How Erasure saved ABBA from obscurity [June 7, 1992]
Plus: Nick Berry, Manic Street Preachers, and The Beastie Boys
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of June 7, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: The Euro 92 football tournament kicks off in Sweden, with Holland favourites to retain their title. The war in Yugoslavia meant that they had to withdraw. Taking their place: Denmark…
📽️New films in the cinema: Johnny Suede features Brad Pitt and an enormous quiff. The movie was a low-key cult hit that’s most notable for inspiring cartoon character Johnny Bravo.
📺On TV, the first-ever MTV Movie Awards take place in Burbank, California. T2 is the big winner, with awards also going to Point Break and Wayne’s World. ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ wins Best Song.
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This week’s Number One: Abba-Esque EP — Erasure
I was in the car with my teenage daughter recently when the radio started playing the new Lizzo song.
This song, like many other recent hits, borrows heavily from 70s disco music. Doja Cat’s excellent ‘Say So’ is another example—it was recorded in 2019 but sounds like it could have filled the dancefloor at Studio 54.
When I heard this song, I started talking about music history, much to my teenage daughter’s dismay. I told her how ironic it was that disco music had survived the 21st century, outliving so many other genres. When I was a kid, in the 1980s, disco was deeply uncool.
“In fact”, I said, “everything from the 70s was considered uncool. We used to laugh at old pictures of people in flares and platforms shoes.”
“Wait,” said my daughter, “you’re telling me that people used to be judgey about fashion… in the eighties?”
What can I say? We thought our clothes were normal.
But it’s true, and I think this is something that’s been forgotten. One of the defining aspects of life in the 80s was a sense of deep, cringing shame about the fashion crimes committed in what we called The Decade Fashion Forgot.
The 70s seemed like one big mistake and people had an allergic reaction to anything that reminded them of that era. This is why tight trousers were so popular in the 80s. We were scared that loose trouser legs might result in accidental flaring.
Some 70s music survived into the new decade, although many artists went through a post-Live Aid transformation.
But there was one band that seemed beyond rehabilitation. A band so quintessentially 70s that they made you want to eat fondue and decorate your house in brown and orange. A band that no self-respecting 80s kid would ever listen to.
That band was ABBA.
Let’s run through the ABBA story real quick.
Swedish songwriters Benny and Bjorn had been trying to make it on the local scene for a couple of years in the early 70s, without much success. They got to know—and then fell in love with—two talented singers: Agnetha and Anni-Frid.
Benny married Anni-Frid, Bjorn married Agnetha, and the four of them became ABBA.
Their international breakthrough came in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, which they won with ‘Waterloo’. The song was a global hit but, like most Eurovision winners, ABBA struggled to establish themselves as serious artists. The post-Eurovision ABBA era was a fallow one, their follow-up singles vanishing without a trace.
In 1976, things started to turn around. ‘I Do, I Do, I Do’ was a minor hit, but big enough to get a little momentum going. The next single, ‘SOS’, went Top 10, and the one after that, ‘Mama Mia’, went all the way to the top.
ABBA became a cultural juggernaut, scoring sixteen consecutive Top 10 singles in the UK. In the latter half of the 70s, the Swedish foursome became pop music dominant force.
[VH1 Behind The Music voice] But backstage, things were going completely Fleetwood Mac. Divorce, anger, copyright disputes—we could spend hours going through it, but it’s quicker to just listen to ‘The Winner Takes It All’.
Fast forward to 1982. Pop tastes are moving in a synthpop/New Romantic direction and ABBA are sounding a little stale. There are some less successful solo projects. The band goes on an indefinite hiatus.
Further chaos ensues behind the scenes, with lots of weird copyright and licensing shenanigans. In 1982, the band released their definitive best-of collection, called The Singles: The First Ten Years. By 1988, this collection has been deleted.
By the end of the 80s, it had become difficult to obtain ABBA’s music. There are really only two places you can hear ABBA now: oldies radio and your mum’s LP collection.
This does not help ABBA’s reputation as “some old band from the least cool decade”. ABBA become the punchline to every joke about shitty music.
(Were things really this bad? It’s hard to believe—this is ABBA, after all. But I double-checked with my older brother, and he confirmed that this is correct. Apparently, a kid in his school once admitted that he liked ABBA and nobody ever spoke to him again.)
So, we’ve established what was uncool in the 80s. But what was cool?
Forward-looking music. We liked synths and electronics and artificial beats. We liked New Order and Pet Shop Boys and house music. And we liked Erasure.
Erasure had a fine pedigree when they arrived, with genius Vince Clarke having already enjoyed success, first with Depeche Mode and then with Yazoo.
Erasure had been on a roll since the late 80s, with almost a dozen top 10 hits, including pop classics like ‘A Little Respect’ and ‘Blue Savannah’. In 1991, they had a hit album (the excellent Chorus) and were enjoying a ton of goodwill.
So this is the scene when Erasure recorded the ABBA-Esque EP. It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but at this precise moment in history, Erasure were bigger than ABBA.
In an interview with Classic Pop magazine last year, Andy Bell was asked how much the ABBA-Esque EP helped to revive ABBA’s fortunes. He said:
I think quite a lot, actually. We kind of propelled them back into the club limelight with the dance tracks. And I don’t think there had been a video EP before and the songs got exposure like that – in video bars in America and places like that. Not that we gave them credence or anything, but it really was a reminder to people of how brilliant that band was.
And this is a very accurate analysis. The reason ABBA-Esque works so well is that it treats the songs with the utmost reverence. Sure, there are lots of flashy techno beats, and there’s a rap in the middle of ‘Take A Chance On Me’. But Clarke and Bell understood that these songs didn’t really need jazzing up or reinvention. The songs were, essentially, perfect. People just needed to listen to them again. People needed to accept that the 70s were actually kind of good.
