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May 08

ABBA – “Fernando”

FT + Popular61 comments • 5,679 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. 1
    DJ Punctum on 1 May 2008 #

    This gives me the opportunity to unburden myself with regard to my particular Abba-related prejudice, namely the fact that I have never really liked the campfire singing for a Greater Good Abba. Although clearly different to anything they’d previously tried as Abba, the mood and approach hark back to their days in the Hep Stars and similar when they were all trying to be the Swedish Seekers; indeed I have no problem visualising Judith Durham dutifully singing this song, or Julie Andrews for that matter, and maybe that’s the nub of the problem (see also “Chiquitita” and extremely suspect things like “Soldiers” although I still have a moderately soft spot for the Nana Mouskouri-for-Unicef-complete-with-children’s-choir “I Have A Dream” because of its underlying and very subtle paranoia). In the end this touches and moves me about as much or as little as “Save Your Kisses” I’m afraid.

  2. 2
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    My favourite in this style is “Chiquitita” – I agree though that of the many strings to ABBA’s bow this is the least.

  3. 3
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    Also, my wedding DJ top tip: if it’s ABBA time but you can’t face playing (or have been warned off) the ‘traditional’ choice, this one works surprisingly well.

  4. 4
    Erithian on 1 May 2008 #

    Yes, definitely a step forward and we suddenly realised what a force they were going to be. And it’s a lovely song too. Can’t agree about the switch from verse to chorus being awkward though – thinking of so many songs where the verse is just a perfunctory thing you get through en route to the Big Chorus, here the verses have considerable weight.

    And a point that should be made in respect of the English: someone, I forget who, once pointed out that “Since many years I haven’t seen a rifle in your hand” is the ONLY grammatical error you’ll find in nine number ones and umpteen other hits written by Benny and Bjorn in a foreign language. Hats off for that.

    As Snif and I were discussing on the “Waterloo” thread, this was one of a number of Abba songs that had double-figure runs at number one in Australia. Gough Whitlam had not long since been dismissed by the Governor General, so Abba could well have formed a government down there.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 1 May 2008 #

    As far as pan pipes are concerned I much preferred “Doina De Jale” by Gheorghe Zamfir which made the top ten later on in ’76 after being used as the theme for the BBC religious programme Light Of Experience. Despite the subsequent decades of easy listening debasement of the instrument, The Fast Show etc., it still sounds like nothing else on earth.

  6. 6
    rosie on 1 May 2008 #

    I agree, it’s not what Abba did best, but then Abba did almost everything they did with an aplomb that left their imitators well behind. And they didn’t try to get into waters they couldn’t navigate, which is as admirable as their willingness to try something a bit different.

    What kind of song is this? Not something that’s played a big role in the pop charts since the fifties, I think, and I can’t help feeling that the true popular antecedents may have been broadsheet ballads of the Thirty Years War. It’s easier to say what it’s not. It’s not tub-thumping bombast and it’s not the kind of growling anti-war anthem of ten years earlier. What’s left is quintessential Abba: a good, well-crafted, tuneful song that’s always a pleasure to hear but which isn’t going to challenge one’s perception of the world. I’m not inclined to be too hard on them for it and it’s well worth a 7.

    Oh, and if you want to hear panpipes with attitude, find a way of seeing the wonderful Aussie film Picnic at Hanging Rock (Zamfir too, I believe)

  7. 7
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    I will track that down Marcello – I love me some pan pipes, the only buskers I ever give money to are the pan pipe troupes, unless they’re playing “Wonderwall” obviously.

  8. 8
    Pete on 1 May 2008 #

    I like breathy blowy instruments, which is why I am a sucker for all songs with flutes, and the odd panpipe stormer too (oh Incantation, how your album blights my record collection). And tiny Pete loved Fernando to such a degree that the words have never, ever meant anything to me – I have known them all since before I knew language (it was on one of the three tapes).

    Fernando’s greatness is in its quotability though. It is a storming chorus singalong, but the pensive “Can you hear the drums Fernando?”, half whispered is the sucker that drags you in. Its power on a dancefloor is the chill-out vibe for the verse and then a strange mass singalong cum folk dance breaks out.

    COMMENT EDITED FOR UNBEKNOWNST SPOILERAGE. THOUGH HOW THE SACK OF SHIT I MENTIONED EVER GOT TO NUMBER ONE I DON’T KNOW.

  9. 9
    DJ Punctum on 1 May 2008 #

    One of the things about “Fernando” which has stuck with me is the ominous, low harmony under the line “though we never thought that we could lose.” I suspect that possibly only Abba could have got away with singing a campfire anthem on behalf of the vanquished.

