Ah-haa! ABBA, Beyond The Hits

In the wake of the righteous return of ABBA, Quietus contributors pick sixteen splendid album tracks that prove the superlative Swedes were much, much more than a singles band

‘Another Town, Another Train’ – from Ring Ring (1973)

All of them seasoned pros long before they united as a quartet, ABBA were never too precious to work in genre. ‘Another Town, Another Train’, from the group’s debut album (and one of those early curios on which the men take an equal vocal role) is an almost perfect example of the sentimental, country/folk-inflected pop weepie style that an act serious about incursions into international charts probably felt obligated to attempt. You can imagine someone such as Terry Jacks making a success of it in place of ‘Seasons In The Sun’. So why is it genuinely moving where that, and most of its ilk, are so cloying? Because it was ABBA, of course, and even when attempting cynicism they somehow couldn’t help but transcend it.
David Bennun

‘Arrival’ from Arrival (1976)

One of only two ABBA instrumentals (the other being ‘Intermezzo No.1’ from ABBA), ‘Arrival’ is undoubtedly one of the band’s most successful sonic experiments that, despite the overlapping and overwhelming wash of synthesisers, actually sees Benny and Björn harking back to the traditional music that helped form them during their youth. Some might find echoes of Scottish bagpipe music here, yet the pair are firmly drawing on the demarcations of Swedish folk music, and in its melodic trajectory the track has plenty in common with the tunes on the pair’s wonderful and underappreciated 1970 album as a duo, Lycka. An added dimension is that one of ‘Arrival’s previous titles was ‘Arrival in Dalecarlia’, a region of central Sweden, and the piece possesses a discernable wistfulness for place. In its spirit at least, ‘Arrival’ sees ABBA, for a moment at the height of their fame, refraining from tailoring themselves to fit the pop forms demanded of the charts in the English-speaking world.
Barnaby Smith

‘As Good As New’ from Voulez-Vous (1979)

It may not be their gloomiest album (that would be the disco Ingmar Bergmans’ melancholic swansong, The Visitors); but Voulez-Vous is surely, beneath its mirror-ball glitz, the bleakest, a catalogue of empty trysts, seedy nightlife and emotional manipulation. Thus its opening number is something of a bait and switch – like reversed film footage of a building demolition, it turns around the more familiar ABBA story of what felt like real love crumbling into disaster. For once all that brightness and breeziness is borne out in the lyric: I was dreadful, but now I’m better, and I know the value of true love. I’ve long thought of as an accidental sister song to E.L.O.’s likewise disco-driven, chamber-string-swept ‘Shine A Little Love’, the opener to the contemporaneous Discovery.

‘Bang-A-Boomerang’ from ABBA (1975)

On their 2005 album of covers Sorry I Made You Cry, The Czars, fronted by the river-voiced John Grant, included a sparse, slow and exquisite version of the ABBA hit ‘Angel Eyes’, defined by its crisp acoustic guitar and the intimacy of Grant’s vocals harmonising with themselves. Despite its flippant title and lyrics, ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’, is crying out for the same treatment. Its lush chord changes, emotive verse melody and cascading hooks are a little overwhelmed by the wailing synths and relentless disco tempo, yet this is among the finest examples of Benny and Björn’s genius of precision. Exactly why they opted for the Indigenous Australian hunting weapon as their motif of choice for a song about reciprocity in a relationship is something of a mystery, but the song did provide an appropriate title for a 2013 documentary film about that country’s fervent and ongoing obsession with ABBA.

‘Eagle’ from ABBA: The Album (1978)

Myths, transformation, transcendence, transhumanism, “to go anywhere that I please”. What is it, to be stuck in this life? And aren’t stories wonderful? We need myths, we need stories, we need friends, and we need allegory and slipperiness, we need to escape from concrete ideas of time and space. "They speak strangely / But I understand," sings Anni-Frid, on ‘Eagle’. "I have questions / And they know everything." A friendship that is transformative in ways you cannot put your finger on, like Cortázar’s great story of the axolotl, and a song that soars and transports me to being a little girl in my grandma’s garden, swooning and singing along. Time and space are no match for a good story and a beautiful song.
Anna Wood

‘He Is Your Brother’ from Ring Ring (1973)

I must confess to a soft spot for those rare ABBA songs with lead vocals from Benny or Björn , of which ‘He is Your Brother’, which appeared on the album Ring Ring when the band were still known as Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida, is one. Less gratingly saccharine in its plea for communal amiability and goodwill than its underwhelming sister song from the same album, the more well-known ‘People Need Love’, the track has a Wings-ish feel to its jaunty momentum and guitar tones, and features a highly alluring middle-eight along similar lines to the famous bridge in ‘S.O.S’ (‘When you’re gone’… etc). There is also a hint of that marvellously bleak urban misanthropy that crops up in the odd ABBA song (‘The Day Before You Came’ being the best example) with the opening lines: "I was a fighter, always looking for trouble / And my life was so empty, there was nothing to live for / But then it happened one night as I got into a fight…" The titular brotherhood ensues.

