In April 2019, a bus load of juniors and seniors from Tallassee High School attended the Troy University production of MAMMA MIA! It was staged at the Claudia Crosby Theatre, inside C.B. Smith Hall (named for Charles Bunyan Smith, a former president of Troy University but also the founding superintendent of Tallassee City Schools).
In this space the following week, I raved about the production and singled out various aspects of the show for praise.
Who knew that, only two years later, ABBA would be in the news again?
One of the most successful pop outfits of all time has boldly gone where no band has gone before . . .
They have become virtual versions of themselves.
A new double-A-sided single, recorded over the past year, was released last week: “I Still Have Faith in You” b/w “Don’t Shut Me Down.” The classic sound is there still – and for a foursome that turned down $1 billion (yes, billion) to reconvene back in 2000, it’s just delightful to hear their sweet voices blending again. It sounds as if no time has passed. Agnetha and Frida sound just as beautiful as they did nearly half a century ago!
None of them want to tour, or really be a band again; famously married to one another and then divorced while the band was still a going concern, they went their separate ways in 1986 and have much different lives today. But they did agree to take part in a pioneering method of live performance as they attached electrodes and motion-capture devices to themselves in order to create realistic holograms of the band in their glory days.
Industrial Light and Magic, the geniuses behind many Hollywood blockbusters, created the virtual ABBA by recording them with 160 cameras as they performed their hits. The virtual ABBA could live on forever, so future generations can enjoy a concert by the famous quartet – or as close as one can get to the real thing.
I have lately been listening to a lot of my old ABBA records. I think they are unfairly maligned for being too airy, too light, too featherweight. True, their music may go down like sugary junk food, but what lies beneath – just like the adult-sized plot points of the musical – is often more than what it seemed on the surface.
ABBA – the acronym of the first names of performers Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – first arrived on the music scene in the early 1970s. Agnetha (the blonde) was coupled with Bjorn (the clean-shaven one); Frida (the brunette) was linked with Benny (the bearded one). They were Swedish, nobody really spoke English, and mostly worked in other musical genres: jazz (Frida), folk (Bjorn), pop (Benny), and classical (Agnetha).
I suppose the music scene in Sweden is a little smaller than other places, or destiny had these four in mind, but their paths seemed to cross over and over in the late 1960s as the two couples fell in love. In 1970, the four went on holiday to Cyprus. While singing together for fun on the beach, they wound up in an improvised live performance entertaining some United Nations troops stationed there.
Already armed with a record deal, their producer-manager was determined to break into the international market. Singing in other languages paid off for them in 1973. Other than charting hits across Europe, the foursome won the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the highest musical honors in all of Europe, in 1974. Their songs crossed the Atlantic with their records released here during that same period.
Their early songs were pop confections of the highest caliber: “Ring Ring,” “S.O.S.,” “Honey Honey,” “Waterloo,” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” These songs also had a contemporized version of the Wall of Sound style that had been popular in the United States during the 1960s, along with tuneful melodies that seemed to burrow into one’s head after a single spin.
The hits continued: “Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Money Money Money,” “Knowing Me Knowing You,” and the blockbuster “Dancing Queen,” among many others that charted in the top 40 around the world.
After a decade at the top of their game, their music became a lot more serious in the early 1980s; audiences did not seem to buy these songs and albums the same way they had done before. Tastes change, styles change, but the darker material ABBA was releasing by then had its reasons: both couples, by that time, had divorced one another and the bitter vibe was present on the recordings. In 1982, they stopped recording, with a final performance on a TV show in 1986.
The group has said no to millions of dollars offered them to reunite. In the 35-plus years since their last public appearance, they have barely agreed to attend grand openings of MAMMA MIA as well as provide interviews, but that appears to be changing. The popularity of ABBA-related material has finally given these four a chance to reflect upon how important their music has been to so many.Interest remains high, and probably always will, in these Swedes who gently approached the music industry with quality work, took over the international music scene for a period, then quietly departed and stayed out of sight for nearly 40 years. What is amazing is that the public never forgot them – a sign that these well-crafted pop songs will endure. And now that virtual ABBA is on the scene, we know that we will be able to see and hear them for years to come. The new single is great, and I can’t believe it finally happened. The new album will be released in November.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools.