Perfect 10: Frida’s gonna sing you an ABBA song

“In the ‘70s, no one would admit that they liked ABBA. Now it’s fine. It’s so kitsch. Kitsch is an excuse to defend the fact that they feel a common emotion. If it is kitsch. you put a sort of frame around something – to suggest you are being ironic. Actually, you aren’t. You are really enjoying it. I like ABBA. I did then and I didn’t admit it. The snobbery of the time wouldn’t allow it. I did admit it when I heard Fernando; I could not bear to keep the secret to myself anymore and also because I think there is a difference between Swedish sentimentality and LA sentimentality because the Swedish are so restrained emotionally. When they get sentimental it’s rather sweet and charming. 

“What really got me with Fernando was what the lower singer was doing, I don’t know her name. I spent months trying to learn that. It’s so obscure what she’s doing and very hard to sing. And then from being a sceptic I went over the top in the other direction. I really fell for them.” — the musical egghead that is Brian Eno, The Guardian, 2010

She’s a leading lady…

From effective Nazi orphan to Swedish superstar and Swiss-German princess, what a remarkable voyage this most classy quarter of the awesome foursome has had. She was born Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad in Norway on 15 November 1945, though, let’s be honest, she’ll be forever known as the fabulous, formidable Frida from ABBA. 

She’s a Swede, if you know what I mean.

The singer with commanding lower register and almost as many hairstyles as hit records is officially styled Her Serene Highness the Dowager Princess Anni-Frid of Reuss, Countess of Plauen. And her majestic, glacial vocals have powered some of the most memorable hits in music history, such as Fernando, Knowing Me, Knowing You, Money, Money, Money and most recently I Still Have Faith In You, often in perfect union with her “little sister” Agnetha Fältskog in a duel lead harmony effect for their brand of radiant effervescent pop.

Being a self-declared ABBAholic, with barely a trace of hesitation I decided to try to do the impossible and showcase a Perfect 10 of Frida’s ABBA leads, because I could. 

What’s your favourite, super troupers?

Gonna Sing You My Love Song (1974)

Despite their soaraway success at Eurovision, 1974 was early days for ABBA as an albums-making concern. With Waterloo’s charmingly naive mix of folk, pop, rock and even reggae, that inconsistency typified their first few long-players, though Waterloo is significant in that it was the first album to use the A-B-B-A acronym and the fact that those song-writing guys Björn and Benny get a good share of the singing themselves, which decreased dramatically once they realised the star power and superiority of the prettier half of the group. It seems obvious now but just a notion of two female lead vocalists must have been pretty novel at the time.

Aside from two hits (Honey Honey was a Top Tenner for Brit combo Sweet Dreams, whereas the ABBA original flopped) there were still a fair few tacky tracks, like the tropical lovelessness that is Sitting In The Palm Tree, or the overwrought comedy glam of King Kong Song. Thankfully, Gonna Sing You My Love Song is a cut above: a yearning story of a woman in love with a married man — and the final occasion when the lyrics were written by Benny alone, who was involved with another woman when he met Frida in 1969. While the plaintive subject matter points towards their later torch ballads that would feature so memorably in the band’s classic catalogue, the deep bass-driven “duh… duh, duh” riff that propels the chorus — very likely played on a Minimoog, almost certainly pilfered from Wings’ Band On The Run — found its way into something much more recent, while we’ll get to later.

Incidentally, in 1991 the track lent its name to an obscure South African compilation, with Gonna Sing You My Love Song (12 Classic Abba Love Songs) being one of the last regional releases before the band’s International catalogue was harmonised and relaunched with Universal’s world-beating ABBA Gold.

Fernando (1975)

Can you hear the drums Fernando? I think we all did. As Waterloo coincided with my first year at school, I have a vague recollection of their early stuff but this is my first really vivid audio-visual memory of ABBA as a chart-busting phenomenon: a wistful tale of two veteran freedom-fighters reminiscing in old age about a long-ago battle in which they fought, probably from high on a mountain in Mexico (Brotherhood Of Man certainly seemed to think so anyway).

The token new song on the band’s first Greatest Hits album, the song gave the Fab Four their third chart-topping single for the whole of May 1976 in Blighty, though that’s nothing compared to our Antipodean cousins. For four decades, Fernando was both the longest-running No.1 in Aussie history and its biggest selling 45 ever, until it was surpassed by Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You in 2017. How sweet the victory of Voyage toppling Sheeran’s latest must have tasted just recently then. 

