Posted tagged ‘Abba’

Without a song or a dance what are we?

July 15, 2009

Two weeks ago I was driving in a rented car through Scotland. I turned on the car radio, and the first station I found was having an ‘Abba hour’ – all of the songs they were playing were from the 1970s Swedish band. The one just on was ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, and having heard about three bars I put out my hand to change the station, but my hand froze and I didn’t; and if I can be honest, I’ll have to say that I stayed with it for the whole hour, cheerfully (and if anyone had been there, embarrassingly) singing along to every single song. I was even sorry when it was over, but I was in any case pulling in to my destination.

The curious thing is that I would never ever have considered myself to be an Abba fan. Back in the 1970s I was aware enough of Abba, but I never bought any of their singles or albums. But then again, you could not negotiate the 1970s without becoming familiar with Abba. Wherever you turned, there they were, awful glittery clothes and slightly strange on-stage performances. But hey, I was into Jethro Tull,, Deep Purple and the Doors, and the easy pop of Abba would have been a million miles away from my turntable. Well, actually, when my sister bought their album ‘Arrival’, I would occasionally ‘borrow’ it without her knowledge and listen to it; it was my guilty secret.

Surely, surely, this musical act was an ephemeral one, destined to attract a certain type of teenager in 1976, and then destined for storing in the attic, and oblivion in the new musical world of CDs. No, indeed. Right now, in this new millennium, Abba is still there, spawning new musicals, continuously selling albums, and ‘Abba hours’ on Scottish radio stations. How can this be?

If you forget about the clothes and the act, there is something inexplicably timeless about Abba. You think of the tunes as bubblegum, and yet you know they are not, they are clever and musical and, curiously and infuriatingly, they stay fresh, even after you have heard them again and again. The lyrics are exactly what you would expect from Swedes who didn’t speak much English; or are they? No, of course they are not, they are annoyingly poetic and they resonate with people’s feelings, hopes and sense of humanity.

I am not along in thinking this way; Ben Macintyre of the Times newspaper has a very similar perspective. Hell, millions do. So what can I say? That I have resisted the charms of Abba?

My, my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger
Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight

But should you ask, I’m a Deep Purple man. Or maybe Aerosmith.

A date in history

June 18, 2009

Today, as I suspect not too many people are aware, is Waterloo Day. On this day in 1815 the Battle of Waterloo was fought (near the small Belgian town of that name), between the French armies under Napoleon on the one side, and the Prussians and British on the other. Napoleon lost the battle, and was sent into exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821. Waterloo was decisive in shaping 19th century European history.

A few years ago I was driving through a rural part of England with a colleague – we were going to a conference – when we passed under a rather splendid Regency era railway bridge. On the side of the bridge was an inscription that said that it was built in the year of the Battle of Waterloo. So when was that, I asked my colleague. He had no idea. And who fought and won the battle? No, nothing. He thought, eventually, that it involved the French.

We have got used to the idea of history not being just about monarchs, big battles and important dates. And yet, it seems to me that certain milestones in history should be known and remembered and understood, and I was, I confess, shocked at my colleague’s laid back ignorance in this case. The Napoleonic wars were about more than just battles and conquests, they were about political evolution and competing cultures, and the fall-out of the era continues to affect us nearly two centuries later. People should know about it. Indeed, it seems to me to be important that we do not entirely neglect the key dates and personalities of history.

After we had driven on a little I suddenly noticed that my colleague was whistling the tune of Abba‘s song Waterloo. At first that kind of irritated me, but then I pointed out to him that if only he had paid attention to the first line of the song his earlier answer to me would have been better. Maybe it’s not surprising he never sought another lift from me.