  10. 10
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    No spoilers!

  11. 11
    Erithian on 1 May 2008 #

    “Doina De Jale” [“Song of Sadness”] reached number 4 and was a fantastic record, one that I used to totally chill out to. The B-side of the single was called “Briul Oltenesc” and was a lightning-fast dance tune (i.e. folk dance, not… well, you know). It was a good year for Europop, as two forthcoming Number 1s will illustrate, and this was the representative from Romania.

    “Sounds” had a feature on him under the headline “Este homul acesta vittorio rock’n’roll-ului?” (of course, “Is this man the future of rock’n’roll?”)

  12. 12

    picnic at hanging rock is the making of zamfir i think (he was asked to score that movie presumably bcz panpipes meant ultra-mysterious unplaceable spooksome anti-WestCiv ethnic elder-gods unease): it went wide, he got a ton of other work and spin-off best-ofs, mostly cover versions of serviceable trans-national pop, and bob’s yr uncle, the sound produces allegies…)

    (i am totally guessing this w/o googlin btw)

  13. 13
    mike on 1 May 2008 #

    Never cared for this one, which just edges behind “Chiquitita” and “I Have A Dream” as my least favourite Abba single.

    This was another rare 7″ purchase for my dear departed Dad, nestling between Andy Fairweather-Low’s “Wide Eyed And Legless” and Dr. Hook’s “If Not You” in his collection. My future step-family were all keen on it (the four of them entering our lives and our home at around this time), and so I heard it far more often than I would have wished. (Hmm, hence perhaps it is more Tainted By Association than I had realised…)

    Very occasionally, self-invented songs appear to me in dreams, fully formed. Four or five years ago, I woke up with a strong memory of hearing – oh joy! – Abba’s reunion single. The accompanying video showed all four of them in thick fur coats, sitting in a wooden rowing boat in the middle of a misty lake, surrounded by forests. The song was called “Now My Race Is Run” (I could sing its chorus to you now), but to my immense dismay it was one of their cod-Hispanic camp-fire singalong numbers (like DJ Punctum in #1 above, this is also my least favourite Abba genre), pitched somewhere between “Fernando” and “Chiquitita”. What a waste of a Vision!

  14. 14
    mike on 1 May 2008 #

    George Zamfir’s hit was the result of persistent plugging by a newly appointed Radio One DJ called Simon Bates, by the way…

  15. 15
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    For more current Romanian europop, check:

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2008/05/europop-2008-group-c-italy-v-romania/

  16. 16
    Mark G on 1 May 2008 #

    re #13, did Blur remix it into “No distance left to run” ?

  17. 17
    Rob M on 1 May 2008 #

    Mike: #13 and dreamed up songs. I get these too. It’s always bands reforming as well. A few weeks ago I had a reformed Field Mice song, a month before that it was ELO.

    Not my favourite Abba song, this. Like others, I can’t stand the campfire singalong side of the band. How they managed to record this at the same time as the wonderful “Arrival” album is beyond me.

  18. 18
    Waldo on 1 May 2008 #

    By now Abba had really got a vice-like grip on our chart and it was all gravy. What was remarkable about Benny and Bjorn was how their repertoire varied so much, “Fernando” being a sombre ballad right on the coattails of a “pie in the face for cheating lover” pop jaunt. The best would come next but “Fernando” cut the mustard in its own right, a lovely song impeccably delivered. We knew by now that a very special pop group had arrived and would not be going away anytime soon.

  19. 19
    rosie on 1 May 2008 #

    Out of curiosity, I wonder why so many have such a downer on I Have A Dream? I’d rate it as one of my favourite Abba singles.

  20. 20
    Waldo on 1 May 2008 #

    Perhaps it’s because the sentiment was swiped from one of the most momentous speeches of the 20th century?

  21. 21
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    A version of IHAD will be under our consideration in the far future.

    I don’t mind it really, though it’s probably my least favourite post-Waterloo single by them – I love the arrangement but the tune is a bit snaily.

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 1 May 2008 #

    Snaily?

  23. 23
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    Look, it’s the comments box, I don’t have to think of real adjectives! :)

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 1 May 2008 #

    Yes but I don’t know what you mean!

  25. 25
    Tom on 1 May 2008 #

    Like a snail: slow-moving and perhaps a little slimy.

  26. 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.

  27. 27
    LondonLee on 1 May 2008 #

    Unless they involve sex

  28. 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.

  29. 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!

  30. 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.

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