Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Abba, Antmusic and ‘Ashes To Ashes’

I have absolutely no problem whatsoever admitting to liking Abba.  When I was between 8 and 11, they were my favourite band.  I claimed my mum’s copy of Greatest Hits Volume 2 as my own, and the Super Trouper album accompanied my first proper record player for Christmas 1980.

The inspiration for this most probably came from a cousin who lived in a nearby village.  The Jennings family were actually my dad’s cousins, but Dot and Des were ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ respectively to us kids, and their five children were cousins (second or third cousins in reality, but who’s counting?)  Des and the three boys were huge Status Quo fans, but the girls were more pop-oriented.  Patsy, the youngest sibling, was an Abba fan.  She had Greatest Hits Volume 1.  That stuff sent a shiver down my spine when I heard it the first time.

Abba was my first ‘favourite band’ and I very quickly learned all the words to all their hits and bellowed them out at any given opportunity.  What lay at the heart of Abba for me back then – and to many to this very day – were the songs.  They were proper songs, written and performed by a proper group.  This wasn’t lost on me even as a young boy.  I’ve never been taken in by all these fake manufactured pop groups, controlled by the Cowells and Walshes, all nauseatingly pretty with cheesy white grins, negligible talent and little, if anything, in the way of musical creativity and development. 

 “Make me a star, Simon.  Pleeeeeeeeeeease.”
 “Make me a couple of million in one year, little boy, or you’re history.”

You could argue that Abba pretty much kept to a formula, that there wasn’t much in the way of innovation or development in their sound throughout their career.  You could also argue that they are largely responsible for the sickly sweet sugary pop groups that have infested our airwaves for years since.  But I would argue against both those points.

Abba didn’t stick to a formula throughout.  They did change, they did experiment.  Compare early Abba (the Ring Ring and Waterloo era) with the stuff that came right at the end (The Visitors, for instance) and tell me you don’t hear the difference.  From the innocent happy-go-lucky tunes of ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’ and ‘Honey Honey’ through to the post-divorce heartache and remorse of ‘One Of Us’ and ‘When All Is Said And Done’, via the floor-filling disco vibes of ‘Voulez-Vous’ and ‘On & On & On’.  And as they progressed, they got better; the critics took them more and more seriously, with their final album The Visitors even hailed as “Abba’s first true masterpiece” by Billboard[1].  Plus, when they formed in the early 70s, no one else was doing what they were doing.  They were originals.

As for their influence on terrible disposable pop stars – terrible disposable pop stars would have happened without Abba anyway.  They exist in spite of Abba, not because of them.  Abba were (and remain) as much an influence on other genres as they have been to mainstream ‘pop’.  Indie bands (Lush, Ash), goths (Sisters of Mercy), crusties (the Levellers), rockers and metal heads (Helloween, Therapy?, Yngwie J. Malmsteen), Latin American orchestras (Edmundo Ros), crooners and easy listening singers your nan probably liked (Vera Lynn, Nana Mouskouri, Daniel O’Donnell), protest singers (Frank Turner), prog-rockers (Marillion), stadium bands (U2), the notorious (Sinead O’Connor, Sid Vicious), the legendary (Mike Oldfield, Elvis Costello), numerous extreme metal bands mainly from Scandinavia, even Johnny Depp (as a member of the band P) – all have covered Abba songs in some form or another and (mostly) all without a trace of irony.  They all appreciate the craft of songwriting and performance, and they’ve all turned to Abba.

Terrible disposable pop stars exist to make businessmen rich.  That is all.  If Abba had never happened, terrible disposable pop stars would still exist for this reason alone.

OK, so perhaps now and again a small chink in Abba’s armoury appeared, more often than not in their lyrics:

“I'm sure I had my dinner watching something on TV | There's not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see.” – from 'The Day Before You Came'

“Like a Humpty Dumpty, ‘fraid of falling off the wall” – from 'On & On & On'

“Leaning over me, he was trying to explain the laws of geometry” – from 'When I Kissed The Teacher'

“I figured it made sense | Building me a fence.” – from 'The Winner Takes It All' (this one in particular always grated with me)

The biggest criticism that could be levelled towards Abba was the banality of some of their lyrics.  But pop music has never been high literary art, has it?  Or at least it was never intended to be. No lyricist has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize.  Yes, lyrics are important, but there are weaknesses in every artist.  Many of Lou Reed’s lyrics are diabolical, but there’s no doubting the guy’s importance to alternative music.  And Lennon/McCartney’s early stuff wasn’t exactly William Blake, was it?  “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.”  No, no, no boys – no, no, no.

My point is that, while the temptation amongst hipsters and snobs is to dismiss Abba out of hand just for being a pop group who were immensely successful in the mainstream, there is very much an argument to be had for regarding them so much more highly.  Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Bob Dylan – all are rightly revered and respected for their impact and influence on popular music.  Why shouldn’t Abba be in here too?  Were it not for them, I may never have developed my obsession for music.  People still buy their records in huge quantities.  Artists still cover their songs.  And if we’re all being totally honest, we can all sing an Abba song, at least in part.

In 1980, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ was knocked off the number one slot of the UK singles chart after just two weeks.  I initially despised the record that succeeded it – I mean, the bloody cheek of it.  Who do you think you are to displace Abba at the top of the charts?  Who?  David Bowie?

Try as I might, I really couldn’t be too upset.  Abba’s final number one was knocked off its perch by none other than ‘Ashes To Ashes’, one of Bowie’s greatest ever achievements.  Once I’d gotten over the upset of its conquest over my heroes (no pun intended), I became intrigued by this strange-sounding record, this oddity (pun very much intended – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was, after all, the sequel to ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie’s only previous chart-topper).  It was years before I finally understood the true genius of Bowie and the sheer brilliance of his work, but at the age of 9, this song stirred an interest in the man who I would eventually refer to as ‘Our Dave’ or ‘The Great One’.  There were plenty of other artists who I became obsessed with before then.  Even before Abba finally split in 1983, I was on to my next idol (oh how fickle we pop fans are), and the difference couldn’t have been more stark.

For years, Sunday evenings were spent in my bedroom.  From 5-7pm, the Top 40 chart rundown was aired on Radio One.  Each week I avidly wrote down every single position – every new entry, every climber, every faller.  Like most music fans, this also included having a tape recorder close at hand to record my favourite hits.  The piracy of the 80s, a-har Jim-lad!

(“Home taping is killing music” screamed the ads.  Much like “Sharing MP3s is killing the industry” is hollered today.  Now, as then, it’s complete tosh, of course.  It’s common knowledge that those who acquire the most digital music through illegitimate means are in fact the same people who spend the most money on music through legal channels.[2] Back in the 70s and 80s, every obsessive music fan taped stuff off the radio.  They would be the same people who could be found in record shops spending all their pocket money on records.  Far from killing music, these people kept the industry alive, and so it remains today.  Rant over, sorry.)

Anyway, speaking of pirates (hold that thought, you’ll see where I’m going), it was one of these Sunday evenings when my ears were opened to a completely new sound – tribal drums, twangy guitar, a peculiar, squeaky vocal style and totally bonkers lyrics:

“We’re gonna move real good (yeah right)
We’re gonna dress so fine (OK)
It’s dogeatdogeatdogeatdogeatdog leapfrog the doggy
Brush me daddio.”

Adam et al
It was a new entry called ‘Dog Eat Dog’ by a band called Adam and the Ants, and it was, along with ‘Ashes to Ashes’, one of the most intriguing things I’d ever heard.  A short while later, a song called ‘Antmusic’ graced the airwaves.  It had a very different sound, much more guitar-based, but it was that group again.  This track got Adam and his cohort of Ants on mainstream kids TV – and that’s where it began, my new obsession.  Not only had I never heard anything quite like Adam and the Ants before, I’d never seen anything like them either.  They looked like new romantic pirates (there you go!), like what you might get if you crossed early Spandau Ballet with Jack Sparrow.  They had two drummers and a frontman with a white stripe painted across the middle of his face.  They were, quite frankly, awesome.

Of course, we all know the story – how they became the biggest band in the UK, how Adam launched a solo career that started at the top before plunging him into the deepest depths of despair (fame, fame, fatal fame, it really can play hideous tricks on the brain).  But for a couple of years, Adam gradually pushed Abba further and further towards the fringes of my music obsession.

I painted a white stripe across my face with Tippex once in homage to Adam.  My mum went spare, especially when I couldn’t get it off!  I resorted to painting sticking plasters with Tippex and wearing them instead.  Then, when Adam became Prince Charming, two short strips of red lipstick on my cheek and a beauty spot above the lip were the de rigeur bedroom look (I daren’t go outside like it).  Mum went spare (again) when she realised why she was getting through so much lippy.  But you know, I wonder how many other young music fans did the same in the 70s when Bowie first became a superstar.  Had I been born a few years earlier, I might have been painting a lightning flash across my face, or a big red dot on my head.

It was really where I began to understand the undeniable link between music and fashion.  I missed glam rock and punk, so Adam and the Ants gave me my first opportunity to explore my inner rock star aesthetics.  You couldn’t really do that as an Abba fan.

As I hurtled towards my teens, I awaited the next sensations to follow obsessively as Adam’s fame faded.  They came along sure enough. I knew they would.  Frankie said.


[1] Review of The Visitors by Thomas Gabriel, Billboard (13/02/1982)
[2] Online file sharers ‘buy more music’, The Guardian (2005); Illegal downloaders ‘spend the most on music’, says poll, Independent (2009); Illegal music downloads not hurting industry, study claims, Time (2013).  I could go on, but I think you get the point…


  1. Nice, Robster ... and I must admit I had a soft spot for Abba as well when I grew up. Also I'd like to get me hands on the covers done by Lush, Ash, Sisters, Levellers, Costello, Therapy? and - is this really true? - Sid Vicious: which songs did they cover?


    Dirk from Sexyloser

    1. OK Dirk, some quick googling and... ta-dah!

      Therapy - Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) - Gimme Back My Brain single -

      Ash - Does Your Mother Know - Oh Yeah single -

      Lush - Hey Hey Helen - 'Gala' album -

      Sisters OM - Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) - live version only (bootleg) -

      Levellers - SOS - live version only from 'Drunk in Public' fan club CD -

      Elvis Costello - Knowing Me, Knowing You - from 'Such Unlikely Covers' bootleg -

      As for Sid, it could be I've fallen for the common misnomer that he covered Abba's 'Take A Chance On Me', when all I can find is that he actually did a Johnny Thunders track by the same name. However, it's well documented that he and Nancy were big Abba fans, and there's a cracking story of how he met the girls from Abba after arriving in Sweden. (scroll down past the large pic of Sid on a plane...)

  2. I was sick and tired of everything
    When I called you last night from Glasgow"

    Now there's an Abba lyric that always made me smile with pride.

    I also know every Abba hit song under the sun. I was 'the Saturday boy' at a Woolworth's branch in the east end of Glasgow for about 2 years from early 1981 London and without fail, the greatest hits LPs (both volumes) together with those of The Drifters would be aired every week on the basis that the store manager loved those LPs above all others.

    I was allowed to work the record counter between 12 and 2pm every Saturday on the basis that I only played singles in the Top 40. Thankfully, I wasn't restricted to just the one airing of each song which is why I played 'Tainted Love' something like 30 times on the one day.

    This led to a number of complaints to the manager (mostly from other staff!!) but in my defence I was able to point out that my efforts had led to all 20 copies of the single being sold. And with this particular store being one whose sales counted towards the Radio 1 chart rundown, I still like to think I played my own small part in turning Marc and Dave into superstars.

    Oh and Dirk....I'll drop you a line later on with a link to an mp3 of the Ash cover.


  3. Ha ha, JC, sounds as if you were some kind of inspiration for Stephen Frears when working on High Fidelity: "I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.'s by The Beta Band ..."

    And thanks a lot, Robster, for the links: will check those out when I am at home later today!

  4. As a now 50 something (ok, 2 months shy of 51), I can easily admit to loving Bowie, Abba, Adam and the Ants and just about everything in between - well maybe not Prog rock like ELP or Yes - with a certain pride. As an American boy, it was always a lot harder to admit to liking multiple genre's of music as radio was chopped up and stations played certain types of rock or pop at the expense of others. Thus Zeppelin fans NEVER admitted to liking ABBA or Hall & Oates. Bowie fans would never admit to listening to Rush or Black Sabbath. But before Punk and New Wave my musical taste included disco, pop, Europop, Glam and banal American Top 40. I have every Abba album up to Voulez-Vous. By then, Punk, New Wave and Post Punk had taken over my life and musical focus. But I can go back to those albums of very 70's pop anytime these days and enjoy what I enjoyed 40 years ago.

  5. Wonderful posts, Robster. You're getting me very interested, even though I never listened to Abba or Adam And The Ants, apart from the odd songs on the radio or, more recently, from one of the gang's blogs. But I'm sure waiting for Frankie..
    One thing, if I may (sorry): this blog (same as Walter's A Few Good Times.. one) only allows me to comment using my Google account, something I'm not so keen on doing: why isn't it possible to comment using the option Name/URL as others' blogs do?
    Anyway, thanks and looking forward to more legendary posts like this one.

  6. Gianluca - I had the comments set to Registered Users which doesn't allow for anonymous or Name/URL options. i've changed that now, but if I get inundated with spam or trolls I shall change it back. Fortunately, only good people have commented up to now!

    The Frankie post isn't due for a week or two, so be patient there...

    1. Thanks for the kind reply. Not being a blogger, I wasn't aware of the technicalities involved. Feel free to do what you think it's right: your house your rules and besides it's high time I got my arse in gear and got a Blogger account..