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Monday, January 26, 2009

"there's not, I think, a single episode of 'Dallas' that I didn't see"

It was tough growing up in the late 70s/early 80s as an ABBA fan in America.

Y’see, while the Swede popsters were next to the Beatles and Elvis in pop chart dominance worldwide, in the States they were relegated to the occasional Top 10 or Top 40 hit, with many, many more singles falling far short of that. “Mamma Mia,” a single that everyone now retroactively adores? Peaked at a wimpy #32. “Money, Money, Money”? #56. “Voulez-Vous”? #80. As a young, ahem, homo I proudly called ABBA my all-time favorite group, much to the puzzled stares of my grade school classmates, most of whom were mocking and/or clueless.

Sure, each new ABBA album would have one or two hits here, but as the group aged, the hits got smaller and smaller – “When All Is Said And Done”, the lead-off single from the group’s final studio album The Visitors, peaked at a paltry #28, hardly the way to introduce the American public to what may be your most mature, cohesive album.

That’s right – The Visitors was a big step for ABBA, as the quartet finished off their first decade as a group and their second album of the 80s. The title track was an immediate declaration that the band was moving in a new, grown-up direction. Gone were the Dancing Queens and Ring Ring campiness, replaced by a dark, synth-driven New Wave number about the terror faced by Russian dissidents of the time. It was a thematic turn for ABBA, which makes the fact that it was chosen as a second single from the album in America baffling and/or encouraging (the rest of the world got “One of Us” as the first single and “Head Over Heels” for the second). I’d like to think Atlantic, the group’s U.S. label, was behind this mature direction. They supplemented “The Visitors” single release by releasing a 12” to the clubs, where it got considerable play. Joe. My. God. was kind enough to forward this ultra-rare, DJ-only Disconet Remix.

The Visitors LP was a relative stiff worldwide, especially coming off the hugely popular Super Trouper. ABBA was feeling creative fatigue as well, so they took a break before working on their tenth studio album. A few tracks in, malaise set in again, so the group stopped recording and culled two of the new tracks for inclusion on a career-spanning greatest hits collection called The First Ten Years. Both songs were released as singles, and the first of those, “The Day Before You Came”, was, despite the group’s feelings about the proceedings, another leap forward into adulthood for the group, both in subject matter and presentation. It was 1982, and ABBA finally entered the MTV age, as the single was accompanied with a full-blown film production, complete with an aerial helicopter shot and artful direction, as opposed to the videotaped “stand in front of this backdrop and mime the lyrics” style of their earlier promo clips:

Perhaps it was the dour tone of the song (which is actually quite upbeat if you listen to it carefully – it’s the day before [he] came, so it has a happy ending, see) or the length (it tops out at just under six minutes), but “The Day Before You Came” fared poorly on the charts worldwide (to be fair, it was a huge hit in some smaller territories) and didn’t even chart in the States. Were people over ABBA, or just not on board with “adult” ABBA? More importantly, was ABBA over ABBA?

The second new single to be pulled from The First Ten Years, “Under Attack”, did even worse. Atlantic didn’t even bother to release it in the States. It wasn’t bad per se, it just wasn’t anything Olivia Newton-John wasn’t doing slightly better at the time. It’s interesting to note the prominence of synthesizers in both new songs – this was truly synthpop. “Huh, wha, huh?” you exclaim? Think about it – synth-based pop = synthpop. Ask the Human League about ABBA’s influence and I rest my case.

I love ABBA’s late videos. Agnetha (the “pretty one”) started to hit the wall and wasn’t so bubbly cute anymore and I swear to God, Frida smelled blood and pounced, cutting her bad perm into a punky, spiked mulletish do, and dear Lord, in the “Under Attack” video sporting pink and purple streaks in her hair:

It was like after ten years of being ignored, the shy, plain, brainy girl who used to draw Hello, Kitty on all her Trapper Keepers in the back of the class went totally goth her sophomore year.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to watch ABBA enter their full-blown adult New Wave phase. Creatively beat and disillusioned by the muted response to their last few releases, the group took a sabbatical, from which it never returned. The remainder of the aborted tenth album's songs have trickled out here and there – “Cassandra” and “Should I Laugh Or Cry” were used as b-sides for the final two singles, the somewhat bizarre “I Am The City” finally surfaced as a track on More Gold and "You Owe Me One" and a snippet of “Just Like That” (which remains unreleased in its full form) appeared as part of the Thank You For The Music box set. Benny and Bjorn went on to fulfill their dream of writing a hit musical (?) by penning Chess with Tim Rice and Agnetha and Frida went on to release solo works which we’ll definitely cover here in the future (guess who was more successful? It’s always the quiet ones…).

What would an ABBA reunion be like? Awful. I think any momentum would be lost and we’d get a nostalgia show, nothing more. What do you think? Comment away.

”The Visitors” peaked at #63 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart and at #8 on the Club Play Chart in 1982.
Neither “The Day Before You Came” nor “Under Attack” charted.

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posted by John, 6:19 PM