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Perfect 10: Ultimate Ulvaeus — Björn’s best ABBA songs

Roll up then. Because we’ve finally reached the fourth and final ABBA-member Perfect 10, following Benny, Frida and Agnetha: a Björn again P10, you might say then.

Thank them for the music, because ABBA’s catalogue of compositions are created and produced by the B-boys: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus are serious composers, with a variety of rock, pop, jazz, and classical influences all soaked in for proper measure.

The best of their canon of work is representative of the depth the Swedish sensations could bring to any song and how the moods they created in their time together remain just as touching today as they did in their prime. Because in the 1970s and ’80s, ABBA churned out a succession of interesting, original, unpredictable chord sequences and arrangements that put to shame most of their less imaginative pop contemporaries. 

Being Scandinavian, there’s an underlying melancholy in ABBA’s frothy little pop choons, though. Despite the band’s cheery reputation, you may be enjoying dark odes to infidelity, gunplay, dysfunction and despair while humming the earworm hook over your cornflakes.

Indeed, you may be singing along to melodies so light you’re in danger of going airborne. But pay attention to those lyrics: You’re singing about cheating (Mamma Mia), jealousy (Lay All Your Love On Me), masochistic romantic surrender (Waterloo), being horny, horny, horny (Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!), and, in the cupboard marked “Beware!”, under-age turn-ons (Dancing Queen and Does Your Mother Know).

Those few examples of classic, unforgettable 45s ultimately speaks more to ABBA’s ability to make any topic — new love, heartbreak, war stories — be imbued with a musical richness that goes beyond any one song.

Those indelible vocal melodies and well-crafted lyrics? That’s Björn’s department. But more than that, as well as the group’s primary guitarist he’s sung a fair few of the songs too. So without further ado, here’s ten of the best ABBA tunes, with particular praise for wordage and/or vocal from Mr Ulvaeus, the oldest member of the awesome foursome.

77? Crikey.

In many ways he looks better than he never did, having lost that cherubic garden gnome look he would get mercilessly teased about during the band’s heyday. The intermittent fasting diet has paid off dividends then.

Another Town, Another Train (1973)

A year before their Waterloo, ABBA released a set of twelve songs called Ring Ring that is regarded as their official debut album. That’s despite the fact they hadn’t even settled on the famous four-letter acronym as a band name, and were still going by the hardly snappy Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida — a moniker memorable mainly for giving the impression the awesome foursome were actually two same-sex couples. Oh, those Swedes.

The fourth single to be spun off from the LP was a charming if twee ballad with a Björn vocal. With definite folkie throwbacks to Simon & Garfunkel, Another Town, Another Train tells the story of a slightly self-pitying man leaving his love a note as “day is dawning”, ostensibly because he is restless and needs to be free from the desireless mundanity of being tied down to one place and one partner. 

Though the song is an example of the naive simplicity of Björn’s early lyrics, sentimental gestures stop it from being a complete bore-a-thon. In its favour, the song does have a pretty Mellotron-led refrain that was often uppermost in my head as travel buddy bestie Judi and I backpacked our way across Europe on Interrail passes in the summer of 1992. 

“Guess I will spend my life in railway stations”? For two months, we did just that, sleeping on the floor of many of them to save money. It was thanks to Judi’s parents Jim and Bobbie Forsyth that I knew the song in the first place — the couple having given me their unwanted ABBA vinyl that included the band’s first Greatest Hits album just a few months before. And yes, Judi will be accompanying me to the opening night of ABBA Voyage in London too.

From nascent to ascent…

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 gun-toting 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 aforementioned Greatest Hits album, its wistful nostalgia upped showed ABBA’s global appeal gave the Fab Four a No. 13 hit in the US, and their third chart-topping single for the whole of May 1976 in Blighty. Fernando is also reported to be one of less than forty singles to have sold more than ten million physical copies worldwide, though that’s nothing compared to our Antipodean cousins. For four decades, Fernando was both the longest-running No.1 in Aussie history (14 weeks) 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 and rather undervalued solo album Frida Ensam, produced by Benny and Björn, and was later included on ABBA’s Spanish Language album Gracias Por La Música, naturellement. 

A couple of Fernando footnotes: 

No one is sure which specific war is referred to in the song. The two most often mentioned are the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

One thing is for certain, Björn maintains that his lyrics were run past English speakers before Fernando was released and no one picked up on its grammatical faux-pas, the spectacularly pidgin, “Since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hands”. It’s probably for this reason that he decided not to correct the error when including the song in Mamma Mia, even though several other tracks performed in the musical received lyrical changes. 

