Best of 2021: You know the hits. You know the videos. The TV specials, the movies, the stage shows and - in more recent times - the reunion tracks. But let’s reach behind ABBA’s familiar gold curtain and reveal the REAL best of the best – the unsung ABBA tracks that every producer must hear.
And to get the full picture - when ABBA really found their stride - we have to start at the end…
“What happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice, it used to be so good.” Blame the 1980s. These days, decades slide into each other with hemlines barely blipping, but the move from 1979 to 1980 was like being beamed to a whole new galaxy. Seismic shifts in taste and culture wreaked havoc in popworld, and the sheer familiarity and dependability of ABBA’s looks, moves and music cast them as throwback...
1. The Day Before You Came
Our first pick is, therefore, The Day Before You Came - the last song ABBA ever recorded.
Typically of most huge band’s break-ups (and the scramble to wring a final bit of product from the wreckage) ABBA’s final album isn’t really an album at all. Released in 1982, The Singles: The First Ten Years is a compilation of hits bolstered by just two new tracks.
It’d be easy, therefore, to dismiss these two late additions as a cash-grab, designed to prize out a last tuppence alongside tracks already owned, were it not for the fact that both tracks are superb. So much so, that BOTH make our final five.
The band had returned to the studio in May 1982 to follow up The Visitors album, but only six tracks were recorded - two new singles and their B-sides plus I’m The City (which finally surfaced on 1993’s More ABBA Gold) and the unfinished Just Like That (which morphed to become Under Attack).
Despite its cheek-to-cheek, sexy tango-vibes, TDBYC is a profoundly bleak, 100% electronic ‘sad banger’ before such a thing ever existed, and very much a continuation of the ‘divorce ABBA’ they coined on The Visitors.
It tells the story of the boring, repetitive day to day of the protagonist before the interference of a new romance. Remarkably, it remains unclear lyrically as to whether the real-time ‘today’ of the song - the day after they ‘came’ - is actually better or worse than the day before… Is this a song looking back fondly before things went wrong? Or celebrating the moment when things finally started to go right? The jury remains out.
Despite its utter brilliance - and it being a Benny favourite - the song only reached number 32 in the UK charts, which must have played a part in further sealing the band’s reluctance to re-join the ABBA circus post Chess (see later).
In fact, such was the band’s disappointment in its performance that when UK electronic band Blancmange proposed a near-identical (and near-pointless) cover version in 1984, ABBA publicly endorsed the track to the degree that they even allowed the band to hijack parts of their video, with Agnetha now appearing to share a train with Blancmange’s Neil Arthur, rather than her nameless love interest in the original.
Oh. And to get a real fix on such a delicate and rarefied melody, do check out this version from Benny’s exemplary 2017 album Piano.
2. Under Attack
Another latecomer, Under Attack was also birthed during the band’s final 1982 sessions alongside the aborted and unreleased Just Like That, which shares Under Attack’s chords and verse melody (listen carefully to its unfinished, unreleased mix here).
It’s easy to forget what an electronic band ABBA were, with synths driving Voulez-Vouz, being perfected through Super Trouper and giving way to prominence on The Visitors.
However, throughout their entire output, ABBA never used a sequencer, and, while big fans of the drum machine and the vocoder, all their keyboard parts were played by Benny himself.
That said, in the pursuit of a more modern sound, long-standing ABBA producer/engineer Michael Tretow had taken to gating Benny’s legato synth playing in time with the hi-hat or other percussion to produce a more mechanical, modern edge. (See also The Day Before You Came.)
And so it goes for Under Attack, with choppy synths underpinning slow, drawling guitar. It’s a typically catchy, deceptively ‘simple’ Abba arrangement. We say ‘simple’ in that it is, of course, off-the-chart ABBA-complex, with further stunning depth only revealed with careful repeated listening.
Listen to the bassline in the chorus as it rock-hops its way across the ever-evolving chord landscape. Breathe in the airy toms and synth layers. Or skip to this rare mix with the music and main vocal diminished, allowing the multi-part, multi-layered backing vocals to finally shine through.
Like the details on the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel, they’re impossible to see from the ground, but - as Leonardo explained to naysayers who suggested he was wasting his time - ‘God can see them’.
Under Attack was ABBA’s final single, besting the UK 32 of The Day Before You Came… but only just, stalling at number 26 which - frankly - just ain’t right. And feel the frostiness of the band’s final ever TV performance on the 11th December 1982, through the fake tinsel chill of Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. Brrr…
“My my!” In 1974 UK Prime Minister Edward Heath presided over raging inflation of 17.2%. A coal strike meant that the UK could only work three days a week. There was a state of emergency in Northern Island. And then this atom-bomb-in-bellbottoms went off in the corner of living rooms across Europe.
“Oh yeah!” All hail ABBA’s debut and the ultimate Eurovision winner. (In 2005, Congratulations: 50 Years of the Eurovision Song Contest - a show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event - crowned Waterloo the Best Eurovision Song Ever.)
As much as ABBA’s writing and production matured through the years, the sheer energy and kick-to-the-face of their debut, Waterloo - a bizarre song in which a woman likens her cracking on with a bloke to Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo - means we had to include it in our five.
After caging the lightweight, whimsical, highly melodic mid-European pop of the time - known as schlager - ABBA force-fed it pure rock ‘n’ roll from abroad and production trickery from Michael Tretow, who had just read Richard Williams book on Phil Spector (Out of His Head: The Sound of Phil Spector) and was eager to experiment.
Keen to recreate Spector’s famous ‘Wall of Sound’, Tretow recorded the song’s backing track, then rewound the tape, changing its speed slightly, before recording the entire track again. By pulling up both versions of the - now detuned and thickened - track simultaneously Tretow was able to achieve - for the time - an enormous new sound.
The results were explosive, and while Waterloo is technically ABBA’s first single, fans need to go to 1972’s People Need Love (released as ‘Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid’) for the band’s real genesis, plus the entire Ring Ring album a year later (released as ‘Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida’) which were actually big Euro hits before it.
Despite not being released under the ABBA name, Ring Ring is now considered to be ABBA’s first album, with ‘debut single’ Waterloo actually appearing on the titular second. Even then, the band appear as ‘ABBA (Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida)’ on early pressings, alerting their pre-existing fans to their name change and - thanks to Anni-Frid becoming Frida - the A.B.B.A acronym no longer working…
Waterloo detonated in the collective European consciousness on the 6 April 1974 at the Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast live from the UK’s Brighton Dome. Keen to scupper the strong pre-show favourite, and with a cavalcade of enthusiastic votes storming in from elsewhere, the home judges stunningly and shamefully gave Waterloo the lowest of all possible scores on the night - aka no points at all (the famous ‘nul points’) - in a petulant attempt to swizz a ‘home’ win for (Australian...) Oliva Newton-John’s UK entry. Mercifully, their plot failed, and ABBA won with 24 points, trouncing Newton-John into 4th with 14.
UK 1974 Eurovision judges. You know who you are.
4. If It Wasn’t For The Nights
A forgotten classic never given the standalone release it deserved. Earmarked as a single during the Voulez-Vouz sessions, it was picked out as the obvious choice for the band to announce the album and perform at the 10 January 1979 televised UNICEF concert, an early pre-cursor to Live Aid, raising money for UNICEF’s 1979 ‘Year of the Child’ campaign, organised by music mogul Robert Stigwood who managed the (also on the bill and similarly gigantic) Bee Gees.
However, the celebratory IIWFTN was deemed too upbeat for the occasion, and the multi-million strong US TV audience were pointed at the moodier, more suitable, written-just-weeks-earlier Chiquitita - Spanish for ‘little one’ - instead. The Bee Gees did likewise, side-stepping all their bangers in favour of Too Much Heaven. Meanwhile Rod Stewart had no such qualms, using the event to ask the world’s needy infants Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? while mercilessly banging it into the US number one slot.
