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Welcome to the ABBA metaverse
Creative Sensemaker

Welcome to the ABBA metaverse

Thursday 4 November 2021

The release of the supergroup’s first new album in 40 years marks their conquest of the digital age


Friday night and the lights are low… and this Friday, after a four-decade wait, hundreds of millions of ABBA fans around the world will be listening to Voyage, which is released tomorrow; the first album by the Swedish supergroup since The Visitors arrived in record shops on 30 November 1981.

Think about how long ago that is: Margaret Thatcher was serving her first term in Number 10, yet to fight the Falklands War of 1982; Ronald Reagan had not completed his first year as president; on the other side of the Cold War, the fast-fading Leonid Brezhnev was still general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party; doctors were struggling to make sense of the sudden surge of mostly gay men and intravenous drug users suffering from the aggressive cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus at Waterloo station

Voyage is released in the midst of another pandemic, for the entertainment of a world changed beyond recognition since 1981. Of its ten tracks, three have already been released to whet our appetite: ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ is classically grandiose ABBA, explicitly recounting in song the emotional story of the reunion (“We do have it in us/ New spirit has arrived/ The joy and the sorrow/ We have a story and it survived”). 

‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ tells a similar tale of reconciliation even more personally, but mixes up the beat (“I’m asking you to have an open mind – and I won’t be the same/ I’m not the same this time around/ I’m fired up, don’t shut me down”); while the upbeat dance number ‘Just a Notion’ is actually – not that anyone will care – an outtake from Voulez-Vous (1979). 

With Voyage launched, the group – Agnetha Fältskog (71), Björn Ulvaeus (76), Benny Andersson (74) and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (75) – will concentrate on preparations for their residency, from May to December next year, at a specially-built venue at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The band will not appear on stage, represented instead by “ABBA-tar” holograms, designed by Industrial Light & Magic using motion capture technology to represent the quartet as they looked in 1979. Again, the fans don’t seem to mind the prospective physical absence of their idols onstage: tickets for the concerts are already exchanging hands online for £1,000 or more.

How did any of this happen? How did Andersson graduate from the 60s Swedish band the Hep Stars, and Ulvaeus from the gloriously named folk group, Hootenanny Singers, to form one of the most successful songwriting partnerships in history? How did Lyngstad and Fältskog – married, respectively to Andersson and Ulvaeus – shift from respectable solo careers to become the brightly coloured singing duo leading a group that sold 400 million albums?

There are two paths to artistic immortality: to create work that is truly rooted in history, and tells its story to the future; or to escape the confines of history entirely. The Beatles chose the former path, ABBA the latter.

This is why we obsess over every conceivable detail of the Fab Four’s personal stories and inspirations (see Paul McCartney’s new memoir on the lyrics of his songs, Creative Sensemaker, 28 October) but – let’s be honest – pay so little attention to the biographies and backstories of ABBA’s members. 

Indeed, the whole point of the Swedish group was to combine carefully regulated pop glamour with a reassuring Scandinavian stability – which is why the respective divorces of the two couples were so traumatic for fans. (For true devotees, there is only one book that gets beneath the glossy surface of the band’s story: Carl Magnus Palm’s Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA, first published in 2001.)

Which is why you won’t find an equivalent to ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ or ‘I Am the Walrus’ among ABBA’s 170-odd songs: no straining to break the shackles of convention or change the direction of music. The objective was, and remains, to create perfect pop – which is a hard task at the best of times, and incredibly difficult to do with sustained success. John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies could scarcely have been more different in musical ethos from Bjorn and Benny: but all paid tribute to the pop genius of ‘SOS’ (1975).

Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson practice in the studio that they co-founded, Polar Studios, Stockholm, 1977

In this respect, the engine of ABBA has always been the songwriting sessions of Andersson and Ulvaeus: originally in their cabin on the island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago. This partnership produced three key tracks: ‘Mamma Mia’ (1975), which established ABBA as true pop sensations; ‘Dancing Queen’ (1976), which, with its unmistakable opening piano glissando, became the greatest dancefloor-filler of all time; and ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (1980) which has a claim to be the finest breakup pop song ever. The cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008), has argued that the structure and simplicity of ABBA’s songs administer a “powerful hit of happy juice in the brain from dopamine.”

