Sometimes it seems like the world can’t make up its mind about what to do with ABBA. At least, there’s no consensus. From kitsch, Scandinavian eurotrash to teutonic laser guided Stormtroopers of melancholy, the opinions differ widely. I appreciate that even with things like The Beatles, you get some attention seekers who pretend that they’re not very good, but I discount that.
The other thing is that, unlike The Beatles who’d split up before I was even conceived, I remember ABBA reasonably vividly. Not from the very start, I was only about three when they won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, so I probably heard it or saw it at some point but I don’t retain any particular memories of that.
I saw them and their videos on Top of the Pops, Crackerjack or Saturday morning kids’ telly in the later 1970s. Benny seemed to have based his personality on Rowlf, the piano player in The Muppets. Bjorn looked like a monkey. A vaguely creepy monkey who was overdoing the friendly angle. Frida seemed a bit like your mate’s mother who got a bit over familiar after a couple of babyshams. Agnetha was the best looking one with the best arse but even she had a touch of the Scandinavian cold about her. Maybe it was the ubiquitous 1970s blue eyeshadow. We never had any records by them in our house, naturally. Presumably because they didn’t sell them in DIY shops in Wakefield and Castleford, the location of my old man’s record purchases.
In about the third year of junior school, on a day trip out to Helmsley and Pickering Castles, I was sitting on the bus with Plank – Steven Fewster, so called because he looked as thick as two short planks, even though he wasn’t – talking about the normal sort of stuff that 9 or 10 year old boys talk about, in this case pop music. I say we were talking, he was talking and I was trying to learn from him by listening and agreeing with everything he said. Plank’s mam and dad bought records and mine didn’t. Except on rare occasions from DIY shops in the West Riding, natch. In fact, Plank’s mam and dad continued to buy records and it was only later that I realised that they must have been pop kids – like most people, I suppose – because one day, at his kitchen table when we were about fifteen, his mam was playing 5 Star and dancing and singing along to it. By that point, I’d realised that there was more to music than whatever was on Top of the Pops and had discovered The Smiths and The Bunnymen. Even so, I had just enough about me not to be rude about how shit 5 Star were, because Mrs Fewster was always alright with me.
Anyway, Plank steered the conversation towards nostalgia for music – another aspect of pop music that I couldn’t yet talk about because I didn’t know any old records either. Well, not the sort of ‘old’ records that Plank meant. My dad had Christmas at Home with Nina & Frederick, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t like the music at all, I enjoyed the cover of it because the colours were almost like technicolour at the pictures. You know, too vivid for reality, so I used to enjoy looking at it, even if I didn’t want to listen to it. They looked like they were from the pre-Beatles sixties.
Nostalgia, as far as pop music goes, when being discussed by kids who hadn’t reached puberty, meant three or four years earlier, not about thirty years previously so again, I had nothing to say but plenty to listen to. Also, at that point, the early 1980s, nostalgia meant ABBA, even though they’d not actually split up by that point.
Plank told me that his mam and dad had “all their records”.
Louise, who cried a lot, was in front of us and she shoved her face through gaps in the seat to tell us – Plank really – that her mother and father also had all of ABBA’s records and weren’t they great?
Diversion – Louise and how she made me avoid The Beatles until I learned better.
Louise lived about five minutes away from my house and, the first summer of secondary school, I gave up playing cricket all day, every day at the park with Nutty, Clanger, Stewatt, Wally, Plank and the revolving cast of other kids who joined us periodically and instead started hanging around at Louise’s house with Wally and Plank. Clanger got into Dungeons & Dragons which I had a go at but I didn’t really dig it. I enjoyed painting the models but it was a bit Prog Rock, as hobbies went.
Wally started going out with Louise. Wally’s name was actually Paul and that, awkwardly, got mangled into ‘Wally’. It wasn’t quite like the singer out of The Police claiming that other people called him ‘Sting’ because he wore a yellow and black striped jumper once because this was the opposite to Gordon Sumner’s wishful thinking as Wally hated being called Wally which, of course, made us do it more. Clanger hated being called Clanger too. In fact, everybody hated their nickname. I was ‘Flid’, as in Thalidomide because before that, I was ‘Mid’. Different times, I suppose.
