The cold war, an energy shock, stagflation and food shortages: the only thing missing from the current revival of the early 1970s is Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo”. Lo and behold, the Swedish band takes to the stage on Friday evening in London for its first live performance in decades.
Well, not quite. The Abba Voyage show features not the pop quartet itself but four avatars created by the special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, performing with a live 10-piece band in front of 3,000 spectators. It is a digital metaverse extravaganza that could easily flop, but the tunes will definitely be catchy; this is Abba, after all.
Nearly half a century later, it remains a thrill to watch the group on the recording of the 1974 event. “The largest of the Scandinavian countries . . . a country full of mountains, lakes and forests,” the television commentator explains patronisingly as they appear on stage: Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Björn, the last wearing silver boots and strumming a starburst guitar.
Propulsive chords give way to the opening “My, my!” sung in unison with two echoing beats from the band. They are only five seconds in, and the first rhyming hook has landed before the audience knows what is happening. A song sung in English by a Swedish group is blithely comparing Napoleon’s Anglo-Prussian defeat at Waterloo in 1815 with a coup de foudre.
It was joyful, escapist and fun in an age of high anxiety, but only now is it clear how influential it was. A band that was derided by many critics at the time was executing something deceptively sophisticated in the guise of cheesy Europop. One need only observe the dance floor at parties when the piano glissando of “Dancing Queen” sounds to know who had the last laugh.
A timeless catalogue is the ultimate source of value in the modern music industry — Pink Floyd is negotiating the sale of its own, after deals including the sale of Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue to Sony Music for $550mn. Abba’s nine number one UK singles between 1974 and 1980 formed the heart of its 1992 Abba Gold compilation, which sold 30mn copies.
Abba was briskly efficient in pouring out hits in a sustained burst before breaking up in 1982 and entering a four-decade hiatus, unexpectedly ended by last year’s Voyage album. Both couples in the band had just divorced, so there was more to it than business acumen, but it saved a lot of effort.
Absence did not nullify Abba’s influence. Not only was the life of the songs extended by the Mamma Mia! jukebox musical, which has grossed more than $4bn since 1999, but the band started the country’s global takeover. Max Martin, the Swedish producer who conjured addictive hits for Britney Spears, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, took Abba’s formula and built on it.
The first element was English. The first Eurovision singer to abandon his native tongue and sing in the global language was Ingvar Wixell, Sweden’s entry in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. The contest then banned such disloyalty until 1973, in time for the pan-European melange of “Waterloo”.
It was an expression of a wider ambition: to break out of Scandinavia on to the world stage. “To come out of Sweden at that time was absolutely impossible,” Björn Ulvaeus reflected last year. One linguistic decision was worth billions in global recognition.
The second element was a serious devotion to catchiness. I still hum the lines from “Waterloo”: “The history book on the shelf/Is always repeating itself” and that is only the lead-in to its memorable chorus. Like Abba’s, Martin’s songs get right down to it: the three beats that kick off Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” reach out and grab you.
Martin turned hook density into a science. “That was the whole thing. Keep them on the [disco] floor” he once recalled of the approach of his mentor, the Swedish DJ Denniz Pop. Swedish pop mixed folk music melancholy with American rhythm and blues, and sheer exuberance: who cared if the lyrics did not always make sense when the music was so compulsive?
The 1970s was an era of rock intellectualism: Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon the year before Waterloo. But while concept albums faded, hit singles endured. The Rolling Stones still tour live, despite their surviving members being well past retirement age, but their best-known numbers date from the 1960s and 1970s.
I do not blame Abba for seeking to avoid the stress of performance, and relying on technology to deliver the old numbers. While Ulvaeus relaxes on his island near Stockholm, his “Abbatar” will perform five times a week in east London. The band’s members may age but their avatars portray them in their prime, and the songs remain the same.
Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson looked pretty laid-back on their comeback publicity tour, as well they might. They defied fashion in the 1970s and are embarking on another Swedish pop experiment. “I thought that was the end of it, I really did,” Ulvaeus recalled of Abba’s 1980s lull, but you can’t keep a good tune down.