Inspired by Ben Self’s wonderful Bruce Cockburn playlist the other day (pts 2-3 coming soon!), here’s what I’ve affectionately been informed is “the toughest sell” in A Mess of Help. No apologies:

The Church of Wilson has drawn scores of worshippers over the years, including a disproportionate number of musicians. Those who are interested in the craft of pop music—writing, production, arrangement—invariably find themselves in The Beach Boys’ tractor beam sooner or later. There has been no more successful Wilsonite than Benny Andersson of 70s Swedish megastars ABBA. The influence is writ large on every one of their records, even their biggest ones, from “Waterloo” to “Take a Chance on Me” to “Super Trouper.”[1]

But where the commercialism of The Beach Boys was rarely, if ever, held against them, ABBA would be dogged throughout their lifespan by the charge that they were cynical hucksters, always out for an easy buck. And, to be fair, their manager, Stig Anderson, was a remarkably shrewd businessman. He fancied himself the Nordic Colonel Tom Parker, brokering deal after deal to increase the band’s revenue (and ensure that they held on to it—not an easy task, considering Swedish tax policies), and he was good at his job! It takes more than great music to become the second highest-grossing pop group of all time after the Beatles.[2]

As a result, ABBA have never lacked exposure. Their songs have been licensed to kingdom come; collections of their music have appeared in countless forms and sold in the tens of millions, the most well-known being ABBA Gold and its sequel, More Gold.

If there’s a downside to releasing so many number one singles, it’s that their albums have been somewhat forgotten. They recorded eight LPs over the course of nine years, and all of them are pretty terrific. But… albums are what serious artists make, and up until very recently, ABBA were considered pop stars. Their squeaky clean image—the silly outfits, the disco dance routines, the somewhat loose grasp of English—has not helped their reputation as bubblegum fluff. (Of course, you can’t completely blame the public. A song like “Put On Your White Sombrero” doesn’t exactly command respect.)

And yet, if we know anything about the group, it’s that appearances can be deceiving. The smiling publicity shots hid the crumbling marriages of both couples in the band: Bjorn & Agnetha and Benny & Frida. (Or, as they’re more commonly known, the Mullet & the Blonde, the Beard & the Redhead.)

What’s more, the ultimate feel-good band of the 70s did not sing about very happy subjects. “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, with its sparkling guitars and upbeat melody, tells a heartbreaking and rather hopeless story of divorce. “S.O.S.” surfs a joyous chorus to relate feelings of genuine desperation. “The Name of the Game” is almost too vulnerable for words. The sexual bluster of “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” is a red herring. Behind the disco gloss, the song reeks of loneliness and depression, a prayer for someone to “chase the shadows away” and “take me through the darkness to the break of the day”. (It’s also about as Christological as they ever got). Perhaps they were more Scandinavian than we thought.

The secret to ABBA’s lasting popularity (or at least ubiquity) is that their relationship songs are more concerned with emotional truth than propriety, or what today we call “correctness.” Listen to a later single like “One of Us”—the singer has left her lover, she’s got her own space now, but she is not happy. Late at night, when she can’t sleep, she knows she is lying to herself. If she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t have left. Such an admission may not sound like that of a ‘strong woman’, but it certainly sounds like that of a real one.

Or their devastating “The Winner Takes It All”, which presents love in startlingly binary terms, acknowledging that, as one critic reads the song, “a person should be able to have it all, but it’s just not possible.” In other words, ‘should’ and ‘is’ collide in the music of ABBA, and the results have enduring power.[3]

But we’ve all heard those songs a hundred times before. This playlist is comprised of tracks that failed to make Gold or More Gold, definitive proof that ABBA were far more than a singles band, and certainly not a superficial one. In chronological order, here goes:

1. “People Need Love”. The song that launched them back in 1973. Some might say that not being native English speakers was a liability for ABBA, and in certain cases it may have been. This is not one of them. Bjorn’s odd phrasings—he was responsible for most of the lyrics, Benny the music—often allowed them to get under your skin in ways that a native speaker couldn’t have. “People Need Love” makes for a refreshingly direct mission statement, and one that shows their grasp on universality was firm from the get-go. Released under the mouthful, “Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid”, it is indicative of their earliest recordings, in which the men took lead as often as the ladies. Listen closely though: after the key change, the girls start yodeling in the background, a vestige no doubt of their years on the ‘schlager’ circuit. ‘Schlager’ being another word for that strange Germanic-Nordic mixture of campfire and torch song. Lawrence Welk, RIP.

2. “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong”. “Gonna bring you some light”, Frida sings over a synth sound that was lifted directly from Wings’ Band on the Run, which came out the year before. This was close as they got to The Carpenters, and an early example of the extraordinary musical versatility they would exhibit in the coming years.