Anyway, Wally going out with Louise didn’t really affect the dynamic of four of us hanging around in her back garden too much because, apart from saying they were boyfriend and girlfriend, there wasn’t much difference in any of our relationships. That’s not quite true because, periodically and – as far as I was concerned – oddly, they used to go up to her loft to snog. Plank would join them and play Chutes Away which involved looking through a plastic viewfinder at a rotating base, onto which you had to release parachutes into little holes. As Wally and Louise snogged, Plank would time them on a stopwatch and play Chutes Away. Like I say, I found that peculiar but I suppose that was their trip. The most interesting thing that happened to me in Louise’s loft was when I found a tinydead bat in a box, its wings curled pathetically around its withered little body, its expression somewhere between a beatific calm and unimaginable pain. As you might have gathered, it left an impression on me, I was secretly quite moved and sat with it for a long while before I took it downstairs and buried it under the tree in her garden.
Louise was a drama kid. I was in the school plays and she was always a bit pissed off about it because I didn’t go to drama classes and I was always the main part. The previous Christmas play had been a comedy called Kidnapped At Christmas. Michael Dees and I were the only first years in it. There were only about eight people in the whole thing, most of it was a fourth year giant called Paul and me as prisoners who’d escaped at Christmas. She’d loudly complained that school plays should be musicals with hundreds of parts for everybody. I was pleased they weren’t. I hated musicals and couldn’t sing anyway.
I was around at her house one afternoon and she asked me if I’d like to see her turn for the drama school variety show that she was in. I was open to it and she tap danced around the kitchen with a cane, singing Penny Lane, which I was unfamiliar with, in a broad, Dick Van Dyke inspired cockney accent. It was fucking dreadful. I asked her who the song was by and, when she told me it was The Beatles, of course, durr, I privately resolved to studiously avoid them in future.
When I finally heard The Beatles on The Golden Oldie Video Show, I thought they were, er, fab and immediately wondered what the hell Louise had been playing at.
End of Diversion.
Both Plank’s and Louise’s parents were into ABBA then. Plank’s were a bit younger than mine but Louise’s dad had been at school with both my Mam and Dad which made me think that maybe it wasn’t just that they were old that lead them to having no concept of pop culture at all, but either a rejection of it or, worse, a plain old ignorance of it because they were just uncool. With hindsight, it was probably a bit of both. My mother had been slightly interested in it around the mid to late sixties and I don’t think my old man ever gave a shit about what was currently trendy. Take your pick. I didn’t.
Years later, about sixteen years later, on another bus, this one from London to Hull, coming home after visiting Poor Sharon, I’d picked up Melody Maker. On the front of it was a free book called Unknown Pleasures, after the Joy Division album I don’t like. It was a series of articles about albums that hadn’t been successful, one writer from the paper had championed an album each and wrote about them. With a five hour bus ride ahead of me, I read it from cover to cover by the time we’d reached Doncaster at the latest. One of them albums was Don’t Stand Me Down, by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the flop that followed the massive Too-Rye-Aye. There was another about No Other, the Gene Clark album that sounds like the most cocaine album in the world ever. Not that I’ve ever had cocaine, and I don’t mind the album, but a little bit goes a long way.
As far as flop albums go, I’m not convinced that the ABBA album that has an article in the book really counts. The Visitors is their last album and went to number 1 in Britain, although it didn’t sell as well as their previous albums. I’ve never heard it. I’ve never heard any ABBA albums but I like some of their singles a lot.
Does Your Mother Know? Isn’t even on The Visitors, but the chapter on them did mention it and, yet again, the story involved being on a school bus, which might be why I can remember it. The author of the piece related how he’d been on a school bus and one of his mates had a portable tape recorder and, having pressed play, challenged his mates to identify the band from this recording. “Deep Purple?” and some other heavy metal bands of the time were suggested before the kid put everybody out of their misery by telling them that, amazingly, this slice of distorted oblivion was ABBA. Gasp.
I might not have heard The Visitors at that point but I sure as hell had heard Does Your Mother Know? And some Deep Purple records and even I knew that only a fucking moron would think that Does Your Mother Know? sounded remotely like heavy metal. The whole story sounded like a pile of shit to me but it stuck with me and I dug it out when I got home and gave it a spin.
It’s a ‘live’ performance in front of a crowd which, I presume, is meant to emphasise their live rock credentials. Even though it looks like a youth club audience. Is that a good idea? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Benny looks his usual genial self, Agnetha looks like she’s mildly enjoying herself, Frida, as per usual, is getting into it to a greater extent than Agnetha because she has to try a bit harder, I suppose. And there’s Bjorn, without a guitar which is a shame as I’d have quite liked to see him busting some rawk moves with his ‘axe’ (for fuck’s sake). Still, liberated from his guitar, his hands are free to do a bit of rudimentary clapping along but he still looks like a creepy monkey who’s not so much friendly as over familiar. Even if he isn’t.
