Do you remember the wistful trill of pipe music and a soft, haunting voice asking “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?” – If you were tuned into the radio in the seventies you’d have to say I do (I do, I do, I do, I do).
The Swedish foursome ABBA beguiled the world pop scene and everyone was taken with the lycra-loving couples from the moment that their silver platform boots, crushed satin jumpsuits and a cheesy pop number entitled Waterloo had thrust them into the limelight at the Eurovision Song Contest in April 1974.
All four members of ABBA had been individually successful in Sweden before Björn Ulvaeus’ marriage to Agnetha Fältskog and the long-term romance between Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad led to their teaming up as ABBA in 1972.
Waterloo coasted to the top of the UK chart and even managed to sneak into the American Top 10. (This was to be the start of a difficult relationship with US record buyers; although they never really cracked the market, they did manage ten Top 20 hits, including a #1 with Dancing Queen.)
After this initial burst of success came a fallow period, as Andersson and Ulvaeus honed their songwriting skills in a bid to leave behind the Bang-a-Boomerang formula which had seen them widely rubbished as another five-minute Eurovision wonder.
The song that ended the slump was SOS, which restored ABBA to the Top 10 and set in motion ten years of success.
The song provided a blueprint for most of their future singles, although an increasing use of multi-tracked harmonies and more ambitious production techniques added further dimensions to their later work.
There was something uniquely endearing about their occasionally clumsy English (‘Since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand’), while the heavy Swedish accentuation of the vocals (‘I can see it in your ice’) gave certain songs an added poignancy (and sexiness).
And, although personal relations between them were often frosty, the combination of Fältskog’s ice-cool vocals and Lyngstad’s more fluent, sultry delivery was often striking.
At their best, ABBA could create a moment of inspiration from deceptively simple ingredients: the acappella introduction to Take A Chance On Me and the lilting harmonies on Name Of The Game among the most memorable.
It was these touches of genius that set them apart from the many boy/girl groups who later tried to recreate the ABBA sound.
Another important facet of ABBA’s success was their pioneering use of the music video in the pre-MTV 70s. Each single was accompanied by a ‘promotional film’, which exposed the group to the widest possible market.
The strategy culminated in the 1977 cinema release ABBA: The Movie, with Australian concert footage and interviews around a wafer-thin ‘hapless-hack-seeks-ABBA’ plot. Simple and sentimental it might have been, but alongside the companion ABBA: The Album (1978), it kept the bandwagon in top gear.
The pressures of such a level of stardom took their inevitable toll on the relationships within the band, and the announcement in 1978 that Ulvaeus and Fältskog were to divorce was followed two years later by the end of the Andersson/Lyngstad marriage.
From such personal trauma came some of ABBA’s finest work, as their songs took on greater emotional depth, most successfully on the 1980 #1 The Winner Takes It All.
This was ABBA’s tour de force, a brilliantly structured melodrama which put Fältskog’s fragile, emotional vocal centre stage. Her appearance in the video as a lonely, isolated figure heightened the effect, and the theme was continued in later videos for One Of Us and The Day Before You Came. The days of cheerful togetherness were long gone.
After one final studio album – the complex and coolly received The Visitors (1981) – ABBA briefly reunited a year later to promote the lavish double-album set The Singles: The First Ten Years (1982).
After that, although there was never an official split, all four decided to concentrate on solo activities. Andersson and Ulvaeus stayed together to co-write (with Tim Rice) the musical Chess, while Fältskog and Lyngstad released solo albums with only moderate success.
After ten years of inactivity, the ABBA legend was rejuvenated in 1992, when a chart-topping tribute EP by Erasure and the success of copyist bands such as Bjorn Again inspired Polydor to launch a re-promotion of the group’s work, led by the singles compilation ABBA Gold (1992).
Its worldwide success was too great to be put down merely to the vogue for tacky 70s nostalgia: Alvin Stardust may still draw a crowd, but he can’t sell seven million albums twenty years on!
In 1997, Polydor re-mastered and reissued the complete set of albums, from Ring Ring to ABBA Live on their mid-price list, while yet another compilation, Love Stories, kept the tills ringing at the end of 1998.
And in March 1999, the ABBA story took a new direction when Mama Mia, a stage show featuring 27 of their best-loved songs, opened in London’s West End and looked certain to keep fans entertained well into the 21st century. The recent movie version (starring Meryl Streep) re-ignited ABBA-mania once again.
Daft haircuts and camp costumes aside, ABBA’s popularity has endured and grown because of their musical legacy, a beautifully crafted body of work which entitles Andersson and Ulvaeus to take their places among the top songwriters of the modern era.