Incidentally, an expanded version of Greatest Hits was issued in France as the literally titled Golden Double Album, released concurrently with Fernando in the spring of 1976 by the Disques Vogue label. The 2LP set is notable for introducing the group’s iconic ambigram logo with mirrored Bs facing in opposite directions, created by their longtime graphic artist Rune Söderqvist.

Knowing Me, Knowing You (1976)

A top-drawer highlight of fourth album Arrival (the one with the helicopter), Knowing Me, Knowing You is the epitome of how the Swedish sensations could transform minor chords, hair-raising harmonies and infinitely layered production into pop perfection. Its musical composer Benny Andersson counts it as one of their best recordings, which was the band’s fifth chart-topping single in the UK. It was also a Top 20 hit in the US and, atypically for ABBA, also broke big on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart peaking at No. 7.

The latter position is significant, as years before his marital split, Björn’s lyrics show a new-found maturity as he details perhaps the most elegant of ABBA’s breakup songs, seemingly becoming an ill-omened moment in the band’s fascinating story.

The track is filled with the gloom of an empty house, the lack of laughter: bad days as Agnetha confirms, almost stealing the song from Frida with her seductive spectral whispers. So memorable is the girls’ chorus that it begs to be sung when the drums hit ahead of the mix of power chords, guitar riffs and layered vocal segments (listen up for the “Uh huh,” if you’ve inexplicably missed it all these years). 

With its iconic Lasse Hallström-directed video, Knowing Me, Knowing You is a crucial song in ABBA’s development because its success gave Björn and Benny the chance to pursue a more serious take on romance in their music and set a precedent that would lead to further stunning singles like The Name of the Game, The Winner Takes It All and their monumental swansong, The Day Before You Came. Hell, French & Saunders only parodied the best, right?

C’est la vie.

Move On (1977)

With an LP as strong on non-singles as it is on singles, I could have easily taken a chance on the slightly corny Thank You For The Music or a superior Album deep cut, such as the majestic Eagle, the classy I Wonder (Departure) or the introspective insecurity of One Man, One Woman, with its deceptively summery Beach Boys-esque backing vocals. 

Alas, Move On is the one that boasts a curious spoken word first verse from our man Ulvaeus, backed by a pretty humming melody. And it’s not unfair to get the impression he’d been more than a little influenced by the huge success of Boney M, who enjoyed four Top Ten hits in 1977 — compared to the Superswedes’ three — and often featured eccentric spoken word passages from the band’s svengali mastermind Frank Farian.

The last track recorded for The Album, there’s a Swedish folk feel that’s rather attractive. Björn’s then pregnant missus Agnetha takes over the second verse, and she’s joined in perfect harmony by Frida on the third. An undervalued cut in their canon.

Summer Night City (1978)

Quite possibly the loudest pop song ever made. Summer Night City is so absurdly compressed that it almost renders the whole dancefloor delirium almost nonsense. Several attempts at perfecting a final master mix were attempted, and a variety of variations now sit in the band’s archive. Alas, despite its troubled gestation, it’s a good tune regardless, and showcases ABBA’s brilliant ability to jump from soothsayers to power-pop belters.

Written in homage to Benny and Björn’s home city of Stockholm — famous for its long, balmy summer nights — the Bee Gees’ enormous success that year had an obvious influence on Summer Night City, though the track is as much Munich as it is New York, as it swings along on a restless stop-start rhythm, never settling; the music matching the metaphor of the city that never sleeps. 

A standalone single to fill the insatiable demand for product while recording ABBA’s sixth album, it began life with the alarming working title of Charlie The Abuser (the title is a playful pun on the work of popular comedian Kalle Sändare), at the band’s usual base of Metronome Studios but would be completed at their brand new Polar Music recording facility in the Swedish capital. 

It became the last №1 single for the foursome in their homeland, but its unexpected №5 peak in Britain was seen as something of a failure by the group’s super-league standards. It says something that a song as strong and successful as Summer Night City was marked as a misfire, and it’s their only UK Top Ten single not to have been included on 1992’s world conquering ABBA Gold greatest hits compilation. And if you swear that as the song fades out they sing, not “walking in the moonlight”, but “fucking in the moonlight”, well, you won’t be the first to have noticed. 

Does Your Mother Know (1979)

While most ABBA classics are grounded around Agnetha and Frida’s symbiotic harmonies, this 1979 single saw Björn taking the lead for one of the band’s atypical-but-extremely fun singles. 

