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May 08

ABBA – “Fernando”

FT + Popular55 comments • 4,256 views

#388, 8th May 1976

“Fernando” is a breakthrough for ABBA, but a sly one. It’s different from anything else they’d tried – much more ambitious, with its long flowing melody lines in the verses and its lyrics about fighting in a liberation war in Central America. Before writing this I didn’t know that the song had been written for Frida’s solo record, which presumably allowed Benny and Bjorn to try something a little more unusual.

Does “Fernando” actually work, though? Some people have an allergic reaction to the sound of panpipes but I think they set the mood well here – wistful, cod-exotic, gentle. The chorus is rousing, the verses are lovely, the switch between them a little awkward, but made up for by the sudden, mid-celebration poignancy on “we could lose….”. Like “Mamma Mia”, though, “Fernando” is more admirable than moving: again the lyrics are the reason, but here they’re trying to do too much, and the English isn’t quite up to it: stumbly lines like “for many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand” throw me out of the song a little.

“Fernando” is a good ABBA record, not a great one – but its enormous success gave them permission to stretch out further and faster in several directions. No “Fernando”, no “The Visitors” (no “I Have A Dream” either, mind you).

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Pete Baran on 1 May 2008 #

    But on the plus side it does put its obvious baggage on display.

    My problem with IHAD is that I find listening to other peoples dreams really tedious.

  2. 27
    LondonLee on 1 May 2008 #

    Unless they involve sex

  3. 28
    Waldo on 1 May 2008 #

    Short memo to Rosie: I have finally got around to re-reading “Ulysses”, something I promised myself for this year, as I first tackled it in 1978 when I was seventeen. It was by pure chance that you reviewed it on your own blog last year and I have resisted referring to your notes as I ploughed my way through but will do so now. I have no intention in boring my Popular pals, so may I just echo what you yourself said as a conclusion and urge anyone who still hasn’t tackled this extraordinary (and quite bonkers) epic, to do so, even if it drives them round the bend as it has done me.

    To bring myself down to earth, I picked up “Noddy and the Magic Rubber”, only to immediately identify Big Ears as Bloom, Noddy as Stephen Dedalus, Tubby Bear as The Citizen and Policeman Plod as Edward VII.

    I guess I should seek help.

  4. 29
    Billy Smart on 1 May 2008 #

    How to annoy your colleagues through deep understanding of song # 1:

    In 1998, a year or so after I’d graduated, I started my grand career as a library assistant for the council. Soon, I was working all week in a small district library with just one colleague most of the time, my manager Sylvia, who was about 50, divorced, voluable and opinionated, easily riled and East End. We made for a kind of chalk and cheese pairing. She listened to Capital Gold a lot. Generally, I was quite taciturn in her company, because I knew that I’d have to explain whatever I said, as it would generally be misunderstood.

    One day, Fernando is playing.

    Sylvia: This always makes me think of my dad, ’cause he was in the Spanish Civil War.

    Billy: I think that its about the Mexican War of Independence though, beacause they’re singing about crossing the Rio Grande.

    Sylvia was cross, and I reflected that my pop knoweledge was not always welcome.

    How to annoy your colleagues through deep understanding of song # 2.

    The incident that most stays in my memory, though, is when ‘Wonderful Tonight’ was on.

    Billy: Oh, this is the most insufferably *sexist* song ever written! The woman in this song really does just exist as an object to be displayed and for other men to envy the singer’s possession of!

    Sylvia: (furious at her happy memories of the seventies – and of probably boyfriends like Eric Clapton – being traduced) WELL, THAT’S ‘OW IT WAS IN THOSE DAYS! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND!

  5. 30
    rosie on 1 May 2008 #

    Wonderful Tonight makes me squirm, Billy. When I hear it I reflect sadly that the Eric Clapton of Cream, consummate interpreter of Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues amongst many others, has come to this.

  6. 31
    intothefireuk on 1 May 2008 #

    Pretty average schlock from the Swedes which, as Tom points out exposes their folky roots. I don’t actually mind the verses but the sing-a-long chorus kills it for me. As is often the case with Abba songs their catchiness, for me, is often a source of irritation. Never mind cos’ I was too busy catching the Thin White Duke at Wembley – now that was something else.

  7. 32
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    It was Marcello who pointed out the folky roots! (I meant to but it slipped my mind).

  8. 33
    wwolfe on 1 May 2008 #

    Re: #29. I, like the immortal Sylvia, always thought this was about the Spanish Civil War.

