I thought I’d make my first post of the new year about why you can’t successfully cover an Abba song.

I haven’t listened to Abba for years, literally, but they popped up on my random shuffle one listless afternoon, in the middle of a rather stretched Christmas season. They really are brilliant. I have very few CDs by anyone who’s not been dead for a hundred years or so, but Abba’s musicianship is impeccable.

The reason you can’t cover Abba successfully (in my humble opinion) is because a song is more than just words and a tune.

In the pop world they talk about “hooks” – at least they used to in the days when I read someone else’s copy of NME. A hook is basically a musical idea which draws people into the song, makes them want to listen more, something which is basically, catchy – a hook it a catchy thing in a song.

Every song needs a hook. Good songs have several. With Abba songs – and this for me is the difference – there is not one thing in the song which isn’t a hook. That means that when you cover the song, either you have to take out a hook or two to make it different – and that changes something integral to the song – or you end up as a tribute band.

The riff is the most obvious hook to most songs. Think of the guitar arpeggios on “house of the rising sun” or the La’s intro to “there she goes” – or the beginning of “take on me” by Aha, or the mandolin on “losing my religion”. But there are many others:
rhythmic, (think the opening to Pink Floyd’s “money”),
melodic (Oasis’ “Don’t look back in anger” chorus),
chordal (“I will survive is simply a repeated chord sequence for both verse and chorus, like Pachelbel’s canon with swishy hips)
lyrical (Rick Astley, only I’m not going to type it otherwise it will be in all our heads for the next ten years)
instrumentation – and this is the killer for the Abba cover-er.

They double and triple recorded almost every track in their songs – the piano parts were played three times, giving a choral effect, the voices were double tracked, the rhythms were carefully constructed to be as catchy as possible. So more so than almost any other group if you change the instrumentation, you change a hook. Not only does it not sound like Abba it doesn’t sound like the same song. The singing is also crucial – I heard the Corr’s version of The Winner Takes it All a while ago and the huge problem was that the melody sat so comfortably in the singer’s voice. There was no tension. The range of Angetha and Anna-Frid made the energy in the songs a hook in itself.

Let’s have a look at “Dancing Queen”, see how many hooks there are which are integral to the song.

So in the first four bars, we find three hooks which are used throughout the song. One of Abba’s geniuses was to make the opening riff the equivalent of the song in miniature.
the rhythm of the first few bars
the orchestral/choral melody above it,
the big piano chords

A wee technical bit next

The opening lyrics are the second half of the chorus – “you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life/ See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen”.

In both this and the rest of the chorus to come, the bold words have a suspension in the melody, something which gives an added crunch to the chords underneath because they don’t quite fit, resolving into the chord on the next note.

This happens throughout the song, and is a defining hook for the song – “Where they play the right music, Getting in the swing, you’re going to look for a King” etc.

So our list of hooks are:

the rhythm of the first few bars
the orchestral/choral motive above it,
the big piano chords
The suspensions between the chords and the melody.

Also, underneath that bit ie the introductory second half of the chorus, there’s a rising melody in the instruments. You barely notice it at first, but you notice it again just before the lead up to the first full chorus. It’s almost a subliminal hook, which ramps up the energy in the music – and it’s also used in the melody:

“And when you get the chance, you are the dancing queen”

Which brings our hooks to:

the rhythm of the first few bars
the orchestral/choral motive above it,
the big piano chords
The suspensions between the chords and the melody.
The rising melody in the orchestration which ramps up the energy at crucial moment.

So the hapless hoper of a cover version has to decide how their version is going to be different.

You can’t change the lyrics or the melody significantly in any cover version, so can you change the tempo? The rhythm? The instruments? Take out the piano? Alter the chords underneath it? Take out the counter-melodies?

You could do some of those, but even if the listener didn’t know what had gone, they’d know something was missing.

Which is why the only professional covers of Abba tend to do either this:

ie try and half the tempo, almost willing you to forget the original, or this

ie be as close to the original as you can without being a pastiche. There are also some bizarre heavy metal versions. Don’t google it, for your own sake.

This works for nearly all the Abba songs I can think of – Gimmie Gimmie, The Winner takes it all, Chiquitita, money money money, Knowing me Knowing you, Mama Mia, Thank you for the music etc. all packed full of intrinsic hooks.

So, anyway, that’s why you can’t cover Abba. In my opinion.

Slightly bizarre post for the beginning of the year, on a blog mainly devoted to theology and church things, but you know, sometimes you have to get things off your chest.

Have a good new year.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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  1. Mike Mc says:

    Loved this, Pip. Saved the link so I could read it properly. If only I’d known you were into pop song deconstruction like this!

  2. Wow! This is a huge article! Severe research, good ears and an open mind.
    I am writing about the secrets of ABBA’s succes. You came up with a couple of things I didn’t think of. The secrets I described you can find on http://www.ABBAtheSecret.com
    Every month I come up with another secret.

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