Growing up when I did, Abba were inescapable. They were the mainstream soundtrack to the 1970s in many ways in the UK and elsewhere. I enjoyed their music very much and saw Abba: The Movie in the local cinema. In my later teens ‘pop’ became a dirty word and I moved on to the more ‘authentic’ movements of reggae and rock, jazz, gospel, blues, soul and funk. Great music is always beyond category though and I retained that pleasure in hearing their music whenever I heard it on the radio or TV. Now I unabashedly listen to it and love it.
//another edit// Check out this amazing podcast by ‘The Strange Brew’ where Jason Barnard interviews Abba bassist Mike Watson, playing tracks, listening to great stories and interviewing Mike at length https://thestrangebrew.co.uk/abba-mike-watson/ //another edit//
//edit// Since the article was originally written, Aidan Hampson has written a book of transcriptions of Abba basslines available here. //edit//
(Abba bassist Rutger Gunnarsson playing a beautiful Hagström bass. Gunnar Jodmund Gaasland captured this screenshot from an Abba documentary on Norwegian television)
|Stop press| The sad news is that Rutger (bassist on every Abba album and tour) passed away at the age of 69 in Stockholm on May 8th 2015. |Stop press|
Estimates are that Abba have sold over 370 million records worldwide. Not only is that down to a genius gift for memorable, distinctive melody, brilliant and impassioned singing voices, early primitive music video and a sense of personal drama within the group but also wonderful arrangements and musicality. Particularly nowadays when modern pop often consists of a melody hook and a drum sound, Abba made pop that laid hook onto hook onto hook. Benny and Bjorn seemed never satisfied until songs had several memorable hooks, countermelodies and contrasting musical sections – as I have now discovered, the musicians associated with Abba had a major input into that music. According to bassist Mike Watson there was no sheet music at the recordings except for the string section!
At times the European oompah tradition and sense of middle of the road, clean cut formality takes over but there is nearly always something fascinating musically happening which is where we come to the matter in question – the bass – and primarily Rutger Gunnarsson. And though pop is often seen as calculatedly commercial, this pop was also emotional…it sounded like music that had to come out.
I was listening to Abba recently and, as a bassist, hardly unaware the brilliant (often slightly left-field) basslines and had the concept of this article. I had to think. I had read Benny and Björn reportedly intensely controlled every aspect of the music. At least that was the commonly reported view. Was this factual? Did they (Benny and Björn) play some of the bass? Did they write out every note of every bassline including fills? I read a lot and listened a lot more. Many questions still remain and I would appreciate your ideas or responses in the comments below but I have have some to the conclusion that Rutger Gunnarsson (the Swedish Jamerson) played most of the tracks and Mike Watson many other key tracks and both created most of their own musical parts.
Initially, when I made my first draft of this post, I considered it more likely that the bassists sight read their lines and added fills but a comment below and a discussion with Chris Kelly (who is in touch with Mike Watson) and later confirmation from Mike paints a different picture. The core Abba musicians created their own parts and Abba were very much a band. Although the final vocals were always added after the rhythm parts were recorded. Chris also emphasises the importance of the role played by Abba audio engineer/producer Michael B. Tretow. The musicians were apparently paid fairly normal studio rates – about £12 an hour to create some of the most successful music ever. I should credit here the Rutger Gunnarson – the bass of ABBA Facebook group which I discovered after finding this article and has been a great source of information.
Abba made some quite brilliant use of synths that many bands have been clearly influenced by The Visitors, Take a Chance on Me etc) but on many of the tracks with synth bass, bass guitar is often added with its own distinct line – as on Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (a Man After Midnight). Mike confirms in The Strange Brew podcast that synth bass was almost always added later in the recording process, doubling or playing along to the part that the bass guitarist created and recorded.
Go buy some of their music and listen!
(photo via http://www.themusicofabba.com/)
Rutger Gunnarsson was born in 1946 in Linköping in Sweden. While studying guitar at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, he auditioned for the Hootenany Singers (a folk group featuring Björn Ulvaeus (who would go on to form Abba with Benny Anderson, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad)). Gunnarsson apparently impressed at the audition by immediately sight singing his harmony vocal part and immediately got the job. Gunnarsson contributed to Abba’s live and studio sound for their entire career and later has worked as a bassist, string arranger and musical director for the likes of Celine Dion, Elton John and Westlife and as an arranger and producer for Gwen Stefani among others. He also had key musical roles in both the Chess and Mamma Mia musicals.
Gunnarsson’s musicality is really obvious on listening, both in the momentum he adds to the lines though slurs, slides and fills to the melodic nature of his playing, to his take on harmony, to the occasional doubling of other instrumental or vocal lines – often leaping high up the neck to do so. Since he arranged many of the string and horn parts on Abba records this is unsurprising. At times his playing is exuberant too, adding expressive slides and upper register interjections.