This represents a pivotal moment in our cultural history, one that’s much bigger than just ABBA.
Since the 50s, youth culture has always been barrelling forward, always searching for the new and the novel. Some rock bands tried to develop a sense of classicism in the 70s, and the reaction was so visceral that it inspired punk.
But the 90s were when mainstream pop culture began to really embrace what came before. As we progress through the decade, we’ll see that retro nostalgia becomes an increasingly important force. Britpop, for example, was really just a 60s revivalist movement. And mid-90s fashion was heavily influenced by a 70s revival.
Anyway. That’s something to talk about in another newsletter. Let’s get back to ABBA.
In September 1992, ABBA released a new best-of compilation called Gold, which went on to become one of the best-selling records of all time. ABBA-mania was back and it has never gone away.
They helped pioneer the jukebox musical with the phenomenally successful Mamma Mia! And now they’re pioneering the emerging science of digital tribute acts with their groundbreaking ABBA Voyage project. As songwriters, they’re generally considered on a par with other pop geniuses like The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
Would all of this have happened without Erasure? Absolutely. But after the long ABBA winter of the 1980s, this EP was like seeing the first green shoots of spring.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 7 (New Entry): ‘Heartbeat’ — Nick Berry
Mind you, there were some people who didn’t listen to ABBA because they found disco a bit too new-fangled. For those people, there was the Saturday teatime joy of Heartbeat starring that nice Nick Berry. The theme tune was Nick singing a Buddy Holly song, and that theme tune is Number 7 in this week’s charts.
Heartbeat was set in 1964 and ran for 18 seasons, which means that logically the final season should have been set in 1982. Right?
Not so, apparently. The show ran on Simpsons rules, with every episode set in a vague, unchanging present that can only be described as “somewhere between 1964 and 1969”.
There is only reasonable deduction here: all of the characters were dead and Heartbeat is set in purgatory.
Number 16 (New Entry): ‘California’ — The Wedding Present
Wedding Present songs named after places are always good. Their finest track is, in my opinion, ‘Montreal’.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ — Manic Street Preachers
Not much to add here that wasn’t said in the Generation Terrorists review a few weeks back, except that I hate the radio edit. It’s a six-minute song. Play the whole thing, cowards.
Number 19 (↓ from 24): ‘Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing’ — Incognito
You might remember Incognito from their 1991 hit ‘Always There’ featuring Jocelyn Brown on vocals. They’re back with a superb Stevie Wonder cover version, and this time they’ve got Maysa Leak on vocals. She used to be one of Stevie’s backing singers, and she sounds like she’s having a great time here being in the foreground.
Number 29 (↑ from 31): ‘One Reason Why’ — Craig McLachlan
The worst thing about running a novelty nostalgia newsletter is that, when you want to write about a male celebrity, you always have to first search Google for “[celebrity name] allegations”.
Anyway, that’s why we won’t be doing any cute jokes about Craig McLachlan.
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Album of the Week
Check Your Head — Beastie Boys
We, as a society, do not spend enough time discussing the sheer weirdness of the Beastie Boys.
Like, what are they? Are they rappers? Are they an alt-rock band? Are they an early nu-metal band? None of these descriptors feels entirely accurate.
The Beastie’s genre-defying nature was actually a problem for them in the early 90s. They had burst into the mainstream with the shouty fratboy anthems of License to Ill, but their follow-up record, Paul’s Boutique, was much more esoteric. Critics loved it, the public hated it, and the label dropped them.
The Boys moved to L.A., where they reconnected with their punk roots, and a vision started to emerge for the third album. It would be entirely instrumental. No rapping. And it wouldn’t use samples. No, wait, it would use sample, but they would sample themselves by recording themselves playing live and then remixing it.
Check Your Head ended up sounding nothing like this, of course. The opening track. ‘Jimmy James’, samples no fewer than seven Hendrix tracks, while the Boys return on the mic with their unique style that involves shouting the last word of every sentence in unison [UNISON!]
The next track, ‘Funky Boss’, probably gives you a better idea of what Check Your Head was supposed to be. It’s a mostly instrumental slab of Blaxploitation funk with some killer bass. The Beasties don’t really rap, but they do shout “Funky boss!” a lot:
The whole album has the kind of manic, experimental, Mad Professor vibes that you only get when a band has nothing left to lose. These experiments range from instrumentals, including the trip-hop-esque ‘Namaste’, and garage punk songs like ‘Time For Livin’:
But this is a Beastie Boys record! We came here for the rhymes! Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock are in top form throughout, deftly between moods that range from the gritty, growling ‘Gratitude’ to the hilarious diss track ‘Professor Booty’.
The standout is the song that became the album’s biggest single, ‘So What’Cha Want?’ It’s here that you understand how much these guys needed each other, how the Beastie Boys could only have ever worked as a trio:
In many ways, this is perhaps the Beastie’s best record. It’s not as charming as License to Ill, not as polished as Ill Behaviour, but it is the record that shows everything they’re capable of, all at once.
That’s why we could never pigeonhole the Beastie Boys. Their skills are simply too diverse to fit in one envelope. Truly, they were the Pink Floyd of shouting random words with your best friends [FRIENDS!]
A glimpse at the George Michael album that never was.
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If you haven't already, check out "Beastie Boys Story" (Apple TV+ here in the States) which Ad-Rock and Mike D walk through the history of the band with commentary, video, and photos. It's a great nostalgia check to think the band as hip hop (Ill Communication) when they really wanted to be Paul's Boutique (fabulous album). They also address a lot of the commentary they've said over the years (racist, sexist, etc) and the changes they've made and grown with to not be those idiots anymore. Highly recommend.