Because I turned 18 years old in 1976, my musical tastes have always been firmly grounded in music of the late 1970s. For the majority of my adult life, as I described in a previous post, Fleetwood Mac was by far my favorite band, but two other groups also come to mind when reflecting upon my musical preferences: Blondie and ABBA.
These three groups were all quite different from one another and perhaps they each appealed to a different aspect of my psyche. Fleetwood Mac had a slick and somewhat mystical aura about them as they shared the details of their personal relationships through their songs. Blondie coupled wryly clever lyrics with a huge dose of lead singer Deborah Harry’s no-nonsense attitude. And then there was ABBA the Swedish pop powerhouse that was characterized by the members’ squeaky-clean personas, kitschy costumes, and flawlessly produced songs. The song lyrics were often silly, especially in the early days when the band members were not as comfortable with English, but the songs’ melodies were the very definition of “infectious” and the instrumentation and vocals were simply amazing.
Of course, it was not at all “cool” to be an ABBA fan back in the day, though anyone who has been on planet earth during the last half-century is at least familiar with their biggest hits. But the music has endured, attracting successive generations of fans and admiration from others in the music industry who gradually “came out of the closet” and admitted their affection and/or respect for ABBA’s music.
ABBA had a relatively short, 10 year lifespan between 1972 and 1982, starting out in Sweden but attracting international attention when they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo. They became the best-selling music act of all time, churning out hit after hit: SOS, Mamma Mia, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance on Me and The Winner Takes It All to name only a few. They also produced a number of music videos, years before the dawn of MTV, and these videos’ innocence and amateurish camera tricks can cheer even the saddest person. I defy you to try watching the video for Take A Chance On Me and not laugh as the singers dance around on a blank stage with two wooden chairs as their only props and wink self-consciously into the camera. As their popularity grew, they released alternate versions of their hits in other languages: Waterloo in French and German, Fernando in Swedish, and many songs in Spanish. They may have only been active for 10 years, but they made quite the global impression in that short period of time.
Unfortunately, while Fleetwood Mac’s internal romantic break-ups fueled the band’s creativity and resulted in one of music’s top-selling albums of all time, Rumours, the same was not true for ABBA. When the two married couples comprising ABBA, Agnetha & Bjorn and Benny & Anni-Frid (Frida) divorced by the late 1970s, their energy and will to continue seemed to slowly burn out, though they continued to produce exceptional songs, including the huge hit The Winner Takes It All. ABBA released their final album, the rather dark and brooding The Visitors in 1981 and after releasing a couple of singles that were to have been included as part of a new, but never completed album in 1982, the group disbanded and walked away from the world stage, reportedly turning down as much as a $1 billion offer to reunite for a concert tour.
Thanks to movies like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which featured a number of ABBA’s songs, and then the amazing success of the musical and movie versions of Mamma Mia!, which created a romantic comedy based on a couple dozen ABBA songs, ABBA’s music never really went away. As much fun as Mamma Mia! was, I recall seeing the movie and saying to a friend that I’d just as soon have stayed home and played my ABBA albums instead. Nothing comes close to their original music, and I don’t believe a month has gone by without me playing at least a few of their songs in the car, often not the biggest hits, but some of the lesser-known album tracks, such as Our Last Summer, When All Is Said and Done, or Move On.
In particular, I have always been fascinated by a 23- minute- long track called ABBA: Undeleted which was featured on their 4 CD boxed set, Thank You for the Music. It is a medley of about a dozen snippets of unreleased songs that never made it onto an ABBA album, some of which are really beautiful. I always longed for the day when perhaps some of these amazing “cutting room floor” songs might find their way to be released in their entirety on some repackaged album. One of those unreleased songs, Just Like That, has a chorus that could stand with even the best loved and most famous ABBA songs, and evidently fans have implored Benny and Bjorn to remaster it and release it to the public, but perfectionists that they are, they claim that they were not happy with the verses and have refused to budge. Bootleg versions of the song exist on the Internet and other music artists have actually recorded the song, but without Agnetha’s and Frida’s vocals, they fall flat.