Incidentally, Fernando was first issued in a Swedish language version with substantially different lyrics on Anni-Frid’s second solo album Frida Ensam, produced by Benny and Björn. The 1975 LP also features one of the more passable covers of Bowie’s Life On Mars?, which was brought to their attention by Barbra Streisand’s version in 1974. Well hey, at least Dame David didn’t call Frida’s rendition “atrocious”.

Knowing Me, Knowing You (1976)

This is one of those songs where ABBA aren’t just good, they have become pop perfection. Pop music as an art-form. Knowing Me, Knowing You is a song where both music and vocals are in a perfect relationship with each other. This was the third and final single from the Swedish quartet’s Arrival album, in retrospect so perfectly titled: being their first studio set to top the weekly and year-end charts, Arrival is widely regarded as ABBA’s first classic LP and was the first to introduce the trademarked mirrored-B logo.

Knowing Me, Knowing You was issued in its own right on 14th February, 1977. A song of heartache and mistrust released on Valentine’s Day? Now that’s what I call ennui. This is the first of the Nordic Wonder’s great wintry epics of exultantly bittersweet break-up songs, and the depressed resignation that things, actually, might not get better. As with their previous singular outing, the filthy lucre cabaret-styled Money Money Money, the track is one of Frida’s all too infrequent star turns on 45, though her first verse performance is a trifle wobbly. Never mind, Agnetha nearly steals it with her echo chamber of seductive spectral whispers, and Benny’s keyboards hit the glacial grandeur they’re aiming for. 

The insistent beat, kicking in every time the tune tips nostalgic, mimics the urgency to leave a doomed liaison. Sombre verses followed by uplifting choruses is what ABBA did best, and the recording wisely plays up this emotional intensity while balancing it with plenty of ear-friendly hooks like the devastating multi-part harmonies on the choruses and the tear-jerker guitar riff that follows each chorus. Accompanied by a video almost as iconic as the song, the combination of from-the-heart songwriting and impeccable production savvy resulted in another major international hit. You don’t have to ask if it reached Number 1.

I Wonder (Departure) (1977)

ABBA: The Album was something of a step forward for the group. A much more mature record, the result of absorbing and assimilating some of the influences around them, particularly platinum-shifting albums acts such as the loungy laid-back California sound of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles but, as allmusic.com’s Bruce Elder pointed out, “without compromising their essential virtues as a pop ensemble.” Interestingly, had it not been for the Travolta-starring soundtrack juggernauts that were Saturday Night Fever and Grease, in 1978 The Album would have given ABBA the distinction of having the UK’s best-selling album for three years in a row, following Greatest Hits (1976) and Arrival (1977).

Stately, majestic and sedate, I Wonder (Departure) is the centrepiece of the The Girl with the Golden Hair: Three Scenes From a Mini-Musical that had been debuted on the band’s first world tour earlier in the year. 

A tale of being torn by the bonds to friends and family when trying to make it big, the lyrics reflect Frida’s own story, when she left her husband and kids to pursue her singing career in Stockholm. It’s the kind of lushly melodic, moodily reflective ballad that could easily have graced a Streisand album of the era, though could even Miss Babs have surpassed Frida’s cut-glass diction and sense of theatre? Unsurprisingly, the track points the way to Benny and Björn’s foray into the world of musicals that culminated with Chess and, of course, the behemoth that is Mamma Mia.

The King Has Lost His Crown (1979)

Ah yes, when ABBA went “disco”. That it took nearly a year to record Voulez-Vous is an indicator of the creative and personal constraints in which the four members found themselves at the end of the 1970s. Their sixth album coincided with the marital split between Agnetha and Björn and the massively shifting currents in popular music, with disco undergoing a renaissance thanks to the aforementioned Saturday Night Fever movie and soundtrack. Thus, about half of VV shows the undeniable influence of the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John and Earth Wind & Fire at their most dance-oriented.

The Super Swedes’ signature sound of sophisticated songwriting and irresistible hooks was peppered with top drawer disco stylings, with fabulously funky beats, mellifluous keyboards and sweeping strings running through much of the material. Yet the album’s biggest hits were a couple of Number Twos: the sentimental Euro-schmaltz ballads Chiquitita and I Have A Dream, the latter Frida lead narrowly losing out on the top spot to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall and spending a month in runner up position over Christmas and New Year ‘79/‘80. 