Before I say anything about it, let’s hear from the author. I found this quotation on Wikipedia’s entry for this song. “Recently, lyricist Bjorn Ulvaeus indicated that he would “…hesitate to write songs like these today.” In 2019, the single was re-released on picture disc.”
Something something, actions speak louder than words, something, something…
Why would a man who found fame in the 1970s and who succeeded in looking particularly creepy, even among stiff opposition, at least on British television, hesitate to write such songs today?
At heart, Does Your Mother Know? is a song about a man dancing in a nightclub with a clearly underage girl whom he evidently finds sexually attractive but who resists the temptation to take things further because she’s too young.
To be generous to lyricist Bjorn, he makes a point of not doing anything creepier than dancing, chatting and, perhaps rather creepily, flirting with this underage girl. To be somewhat less generous, his description of her and her actions at least border on potentially justifying why he could be forgiven for taking things further.
Let’s not forget that this song was released in 1979 though. Not a million years ago but I do recall the 1990s, a period of time in which it was still seen as reasonable for grown men to ogle schoolgirls. School Disco, a popular and nationwide event held regularly in adult nightclubs was ongoing then. School Disco, for those who weren’t around or who weren’t paying attention, was a themed promotion that, essentially, played pop hits of the 1970s and early 1980s to punters who dressed up in school uniforms, often with a somewhat tarty, shall we say, edge. What I’m getting at is that lusting after a stereotype of “Sexy schoolgirls” was seen as socially acceptable less than twenty years ago, if not more recently.
What I’m getting at is that I’m not going to judge a writer of pop songs from twenty years prior to that for failing to predict what would become socially unacceptable forty years after he wrote it. Let’s face it, he wasn’t the first and he probably wasn’t the last either. The blues ‘classic’ Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap’s Young Girl (Get Out Of My Life) and probably many other songs were written and sung by older men about lusting after underage girl who they knew were still at school. Evidently, that sort of thing was alright then and, reasonably enough, we seem to have had a bit of a think about what it meant since then.
This isn’t a series of posts about how times change though, this is a series of posts about MOR pop performers who dip a toe into the seedy, murky world of Rock ‘n’ Roll and who wear the metaphorical leather trousers a bit awkwardly.
“You’re so hot, teasing me… I can’t take a chance on a chick like you…”
This chick’s hot but he’s not going for it. Even though she’s teasing him. Presumably with her sexy moves or something. Well done, Bjorn. Well done. Well done for resisting the advances of a teasing hot chick. What a man, eh?
Thus it begins: into the first line of renowned fluffy pop group, ABBA’s single and already girls are now chicks and not only that, but they’re hot too. And they want Bjorn. Bjorn’s body, mind. For sexy reasons. It’s a bit like Led Zeppelin, isn’t it?
Later on in verse 1, Bjorn shows the world that not only is he one sexy momma – at least as far as underage girls are concerned, but he’s also in tune with their non-verbal communication too. “I can read in your face that your feelings are driving you wild… Ah, but girl you’re only a child.”
The chorus comes next and with it comes Bjorn’s wife Agnetha and their friend, Frida who provide further clarity by suggesting that dancing and having a chat are both wholesome activities for monkey faced Swedish men who can’t help but come across a bit creepy but all the same, does this girl’s mother know what she’s up to? Perhaps crucially, or perhaps not, it’s the girls who sing the line “Does your mother know?” Even if they sing it a bit like the girl on Video Killed The Radio Star. Agnetha has the decency to give an expression of mild confusion/disapproval at about two and a half minutes in.
Diversion – Party Flat, Westbourne Avenue.
Several years ago, when I was in a band that was doing pretty well, after gigs in Hull, we generally all went back to my girlfriend’s and my flat on Westbourne Avenue. It wasn’t just the others in the band and their girlfriends, we tended to invite anybody who seemed alright too. It was a pretty big flat.
It was the same deal on Desmond Avenue prior to that when half of Spiders or Silhouette Club piled into my bedroom to shout along to Velvet Underground songs that we played on acoustic guitars. The result at Desmond Ave was that quite a lot of records got nicked. At Westbourne, less so. I don’t know why.
