Apr 08

ABBA – “Mamma Mia”

FT + Popular59 comments • 5,356 views

#383, 31st January 1976

To swipe a phrase from my other favourite band, we are now into ABBA’s “imperial phase”, their shift from one-hit wonders to the world’s biggest pop group sudden and complete. The world had, in fact, been patient with ABBA – “Mamma Mia” is the fourth single from their self-titled album, the others – “So Long”, “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do”, “S.O.S.” – having  been each more popular than the last. That triad looks like an evolution now, but they were all on the same record, so the development is in the band’s (and Stig Andersson’s) understanding of what they were commercially capable of: a play-safe “Waterloo” throwback, a lilting bit of light pop and then the fully unleashed melodrama of “S.O.S.”, indelible melodic hooks melded perfectly to the song’s emotional beats.

“Mamma Mia” is more iconic than “S.O.S.” but it’s not as good. The ABBA sound still has a bit of glam in it – those glittery smeary guitars over the intro; the boys getting near the mic – and this would gradually fade, but this record is a mish-mash of ideas done well here but better elsewhere in their catalogue. The nervy stacatto piano bed, for instance, shows up again with more confidence on “Money Money Money”. The shouty “JUST ONE LOOK!” hook calls back to “Waterloo”. The record’s best moment – that sudden sweep into “Yes, I’ve been broken hearted…” – is its most ABBA-ish, showing their flair for (forgive my lack of technical terms!) inserting ballad-y hooks into upbeat songs. And finally, I don’t think the lyrics are up to their later standards – the “Mamma Mia!” refrain itself feels like a working title to fit the melody which just hung around because they couldn’t think of anything better.

Some people’s tolerance for ABBA is low because their music is so inescapable – I respect that point of view but if anything I feel I don’t hear enough ABBA, there are swathes of marvellous Andersson/Ulvaeus songs which get overlooked in favour of the usual five or six. But of those five or six, this is the one where I can most sympathise with the ABBA-weary: its lack of an emotional catch for me makes it more vulnerable to overplay.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I notice this entry’s sleeve features HOT GOBLIN ABBA – good work Steve M.

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Yeah, It’s ABBA so its obviously great, and filled with marvellous hooks and bits of arrangements… But reading your critique, Tom, makes me realised that I’ve never really invested much emotion into this one. Indeed, its only through thinking about the lyrics now, that I realise that it must be a song about falling back in love with someone, which is probably a bad idea. Am I right?

    Move forward just a few months, and I’m in no doubt of the emotional resonance to be found in the wonderful songs of this most wonderful of pop groups.

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Anyway, this seems like the most splendid of beginnings to whatever a new chapter might be called. Easy to forget that Abba were for some while in danger of becoming just another, if unusually sparkling, Eurovision one-hit wonder – “Ring Ring” and “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do” only just scraped into the Top 40, and “So Long” missed the chart entirely. Apparently – and despite continued immense popularity at home and across Europe, as well as new, sustained and massive success in Australia (like Blondie, Abba hit really big in Australia before they did in Britain) – this really stuck in Bjorn and Benny’s craw since they viewed the UK as “the home of pop” in terms of Beatles idolatry and so forth.

    So there’s more than a chance that “S.O.S.” was written very much with the British market in mind and even if it wasn’t it is compiled, as a record, as a song and as a performance, so skilfully and (emotionally) truthfully that their return to our Top Ten was more or less assured; such hurt yet such jauntiness, such classicism yet such perkiness.

    “Mamma Mia” is for those who prefer the happy ending Abba (the Hallstrom Abba?) to the slowly dying Bergman Abba, and as with “Bohemian Rhapsody” my response to it was largely sexually dictated – Agnetha and Frida share lead vocals throughout and they show such smiling generosity of mind and spirit that it’s easy to fall in love with them; the descending intimacies of “Just one look and I forget everything” as they crouch down towards the listener (i.e. me) was a most, um, warming spectacle and immediately I didn’t want them to let me go. Further analysis of my reaction to this record is not suitable for a public website.