‘Hole In Your Soul’ from ABBA: The Album (1978)

The working title was ‘Rock’n’Roll’, which is apt because Hole in Your Soul’ represents the purest incarnation of ABBA as a rock and roll band, galloping along like a thoroughbred horse. In many ways it is the archetypal ABBA song – it’s got everything, from the exquisite falsetto harmonies and wig-out coda to the beautiful, baroque bridge. Talking of harmonies, around two minutes and 25 seconds are some of the purest Agnetha and Anni-Frid ever laid down, set to funky bongos. The fact that it didn’t make it on to ABBA Gold says more about how many amazing songs Björn and Benny wrote than it does about whoever compiled that album – although if you drop ‘Thank You for the Music’ and stick in ‘Hole in Your Soul’ (oh, and ‘Eagle’ in first up) you’re looking at perfection. ‘Hole in Your Soul’ was supposed to be the lead single from ABBA: the Album. In the end it was shelved for ‘The Name of the Game’ – not a bad tune, eh?
Joe Clay

‘I Am A Marionette’ from ABBA: The Album (1978)

Tacked onto the end of ABBA: The Album from 1978, ‘I Am A Marionette’ was the b-side to ‘Take A Chance On Me’, and also formed part of a mini-musical, The Girl With The Golden Hair, that ABBA took on tour with them as part of their European and Australian dates in 1977. Out of those four songs, the trite ‘Thank You For The Music’, has become a mainstream staple, while ‘I Am A Marionette’ – while striking – is perhaps too weird to breakout into universality. It’s as theatrical and frolicsome and camp as a Bernstein musical on rollerblades in the verses, while the chorus relishes in appropriating some satisfying, violent Weimarian dissonance.

All the while there’s a lyric about alienation that ABBA do very well: "I feel I’m like an outward-bound, pushed around, refugee / Something’s wrong, got a feeling that I don’t belong"; while it’s clearly about the pressures of being in the biggest band in the world in the 1970s, it sounds remarkably au courant. ABBA were often lampooned for the simplicity of their lyrics, but sometimes that simplicity is not only effective but moving as well. I wonder how many of those who scoff at the lyrics of Benny and Björn ever wrote a line with the existential pathos of: “It’s funny but I had no sense of living without aim / The day before you came”.
Jeremy Allen

‘Move On’ from ABBA: The Album (1978)

I like ABBA most when they’re cosmic. When Arrival’s title track beams us up into astral plains; when ‘Eagle”s majestic synthesiser flies us high, high, wherever we please; when ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’ transports us from the world of the intimate nursery rhyme to somewhere much more grown-up.

The thing is, the older I get, the more ABBA’s songs sound cosmic to me. ‘Move On’ from ABBA’s fifth album used to sound like a kitschy, cute curio, its intro containing some of the band’s textbook tics: a descending, melancholy bassline, a piano melody of two notes falling sadly like rain, a few shivery mid-period flutes sprinkling a little high joy on proceedings. Then Björn’s voice began to sing. I used to laugh, really, wondering how much C.W. McCall’s country and western number 1, ‘Convoy’, had influenced his amusingly heavy growl, while acknowledging that it suited him, and suited the song. I also wondered if this deep, Swedish-English narrator was meant to sound like God, telling us how "a restless body can hide a peaceful soul", and how "a voyager and a settler they both have the same goal". Then the women would return, singing as gorgeously as ever, giving us the faith to go forward.

Some people may hear ‘Move On’ as mindfulness set to music or as empowerment-lite, as lyrics about finding beauty in the rollers in the ocean and in the crying of the seagulls issue forth. Years ago, I used to tut at such nonsense, but, hey, I’m forty now. And I’m still wondering "how I can explain / The wonder of the moment / To be alive", and realising that pop music often articulates those feelings much better than any tract of philosophy. I’m also realising “what really makes the difference between all the dead and living things [is] the will to stay alive”. I’ve lived a bit. I’m older now. So were they. Sometimes the most vivid cosmic moments are the simplest, most obvious ones.
Jude Rogers

‘On And On And On’ from Super Trouper (1980)

A dark gem from ABBA’s murkier corners wherein the group seems to fuck with the space-time continuum as they predict the political shit storm of the 21st century’s second decade while playing glam rock about six years too late. After all, how often is it a that "a minister, a big shot in the state" makes an appearance in your average pop song to warn that "evil times are coming, we are in for darker nights"?

