International superstars though they may have been, the members of ABBA were not, individually, all that fascinating. If you think the group identity that emerges during, say, their medley of “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and “Midnight Special” is less than exciting, check out what Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid had to say when they met representatives of the press in their capacity as persons. I’m not just being snotty. As I understand it, the absence of personality is a key part of ABBA’s appeal, and I’m all for it. Zero subjectivity—let’s go! In the same way Kraftwerk audiences greet robotic simulacra of Ralf and Florian with ten times the enthusiasm they muster for the actual human beings in the group, I’m counting the days until I can buy tickets to hologram ABBA, even though I probably would not get out of my chair to see plain old meatbag ABBA reform. The collective, or in this case the brand, is everything.
But the ABBA brand itself could not talk to journalists, and compelling TV the meatbags’ interviews did not make. Into this void, BBC cast John Peel, duded up in smarter attire than wardrobe provided on other occasions. Enlivening the proceedings with Peel in this 1993 retrospective were Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, Roy Wood, and Ian McCulloch. Generous helpings of these and other interview subjects, plus clips of ABBA parodies from Not the Nine O’Clock News and French and Saunders, make A for ABBA (in homage to the 1985 TV special A for Agnetha?) the best encapsulation of the band’s story for those of us who are grouchy, impatient, and easily bored.
One thing we cultural anthropologists of the amazing future year 2017 know that contemporary viewers of this program did not: the lone ABBA LP in John Peel’s collection was their disco record, Voulez-Vous. An orthodox ABBA fan, Peel asserts in A for ABBA that Stig Anderson was the group’s fifth member, ignoring the heresy of the Tretowist deviation. Without discipline, the party of ABBA is nothing!
While very few fan clubs survived the beginning of the present dark age, the Official International ABBA Fan Club is healthy as a horse, and considerably larger. (Sparks’ too.) With that, I leave you to John Peel and the Swedish meatbags, just like farmor used to make.