Monday, 9 February 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 21 (Top Five): Top Abba Tracks Not On 'The Visitors'

♫ And now to our weekly top five. Owing to the fight going on in my e-mail tray over my review of ‘Mamma Mia’ the other week (well, OK then, one letter half-agreed and the other half-disagreed, but wars have been fought over smaller and more half-hearted arguments than this!) this time I shall be looking at my top five Abba tracks not already covered on last week’s review of ‘The Visitors’ album and – shock horror – three of them were actually used in the film. Even though they had no relevance whatsoever. 

5) I’m A Marionette: Surely this track from ‘Abba The Album’ would have been a better bet for the actors and actresses (and movie-goers) to sing along to? ‘You’re supreme, that’s what everybody’s telling me, but I’m feeling like an out-of-bounds, pushed around refugee’. Yes this song was obviously written on behalf ‘true’ Abba fans, the ones that know a decent song when they hear it (and no ‘Dancing Queen’ isn’t it, despite what the press will tell you) and Benny and Bjorn have just been laughing at us for following like sheep all these years. Or they really want the money.

But meanwhile, back in 1976, ‘I’m A Marionette’ was the logical conclusion of Abba’s progressive and theatrical side. The last track of a three-part mini-musical, ‘The Girl With The Golden Hair’ (the second part is ‘Thankyou For The Music’, where it makes a lot more sense than as the postmodern congratulatory aren’t we-briliiant? Track that people make it out to be nowadays) loosely based on the very real-life of the blond-haired singer Agnetha, but rew-ritten to sound as dramatic and over-the-top as possible. Everything about this track works, even though fans have long dismissed it as it’s not really got that golden ‘Abba’ sound. Charging strings, terror-stricken vocalists singing terror-struck characters and one of the best and most on-the-edge guitar solos in Abba’s canon all make this the most oppressive, electrically charged song in the band’s actually-quite-eclectic history.   

4)  Lay All Your Love On Me: Talking of oppressive, electrically charged songs, the highlight of the ‘Voulez Vous’ album is this classic song about addiction – to love, though, not alcohol, drugs or films where Piers Brosnan tries to sing and makes himself look foolish. ‘I wasn’t jealous before we met, now every woman I see is a potential threat’ purrs Agnetha as the repetitive bass and keyboard runs circle closer and closer together and suddenly collide for the laid-bare desperate chorus. This is dance/ disco music as it should be, with the repetitive endless rhythms building to such a climax that you’re asking for more, more, more, not ‘when is this ever going to end?!?’ like you do with most disco/dance songs. Plus you get the joy of hearing Agnetha singing lyrics written by her husband Bjorn which appear to be a clear message to hear – with all the attention you’re getting, don’t forget about me. Honestly, you could write a soap opera around this band (it would make for a better plot than the one in Mama Mia for a start…)   

3) I Have A Dream: Yes I can’t believe I like this track either. After all, it’s the sort of soppy, fluffy ballad I was lampooning in last week’s review. But I connect with this song far more than many of Abba’s other hits: I might not hear the drums Fernando, I have never kissed any of my teachers (!!), my mother doesn’t know that you’re out and I haven’t currently found out that my fate is to be with you, wo-o-o-o-o-o-ah (although the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself, that is true). I do however believe in angels (or of good, kind people at least, like you dear reader, please don’t turn that computer off…no help…aaagghh), of good in everyone I see (except perhaps The Spice Girls) and although I haven’t yet ‘crossed a stream’ (what does that line mean?!) I do still have a dream. And my dream is bringing classic songs like this one back into the public eye (without trying to staple it to a wafer-thin plot). This song could easily have been too treacly by half, but Anna-Frid’s greatest ever vocal is the perfect mix of subdued awe and overwhelming delight and I take my hat off to Bjorn and Benny for writing a tune this memorable and simple which is still so entirely original. The lyrics too successfully invoke the man who has been my biggest non-musical hero since the age of 10, Martin Luther King; true to his peaceful spirit without making a mockery of his words like so many have (and yes the song is – sort of, vageuly – based on his ‘I have A dream’ speech). Even the addition of a school choir (usually a big no-no in rock and pop circles) isn’t the horrifying prospect it might have been in other hands and is the perfect compliment to Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s sterling vocal work. The realist in me would like to disagree, but the romanticist in me is ‘head over heels’ for this song. 

2) Eagle: Abba meet Pink Floyd on this, the Swedish fab four’s most prog rock song yet. Most Abba songs pre-this one (from album ‘Arrival’) have fun seeing how many huttons they can push in the listener within two or three minutes. This one instead settles for a gentle glide, building up gradually verse by verse and making the listener wait anxiously for the terrific vocals to kick in. The critics of this song say that notghing happens, but that’s to miss the point – the narrator is dreaming of being free, of a time when she is free of all her shackles and can ‘fly like a bird in the sky, circle the mountains and trees and go anywhere that I please’. With the band’s exceptional backing band given more chance than ever to show off their skills, they concoct the perfect accompaniment here, with silky, bubbly guitar lines bouncing off twirly basses, rhythmic percussion and twinkly synthesisers. Why aren’t there more tracks like this in the Abba canon, as this – their first real attempt at this drifty, dreamy style – nailed the prog rock idea in one go when the likes of Pink Floyd took four or five years! 

1) The Winner Takes It All: Bjorn wrote this lament about his marriage while drunk in just half an hour, fully aware that the object of his half-apology half shrug-of-the-shoulders would be the one singing it on the next Abba album. Critics are often unkind about Abba’s lyrics, but Bjorn is actually a very talented wordsmith when the feeling in his songs is right and his autobiographical or semi-autobiographical songs nearly all have the power to move. This is his best effort of all, bemoaning the fact that lady luck has left his side (after several comparatively blissful years both personally and professionally) and all that he touched no longer turns to gold. It’s like The Hollies’ ‘King Midas In Reverse’, not asking for our sympathy because the narrator knows he should have made more of his opportunities when he had them and yet so genuinely regretful that we can’t help but be moved. The yearning melody from Beny is also one of his best, matching the yearning tone of the lyric but coming complete with an interesting rhythm scheme that keeps hjolting the listener forward into the next melody-line before we’ve had a chance to fully digest the old one, mirroring perfectly the confusion, regret and hope of the singer. We’ve heard this song so many times in recent years that we’ve forgotten how amazing this song is. Add in the fact that it this song has the ability to be this moving despite being written in a foreign language and you get some idea of just how talented Abba really were. Which is a shame if – as I fear – they will only be remembered for ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Abba Gold’. 

Well, that’s all for now – except for a word from our sponsor, Philosophy Phil (well, hey, everyone else gets sponsored these days so why not us?) ‘All Things Must Pass. Except the Spice Girls who will be around to haunt us forever.’ See you next week!

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