Growing up in the 70’s, I heard my fair share of pop music, mostly as I dawdled over a bowl of cereal while our local AM radio station spun tunes in between news updates and weather forecasts. WIMA programmed an adult contemporary playlist that was as digestible at the breakfast table as it was suitable for dentists’ offices. Songs like Feelings, Tie A Yellow Ribbon, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Music Box Dancer were mixed with country crossover hits such as The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Southern Nights, all topped off with a liberal sprinkling of Bee Gees hits. From the dawn of disco to its twilight and shortly thereafter, WIMA also kept ABBA in heavy rotation.
I was familiar with ABBA because of their inclusion among the small stack of 45’s I had inherited from my siblings. Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room. Clint Holmes’ Playground in My Mind. The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. Something had to go under the needle of my very first record player, and whatever I found around the house was added to the playlist. I still remember the red and black Atlantic Records label revolving as the low-fidelity strains of Waterloo warbled from built-in speakers. It was a happy and infectious tune, and although I had no idea what the song was about, I knew I liked the music. Like most of the ABBA hits that were destined to dominate the airwaves, Waterloo was so catchy that it was hard to forget. Hear it once, and you know it. Hear it twice, and it’s stuck in your head.
So I guess you could say that I initially liked ABBA, even as more and more of their singles began to accompany my breakfast routine. Dancing Queen, The Name of the Game, Take a Chance on Me, and other chart-topping titles were the aural sugar that I swallowed along with bowls full of Cap’n Crunch and Cocoa Puffs. It was no worse – nor better – than the other radio fare that I crunched away to, from Muskrat Love to Forever in Blue Jeans. But as time went on, the unmistakable sound of ABBA became a little overbearing, much like disco itself. Even someone with a relentless sweet tooth like myself preferred a bowl of comparatively tame Life now and then. By the end of the decade, it seemed like we’d been listening to ABBA for a long time, and there was no end in sight. Was there no stopping the super-successful Swedish juggernaut?
Little did I know that the end was nigh. Suddenly disco was dead, New Wave married a pop sensibility to punk, and ABBA had inexplicably vanished, save for the odd K-tel compilation. I must admit that a few years later the songwriting half of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, rose in my estimation due to their collaboration with Tim Rice on the musical Chess. Highlights like I Know Him So Well and Pity the Child represented some of the best pop music to come out of the 80’s, and it made me ponder the admirable craftsmanship behind the overplayed ABBA hits of the 70’s. Yet it wasn’t enough to inspire me to seek out and listen to the stuff. Even the renewed appreciation of ABBA that accompanied the Broadway success of Mama Mia! could not move my indifference.
In recent years, though, perhaps out of sheer nostalgia for a simpler time, my heart has softened toward the Swedish quartet, and I sometimes discover the familiar soft disco of Dancing Queen involuntarily echoing within my cranium. It comes and goes like a sudden craving for a bygone confection. Last Saturday, on a cloudless morning ideal for a solo road trip, I decided to give in to my brain’s preoccupation by traveling to the tunes of ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits. The 1992 release includes 19 tracks, and I was surprised to find that a number of them were completely unfamiliar to me, even in name. Gee, it sure seemed like I knew a score of ABBA tunes, but I guess it must have been the same dozen played over and over again. Apparently the success of the compilation spawned a 1993 follow-up called More ABBA Gold: More ABBA Hits. I think a subtitle like Stuff You’ve Never Heard would be more appropriate. But I digress.
A piano glissando filled the cabin of my Civic as I sped down the highway. It segued into a gentle bass groove overlaid with ethereal background vocals and ham-fisted piano chords, and at last my brain found respite from its Dancing Queen earworm (the aural equivalent of hair o’ the dog, sometimes actually listening to the song that loops through your head is the only antidote). I had thought I was thoroughly familiar with the recording, but it was a revelation to hear just how prominently the vocals were mixed. Surely Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were double-tracked, perhaps even triple-tracked or quadruple-tracked. That peculiarly nasal, all-out vocal assault was the signature sound of ABBA, and it dominated nearly every track on ABBA Gold.
Oh, it was fun at first. I smiled through Knowing Me, Knowing You and Take a Chance on Me, much as I might allow myself to go overboard with a second or third slice of chocolate cake. But by the time I had listened to all of Mama Mia, Lay All Your Love On Me, and Super Trouper, I was starting to feel a little sick. It dawned on me that ABBA is dessert music, not meant to be consumed as a main course, and anyone who wolfs down over an hour of Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid is asking for it. I plowed forward, though, even smiling at the overblown theatricality of Money, Money, Money, a gem I hadn’t heard in over thirty years. Eventually I succumbed to a fit of aural nausea, barely holding on as I waited to hear the final track, Waterloo. When it finally arrived, its digital data was so near the perimeter of the compact disc that my CD player couldn’t smoothly decode it. Despite my valiant effort to finish the business, I ended my journey listening to the same fifteen seconds of ABBA in a torturous loop. Fitting, really.
And so I now feel qualified to render a final verdict on the lasting effects of Sweden’s most popular musical export on our culture. There is nothing wrong with ABBA, provided that one takes it in small doses. This is why the ubiquity of their hits eventually became insufferable toward the end of the disco era. May our nation never make that mistake again. No, you may listen to a little ABBA now and then, but only as a small part of a balanced musical diet. For example, you might allow yourself a hearing of Chiquitita after a contemplative rumination over Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Or an evening of Tuvan throat singing might steel oneself for the one-two punch of Fernando followed by Voulez-Vous. Much more than this and you are risking overexposure.
Remember, there is a reason why the hedonistic excesses of the late 70’s were eventually curtailed by the reins of reason. A body can only take so much. Listen responsibly.