Among the many victims of Covid-19 is this year's Eurovision Song Contest. When its cancelation was first announced, Mark harked back to its Boom-Bang-a-Bang Ding-Ding-a-Dong heyday and talked to Dana about a lovely exception to that rule. Last night, the BBC, in lieu of the actual competition, invited viewers to vote for the all-time greatest Euro-blockbuster. The winners, not surprisingly, were the most successful act ever to come out of Eurovision. In 1974, a quartet of Swedes emerged victorious and never looked back, except to check whether their hot pants had split:
It was all more harmonious in the old days. One recalls the 1990 Eurovision finals in Zagreb, when the charming hostess, Helga Vlahović, presented her own fair country as the perfect Eurometaphor: "Yugoslavia is very much like an orchestra," she cooed. "The string section and the wood section all sit together." Alas, barely were the words out of her mouth before the wood section was torching the string section's dressing rooms, and the hills were alive only with the ancient siren songs of ethnic cleansing and genital severing. Lurching into its final movement, Yugoslavia was no longer the orchestra, only the pits. In an almost too poignant career trajectory, the lovely Miss Vlahović was moved from music programming to Croatian TV's head of war information programming.
The Eurovision Song Contest has never quite recovered, but oh, you should have seen it in its glory days, when the rich national cultures that gave the world Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Purcell, Debussy, and Grieg bandied together to bring us "La-La-La" (winner, 1968), "Boom-Bang-A-Bang" (1969), "Ding-Dinge-Dong" (1975), "A Ba Ni Bi" (1978), "Diggy Loo Diggi Ley" (1984), and my personal favorite, "Lat Det Swinge," the 1985 winner by the Norwegian group Bobbysocks. The above songs are nominally sung in Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and even English, but in fact it's the universal language of Eurogroovy: "Ja, ja, boogie, baby, mit der rock 'n' roll."
So, after the Russophobia of Copenhagen, let us recall happier times for Eurovision, and celebrate its gift to the world:
At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender
And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way...
What a night it was in Brighton for four Swedes so obscure that the BBC's David Vine couldn't even get their names right:
That's the 1974 Eurovision winner from a four-Swede pop combo called Abba. In the years that followed, they were the country's second highest money earner after Volvo. But, globally speaking, "Waterloo" was their Waterloo – from the Duke of Wellington's perspective, I mean. It put them on the map, winning them the big prize from the protean pan-European institution, and still the least worst functioning. The song represents the high watermark, or the high Waterloo mark, of European unity. Not for nothing did former EU Commissioner Chris Patten, the late Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and the Deputy French Foreign Minister Charles Josselin perform a ten-minute Abba medley at the 2000 Asia Regional Forum in Bangkok. As an artifact of European identity, the group's first continent-wide hit is strangely emblematic:
I was defeated, you won the war
Promise to love you forevermore
Couldn't escape if I wanted to
Knowing my fate is to be with you...
In 1945, Europe was in ruins, America had won the war, and, if the Continentals weren't exactly promising to love the Yanks forevermore, they knew that their fate was to be with them, and they couldn't escape even if they wanted to. The US security umbrella and the Eurovision Song Contest both date back to the immediate post-war period. The idea was to help build a continent in which you could sing "Waterloo" rather than fight it, and, if in their excessive generosity the Americans accelerated the Europeans' inclination to softness and decadence, well, it's not their problem, and the Euros might have seen it coming. As Abba's lyric shrewdly anticipates:
The history book on the shelf
Is always repeating itself.
After winning Eurovision in 1974 Abba bestrode the world like a colossus - if you can imagine any self-respecting colossus going out in public in velveteen knickerbockers, silver boots, pearl kimono and tricorn hat. And that was just the boys. "One of my favorite outfits," said Björn, "was a sequinned blue leotard and cape." But few men who go around in sequinned blue leotards have given us numbers like "Voulez Vous" or "Fernando".
For Benny and Björn, it wasn't always clear that they would meet their destiny in quite a similar way. They were brought together four decades ago by Stig Anderson, former lead singer of Stig Anderson and his Mashed Creampuffs and lyricist of the shrewdly insightful hit "The Girls Who Know How Are Found In The Country", still fondly recalled by many Swedes. At that time, Björn was with a group called the Hootenanny Singers, and Stig was canny enough to get them to record a Swedish version of Tom Jones' "Green Green Grass of Home". But Björn had ambitions to write his own material and with Stig collaborated on "Froken Frederiksson", a song about a man who makes the mistake of wandering on to his balcony in a dressing-gown on a breezy day and, after a sudden gust, finds himself reported to the vice squad.
Benny, meanwhile, was playing keyboards in Sweden's top pop group, the Hep Stars. It was Stig who had the bright idea of getting him and Björn together. You would have thought a Hep Star would be incompatible with a Hootenanny Singer, but, in their mutually exclusive ways, both appellations demonstrate Benny and Björn's remarkable ear for the Anglo-American pop vernacular. In 1969 Björn appeared on the same television show as Agnetha, a teen singer riding high with her hit "Snovit Och De Sju Dvargarna". For his part, Benny had met the flame-tressed Anni-Frid, a household name after her own 1967 smash, "Din". Agnetha and Frida were young, beautiful, on their way up. Benny and Björn were fading Hep Stars. To the great Abba conundrum - how did those two blokes pull those two birds? - there is no rational answer. But in 1970, in a restaurant in Gothenburg, they made their debut together as a group called the Engaged Couples.