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    Billy Smart on 21 Apr 2008 #

    ‘SOS’, by the way, is quite brilliantly deployed in Lukas Moodysson’s film about 70s Swedish commune life, ‘Together’.

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    Mark G on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Abba were OK, one single every so often, fine.

    But after being at an Abba ‘tribute’ band concert, realised I didn’t want them ONE AFTER THE OTHER STOP!!! NO MORE!!

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    Waldo on 21 Apr 2008 #

    The Swedes managed to get through the whole of 1975 without a number one but were fresh out of the blocks in the New Year, pouncing like panthers once “Bo Rap” died a natural death. I remember being in Kings Collage Hospital having my tonsils out when this was number one. I had taken “Far From The Madding Crowd” to read and being in a children’s ward, this was something of a curiosity to the nurses, one of whom had actually been to my primary school, funnily enough. I recall an older doctor asking me what I thought of Thomas Hardy. I told him I was only reading this particular book because I was in love with Julie Christie. He didn’t have the faintest idea what I was talking about, the idiot. I’m sure he hadn’t heard of Abba either. As for MM, this was vintage stuff, of course and had a similarly vintage TOTP footage to accompany it. This, admittedly, only featured on my radar because of those gorgeous girls turning to each other and then back out to camera. And I was, after all, in a hospital bed which my mum wouldn’t be changing.

    Happy Days!

  7. 7
    rosie on 21 Apr 2008 #

    The world of chart pop holds its collective breath, not quite sure how to follow what had just hit it. For the next year or so, I fancy, pop really doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. And the one act that can now come into its own, defining an era (the second half of the seventies) more completely and comprehensively than anything else, is necessarily a fundamentally theatrical one.

    Once again, a significant change in the cultural landscape coincides with a change in my own life. I’m still a postgrad at Liverpool but as Mamma Mia hit the top I was settling in to teaching practice, my first experience of the real world of work. Its infectiously bouncy cheerfulness made trundling up to West Derby on a bus crowded with scallies through the rain just a little more bearable.

    Abba always seemed a bit of a guilty pleasure at the time, and a lot of one ten years later. Although in ten years from now my daughter will be a big Abba fan and there’s no guilt to be had in shared delight. There’s no snarling anger there but hey, what’s not to like?

    Waldo, have I never told my story of how I opened my front door once to find Julie Christie standing there? And spent some time on a bed with her? (The living room of the Notting Hill flat was full of kitchen stuff while the kitchen was being refurbished, so guests were entertained in the bedroom.) Surely I must have? I never tire of telling everyone else!

  8. 8
    Waldo on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Rosie, that’s the first I’ve been aware of your “Getting Julie Christie on the bed experience”. If you have mentioned it before on Popular, please forgive me.

    And now please forgive me again whilst I head for my bathroom for a cold shower…

  9. 9
    Doctor Casino on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I think this is being sold just a hair short in order to leave room for future 10’s (in the future tense). I think the ‘transitional’ sound being identified here is really part of the strength of the record – the slightly (slightly) more down-to-earth instrumentation gives room for a little more vulnerability. Not to say that vulnerability isn’t present in the great “imperial” Abba singles! But both this and “SOS” are built around storylines of doubt, being unable to resist overwhelming emotional force, and so it’s helpful that the band themselves don’t feel like an unstoppable juggernaut. In that, it’s arguably a stronger record than “Waterloo,” which has too much bombast, not enough surrender. (This works on paper but falls apart in reality, where I think “Waterloo” is a better song…)

    The reading of the phrase “Mamma Mia” as a “scrambled eggs” type placeholder is interesting, but off, I think – it *is* a rather goofy lyric on paper, but it works as an exclamation. Either this is a song about a forbidden lesbionic relationship (and I’m sure it’s been justly appropriated for that purpose by some fans), or she’s complaining about the situation to her literal mother figure (which would put a very awkward strain on the second person lyric), or…or, well, she’s just saying “Mamma mia!” which I admit most of us today associate primarily with the Super Mario Brothers Super Show.

