The Swedish pop behemoths Abba have had a strange time in recent years, critically speaking. Our colleagues in music criticism tend to treat the band’s hefty oeuvre as if it were Beethoven or Bach, overanalysing the hooks and melodies to death. On the other hand, thanks to the Mamma Mia! phenomenon, the stuff is commercially massive, consumed by just about everyone all the time as if it were, well, gold. Neither approach is entirely right.
Fortunately, it isn’t our job to tell you about the significance of the music: we’re only here to celebrate the bass parts – and what bass parts they are, delivered mostly (but not always) by Abba’s long-time low-ender Rutger Gunnarsson. Delivered with a confidence and panache that only a true pop maestro could appreciate, the tones of Gunnarsson’s bass tracks range from a middy, fingery shuffle to an ice-cold sound that must have required endless tweaking to achieve in the pre-synth age. Listen out for ‘Does Your Mother Know?’, for example, which takes a solid synth-bass sound and sticks it right at the front of the song for enhanced dynamics.
Turn an ear towards the verses of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ (ah-ha!), which feature a splendid, economical part that counterparts the chords perfectly. Then, down at the cheesier end of the catalog, there’s ‘Waterloo’, a masterpiece of the fingerstyle gallop: under the line “Waterloo / I was defeated, you won the war” (deep, eh?) there’s that excellent ascending line, which adds great power to the frankly winsome vocal melodies.
The biggest surprise for most bassists on actually sitting down and listening to Gunnarsson’s lines is how complex they are. For example, ‘Super Trouper’, a deeply silly song, is all about the busier-than-most-people-think line which underpins the fatuous lyrics about “smiling, having fun, feeling like a number one” and so forth. ‘The Winner Takes It All’ goes further, with our man zipping all over the fretboard, upper-register fills and all. Abba weren’t all about fluff, though: the darkest song that the Bjorn Ulvaus/Benny Andersson songwriting team ever came up with, ‘Money, Money, Money’, is anchored by a super-solid line which perfectly complements the song’s black-as-night cynicism. Another dangerous little line crops up in ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’: Gunnarsson’s line boasts octave pops, a rarity in Abba’s music despite their 1970s disco provenance.
Gunnarsson’s amazing playing helped Bjorn and Benny, who directed the arrangements, to coin in a figure not unadjacent to several gazillion Swedish kronor. The lesson to us all these years later is that quality endures, in the world of bass as everywhere else, a maxim which goes some way to explaining this compilation’s 28 million sales and counting. Of course, that may not make songs like ‘Ring Ring’ any easier to endure.