    Re: #9. “I suspect that possibly only Abba could have got away with singing a campfire anthem on behalf of the vanquished.” That’s an interesting observation. It gives the song an emotional depth a casual listener – like, say, someone who thought this was about the Spanish Civil War – might easily overlook.

  9. 34
    fivelongdays on 2 May 2008 #

    I’d argue that this one of Abba’s more palatable efforts, it’s well thought out, catchy – but not annoyingly so – and it’s infinitely preferable to the campy disco-hell they would soon inflict on humanity. Seven is about right.

  10. 35
    Mark M on 2 May 2008 #

    Billy (#29), the problem with being a pedant is there is always someone waiting to trip you up in turn. If the song were about the Mexican War of Independence, then the lyrics would contain a bit of a howler as the Rio Grande* was hundreds of miles inside Mexican territory in the early 19th century. As Wikipedia reasonably suggests, the Mexican Revolution would make more sense, but apparently according to Abba it’s a non-specific all-purpose war happening in a Spanish-speaking country (lots of options there…)
    *Or, in fact, el Rio Bravo to your actual Mexicans.

  11. 36
    DJ Punctum on 2 May 2008 #

    Re. Rosie (#30): “Wonderful Tonight” is indeed a depressing thing, but nowhere near as sad an indication of Clapton’s downfall as his comments onstage in Birmingham later in 1976…

  12. 37
    rosie on 2 May 2008 #

    I wondered when you were going to bring that up, Marcello! I don’t much care for the expressed views of Richard Wagner either but that doesn’t diminish my delight in Tristan und Isolde. Though Parsifal was a bit of a comedown.

    I thought Fernando was about the Spanish Civil War too. But then I never paid too much attention to Abba lyrics, because Abba songs were never really about profound messages. I wonder if it really matters?

  13. 38
    Billy Smart on 2 May 2008 #

    Re 27, I have an aversion to hearing about other peoples’ dreams about sex, ever since this exchange between one of my peers and I when I was 17;

    GIRL: I dreamed that you were having sex with me last night.

    BILLY: (Suprised): Really?

    GIRL: (Genuinely angry): It was horrible!

  14. 39
    DJ Punctum on 2 May 2008 #

    The odd thing is that I have very little problem listening to and enjoying Clapton’s work prior to this time but I find his subsequent work virtually unlistenable so obviously there were other issues at work here, not least with him and the booze.

  15. 40
    rosie on 2 May 2008 #

    Personally I’m sitting here wondering if the time has come for me to up sticks and relocate, now that London, and probably the country before too long, is about to fall into the hands of vacuous, braying public school spivs.

    Krakow has seemed the obvious choice in the six years since I fell in love with that city, but I’ve long fancied Buenos Aires. Somewhere cheerfully chaotic anyway. Any suggestions?

  16. 41
    DJ Punctum on 2 May 2008 #

    GLASGOW!!

  17. 42
    mike on 2 May 2008 #

    My two step-sisters were never particularly interested in music, but oh, did they love “Wonderful Tonight”. A friend of the younger step-sister even performed it at her wedding, just after the speeches. What can you do!

  18. 43
    rosie on 2 May 2008 #

    I think you may be on to something there, Marcello! Cheerfully chaotic indeed. Ah, the Scotia Bar!

  19. 44
    Drucius on 2 May 2008 #

    Awful song, hated it mightily. Really twee garbage.

    Not as bad as the next one, mind.

  20. 45
    Waldo on 2 May 2008 #

    How about Harare, Rosie?

  21. 46
    vinylscot on 2 May 2008 #

    “Fernando” – For me, as with many other posters apparently, this was my least favourite Abba single, and one of the few I would actually say I didn’t like, or at least couldn’t appreciate.

    However, it was undoubtedly the indicator that they were here to stay. Previous Abba singles, like “So Long” and “I Do X5″ were much better, but there were no Abba-fans to buy them and make them into hits. However, the success of “Mamma Mia” created Abba-fans who then automatically bought the next single. It’s not as simple as that, obviously, but they were here to stay, and thankfully their future hits were (in the main) far superior.

    This to me is just unremarkable; it’s not compelling enough for me to worry about which war it’s about, or even if Fernando can indeed hear the drums. A bog-standard 5.

  22. 47
    LondonLee on 2 May 2008 #

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it was about the Spanish Civil War. It always seemed an oddity to me anyway, why were a bunch of Swede popsters singing about Spanish wars in the middle of all their Dancing Queens and Money Money Moneys?

    Boston is nice (where I am), the closest you’ll get to Europe in the USA.

  23. 48
    rosie on 2 May 2008 #

    LondonLee: Because it’s an excuse for an excess of hispanicisms, of course!

