May. 31st, 2012

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Tom asked this question at One Week?/One Band: "Did people actually dislike ABBA in the 70s? The Brian Eno quote I posted yesterday paints a familiar picture - nobody could say they liked them, then gradually people could. But how were they really received in the music press at the time?"

Here's my initial reply (writing as someone who began reading the UK rock press extremely intensely from 1977):

NME Book of Rock (1976 edn, key para, author unknown):
"[ABBA] first came to international attention through winning the grisly Eurovision song contest in 1974, but have since acieved world-wide success with their albums, compilations of slick pop material tailored to the singles market, and all delivered in a kind of jarring Eurospeak. ABBA have compensations, however; the superb quality of the production (attained with aid of Stig Anderson, long-serving producer in the Swedish record industry), the strong melodies, and the vocals--sometimes plaintive, sometimes strident--delivered by the girl singers who are as decorative as Swedish girls are proverbially supposed to be."

The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1980 edn, author is Ken Tucker):
"This Swedish quartet (two women, two men) is an international phenomenon; their sound--a compendium of white American pop hooks welded to memserizing synthesizers and the permanently anxious lead singing of the women--is pleasant and forgettable. In their conscious conquest of Everywhere, they are determined not to offend: as fixed cheeriness pervades, and thus ABBA is best taken in small doses--i.e. Their singles. Given this every-song-a-smiley-smash approach, the Greatest Hits is of the highest quality, even if it is prone to induce both sleep and cavities."

[All LPs given 2/5 except Hits which as 3/5: by comparison David Gates's Bread's two Bests get 4/5 and a fair bit more leeway and enthusiasm -- albeit from a different entry-writer...]

The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music, by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing (1990 edn):
Entry WAY too boring to write out, except for this weird claim: "Surprisingly (and in marked contrast to Fleetdood Mac), the strained personal relationships within the group -- both couoples parted -- were never reflected in Ulvaeus's anmd Andersson's songs."

Eno is of course highly parti pris within the context of the Brit discussion of rock and pop (as was glam generally): so when he skewers an orthodoxy, it's basically a summary of the foolish opinions of everyone he wants to dismiss as stupid, and sidesteps all those who'd already come over to his side of the argument. The "3-inch-singles are better than albums" was a well formed and boisterous faction already -- Greg Shaw was one of its cheerleaders -- and plenty of people were already wrestling with the issues of quasi-manufactured pop-for-younger-teens (cf anyone writing about the Monkees or Marc Bolan).

Of course the issue here is that ABBA weren't so evidently writing for younger teens: quite the opposite. And much of the pop/rock discourse in the 70s was often trying to argue that, well, TEENAGERS ARE THE NEW GROWN-UPS GRANDAD: to be young means you're exciting and sexy and CORRECT (politically), and you need to be taken seriously, unlike adults who are all boring squares. Which is is a whole raft of contradictory assumptions, especially as time passes.

Finally, despite Ken Tucker's review, ABBA were more or less unknown in the US: and for British rock writers, validation in the end still came from across the Atlantic. The British rock press was young, anxious, unformed and inexperienced in the mid-70s: the US rock press was its admired older brother, at least for a while. It wasn't really till the 80s that critics came along who wanted to break with this -- who treated the American imprimatur as, if not worthless, then not really something to bother chasing.

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