Admit it. The moment you hear the name ABBA, or see it in print, a jangly bit of one of the band's hit songs begins playing in your head. Maybe you hear the chugging intro to "Waterloo." Or the a cappella choral bridge from "Super Trouper." Probably it's the piano roll from "Dancing Queen." Like it or not, ABBA resides in all of us, like a pancreas or a low-level staph infection. Try though we might, we can't shake the memory of their catchy pop hooks; can't deny their fluffy bangs or forget their giant silver shoes.
It's this deep-rooted, unwavering ABBA-ness that has kept the '70s Swedish supergroup alive long past its welcome. Because no matter how you feel about this über-hip hit machine, ABBA has never really gone away. Although the pop quartet broke up in 1983, its persuasive charms have lived on in multiplatinum hits packages (both ABBA Gold and More ABBA Gold have sold nonstop since their release in the 1990s); in various tribute bands such as Bjorn Again and ABBAlanche; and in musical homages like Erasure's ABBAesque. There was Chess: The Musical, written by ABBA founders Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in 1984, and the ABBA-centric soundtracks to Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, both in 1994. And today there is Mamma Mia!, the Broadway smash that strings together 22 old ABBA tunes to tell a story of unwed motherhood on a fictional Greek island.
Dave Maclean and his wife Tracey are traveling to Phoenix this week from their home in Seattle to see Mamma Mia!, which plays at Gammage Auditorium through Sunday, for the seventh time. The couple proudly proclaim themselves "ABBA warriors" who've not only hosted their own ABBA Fest (at which Tracey took second prize in the talent competition for her impersonation of ABBA babe Agnetha Faltskog) but have invented ABBA Bingo, a parlor game that involves listening to the band's third album and marking off aural cues on a preprinted card.
The Macleans, who have a poodle named Chiquitita, swear that everyone, whether they'll admit it or not, at least sort of likes ABBA. "There's something about their music that, once you hear it, you have to like it," Tracey says. "The only thing that's different in the ABBA community today is that people are more willing to admit they like ABBA now."
The ABBA community. It's a phrase that brings to mind a village full of people in pastel neckerchiefs, tunics with gravity-defying collars, and huge, sequin-studded platform wedgies. In fact, it's a bunch of people like Dave and Tracey, people who can tell you that 3,300 ABBA recordings are sold every day all over the world. That's 138 ABBA records every hour. People who know the names of every ABBA album ever recorded, and can recite them chronologically by release date. People who know that the group, since its debut in 1973, has sold 350 million albums worldwide. People who can actually spell -- and pronounce! -- the names of the members of ABBA.
"Look, when Bono from U2 is saying that ABBA is the best group in the world, you know there's something there," says Dave, who wasn't a big ABBA fan when he and Tracey first met. Back then, his favorite band was Foreigner. "But on our first date, I told him I had all the ABBA albums, and that I thought they were the best band ever," Tracey says. "It really mattered to me whether he liked them too."
That night, Dave took the low road. "I lied to her and said I liked them, too. I was really into AC/DC and harder stuff then, but I really liked Tracey and she was kind of militant about ABBA. She asked me what my favorite ABBA song was, kind of testing me, and I could only think of one of their songs. So I said I really liked Dancing Queen' the best."
Tracey figured Dave was bluffing -- most true ABBA fans dig more obscure tracks like "Bang-A-Boomerang" or "The King Has Lost His Crown," but she decided to risk seeing him anyway. Meantime, Dave boned up on his ABBA ("I was playing them, like, secretly in my car, because I didn't want my roommates to hear and think I was bugshit"), and a little more than a year later, he and Tracey were wed. The ABBA tune "Thank You for the Music" played during their wedding ceremony.
Weddings are somehow pivotal in ABBA revivals, perhaps because the band itself was made up of two married couples. The 1994 film Muriel's Wedding is scored entirely with ABBA music, for example. And there's a wedding at the center of Mamma Mia!, in which the about-to-be-betrothed leading lady discovers that her father could be one of three different men. Turns out her mother, who was something of a swinger back when ABBA was first making the scene, took the group's songs to heart. The moral: ABBA tunes like "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and "Lay All Your Love on Me" can lead to illegitimate babies who grow up to be cranky brides who want someone to give them away at their weddings.
"It's a sweet, romantic story," Tracey says of Mamma Mia!. "And when you hear the whole audience singing along to Dancing Queen,' you know this is bigger than just a play with pop music in it. ABBA is forever."
Well, maybe not forever. Tracey recently came home from work early and caught Dave playing an REO Speedwagon CD. "I mean, it's okay for him to like other bands," she admits. "It's just that, for us, ABBA is more than just the music. Loving ABBA is a way for all of us to come together for a little while. Is that such a bad thing?"
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