3. “King Kong Song”. There’s not another one like this in their catalog, what can only be described as a 70s approximation of 50s rock n’ roll, filtered through a foreign sensibility, with all the libido edited out. Bjorn screams like a mad man, trading verses with then-wife Agnetha, while Benny’s arrangement showcases his Beach Boys obsession to great effect. The Wilsonian vibe doesn’t end there, though. Like many a Beach Boys tune, this song is embarrassingly literal. There’s no metaphor; they’re singing about a “dreadful mighty killa, a big black, white gorilla”. But the outrageousness of the performance suggests that they’re in on the joke, that they’re clearly having a gas. The irony, of course, is that the song genuinely rocks. Great organ solo toward the end, too.

4. “Bang-A-Boomerang”. Bubblegum perfection, all the elements of pre-disco ABBA are in place: unison female vocals, a killer pre-chorus, kitchen sink arrangement, exuberance oozing out of every pore. Don’t let the goofiness fool you—the lyric isn’t nonsensical (neither, for that matter, is the one for “Dum Dum Diddle”, even if title does them no favors). “Every feeling you’re showing is a boomerang you’re throwing” is a brilliant formulation of 1 John 4, evidence of their offbeat approach to the English language at its best.

As a side note, ABBA aren’t often given credit for their innovative music videos, almost all of which were directed Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Chocolat), and the clip for “Bang-A-Boomerang” below is a prime example: joyful music performed in an overcast Stockholm by quartet of grinning fashionistas.

5. “I’ve Been Waiting For You”. The hit ballad that never was. Just when you think the chorus couldn’t be any catchier, the title phrase knocks you over. Another song about over-the-top devotion and laying “my life before you”, you have to hand it to Agnetha: she seldom if ever presented love as something subject to bargaining. It’s all or nothing, no holding back, complete giving of oneself every time. Musically, the spectre of (Phil) Spector looms large, replete with a na-na-na coda.

6. “Crazy World”. Left off their self-titled album for god knows what reason, this irresistible slice of soft-rock, sung with real tenderness by Bjorn, tells the story of a man who thinks he’s being cuckolded but comes to find out that his girlfriend has simply reconnected with her brother Joe. Bjorn’s an underrated storyteller, and again, the slight awkwardness of his English gives the words a subversive quality. You dismiss them as non-serious at your own peril. No surprise that their work would lend itself so well to musical theater later on.

7. “Hey, Hey Helen”. Fleetwood Mac may be the band most commonly associated with divorce, yet even they never attempted anything as overt as what ABBA did with “Hey, Hey Helen.” The title may be chuckle-inducing, but the subject matter is about as visceral as it gets, concerning the fallout of a painful separation. The lyric grills a young divorcee about her state of mind: “Is [your independence] worth the pain to see the children cry? / Does it hurt when they ask for Daddy?… What’s the matter with you?” As insensitive as the questions may be, it would be a mistake to interpret them as the accusations of a spurned male. They sound much more like the reproaches of an overactive conscience, voicing the doubts that eat at us internally whether we approve of them or not. Just as the words verge into abusive territory, the backing vocals on the chorus convey a sly affirmation of the woman’s freedom and ability, an almost New Testament-like advocacy of the ostracized female.

The lyric isn’t the only thing about the song that is heavy. The arrangement borders on proto-metal, or at least something far, far louder than the disco-pop for which ABBA were known. And then, out of nowhere, the guitars drop out and the electric piano leads a funk breakdown![4] Those who have had the pleasure of watching the accompanying dance routine (and outfits) know that it was the height of goofy, undermining the caustic words and their power-chord accompaniment nearly as gloriously as the awkward song title. Like life itself, “Hey, Hey Helen” is both silly and sublime, deeply sad and absurd at the same time. The simultaneous profundity and ridiculousness seem to deepen rather than detract from one another, amounting to nothing less than a sterling example of pop irony, not the first or last time they would achieve such.

8. “One Man, One Woman”. It won’t win any awards for political correctness, but this is another of their devastating ballads about relational impasse, also one of Frida’s greatest performances. “No smiles, not a single word, at the breakfast table” conjures up adult emotions in the very first line, before asking, “What’s wrong? Where did our love go?” The chorus pronouncement that “somehow we’ll help each other through the hard times” is touching if perhaps overly hopeful, given what happened. Oh, and the back-up vocals on the second and third verses may be their all- time most successful Beach Boys tribute in a career full of them.[5] The evolution from “King Kong Song” to this is remarkable.

9. “Move On”. More evidence of their musical daring, as Bjorn does his best Glen Campbell impersonation for the spoken first verse. It’s a bizarre move but one that works. The rest of the song belongs to the ladies. Whenever ABBA abandoned romantic love, their lyrics tended to get bogged down in sentimental 70s hoo-ha, as they do here. Still, the swooning melody makes this one of the better attempts at integrating their folk music past into a euro-pop framework. Not quite as effective as the more well-known “Eagle” but pretty good nonetheless.