IIWFTN is basically the Dancing Queen’s smarter, younger sister, and once again sees ABBA “having the time of their lives” with romantic, soaring disco strings super-charging a Benny-based piano romp. It’s a classy, sexy, celebration, with a shimmering glossy backing track, vocal harmonies and production chops all at the top of their ABBA game.
Close your eyes and you can imagine it being part of the retro splendour of Daft Punk’s 2013 Random Access Memories, comfortably sitting alongside the likes of Touch and Lose Yourself To Dance.
Witness the band clearly loving the track and looking and sounding fantastic during its (pre-Voulez-Vouz album) debut on Japanese TV in 1978.
And if that’s left you gasping for a 12-inch, check out Abbacadabra’s sympathetic, sparkling 2010’s extended remake courtesy of the pop production geniuses at Almighty.
5. Head Over Heels
Just what was it with the tango/cha-cha vibes of late period ABBA? Head Over Heels - which had a working title of Tango (a fact it shares with super-smash Fernando) - teams the feel with opera and stomping and the Michael Tretow ‘wall of sound’ rock ‘n’ roll, complete with delayed, ping-ponging synths and lush analogue strings and brass provided by the highly elite Yamaha GX-1.
The GX-1 ‘Dream Machine’ was a triple-decked, no-holds-barred analogue super synth that went onto inspire Yamaha’s equally monumental (and highly prized and revered) CS-80.
Beyond the amazing voice architecture - enabling digital-style control and storage of parameters in the age of all-analogue – it was the sheer presence of the GX-1 that really impressed. The keyboard itself weighed 300kg, while the optional pedal board and seat (yes, seat) added another 87kg.
The GX-1 was remarkable in its ability to recreate string and brass sounds (and recall them at the touch of a button). Famously, Stevie Wonder used it for the strings on Pastime Paradise, bluffing journalists at the time that the track featured the London Symphony Orchestra, such was their realism.
Of course, it was super expensive - $60,000 when released (that’s $369,000 in today’s wedge) and of course Benny Andersson owned one and used it extensively through late-period ABBA. It’s all over The Visitors album, bringing the swinging, sawing strings and flickering brass to Head Over Heels.
And then wonder why the shimmering Head Over Heels hit number one in the Netherlands but only reached number 25 in the UK, finally breaking their run of 18 consecutive top ten hits. Blame the break-ups, as this ‘on paper’ joyful ABBA banger was finally realised as as lost and whimsical as ABBA at their grimmest once the band captured it on tape.
It’s therefore ABBA’s most overlooked single release, even being excluded from the following year’s The Singles: The First Ten Years - the only genuine omission. Unforgivable as this is ABBA gold.
Don’t shut me down (yet)!
Here are ten essential further listening tracks that narrow missed our top five
1. Angel Eyes
Fact is we’d quite happily include the entire contents of the Voulez-Vouz album here as the by-now bloated disco monster gets treated to a perfect last gasp in the late-70’s limelight via a little ABBA magic.
2. Does Your Mother Know?
Love that intro. A rollicking good tune and the definitive, too-rare outing for Björn on lead vocals. It’s easy to forget that ABBA started out as a male duo - Benny and Björn - before “borrowing” the talents of Agnetha and Anni-Frid to try something new.
3. Super Trouper
Unstoppably slick. And “feeling like a number one”. Which - of course - it was. But “I was sick and tired of everything, when I called you last night…” from Glasgow?!?!
4. I Wonder (Departure)
Call it a schmaltzy show tune, but it’s right up there, soaring with the very best, forming part of the triple-tracked mini-musical The Girl With The Golden Hair that was shoe-horned onboard 1977’s ABBA: The Album.
5. One of Us
It should have been ABBA’s 10th number one - the lead single from The Visitors. And while it numerically DID reach the UK top spot over Christmas 1981, there were no chart returns that week so - officially - the paperwork insists that One of Us stalled at number 3, meaning ABBA have to make do with ‘just’ nine UK chart toppers. Check out the perfect Swedish symmetry of its ‘Agnetha-does-IKEA’ video where she battles with her Billy and sets up her Snöksvig. Rumour has it that the original script featured her eating meatballs in a Volvo.
