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