And so for 36 years there was no new ABBA music, but in late 2018 an interesting rumor started. Bjorn and Benny, who’d composed all of ABBA’s music, had supposedly written a couple of new songs and began talking about coaxing Agnetha and Frida into the studio to record them. They announced that there would be a special release of these new songs, but it seemed that their promised debut kept getting postponed and once COVID hit, word of any new music faded. I almost forgot about the whole thing until this summer when word leaked out that not only would the two new songs be released by Fall 2021, but that the group had actually recorded an album of 10 new tracks.
In September, nearly 40 years after we last heard from them, ABBA finally released two new songs with accompanying videos: a nostalgic anthem called I Still Have Faith in You, featuring Frida on lead vocals, and a more upbeat song called Don’t Shut Me Down with Agnetha taking the lead vocal. Then in October the group released a third single: a complete version of one of the song fragments from Undeleted called Just a Notion. Evidently this version contains a mix of vocals and instrumentation from 1978 (when it was first recorded but left off the Voulez-Vous album) and from the new recording sessions. The result is what has been called a joyous, buoyant, and rollicking new ABBA song that I loved immediately. After hearing it, I couldn’t help but wish that Benny and Bjorn would have given Just Like That the same makeover. In early November, the entire new album, Voyage will be released and I’m eager to hear what else the group has in store for us.
Of course ABBA has never done anything half-way, and so they have also announced a concert tour that will begin in Summer 2022 in London. No, the members of ABBA, who are now in their 70s will not be dancing across stages in a typical world tour. Instead, the concert will feature avatars of the group, aptly called “ABBAtars.” As I understand it, the group donned “motion capture suits” and were filmed while actually performing a couple dozen songs, both old and new. Using state of the art visual effects, the three-dimensional ABBAtars will be created to make the group appear as they did in 1979 as they sing their new music, but will be accompanied by a live orchestra! An entire stadium is being built in London exclusively for this virtual ABBA concert, which will run throughout the summer. I can only hope that by then, travel restrictions will be a thing of the past and that perhaps it will be possible to attend what promises to be an historic pop music event.
If you consider yourself a fan of ABBA and haven’t already done so, you need to check out the two new videos. I Still Have Faith in You features nostalgic images of the band from prior concerts, music videos and still photos, and gradually builds to a climax showing a futuristic concert that gives us our first glimpse of the amazing ABBAtars in action. The lyrics convey feelings of doubt regarding whether “we still have it in us”, and triumphantly answer that question with a resounding,
“We do have it in us! New spirit is alive! The joy and the sorrow – we have a story and it survived!”
It’s bound to give you a lump in your throat and bring a tear to your eye. The second video, Don’t Shut Me Down explores a somewhat similar theme, with thoughtful lyrics about whether the protagonist will still be accepted despite having once walked away, now returning changed and transformed:
“I’m not the one you knew; I’m now and then combined and I’m asking you to have an open mind…”
In an interview I heard either Benny or Bjorn joke that one way to read the song is from the view of one of the ABBAtars, wondering aloud whether she will be accepted in this new form and asking not to be “shut down.”
One version of the video contains clips of the band members recording the new songs and features images of how the ABBAtars were created and of the stadium in London that is being constructed for the concerts. On both songs, the women’s voices, always the most exquisite instruments in ABBA’s arsenal, sound amazingly fresh: perhaps deeper, richer and more mature, but instantly recognizable and achieving the same absolute magic when they blend together in the choruses.
The third single release, Just A Notion only has a video that plays the song and shows the lyrics (with a few glaring grammatical errors that made me want to bring my red pen out of retirement!), but you can at least hear the song and sing along in your own sort of karaoke set-up.