Generally, key to Gunnarsson’s style are the sense of relaxed groove, great use of space, occasional melodic left of centre basslines, lines that often follow or echo the melody or play counter melody to it (at times the strength of his lines are such that the chords themselves are not explicitly followed but played against (almost reggae-style), expressive slides and slurs, use of chromatic passing notes (not as frequently as a bassist such as Jamerson but more frequently than most pop bassists).
According to a 2000 Bass Player magazine interview, Gunnarsson states that he listens to Chuck Rainey, Joe Osborn and Duck Dunn and sees himself as a ‘utility bassist’. He primarily played Fenders with Abba (a 1960s Fender Jazz, a 1970s Music Man StingRay) and later a Hagström Super Swede (a bass he helped design) and a Steinberger. He uses old strings and is not fussy about amps, recording direct. Interestingly he says
“I consider myself a utility bassist, not a flash guy. I’ve never really practiced bass music; I try instead to work out on charts for other instruments – guitar, strings, sax, and so on. It gives you new views of the bass. To me, music is about a melody line on top, a bass line as the fundament, and the other parts filling the gap in between. It all begins with a good melody and a strong bass line.”
It’s also notable he still practises classical guitar routines on the bass every day.
Dancing Queen (1976) Abba were influenced by the relaxed proto-disco sound the huge global hit ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McCrae in 1974. They wanted to recreate that cool relaxed but soulful groove and Dancing Queen clearly is in that mould. Gunnarsson’s part is genius. The rhythmic and melodic line using root, fifth, sixth and octave anchors the tune and is cleverly rhythmically displaced at times. He makes effective use of pedal tones and particularly scalar and chromatic passing tones. The slides and ghost notes enhance the momentum of the track.
Knowing Me Knowing You (1976) is a masterpiece of a bassline. The verse bassline is distinctly left field sounding, melodic and countermelodic and I don’t know if it’s just me but I hear echoes of this in the way Mick Karn plays in early Japan. Gunnarsson pays careful attention to note length here varying enormously over a four minute track but fitting the music like a glove.
Money, Money, Money (1976) features a more pulsing bass. Gunnarsson’s line alternately follows the melody (chorus), pulses and hits expressive fills (verse) or doubles the dramatic guitar lines on the instrumental links. The expressive slides under ‘All the things I could do’ are a joy as is the way he clearly enjoys doubling the tunes percussion parts near the sogs dramatic close.
One Of Us (1981) has so many Gunnarsson trademarks. Superbly laid back with effective use of octaves, Gunnarsson’s line is at times melodically reggae-like. He adds expressive slurs and slides and carefully varies note length in sections from the almost persussive to the sustained within a few bars to fit the music. This line grooves like crazy and has an almost Pastorius like feel at times as the track builds. The basssound is very fat. I’d recommend the bass playalong of this track featured at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLC-5L-pCFc which also has the advantage of high quality sound.
Summer Night City (1978) (written for Stockholm) has a great driving bass line. I’m not certain it’s Gunnarsson playing but it’s probably him and the line is tight and grooving. This one sounds like it was played as written with few fills but that fits the fast driving tune. It’s a recording that Björn and Benny both publicly regretted releasing but it’s a song I’ve always enjoyed. It certainly doesn’t have the normal expansive Abba recorded sound but it drives along.
Of course, Gunnarsson played on many more tracks, almost all of the Abba songs – these are just examples.
(Photo via http://www.littlemike.se/)
Mike made valuable musical contributions to Abba throughout their career and also appeared as Napoleon on the cover of Waterloo. Mike was born on the last day of 1946 in Sheffield and has spent almost all his musical career in Sweden. Watson’s bass style was different to Gunnarsson’s but at times it can be difficult to distinguish who played what. Watson had at times a driving (almost proto-punk rock ‘n’ roll) type bassline. It’s not that far fetched that Abba could influence punk – after all Glenn Matlock admitted that Pretty Vacant was musically influenced by S.O.S. Watson’s playing is very versatile however and he could play driving root notes but also gorgeous melodic slides and slurs when needed. He also used octaves effectively. Mike has confirmed to me that he played his 1966 Fender Jazz (bought secondhand in 1970) fitted with Schecter pickups (later replaced with Fender noiseless more recently).
Mamma Mia (1974) has the driving root eighth notes (you can hear echoes of the chorus part (and Eddie Cochrane) in later rock and punk basslines but Mike’s line also features octaves and staccato parts. You can hear it all clearly on Fredrik Bowman (‘bassowman’)’s playalong at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDtF4tv1IG4.
