Who knows what strange formula goes into the perfect pop song.
Some strange admixture of melancholy, melody, joy, lust and a glorious middle eight, maybe? But something else, too, something far more elusive than structure and theme. Over the decades, pop stars – and pop songwriters – have come close to nailing this curious alchemy, but really, if we’re honest, they all work in the shadow of one group: Abba. In the 44 years since Abba launched their career, essentially a career-long imperial phase, at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, few have mastered the craft as definitively – or for as long – as a group formed of two married couples from Stockholm.
But while they were seen as the acme of uncool during the punk 70s, time has been kind to Abba – because their music is timeless. Right now, they’re the subject of an in-depth and intimate exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre. Narrated by Jarvis Cocker, it reexamines the context in which the band was born, the strange fascination of their outré costumes and attendant memorabilia – but most of all, it catalogues something far more enduring: their legacy.
To coincide with the Southbank Centre’s Abba: Super Troupers exhibition, we spoke to six artists, including the exhibition’s narrator, Jarvis Cocker, to conduct our own exploration of Abba’s lasting influence across genre and generation.
Jarvis CockerThe Day Before You Came
The Abba song that has the most effect on me – though I’m not sure if it’s my favourite – is The Day Before You Came. But that’s a tough one, I can’t listen to that song too much because it can make me cry if I’m in a vulnerable mood. I don’t really know what it is, there’s something very moving about that song. It’s almost like a shopping list or something, the boring things that they’ve done, which are the boring things that everyone does. Watching Dallas and stuff like that. And then, it’s like that’s a world going to disappear any minute. I mean, some people have got weird theories about that song, like someone said to me it’s about the next day she gets murdered by somebody. But I don’t buy that. I think it’s just the day before you meet the person you then spend the rest of your life with, something like that. I think it’s a very romantic song.
You don’t really have any choice over whether you like the songs or not. It’s just, they just get you. Once you’ve heard them it’s really hard to get them out of your life. Sometimes that can drive you mad about songs, but if you went to a wedding and nobody played Dancing Queen you’d probably feel a bit short-changed. People used to really make fun of Abba and it’s really easy to do that I suppose because they were never really cool, but I think everybody’s jealous of them in a way because they made these records that were indestructible, like they’ll last until the end of time because there’s nothing wrong with them. They even sound indestructible because they sound so clean and perfect, like they’d survive a nuclear attack. Them and cockroaches would still be around.
Are they misunderstood? If you think about the history of rock ‘n’ roll – maybe I’m reading too much into it – it started in the 50s and it was all about sex and teenage rebellion, then it kinda grew up a bit with The Beatles and it got a bit clever, concept albums and stuff like that, then you get Abba, which is two married couples. It had grown up got married and settled down. It’s that stage of music. Unfortunately, we’re living in the senility of rock music. It’s lost the plot. Abba was just something that was right at that time, in the evolution of pop music.
Quiet LukeDancing Queen
My favourite Abba song is Dancing Queen. Sorry! To me it’s the best single they had by far. Isn’t it everybody’s favourite Abba song? The melody and voice leading is prime, the arrangement is like a lesson in arranging, production is great, and most of all the song feels amazing. It’s one of those songs that, to me, feels like a natural occurrence. I can’t remember when I first heard it, but my mom was always playing it. She also loved all the Abba ballads, but I was more into the hits!
I think the music has lasted because it’s so wholesome. People sometimes just want something that feels good, is fun for the whole family without context and decade-tested. I think they’re definitely misunderstood, being Scandinavian and all. It adds another layer to their interpretation of the wall of sound, of the disco trend happening, of pop music in general. I think most people probably assume they’re just American or something. If you look at the pop music coming out of Scandinavian countries today, I think you’ll see Abba’s influence from Max Martin to all the celestial, atmospheric rock that comes out of there. Abba runs deep.
Aidan MoffatThe Winner Takes It All
As a 70s child, Abba were everywhere when I was wee, and their hits are burned into my soul. The Winner Takes It All might be my favourite; I’m a sucker for a sad song, but you can still dance to it. They had a natural, instinctual ear for melody, hooks, and tempo: they’re pure musical joy, even when they sing about divorce. And I never quite trust a musician who claims to be too cool to like them – if you don’t like Abba, you neither love nor understand pop music.
Colleen ‘Cosmo’ MurphyEagle
My favourite Abba song is Eagle which opens their 1977 album The Album. I love it for several reasons including its fusion of some of my favourite musical genres: slo-mo disco, prog rock and pop. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, Eagle is Abba’s longest recording and you can really hear them stretching out musically and also lyrically. The first time I heard it I was immediately aware that the uplifting lyrics portraying the majesty and freedom of a bird in flight were inspired by Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (perhaps its the first Abba song with a literary bent?). This song saw Abba soaring (sorry) to greater musical heights but still retains the Abba mainstays of gorgeous vocal arrangements, indelible melodies and meticulous production – the reasons we still love Abba today.
DJ HarveyDancing Queen
Being a huge fan, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Dancing Queen is the obvious choice – but they can do no wrong in my eyes. I would hazard a guess that I’m one of the few DJs that plays their music without irony. The Abba movie is great too. I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard Dancing Queen, but it was certainly in a school disco.
[Why do you think the music of the band has lasted for so many generations?] For the same reason as The Beatles or the Carpenters, they produce timeless melodies with relatable lyrics, they may well have been aware of The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns which would explain their access to sublime chords, changes etc. There’s is high production values in their work – I’ve digitized them all so you really get to pul them apart and break it down during the process.
I don’t think they can be misunderstood in any way, they openly wear their heart on their sleeves, the story of Abba is well known I’m sure there are a few skeletons in the closet too, but they write from their truth, always stranger than fiction.
John GrantAll of them (almost)
There are so many good Abba songs. My Love, My Life, Eagle, Hey Hey Helen, Knowing Me, Knowing You, Lovers (Live a Little Longer), The Piper, Soldiers, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, etc. etc., but I suppose my favourite has to be S.O.S – that was the song that made me fall head over heels in love with Abba.
I can’t remember when I first heard it, would have been when the first greatest hits comp came out in 1975. I got the record from my parents. Probably saw it at K-Mart and freaked out until it was taken to the register.
I think the music has lasted for so many generations because it’s expertly crafted pop and there is nothing else that sounds anything like it. It is instantly recognisable. Also, the two beauties whose voice just happen to work together to create Everly Brothers-esque-forged-in-blood harmonies might have something to do with it as well. Sure, there is a lot of dessert (Bang-A-Boomerang, Dum Dum Diddle, to name just a few), but there was plenty of meat to be had as well (Super Trouper, Chiquitita, The Name of the Game, One of Us, The Winner Takes it All, Take a Chance on Me, The Day Before You Came and the list goes on and on).
I don’t know if Abba are misunderstood. Some people like it, some people don’t. It’s a taste thing. I suppose maybe some people are scared off by the crazy clothes and the cheese of some of their work and therefore never make it to the good stuff, I guess that qualifies as a misunderstanding. Another misunderstanding might be that some folks are indeed labouring under the delusion that it IS all fluff, but so many of their songs contain snapshots of what it means to be human and have a human experience, which makes it instantly relatable. There’s a lot of pain in the music. Perhaps too dramatic for some, I dunno. But yeah, there’s no accounting for taste.
ABBA: Super Troupers runs from 9 February 2018 – 29 April 2018 at the Royal Festival Hall.