Pleasingly, Frida got a fair crack of the vocal whip on Voulez-Vous, singing lead on a further pair of beauties — my preference being The King Has Lost His Crown, a mid-paced bitter ballad allegorically describing the end of a relationship. It’s murky and slightly sinister, yet so phenomenally techno-coloured in musical texture and style. Frida’s deep and sultry alto is just so irresistible too. Curiously, in his review of Voulez-Vous, Smash Hits’ Red Starr thought that ABBA had “still to make an album that conveys the magic and impact of their singles,” yet for me, VV is the first time there seemed to be a muddled approach as to what to issue as 45s, and the likes of As Good As New, and If It Wasn’t For The Nights hold their own when pitted against the pretty Angeleyes or the dodgy Does Your Mother Know. Most shockingly, The King Has Lost His Crown did appear on 45… as the B-side to the pulsating non-album single Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), a trailer for the band’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2, their fifth UK chart-topping album in just three-and-a-half years.

Our Last Summer (1980)

Seventh set Super Trouper continued the band’s unbroken unassailable streak of chart-topping albums, and it also returned them to No.1 in the singles charts with The Winner Takes It All and the title track. Like the Frida-led Andante, Andante, these days I find Super Trouper the song a bit MOR twee — and that’s before we even get to that criminal jumper she’s wearing in the video. 

On reflection (pun intended) I could have plumped for the disarmingly perky meditation on bipolarity that is Me And I, though it’s really Our Last Summer that stands out, even without its use in Mamma Mia. Björn found the track’s inspiration in a memory of a romance he had during a visit to Paris as a teenager, which is replicated in both movies. With a certain je ne sais quoi and sly nod to the Beach Boys, the nostalgic and evocative lyric sets the scene at famous sites around the City of Love and Light: the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Champs-Élysées et al.

Interestingly, during Lasse Wellander’s prominent guitar solo, part of the future Chess song Anthem can be heard. Andersson and Ulvaeus had been working on the 1984 track’s melody for a number of years but had failed to find a place for it in any ABBA project.

The Visitors (1981)

Vienna comes to Stockholm. For forty years, the monolithic, if still slightly erratic brilliance of The Visitors was ABBA’s eighth and final studio album. I don’t know if you’ve heard but it’s been recently downsized to penultimate status, though that affects its depth and pathos not one iota. Reflecting the change in their inter-personal relationships, the music is more atmospheric and ambitious than it had ever been, its themes darker, its personal politics more tangled. Both of the band’s couples had divorced, but the men were still writing lyrics for the women to sing — meaning it’s not uncommon to see a cruel edge in tracks like One Of Us, in which a woman (narrated by Agnetha) regrets her new independence over a typically gorgeous melancholic melody. 

With a magisterial vocal performance from Frida, the single’s flip-side Should I Laugh Or Cry was utterly thrown away and would have fitted far better on the album than the cheesy Björn-led Two For The Price Of One. The curious thing about The Visitors is how Agnetha was awarded lead on the main pair of singles (follow up 45: the fun and frivolous Head Over Heels), yet the Frida numbers are by far the more experimental and ultimately rewarding. With its twisted, treated vocal production, she opens proceedings with the austere electro-shock of the title track: an incredibly eerie, slightly Ultravox-ish ode to Cold War paranoia that was so unlike anything ABBA had done before that if that had been issued as an anonymous white label the critics would have been falling over themselves to proclaiming it as a synthwave masterpiece by whatever mysterious new New Romantic outfit dared to put it out.

One thing is certain, with Benny’s spooky synths, Ola Brunkert’s chocolatey drums and Frida’s career-topping turn, The Visitors embodies a feeling of foreboding adventurousness like nothing else in their glorious arsenal. One can be certain of very few things in the music world, but I guarantee no one will ever make a pop song remotely like this one.

Like An Angel Passing Through My Room (1981)

Although The Visitors’ third track (and its lead single in parts of the Americas) When All Is Said And Done could been a contender — a kind of stoic sequel to The Winner Takes It All, detailing as it does the divorce between Benny and its narrator Frida — I was set on including the album’s second side opener, the thespian ear-grabber I Let The Music Speak — imperious and grandly operatic vocals from our Anni-Frid and all. It’s a close-run thing but show closer Like An Angel Passing Through My Room more than deserves its place here. Notable as being the only ABBA song to feature a single vocalist, the final mix was a simple and sparsely produced thing of beauty that could be a lullaby or a requiem – the entire track consisting of Frida’s desolate treated vocals, synthesized strings, ticking clock and music box melody. 

