ABBAMania

1999 was a big year for ABBA nostalgia. The jukebox musical of their songs Mamma Mia! started in the West End in 1999, and there was the ITV tribute programme  ABBAMania and a spin-off tribute album was released. It was a charity cause for the National Foundation of Youth Music.

The ’90s had a lot of ’70s nostalgia in general, just like there’s ’90s nostalgia now, there was ’80s nostalgia in the noughties, ’60s nostalgia in the ’80s and ’50s nostalgia in the ’70s. But there was a big revival of interest in ABBA in particular in the UK in the late ’90s.

I watched ABBAMania when it was first broadcast 18 years ago. Babies who were born when this was broadcast will become adults this year! One of those “makes you feel ancient” moments.

Watching ABBAMania back now, it has to be said, a lot of it hasn’t aged well. It looks even older than 18 years ago. It looks so cheap as well! Is that really what production values were like back then?

It was hosted by Denise Van Outen, and she did a great job, she got the right balance of being professional and light-hearted. She said at the beginning  “I might do a bit of karaoke myself later”. Oh, everyone’s doing karaoke on here. In fact, karaoke is too generous, because I think everyone was miming!

Steps, let’s face it, made a career out of sounding like ABBA (while covering Bee Gees songs), so no surprise they opened the show. In fact, they were the only act to perform twice.

The first one was ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. They were dressed all in white, which had the effect of looking like a laundry detergent advert. The song certainly sounded as if it had come out of a washing machine with an alkaline substance cleaning out anything interesting about that song.

Westlife also had spotlessly clean straight out of the washing machine white outfits, but their performance wasn’t as bland. Yes, Steps managed to make an uptempo dance song blander than Westlife singing a ballad! That takes some doing.

In Steps’ second performance they were dressed all in black instead. It wasn’t an ABBA song though, but a cover of ‘I Know Him So Well’ written by ABBA’s Benny and Björn with Tim Rice for the musical Chess. While not a patch on the Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson original, the Steps version is quite nice, the girls’ voices sound lovely on it. It’s certainly the better of their two performances on this programme. They later released it as a single in 2002 from their greatest hits album Gold. (Yes, they even copied the title of ABBA’s megaselling greatest hits album!)

Madness performed ‘Money, Money, Money’, and it was one of the most enjoyable performances. They had a lot of fun with the costumes and staging. The costumes included Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly with a top hat, a bankers bowler hat, a suit made of notes, a cartoon burglar complete with striped convict shirt and mask, and a bag with “$wag” written on it, and yes the dollar sign was used as an S. Money notes rained down throughout, and at the end Suggs used a TNT box to blow up a safe. Their version of ‘Money, Money, Money’ was good as well, it was probably the only one to do something truly different with the song.

Culture Club performed a pretty fantastic version of ‘Voulez-Vous’. Boy George singing an ABBA classic surrounded by lots of shirtless male dancers oiled up and covered in glitter. You can’t get much more gaymazing than that!

Westlife did ‘I Have A Dream’. I had forgotten how “Oirish” their version sounded. Mind you, I’d forgotten how it sounded full stop. Nicky Byrne would later say on CD:UK that he never liked the song. In this performance, Westlife had loads of candles around them, plus some poor kids who had to sit among the candles in the dark until they pretended to sing-along when the lights came on after Westlife got off their stools at the end.

Martine McCutcheon did ‘Mamma Mia’, but is mostly memorable for saying to Denise afterwards “We could be ABBA now, couldn’t we? I could be the dark one, you could be the blonde one, but I don’t want to be the ugly one!”. In an ABBA tribute show as well! Stay classy, Martine.

B*Witched performed ‘Does Your Mother Know?’. So, the girlgroup sings one of the few ABBA songs with male lead vocals? To be fair, it worked better than you’d expect, but I still always thought this was an odd choice.

Stephen Gately‘s version of ‘Chiquitita’ was nice enough I guess. Denise flirted with him a bit afterwards, which was a bit awkward. I think this was after he came out, but I might be misremembering. Seeing him on here is obviously tinged with sadness now as he is no longer with us, but he seemed to be enjoying himself here. He introduced the final performance at the end.

This was Denise Van Outen’s, and it was undoubtedly the highlight of the whole show. She sang ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’.

She sang and danced well, there were pyrotechnics, and it was a decent remix of the song too, sort of a ’90s update. It was definitely the most fun performance of this show. I’m not trying to say its as good as the original or anything, but I do quite like this version. I’ll admit I’ve listened to it a fair bit.

I can’t help but wonder who’d be in the bottom 2 in X Factor ABBA week based on these performances? There was even a recap of them all at the end! Denise Van Outen was by far the best though, and deserved to get the pimp slot.

Anyway, my personal ranking of the performances, best to worst.

1) Denise Van Outen – ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’
2) Culture Club – ‘Voulez-Vous’
3) Madness – ‘Money, Money, Money’
4) Steps – ‘I Know Him So Well’
5) Stephen Gately – ‘Chiquitita’
6) B*Witched – ‘Does Your Mother Know?’
7) Westlife – ‘I Have A Dream’
8) Martine McCutcheon – ‘Mamma Mia’
9) Steps – ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’

The ABBAMania spin-off album was released later and featured covers not performed on the TV show. One was the 1999 BRIT Awards ‘Thank ABBA For The Music’ medley by Steps, B*Witched, Tina Cousins (of “Sash! featuring…” fame), Cleopatra (of “Cleopatra, Comin’ Atcha”, “Cleo was on The Voice a couple of years back” fame), and Billie (Piper, but this was back when she was just using her first name).

S Club 7’s version of ‘Dancing Queen’ is on the album, but didn’t appear in the ABBAMania show. It was from their own TV show, Miami 7, where they performed it in the episode ‘Bermuda Triangle’, which saw them sailing in a boat through the Bermuda Triangle and ending up back in time in the ’70s.

Finally on the album, but not on the show, is The Corrs cover of ‘The Winner Takes It All’. I don’t know the backstory behind this one, but this version is AWFUL, and I say this as someone who prefers Andrea Corr’s cover of ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ to the original. This version of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is so feeble and drippy, it’s a John Lewis advert cover before we had them. The only difference between this and the John Lewis advert covers actually makes it even worse, as there’s a tacky, unsuitable electrodance beat in it. In partial defence, it’s hard to do that song well. Saara Aalto in last years X Factor is probably the ONLY time anyone has done a good cover version of ‘The Winner Takes It All’.

It might have been nice to see Ash on here. They did once do a gig with nothing but ABBA covers.

Many things on the programme were stuff you’d expect. It had the usual factoids. “ABBA are Sweden’s second biggest export after Volvo cars” etc. The usual comments about the weird outfits and the videos you’d see on stuff like Top Of The Pops 2, such as wondering what the giant snowman in the ‘Chiquitita’ video is doing now, and the usual stuff like singing in your bedroom in front of the mirror using hairbrushes as microphones.

While this ABBAmania show was far from great, all of the versions on it aren’t as good as the originals, it is a lot better than most shows of its type, and it had a few good moments. Even if it gave us nothing else, I’ll always appreciate it a little for giving us the Denise Van Outen version of ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’.

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