With lyrics that would cause an uproar if written in today’s climate, Ulvaeus details flirting with a much younger girl on this piano-driven, boogie-disco cut. With its  curious backing by his bandmates’ harmonies and throwbacks to the classic rock and roll tunes of the 1950s, Does Your Mother Know could be seen as the spiritual successor to another Björn-sung tune, 1975’s Rock Me, one of the weirdest cuts in the ABBA canon.

Does Your Mother Know was the second single extracted from Voulez-Vous, which was the first ABBA album to have been partially recorded outside of Sweden. Some of the songs were written and demoed at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, with the title track being recorded in the sunny Florida swampland of Miami.

The Winner Takes It All (1980)

So, to The Winner. With Agnetha’s vocal being recorded just just weeks after her divorce from Björn, the ex Mrs Ulvaeus puts in an incredible performance on ABBA’s first release of the 1980s. Despite its difficult subject matter, Fältskog has said publicly many times that The Winner Takes It All is her favourite ABBA song of all time. Benny Andersson too. What am I talking about — it’s many people’s favourite ABBA song. With its brutal depiction of the bitter end of a relationship, it has an overwhelming aura of sadness and pain. But although many chose to believe it was written to reflect the divorce of its lyricist and vocalist, Björn himself says the song is largely fiction and only depicts the experience of a break-up. He stated there was no winner or loser in the end of their marriage.

Indeed, ABBA perfected the kind of bittersweet solemnity that only two newly parted couples in a supergroup could manage. It worked. The fabulous if somewhat funereal ballad was the lead single from the group’s seventh studio album Super Trouper and was their penultimate chart-topping 45 in the UK, preceding the same title track and topping the British charts for a fortnight in August 1980 before being thrown on the pyre by David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes. 

The Winner Takes It All was also one of only four Top 10 hits for the group in the US, though it did become the second ABBA song to reach the top spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart after Fernando. 

The Visitors (1981)

The Warsaw Pact comes to Stockholm via Vienna. 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 Björn was 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 the narrator regrets her new independence over a typically gorgeous melancholic melody. 

With its twisted, treated vocal production, Frida opens proceedings on The Visitors’ title track with a magisterial vocal performance that carries Björn’s austere electro-shock lyrics: an incredibly eerie, slightly Ultravox meets Joy Divisionish 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 the whole group on clipped, neurotic backing vocals, 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.

The Day Before You Came (1982)

One of the band’s lesser known singles from the post-imperial phase of their career, The Day Before You Came is a masterful six-minute monologue that was too long for radio and too off-kilter for audiences, but provided ample evidence of the foursome’s musical evolution and newfound adventurousness.

This is ABBA at their wrist-slitting best. In fact, it also sounds like a band that’s already split. All you hear is Benny’s Yamaha synths as proggy electronic flutes flutter moth-like… and Agnetha’s tour de force ‘solo’ vocal not singing, just saying the story—Ulvaeus had instructed his former wife to sound bored, so she did, in plainly plaintive spades. It’s so poignant, so perfectly nuanced, that the track is a masterpiece of melodrama rivalled only by The Winner Takes It All in the heartbreak stakes, and the ambiguity of Björn’s lyrics coupled with the song’s unconventional structure give the whole affair a haunting, almost ominous sound, 

The LP which The Day Before You Came was attached to, the double disc overview The Singles: The First Ten Years, had given the quartet their eighth No.1 album as a working entity, but it was patently obvious that the days as a mighty hit making machine were over for this Nordic colossus that had completely dominated the pop world in the second half of the Seventies. All in all, it was the Swedes’ last masterpiece.

Well, for almost forty years anyway.

I Can Be That Woman (2021)

In the four decades that ABBA were officially “on hiatus” there has been such a drastic change in every aspect of music production but one thing remains despite any trend or format: Stand by your dog, because here comes the ballad.

It’s no coincidence the canine in this song is named after D-I-V-O-R-C-E specialist Tammy Wynette either, because you can really imagine the KLF cohort sinking her teeth into this. I Can Be That Woman is a country flavoured gem with so many layers that it seems to live a life of its own. It’s as though Björn took the storyline from The Winner Takes It All and wrote a prequel. We hear a review of a warring relationship that has come to an end, where the singer laments over what could’ve been and describes instead what happened.

Employing that unmistakable vocal cry she learned from Connie Francis, Agnetha’s voice is heartbreakingly gorgeous, and when she sings about those wasted years it’s hard not to feel the bottom lip tremble. A bit like when the news broke that ABBA were actually returning with a new album.

What a Voyage, what a story.

Steve Pafford

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