What the band’s late manager, Stig Anderson, grasped was that talent of this order was a necessary but not sufficient basis for superstardom. Nothing could be left to chance. In preparing the band for their 1974 Eurovision triumph, he steered them towards the title ‘Waterloo’, knowing that the word would have resonance across borders and in every relevant language. No less than the costumes, the lighting, the cover designs, the font for ABBA’s distinctive logo had to be absolutely right, too – News Gothic, as used in the opening crawl in the most recent Star Wars trilogy. 

Anderson was also quick to grasp that video was the future of pop, delegating production of these short films to Lasse Hallström (who has gone on to direct a string of successful features, including The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). This suited the band members, who disliked touring. As their friend the DJ Paul Gambaccini has put it, they would instead “tour the video”.

Even the name that Anderson gave them was distinctive, less reminiscent of bubblegum pop than of a fragment of genomic code, fit for evolutionary survival. Which is precisely what ABBA achieved, even after disbanding in 1982.

Guy Pearse, Hugo Weaving and Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

For many years, the music endured in disco and gay club culture, and in movie soundtracks (notably The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, both released in 1994). But the next truly significant host for ABBA’s DNA proved to be the “jukebox musical” format: giving rise to smash hit West End and Broadway productions of Mamma Mia in 1999 and 2001, and two spin-off movies. It is an astonishing fact that the members of ABBA have made more money from this show – still running all over the world – than they did from being members of ABBA.

But that fragment of genomic code also looks like computer code, doesn’t it? Though the group parted company seven years before Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, it is hard to imagine an act better suited to the digital era: viral by design, near-universal in their safe appeal, timeless in theme and use of melody. 

Judy McLane, Lisa Brescia and Jennifer Perry perform on stage in the 4000th Broadway performance of Mamma Mia! in 2011

They have been investigating the use of holographic performance for years. Fältskog is involved in a record label launched last year that uses artificial intelligence to match songs to musical acts. On TikTok, meanwhile, Andersson and Ulvaeus have invited fans to record themselves singing ABBA classics over the former’s piano accompaniment. The global familiarity of these songs lends itself to the online age – witness this summer’s #dancingqueenchallenge, in which users tried to get as far as they could through the song in a single breath.

Does it not all fit into place now? In popular imagination, we have been invited to fear the takeover of the world by a malign cyber-being like The Terminator’s Skynet. Yet, long before Mark Zuckerberg was introducing his avatar in Facebook’s rebranded “metaverse”, ABBA were planning their own virtual reality comeback as motion-captured superstars.

It is as though they have finally, perhaps inevitably, been uploaded to the Matrix; all part of what the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick famously called the “lateral arrangement of worlds”. It is as if they have simply been biding their time, waiting for the technology to make it possible. 

Benny, Anni-Frid, Agnetha and Bjorn in 2021

Just consider the lyrics of ‘Don’t Shut me Down’: “And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah/ I’m fired up, don’t shut me down/ I’m like a dream, within a dream, that’s been decoded.” If an algorithm could sing, this is surely what she would sound like.

Tomorrow’s release of Voyage is being billed as the comeback of the century. Yet did ABBA really ever go away? Hardly. And now, reborn as ageless digital overlords, they return in new forms to reclaim the planet. The winner takes it all, indeed.

Friday update: and here it is…

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Spencer (general release, 5 November)

Prefaced as “a fable from a true tragedy”, Pablo Larrain’s account of three days in the life of Princess Diana in December 1991 is an apt companion piece to his excellent biographical drama, Jackie (2016), which starred Natalie Portman as the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. In her best performance since the extraordinary Personal Shopper (2016), Kristen Stewart portrays Diana as an effective captive of the royal family at the Sandringham Estate – depicted in the movie in a deeply sinister fashion that has reminded many of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining.

Timothy Spall excels as the equerry Major Gregory, personification of the old order of duty and inhibition against which the princess is rebelling – while Sally Hawkins delivers yet another terrific performance as Maggie, her supportive lady-in-waiting. Though Steven Knight’s screenplay is sometimes laboured, Claire Mathon’s exquisite cinematography more than compensates. While Emma Corrin’s Golden Globe-winning performance as the princess in Season 4 of The Crown still holds pole position, Stewart’s interpretation is intelligent, humane and nuanced, and may well put her in contention for award nominations. It is a measure of Diana’s significance in contemporary culture that the role has become one that the most ambitious and talented performers are increasingly drawn to play. Next up, Elizabeth Debicki.