    I like Boston. (Fond memories of eating sushi at Legal Seafood, also of sitting in a bar watching the Red Sox clinch the American League playoffs – that should date it for you!) My friend (whose loyalty was admittedly to Philadelphia) claimed it was the most civilised and corrupt city in American, and home to the second-worst driving standards in the world. Worse than Paris, worse even than Lagos, and only marginally behind Yerevan, Armenia!

    Waldo: Chaotic, for sure, but not very cheerful…

  24. 49
    LondonLee on 3 May 2008 #

    The drivers are terrible here. Though the Sox have won the World Series twice in past few years so things have changed in that respect.

  25. 50
    DV on 4 May 2008 #

    I always loved the way this song inspired Britain’s ersatz Abba to do their own cod-Mexican tune.

  26. 51
    John Warburton on 28 Nov 2008 #

    Isn’t the lyric “Since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand”?

  27. 52
    swanstep on 27 Nov 2009 #

    Surprised that that there aren’t more flat out raves for this record here. I think it’s magnificent – to begin with it’s got one the great openings in all of pop music. The wispy fluty things then the thrilling strums (some of the best since the Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn’s opening 12-sting jangly chords)leading into the military drumming and it’s already got you. Sure, the whole lyrical scenario that unfolds is a hysterical Mills and Boon/Harlequin romance/bodice-ripper, but that’s *fun* in something like the way sci-fi landscapes in Bowie and Kraftwerk, and mythical landscapes in Zeppelin are. The fun to be had here is fundamentally ‘girlier’ than in those other cases (thank goodness the vid. left everything abstract and didn’t give us a chortle-inducing image of, say, Fabio or one of Madonna’s cheesecake video-guys as Fernando). But in the space of the song we get a whole arc of loss, disillusion, etc., which nonetheless *sounds* wonderful, as though losing/suffering *is* the best thing in the world. That’s beautifully bonkers for and seductive to many a young sensibility regardless of sex.

    As in many things Abba, Muriel’s wedding is a good guide. There Fernando gets us all the way from the holiday resort, back to Porpoise spit, through several stages of Muriel being dejected and terrible, and all the way to Sydney, City of brides and Muriel reinvented as Mariel. It’s a brilliant piece of film-making, for sure, but it draws directly and almost plagiaristically on all of the fancifulness and pleasure that the record crams in. The song has both scale and wit, and the film knows that and uses the lot.

    And what a b-side! Dance (while the music still goes on) is bloody fantastic. If they make a film sequel to Mamma mia, it’s my personal pick for a lead number to be v. strongly featured… perhaps even used as a new episode title, and as a spur to upgrade the choreography from the somewhat exasperatingly pedestrian stuff of the original stage show and movie. Dance(WTMSGO) is somewhat reminiscent of the Beachboy’s magical ‘Don’t Worry baby’. That was the B-side of ‘I get around’. I think Fernando/Dance(WTMSGO) deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest A/B-side singles of all, up there with I get around/Don’t worry. (Any songwriter would give his or her left whatever to have written any one of these four songs, let alone a pair of them.) The 5 bazillion Aussies and Kiwis who bought Fernando/Dance(WTMSGO) *could* be wrong (they had ‘Best of Abba’ w/o Fernando on it whereas uk and elsewhere had ‘Greatest hits’ w/ Fernando on it. Fernando wasn’t on an album down under until Arrival came out at the end of 1976. So Fernando has a special place in our hearts – it was a truly monster, pure single that one had to buy in parallel with the Best of Abba album which was at the top of the album charts for most of the year. Some opening act for Dancing Q. and Arrival, huh?). They *could* be wrong, but they aren’t:
    10

  28. 53
    George Tait on 27 Nov 2009 #

    I am also led to believe that ‘Fernando’ is the best selling single ever in Australia. Perhaps this is no longer true.

    Like Swanstep, I would give the song a 10.

  29. 54
    malmo58 on 13 Jan 2012 #

    Fernando and the narrator are reminiscing about fighting in the Mexican revolution of 1910, as confirmed by Bjorn Ulvaeus in an interview for Australian TV on New Year’s Eve 2008.

    Love ABBA, love this song.

  30. 55
    Eileen on 7 Jun 2012 #

    whether izzit 79, 89 or 99, it doesnt matetr,this title is as close as ABBA can get to a traditional Xmas song. These 4 talents are God-gifted. Merry Xmas and Happy New Year in advance to the world from Singapore with Love. I am sure the world over is waiting for a reunion Long Live ABBA! God Bless!!! From ur ABBA die-hard.

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