ABBA: The Name of the Game
by Andrew Oldham, Tony Calder & Colin Irwin (Pan Books 1995).
You know that guy, that guy who talks a bit too much but you don’t mind because what he says tends to be interesting and, even when it’s not, he changes the subject all the time so that, when he’s not making your ears prick, he will a few minutes later? The guy who can talk about films or politics or history and actually seems to know what he’s talking about, but especially when he’s talking about music? And it’s OK if you fade out for a few minutes while he’s talking, because you can come back later and be welcomed with hugs and beers and – this is the important part – what he says is genuinely though-provoking and he tries to say it in an entertaining way? You know, that
Turns out, that guy’s name is Andrew Oldham, and, back in the day – which is to say back in Swinging London Mark I with The Small Faces
and the Profumo Affair
and Diana Rigg
and Britannia being the center of all that was cool and young and beautiful – Oldham was the manager of the Rolling Stones. Couldn’t ask for a better job – jetting around the world with Brian and Mick and Keith and Charlie, pretending to be in charge of that crew during the years when they were, without question, the greatest white rhythm and blues band that ever there was or ever would be, world without end, amen.
Of course, it did end, because cool and youth and beauty fade, and bands and managers are fated to divorce in bitterness and over-familiarity (U2 and Paul McGuinness excepted), and Oldham needed a new gig. So he turned to writing, trading his time at the side of the stage for a publishing contract.
What he decided to write, improbably enough, was a biography of ABBA. Not cool. Not hip. Even meretricious commercial outlets like Rolling Stone
and Melody Maker
would smirk at the mention of the Swedish foursome. ABBA was naff. Everyone knew that. But that’s what Oldham did, and the world is a far better place because he conceived and organized and dictated – “wrote” is probably not the word – one of the most compelling, illuminating, entertaining, page-turning, engrossing and altogether awesome biographies ever written.
Not that a single word of the book can be trusted, mind you. Let’s get something straight right here: as a work of journalism or history, ABBA: The Name of the Game
is rubbish. It is a clip job and a write around; the facts all seem to be gleaned from pre-existing news sources, and it does not appear that any member of ABBA granted an interview. The book does not contain a bibliography or any notes as to sources (although it does contain an excellent discography of all four members’ releases, group and solo.)
Key facts are missing. Every rock bio needs to note the exact date, place and venue of the group’s first performance. (Say it together, Oasis fans: “August 18, 1991, Boardwalk, Manchester, England”). Oldham and his co-writing crew – he was assisted by a fellow music manager and a journalist – unearthed the following: “[ABBA’s] first live performance as a four-piece occurred in the relative obscurity of a restaurant in Gothenburg at the end of ’70.” I’m sure that sentence will send a stampede of fans in white judo outfits to the venue on the anniversary date.
But the greatest failure of a biography isn’t the omission of detail. The greatest failure of a biography is when it tells you everything about a person except what he or she was like. Whether he ever met them or not, Oldham knows what the four members of ABBA were like or, to be precise, he knows what he thinks they were like, and, if there’s anything Oldham loves to do and does well, it’s give you his opinions on people, places, things, music, meadowlarks, whatever.
Oldham on Benny Andersson, “the one with the beard”:
“What is it about laid-back guys that inspires total fury in women? Benny wanted nothing but the freedom to indulge his one all-consuming passion – music. Beyond that you could set fire to the world around him and it wouldn’t matter. Burnt dinners. A slag-heap in the front room. A houseful of Austrian weightlifters. Benny wouldn’t worry. Benny wouldn’t notice
. Benny would let the world drift by him, oblivious to it all, completely unmoved and untouched by any mayhem unfolding around him.”
After reading one paragraph, you get Benny, you know Benny, if someone with the same personality as Benny Andersson sat next to you at a dinner party, you’d think “This person reminds me of the guy in ABBA with the beard.”
The other three members of the group are drawn as vividly. Bjorn Ulvaeus was the Ric Ocasek of the group, a pug ugly who women inexplicably found attractive and who was a fair musician, a gifted songwriter and a great producer. Anni-Frid Lyngstad (“Frida” or “The Other One”) had a steely resolve forged during an impoverished childhood lived under the stigma of being the illegitimate daughter of an occupying Nazi soldier. (Frida was also a Norwegian in the world’s most famously Swedish group.)
And there was Agnetha. The star of the show, as well as the star of millions of Quaalude-fueled fantasies, Agnetha Faltskog was a blond Nordic beauty, a Swedish media darling since her teens. She was also neurotic, brittle, needy, fickle and prone to depression and phobias. Agnetha had to be handled with reindeer fur gloves, because there was no ABBA without the first A, and Agnetha’s continued participation in the group was always a question.
Holding it together was Stikkan “Stig” Anderson, the group’s manager, who ran Polar Music, the Abbey Road Studios of Stockholm. Stig’s great insight was that ABBA (and he) could make a lot more money by individually licensing tracks for release in each foreign territory, rather than entering into one global deal with a major record label. Stig’s great failure was that, when ABBA was the best-selling band in the world, he couldn’t begin to keep track of all the details of all the deals – and the overlooked detail of paying the Swedish tax authorities proved unspeakably costly. (Oldham states that, at the time, Sweden’s highest tax rate was 85%.)
All four members of what was to become ABBA were established Scandanavian singers with their own fan bases and track records of success. Bjorn met Benny, and the two realized they made a good songwriting team; Benny could write the catchiest melodies on Earth, and Bjorn could sculpt them into glittering three-minute radio diamonds. Then they recruited their girlfriends to sing and wear tight pants, although the women took an immediate dislike to each other which ripened over the years into mutual loathing.
Most people know that ABBA vaulted into the public’s eye by winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Waterloo” (defeating the favorite, an English entrant named Olivia Newton-John). What most people don’t know is that ABBA followed up “Waterloo” with three flops. One year after its triumph, the group was a trivia question on its way to the obscurity and day jobs which are the fates of almost all Eurovision winners.
In a do or die maneuver in late 1975, ABBA released the song “S.O.S.,” which became a global hit and saved their bacon. Then, in a run not seen since the early years of Beatlemania, ABBA released seven consecutive hit singles (“Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “The Name of the Game” and “Take a Chance on Me”).
Why were these songs so successful? Take it away, Andrew Oldham:
“Pop music is silly and trivial and fleeting and floating and meaningless and disposable and momentary and light and frothy and funny and worthless. That’s
what makes it so great. That’s what makes it important. That’s what makes it last. And that’s
what ABBA understood better than most . . . .
“Maybe it’s the lot of great pop that it’s discounted as meaningless and transient when all the evidence is there for everyone to see that truly great
pop has to appear that way to be great, but in fact lasts forever. The sheer consistency of ABBA’s output has to put them at the very top of pop’s golden greats. They did it and they did it and they kept doing it for over a decade . . . .
“So yeah, Ulvaeus and Andersson are in that league [with Lennon/McCartney, Rogers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter] and why should we feel embarrassed about acknowledging it? Because they recorded supposedly frivolous pop songs and wore ridiculous costumes [pictured] and nobody took them seriously, that’s why. But they didn’t sell seven million copies of ABBA Gold
a full decade after any real active service purely on the basis of some kind of camp nostalgia trip. Ask any songwriter – simplicity is the most effective and most difficult quality to successfully construct in music. When a song sounds like it was slotted together like a five-piece jigsaw in a matter of seconds, then that’s a recipe for extravagant, enduring success . . . . They’re the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century.”
I told you the guy could talk.
Labels: ABBA, Biography, Book Review, Music, Non-Fiction