Passing (selected cinemas now, Netflix, 10 November)

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut explores the intersecting lives of two light-skinned women of colour from rural Georgia who are able, in adulthood, to “pass” as white. Clare (Ruth Negga), has decided to do just that, withholding her true ethnic identity from her overtly racist husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård) – in contrast to her old friend, Reenie (Tessa Thompson), who lives in Harlem with her Black doctor husband, Brian (André Holland). Torn between social ambition and a sense of inauthenticity, Clare seeks emotional refuge in Reenie’s household. Beautifully shot in black and white, the film is magnificently unsettling in its exploration of ambiguity, pretence and self-deception. “Things aren’t always what they seem,” says Reenie – and that applies to the pretensions of class, the lies that underpin many a marriage, and the shifting sands of friendship. The performances are uniformly excellent and Hall – who was partly drawn to the source material by the experience of her Black grandfather, who “passed” as white – is undoubtedly a directorial talent to watch. 

Eternals (general release, 5 November)

First, the bad news: clocking in at two hours and 37 minutes, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Phase 4 thereof, to be precise – is much too long. And this is partly because it is overstuffed with ten principal characters, with all of whom we are expected to achieve some sort of familiarity. The good news is that this is, in every sense, a movie directed by Chloé Zhao, fresh from her double Oscar triumph with Nomadland. For a Marvel film, there is strikingly little use of green screen in the action sequences, and the aesthetic of the film – a collaborative endeavour with Zhao’s cinematographer, Ben Davis – is dazzling. Eternals is also, by some margin, the MCU’s most diverse and representative film to date, from Gemma Chan’s Sersi, via Brian Tyree Henry and Haaz Sleiman as a gay couple with a young son, to Lauren Ridloff’s character, whose deafness is her superpower, and Angelina Jolie’s Thena, whose mental illness is depicted with responsibility and compasion. As for the story – well, that need not detain us. Suffice it to say that we are dealing, not for the first time, with superheroes as gods: in this case a group living on our planet for thousands of years, permitted to intervene only when the dastardly Deviants rise up to cause trouble. Though there are two post-credits scenes, teasing future instalments, I do wonder if these characters are strong enough for their own mini-franchise – comparable, say, to Guardians of the Galaxy, the third part of which is due in May 2023. All the same: the movie does look magnificent.


Read

Too Famous: The Rich, The Powerful, The Wishful, The Notorious, The Damned – Michael Wolff (The Bridge Street Press)

To understand why Michael Wolff is one of the few truly indispensable writers about the times in which we live, you have to recognise his deep knowledge of two particular spheres – the world of power and the entertainment industry – and, more to the point, of their riotous populist intersection in the past two decades. As long ago as September 2004, he explained in a Vanity Fair article how this intersection of forces had set Boris Johnson on course to be a future prime minister. Now best-known for his Donald Trump trilogy, Wolff here assembles writings, some unpublished, stretching back to 2000 on subjects ranging from Rupert Murdoch, Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani to Al Gore, Jared Kushner and Michael Bloomberg. Though there are chapters on Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown and Hillary Clinton, this is overwhelmingly a book about men of power, and what they do with their might. Again and again, one is struck by the extent to which everything is a performance, ratings and votes are indistinguishable and politics is just a branch of Hollywood and pitch-room hustle. Harvey Weinstein refers to his own trial as “the show” (having failed to persuade Wollf to write a book about him – “This book is worth millions … millions. You keep domestic, I’ll take foreign.”) Bannon – recruited, extraordinarily, to give Epstein “media training” – cannot contain his glee at the sheer scale of the scandal: “Dude, I don’t know who the fuck you are, but this is a great story.”

