They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Björn Ulvaeus may not be a household name, but the same cannot be said of ABBA, the band he cofounded with his songwriting partner Benny Andersson. This is a band whose greatest-hits album Gold went to number one in England on five different occasions over a span of sixteen years. A band who numbered Bono, Kurt Cobain, and Vladimir Putin among their biggest fans. A band whose breaking-up songs rivaled Rumours for intraband romantic schadenfreude.
Ulvaeus built on this legacy after ABBA dissolved. He cowrote the music for the stage show Chess, the origin of “One Night in Bangkok.” The ABBA-based stage show Mamma Mia! has grossed over two billion worldwide; the movie, over $600 million. Speaking of money money money, today he is a key figure in turning Sweden into a cash-free society. He had an umlaut in his name thirty years before Motörhead did. Not even his distressing resemblance to Kato Kaelin could put an end to his coolness.
Today Björn Ulvaeus arrives at his three score and ten. We celebrate his accomplishments by sharing five covers of them…
MP3: The Volebeats – Knowing Me, Knowing You (ABBA cover)
The Volebeats covered “Knowing Me, Knowing You” – known within the ABBA circle as “the divorce song” – on their 2003 album Country Favorites. It’s hardly a country song in its original clothing, but the band (who also cover Funkadelic and the 13th Floor Elevators on the same album) turn it into a credible one. Not bad for a buncha boys from Dee-troit.
MP3: The Czars – Angel Eyes (ABBA cover)
The Czars slowed down ABBA’s “Angeleyes,” and not just by changing the title from one word to two. Add an acoustic setting and John Grant’s deeply felt vocals, and you get a song that has less exuberance, but equal impact.
MP3: Ash – Does Your Mother Know (ABBA cover)
Ulvaeus took a rare lead vocal on “Does Your Mother Know,” and the results were no less catchy. The song is a little more hard-rockin’ than typical ABBA fare, and as such it attracts covers from bands that take it even further from the lighter side of the spectrum. Northern Ireland’s Ash recorded it as a B-side, perfectly straddling the line between punk and pop as they did so.
MP3: The Yayhoos – Dancing Queen (ABBA cover)
“Dancing Queen” has to be the signature ABBA song – it was their sole American #1, and it topped the charts in over a dozen other countries. The Yayhoos haven’t tasted anything like that kind of success (though frontman Dan Baird got a sip of it when he wrote and sang “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” for the Georgia Satellites), but they don’t make it bad; rather, they take a glad song and make it better by giving it some roots-rock noise, soaking down the shrieking harmonies of the original with a twelve-pack of Bud.
MP3: Steven Wilson – The Day Before You Came (ABBA cover)
ABBA’s final recording, “The Day Before You Came,” is one of their longest, most mysterious, and greatest. On the surface an accounting of a typical dull day, it’s got sadness and depth to it that hints at being about far, far more. Is the “You” in the title a lover? Or a now-ex lover? Or the murderer who kills the singer? Or the one killed by the singer, who is now struggling to establish an alibi? There’s a great unknown overshadowing this song, greater than the ambiguities of “Ode to Billy Joe” and “You’re So Vain” combined, and the dozens of clues dropped throughout will bring nobody closer to the solution. Steven Wilson, from the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, gives an acoustic performance that keeps all those ambiguities intact.
Come to Stockholm and visit Abba: The Museum.