‘Thank ABBA for the Music’ at 20: a defining pop moment of 1999

We have a small confession to make, dear readers. Regular viewers of our retro pop series of posts titled The Story of Pop: 1999 (back this Thursday at midday as always) will remember we featured a lovely if lesser recalled top 10 hit from Catatonia two weeks ago. The reason for this might have seemed a bit obscure.

But it was chiefly because the song we were intending to have covered that week was otherwise indisposed (i.e. not available for streaming or download), thus making adding it to our weekly Spotify playlist to accompany the series a bit of a task.

However, thanks to the efforts of the brilliant (and previously featured on this here blog) Pop Music Activism on Twitter, in the UK at least it has just this weekend become available for legal digital consumption at last. With that in mind, we can now tell the story of ‘Thank ABBA for the Music’…

It’s not unfair to say that the artists at the centre of the post-Spice Girls pure pop explosion at the end of the 90s recieved a rawer deal than most. For for every obsessed young chart watching fan, there were critics and music snobs everywhere falling over themselves to dismiss ‘packaged/manufactured pop’ as being beneath supposedly more superior genres, bands or singer/songwriters.

When the nominations for 1999’s Brit Awards ceremony were announced in January, more than a fair few becried the industry choosing to acknowledge the success of such acts, even if it was their singles success that was more of a draw to young pop fans than that of albums which had always been the music industry’s foundations. The real music establishment were not amused to say the least.

I was 9 – a few months away from turning 10 – when all this was going on. I lapped up and loved bands and artists like Steps, B*Witched, Cleopatra and Billie Piper. What was an abysmal time in the eyes of others was a great time to be a fan of pop music and following the charts for me. And yet, growing up around four older sisters who all had markedly ‘cooler’ tastes than I left me feeling quite alone in my enjoyment.

Thankfully, the perfect opportunity to acknowledge this poptastic movement in the British music industry that year coincided happily with a special landmark for one of pop’s biggest and best loved bands globally. Sweden’s biggest export, ahead of Volvo and IKEA, ABBA defined pop greatness for a generation between 1972 and 1981, with sales of over 350m records worldwide.

Themselves unappreciated in their own time, the latter period of the 90s had undoubtedly been a time of rediscovery and postive reevaluation of their music by critics and the public at large, their 1992 greatest hits collection ‘ABBA Gold’ still among the all time best selling albums (as well as being one of the most essential pop albums ever. We even own two copies of it for God’s sake).

The subsequent extensive use of their music in the hit 1995 comedy film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ soon paved the way for the next logical step in the ABBA story. Their music, written and composed entirely by the band’s two male members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, always lent itself so well to a theatrical outlet. Even in the years after ABBA split, they worked together with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on the popular musical Chess.

So ahead of the 25th anniversary in 1999 of their Eurovision Song Contest win in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’ that propelled them to overnight stardom, which was to be marked by a new musical based on their songs titled Mamma Mia! – a chart topper for them in 1976 – five of the biggest names in the UK pop explosion of the last year (well, four of them and Tina Cousins, her Sash! collaboration aside she was only ever a modest chart hitter) joined together to pay tribute to them at that year’s Brits.

Undoubtedly placing Steps – who had not long had their first number one and were often touted as being ‘ABBA for the 90s’ by their producer and songwriting legend Pete Waterman – at the centre of such a tribute (even if they were to walk away from that year’s ceremony empty handed, thanks to an internet campaign from Scottish indie kids Belle and Sebastian to that year’s Best British Breakthrough prize), was an inspired move.

Those same kids who were in their pre-teens singing along to ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘Take A Chance On Me’ in 1979 were now more than likely the parents of the pre-teens singing along to ‘Tragedy’ or ‘One for Sorrow’ – maybe even ‘C’est La Vie’ and/or ‘Because We Want To’ for good measure – in 1999.

‘Thank ABBA for the Music’ – a four song medley of ‘Take a Chance On Me’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Thank You for the Music’ was both a fine showcase for 1999’s young popstars whilst also being a fine and fitting introduction for the legacy of ABBA to be passed onto a new generation who may have been previously unaware of them.

It’s why I rewatched this performance the most from my recorded VHS of 1999’s ceremony. For those four minutes, I was getting to see all my pop favourites in one place, and at the same time was discovering the music of a band I since consider to be one of the all time greats, and one which everyone seems to agree on or love at least one song of.

Such was the popularity of the medley, that it soon sent sales of ‘ABBA Gold’ through the roof again in 1999 (it was the soundtrack of many a family party and car journey in our house that year), and the subsequent release of ‘Thank ABBA for the Music’ as a one off charity single credited to all the acts as ‘The Supertroupers’ to raise money for Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy and The BRITs Trust, went hurtling into the UK chart at #4 in April 1999.

Now with its new availability online, and the profile of ABBA as high as it’s ever been with the release of the second Mamma Mia! film last year and new material due to appear before the end of 2019, now’s the time we can all thank ABBA for the music once again.

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