Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The ABBA songbook

In recent weeks my elder girl’s Favourite Film pick has become the ‘ABBA musical’ Mamma Mia, which I’ve now watched about 36 times, more times than I’ve seen Au Hasard Balthazar, The Conformist or Viridiana (put together...) So, yeah, I know Mamma Mia pretty well now, and can even admire its vigour, its dramatic construction and canny appeal towards every imaginable audience demographic (except maybe Males between 28-34.) It’s no easy feat to be that popular, though the storytelling choices are just a bit easier in the genre of the wish-fulfilment Musical than they are in your standard Drama. (I was interested recently to read a hymn of praise on some creative/script-writing site to the supposedly exemplary narrative design of The Sound of Music, my elder girl’s Former Favourite Film. Yes, all very well, it moves along nicely, but I would say that when it comes to handing out the big plaudits and anointing the role models it’s not solely about how a story was told but why it was told, and with what ambition...) Sticking with what’s problematic about the creeping cultural dominance of the mass-popular form, I’ve been reading David Mamet’s Theatre, and had to laugh at his terse lament for the way all theatre on Broadway must now be tailored to the taste of the spectacle-&-star-loving Tourist: “No adult resident in London”, says Mamet, “would go to see the Crown Jewels, and no adult resident in New York went to see Mamma Mia, for to do so would have been culturally repugnant, branding him as a tourist, or dufus...”
Anyway, so, in a few weeks I’m due to go with the kids to see Mamma Mia in the West End...
Moving on – obviously I now have ABBA songs in my head morning, noon and night, which leads me to wonder: exactly how good were they? Better than Lady Gaga, whose ‘I Like It Rough’ has been ringing between my ears for the last 24 hours after one chance hearing? I suspect ABBA do deserve a fair bit of respect, especially for how their song-writing grew from foot-tapping pop tunes about falling in love to rather more wistfully melodic songs about getting divorced – which, of course, the two singer/songwriter couples that comprised the group famously did, in the late 1970s-early 1980s.
Of course there is in pop-musical appreciation this funny business of ‘credibility’ but then ABBA pretty much had that even when I was a lad. I seem to remember Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys hymning the ‘Bergman-esque’ period of the Divorcing Songs, which is maybe not so surprising, but better yet I recall the moody Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen picking ‘The Winner Takes It All’ as one of his Top Ten Tunes on a Radio 1 show of the mid-1980s. The presenter asked him rather sarkily to say why, and he said in heavy and resolute Scouse, ‘It’s just a great song’...
My favourite, though, is this ‘un.