    I dunno – I find it an emotionally affective song, chockablock with hooks. Tom, you seem to give them credit for that while also holding it against them – to say that “Just one look!” is reminiscent of “Waterloo” sounds like good news to me! (But maybe I’m just biased by the fact that I *HATE* “Money, Money, Money,” and resent the notion that its piano part is in any way superior to the one here.)

    My defensiveness of this song, of course, stems partly from the fact that I’m a very freshly-minted fan, having only really gotten into their stuff since last December… from what I’ve discovered so far, I love all their stuff from this period, including the maligned, chart-negligible singles discussed above….

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    Tom on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I switched between 7 and 8 several times Doctor Casino so you might be right. Anything getting either of those marks is recommended, though, but this is probably getting judged in the shadow of later triumphs (which to be fair is how I’ve always experienced it).

    “Money Money Money” is one of the big divisive ABBA singles – I think it’s terrific, one of the most successful manifestations of Benny and Bjorn’s occasional “let’s do showtunes” impulses.

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    Pete on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Mamma Mia is in a transitional phase in its own history right now. What I always considered a good, but pretty uninspiring Abba classic, has with the musical and the upcoming film version has the potential to eclipse even Dancing Queen as the shorthand track for Abba for a new generation. Indeed when you look at the urge to make a musical out of Abba songs, there would seem to be much better songs to base your narrative upon (not least Dancing Queen which has a whole Billy Elliot plot embedded within it). So now the throwaway exclamation of “Mamma Mia” actually has a subject – the mother in question with her three liaisons.

    (Trailer here – Meryl Streep seems to be having a lot of fun).

    This is odd, what with what Tom calls Benny and Bjorn’s showtune impulse, that this is less showtuney. It is also interesting that unlike “We Will Rock You”, Mamma Mia is nowhere near as convoluted at stuff its songs in (there is thankfully no character called Fernando in it). But I’d be surprised if the film wasn’t a hit, and seeing what happens to Abba’s already pretty much rehabilitated profile anyway this year. 32 years on, Mamma Mia is about to have a a whole new high.

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    mike on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I always associate this song with:

    1. The colour yellow. It’s not often that songs have colours, but this one is definitely yellow.

    2. Getting my hair cut in Doncaster before the start of the spring term at Big School, hearing it merrily blare from the in-store radio, and feeling that all was right with the world.

    3. Buying the sheet music for this (and Sailor’s “A Glass Of Champagne”), and bashing out the melody on piano, recorder and Stylophone.

    4. DJ-ing in Nottingham, exactly 20 years ago, and having Simon “Damon off Brookside” O’Brien and his girlfriend dance to it. (I stuck it on after a UK Number One from six years later.)

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Yes! Yellow – as in shiny yellow New Pop, so six years later is very apt here (and the next number one is also going to have a bearing on New Pop but SB’s eyeing me up closely)…

  14. 14
    Doctor Casino on 21 Apr 2008 #

    “Money, Money, Money”‘s show-tuneyness is a problem mainly in terms of narrative – it just sounds like a made-up story, the character-establishing song for a comic-relief villainess. At best she’s a member of the supporting cast, and certainly not anybody I identify with. The brilliance of most of the band’s hits is precisely in terms of identification – but in M,M,M, not only is the protagonist not particularly sympathetic, but there’s hardly even a narrative, certainly no drama to get swept up in. I’ll take “I Do, I Do, I Do” as far as showtune impulses.

    (Excellent point from Pete about the impending dominance of this song in terms of collective shorthand. I would have built the musical around “Nina, Pretty Ballerina,” so that shows how much I know!)

