Tuesday, December 5, 2017

ABBA in Heaven and Other Considerations [1983]

Text by Anni Ackner / FFanzeen, 1983
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #11, dated 1983, by Anni Ackner. Normally, ABBA is not a band I would have published anything about in my fanzine. It’s nothing against the music, which I found non-harmful albeit vanilla, it just didn’t fit into the format of what I imagined the mag to be at the time, but was tricked into publishing it by the writer, whose name was a pseudonym for another writer who tended to focus on British and other European pop artists. Yes, I was duped, and I was not pleased about it.

Looking back at the piece, I think it is an interesting work of free association via run-on sentences, despite all the whoo-ha. It is also important to note that ABBA was more at a cult status at this point, before they became what “Anni” calls “legitimate.” While I don’t agree with some of what’s written here, it’s still a pretty amusing commentary on the state of the music industry at the time, although on some level some points still stand. However, on some punk level, the more “legitimate” (accepted) a band becomes, the less legitimate it stays (i.e., “I saw them back when…”). – RBF, 2017

Celestial Scenario: Phase One

Someday, as will happen to us all, ABBA will die and, Sweden being a tolerably Lutheran country, journey to Heaven to be met at is outskirts by the Keeper of the Gates, envisioned, in this instance, as one of those Grown Up music critics who hang around at One University and write long dissertations on Rock’n’Roll as an Art Form. There will be several tense moments as the Keeper of the Gates polishes his Chameleon Sunglasses, snorts a little cocaine through a discarded angel’s wing, and decides whether to let them all in or to send them to the place where the really bad pop stars to, which is either hell or a disc jockey spot at the Peppermint Lounge.

Eventually, Frida will get in because she did an album with Phil Collins and so bought herself a piece of rock’n’roll respectability. Agnetha will get in on the theory that anyone who bears that strong a resemblance to Malibu Barbie could not possibly have led a sinful life. Benny will get in because with all the negative reviews, bad criticism, and just plain nasty cracks ABBA has received over the years, no one has ever been truthfully able to say that he isn’t an immensely talented musician. There will then be a certain amount of hemming and hawing and buffing of the fingernails when it comes to Bjorn. Bjorn – reasonably good guitar player, reasonably good singer – nothing terribly askew there – but – ah ha, here we go – the one generally assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be the perpetrator of Those Lyrics. You know Those Lyrics. “Superficial” is probably the nicest adjective that’s ever been applied to them: “saccharine” seems almost too kind. There will be serious doubts as to whether a man capable of inflicting “The Winner Takes All” upon a mass audience ought to be allowed into the same Heaven that will, at least theoretically, harbor the likes of Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan. Ultimately, however, mumbling under his breath about the Need for Escapism in a Complex World and People Writing in Second Languages, the Keeper of the Gates will let Bjorn in, a bit condescendingly, somewhat impatiently, and with a hint of embarrassment, but in nevertheless, as long as he keeps in mind the extreme tenuousness of his position, and the great honor that has been accorded him.

Legitimacy and How it Gets That Way
How I was Mick Jaggered Into Submission

There’s a lot of justification floating about the music criticism circles regarding ABBA. Periodically, articles (or perhaps it’s the same article – they always do seem to be called ABBA-Dabba-Do) crop up in places like Creem or Trouser Press in which the writer admits, sheepishly, that he likes the band, goes on to list 20 or 30 good reasons why he shouldn’t like them and then, striking a literary pose vaguely reminiscent of the belligerent six-year-old gallantly defending his teddy bear against the taunts of the neighborhood gang, reiterates that he likes them anyway, and if you don’t like it, you can just lump it, that’s all. It’s a curious cultural phenomenon. No one, after all, feels called upon to justify his fondness for, say, Pete Townshend, even allowing for “All the Best Cowboy Have Chinese Eyes,” but then, no one has ever referred to the Who as “the most pointless band in the world,” a superlative invented for ABBA by a Grown Up music critic whose name, after a great deal of effort, I have managed to forget.

“I know it’s only rock’n’roll
But I like it” – The Rolling Stones

“It’s got to be rock’n’roll
To fill the hole in your soul” – ABBA

The most interesting aspect of the previous superlative, to my way of thinking, is that rock’n’roll, just in general, is pretty much beside the point anyway. To defer to the Pioneer Corporation, the music matters, but not all that much. Rock’n’roll, painful as it may be to admit, is simply rock’n’roll. It does not cure cancer. It does not end discrimination. It maybe the soundtrack for a revolution, but it does not bring about the revolution, as Paul Kantner once discovered, and it was never meant to do any of those other things. All rock’n’roll was ever meant to do was bring a few moments of pleasure to a lot of people, and make a lot of money for a few people, which are not inconsiderable tasks in themselves, but any pretentions it has to being either an Art Form or a Great Social and Political Force were thrust upon it by the Grown Up music critics, many of whom seem to feel slightly ashamed of themselves for reviewing independent label releases for Hit Parade rather than small press books for the Sunday Times. As such, given that criteria, there’s really no more inherent point to the Clash rocking the Casbah than there is to ABBA metaphorically refighting the battle of Waterloo.

Of course, there’s good rock’n’roll and there’s bad rock’n’roll, but what is or is not one thing or another is basically a matter of taste. You either like something or you don’t – in spite or because of – its supposed technical aspects or, at least, that’s the way it is ideally. Which brings me to:

Subheading Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine
It’s Hard to be Hip and Think Johnny Lydon Walks Funny

There is an insidious but observable – well, “prejudice” is no doubt too strong a word; let’s say “leaning” – at play in the minds of the Grown Up rock critics that can be summed up most easily as, “Some bands are legitimate, some bands are not,” or paraphrased another way, “It’s cool to like some music, it’s shit to like others.” The criteria for legitimacy are changeable, but always strict and well-defined. A legitimate band always comes from a legitimate place, currently for instance, New York, England or Berlin. A band may then cement its legitimacy by being the first to be recognized as performing in a certain way – the Beatles weren’t the first to do “Beatle” music, but they were the first that anyone noticed – by sounding legitimate – an indefinable quality that has nothing whatsoever to do with sounding meaningful. Pete Seeger sounds meaningful. The Police sound legitimate – or by becoming the pet band of a rock critic who himself has legitimacy, i.e., Lester Bangs and the Velvet Underground.

A good way to become legitimate, particularly for a solo performer (who normally has a harder time obtaining it than do bands), is to die. Harry Chapin was on no one’s legitimate list until he happened to meet up with the wrong end of a truck. The most passive way to achieve legitimacy is simply to hang around so long that you begin to look either basic or venerable – vis-à-vis the Monkees – but no matter how you attain it, it all boils down to the same thing in the end.

Bands which are not legitimate come from places like Los Angeles and Cleveland and, then, at least at the moment, compound this crime by playing soft rock – on the grounds that anything that doesn’t deafen you can’t possibly be worth listening to – or heavy metal – on the grounds that anything that deafens you that much can’t be any good either – by looking too clean (real rock stars don’t take baths) or too pretty (real rock stars are weathered by Life), by lacking a sense of humor or having too much of one, or simply by being a singer / songwriter who doesn’t have the right music fans in his back-up band, or who uses no back-up band at all. Again, getting there is none of the fun. When you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not you get a bad rating from Robert Christgau.

From whence cometh:

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome, in its entirety, states that a legitimate band cannot make a bad record. When the Rolling Stones released Goat’s Head Soup several years ago, it was obvious to everyone whose hearing had not been damaged by prolonged exposure to tapes of the campaign speeches of the 1972 Presidential candidates that this was a Bad Record, a painful listening experience, a Real Stinkeroo, and had anyone except a completely legitimate band like the Stones (the Cadillacs of legitimate bands) released it, it would have been consigned to the 99¢ bins where it belonged, inside of a week. However, as it was the Stones, the album not only sold very well, at full retail price, the reviews, rather than being damning, ran along the lines of, “Although this is not up to the Stones’ usual standards, it is still better than 90% of the music released today.” A clear case of praising with faint damns.

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome, almost of necessity, carries with it:

The Maurice Gibb Corollary

Which states, in its entirety, that if the Bee Gees were to suddenly turn around and release the most stupendously good record ever heard since the invention of the diamond needle, no one would admit it. No one would buy it, the AOR stations wouldn’t play it, MTV wouldn’t show the videos, and the Grown Up rock critics would give it awful reviews. Once a band has been declared “not legitimate,” it’s very difficult for it to achieve legitimacy. It just about takes, as has been stated, death, or venerability or, short of that, teaming up with a songwriter or bass player or producer who comes equipped with his own legitimacy, as Fridadid with Phil Collins.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to:


ABBA has always been not legitimate. To begin with, they come from a silly place. Unlike England, Sweden is not legitimate. England has working class angst; Sweden has meatballs. England has the dole; Sweden has the welfare state. England has Benny Hill; Sweden has pornographic films. You see how it goes. And it gets worse. ABBA plays soft rock. They are most awfully clean. They have not one, but two (three, if you’re in the mood to count Bjorn) pretty lead singers, and they use their own musicians, rather than the ones Todd Rundgren had on his last record. And then, of course, there are Those Lyrics, about which much can be said, and probably will.

Since ABBA does have a few things going for them. They have catchy little tunes, terrific harmonies, and clean productions. They’re fun to listen to, and even Billy Altman likes to have fun. There are still Those Lyrics, but by the same token, not everything Bob Dylan writes is a little gem either. And lately, ABBA has been making some minor stabs at respectability, if not legitimacy. There’s Frida and her good friend Phil, and that last record – actually a jazzed-up Greatest Hits album, but what the hell – got a great, live, bona fide rave from Rolling Stone, no easy ravers, and now Bjorn and Benny, the wonderful folks who brought you “Dancing Queen,” are teaming up with Lloyd-Weber and Rice, the wonderful folks who brought you Evita, to write an opera about Soviet chess players (well, okay, but I bet a musical about singing kitty cats didn’t sound lie a hot idea either), so you never know.

And so, the Grown Up rock critics sneak about, hiding their copies of “The Visitors” (not a bad little record by itself, by the way) in the closet behind the old Nehru jackets, and justifying their taste as though it were a particularly bizarre sexual predilection. If ABBA’s new-found respectability grows any larger, there may be a lot more repetitions of ABBA-Dabba-Do. In their case, it probably won’t bother ABBA, who will someday, as will all of us, die.

Celestial Scenario Phase Two:

After journeying to Heaven, ABBA is met at its outskirts by the Keeper of the Gates. Frida will get in because she made an album with Phil Collins. Agnetha will get in because no woman with 32-inch hips can ever be conceived of having led a sinful life. Benny will get in because he is a consummate musician. And then there will be Bjorn.

The Keeper of the Gates and Bjorn will look at each other thoughtfully:
“Well,” the Keeper of the Gates will say.
“Well,” Bjorn will say.

“Wrote an opera with Lloyd-Weber and Rice, didn’t you?” The Keeper will say.
“Yes,” Bjorn will say.

“That’s nice.”
“Thank you.”

“’The Visitors’ really wasn’t such a bad song, at that,” The Keeper will say, looking at his feet.
“I always thought so,” Bjorn will say, looking at whatever piece of the sky you can see from Up There.

“But still, most of Those Lyrics…”
“But still, how many songs have you written in Swedish? Or in any language, for that matter?”

“That’s no defense. Other people didn’t write Those Lyrics.”

Bjorn will hum selected cuts from Face Dances. They will look at each other once again.
“Oh, God,” the Keeper of the Gates will sigh.
“So I hear,” Bjorn will say, And he will go in.

The end. Amen.