Think It’s Corny? Think Again: ABBA Edition

Think It’s Corny?  Think Again is a series where we explain why a band you thought were uninteresting or corny can actually be helpful to you as a songwriter.

Just the thought of this pale-faced Swedish quartet brings laughter to the mind of many people, but upon closer inspection, understanding ABBA and seeing their influence on modern music isn’t very difficult.  More than just the garishly-costumed weirdos from “Dancing Queen”, ABBA were masterful songwriters using the most cutting-edge synths, and were almost Beatle-esque in their precise use of brilliant hooks, revolutionary in they way they incorporated dance music into pop. One often-copied classic move is the epic choir chorus on songs like “Lay All Your Love On Me”.  At around 1:20 the band uses a huge stack of vocals to fill the chorus only to seem to even DOUBLE that on the second half of the chorus.  Airy, unearthly and huge, it’s no secret why ABBA’s dance floor bangers often sold millions.  I remember putting this song on a mix tape for an ex-girlfriend and her being convinced from listening to the verse that it was a Madonna track – it seems her vocal delivery style for the early part of her career borrowed heavily from ABBA (as if her blatant sample of ABBA’s “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie…” on “Hung Up” wasn’t enough proof).  After the jump we’ll take a look at some more things you can learn from these Nordic crooners.     

Being a synthpop dork, I first heard this song from Erasure (thinking it was one of their originals because it fit into their catalog so well). But of course, “Take A Chance” was an ABBA original. Another song with a great vocal hook, the male’s repeated line of “take a chance” sits perfectly in the mix, sometimes blending in as an instrument, but always propelling the song further. Further, the use of the chorus acapella at the opening of the song is an oft used pop trick that ABBA seems to be one of the first to use.  “Take A Chance” also shows what we call “commitment to the chorus”.  The band is so convinced of this chorus melody that they switch it up and sing “Baba-ba-ba-ba” at the end of the song instead of the actual lyrics, showing the sometimes forget pop adage of “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”.  Heavy-handed, almost show-tune in style?  Maybe, but no one ever forgot an ABBA chorus and the band was not short on selling records. 

What we remember from songs is often strange.  Most people think it’s just about writing a decent verse and a HUGE chorus to really get it to sink into people’s brains.  While ABBA usually captures all of those elements, take a look at some of the other glue they throw in to make a song that seems simplistic noteworthy and unique.  If you’re listening to the “knowing me, knowing you” line in the chorus it is follwed by a strange “uh-huh” background.  While a rather quirky bit to add, it is difficult to imagine the song without it, and even when humming or singing the song aloud I have noticed myself always adding in the “uh-huh” part in, despite it’s seemingly nonsensical nature.  Further, ABBA, never content to rest on the merits of one or two catchy bits, decides to follow a hooky chorus IMMEDIATELY with a catchy and melodic guitar solo (naturally doubled to make it sound huge).  This guitar solo almost becomes an extended part of the chorus in your head creating a chain link of hooks throughout the chorus and on into the bridge.

You don’t have to add more Swedish Fish to your diet to write better songs, but listening to ABBA’s back catalog is not just something you should do at a wedding.  Besides, with so many records sold, SOMEONE in your family has to have an ABBA album or two lying around in a record crate somewhere.