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Thursday, December 3, 2009

ABBA: Live

ABBA LIVE (1986)

1) Dancing Queen; 2) Take A Chance On Me; 3) I Have A Dream; 4) Does Your Mother Know; 5) Chiquitita; 6) Thank You For The Music; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Fernando; 9) Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight); 10) Super Trouper; 11) Waterloo; 12) Money Money Money; 13) The Name Of The Game/Eagle; 14) On And On And On.

ABBA quietly faded away in late 1982, each girl going her own way — both Agnetha and Frida managed to pack a few more international hits under the belt before settling down and mostly dis­appearing from public view — and Benny and Björn still occasionally sticking together, e. g. for the Tim Rice collaboration on the musical Chess and other projects. Even with the recent revival of the band's popularity — most lately illustrated by the intentional cheese of Mamma Mia the musical — they have avoided the temptation to reunite; a wise decision, perhaps, since it gives them an additional touch of class that most of their pop brethren could only wish for.

In any case, the lack of new material has ensured a small, but steady stream of from-the-vaults releases: small, because the band members seemingly do not want to make every sneeze they ever recorded public, but steady, because everybody wants to pay the bills. Chief among these is the live album from 1986, an odd mix of tracks pulled from the Australian tour of 1977 (which, by the way, is captured much more prominently and excitingly in ABBA: The Movie), a London gig in 1979 (which, by the way, is captured much more prominently and excitingly in ABBA: In Con­cert 1979), and the Dick Cavett Meets ABBA TV special in 1981 (which, by the way, is captured much more prominently and excitingly in the Dick Cavett Meets ABBA TV special, provided you can get a high quality non-Youtube copy).

As things go, this one is clearly a "memento" above all else. The intermingling of the band's 1977 "Eurofolk" sound with their 1979 disco image is not entirely unauthentic (after all, they did inter­mingle that material in 1979), but the sequencing is poor; the Cavett tunes, recorded in an entire­ly different environment, do not fit in well with the rest; the mix is a far cry from the gloss of the studio records, not to mention rumours of overdubs; and the idea of arranging 'The Name Of The Game' and 'Eagle' as a medley is a bad one, even if it belonged to the band members themselves.

Nevertheless, I am totally sure that ABBA Live deserves its place under the sun and merits hea­ring even on the part of non-diehard fans. Reason? Simple: it proves, once and for all, that ABBA were a band, not just a soulless chemical concoction of Swedish record industry. As you look through old footage of the band, you might get the impression that they always lip-synched on ca­mera, but that is mostly true of their videos and innumerable TV appearances (not the Dick Ca­vett appearance, though); for ticket-buying concert fans, everything was honest. Real instruments, real singing, real kick-ass energy (in places).

Granted, like every band with primary emphasis on pop perfection, ABBA were always studio-oriented, and for pure enjoyment, you do not really need to add the "live" element (unless it is to watch rather than to listen, but even there for each appetizing sight of the girls wiggling their bot­toms you get to stare at Björn's bare chest for half a minute — oh, was that sexist? sorry — and let's not even mention the costumes). None of these versions even begin to overtake their studio counterparts; generally, the closer they are to reproducing the original, the better it comes off, and while the girls are almost impeccable in that respect, the playing suffers almost inevitably. Some­times, for an extra touch of "stadium rock" atmosphere, they let their real guitarist (not Björn, who mostly just used his instrument on stage to look cool) fly off with an ex­tended solo ('Does Your Mother Know', 'Eagle'); he is highly competent, but no Dave Gilmour, and his well-crafted instrumental breaks in the studio are far more memorable and inspirational than the improvised guitar heroics on these live takes.

But, as I was saying, this is not the point: if there is a noble point to the album, it is merely to show you that the band generally did a good job on stage, and did not hide behind pre-recorded tapes and lip-synching, unlike most teenage idols of today. If anything, it is just one more remin­der of how truly awesome, from a technical point at least, the Agnetha-Frida duet had really been at the band's peak — there is really not a second on this album that would make me cringe from a displaced note or discordant harmonizing. Looking at it from this side, I emerge with a resolute thumbs up, even if the cash-in motives behind the release are more than plain. Now, perhaps, a good way of redeeming executive greed would be to retire the album from the catalog and replace it with a couple of remixed and remastered complete shows from "the Golden Era" — including, among other things, a complete performance of the 'Girl With Golden Hair' mini-musical. What are you waiting for, industry people? Now that Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan have reignited the old flames, here is your fat chance of combining common good with personal gain.

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