That Old Feeling: ABBA, Without Apologies

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 5)

Nor can I claim to be the very hugest fan of "Muriel's Wedding" and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the two Australian movies that in 1994 fixed ABBA in the empyrean of quasi-camp guilty pleasures. (The poster art for "Muriel" — a young woman in a white wedding dress, her arms outstretched, her upturned face radiant with hope — has been copied meticulously for the "Mamma Mia" icon.) Recall that Toni Collette, as Muriel, tells her new best friend that when she was lonely, "I sat in my room for hours and listened to ABBA songs. Since I met you and moved to Sydney, my life is as good as an ABBA song — as good as 'Dancing Queen.'"

The drag queens in "Priscilla" are not so complimentary about the group whose songs stud their cabaret act. "I've said it once and I'll say it again," one of them aspirates huffily. "No more fucking ABBA!" Yet two of them close the show with a rollicking lip-synch of "Mamma Mia," with Guy Pearce in blond wig as Agnetha and Hugo Weaving frizzily coiffed as Anni-Frid; when they pump out the chorus, all the hunky young lads in the mosh pit sing along. This final number underlines a couple of reasons why gays liked ABBA songs: they're infectious fun — almost impossible to feel blue through — and they're clever enough to be the modern equivalent to the catchiest old show tunes. Indeed, in the '70s Andersson and Ulvaeus were writing music that would have suited a truly contemporary Broadway, which instead ignored rock and pop composers and fell into recycling old styles and taking itself way too solemnly.

And that how I came, finally, to ABBA. To me, it was the group Benny and Bjorn were in before they and Tim Rice wrote the musical "Chess." I loved "Chess" from the beginning, 1984, when it was issued as an album. (I have it on vinyl; I'm a bit of a collector's item myself.) I wrote a story about the album in the March 18, 1985, issue of TIME. To save you a trip to the library, or a $2.50 reading charge, I'll quote the relevant portions here:

"'Chess' has spun off two top-of-the-pops singles: the ballad 'I Know Him So Well' resided at No. 1 in Britain for four weeks, and the insinuating disco rap 'One Night in Bangkok' is a Top Five smash in half a dozen European countries. Now 'Chess' is readying to blitz America. Two versions of 'Bangkok' have cracked the Top Ten of the U.S. record charts. Next year the omnipotent Shubert Organization is expected to bring the show to Broadway... Andersson and Ulvaeus' score ransacks melodic styles from plainsong to Puccini to Gilbert and Sullivan to Richard Rodgers to Phil Spector to hip-hop, in a rock- symphonic synthesis ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes. The Shubert Organization's Bernard Jacobs, a man not easily given to rapture, says, 'Very few scores prior to production have excited me as much as this one. None, in fact, since My Fair Lady.'"

With fully a dozen songs that still sing themselves in my head, "Chess" gets my vote, if anyone's polling, for the finest Broadway-style musical of the '80s. Alas, its timing stank; a story of Cold War animosities, it arrived on the Broadway stage in 1988, as Gorbachev was being Comrade Nice Guy and the (old) Evil Empire had begun to crumble. The New York critics, who hadn't cottoned to Rice when he and Andrew Lloyd Webber presented their "Evita," didn't like him 10 years after, either. "Chess" ran for only two months. And there I was, on closing night, singing and sobbing along.

The gay connection, soldered by "Muriel" and "Priscilla," make ABBA seem like a benison for the emotionally vulnerable — cartoon critters chirping outside an invalid's window. Maybe these songs do speak to the wounded. In a clever, indulgent, dismissive piece in TIME eight years ago, Richard Lacayo mentioned that ABBA was a favorite band of both Nelson Mandela and Kurt Cobain. Well, if these brave, tortured (or, in Cobain's case, self-tortured) souls could pay their ABB-eisance, who am I to shrink from admitting the pleasure that Benny and Bjorn's sophisticated tunes give me?

All right, some of their song titles seemed designed as repetitive exercises in remedial English: "Honey Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!", "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do." But I'm beguiled by the rhythmic underphrasing in the male vocals (for example, the bubbly, basso "soo-pahpah, troo-pahpah" in "Super Trouper); it has the inane intensity of a "Rain Man" mantra. And if you don't fall for the backing vocal in "Take a Chance on Me," we have nothing more to discuss. The girls sing the blithely selfless main lyric ("If you change your mind/ I'm the first in line"), while the guys whisper, "Take a chance, take a chance, take a chicka-chance-chance" as if they were street touts luring the sucker into a bunco game.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5