ABBA, THANK YOU FOR YOUR MUSIC
Nowadays people are familiar with the Swedish quartet (Agnetha, Frida, Benny and Bjorn) thanks to Mamma Mia, The Musical and the two movies based on their melodic and catchy songs. In the 1970’s and first years of the 1980’s, however, ABBA was mostly dismissed as “Euro-Pop”,corny, with lyrics too clean to make it big in America (in contradiction with the sexy image they presented in opposition to their white American female counterparts).( By the way, all this could have been said also about The Beatles and their first albums which contained cover versions of other artists’ songs, while ABBA’s music was original material, no covers through their whole career). They were not given the deserved credit for their songwriting, vocals, and musicality. The obvious question is: why not? Was it prejudice? Fear of another “musical invasion”? Political bias? Musical arrogance? Maybe a little bit of each.
Do you know any worldwide famous American band or singer whose songs are widely known in another language other than their native tongue, English? What about any other nationality? Any British?, Australian? If you do, please let me know. I haven’t found any yet. Finding fame while singing in one’s own language is difficult enough, imagine singing in someone else’s. Swedish group ABBA did it. Their career was not catapulted in Swedish, but in English. Not only that, but they even released a very successful album in Spanish titled: Gracias Por La Musica. Granted, they did this one phonetically, but still… heck of an achievement. They sold records by the millions, conquered most of Europe and Australia, were popular in Latin America, had some hits in the U.S, and had many of us enjoying their songs for many decades. But, let’s talk about their music (that’s what remains).
First, let’s consider America’s musical scene in the late 70’s when ABBA arrived. After The Beatles had conquered America and the world, no other music group had achieved anything like it in the land of King Elvis; not even the groups that followed The Beatles in what has been called the British Invasion. The Beatles were right when they said: “We are not going to America until we have a number one hit.” When this happened, everything else followed; all the barriers were brought down. Beatlemania basically destroyed all competition and the rest of the artists had to measure their art and music to Liverpool’s fab four. This was not easy to digest by many record companies, executives, songwriters and performers who had to adapt to the British beat. For sure, this was to be avoided in the future. Only Motown was barely able to catch up with The Beatles thanks to The Supremes‘ competitive hits; on the West Coast, The Beach Boys, and maybe a couple of other bands.
In 1973, ABBA reaches American charts with Waterloo going up only to position 6 in the hit parades, and to number 74 a year later in the best 100 songs according to Billboard. They had to contend with mega hits as: Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (no other than John Lennon and Elton John), Rock the Boat (The Hues Corporation), Band On The Run (no other than Paul McCartney), their own countrymen Blue Swede with Hooked On A Feeling, and Barbra Streisand‘ s powerful ballad The Way We Were. However, Waterloo hits the number 1 spot in Britain, Ireland, West Germany, Belgium and Norway and the top 5 in many other countries.
After good songs like Hasta Manana, Honey, Honey, Honey, and Gonna Sing You My Love Song were mainly dismissed by the public, ABBA comes back with one of their best albums in 1975 reaching the number one position in Britain and Australia with S.O.S, Mamma Mia, and Rock Me. In America? Nothing, zero, nada. It’s until 1976, a year later, when they reappear in the U.S. charts with their new album Arrival aimed to enter America’s market, this time for real. They had just made a tiny mark at number 87 of the best 100 songs with their single Fernando behind The Bee Gees, Vicky Sue Robinson, Ivonne Elliman, and Aerosmith among others.
So, Fernando is technically the song that introduces them to the American audiences. This could have been their “I Want To Hold Your Hand” moment. But it wasn’t. The beautifully simply crafted song not even reached the top ten.
The year when the most popular songs were Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright) by Rod Stewart, Silly Love Songs by Wings and Paul McCartney, Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry, and great ” heavyweights” as Bohemian Rapsody, More Than A Feeling, and Show Me The Way, ABBA comes up with a ballad about a couple from the Mexican American war. Although different in its context, rich in melody and feeling, the subject was and still is not a popular one in America. Most people didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics anyway (for example: The Beatles‘ Maxwell Silver’s Hammer), but the music and political establishment probably did.
This war, before the more known Civil War and like many other afterwards, began with an incident used as an excuse (as Colonel Hitchcock wrote in his diary) to make California a part of the U.S. territory. The people living there were Mexicans (hence ABBA’s title Fernando). It was the summer of 1846, 130 years before this song was created, when Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his Massachussetts poll tax denouncing the war against Mexico. Frederick Douglas also raised his voice against this war where there was rape, pillage and carnage as typical. After Mexico surrendered, New Mexico and California were ceded to the U.S. territory after the American government paid Mexico $15 million dollars.
All of that happened with the Rio Grande on the background. Beatiful Frida’s voice tells her young lover Fernando that although she was afraid, there was something in the air that night, the stars were shining for liberty, for them. She feels no regret and even knowing they would lose, she would do it again to fight for freedom in this land near the Rio Grande. These words leave little doubt about the side they were fighting for.
Clearly, with an introduction like that you couldn’t expect a welcome like The Beatles’. In addition, the Swedish group was from a Social Democratic country led by Olof Palme who had just condemned the war in Vietnam in 1972 and compared the bombings of Hanoi to the Nazi war crimes of destroying the cities of Lidice and Oradour.
Their lyrics were mostly sexually safe, not controversial, easy to remember and sing along. On the other hand, their image went both ways. At times, the couples of Agnetha and Bjorn, Frida and Benny posed for music videos or publicity pictures in a way that seemed to suggest a swinging lifestyle. Intentionally or not, this didn’t help with the puritanical values of most Americans. Agnetha and Frida’s undeniable sex appeal in their revealing mini-skirts were not made for American TV where white contemporary female singers were expected to show almost no skin. In the meantime, in Europe they provoked headlines. Not only for their music’s popularity but also for their performing attire.
In America, their competition was fierce. At the time of the disco fever, they occupied the 27th place of the most popular songs of 1977 with Dancing Queen after artists Debbie Boone, Andy Gibb, The Bee Gees, The Emotions, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, KC and The Sunshine Band, and others.
Their album Arrival contains some additional gems that became favorite to many people around the globe: Money, Money, Money, and Knowing Me, Knowing You. The following year, they hit the charts with Take A Chance On Me at number 30, while all their other great songs are barely noticed: Eagle, One Man, One Woman, The Name of the Game, Hole in Your Soul, and Thank You For the Music.
From then on, their popularity began to wane. Still, they wrote enduring last songs: Chiquitita, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight), and The Winner Takes it All. Even when not conquering America, ABBA’s memories and beautifully simply crafted songs keep on delighting many around the world.
Recommended: ABBA, The Movie (1977) and ABBA In Concert (1979)