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Members include Benny Andersson (born December 16, 1946, in Stockholm, Sweden), guitar; Agnetha Faltskog (born April 5, 1950, in Jankoping, Sweden), vocals; Anni-Frid Lyngstad (born November 15, 1945, in Narvik, Norway), vocals; Bjorn Ulvaeus (born April 15, 1945, in Gothenburg, Sweden), guitar. Ulvaeus and Faltskog married, 1972-78; had three children. Andersson and Lyngstad married, 1978 (divorced). Addresses: Record company--Polygram, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Reviled by rock purists but admired by observers as diverse as Nelson Mandela and the late Kurt Cobain, Abba was a 1970s Swedish pop group that achieved unprecedented worldwide success. The group specialized in light love songs with instantly memorable musical "hooks" and cultivated a cheery pop style that rarely permitted the exploration of serious themes. Some of Abba's music was aimed at dancers, and when popular taste shifted toward the pulsing dance music called disco at the end of the decade, it was easy for the group to exploit the trend. To an observer around 1980, Abba's recordings might have seemed dubious candidates for any listing of 1970s music likely to endure. The group broke up in 1983.
Yet by the early 1990s a full-scale Abba revival was underway. Village Voice critic Barry Walters pointed out that "[like] the Doors, ABBA has nearly as many greatest hits packages as it has regular albums"; each repackaging of the group's output attracted new fans. Abba's success proved to be more than temporary, and, in retrospect, the group's multiple talents came more clearly into view. Their song lyrics, always economical and ideally suited to the requirements of the three-minute radio single, ascended to the level of incisive little dramas about romance. Their tunes, easily memorable after one hearing, turned out to contain subtleties that made them memorable after twenty years. And, in addition to participating in the disco trend, Abba helped make it possible through its pioneering use of dense, multitrack arrangements and sophisticated musical electronics.
The group's name (which was sometimes spelled with all capital letters) was an acronym formed from the initial letters of the first names of each of its members. Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Frid ("Frida") Lyngstad were all active in the Swedish pop music business while they were still teenagers. In the 1960s Faltskog and Lyngstad gained some renown as solo vocalists, while Andersson and Ulvaeus fronted a succession of bands with widely varying musical styles, and also worked steadily as session musicians. By the time Abba took shape as a group in 1972, all four of its members were veterans of the Swedish pop music scene.
Abba's first hit came with the singsong "Ring Ring" in 1973, but the group's success was cemented the following year when the song "Waterloo" was named the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual program televised in 32 countries and watched by hundreds of millions of people. "Waterloo" was released as a single and rocketed to top chart levels in many countries, reaching number six in the United States. Versions in several different languages were released, but Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote "Waterloo" and all of the group's other songs in English. From the start, the group aimed toward the global success they eventually achieved.
Although some critics have made light of the group's use of English ("they had a way of making English sound like Esperanto," maintained Time's Richard Lacayo), few native-born American songwriters would have been capable of controlling and developing the central device of the "Waterloo" lyric: Napoleon's final defeat becomes a metaphor for a woman's total surrender to romantic attraction.
Throughout the 1970s, Abba was a consistent generator of worldwide chart successes, and while Andersson and Ulvaeus aimed more at entertainment than at rock "authenticity" in their writing, their compositions were always original and sharp, drawing on a large variety of pop music traditions. "Money, Money, Money" had the dark cynicism of German composer Kurt Weill's satiric cabaret songs. "The Name of the Game" expertly manipulated major and minor harmonies to depict a romance in its breathless opening stages. And "Dancing Queen," though it treated a subject no more profound than a 17-year- old girl on a dance floor, vividly captured the moment when a dancer becomes the center of attention to everyone around her. "Dancing Queen" brought Abba its only American Number One early in 1977.
"Dancing Queen" was also the first of a group of Abba songs that took dancing and nightclubs for their themes, a trend that intensified with the worldwide popularity of disco in the late 1970s. Abba had major hits with pulsing seduction anthems like "Voulez-vous" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," both in 1979. But the synthesized-sound wizardry associated with disco had always been one of the group's hallmarks, with even early hits like "SOS" (1975) featuring a dense rhythm track and a parade of unexpected sonic effects. "Abba eclipsed the bland top 40 of their day by insisting on a big beat," noted Walters. "In doing so, they virtually invented Eurodisco."