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    Billy Smart on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Oddly, ‘Money Money Money’ was the one Abba song that we all knew at primary school at the age of four and five. Maybe it was the threefold repetition and very obvious rhyme…

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    Tom on 21 Apr 2008 #

    In the early 80s ABBA licensed their songs (or at least I assume they licensed their songs!) to a children’s musical, allowing them also to change the words to the songs – it was a kind of Pied Piper story so “The Piper” featured prominently.

    I was taken to see this when small and hated it! But can remember almost nothing about it. By the time it came out ABBA had stopped having number ones so now is as good a time as any to ask if anyone has ever heard of this thing?

  17. 17
    Pete on 21 Apr 2008 #

    This is the only Pied Piper I remember from that period, Cosgrove Hall christmas stop motion animated one which was k.creepy (and excellent to boot).


  18. 18
    Erithian on 21 Apr 2008 #

    This was the start of a phase during which I was mystified by Abba’s success, as I really thought this and the next one were nothing special (SOS was waaaay better but was reduced to the supporting role of reintroducing them to the upper reaches of the chart). Certainly I’d agree with Tom about the “Yeees I’ve been brokenhearted” line, but the chorus itself was just twee. Much better stuff was to follow.

    Waldo – re the girls turning to each other then back to camera – the classic pose of one full facial and one side-on was uncannily reproduced in Le Figaro last month by Carla Bruni and the Duke of Edinburgh! – http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2008/03/27/01003-20080327ARTFIG00293-lune-de-miel-franco-britannique-.php

    Rosie, you little tease – give us more detail on spending time on a bed with Julie Christie!!

  19. 19
    Waldo on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Erithian – Hmmmm…

    Rosie – Pleeze don’t elaborate on bett mit Julie, lest you wish to push sweet Waldo (who has committed no harm) completely over the edgey!!

  20. 20
    Waldo on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Actually, I’ve just noticed that Sarkozy and Brenda are doing the same thing. Do you think that this was all chorographed?

  21. 21
    crag on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I only came to ABBA in the 90’s and i must admit my appreciation of them doesnt extend beyond the hits and due to my scant chronological knowledge of their work(I knew Waterloo was came first and The Day Before You Came was last but inbetween the release order of their singles becomes pretty vague to me) i’d always thought Mama Mia came from the later part of their career as I felt it sounded less like a band in the process of perfecting their sound and more like an effortless,if a little contrived, piece of craftsmanship by pop past masters-a Lady Madonna, say, rather than a From Me to You.

    Certainly its a song built around a hook rather than vice versae but it’s still a superior piece of writing and would be pride of place in most bands songbooks-it only palls (very) slightly when its compared to their other(later, as it turns out!) hits.

    As i mentioned above i’ve always known ABBA as pretty much only a singles act but if Tom or anyone else would like to recommend any albums tracks to me it would be much appreciated…

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Oh wow! I envy you listening to these songs for the first time, Crag!

    If you still have a turntable, it’s not difficult to pick up the complete works for next to nothing.

    Arrival is a lot of people’s favourite. ‘My Love My Life’ is a particularly splendid song. It also features ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’, my current favourite.

    If you want to follow the albums as carrying a kind of chronological narrative, ‘Super Trooper’ is the penultimate one, that concentrates upon the divorces in a very grown-up and measured way – and is hence emotionally devastating. (As we may well go on to discuss).

    Its then followed by ‘The Visitors’ which kind of explores the subsequent breakdown that the divorced protagonists might undergo. ‘One Of Us’ is the famous song off this and gives you a good idea of what to expect (“In her lonely bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing she was somewhere else instead”). Its also got ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ a song about watching your children going to school for the first time – the type of universal theme that pop never seems to cover, and the astonishing, almost holy, ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’, where either death or a ghost visits Agnetha, and which climaxes with a clock ticking and then stopping. It’s just heartbreaking.

    Hm. Can anyone guess that Abba are just about my favourite pop thing ever?

