ABBA: The Definitive Collection [DVD]

Marshall Bowden


The Definitive Collection [DVD]

Label: Polar Music

Yes, I am an unabashed ABBA fan for the simple reason that the time and effort put into the composition, arrangement, and recording of these pop songs is out of all proportion to their importance as music, giving them a life of their own that is far beyond what even their composers could have imagined. So naturally I jumped at the chance to review this DVD collection of every single promotional film (there were neither videos nor any MTV when they first began making these) the group made.

First, you have to remember that these films (or videos, if you prefer) were made between 1974 and 1982. MTV didn't start broadcasting until the summer of 1981. That's pretty far ahead of the curve, even though they were far from the only group to make promotional films before they became videos. These films were meant as stand-ins for ABBA. All the members of the group had been in musical projects before, and they wanted to minimize the time spent traveling and promoting their work, preferring instead to concentrate on actually creating their studio masterpieces and living their lives. Plane trips to Australia (where ABBA was very popular), taking 30 hours at the time, were not something they wanted to do often, and besides, they could be exposed to many more people with a filmed performance broadcast on the right TV program. In addition, they wouldn't even have to appear at TV studios to lip synch performances if they could just send a film clip in their stead. So here we see the well-thought-out marketing plan that was the ABBA Corporation.

All but the last two clips presented here are directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who went on to great success as the director of such feature films as My Life as a Dog, Once Around, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, and The Shipping News. Of course, the budget for these was incredibly low, and sometimes Hallstrom and the group shot two clips in a single day. So the first bunch of clips, including "Waterloo", "Ring Ring", and "Mama Mia" just feature the group lip synching, with Benny and Bjorn miming their parts on piano and guitar. A few extra musicians are added on some clips, but the idea is the same. Of course, the funky ABBA fashion sense is very much in evidence. Their trademark brightly colored spandex outfits were designed by Owe Sandstrom and his partner Lars Wigenius of Artist Dressing. Take a look at the second clip, "Ring Ring", featuring Agnetha in red hotpants and halter top played off against Frida's snakeskin catsuit -- I'm not even going to mention the guys' outfits (suffice it to say that capes don't really make it on guitarists).

Hallstrom devised a style that included many close-ups of the band, particularly the girls, often shot in such a way that you look at one person's profile while a straight on shot of another takes up most of the screen. This effect is used often, but is especially evident on the "Mamma Mia" video, which was reproduced beautifully and affectionately in Muriel's Wedding. One amazing thing about these close-up shots is that, despite wearing makeup, you see a lot of imperfections that you would never be allowed to see in today's videos. These folks have zits and other blemishes, not to mention hairstyles that don't always frame their faces to the best possible effect. Nowadays, you can't even make a video until you get to the point in your career where you've been totally made over and dressed by the record company. Even if you're hideous in person, you are going to look good in the video. And it's not that the ABBA kids don't look good, fashion sense excepted, it's more that they look like actual, genuine people. Weird, huh?

By the time of "SOS", Hallstrom was using some new camera tricks, and the group is filmed outdoors, which makes them look much more natural. Here we get the first hint of Agnetha's acting, which in this case means adopting a slightly pained expression that makes her look a bit like Jenny McCarthy. Frida's red hair is more emphasized and she is glamoring up a little, wearing a fur coat. On "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" Benny and Bjorn mime playing saxophones (there is actual sax playing on the track) and the girls are shot in soft focus, giving them an angelic glow. On "Fernando", Frida's kinky hair has been straightened and the group performs in front of a campfire against a background of stars. It's easily the best looking video we've seen up to this point. But the group has only just started hamming it up. "Dancing Queen", shot in an actual discotheque introduces choreography (well, it's just pointing, really) to the mix. It hints at the Euro disco sex appeal that would later become the group's stock-in-trade, but is still a little on the wholesome side. Still, the group, and especially Frida, has really loosened up in front of the camera by this time. "Money, Money, Money" with its Sally Bowles meets Nana Mouskouri melody, and the video doesn't disappoint with close-ups of champagne bottles, dollar bills, and lips. There's also the weird shoulder-leading Greek/Russian dance the girls do, and the scene of the four riding around in a convertible, which does always remind me of Liza Minelli and Michael York tooling around in Cabaret.

"Eagle", shot in 1978, was the first video in which Hallstrom shot the group directly onto videotape, giving the clip a real video look that is a precursor to the look of '80s videos. The girls have weird giant animals on their dresses, too. But the next series of clips, made in support of songs from the album Voulez Vouz really show the group transforming itself into what would soon be identifiable as a European dance sound. "Summer Night City" showed the group dancing and singing interspersed with shots of Stockholm at night and shots of the girls riding in Benny's motorboat. Together with the strong dance beat and seductive sound of the song, the effect was "hot" in a way that ABBA had never been before. "Chiquitita", which shows the band performing in the snow in front of a giant snowman, wasn't done by Hallstrom, but he returned for "Does Your Mother Know" and "Voulez Vous." Both of these are done in club settings, emphasizing the group's dance appeal and associating them with nightlife and the possibility of sex. Frida really seems to enjoy these "club" videos and she really gets into this song. The next two videos "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and "On And On And On" show the band in the studio and in live performance-sort of. The studio shots are clearly staged and the live performances are pieced together stills showing the group in concert.

The last really great video is "Super Trouper" which features circus performers and Agnetha holding her hand up in a "Number One" salute during the "onstage" portion of the video. But it also shows Frida in a simple sweater singing the lead on the verses, which pulls one's focus to the beautiful sound of her voice on this song. "Happy New Year", filmed in Hallstrom's apartment, is a depressing video, and the first real sign that the end is near. Hallstrom only did three more clips after that. The last two, "The Day before You Came" and "Under Attack" were done by a team, and they were "real" videos, since by now video clips were important promotional items. "The Day before You Came" is full of apprehension and features some nice footage of the Arsta bridge in Stockholm. "Under Attack", filmed in a warehouse, has a claustrophobic feeling and ends with the four ABBA members walking, backs to the camera, out of the warehouse and into the light. A short time later the group announced their breakup.

The DVD also includes "When I Kissed the Teacher", a clip for a song not released a single, three Spanish language versions of videos, and a version of "Dancing Queen" lip synched at the gala tribute to Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf on the eve of his wedding. The group dresses in baroque outfits that hearken back to the bizarre threads of their earliest days, bringing the whole thing full circle.

It's very simple. If you really like ABBA, then you'll get a lot of entertainment out of this DVD. If you really hate them, you might still get some entertainment out of these videos, but there's nothing here that will change your mind about them.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

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