ABBA: RING RING (1973)
1) Ring Ring; 2) Another Town, Another Train; 3) Disillusion; 4) People Need Love; 5) I Saw It In The Mirror; 6) Nina, Pretty Ballerina; 7) Love Isn't Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough); 8) Me And Bobby And Bobby's Brother; 9) He Is Your Brother; 10) I Am Just A Girl; 11) Rock'n'Roll Band; 12*) Merry-Go-Round; 13*) Santa Rosa; 14*) Ring Ring (Bara Du Slog En Signal).
When this record first came out, there was no ABBA as such; instead, there was the barely pronounceable 'Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid', and any band with that kind of name must be the kind of band that is still wavering between a musical career and daytime jobs as insurance salesmen and art dealers. And while on its own Ring Ring stands as a decently realized pop record, in the context of major works to come it looks seriously pale.
Technically, it does feature most of the usual ABBA trademarks. All of the songs were written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (with the exception of 'Disillusion', uniquely credited to Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog), most of the songs have somewhat captivating hooks that have a weird way of sticking for unclear reasons, and many of the songs have the two girls joining in classic powerhouse harmony of which nobody was ever a better master than A & A.
Nevertheless, it is very clearly a record hastily built up around one monster hit ('Ring Ring') and one mini-monster semi-hit ('People Need Love'). The former isn't as melodically complex as the hits that would ensue, and its emotional content is completely trivial ('ring ring, why don't you give me a call' pretty much describes it all), but then no one seemed to hold either argument against 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', which is hardly that much more inspiring from purely compositional terms. What matters is the powerful riff that drives the song and grabs you right at the very first second, and the perfect transmission of joy in the chorus. It's dumb, but it works.
It works so well, in fact, that in comparison the rest of the tracks end up six inches smaller. The selections are the usual ABBA kaleidoscope of a little sanitized rock'n'roll, a little faux vaudeville, a little Swedish music hall, and more than an ounce of James Taylor- and Carly Simon-like (soon to be Eagles-like) folk-pop; in short — just about everything that the Knights of Good Taste are supposed to despise in public. This range would never ever change, except for the addition of disco to the list in later years; but the real problem is that the melodies are often half-baked, almost kiddie-level so, and the lyrics, although never ABBA's forte, are particularly blush-inducing. No one can seriously take a record with song titles like 'Nina, Pretty Ballerina' or 'Me And Bobby And Bobby's Brother', unless they expressly represent kitsch, but in this context they are taken quite literally — the former song does indeed tell us about a ballerina, while the latter does tell us about Bobby and Bobby's brother, and do you really want to know about the kind of things they were engaging in with 'me'? Do you? Well, here goes: 'We would play together climbing the apple tree'. Uh... okay then.
Another disadvantage is that Benny and Björn sing too much; Björn in particular is taking the lead way more frequently than good sense would have supposed him to. 'I Saw It In The Mirror', for instance, may have worked better with the girls' voices, and so would other numbers. I don't have anything in particular about Björn's voice, but I always had the impression that his English singing was too tense and way too straightforward for people to connect with it emotionally (of course, so was Agnetha and Anni-Frid's, but they at least had the advantage of gorgeous timbres and rarely matched power).
The resumé is all too simple: by 1973, the former Hep Stars had not yet fully realized the perfect combination that would take them to the top. They made a nice try, though. I would never dare to use Ring Ring as fanbait — if you want to convert someone to the magic of ABBA, even one of their disco hits would work better — but in retrospect, it comes off as a somewhat respectable first stepping stone rather than a horrid mutation of an album that it used to look like to me.