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Friday, September 21, 2012

Living In A Dream World: ABBA's Missing Songs

You probably consider yourself to be a "fan" of one or more artists, but what kind of fan are you? Fandom can range from a simple liking of a particular singer or group through to dangerous, and quite possibly illegal levels of obsession. Most people would consider themselves a fan of an artist if they bought (how old fashioned) all or most of their albums, perhaps saw them live and generally enjoyed their music. The next level up would see a fan seeking out B-sides and other rarer tracks, maybe following/stalking the act on social media and literally "buying the T-shirt". Then there are the superfans for whom the officially released material is just not enough. They need to hear and possess every piece of music the artist has created; the discarded demos, the alternate takes and the abandoned album tracks.

For these fans the connection with the music created by their favourite artists is so great that every recorded note has value, regardless of the sound quality or relative success of the material. In days of yore, finding such "bootleg" material meant hanging round the dodgier stalls in record fairs and trading cash for illicit vinyl and tape in brown paper bags. But this is the Internet age and superfans have never had it so good. A simple YouTube search will unveil all manner of rarities that should satiate even the most rabid superfan. Some artists understandably are not thrilled that their cast-offs or perceived failures are available in this way, but most choose to turn a blind eye, perhaps understanding themselves what it means to be a superfan. For me, it seems preferable that these goodies are now available for free to enjoy rather than shady profiteering in back alleys, with altruistic superfans able to share their gems and their joy with fellow fanatics.

If all this seems bizarre to you, then let me walk you through a case study. I am an ABBA fan, always have been, always will be, and like most so afflicted still believe that their "hiatus" will end at some point and we will get a new album (they never officially broke up). OK, so it's been thirty years since their last new single, but like keeping fairies alive, such delusion requires a leap of faith. To keep me going in the interim I have quickly latched on to the occasional re-release that offers something new and unheard from the Polar Music vaults, which usually requires buying lots of stuff I already have again, but of course I don't mind that. Then there are the "leaked" recordings of unheard songs that were once much sought after bootlegs, but can now be heard with impunity on the worldwide web. Here then is my guide to some of the best of ABBA's rarities, officially sanctioned or otherwise, to inspire the superfan in you.

The Original Dancing Queen

First stop is a song that has become one of the most familiar in all of pop music, but which you may not have heard quite like this. ABBA's undoubted masterpiece and in my book the greatest pop song ever written, Dancing Queen. A few years ago I was watching an ABBA documentary (no, really) and they played a clip of Agnetha and Frida in the studio singing Dancing Queen, only the words they were singing weren't in the song we all know and love. After choking on my Maltesers, I rushed to find out what this meant; was there a version of Dancing Queen I'd never heard? It turns out the second verse was initially the same length as the first and began with:

Baby, baby you're out of sight/Hey, you're looking alright tonight/When you come to the party/Listen to the guys/They've got the look in their eyes...

The song then continued with the You're a teaser... bit. OK, so the lyrics aren't quite up to Björn's usual standards, so you can understand the edit, but OMG!!! The best song ever could be 17 seconds longer! Sadly this extended version can only be heard officially in Spanish, as La Reina Del Baile on ABBA's Spanish language release Gracias Por La Música (see this blog is educational as well as informative, you'll soon be bilingual!), which for some reason used the original backing track and lyrics. However, superfans are not deterred by the lack of official release, they instead spend hours splicing together the released version with the audio captured from the documentary with differing levels of success. It may not have the polish of a digitally remastered track, but if you squint you can hear the magic of Dancing Queen like you've never heard it before. And for that I am truly thankful.

Dream World

It's not unusual for an artist to write more songs for an album than they require and then pick the best. Sometimes the leftovers become B-Sides, are shelved, or used for scrap, with elements being reworked for use in other songs. Such is the case with this cast-off from the recording sessions for the Voulez-Vous album. If it had not been rejected it would have sat quite comfortably on ABBA's "disco" album, having all the trademarks of a classic ABBA track. Agnetha and Frida's beautiful harmonies: check. Catchy sing-a-long chorus: check. Top quality arrangements and production: check. It has a fun circus fanfare intro and a perfectly serviceable "boy meets girl" lyric, maybe not a hit single, but a strong album track. Nonetheless, Björn and Benny were writers of such quality they could easily afford to abandon such a polished track if they felt it didn't quite pass muster.

