My mother has explained to me more than once that for her Beatles-raised generation, it was utterly, utterly taboo to admit you liked ABBA – and yet, everyone knew that everyone knew that “Dancing Queen” was a work of brilliance. Forty-five years after that song was unleashed, we celebrate it for the masterpiece it is.
I, meanwhile, have a theory: all of us, however composed, contented or stony, have someone that we think of when we hear “The Winner Takes It All”. (I know who mine is. They don’t.) The most expertly passive-aggressive song written in modern times, its lyrics betray a stubborn tin ear for English idioms. Perhaps the mix is a little top-heavy, Agnetha Faltskog’s vibrato at the end a smidgen too wide, the EQ on the keyboard parts a little tinny. But that song has a power like few others, a power that affects more of us more deeply than some might admit.
And now, our emotions and our paranoid determination to stay cool are on the line once again. ABBA are back in business, wielding not some weak-smile Loose Women-interview-slot compilation album but all-new music and an ABBA-tar virtual tour. They’ve been trailing this Lazarus moment for years, a build-up that obviously feels like a decade given the canyon-like interval of 2020. They haven’t released an album in 40 years, and yet they still have a power to command our attention unlike perhaps any act on earth.
Plus ça change indeed. How did this frankly odd, endlessly mocked group survive four decades of silence – and how did they triumph over the opposition?
In the UK at least, the peak of ABBA’s success came at the same time as the rise of the Sex Pistols. Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid were together one pole in the commercial-subversive dialectic of Seventies pop and punk, a contest of raw pleasure versus unimaginative cynicism. But viewed from four-and-half decades’ distance by someone who didn’t sit through it, it’s clear which side ABBA were always on.
The real triumph of British punk, meanwhile, was to convince more than a few of us that if you enjoyed something specifically created with enjoyment in mind, you were being exploited and tricked, and that paying for seven inches of rage was an act of defiance in the face of brainless commercialism.
ABBA have been recognised as the masters of pop excellence because finally, at last, the pressure is off. Look at the endurance of Queen, whom the NME’s raving Eeyore Dave Marsh once described as “the first truly fascist rock band”. Look at the almost despotic dominance of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Stonehenge of soft rock. Look at the evolution of Eurovision from annual black tie freakshow into joyous pan-continental mythmaking machine. Pop-rock silliness and its simple pleasures win us over, and keep winning.
At the other end of the scale, what do the Sex Pistols mean today that they didn’t mean in 1977? It’s not just that anti-commercial adolescent rebellion is a cliche – it’s that its relationship to its audience isn’t ultimately all that different from pop’s, except that pop doesn’t lay claim to much more than pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Anything else – the joy, the sorrow, the guilt, the pride – comes from us.
That logic will never change, and today’s launch is the proof. Four decades after their last album, ABBA are back, apparently for no particular reason besides being up for it, and the world has shown up to watch. Meanwhile, four decades after “God Save The Queen”, 61 per cent of people in the UK think we should keep the monarchy even though two of its most popular members have fled in despair and another stands accused of involvement in sex trafficking.
It makes perfect sense that ABBA chose London for their new show. Like it or not, we are in the end a nation of pragmatic monarchists who like to bounce around, sing along, and feel butterflies in our stomachs. Whatever we told ourselves by getting the Sex Pistols to No 1 on the silver jubilee (whatever the BBC said) was, it turned out, a lie.
To paraphrase George Orwell: cynicism is sincerity. Subversion is assent. Anger is contentment. The peak of British punk is now the stuff of BBC Four documentaries – and ABBA are back because we want them back.