10. “That’s Me”. Beach Boys harmonies and a disco beat are a mix made in heaven. This is one of Agnetha’s signature tunes, boasting a bit of a Luke 5:8 feel, in which she takes on the character of “Carrie, not-the-kind-of-girl-you’d-marry”. It’s a strange but compelling subject for a song, a woman being fed up with trying to pretend to be someone she’s not. The “I don’t believe in fairy tales / sweet nothings in my ear / but I do believe in sympathy” is more than worth the price of admission.

11. “If It Wasn’t For the Nights”. More inconvenient emotional truth from four Swedes wearing kimonos. When it comes to heartache, that is, daytime is easy. It’s the wee wee hours of the night when the chinks in our armor make themselves known, when it becomes impossible to distract ourselves from our vulnerabilities, when ‘my need’ consumes ‘my rights’, and the primacy of emotion over reason is most evident. The group would mine the theme of second-guessing to even greater effect a few years later on “One of Us”, but that one won’t get you dancing like “Nights” will. More intoxicating unison vocals.

12. “Kisses of Fire”. What starts out as a syrupy ballad erupts into an epiphany of cosmic keyboards and Bee Gees pastiche. “Caught in a landslide of emotion” captures not just falling in love but their entire discography. And just listen to how Agnetha sings “I’ve had my share of love affairs and they were nothing but tragedies” if you want to know why her voice carried so many of their biggest songs: hurt, strength, beauty, defiance, vulnerability, authority, femininity all rolled up into one. She’s not given nearly enough credit as a master of her instrument. Neither is Frida.

13. “Me and I”. Chariots of Fire style keyboards threaten to overpower one of Bjorn’s most inspired lyrics, which deals with inner conflict à la Romans 7 or “good old Dr. Freud”. Frida sings, “Yes I am to myself what Jekyll must have been to Hyde”. Very few American pop bands would venture what comes next, namely, a confession about not being “in any way unique”. The vocoder obscures the conclusion, which often forms the beginning of compassion in relationships: “everyone’s a freak”.

14. “Elaine”. The only thing about ABBA that may have dated more than their clothes are the names they used in their songs, from Fernando to Helen to Tracy (in the fantastic “So Long”) to this one, Seinfeld notwithstanding. Opening with “You hate, you scream, you swear / And still you never reach him”, “Elaine” is a relentlessly bleak (though surprisingly peppy) tune about emotional bondage and dead-end affairs. You can understand why it failed to make the cut for Super Trouper, but the melody is solid, and the recording should be studied by anyone interested in what can be done with a synthesizer. Another brilliant pre-chorus, and the processing on the back-up vocal is nothing short of revelatory. They never stopped pushing forward.

15. “Soldiers”. If the thought of ABBA getting political makes you cringe in fear, you’re not alone. But here they are, on their final album, the wintery The Visitors, singing about the Cold War. And… it’s amazing. Not to mention risky, considering their unrivaled popularity in the Eastern Bloc. “Let’s not look the other way”, Agnetha exhorts her listeners, and with a melody this ‘cool’ and full, you’re compelled to obey. The metallic guitar fills that float over the second half of the song add yet another element to their already impressive sonic palette. One wonders where they would have gone from here.

16. “Slipping Through My Fingers”. Agnetha, queen of abandonment ballads (“The Winner Takes It All”), sings this one from a mother’s point of view. Authenticity has never been a word that finds its way into descriptions of the band, but fans will know that, as honestly as they came by all their divorce songs, this subject may have been even closer to the bone. One of the primary reasons the band came to an end was Agnetha’s refusal to tour or be gone from her children for extended periods. She would actually become something of a recluse in subsequent years. That Bjorn penned the lyrics for his then ex-wife (but mother of their two children) is an act of grace in and of itself. Few parents will miss the bittersweet emotional truth in Agnetha’s delivery.

[1] While ABBA certainly developed a style all their own, some of the pastiches on the early records were borderline plagiaristic, e.g. “Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)”.

[2] Over 380 million albums sold!

[3] Insights borrowed, with gratitude, from PZ’s Podcast, episodes 173174.

[4] As was the case with most of ABBA’s (many) sonic experiments, it works.

[5] The story of Benny and Bjorn meeting their idol is too bizarre to omit. During one of their visits to the States in the late 70s, someone arranged for them to get together with Brian at the home of a mutual acquaintance. BW was in particularly bad shape, mental health-wise. Carl Magnus Palm’s Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA picks up the narrative: “Wilson was escorted in and sat on a chair. To the perplexity of Bjorn and Benny, the only word the former creative genius uttered during the entire encounter was a low-groaning ‘huh… huh… huh’ at regular intervals. When they left, the host said, ‘How wonderful that you got to meet Brian, because tonight he was really on form.’” (p 386).