Abba's multitrack recording equipment was state-of-the-art in its time, and producer Stig Anderson, like the Beatles' producer George Martin, was sometimes referred to as a fifth member of the group. An Abba tour was a major undertaking, for it was difficult to recreate the band's sound in live performance. Abba's lush production values, blending, strings, keyboards, and synthesized sounds with the electronically modified voices of the group's two female vocalists have been likened to those of pioneering American pop producer Phil Spector and his "wall of sound."
Abba entered the 1980s with another string of hits, including "The Winner Takes It All" and "Super Trouper." But the latter song, which deals with the rigors of touring, might have taken root in tensions that divided the group at the time: the six- year marriage of Ulvaeus and Faltskog had dissolved in 1978, and a long relationship between Andersson and Lyngstad also broke up. And, most importantly, Andersson's and Ulvaeus's musical interests seemed to shift away from the short, hook- oriented single.
Several of Abba's pieces in the early 1980s were complicated structures that seemed as if they could come to life as part of a live stage musical. The title track of the 1981 LP The Visitors was a long, free-form depiction of a woman's mental breakdown; "The Day Before You Came" (1983), one of the group's last single releases, completely lacked a chorus melody and more closely resembled a dramatic speech set to music than a simple piece of dance pop. Andersson and Ulvaeus pursued this dramatic bent after Abba's breakup in 1983, collaborating with Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice on the successful stage musical Chess, which premiered in 1986 and included the hit single "One Night in Bangkok."
Village Voice critic Robert Christgau expressed a common attitude in the rock-music community when he evaluated Abba this way in 1979: "We have met the enemy and they are them." Yet the group's public covered the globe. Australia and Germany were particularly devoted, while the United States was one of the few places where Abba's success was sporadic rather than continuous. Bootlegged Abba tapes proliferated in Southeast Asia; even its legal sales alone allowed the group to surpass Volvo as Sweden's most profitable producer of goods for export. In 1982 the Christian Science Monitor estimated the total income from Abba's large entertainment-industrial empire at over $200,000,000.
Abba's deep reservoir of public support made them a natural for revival when popular taste shifted back to sonically inventive dance pop in the early 1990s. A greatest hits package, Gold, stayed at Number One on many of Billboard's European charts for months on end, and in late 1993 Time reported that the Abba revival was "surfacing fast in America" as well. This revival was spearheaded partly by urban homosexuals, whose affection for Abba's music Walters ventured to explain this way: "ABBA was so mainstream, you had to be slightly on the outside to actually take them to heart."
Two new releases seemed to point to the depth of Abba's influence. The British technopop duo Erasure released a four- song CD of Abba covers that itself topped the charts in the United Kingdom, while a disc of Abba instrumentals by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra showed off Andersson and Ulvaeus as the skilled musical craftsmen they were. Although Andersson and Ulvaeus joined the Irish supergroup U2 on stage for a performance of "Dancing Queen" early in 1992, the individual members of the quartet rarely showed up in the public spotlight during the early 1990s. Their place in the worldwide history of popular music, however, was steadily growing in importance.
by James M. Manheim
Group formed in Stockholm, 1972; released internationally successful series of pop-rock recordings, 1974-83; recorded multiplatinum LP Arrival, 1976; group dissolved, 1983; Andersson and Ulvaeus co-authored musical Chess, 1986; revival of public interest in group, including release of retrospective reissues and cover recordings by other artists, early 1990s.
Winner, Eurovision song contest, 1974; named Sweden's fastest-growing corporation by Swedish publication Business World, 1978.
- Selective Works
- Waterloo, Atlantic, 1974.
- Abba, Atlantic, 1975.
- Arrival, Atlantic, 1976.
- The Album, Atlantic, 1978.
- Voulez-vous, Atlantic, 1979.
- Super Trouper, Atlantic, 1980.
- The Visitors, Atlantic, 1981.
- The Singles--The First Ten Years, Atlantic, 1982.
- I Love Abba, Atlantic, 1984.
- Gold (greatest hits, contains all pieces discussed in text), Polygram, 1994.
July 13, 2004: ABBA's souvenir album, Waterloo--30th Anniversary, was released with a bonus digital video disc. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_2/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.
- Gammond, Peter, The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Larkin, Colin, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, New England Publishing Associates, 1992.
- The New York Times Great Songs of Abba, Cherry Lane Books, 1980.
- Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, revised edition, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
- Billboard, June 27, 1992.
- Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 1982.
- Circus, March 30, 1978.
- Details, May 1994.
- Rolling Stone, February 3, 1983.
- Time, October 11, 1993.
- Variety, October 7, 1981.
- Village Voice, September 1, 1982.
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