By Jon Worley with Matt Worley
ABBA is one of the most curious musical happenings in the rock era. None of the band's eight albums hit the U.S. Top 10. ABBA had but four Top 10 U.S. singles. Yet its most definitive "greatest hits," ABBA: Gold has sold more than seven million copies. And let's not forget the continuing phenomenon of the "Mamma Mia" musical, which is in its 13th year on Broadway and spawned a popular movie starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and many, many more.
But why should you consider actually listening to an ABBA album when you can sink into the comfortable cheese of Gold? Easy. ABBA albums are shorter. And while I like me a little ABBA now and again, I have never been able to get through all 19 songs on Gold in one sitting. That's just too much to bear.
So, fine. An ABBA album. Why this one? Easy. This is the album that contains "Dancing Queen," the band's single U.S. #1 hit. And the re-issues contain "Fernando," which remains possibly the band's best song (and certainly one of its strangest). And you probably also know "Money, Money, Money" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which are both solid. As an added bonus, you get "When I Kissed the Teacher" and "Dum Dum Diddle," which are silly, weird and (in the case of the first song) just creepy enough to be interesting.
Let's start off with "Dancing Queen." As has been noted just about everywhere, the rhythm track was heavily influenced (I think that "stolen" might well be a more accurate term) from George Benson's "Rock Your Baby." It's an ethereal paean to the world of 54 and the notion that 17-year-old girls make the best sex objects. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the song is also something of a tribute to Susan Dey's character on "The Partridge Family," though I don't know if that show had much of a following in Sweden. Anyway, it's a swell song, if somewhat creepy in its Roman Polanski-ish worldview.
And then "Fernando." Ah yes, "For you and me, for liberty, Fernando." The original Swedish version was a solo hit for Frida, and it was the story of two friends sitting on a beach and consoling Fernando about a lost love. The English lyrics are remarkable. Even in Mexico itself, very few pop songs have been set as a reminiscence between two veterans of the Mexican revolution. It's just not a subject that inspires a hell of a lot of romance. Another unusual thing about "Fernando" is that it was originally released as a single and not as part of any album (a very old school thing to do, even in the 70s). And this stand-alone single sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million copies worldwide. These days, it has been tacked on to most re-issues of Arrival, and that's a very good thing.
Subject matter aside, "Fernando" is a very unusual ABBA song. The musical setting is largely acoustic, and the production is positively spartan--even when compared to ABBA's many forays into pop country territory (the difference between, say, "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" and anything Olivia Newton-John was recording at the time is pretty much the number of women doing the singing). A lot of ABBA songs are flip or snarky (though at their best, the boys could write a song like "Does Your Mother Know?," which deconstructs "Dancing Queen" in almost icy, self-deferential derision), but "Fernando" is almost frighteningly earnest and sincere. And the melody is gorgeous.
Most importantly, if you don't have "Fernando" stuck in your head by now, then you can stop reading. You are somehow immune to the smushy charms of ABBA.
The rest of the world liked ABBA a lot more than us folks here in the U.S. A friend of mine recounted his days as teenaged German immigrant in the mid 70s. The only connection he had with American youth was ABBA. "And that really didn't cut it," he likes to say. But by the time folks in the U.S. were coming around to the bouncy, perky ABBA, the two couples within the band were splitting up and the music was becoming more "serious" (which is artist speak for "ponderous and dull"). The Visitors (the final ABBA album) has the distinction of being the first major album recorded fully digitally. But it's also extraordinarily dreary. The electronic wall of sound is impressive, but that's about it.
If you want an ABBA platter, stick with Arrival. There's still enough bouncy innocence left to fuel a smile or ten. If you want more from your music, then perhaps ABBA is not your cup of tea.