  23. 23
    Tom on 21 Apr 2008 #

    I can find something to really like in pretty much every ABBA track, Crag – even when there’s some corny joke or sorely dated musical decision there’s usually an amazing hook or wonderfully direct lyric just around the corner from it.

    A very good compilation – which may be out of print but should be available for cheap – is “More ABBA Gold”, rushed out to take advantage of ABBA Gold in 93, which contains a bunch of well-loved album tracks and less successful singles: it gives more of an idea of their range than Gold, and if you can’t stand it you probably shouldn’t advance on the albums.

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    intothefireuk on 22 Apr 2008 #

    SOS is my favourite ABBA single – it also happened to be the first time I’d seen the ABBA girls in their white boots & mini dress outfits (Seaside Special if you’re interested). Not that I’m correlating the two things I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. My colours firmly nailed to the mast we come to their follow-up, Mamma Mia. This harked back to the cheesier end of europop they never quite (fully) escaped from and as such didn’t register with me in the same way. In fact ABBA were pretty well dismissed as cheesy europop up until the 90’s when they started enjoying a critical rehabilitation. Muriels Wedding may have been a factor, whatever it was – the change in opinion towards them was fairly dramatic. Which either suggests that we loved them all along but as they were uncool couldn’t admit it or that we are all as shallow as hell. Not suprisingly I would opt for the former. They did make some very good pop records but the cheesy element did put me off a fair number of their singles. This one just about passes muster.

  25. 25
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 22 Apr 2008 #

    i think we had this discussion a bit on a previous thread: from the off there had been rock-critical (writer) voices saying “listen you ear-stopped mung-beans ABBA ARE REALLY GOOD” but this line somehow did not really take with the rock-critical (reading) public for some years <— this being a madey-uppy sociological “reception-theory” version of “we loved them all along but as they were uncool couldn’t admit it”

    one little upcoming attitude sea-change: punk briefly (re)made the 3-min single and the hook into primary values in the way pop and rock were talked about, as opposed to elements to be suspicious of or supercilious about, elements that (good) rock “transcended” but “mere” pop halted at…

    certainly from my pitiless year-zero buzzcocks-fan perspective, abba were on the side of good from 1978-ish — added to which there had been a strange and difficult fellow at my school (i’ve told this story before) who loudly favoured abba over all prog, weathering the callow scorn of his contemporaries, and i had always admired his lonely proto-punk nerve for this (even tho i didn’t like him much)

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    Tom on 22 Apr 2008 #

    I never really know how to define “cheese” intothefire – cos I’d have said, in terms of how it’s USED (lead song from the musical, Muriel’s Wedding, etc etc) “Mamma Mia” is one of the ‘cheesiest’. But then sometimes “cheese” seems to mean ‘sentiment’ (and it’s one of their less sentimental songs), sometimes ‘anything we’re a bit embarrassed by’….what is cheese exactly?

    (I was in a focus group w/some teenage boys recently and they all insisted that cheese was a genre and rolled their eyes mightily at my feeble poptimist requests for a definition.)

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    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 22 Apr 2008 #

    previous discussion here, in “waterloo” thread obv, actually takes quite a difft shape than i remembered (and i see i promised an explanation and/or clarification of some hard-to-follow on-the-fly claim which — shockah! — i never gave)

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    DJ Punctum on 22 Apr 2008 #

    Re. #22: isn’t it Frida singing on “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”?

  29. 29
    DJ Punctum on 22 Apr 2008 #

    Re. sinkah post #13 on “Waterloo” thread; I think there was a little more connectivity going on with Abba but not oppressively so – possibly best worked through as we come to each individual number one, particularly the next one as I plan to do some Tommy Cooper-style sleight of hand theorising with that.

    (actually it’ll be more in the line of forgotten by everyone except Mark and me James Burke BBC1 series Connections)

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    Dan R on 22 Apr 2008 #

    re #28, yes I’m sure it is Frida.

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