ABBA: LIVE AT WEMBLEY (1979; 2014)
1) Gammal Fäbodpsalm; 2) Voulez-Vous; 3) If It Wasn't For The Nights; 4) As Good As New; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Rock Me; 7) Chiquitita; 8) Money, Money, Money; 9) I Have A Dream; 10) Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight); 11) SOS; 12) Fernando; 13) The Name Of The Game; 14) Eagle; 15) Thank You For The Music; 16) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 17) Intermezzo No. 1; 18) I'm Still Alive; 19) Summer Night City; 20) Take A Chance On Me; 21) Does Your Mother Know; 22) Hole In Your Soul; 23) The Way Old Friends Do; 24) Dancing Queen; 25) Waterloo.
Oh wouldn't you know it — almost thirty years later, the dudes return to bring an originally half-assed job to perfection. The reason why, even after ABBA's popularity had resurged and their classic hits proved to stand the test of time, they waited so long to put out a proper live album from the vaults, is that the band members themselves never saw ABBA as a truly great live band, and had largely shyed away from extensive touring even at their peak (it is no coincidence that the majority of «live» performances of ABBA from various TV shows that you can catch on YouTube these days are actually lip-synched). Yet the botched legacy of ABBA Live, sewn together from various sources and cursed with poor mixing and electronic drum overdubs, must have finally pushed Benny and Björn into unearthing the old tapes, and ultimately, as part of the band's 40th anniversary celebrations, they settled upon the November 10, 1979 show from the Wembley Arena to be released in its entirety, «as was», with nothing but a proper remastering procedure to separate us from the alleged truth.
Since it was the Wembley shows that also constituted the bulk of ABBA Live, a significant chunk of the tracks overlaps between the two releases (and I am talking exact same performances, not just the same songs) — but even the most basic comparison shows the new release to be far superior, with a much cleaner, juicier mix and no silly electronic doctoring. In fact, it pretty much renders ABBA Live expendable, with the exception of the tracks from 1980 recorded at the Dick Cavett show performance (and still historically important as ABBA's last live show). It is also a major improvement on the equally eviscerated ABBA In Concert video, also culled from the Wembley shows and largely giving us snippets of the concert (less than half of the songs that were actually performed, and some in abbreviated versions and interspersed with the usual crapola like backstage chatter and fan ravings). Basically, it is the first and, so far, only official document of a complete, authentic, uninterrupted ABBA show from their peak period.
Okay, well, maybe not exactly «peak», because we were still living in the disco era back then, and the band was busy promoting Voulez Vous, which, let's admit it, was their weakest offering in the entire 1975-82 period of pop glory — precisely because of too much disco influence. So the setlist, as we now learn, is quite heavy on tracks from that album (6 out of 10 songs), and I am still not sure if these, clearly less polished and mechanical, versions of songs like the title track and ʽAs Good As Newʼ actually improve on the studio originals (by adding an element of natural roughness) or detract from them (because these were songs whose intended impact depended on a complete avoidance of all roughness and on total mechanical precision). In any case, this is a minor encumberance, but it also reflects on the rest of the performances: classic songs from the pre-disco years now have a shade of the «been through that, time to move on» spirit — a feeling impossible to justify properly, but one that still makes me yearn for a proper live release from, say, the Australian tour of 1977 (which, judging by what we know from ABBA: The Movie, was the true peak of ABBA as a live band).
Nevertheless, on the whole, it's a lot of fun. Yes, many studio nuances inevitably get lost in the live setting, but the crystal clear mix reveals a beautiful balance of technical precision and human feeling in the singing — if anything, the girls in the band were working it much harder on the stage than the guys (Björn was never a great guitarist, and most of the complicated guitar parts are played by Lasse Wellander; Benny gets his big break with ʽIntermezzo No. 1ʼ, but otherwise is mainly just busy tracing out the basic melodic contour of the songs), never missing a note and taking good care of all the parts that require special effort (such as Agnetha's ear-piercing high B on ʽHole In Your Soulʼ). Special mention should be made of: (a) ʽMoney Money Moneyʼ, with Frida and Benny running rings around each other until an «angry» Frida retorts with "It's my song!" and sets things straight; (b) ʽWhy Did It Have To Be Meʼ, which gets a ʽKansas Cityʼ type of introduction to prove they're playing rock'n'roll which they are not, but it's still hilarious; (c) ʽI Have A Dreamʼ, performed with the assistance of a local children's choir — cute to the point of almost puking, but I still cannot blame them for rewarding the choir with an encore, since every kid deserves his/her taste of encouragement for a job well done; (d) ʽThe Way Old Friends Doʼ, receiving here a nice friendly preview with Benny's accordeon; (e) Lasse Wellander's Rock God Guitar Solo on ʽEagleʼ, although that one has already been discussed in the context of ABBA Live (I think it's the exact same performance — and the guy had quite a difficult job to perform, considering he had to do it with Frida and Agnetha wrapping themselves around his legs, according to mainstream conventions of «sexy» at the time).
Overall, the only thing that spoils the experience a bit is the stage banter — there's nothing really bad I can say about the performances, it is only the little things in between that show how unaccustomed the band really was to arena-size performing (an example from Frida: "I only want to ask you one question... WHAT DO YOU THINK OF OUR BAND?" — uh, Frida, nobody really came there for your band, did they?). I also suppose that Björn's official introduction of Agnetha as «the blond one» would not be looked upon with benevolence by the feminist-oriented mindset of today, but, honestly, I suppose he just did that because introducing her as «Agnetha» would be too boring, and he just couldn't think of anything more inventive — thank God at least he did not refer to her as «the blond one with the big bum» or something like that.
Bottomline: you can safely throw away your ABBA Live now and replace it with this, far more comprehensive, document — although, while I certainly do not think that ABBA deserve to have a large archival live catalog, I still think that they owe us one more live release from the 1976-77 vaults to complete the picture. Ten years from now? 50th anniversary? We'll be waiting; in the interim, thumbs up for this Wembley experience, anyway.