Admirers of Tom Wolfe’s ‘Radical Chic’, an account, first published in 1970 in New York magazine, of a party hosted by Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers, will not be surprised that Wolff regards it as a key text of his trade. His brilliance – increasingly counter-cultural in an age in which so many journalists make themselves the centre of the story or miss no opportunity to emote – is to recognise the actual simplicity of the task: to be in the room and to write about what happened. This proximity to the source is what makes the final section of the book, on Epstein (previously unpublished) so jaw-dropping. In his East Seventy-First Street mansion in Manhattan or his palatial apartment in Paris’s 16th arrondissement on Avenue Foch, the disgraced financier holds court and talks shop with friends, lawyers and PR executives about the extent of his predicament – but, like Bannon, cannot help but relish its sheer theatricality. “Who’s going to play me on Saturday Night Live?” he asks. Two years after his death in federal custody, the more pointed question is: who’s going to play Epstein in the movie version (already under discussion) of Wolff’s masterily account of his last days?

Pandemonium: Some Verses on the Current Predicament – Armando Iannucci (Little, Brown)

From Radio 4’s On the Hour, to televisual triumph with The Thick of It and Veep, and now first-rank movies such as The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci is the undisputed renaissance man of his generation. So it is no real surprise that his first “epic mock-heroic poem” – a satirical account of the pandemic – should be such a delight. Having started (though failed to complete) a doctorate on Paradise Lost, Iannucci pays homage to the poet he abandoned in his title – “pandemonium” being a word whose invention is generally attributed to John Milton. Boris Johnson is here represented by “Orbis Rex” (“World King”), aided by Matt (Hancock) and the Rabelaisian “Circle of Friends”, a “juddering mound of contacts and mates.” Boris, “the snow-capped wonderling”, is certain that the virus “will heed/ My words for they are as nifty as ghosts in flight, and can/ Scuttle any mortal threat.” Iannucci’s language is often arrestingly poetic: the developers of the vaccine are “laboratory archers/…ready to launch/ A hundred thousand tiny arrows”; the anti-vaxxers are a “parade of Dissenters, dizzy and unbalanced”; and lockdown entertainment is “Amazon’s calming stream”. In the end, “Orbis Rex” – that’s the prime minister – appeals to the public’s capacity for delusion and invites them to “Conjure up a happier truth, that already/ We have won, and amazingly so” – a marrying of populist post-truth to epic poetic style, and the hard core of meaning at the heart of this pleasing stocking filler of a book. Really, it deserves to be read out loud by Peter Capaldi in the savage voice of Malcolm Tucker. All profits from the book go to Mental Health UK, which is another reason to buy it.

The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World – Claire Tomalin (Penguin Viking)

We are accustomed to the idea of H.G. Wells as (arguably) the inventor of science fiction and great prophet of modernity: he foresaw chemical warfare, tanks, the atom bomb, and, well before the First World War, had warned of the perils of nationalism, technology and their potentially lethal convergence. Less familiar (or forgotten) is the notion of Wells himself as an early adopter of 20th-century superstardom and celebrity. Yet that is the overwhelming impression with which one sets down Claire Tomalin’s fine account of the first half of his life, which embraces not only his formation as a globally renowned public figure, but his finest books – notably The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Beset in his early years by chronic ill health and his family’s financial insecurity, Wells seized the lucky break he was granted aged 18 by a three-year scholarship at what would later be known as the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, where he was taught by the legendary Thomas H. Huxley. This experience was the making of Wells as a thinker and writer – and the success that followed unleashed patterns of behaviour that have more in common with postwar Hollywood and rock’n’roll excess than the social mores of his own age. Proudly in favour of free love and describing himself as a “Don Juan among the intelligentsia”, Wells was, in fact, a misogynist and a patriarch who forced his second wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, to rename herself “Jane”, before embarking upon a long series of affairs. His priapism got him in trouble, too. Drawn into the circle of Beatrice Webb, the Fabians, and the London School of Economics, he was exiled when discovered to be engaged in an affair with the 18-year-old daughter of the high commissioner for New Zealand. Truly, he was born into the wrong era, though not in the sense you might expect. What the author of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) really craved was the world of Love Island.