What makes the track work so well is the juxtaposition of doom-mongering with music that makes you want to punch the air as much as stomping your feet. The song’s nods to The Beach Boys’ ‘Do It Again’ are so keenly felt that Mike Love felt compelled to record his own dire version soon after. More successful is ‘Ca Va Mal’, the cover by Sylvie Vartan, the former Mme Johnny Halliday. But for dancing to the apocalypse fun, the original is hard to beat.
Julian Marszalek

‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ from The Visitors (1981)

As well as writing hours of pop bangers, ABBA taught me many important life lessons. My blissful childhood bubble was continually punctured by their melancholic musings on relationships, leaving me in no doubt that a love affair could go catastrophically wrong. But that pales into insignificance with the gut-wrenching realities presented in ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, Björn’s lament for his children’s acceleration into maturity. Yes, even as a 10-year-old I wept, for whom I am not sure – future me? My mum and dad? Parents the world over? – as Agnetha sings that heartbreaking opening verse:

"Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning

Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile

I watch her go with a surge of that well known sadness

And I have to sit down for a while

The feeling that I’m losing her forever…”

You don’t have to have kids to well up at the sentiments expressed in this song, but I’ve definitely avoided listening to it in the years since becoming a father (until now – thanks tQ!) for fear of turning into a blubbering mess on the Northern Line of a morning. "Each time I think I’m close to knowing, She keeps on growing… Slipping through my fingers all the time." Waaahhh! Cheers Björn.

‘So Long’ from ABBA (1974)

The lead single from their eponymous third album, ‘So Long’ is surely the most barnstorming closer in ABBA’s oeuvre. With side one of ABBA packing in the pomp and pop perfection of ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘SOS’, you might, upon first listen, expect something of a reprieve at the other end. Not quite. Filtering ‘Waterloo’ levels of swagger via the stomp of Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ (a track released 11 months previously), ‘So Long’ is an impossibly earworming glam-leaning gem and something of a thematic harbinger to 1976’s massive ‘Money Money Money’ ("They say that money’s got a magic touch, but not to me / It doesn’t mean that much".) As it simmers out at the three minute mark with brass slyly conjuring the sleazed-out theme from Dragnet, one can’t help but wonder why the British record-buying public of ’74 turned its back on this hip-shaking dancehall zinger.
Brian Coney

‘That’s Me’ from Arrival (1976)

Arrival is so stuffed with recognised ABBA classics, including their most celebrated soufflé-light disco-shuffle choral pop tune with a typically dark undercurrent (‘Dancing Queen’), that it’s easy to overlook another track of that description. But I’m not being contrary when I claim ‘That’s Me’ is the better song. One of ABBA’s many talents was creating lyrical personae of deceptive complexity; few more so than the Carrie not-the-kind-of-girl-you’d-marry who simultaneously lists her supposed faults with what feels like genuine distaste, while asserting the independence of which they are part and parcel. Perhaps it wasn’t written as a oblique feminist statement (then again, perhaps it was), but it certainly plays that way now.

‘The Visitors’ from The Visitors (1981)

It’s all going to go wrong in the end, of course. Neuroticism is no good, but does have a point. Am I going to die? Yes. Are we all going to die? Yes. Something is out to get you, you will keep your appointment in Samarra. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the solace of an ABBA song, soaked in foreboding and synthed-vocals, giddy with sci-fi paranoia, lyrics and vibes applicable to Soviet terror and the Stasi, to ICE and Homeland Security, and relevant also to that opposite-of-fomo feeling where you don’t want to go out and see all your mates, where you are quietly consoled and horrified by "The books, the tables and the furniture" in your own home. "And now they come to take me," they sing. "It isn’t unexpected / I have been waiting for these visitors / Help me." It’s best to sing along, and dance.

‘Tiger’ from Arrival (1976)

We all know of ABBA the Pop Beast that bestrode the singles chart with an ease bordering on indecent, but it’s also worth considering the quartet’s ability to stray into the darker side of life. And while this aspect of the group grew in evidence as ABBA’s personal relationships dissolved later in their career, the quartet’s earlier material was just as capable in deviating from their shiny image.

‘Tiger’, the penultimate track from ABBA’s fourth studio album, Arrival, is a disturbing and cautionary tale of life in the big city. A forerunner of the Scandi-noir thrillers that came to dominate Saturday nights on BBC4, ‘Tiger’ scratches below the surface sheen of bright lights and big dreams to reveal a metropolis of deceit, disappointment and fear. In common with the earlier ‘Hey, Hey Helen’, ‘Tiger’ emphatically displays ABBA’s knack of knocking out stack-heeled stompers loaded with hidden depth and darker meaning.

‘Watch Out’ from Waterloo (1974)

Recorded on the same day as ‘Waterloo’ (which is as good a claim to fame as any) ‘Watch Out’ is one of the more curiously shunned peaks of pre-Eurovision ABBA. With Agnetha and Frida only contributing backing vocals, Björn takes centre stage to offer a warning à la Lennon on the Beatles’ ‘Run For Your Life’ ("It’s been kind of funny lately / You act like I was a stranger I think you’re beginning to hate me/But then you’re a girl in danger.") Though boasting one of the band’s all-time killer bass-lines, thanks to a funked-out masterclass by Swedish maestro Rutger Gunnarsson, it’s the spidery bombast of session guitarist’s Jan Erik Tage "Janne" Schaffer’s main riff that drives home the fact that when ABBA mined mined the sweet spot somewhere between pop and grandstanding rock, they did so with unprecedented authority.

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