For a particularly emotional experience, I recommend searching the internet using terms like “ABBA Video Reactions.” A relatively new trend on YouTube that I have only recently become aware of involves people making videos of themselves as they listen to a particular song for the very first time and sharing their initial reactions. There are many, many such videos of people listening to the two new ABBA songs and recently I spent the better part of a Saturday night watching them. The people making these videos were from several continents and of various races and ethnicities, some old enough to remember ABBA and some born at least 20 years after ABBA broke up.
I was taken aback by the emotions that the songs elicited in these viewers, but what surprised me even more was how I was affected by watching their reactions! Almost as soon as they heard the first lyrics, many of these viewers, young and old, male and female, of various races, nationalities and ethnicities, gay and straight, rappers and rockers… became emotional and almost unanimously, tears welled up in their eyes. For someone my age, the tears are largely due to the nostalgic feeling of being reunited with old friends and recalling a far more innocent time, but I watched young people who were admittedly not big fans or who had only recently been introduced to ABBA and they were reacting by displaying goosebumps and wiping away tears. There are a number of interesting musical twists and turns taken in both of the two new songs, and it was interesting to see these people’s faces change in the same way mine did at certain parts of the songs. I also developed an even greater appreciation for both songs as I listened to some of these video bloggers with a musical background point out the intricacies and complexities of the production, the writing and the harmonies. I found myself crying uncontrollably a few times, or almost laughing with joy at different points, and it was fascinating how my reactions mirrored those of whichever person I was watching at that moment. I felt instantly bonded to the people I was watching and it made me feel so much less alone.
I’ve always been amazed at how music can soothe the soul and how it can forge connections between people, but I was really perplexed as to why I and evidently so many other people were so emotionally moved in response to a couple of songs released by a band that became extinct 40 years ago. I wonder if it might have to do with the dreadful 18 months of the pandemic that the world has endured. We have all been, to one extent or another and at one time or another, isolated, scared, depressed or hopeless. Both of these new songs are optimistic and triumphant. They acknowledge our fears and insecurities, but ultimately argue that we can push through them, and maybe this is a message that all of us need to hear right about now. For me personally, having recently retired and moved from the place I lived for most of my life, the lyrics resonate with my fears of growing old and wondering what might be left for me in the future, and I find them inspiring.
Another thing that I realized as I watched these videos of people from all over the world was how much I have missed international travel. Having been “grounded” for almost two years now, it simply delighted me to watch a witty Irishman named Barry, two sisters from the United Arab Emirates, a beautiful Nigerian woman, a rather cynical Italian man, a Swedish rapper, a soft spoken young man broadcasting in Spanish, and many, many more all experiencing the same sentimental tears and joyous smiles as me thanks to the work of a decades-old Swedish pop group. It was also amusing to see the reactions of some folks who obviously hadn’t heard about the creation of ABBAtars. When they saw the concert clips at the end of I Still Have Faith in You, they wondered aloud whether the members of the group had either not aged at all or speculated that they had hired body-doubles of their younger selves to lip synch to the new songs! Watching these videos reminded me of how much we all have in common, the universality of our emotions, and the importance of music in our lives. Check out some of my other favorite reaction videos by the following YouTubers: Onyin Pearl, Sincerely K.S.O., The Jayy Show, Tea Time with Travis, Angebie Drake.
Fleetwood Mac has endured in many iterations for the past four decades, but with countless conflicts that ultimately ended with in-fighting that has destroyed the band’s legacy and crushed a lot of the enthusiasm I once had for the band. Blondie continues to produce music in relative obscurity, but the last couple of offerings from the band have left me cold. Never would I have guessed that ABBA, thought to be long gone and dead, would rise phoenix-like from the ashes and move me, and seemingly a good percentage of the world with new music that is as comfortable and familiar as an old shoe, yet seemingly perfectly suited for a world that is so changed over the past 40 years. I can’t wait for the release of the new album and another seven fresh songs to discover. But without hesitation, I still have faith in ABBA.