Putting the bil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion to a band Björn un­der a lucky star

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

ll things con­sid­ered, it’s a good thing that the only palin­dromic band ever to have a hit with a palin­dromic song ti­tle (Abba and SOS, do try to keep up) have vowed never to re­form. This is de­spite the fact that there is an in­cred­i­ble $1 bil­lion on of­fer from a well-known US pro­moter if they were to squeeze them­selves back into the Span­dex one more time.

The group did se­ri­ously con­sider this world-break­ing of­fer. In fact, all four sat down to­gether for the first time in years and pro­vi­sion­ally agreed to do the tour and use the money to build a hospi­tal in Stock­holm. But it never hap­pened be­cause they found that they would not only have to tour but also travel the world pro­mot­ing the re­sul­tant re­union DVD. They worked out that the whole thing would take the best part of two years.

An Abba re­union tour would have been a trav­esty of all that is right and good about exquisitely crafted pop mu­sic. It’s some­thing the four­some now re­alise, say­ing last week­end that there will never be a re­union on the grounds that they would only be a trib­ute band to them­selves.

“I re­mem­ber Robert Plant say­ing Led Zep­pelin were a cov­ers band now be­cause they cover all their own stuff,” says Björn Ul­vaeus. “That hit the nail on the head.”

Abba have spawned more trib­ute bands than any other. At the top of the pile are the mag­nif­i­cent Bjorn Again. As of this year, there are still five dif­fer­ent Bjorn Agains per­form­ing in var­i­ous parts of the world in a weird trib­ute band fran­chise sce­nario, and their 17-year ex­is­tence ex­ceeds the orig­i­nal Abba’s.

With so many films and mu­si­cals fea­tur­ing Abba mu­sic, it may seem that they’re re­ally not fussed about whom or what uses their songs. The truth, though, is that song­writ­ers Björn Ul­vaeus and Benny An­der­s­son are just as dili­gent in pro­tect­ing the band’s mu­sic as Ap­ple is of The Bea­tles.

The group turned down many re­quests by very big names to use their songs in a stage mu­si­cal, and only gave the green light to the pro­duc­ers of Mamma Mia! when they promised that the word “Abba” was not to be used in the mu­si­cal and the nar­ra­tive would in­clude no ref­er­ences what­so­ever to the four­some.

Sim­i­larly, when Madonna tried to get them to clear a sam­ple of Gimme Gimme Gimme to use in her Hung Up track, she was re­fused point blank – the band never sanc­tion the use of sam­ples of their work. They have re­lented only twice, once for The Fugees in 1996 for their Rum­ble in the Jun­gle, which has a brief sam­ple of The Name of the Game, and they only granted per­mis­sion to Madonna af­ter she sent them a beg­ging let­ter.

“They didn’t say yes straight away” says Madonna. “I had to send my emis­sary to Stock­holm with an­other beg­ging let­ter telling them how much I loved their mu­sic and what it would mean to me to be able to sam­ple one of their songs.”

What’s never pointed out about the con­tin­u­ing suc­cess of the great­est-ever pop band (26 years af­ter break­ing up, they still sell three mil­lion records a year) is that their longevity owes much to the fact that they’re Swedish. More pre­cisely, it’s be­cause they’re not na­tive English speak­ers.

Abba songs speak to mil­lions be­cause of the sort of clumsy emo­tional di­rect­ness of their lyrics. Too many na­tive English speak­ers get self-con­scious about their lyrics and try for clev­er­ness and word play at the ex­pense of raw con­tent. No na­tive English speaker would ever dare to come up with a work­able rhyme for “Glas­gow” as Abba did on Su­per Trouper. On Lay All Your Love On Me they rhymed “sen­si­ble” with “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble”.

Noel Coward once said, “Never un­der­es­ti­mate the po­tency of cheap mu­sic”. To that can be added: “never un­der­es­ti­mate the po­tency of Swedish pop ge­niuses with a cheap

rhyming dic­tionary”. n Metal Gear Solid 4, the cen­tral char­ac­ter’s face tells the story. Su­per trooper Solid Snake is suf­fer­ing from a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness that causes pre­ma­ture ag­ing. Grey and wrin­kled, the de­crepit war­rior is sum­moned for a fi­nal, fate­ful mis­sion to save the world.

It boils down to pretty much the same plot that Ja­pan’s Kon­ami have used since first pub­lish­ing Metal Gear Solid in 1998. (Then, as now, they use Gwee­dore-na­tive Aoife Ní Fhear­raigh’s wist­ful theme, The Best Is Yet to Come, at the clos­ing cred­its.) The fran­chise has had highs and lows along the way, but MGS4 is the most com­plete ever and the crown­ing achieve­ment of its Ja­panese cre­ator, Hideo Miyamoto.

Just as well, be­cause Miyam­ato has stated that this is the fi­nal in­stal­ment in his opus as he seeks pas­tures new. Per­haps he might like to go to film school: MGS4 is dom­i­nated by up to four hours of “cut scenes”, or short dra­matic movies sand­wiched be­tween game lev­els. Some of th­ese in­ter­ludes last up to 40 min­utes at a time. They are of­ten tire­some di­a­tribes about the per­ils of evil science.

Usu­ally I skip straight to the next game screen. Oc­ca­sion­ally though, the cut scenes are worth watch­ing. It may not be the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany, but Miyamoto’s teases a per­for­mance from his cast of dig­i­tal ac­tors that is at least con­vinc­ing. For ex­am­ple, some of the death scenes are ac­tu­ally quite mov­ing (“War is hell”, don’t you know). Miyamoto’s quirky hu­mour is a con­stant theme through­out and there’s the feel­ing of a con­sis­tent world.

The show­downs be­tween Solid Snake and arch-en­emy Liq­uid Ocelot erupt fu­ri­ously on screen like some­thing out of a Sam Peck­in­pah west­ern. Our hero Snake is a charis­matic elder killer with a trou­bled past, bat­tling for sal­va­tion like a char­ac­ter Clint East­wood might have played.

Aside from con­sole the­atrics, Miyam­ato injects a fresh ar­cade el­e­ment to the tired old shooter for­mat. Match­ing up with play­ers all over the world, the on­line play is ex­cel­lent also.

The story is beefed up with top­i­cal po­lit­i­cal con­tent. In Snake’s world, war has been com­pletely pri­va­tised and is the ba­sis of the world econ­omy. With­out war, there is re­ces­sion.

Let’s hope not, for Sony’s sake. The Ja­panese gi­ant re­cently re­vealed losses of more than $3 bil­lion on Plays­ta­tion 3 since its launch. Al­though things are now look­ing up, Sony may never make the money back. In any case, they’re in it for the long haul.

That’s why sig­na­ture ti­tles such as MGS4 and Grand Theft Auto IV are vi­tal. Yet, af­ter car­ry­ing an au­di­ence along for a decade, game stu­dios may find that adult gamers are no longer in­clined to sup­port the epic ti­tles. MGS4 cost $100 mil­lion and took 200 peo­ple sev­eral years to make. Most fans won’t have time to see most of the ef­fort they put into cut scenes.

In fu­ture, gamers may well want to pay less for a game and get less con­tent. Then, if they fancy it, they can down­load ex­tra maps and fea­tures. The cur­rent crop of block­busters may be the be­gin­ning of the end for the 100-hour, $100 mil­lion game.

Mr Ul­vaeus takes the busi­ness of Abba se­ri­ously

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