THE MUSIC TOOK IT ALL

5 Nov

AgnethaBjorn

They met in the summer of love, 1969. I suppose they believed in the dreams promised in that brief moment of infallible optimism. That time when love and youth and all the fine things that human beings can be sometimes were on the verge of undoubted victory, of complete destruction. This was in Stockholm far from the epicentres of world culture: London, New York, Los Angeles. But this was also well into the age of mechanical reproduction, the age of broadcasting. So the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, records from Detroit, Michigan could be heard all over this small blue planet. For the first time we danced to the same beat everywhere at once.

Love. This was what the songs were about of course. The original universal. The Anglo-Saxon tongue had become the world’s lingua franca so the Swedes sang in English. The words came second of course. The tune, the arrangements: melody, harmony, rhythm and counter-point were what spoke to the teenagers of the 70s as always. They that had missed the summer of love strived desperately to recreate it like a drunk man trying to come. On disco dancefloors, at increasingly commodified rock festivals, shows in stadiums, shows on TV. The peak was gone tho’. The 70s was the comedown and everyone could feel anger returning.

Listen to their records from Ring Ring to The Visitors and you can hear it. Sure, you’ll hear a thousand riffs and flourishes and tricks pinched from Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. You’ll hear the formulas that created three decades worth of a million mindless pop songs. Madonna nicked her style stratagems from David Bowie but the music she stole from ABBA. Every trick in her bag she used to scheme with. The notes on the keyboard, the shoes, the affairs: it was all the same. One of her lovers summed it up: there’s no life off-camera. He did so, of course, on camera. She became The Icon: the trailblazer that leads from Kylie Minogue downhill steeply to Lady Gaga. But I don’t think, finally, her music will last. Abba? Yeah, most definitely.

Listen to ABBA’s records and you hear consummate players of 20th popular music. Master composers and arrangers. You hear people who really are close friends. People who are truly in love. I’ve never familiarized myself with the narrative details of their break-up but when the band released their last record in the closing weeks of 1981 the marriage between Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson had just been legally terminated. It was the band’s second divorce.

ABBA’s songs were written by men from a girl’s point of view. Girls, not women. What 15-year old in socks doesn’t understand the words: Ring Ring Why don’t you give me a call. Isn’t this the time when you’re an impossible case? This changed within a few years. Then the girls became mothers. And they’d seen where ‘free’ love leads:

And here we go again, we know the story, we know the end; Masters of the scene; We’ve done it all before and now we’re back to get some more; You know what I mean.

Did the two married couples that composed ABBA swing? I try not to find out. It seems… rude. Impertinent. There’s some YouTube clip that suggests Agnetha slept with her husband’s best friend, her best friend’s husband, her bandmate! Um-ah. Not a good idea. But it seems like total horseshit and if it ain’t I give ’em full marks for getting past that one.

I try not find out but I know anyway,  Agnetha Fältskog left Björn Ulvaeus on Christmas day, 1978. Voulez-Vous, their peak, was released 4 months later. It’s a sophisticated record that describes with panache the games of pleasure of late 20th century urbanity with its inevitable nasty corners and background anxieties. All with the throbbing, slightly synthetic beats that’ve made queens go hysterical on the floor ever since. The vibe, the feeling, the point of view that had defined ABBA’s record up ’til then had been naive, wholesome. One of ABBA’s most legendary concerts happened less than 2000 metres from where I’m sitting. One of Australia’s most famous stately stiffos attended. Grandmothers, toddlers, everyone loved them. Even, I suspect, the too-cool-for-school and the diehardcore burnt-crashers, tho’ they’d never admit it. The voices on Voulez-Vous no longer belonged to girls. They were women. There was nothing in the words for the grandmothers. And it’s just as well the toddlers couldn’t understand them.

Their last record contrasts even more sharply. The naivety had long gone and no-one missed it. But the title track of The Visitors is synthethized paranoia. Ironic that ABBA’s attempt to update its sound was to fit in with a new sound they’d helped create. The irony lies in the attempt’s failure. The failure was commercial not artistic. “The Visitors” is one of the better early 80s 3-minute synthpop songs. Still the joy was gone. Benny Andersson’s synth-break makes the heart soar like an eagle, sure, but the rest of the song is about falling apart. The album is anxious about an approaching decade when war seemed inevitable (“Soldiers”) and expresses the regrets of a mother who has missed too much of her daughter’s first years (“Slipping Through My Fingers”). In “When All Is Said and Done” Frida Lyngstad sings about her break up with Andersson: Neither you nor I’m to blame when all is said and done. This wasn’t quite true I don’t think. He left her for someone else.

Between Voulez-Vous and and The Vistors came Super Trouper. They were already on the way down, it’s not as strong an album. Still it features their best moment, their first divorce song. Björn Ulvaeus has said that the lyrics to this song were the fastest he ever wrote, all over in an hour. It’s pop music, and it’s not his native tongue but what subtlety in: I don’t wanna talk if it makes you feel sad; and I understand you’ve come to shake my hand.. Funnily enough this time the fiction in the song is that it’s about a break-up consequence of another. For Ulvaes and Fältskog there was no winner. They were both broken up. He wrote it, she sings it back to him. It’s pop music so it’s not true. But…

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