Unlike its peers like Led Zeppelin and Queen, ABBA does not have a complete concert film in existence. Until Live at Wembley Arena, the most famous Eurovision winners of all time did not even have a live album containing an entire concert.
The iconic Swedish pop quartet of perfectionists had always preferred the recording studio to conjure its famous sound and had never been entirely satisfied with its live performances. However, ABBA has relented with this live album release that comes 35 years after the start of its second, final world tour covering North America, Europe and Japan.
The tour highlight- a sold-out 6-night stint at London’s Wembley Arena- came at the height of Britain’s sustained support (which had outlasted ABBAmania in Australia). The band already earned six UK Top Ten hits (including the then-recent hit Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!) in barely 12 months. Live at Wembley Arena features the final night in this residency on 10 November 1979. This turned out to be ABBA’s last full-length concert on English soil.
Kicking off with a spectacular, ethereal instrumental synth cover of the Swedish folk song Gammal Fäbodpsalm, the crowd erupts as the curtain is drawn for the introduction of the title track to ABBA’s latest album, Voulez-Vous. As it is the sixth concert in a row, the live band sounds well-rehearsed yet coldly professional as it kicks into the normally funky tune.
The vocals by lead singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad are in tune but understandably sound a bit stilted and worn at first. It is not until an urgent, new-wavish version of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! where Agnetha has warmed up, as she belts the song out like she owns it. S.O.S. and the unreleased track I’m Still Alive (a solo piano ballad midway through the concert, with music written by her and lyrics by Bjorn) show off her vulnerable, yearning best.
Live at Wembley Arena is proof that Frida, on the other hand, has always been the more comfortable live performer. There is an especially entertaining version of Money, Money, Money, where she plays it up with the crowd with a performance that is richer and more theatrical than the studio version. She also confidently navigates the nostalgia trip of Fernando, whose flute solo flourishes haunt despite being played on a synth.
It is also evident at this stage in the night that this concert is already a greatest hits set. More hits come. A blink-and-you-miss-it version of The Name of the Game flows into the transcendental, American-soft-rock tribute Eagle, whose euphoric ‘high high’s in the punchy yet melancholy choruses and closing guitar solos are close to heaven.
Even the lesser-known album tracks do well; Why Did It Have to Be Me (a hilarious, raucous duet between Bjorn and a football-team-jersey-wearing Frida) and the instrumental Intermezzo No. 1 (displaying Benny Andersson’s implausibly precise hitting of the keys) seriously rock out.
Things only go up following an eerie synth and acapella intro to Summer Night City. This show highlight then erupts into a tense, oppressive synth-pop rocker as Agnetha and Frida compete for the attention of the crowd. Take a Chance on Me sounds gentler and straightforward by comparison, before the energetic, relentless medley of Does Your Mother Know and Hole In Your Soul shows ABBA doing its best arena-ready rock to close the main set. Agnetha’s ripping, supersonic-high howls at the end are the stuff of ABBA legend.
Then-new track The Way Old Friends Do marks the first encore. This spell-binding call for camaraderie begins with the glorious harmonies of just Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida to Benny’s accordion, before backing vocalists, percussion and orchestral keyboard parts pack the track with an emotional punch. The result is far more raw and honest than the overdubbed-to-death version off Super Trouper. Of course, Dancing Queen and Waterloo finish it off. Even though it is impossible to recreate the intricate productions of the originals, the crowd clearly does not care, as its ecstasy is palpable on the recording.
The sound mix on Live at Wembley Arena is proficient, as the soundscape is wide and sounds life-like on headphones. Unlike 1986’s shoddy ABBA Live, the sound has been left intact. Despite clean, crisp performances, there are still moments of improvised musical spark on stage. The band, after all, used the same musicians (some of the best in all of Sweden) from its studio recordings. Therefore, ABBA should not be too displeased with this record of its touring days. ABBA fans should enjoy this album, as it is essentially live recordings of 75% of ABBA Gold.