A Look Back At ABBA’s Most “Popular” Songs

Nov 19th, 2008 // 7 Comments

One of the pleasures of following Popular, in which Tom Ewing reviews every No. 1 U.K. pop hit in order, is tracing careers-in-miniature–”tiny novels,” as Greil Marcus said of Robert Christgau’s 1980s Consumer Guide book. That’s especially true of Ewing’s ABBA write-ups. He obviously loves the group: Popular’s newest entry is on “The Winner Takes It All,” which Ewing gives a perfect 10, making them the only act to whom he’s given that score for two separate releases–the previous 10 was for “Dancing Queen.” (The other 10s so far have gone to Nancy Sinatra, the Beatles–for the double-A-side “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine”Desmond Dekker, T. Rex, Kate Bush, and Blondie.)

All of Ewing’s ABBA write-ups are worth reading on their own: they’re acts of love; you feel him giving himself over to the music more consistently with them than anyone else. I’ve taken the liberty of constructing a Last Word, to give you the idea, from each of the group’s eight No. 1s covered so far (their ninth and last, “Super Trouper,” will be along soon as well):

• “The second half of ‘Waterloo’ is the straightest Wizzard-lift, a really good rock and roll knees-up, but those thirty seconds, so stuffed with life and confidence and flamboyance – thats why I listen to this stuff in the first place. And then they disappeared, as soon as they’d come, and the Seventies shrugged, forgot Eurovision and got on with it. 9“Waterloo”]

• “Some people’s tolerance for ABBA is low because their music is so inescapable – I respect that point of view but if anything I feel I don’t hear enough ABBA, there are swathes of marvellous Andersson/Ulvaeus songs which get overlooked in favour of the usual five or six. But of those five or six, this is the one where I can most sympathise with the ABBA-weary: its lack of an emotional catch for me makes it more vulnerable to overplay. 7” ["Mamma Mia"]

• “’Fernando’ is a good ABBA record, not a great one – but its enormous success gave them permission to stretch out further and faster in several directions. No ‘Fernando,’ no ‘The Visitors’ (no ‘I Have A Dream’ either, mind you). 7” ["Fernando"]

• “That piano line turned up again three years later, changed slightly in a pop world that seemed overturned, and it almost pushed Elvis Costello – a perennial sideline-lurker who’d long seen the tears as well as the grins in ABBA – to Number One himself. Even by then ‘Dancing Queen’ had become ABBA’s monolith, and by their 90s revival it was omnipresent. There’s an irony, maybe, that a song about the fleet intense beauty of youth, love and movement should have become such an ossified monument to ‘perfect pop’ – but when I play it that really never seems to matter. 10 ["Dancing Queen"]

• “It’s Frida’s star turn – though her first verse performance is a little wobbly – but Agnetha nearly steals it with her spectral whispers. The keyboards hit the grandeur they’re aiming for; the guitar solo doesn’t, but even in its forever-sabotaged state ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ has cohesion and power. 8” ["Knowing Me Knowing You"]

• “An awkward record about awkward feelings: one of ABBA’s transitional singles, where they’re staking out territories they’d explore better later on. 7” ["The Name of the Game"]

• “The simplicity here’s a little deceptive, though – that wonderful a capella rhythm line is as bold a stroke as you’ll find on any of their records, and the flashing, bubbling keyboards show that Benny and Bjorn had been paying attention to Moroder’s advances. But that’s really all secondary to the song’s effervescence, with the girls’ hammy semi-spoken bits summing the whole thing up: this is a band having casually brilliant fun. 8” ["Take a Chance on Me"]

• “On the video, the members of ABBA laugh and clink glasses, reminding us that there’s a third layer of theatre here, the public disintegration of a real life marriage. That layer’s become shorthand for the whole song – ‘Winner’ as a divorce epic. But the specifics are unfair on the song: as “Dancing Queen” was to their world-beating peak, ‘Winner’ is to the wintry late ABBA – a monumental combination of supreme craft and bittersweet subtlety. And more – it’s one of pop’s great pieces of acting. 10” ["The Winner Takes It All"]



  1. Ned Raggett

    I can only add what I’ve been saying to people for, well, years now — you owe it to yourself to read Popular. Dip in, go straight through, hop around, whatever — crucial reading, and M.’s just given you a great sense as to why.

  2. Anonymous

    Comparing Abba to Wizzard? Oh my goodness, that may be an actual original thought. I’m going to have to read that now.

  3. bcapirigi

    The Name of the Game only gets a 7?! But, but… that’s got the best harmonies of like any song ever.

  4. Lucas Jensen

    Mamma Mia is a 10 for me. That song packs so much into its running time, it’s ridiculous. There are like twelve hooks and thirty choruses. I’m exaggerating, but Jesus it’s filled to bursting.

    Also, Knowing Me Knowing You is a straight ten for me. Hell, these are all 10s except maybe Dancing Queen, which is just too overplayed for me.

    I love ABBA. And Tom Ewing’s a big New Order fan, right? He and I are LIKE THIS.

  5. Anonymous

    I trust this will be published in book form at one point?

  6. Kate Richardson

    I feel this. I also feel those cat shirt dresses.

  7. Lala Fernandez

    The group ABBA is fantasitc. I love that group. Their songs are so nice to hear compared with the songs of today. Long live ABBA group. Thank you for the lovely music.

    from Sri LANKA.

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