oddness, their otherness, their, how do I put it, Europeanness, that formed part of their allure. The US was a culture that we thought we knew about through the movies, and had, before punk, become the go-to landscape of pop music. Even our home-grown talent sang in American accents. Then here came these beautiful, tall (well, they looked tall) women from a social democratic paradise (we were told), dressed in something made out of psychedelic curtains, with their too-perfect English diction. And Bjonny and Bjerny, of course, mugging away in the background.

After Abba: Absolute Image came Abba: Live in Concert, with the band playing to a slightly subdued sell-out crowd at Wembley in 1979. Away from the recording studio and their wizard engineer, Michael Tretow, the band never seemed quite so comfortable. Compared to the airbrushed, everything lasered and waxed pop stars of today, the girls looked refreshingly normal. In fact, they looked like extremely attractive mums on a night out. Except most mums don’t sing like this, as you’ll know if you’ve ever heard any other mums try to do Abba songs on the karaoke, on a night out. Or, indeed, most modern pop stars trying to hit those notes on any of the countless Abba tribute shows.

I watched long enough to see Anna-Frid take the lead on Knowing Me Knowing You, the director unaccountably switching to some perfunctory video about skaters before the song, even more unaccountably, ground to an early halt. Then I went to bed.

I don’t really want to live in a universe where Abba only wrote their dark stuff. It would mean living without, to name but three, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! It would mean they would’ve become another niche band, that only those in the musical know, knew about. I rather like the fact they’ve grown again from being a musical guilty pleasure to a global sensation.

Even if, in that alternative reality, we wouldn’t have the crime against nature that is Bjonny’s (or it could be Bjerny’s) ‘heavy breathing solo’ in Honey Honey.

Or Pierce Brosnan singing in the movie.




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