Listen 

Quivering in Time – Eris Drew

As much as Thoreau’s Walden, this album is a glorious product of life in the American woods. Created in a cabin the New Hampshire forests in the depths of the pandemic, Quivering in Time is a celebration of the “motherbeat” that Drew has identified as her inspiration – a brew of psychedelia, classic house, and the “divine feminine” – and released by T4T LUV NRG, the label and resource hub that she co-founded with her partner Octo Octa. From its storming opener ‘Time to Move Close’ to its stand-out track, ‘Show U Love’, the album thrives on the freedom of nature but definitely has its sonic roots in Drew’s hometown, Chicago. If you thought progressive house was a thing of the past, think again: this often hypnotic collection samples with a dizzying confidence and speed, daring even to redeploy Frank Maxwell and Peter Fonda’s famous declaration from the film The Wild Angels – “We wanna be free to do what we want to do … and we wanna get loaded!” – that is so closely associated with Primal Scream and their 1990 anthem ‘Loaded’. On ‘Baby’, the use of scratching is especially terrific. This is DJ-ing creativity at its most joyful, unrestrained and inviting. 

Schubert: Late String Quartets. G Major & C Minor ‘Quartettsatz’ – Fitzwilliam Quartet

In The Aesthetics of Music (1997), the late Sir Roger Scruton describes Schubert’s great String Quartet in G Major, D.887, as “among the profoundest testimonies in art to the beauty of life and the pain of losing it.” Written in June 1826, it was Schubert’s 15th and final such work – perhaps his greatest (though champions of Death and the Maiden would disagree vehemently). Formed in 1968, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet – which still includes one of its founding members, Alan George – has at last recorded this masterpiece, and their performance does not disappoint. Using period instruments, George and his colleagues are not fazed by the complexity and often hectic shifts of Schubert’s confrontation with death, and the depth of their interpretation is remarkable. As a bonus, they have also recorded the two surviving movements of Quartet in C minor D 703, composed in December 1820. FSQ have concerts this month, in Southgate on 6 November (at which the programme includes Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet) and 28 November in Norwich (details here).

Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1 – Richard Ashcroft

Personally, I could never listen to the original ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ in quite the same way after its subtle emotions were repurposed as the heavy-duty soundtrack to the final scene of Cruel Intentions (1999) – the preppy US high school reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons. So it is nice to have the track restored to its rightful place as one of the great songs of the late 20th Century, as opener in this collection of acoustic rerecordings at Abbey Road Studios of Ashcroft’s finest work with The Verve and as a solo artist. It hasn’t always been an easy ride, as anyone who got to his fifth solo album Natural Rebel (2018) can attest. But the pared-down arrangement and juxtaposition of Ashcroft’s best songs – together with nice touches such as Liam Gallagher’s vocal on ‘C’mon People (We’re Making It Now)’ – helps the listener cut to the chase: which is to celebrate Ashcroft’s talent as one of the most consequential songwriters of his times whose two Ivor Novello awards were justly earned. The album’s final track – ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ – is a heart-breaking version of a heart-breaking classic that, a quarter century after its first release, has lost none of its emotional impact and lyrical force.


….and finally. To be filed under “Coming Soon”, thanks to Xavier Greenwood for this recommendation:

Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen (now in US theatres; film festivals soon)

In 1970, a year after a seminal performance on the third day of Woodstock, Sheffield’s Joe Cocker no longer had a band. That was no good because, under threat of having his legs broken, Cocker needed to hit the road. So he turned to Leon Russell, writer of ‘A Song for You’, who, in eight days, assembled a ragtag group of prodigious musicians who became known as the Mad Dogs. Their chaotic, joyous and fraught 48-show US tour is now legendary. 

Jesse Lauter’s film stretches across space and time, mixing footage from the original tour with a 2015 tribute concert to the late Joe Cocker, led by the Tedeschi Trucks Band and featuring many of the original Mad Dogs, including Rita Coolidge and Russell himself. There’s no shortage of joy in the reunion concert, while the Mad Dogs give interviews (Russell’s last on-camera piece among them) that sharpen the ensemble’s hitherto blurry mythology. 

But it’s in its deft treatment of the dark side of the original tour that the film really excels. Rita Coolidge recalls being punched hard and out of the blue by Jim Gordon, the session drummer who had schizophrenia and later killed his own mother. The movie allows a moment of pin drop silence – one that gives the present-day companionship depicted in the rest of the film a depth of catharsis. For fans and newbies like me alike.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Abba/Instagram, Jamie McCarthy/WireImage, Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images, John Downing/Express/Getty Images, Netflix, Marvel Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer