Recorded two years removed from their crowning glory of Arrival during their 1979-80 world tour, Live at Wembley Arena serves as a victory lap of sorts before things started going poorly for ABBA, both personally and professionally. By this time, they had six albums proper under their collective belts, a number of hits on the charts, several greatest hits compilations to prove it, and even a feature film. But personally, the inter-coupling of Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, married in 1978, and the existing marriage of Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog were putting a great deal of stress and strain on the group. Like fellow late ’70s chart toppers Fleetwood Mac, ABBA’s relationship drama would prove the group’s ultimate undoing by the time the ’80s rolled around.
Contextualized as such, it’s a minor miracle ABBA don’t completely and totally implode on stage. To the contrary, they put on their best face, with the mask only occasionally managing to slip somewhat, and deliver a powerful set of live favorites and deeper album cuts. While they always relied on the studio polish perhaps more so than a number of their contemporaries, live, ABBA proves to be just as musically proficient, nimbly making their way through a number of fairly complex arrangements with little to no trouble.
Of course it helps to have a wildly adept backing band capable of myriad genre shifts at the drop of a hat. From prog (the opening of “Voulez-Vous”, here a tightly structured prog / disco hybrid) to cabaret (“Thank You for the Music”) to straight up rock ‘n’ roll (“Why Did It Happen to Me”) to classical (a fiery “Intermezzo No. 1” that gives the band a full-on workout) to disco (nearly everything else), ABBA’s backing band for this 1979-80 tour were spot on in their ability to bring these deceptively complex pop songs from the studio to the stage, allowing the four faces of ABBA to deftly deploy a studied karaoke act (albeit actually singing live without the aid of backing tracks, like some of today’s biggest pop stars) that show them to be equally proficient vocalists, capable of scaling the same heights live as in the more well-known studio cuts.
While having dozens of great songs certainly helps, the members of ABBA prove to have the chops to back up their commercial success, powering through 25 cuts here with nary a vocal misstep. Only on “Eagle” do the tightly knotted vocal harmonies of Lyngstad and Fältskog begin to unravel, each a fraction of a second behind the next, creating an unintended echo effect that threatens only momentarily to derail the proceedings. Elsewhere, their charmingly accented vocals help to elevate the mood and, with such stellar playing behind them (fully acknowledged by the members of ABBA in the charming, though somewhat sporadic stage banter), make it clear why ABBA was such a huge draw at this time and popular with millions around the world.
Throughout, the crowd’s giddy euphoria at the spectacle they’re witnessing comes through the album loud and clear, with wildly enthusiastic applause greeting the end of nearly every number. And, listening some 35 years later, it’s hard not to be swept up in that euphoria as these are clearly talented performers doing what they do best for a sizable, appreciative audience. Sure ABBA can serve and has served as a pop cultural punch line for years, but hearing them live illustrates why they’ve had the staying power to remain such a vital part of the pop landscape over the past 40 years. Not only do they deliver on the expected hits (“Dancing Queen”, “Waterloo”, “S.O.S.”, “Take a Chance on Me”, etc. are all here), they also explore a number of lesser known album tracks that serve to create a more holistic portrait of the group, fleshing out their sound and vision, moving beyond simply being, as is so often the case, a live greatest hits package.
Instead, Live at Wembley Arena serves as an ideal argument in the case for ABBA’s continued relevance in both popular music and popular culture, as well as a fairly thorough introduction to the group’s best work. Sure, disco may have been on its way out of favor with much of the listening public by the time this performance was captured in November of 1979, but, from the overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd response, one could easily mistake it for the height of disco fever. Overall, it’s a note-perfect encapsulation of a bygone era when massive pop stars still performed live rather than relying on pre-recorded backing tracks, making the complexity of the arrangements and the dexterity of the performers all the more exhilarating, both at the front and rear of the stage.