Friday, 18 July 2008

Pre Mamma Mia: An Abba fan's anxieties

Anyone who knows me knows of my love for Abba. And that does not mean that I have a copy of Abba Gold on CD and know all the lyrics to "Dancing Queen". It means that I have a serious past as an Abba fan, a massive record collection, all the 1970s memorabilia including the (now very rare) Abba dolls, an appearance on Radio Derby, circa 1982, as "local Abba superfan", an article about me, with picture, in the Abba Magazine (again circa 1982), and I could go on. I was so serious back in the day that I was there for the first performance of Chess at the London Barbican in October 1984, sitting on the front row, and meeting and getting autographs from Bjorn, Benny and Tim Rice. Well, time, family and other interests have mellowed my obsessive tendencies, especially on the collecting front, but my love for Abba is still the same, and so it is with mixed feelings that I look forward to going to see the new film Mamma Mia, which opens today here in the USA. One one level, it is great to have Abba songs so much in the limelight, to see people appreciating what I always knew, that they were brilliant. On another level, I am not sure how I feel about having the likes of Meryl Streep and Colin Firth singing Abba songs, and a look at the trailer makes me suspect that it is all going to be rather silly:

As an Abba fan, I can't help thinking that I will just want to hear the real Abba songs when I see the actors doing their best with them. One of the things that was so great about Abba was the Abba sound, Benny's piano and the girls' voices; it was not just about those catchy melodies. When Alan Partridge says that he prefers the "Jeff Love Orchestra" version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" that he uses for his radio show, we all laugh because it is so obviously not true. In fact, many of my records are cover versions of Abba songs, and 95% of them are absolutely terrible. Reproducing the Abba sound is virtually impossible -- it's like trying to reproduce the Beatles. Even the very good tribute bands like Bjorn Again only get a hint of what Abba actually sounded like. Even Abba themselves sometimes struggled to recreate the Abba sound live, especially if you compare the 1979 concert footage with the earlier, sublime 1977 footage in Abba The Movie.

I was encouraged, though, by a documentary we watched last week on ITV about the development of Mamma Mia in which it became clear that Bjorn and Benny, the two Bs in Abba, are closely involved with the production of the film, as they were earlier involved with the stage production. Remarkably, the original musicians who played on all the Abba tracks (sans Agnetha and Frida) have been gathered together for the score of the film. There they all were, looking a bit fatter and older, gathered to recreate the magic. And that should make the music at least worth listening to, even if we do still find ourselves longing for the proper voices over the top of that revised backing track.

We never managed to get to see the stage show of Mamma Mia; it opened when the kids were little and we were poor and we could never swing it to get to London to see it. So I go into the film today with only a vague knowledge of the story, and so some degree of freshness. I will let you know what I thought of it all later.

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