Yet on an expanded 2012 edition of The Visitors, a kind of Angel Undeleted collage of demos put together by Benny entitled From A Twinkling Star To A Passing Angel illustrates how the track went through numerous incarnations, from its birth as an adaption of the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (which they gleefully revisited on 2021’s Little Things) to its stripped-back release as a twilight meditation on mortality. It’s a fascinating curio, showing ABBA’s unfettered experimentation in various stages of completion, ranging from uptempo disco (rejected because of its similarity to Lay All Your Love On Me) to a sober strings and synth-based arrangements. None are as powerful as the finished take, but the medley shows both the Swedes’ punctilious approach to getting a track right, and their good judgement in knowing when they’d managed it. Even as the band’s commercial star faded and its professional relationships quietly unravelled, they were still utter perfectionists.

Incidentally, six years before the Gimme Gimme Gimme-sampling Hung Up, that prayer-loving virgin Madonna recorded a haunting version of Like An Angel during sessions for her Music album. It’s yet to be officially released though it’s easy to find online.

Cassandra (1982)

Did someone mention facelifts? Rather than pre-empting a certain piece of stretched skin in a frame from an episode of Doctor Who, Björn borrowed the tale of Cassandra, the daughter of Troy, from ancient Greek mythology. With the chorus’s musical arrangement recycled from a then unreleased Super Trouper outtake called Put On Your White Sombrero, the beautifully undulating track utilises Frida’s dramatic, elastic vocal strengths to the letter, with her rich and nuanced performance supported by admirable back up from Agnetha. 

A highlight of their troubled 1982 sessions, much like Let It Be-era Beatles, by now the other Fab Four only really fired on all cylinders when they stopped pretending to have a good time, which probably explains why they’ve never been happy with the holy grail of outtakes, Just Like That, recorded earlier that year. With work on their ninth album aborted, Cassandra would be cruely relegated as B-side fodder for the even more masterful The Day Before You Came, which was the last thing ABBA ever recorded. Well, until…

I Still Have Faith In You (2021)

And so they’re back. From outer space? Well, they may well have been, considering how that wee sabbatical took a little longer than planned. I Still Have Faith In You is the track that announced the return of ABBA after their four-decade hiatus, and that they’d managed to record an entire an album in virtual secrecy to boot. When it ‘dropped’ along with the joyous instant follow-up Don’t Shut Me Down on 2 September 2021 it was like two shining beacons of hope had landed in the nick of time on a planet gone awry with fear, hate and broken lives.

With its elegiac origins in a Benny instrumental called Kyssen (The Kiss), from the soundtrack to the Swedish film The Circle, Faith is a personal acknowledgement of the wondrous transcendental power and sweep of music and the way it bonds people together, especially two former couples whose music gained a new lease of life in the 1990s without them having to lift a finger. Though some find the lyrics a little schmaltzy, the song was precision calculated to play on the heartstrings  and move the fans the most with a perfect mix of nostalgia, memories, new start, forgiveness, friendship, and talent that hasn’t vanished into this vast. Benny and Bjorn even did a latter-day Bowie by cleverly slipping in little Easter eggs to remind listeners this is the same band that brought you all the famous hits of yesteryear. B&B not R&B, right? 

With Benny and Bjorn being the perfectionists they are, they thought everything through to their obvious conclusion and so as Faith is a Frida lead, you get fabulous flashes of her previous ABBA highlights, including Fernando (the military drums) and being in waltz time, even a flash of the Macca-inspired Minimoog from Gonna Sing You My Lovesong (at 2:04). There’s an altogether more surprising semi-reference with the twinkly synth line that replicates the very last “Do I have it in me?” line only one note out from the similar sounding outro to Sheena Easton’s Bond theme For Your Eyes Only. But as filmic as Faith is, I’d just put that one down to coincidence, even if it was everywhere just as The Visitors was being finished off.

From Visitors to Voyage, it’s almost as no time at all has elapsed. And that unbeatable ABBA magic is enrapturing audiences old and new all over again. Bloody good job too.

Grattis på födelsedagen Frida.

Steve Pafford

She has a very good friend: Photo by Dan Daniell (keep your eye on him)

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