How is ABBA formed?
February 21, 2017 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Who influenced ABBA?

Whenever I hear an ABBA song I feel like it comes out of nowhere. Most popular music seems like it has a pretty clear lineage that you can hear, going back to the influence of blues, country and mid-century American standards. But I don't hear that with ABBA. Am I just missing it? It seems like they come out of a different tradition, which makes it kind of fascinating that they became such a big deal. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to me that there have been a lot of imitators of their style. So, how about it, musicologist types? What is it that makes ABBA different?
posted by wabbittwax to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
"The ... sound often has several components, a "four-on-the-floor" beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. ... Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used..."

Does that sound like ABBA to you? It does to me, but I'm only familiar with their hits. I took that paragraph from the Wikipedia page on general Disco.

There's I'm sure a lot more to be said, but for my money, ABBA is squarely in the disco/pop realm, and is thus built upon tools from funk, soul, some pop (and hence the blues are only a second or third-order lineage). To me, ABBA sounds a lot like other Euro disco/pop acts, at least if you squint your ears a bit.

Wikipedia also has a nice overview of Euro disco. that lists other band with similar characteristics.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:00 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, the disco beat is undeniable certainly. But that doesn't really explain what the hell is going on in the intro to "Mamma Mia." I'm thinking more of their melodic sensibility which seems different to me.
posted by wabbittwax at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2017

Best answer: They were also influenced by Schlager music.

I would like to also point out that Steve Albini called them "not crap" on the Electrical Audio message board.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:36 PM on February 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Here's Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid in 1973, singing "Ring Ring" at the Melodifestivalen, the Swedish qualifying competition for Eurovision; a year later, they were calling themselves ABBA, the song was "Waterloo", and the rest is history.

I'm pointing to that because the other songs in the 1973 Melodifestivalen provide a sense of the musical context. The specific name for the tradition in Sweden and other bits of Central Europe is schlager, but there are common strands with Francophone chanson and the broader domain of "light music" (popular orchestral pieces) and easy listening ballads. (In the UK, the BBC "Light Programme" became Radio 2 in 1967, while pop music shifted across to Radio 1.)

It's a kind of "popular music" that readily absorbs other genres, while never quite losing its essence as accessible, clap-your-hands singalong music: "the soundtrack to a million camping holidays and cabaret evenings." Accordions may be involved. It got poppier in the 60s, and got disco-ier in the 70s. ABBA is at its schlagerest in songs like "I Have A Dream" and "Thank You For The Music". (And orchestral versions of ABBA songs work really well.)

For a slightly tangential comparison, look at John Barry's work on the James Bond themes and scores during that period, which straddle a lot of traditions: Tin Pan Alley standards, British light music, and a little bit of Euro-balladry, gradually getting poppier into the 70s.
posted by holgate at 12:48 PM on February 21, 2017 [16 favorites]

Waterloo reminded me of glam rock, particularly UK glam rock. For example: The Sweet - Ballroom Blitz, Wizard - See My Baby Jive, etc.

But they moved on from there.
posted by carter at 12:51 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely influenced by Neil Sedaka, girl groups, beatles, beach boys.

There was a period of time in the mid 80s to late 80s when pretty much every song written/ produced by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman seemed influenced by Abba. (SAW worked with Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley.)

I think there's probably some kind of direct line to be drawn between The Carpenters and Abba but I'm not sure how to draw it and it may just exist as a connector due to timeframe but to me those two seem related. (Maybe just due to earnestness or something, though.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 1:08 PM on February 21, 2017

I think most of these suggestions are true, but the secret ingredient is Show Tunes.
posted by bongo_x at 1:30 PM on February 21, 2017 [10 favorites]

I also think there is an aspect of this in Queen, and to a lesser extent Bowie, of the 70's, others that have rarely been successfully copied.
posted by bongo_x at 2:15 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is a pretty strong big band influence in the arrangements to my ears. Also my uncle is a song writer who did a lot of these same types of song contests and knows a lot of song writers in Europe and many of them went from big band to Motown to wall of sound to beach boys, influence wise. Folks they arelady knew. They would travel all the time following bands. The live shows and arrangements were very skillful and important. And then, I guess it all led to... Eurovision!
posted by fshgrl at 2:45 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

On the show tune side, "I Know Him So Well" started life as a silly unrecorded song that's much more obviously in the schlager tradition.
posted by holgate at 3:17 PM on February 21, 2017

When it comes to their sound, this guy was a very important contributor.

Some spurious googling for his name brought up this article, where he outlines the recording process, covering gear, recording techniques, and the constant tweaking: "I would like to point out that although this seems to proceed very slowly, it is not because of any lack of energy. This whole time-consuming business is created because everything - I mean everything - is tried out. The group can arrange and record full four-part harmonies, double track them and, if it doesn't come out right, erase them and start over again! Move On, one of the songs on The Album LP, had four completely different sets of lyrics, with harmonies and all, before the final one was recorded."

And yes, he's as quirky as he sounds there. Here's one of his side projects (featuring a bunch of pseudonymous studio pros, which I strongly suspect includes people who played on various ABBA albums, even if the rumors that Frida is singing on some tracks is most likely false).
posted by effbot at 5:29 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think that the studio production is a crucial element. The mix often sounds like it was optimized for the lower-fi options that were blossoming at the time: AM radio, small transistor radios, 8-track and cassette. Also, their sound takes advantage of compression technology more liberally and maybe even severely than lots of other pop artists.
posted by umbú at 6:20 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you subscribe to the showtunes theory, it's best to not forget The Girl With The Golden Hair, the "mini musical" that the group performed during their 1977 tour. Benny and Bjorn (with help from Tim Rice) did go on to create Chess, a much more successful foray into musical theater.

I don't subscribe to the theory, however. I can spot a showtune a mile away, even if I have no idea it's from a musical (I could tell "Somewhere, Out There" was a showtune weeks before I knew "An American Tail" even existed -- and I still haven't seen it), and the vast majority of ABBA's music doesn't even smell like showtunes, not even the bits of "The Girl With The Golden Hair" that survived.

I think they struck the perfect balance of the best of disco with pop, and came out with something all their own that is greater than the sum of the parts.
posted by lhauser at 7:48 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: oh, what a link. Hearing the chimes between British punk and ABBA -- "Oliver's Army" and "Dancing Queen", or "Pretty Vacant" and "SOS" -- is an epiphany, because punk was no less of a rejection of certain American rock traditions.
posted by holgate at 8:21 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've heard people say that the doubled (or quadrupled?) vocals are a big part of the ABBA sound.
posted by bluebird at 2:07 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Scandinavian coming in here to say SCHLAGER! and I see that holgate already got that covered. They basically took the schlager tradition (still going strong in Scandinavia - particularly rural areas - and Germany but I'm not sure about other places) and added contemporary influences like glam rock and disco.
posted by kariebookish at 4:50 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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