Stig was dissatisfied with this name and started using their intials. Unfortunately for Stig, Abba was also the name of Sweden's largest tuna-canning company. The perennial songwriting question - which came first, the lyrics or the tuna? - has, in this instance, a relatively simple answer. But Abba the fish canner agreed to share the name provided that Abba the group was "clean, well-behaved and successful".
They were, mostly - though Frida and Agnetha never got on and once hurled their gold records at each other. Their so-called "happy divorces" were revealed years later to be considerably more painful for the girls than the boys, as hinted at in their plangent later ballads.
But they were certainly successful: a year after changing names, Abba sang "Waterloo" at Eurovision, wiping out the opposition, who surely felt the sting of the lyric:
I was defeated, you won the war...
The group's most distinctive quality – the sense that their grasp of Hit Parade English doesn't quite match their lyrical ambition – was present from the first. With hindsight, they were pioneering Babelfish translations years before the Internet – but in rhyme! I always loved this quatrain:
The Winner Takes It All
The loser standing small
Beside the victory
That's my destiny...
Tim Rice once said to me how much he liked that slightly off-kilter translation quality to their lyrics. On last week's Mark Steyn Show, he recalled how, when he worked with Benny and Björn on the musical Chess, they sent over a tune with a dummy lyric for the first two lines:
One Night In Bangkok
Makes a hard man humble...
Tim knew enough not to mess with that. Benny and Björn are much mocked for their somewhat shaky grasp of English pop conventions, but the boys are, after all, writing in their second language: they were bilingual songwriters at a time when most pop writers were barely lingual. By the mid-Seventies they were doing boffo biz in a multitude of languages. They had hits from Britain all the way across the Continent to Russia - after Stig did a deal to start taking payments from behind the Iron Curtain in oil, which the group then sold on the Rotterdam spot market. The oil-price collapse in the early Eighties caused Stig tax problems and nearly resulted in the group going to jail. One feels sure that King Carl-Gustav - whose lovely bride, Silvia, was the inspiration for "Dancing Queen" - would have pardoned them. But relations between the band and Stig soured and never recovered. By 1981 they had to confront the awkward truth of their own lyric:
Nothing left to say
No more ace to play.
The boys went on to write Chess. And that was it, and looks like it always will be. The history book on the shelf/Will not be repeating itself: In 2000 they turned down a billion-dollar offer from an Anglo-American consortium to re-form for a series of concerts. "We have never made a comeback. Almost everyone else has. I think there is a message in that," said Benny. Or was it Björn? Anyway, it was the one with a face like a grinning monkey. "It was another time, I was another person," said Björn. Unless it was Benny. Anyway, it was the one with the beard. Or the one without. The one who was married to Agnetha. Or the one who was married to Anni-Frid. Or the one who divorced Agnetha and married an Agnetha lookalike, Lena Kalersjo. Either way, we will not look on their like again. The group who gave us "Ring, Ring", "Honey, Honey", "Money, Money, Money" and "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme" are now saying Never, Never, Never, Don't Ring Ring Us, We Won't Ring Ring You, No Matter How Much Money Money Money You Gimme Gimme Gimme, Honey Honey.
Perhaps it's for the best. A reunion would have presented insuperable problems. While many fans would have been curious to see Agnetha's once-famous year-on-year award-winning Best Bottom in the World celebrate its demi-centenary by squeezing into those silver lamé hotpants one last time, her co-star Frida - the brunette one - is now an environmental campaigner and refuses to wear anything other than natural fibres, which pretty much puts the entire Abba wardrobe out of bounds. Incidentally, though Frida was supposedly eaten up by resentment at the way no one ever put in a word for her bottom, posterity has given her posterior the last laugh. Agnetha is riddled with insecurity and now lives as a recluse on a remote Swedish island riddled with in-house security. "I wish I had known about yoga during the Abba years," she says bitterly. "Then I wouldn't have wanted to drink champagne before going on stage."
Since it all went belly up in a haze of the occasional glass of champagne, Benny - or Björn - has recorded an album of Swedish birdsong hailed by one leading Nordic ornithologist as "the perfect introduction to bird-watching", while Björn - or Benny - has made an album of Swedish folk music called Klinga Mina Klocka (which means "toll my bell"). Just a few months ago, I chanced to find myself in Orsa, a Swedish town of 5,000 good souls, 500 of whom speak the local language of Orsamål. It was there that Benny - if not Björn - founded an Orsamål folk group called Orsa Spelmän. All very pastoral and Dalecarlian dialectical after a life of gold-lamé Europop. Anni-Frid, now a grandmother, has become a German princess, married to Count Ruzzo Reuss von Plauen. Agnetha has lurched through a string of doomed romances with, among others, Hakan Lonnback, the psychiatrist who was helping her work on her marriage, and Thorbjörn Brander, the police sergeant protecting her after a kidnap threat.
But most Abba fans would rather not think of Hakan and Thorbjörn, preferring to recall the days when Agnetha was happily married to Benny, if indeed he was the one she was married to. The Abba revival craze is still going strong - through tribute groups such as Björn Again, cover versions by Erasure, B*witched, and in the West End and on Broadway and on the big screen Mamma Mia. There's a large element of kitsch in all that. But, from the rubble of their marriages, they produced the aching harmonies of "One Of Us", as near as pop gets to the cry of pure pain. Underneath those sequinned leotards, Benny and Björn are two of the best pop writers of the last half-century.
But "The Day Before You Came" will never come again. Abba will never re-form: Agnetha and Frida are happy in their baggy sweaters, Benny and Björn in their Armani and Orsamål. And it's their millions of fans who are left finally facing their Waterloo. As Benny might put it, in his Swedish folkie vein, ask not for whom the klocka klings. It klings to thee.
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