The Winner Takes It All (1980) is testimony to Watson’s versatility that he plays the bass on this ultimate breakup song. A couple break up and the man writes a song about a breakup for his ex to sing…it has to be a great performance to match that! It’s a passionate bass performance contrasting rhythmic almost disco bass with fretless-like slides and slurs and driving eighth notes even throwing in double stops. The disco-like part (though sensitive) contrasts often with the emotional vocal performance and lyrics and it’s a clever contrast.
S.O.S. (1975) is incredibly catchy (described by both Pete Townsend and John Lennon as one of their favourite pop songs) and well set up by its intro of descending piano and mimimoog fill. The semi-classical feel of the verse with spare bass (with effective slides) contrasts brilliantly with the driving chorus when the drums and strummed guitar join the rocking eight note based bassline which never merely outlines the roots but uses passing notes to create momentum.
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) (1979) has a funky disco bassline on a great, great song. As Agnetha’s impassioned vocal acts out pure loneliness (her influences include Connie Francis and Aretha Franklin) the brilliant arrangement features layers of bass as Watson’s bass guitar joins a synth bass but doesn’t double it – they play independent lines! As Abba recorded at this time with disco bassist Arnold Faseiro it has crossed mine and others’ minds that he may have played this track but Mike Watson confirmed to me himself that he played it. It certainly features many disco trademarks – galloping lines, octaves and even pulled notes but also exuberant slides and the occasional unisons.
Mike, who also played on Does Your Mother Know, If It Wasn’t For The Nights and Supertrouper (well worth a listen to the bassline) among other tracks, is mostly photographed with a Fender Jazz bass guitar. He continues to sing play bass in Sweden leading his own band. I initially recalled reading that he played on Fernando as well but this was clearly a mistake as Chris Kelly questioned this Watson confirmed that Rutger played bass on that track. Another great story from the podcast linked above is that the Mike has revealed that the Supertrouper chorus bassline was inspired by a line he heard Al Jarreau’s bassist play when he saw him live at Ronnie Scotts.
To record the track Voulez Vous, Abba travelled to Nassau in the Bahamas. They used the Latin/Disco band Foxy as their backing track and this created a strong disco groove for the track. Paseiro had played with George McCrae and the great Betty Wright among others. Paseiro, originally from Miami (born 1950) had a big input to the track and suggested the instrumental section at the end of the track. He grooves like mad throughout but does show restraint where necessary. The lines are textbook disco but so well done: Good Times/Superstition style quarter notes, octaves, galloping figures…he leaps high up the neck to echo the horn riffs near the end of the track. Overall the song has a smouldering intensity.
Along with the way that Frida and Agnetha’s voices blended together and their individual performances as singers, key to Abba’s success was the writing and arranging of Björn and Benny. It is fabulous to imagine the likes of Rutger and Mike listening to those compositions and inventing those basslines alongside the other key Abba musicians (most of whom played live with Abba as well as in the studio). Their unsung contributions almost recall the stories of the Motown studio heroes like James Jamerson, Eddie Willis and Bob Babbitt.
The Abba Session Musicians
Along with those mentioned, it is worth noting the performances of:
Ola Brunkert on drums (Abba’s main drummer)
Janne Schaffer on lead guitar
Roger Palm – drums
Lasse Wellander on lead guitar especially for later live gigs when Schaffer’s fusion career was taking off
Per Lindvall – drums (in the 80s)
Malandro Gassama – percussion (originally from Gambia)
Sources and Links
Facebook Group – Rutger Gunnarsson – the bass of ABBA
On the Hagstrom Super Swede
Dancing Queen transcription by Steve Glasgow
The Music of Abba
Little Mike Watson
BP interview transcription in Abba Omnibus
The Abba Session Band
Abba’s Abba Gold by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Rutger Gunnarsson – ABBA-cadabra. By Mikael Jansson – Bass Player Magazine December 2000
The Joy of Abba – BBC documentary
Agnetha: Abba and After – BBC documentary
The Mixing of Dancing Queen
Dancing Queen Bassline by bassowman
One of Us bassline by bassowman
Mamma Mia bassline by Bassowman
Dancing Queen Recording Session (from a documentary about manager Stig Anderson – The Trendsetter
Gimme, Gimme, Gimme bassline by Benlop
Knowing Me, Knowing You bassline by bass basic
Abba – Their Greatest Hits – Top 40 Abba singles ranked by sales – great concept for a video but the sound is bad and numbers 40 – 28 are almost all well below the standards of Abba’s best in my opinion
Abba bassline medley by bass basic
Gimme, Gimme, Gimme bassline by infusion
Oh, a final plus for ‘Funky Abba’ by Nils Landgren, a glorious jazz-funk re-arrangement of classic Abba in a funk vibe with jazz solos: Funky Abba