Abba, the Swedish pop group that last week released their first new music in 40 years, have not always been cool. As Amanda Whittington wrote in the New Statesman in 1992, Abba fans were initially “shunned by society”. But steadily their impact on music culture became apparent. “We always knew everybody was a fan of Abba at the time and were afraid to admit it,” said George McManus, the marketing director of Polydor Records. By the early 1990s, trend-setting clubs were looking to the nostalgia of disco. Even “credible rock bands” said they appreciated Abba’s musicality. Polydor, which inherited the band’s catalogue, planned a compilation for 1992, ten years after the group went on permanent hiatus, although original fans weren’t pleased with the label’s decisions. They wanted rare, unreleased tracks, not new collections of the songs they already loved. Nonetheless, Polydor chose to serve the masses and “Abba Gold” would go on to become a worldwide bestseller.
It was the love that dare not speak its name. Shunned by society, its adherents formed clubs away from the harsh public glare. Here they could be themselves, among friends. They wrote magazines, and played their music like it was going out of fashion. Which it had – until now. Abba fans have come out of the closet.
By 1977, Abba were Europop’s royal family. Not even punk could overthrow their mighty harmonies and sensible sweaters. “Abba made some of the best pop records ever, comparable to The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac,” believes George McManus, the marketing director of Polydor Records. “It’s a cliché, but their music is timeless. They’re as relevant in the 1990s as they were in the 1970s.” A couple of years ago, he could have been sacked for such a statement. Yet half a million sales of Polydor’s Abba Gold compilation proves the Super Swedes’ reversal of fortune is complete.
It began when trend-setting clubs such as Kinky Gerlinky in London looked to the 1970s for camp inspiration. Against the charmless rave scene, disco was literally music to the ears of twentysomethings. From Nottingham’s funky Carwash to the white trash of Birmingham’s Abba: The Disco, 1970s’ nights will pack the New Year dancefloors.
Credible rock bands began to sing the praises of “Dancing Queen”. When the Australian tribute band Björn Again stole the Reading Festival, the threads of a movement drew together. Students, gay men, ageing punks and nice young couples, whose closest Swedish encounter was with an Ikea lampshade, now shamelessly adored Abba. Meanwhile, Polydor had inherited the Abba catalogue and were waiting for tacky Telstar and Pickwick compilations to run their course before a major label relaunch.
“Then, all of a sudden, Abba became trendy, with U2 acknowledging they were acceptable to the rock market and Erasure’s Abba-esque EP getting to number one,” recalls McManus. “We always knew everybody was a fan of Abba at the time and were afraid to admit it, but we were extremely lucky with the revival. We had planned a compilation for the end of the year anyway and this made Abba credible again.” Faced with a dearth of “good pop music you can hum, whistle and sing in the bath”, the CD market looks back to the future.
[See also: Abba are back – with the old magic intact]
Abba called for neat marketing to restyle naff has-beens into “a quartet who remain revered and legendary”. With incriminating 1970s photos hidden on the inner sleeve, the compilation “was packaged in black and gold to give the impression of the definitive album”. The strategy has now shifted 500,000 copies.
Not everyone needs persuading. As English correspondent for the Dutch “Agneta, Benny, Björn, Frida Fan Club” magazine (so-called because, tragically, “they’re not working together anymore”), Kathryn Courtney is no fair-weather fan. “I’ve been into Abba since 1976,” she explains. “They weren’t run-of-the-mill pop stars. They had their own families to bring up so they were as normal as possible. Stardom never affected them. They just made a lot people very happy.”
No more must Abba fans play “Arrival” in social exile. Do they feel vindicated? “I’m happy with it but some whacko fans are determined to spoil it,” replies Courtney. There’s one in particular who is very obsessive. He’s sent abusive letters to the record company because he didn’t want Abba Gold brought out. He wants them to release stuff that’s never even been recorded.”
Once consumers of Sweden’s second highest export, true Abba fans are now cult collectors of rarities like the unfinished final album Opus Ten. Tapes stolen from Björn’s car were pressed and sold through a worldwide network. Anyone who craves one of the 200 existing copies clearly hunts bigger game than a rereleased “Waterloo”.
“I’m running a project called Have Your Say, with the permission of Polydor, to find out what fans want released,” says Courtney. Favourites are videos of TV specials and promos of tracks like “Ring Ring” and “Bang-a-Bang”… Rather than continue with the old singles, we’re interested in LP tracks becoming hits. We’ll have to wait and see what the record company says, although Benny and Björn have overall control.”
Of the 83 album tracks released between 1975–82, 20 Top Five hits are still instant singalongs. Although planning a release of B-sides and rarities in the new year, Polydor is more concerned with Abba as karaoke pop. “Some fans are very helpful but we have shoals of letters complaining about what a waste of time this was because they had the records already,” says McManus. “We had to explain that it’s OK for a couple of thousand people to have anything that Abba ever breathed, but we were looking at the hundreds of thousands who bought the old Abba records and didn’t have them all on one CD.” And who, the label predicts, will take sales of Gold to double platinum this Christmas.
Are we being sold a turkey? For the girls and boys who once mimed innocently in their bedroom to “Gimme Gimme Gimme A Man After Midnight”, Abba evokes a time when our sole concern was Christmas cash received, not spent.
In times of recession, a little nostalgia goes a long way. The first album I ever owned was my long-lost Abba: Greatest Hits Volume Two. Voulez-Vous? Encore!
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