‘Waterloo’, the singles English version A-side was the track that fully burst ABBA into the mainstream. Based on all the ‘otherness’ of them, most probably believed their career was starting and ending at roughly the same time; their novelty seemed tailored to a specifically one-hit-wonder status. Listening to ABBA these impressions would probably prompt most to think they came and went as some sort of phenomenon unto themselves, as if because they weren’t the typical group, from the typical place pop bands emerge from (i.e. America and Britain), then they must have borrowed the template of so many artists only within a Swedish geographical origin. No doubt the accents and manners of the group attracted fans of the cheap; they saw pretty women and a few catchy, disposable tracks. But when they’re probed a little more, they’re seen more accurately as a highly talented and efficient group with a deep, rich catalog. Their linage isn’t that narrow either, as there was somewhat of a wave of Swedish pop around the time (and really, Eurovision, the song contest that broke ‘Waterloo’ and therefor ABBA, pumped several equally diverse acts into the consciousness), Harpo, for one, was crafting a decent career around this time (his ‘Horoscope’ single is tremendous) as well (plus, when you listen to ‘Waterloo’ and are familiar with the deliriousness that is Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’ you see where the dots connect). To me, the depth the ABBA is clear straight away, each album an amalgamation of styles and samples that often all come off remarkably well. Just run a quick jaunt through ‘em and you’d be amazed if you have a previous notion of what you’d expect; ‘Tiger’ is a noisy piece of production bombast (Spector meets, I don’t know, CAN?), ‘Ring Ring’ a bit of Beatles-esque pop, ’Sitting in the Palmtree’ has a go at reggae (as does ‘Tropical Loveland’) just as ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ attempts classical stylings. Plus, there is enough variation within pop (in their catalogue take your pick between at least 20 first rate efforts; ’SOS’ is the best, as Pete Townshend later called it the best pop track of the 1970s), folk (‘Hasta Mañana’), disco (‘Lay All Your Love on Me’) and hard rock (‘Hey, Hey Helen’, ‘King Kong Song’, plus a few wonderful others) to easily proclaim them on the shortlist of most well-rounded acts in the history of the pop form.
It’s this last category—blistering hard rock—that would probably be the most surprising vein of ABBA’s aesthetic to the casual observer. It’s not often highlighted in their work, a shame really, as my personal favorite ABBA number, 1974’s ‘Watch Out’, fits squarely in this category.
That same English version ’Waterloo’ 45 I spoke of to open the piece came into teenagers homes like a Trojan horse. Buried on the B-side hid the pumping hubris of ‘Watch Out’, a bubbling rock n’ roll number whose very titled offered the most reasonable reaction to it. Drop the needle on the small vinyl disc, sit back and well, watch out. The track burst forth with a scratchy guitar noodle, before seeing a bass drum thud introduction of the rolling bass guitar gurgle that provides the backbone to the songs near 4 minute construction. The song is one thrilling piece of caution, the singer both speaking in first person creep voyeur, before switching to the point-of-view of the stalked, as if, since the band is equal parts boy and girl, or man and women as it were, both are valid in authenticity. The inherent menace in such a construction (and execution) is clear, the song is more than most would read into the Pop canon.
Nearing the songs climax we hear, “My patience is fading…” before screamed cries and an explosion is heard over the eventual fade out. It’d appear that the ultra pop of ABBA has reached something of a breaking point, and it’s all just so deliriously sublime. A benchmark work, but hey, they had a few such moments turn up on every album.
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Recently catching up with the films of 2015, I had a morning screening of Ridley Scott’s best picture nominee The Martian, a pleasant enough, if slightly predictable, blockbuster that saw Matt Damon’s Mark Watney left for dead on Mars after a terrible storm severs him from his Ares III crew. Over the course of the rest of the film we watch Watney struggle to survive, using his considerable botany gifts to sustain himself long past his planned food rations run out. In searching the space craft looking for potential tools to aid survival, he finds that the only music on the ship is a disco only playlist from another astronaut (Jessica Chastain). It’s a source of constant jokes, as if music this terrible would drive one insane marooned on a distant planet. In one key scene, where Matt Damon readies himself for a perilous rescue attempt, ‘Waterloo’ is the choice on the films soundtrack. It’s meant for irony, but it provides me an interesting thought: music knowledge was a means to critique films. Knowing that the B-side is ‘Watch Out’ affords one the point: Trust the intelligence of the audience, even if not justified, and put the appropriate song there. Damon is literally being instructed before he attempts his task (to ‘watch out’) and the songs frenzied pace better matches the cutting, and anxiety of the scene. Worst case scenario is that the audience is baffled about the songs inclusion (it’d have been the first non canonical disco track up to then) and is perhaps prompted to seek out why and eventually understands the cheeky selection. Or, you go the safer, but lesser route, and open your film up to the critique that you’ve made a dumbed down film for an audience you don’t ultimately respect. The Martian ultimately fails because these very reasons, extrapolated out to space beyond mere song selection. But, as always, the answer was right there in the tunes to begin with.