Benny and the Jets
By Keeley Moss
Yeah yeah, you know.
The two girls, the two guys.
The marriages, the divorces.
The kitsch costumes, the kitchen sink.
The endless ‘tribute’ bands, the musical.
The movie of the musical.
The sequel to the movie of the musical.
“The purest pop that has ever been made”, in the words of record producer Alexander Bard. “The greatest songwriters of the twentieth century” according to no less than Andrew Loog Oldham, the canny first manager of The Rolling Stones – and the man responsible for locking Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room in 1963 and not letting them out until they’d written their first song. So there’s a cat who knows a thing or two about melding words and music. And you’d think that by now, 49 years after the four members of ABBA first made music together, 45 years after they had what would turn out to be the first of a string of #1 singles, and 37 years after they embarked on their long-standing hiatus, you would be forgiven for thinking you know all there is to know about them.
But you’d be wrong.
ABBA are known and renowned primarily for their singles, understandably considering they’re commonly regarded as one of the greatest singles groups in the history of popular music. However, as is often the case, their singles tell only one part of the story. I, like everyone else, became an ABBA fan through those awe-inducing A-sides but because I had never heard anyone talking up ABBA as an albums group, and because you never see any of their eight long-players feature in any of those pointless and wholly-subjective lists (such as ‘The 100 Greatest Albums Of All-Time Until Another Bloody List Comes Along Five Minutes Later In Order To Flog Copies of Another Music Magazine’) I assumed that each of ABBA’s eight studio albums would basically consist of a couple of hits and a Volvo-load of filler.
How wrong I was.
There’s gold in them thar hills. For the studio albums are gleaming with gems. There’s a song on the Waterloo album called Watch Out that rocks as hard as anything the Sex Pistols committed to tape. Seriously. The same Sex Pistols who ironically had a couple of ABBA fans in their ranks – Glen Matlock and his replacement Sid Vicious, as confirmed by John Lydon in his memoir that covers the Pistols period, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Few would lump MOR family favourites ABBA in with the band hysterically dubbed by the English tabloid press in 1977 as the “Enemies of the World”. But listen to Watch Out back-to-back with anything off Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols and you’ll surely see, or rather hear, the common thread. Watch Out is a bad-ass bruiser, the ideal soundtrack to a 1974-era riot scene involving football hooligans. Which is about as far removed from the world of kitsch and Euro-disco froth-pop as could be imagined. Turn this up to 11 with headphones on and I vow that you’ll practically smell the grease in the hair of the brutish bootboys as they pounded fists into flesh outside any number of football league grounds in the dark, dank and delectably-dangerous era of 1970’s England.
Then there’s Gonna Sing You My Lovesong, the track that directly follows Watch Out on the Waterloo album. A silken slip of a song, and thrillingly the polar (ahem) opposite of that seething stomp-fest. As mellow as Watch Out is muscular, and featuring a swooping, soaring chorus with such a romantic rush that hearing it is almost annoying – how could a song so utterly perfect have been relegated to a lowly supporting role as a mere album track tucked away towards the end of Side 2? If almost any other group had written Gonna Sing You My Lovesong, they would have surely built their entire career around it. ABBA? They neglected to issue it as a single, never performed it live, didn’t include it on any of their compilation albums and practically threw it away by placing it towards the end of the second side of the album.
Prepare to be entranced.
And then there’s Disillusion, by some distance the best song on the Ring Ring album. You probably know the title track of Ring Ring, a perfunctory glam-pop stomper circa 1973 that ultimately served as a dry run for the following year’s Waterloo 45. Ring Ring rattles along harmlessly and tunefully but its hollow heart lacks Waterloo’s buoyant brilliance. However, chances are you’ve never heard Disillusion. Any time I’m raving about ABBA to someone, I bring that song up and the response is always the same – a puzzled shrug. Incredibly, so few people seem to know it. Which is a travesty because it’s practically dripping with magnificence. A mini-masterpiece recorded very early on in the band’s career, it actually pre-dated their 1974 commercial breakthrough by a whole year. One of the rawest tear-jerkers they would ever commit to tape, it was the first song in the ABBA canon to tackle the subject of sadness, a craft at which they would later become masters. If asked to name the most moving and heart-wrenching ABBA songs, chances are that the likes of The Winner Takes It All or S.O.S. would spring to mind. But brilliant as those songs are, Disillusion is right up there with them as a stunning sonic chronicling of heartache.
For a group with an estimated 400 million record sales, it may seem preposterous that anything they committed to tape could be overlooked. But just as there are different levels of fame and recognition, whereby someone considered a big noise in the underground can be utterly unknown to the wider world and what Mark E. Smith termed the “Middle Mass”, there are similarly very different divisions in place when it comes to the works of any creative artist, no matter how vast their commercial and cultural impact. Even Bjorn and Benny’s most hallowed idols, The Beatles, the biggest pop monster of them all, are far from being immune from this curious plight. There are millions of people out there who profess to be huge Beatles fans who have never even heard of The White Album, let alone heard it. My mum, for one. But this ‘buried treasure’ aspect of an artist’s oeuvre can be very exciting for a rabid fan, as you gradually peel back the layers of the (glass) onion to discover more discs. And with a group such as ABBA, whose quality control was often impeccable (though not always…it’s fair to say they have their share of stinkers like anyone) there are precious gems to be found lurking in the larder.
Get on this.
Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2019. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgments for Part 1
Watch Out & Gonna Sign You My Lovesong written by Andersson/Ulvaeus ©1974
Disillusion written by Fältskog/Ulvaeus ©1973
Published by Union Songs Musikforlag AB, Universal/Union Songs Musikforlag AB, Emi Grove Park Music, Universal – Polygram International Publishing Inc.
Published under Fair Use policy