Anyway, most of the time, my girlfriend was with us too but on one occasion, she was away somewhere and, after leaving wherever we’d been, we began to drift back to our flat on Westbourne Avenue.
One of the people who used to come and watch us regularly had a couple of his mates from Lancaster with him. A couple of lads. One of them seemed like a bit of a prick but, you know, what are you going to do? Anyway, he came back with us on our long, slow walk home.
After we’d been there maybe half an hour and things were beginning to liven up somewhat, Moggy’s girlfriend Marie pointed out a group of girls who were sitting on the floor in a corner, being chatted up by this friend of a friend.
“Have you seen what’s going on there Middlerabbit?” she asked me.
Now, at this point in time, seeing wasn’t something I was particularly good at. More specifically, seeing things that actually were there and being able to distinguish them from things that weren’t there wasn’t something I felt capable of telling apart. I squinted in that direction, but it just looked as psychedelic as everything else I could see, so I said I couldn’t, really.
“How old do you reckon those girls are?” Marie clarified.
“Girls?” I asked. “Are they girls?”
“They look about fifteen to me.” She said. Marie didn’t really engage with anything more psychedelic than booze and so I believed her and said, “Oh, right.”
I stood up and wobbled over. I recognised them as girls and, more particularly, girls who were much too young to be witnessing whatever the hell was happening in my flat.
“Oh, er, hello,” I said to them, “I’m not being funny or anything, but this isn’t the place for you.”
One of them told me she was 23, which she wasn’t. Well, I suppose she might have been, and I wasn’t in any position to accurately ascertain anything about anything at that point but I gathered that Marie probably was, so I wasn’t having it.
“Er, nah.” I said. “I don’t want to be a twat about it, but you shouldn’t be hanging around with old farts you don’t know, in places you don’t know. I don’t know what you’ve told your parents but you ought to be at home really.” It was about four in the morning. In short, I basically said, “Does your mother know that you’re out?” Like a Swedish monkey, yeah.
Anyway, they went and this friend of a friend, once he’d come back after walking them home, spent the next couple of hours moaning at me about how he was in with them and it was all going to have been right sexy and that if it wasn’t for fucking fascists like me, laying bum trips on people all the time.
I just nodded at him and agreed with him until he’d said it about fifteen times, when I pointed out to him that if it wasn’t for fucking fascists like me, he might be spending the next few years getting the shit kicked out of him on Y wing in Hull prison for being a paedophile. He didn’t seem to think that, that was likely to happen. I told him to knock himself out and hang around outside school playgrounds if that was the case and kicked him out. His mate was alright about it, which I was pleased about.
End of Diversion.
Second verse and, basically, it’s the same thing as the first, except without saying the words hot or chick. Chorus to repeat and fade.
So, to judge Bjorn as fairly as I can manage: on the count of being a paedophile or even a pederast, I don’t see how anybody could find him guilty. On grounds of making out he’s some kind of genuine rawk ‘n’ roll maniac like Jimmy Page or whoever it is who’s in Deep Purple, well, I don’t think you could accuse him of really being one of those people either, no matter how raucous his guitars sounded to him on this particular record. And that’s why it’s Ill Advised Rocking Out.
It’s not just that the bass is obviously a sequenced, programmed keyboard bass sound, or that the drums skitter when rawk drums ought to pound. It’s not even the guitars that fizz when rawk guitars ought to crunch. It’s the singing which, like all ABBA records, are beautifully harmonized. That’s not really what rocking out is supposed to sound like, is it? Take Led Zeppelin. Please. A-ho-ho. I dislike almost everything about Led Zeppelin, but especially the singing which sounds like a wizard who’s caught his willy in his zip. Not like ABBA, no. Even though I hate Led Zeppelin, like most other things, I remember far too many things, one of the things I know about Led Zeppelin is that they recorded one of their later albums in ABBA’s studio. Perhaps it was Does Your Mother Know? that influenced them to do that. I don’t know but I doubt it.
So, to summarise: the music’s resolutely unrock and the singing even less so. It’s the lyrics that try to produce a feeling of rockism, what with the hot chicks teasing poor Bjorn. And when you put those thing together, what you end up with is Ill Advised Rocking Out. And a big hit. Which perhaps suggests that, as far as rocking out goes, the public isn’t that arsed about whether it’s all that genuine or not.
And good on ‘em, eh?