The memory of ABBA
I think it was Benny, but it might have been Björn. The one with the beard, although now they both have one. Married to Frida with the red hair, not Agnetha with the blond, who was married to Björn. Although no one’s married to anyone anymore.
Anyway, the pianist. I watched an interview with him years ago, where he was asked how you write a song as brilliant as Dancing Queen. His answer was: “Like you always do, like you’ve heard it before.”
It’s stuck with me ever since. What exactly did he mean?
Did he mean it literally, that it was some kind of plagiarism? There is that old music industry saying: “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ”. If you know your stuff, you can certainly hear echoes in Dancing Queen of other songs, particularly the rhythm of George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby.
This is often how hits work. Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello, written a few years after Dancing Queen, used the same three descending chords, just with different intervals. He’s always acknowledged the source too, unlike many others.
Or did Benny mean more broadly in terms of melody? Many things in Dancing Queen feel familiar. There’s the initial roll down the piano keys, from the high notes to the low. Or the fact that it’s in A Major and the song is basically the common chords in that key, with the odd unexpected 7th. So it sounds like it should sound.
What about the cleverness of the composition? The song throws you straight into the middle of the chorus, which is unusual. It’s also up the higher end for the singers. ABBA always had those shiny harmonies, particularly between Frida and Agnetha. Agnetha was the natural soprano, so she could cope effortlessly with high notes, whereas Frida’s voice was deeper, so she often had to strain to reach them.
And after the chorus comes the verse, which is almost too deep for them both, even Frida. Two verses, then it’s back to the chorus. All the time it’s that shift up from verse to chorus, followed by down from chorus to verse, echoed throughout by those descending chords.
So on the one hand it’s this madly catchy, euphoric song. The one song that every DJ knows is guaranteed to get everyone, of any age, up on their feet.
On the other, there’s that subtle reminder that all good things come to an end, whether it’s the 3:52 of the song, the party where you danced all night or the days when you could do that without suffering for a week afterwards.
Of course, ABBA’s music always had that melancholic Nordic feel to it. Their other truly great song, The Winner Takes It All, is about divorce and was written around the time Björn and Agnetha were separating. They’ve always argued there wasn’t a winner or a loser in their divorce, so the song wasn’t about them. Some might find that hard to believe.
The lyrics of Dancing Queen come from a much brighter place, from the dance floor. There are all sorts of references, “the lights are low”, “getting in the swing”, “a bit of rock music”, “feel the beat from the tambourine”. And of course “You’re in the mood for a dance / And when you get the chance…”
That’s the intriguing part for me. It’s written in the second person. The song’s about a 17-year-old girl but the narrator is somebody else.
Is it an observer at the club, a potential dance partner, “Anybody could be that guy”? Is it the girl herself in her later years? Is it Agnetha or Frida? Is Björn, who actually wrote the words? Or is it Benny himself?
Or is it you, the listener? Whichever way, somebody is looking on at something lost.
So is that what Benny meant, that he and Björn wrote the song from memory? Not the rhythmic or melodic or clever, but the emotional. The memory of being free. Young again. And that timeless feeling of time passing.
“You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen”
All the strongest memories are emotional.