They did like the bridge though and so surgically removed it and implanted it in Does Your Mother Know, proving that art created is never truly wasted. Dream World itself finally got allowed out on ABBA's 1994 box set of hits and rarities Thank You For The Music. It is a great little number and it is always a joy to hear those voices again, especially when they were at the height of their greatness.

Just Like That

I've previously covered the slow disintegration of ABBA as a working unit during the recording of their final album (to date) [When All Is Said And Done: ABBA, The Visitors]. It is well-known in fandom that ABBA began work on another album, erroneously referred to as Opus 10, with a number of songs written and recorded in 1982. Some of these became singles and B-Sides for what turned out to be the career retrospective best of The Singles: The First Ten Years, such as the awesome The Day Before You Came and the extremely catchy You Owe Me One. Fans were obviously thirsty to know what else might have been recorded in this period and one track in particular reached almost mythical status; Just Like That. Fans first became aware of the track from articles written by journalists visiting ABBA in the studio during 1982, when they mentioned this track along with another, I Am The City. The latter would get a posthumous release on the compilation More ABBA Gold, but Just Like That remained tightly locked in the vault.

Finally in 1994 a snippet of the chorus appeared on a 24-minute medley of unreleased material, ABBA Undeleted, on the Thank You For The Music box set. When fans heard it they became obsessed. It was an undeniably classic ABBA chorus, immediately catchy and had "hit" written all over it. Clamour for a full release fell on deaf ears though, with the boys still unhappy with the song, which they couldn't make work despite numerous attempts at recording it in slightly different ways, including the inclusion of a ubiquitous 80's sax break on one version. As with Dream World, the song was cannibalised to create a single for the Swedish group Gemini, also called Just Like That, using that great chorus, but in my view less effectively at a slower tempo. The verse melodies found themselves reused for an added song in the Swedish version of Benny and Björn's musical Chess.

Eventually bootleg versions of the ABBA recordings emerged and the full song quickly became a favourite amongst superfans, myself included. It shows the level of perfection ABBA strove for if a song of this quality was considered fit for the cutting room floor. The song's final hope was inclusion in the ABBA-inspired musical Mamma Mia and it made it through to the rehearsal stages before being dropped. We live in hope that one day a fully produced version of the original ABBA recording will emerge, I have no doubt it will cause a sensation if it ever happens.

Every Good Man

As it became clear that ABBA's ninth studio album was not going to be completed, the band members started to focus on their own projects. Frida was extremely keen to get a new solo album made and she is noticeably absent as a lead vocalist on ABBA's final tracks. Agnetha too began to think about making a solo record, while Benny and Björn wanted to write a musical. They began demoing songs that might work in such a stage production and one of these was Every Good Man. Agnetha sang the lead vocal, so although not officially an ABBA record, most fans think of this as the final recording of the band. It is a classic ABBA mid-tempo ballad, though clearly unfinished. It would finally evolve into Heaven Help My Heart in Chess, originated by Elaine Paige on stage and for the cast recording. Again superfans have to make do with a bootleg version, but as a glimpse of the death of ABBA and the birth of Chess it is a treasure to cherish.

These are just a sample of the wonders that can be found with remarkably little effort thanks to the godsend that is the Internet. While some may mourn the days of dodgy bootlegs and the thrill of owning rare recordings that few others could hear, I welcome the democracy of fans being able to share such gems without seeking profit. As a rule of thumb I never steal music that an artist has put out for sale, but when it's a recording that can only be heard in this way I admit the temptation is too hard to resist. If they released it, I would buy it, as would any true fan. So whoever your obsession may be, I hope this encourages you to do a little digging to see what unheard marvels may be waiting for you out there in cyberspace.

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