6. The Winner Takes It All
David Van Day bought a burger van after Dollar split. Marc Anthony quick-stepped back to South America post J. Lo divorce. Shania Twain impressed nobody much after her writer/producer husband Mutt Lange said Come On Over to their housekeeper. And Peters was never even going out with Lee.
It’s amazing, therefore, that post Björn/Agnetha split (1979), and Benny/Frida split (1980), that ABBA not only existed, but - thanks in part to those break-ups - penned their best songs ever. This one - of course - being the absolute apex of their break-up brilliance.
And finally… Not ABBA… But almost…
7. Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson - I Know Him So Well
“Isn’t it madness, he can’t be mine?” And isn’t it madness that we can’t have Agnetha and Anni-Frid bawling this at each other instead of Elaine Paige OBE and Barbara ‘Two Ronnies’ Dickson?
Yes, it’s the ABBA single that never was. Written with the fab four in mind and based heavily on the band’s unreleased live track I Am An A (which the group used to introduce themselves through their 1977 world tour) IKHSW is an ABBA smash in all but name.
When ABBA evaporated, Benny and Björn segued seamlessly into bed with prolific lyricist Tim Rice who was similarly left in the lurch when his longstanding tunesmith Andrew Lloyd Webber buggered off to do Cats. Thus the trio played Chess… the smartypants musical take on 1980’s cold war paranoia refashioned as grandmasters clashing over a chess board, with IKHSW as the lead track.
The plan had always been to “have two years off” working on the Chess album and subsequent theatre production but increasingly - after indifference to their brilliant (what turned out to be) final singles - the appetite to return from all four members began to wane.
Chess is at best described as an odd fish and one which would, frankly, have been a better album if Benny and Björn had written the lyrics and got ABBA to do it instead. (Though special mention to Murray Head (who?) whose jury-out crap/awesome conundrum One Night In Bangkok remains legend.)
Not that Chess wasn’t a hit, of course. IKHSW was a UK number one for four weeks in 1985 and remains the biggest selling UK single by a female duo. It also remains an entirely Euro confection, never earning a US release. Hence Whitney and Cissy Houston’s mangled and morally unsavoury 1987 US cash-in, which now gormlessly pits mother against daughter for the passions of the same man. Nice.
8. Frida - I Know There’s Something Going On
We’ve already extolled the virtues of IKTSGO in our Phil Collins 5 Tracks but of all of the post-ABBA female output this is still way out in front.
Post ABBA and fancying a rockier, Pat Benetar-inspired edge, Anni-Frid drafted in Collins to write, produce and play on one of those international smashes he was so good at at the time. Unfortunately (and surprisingly) the track did next to nada globally and perhaps left Frida “feeling small, wishing she had never left at all…”
9. Gemini - Another You Another Me
It’s the definitive ‘Um… is this Abba?’ song. Meandering, and uncertain, a victim of its own complexity, Another You Another Me is transformed from loosely chained non sequiturs into a birrova monster via its soaring chorus. And that resolve into the second verse... Gets us every time [wipes tear].
Written for brother and sister duo Gemini by Benny and Björn, it’s another ABBA smash that didn’t happen and proof that even in retirement (“We had our moment in the sun.”) the guys have still got it.
AND FINALLY… Not actually ABBA at all…
10. Steps - Something In Your Eyes
OK. Not actually ABBA in any way but it’s a must-include because it’s most likely passed you by that Steps (Pete Waterman’s “ABBA on speed”) have been ON FIRE throughout 2020/2021. If you’re remotely entranced by the big four you really should do yourself a favour and check out their What The Future Holds (Pt1 and Pt2) albums.
Thanks to the laser-accurate, multitudinous veteran Eurovision writers and producers on board, THIS is what ABBA would sound like in 2021!… Err… Except we know what ABBA sound like in 2021 and - frankly - we’ll take Something In Your Eyes over Don’t Shut Me Down any day.