Aranjuez, or Adventures With ABBA On Vinyl

Aranjuez is a village less than an hour south of Madrid, where old-age Spanish royals kept summer palaces and people grew strawberries and asparagus. I know it as the place where things from my childhood go to die.

My family has a summer / weekend place in the centre of town, where my mother grew up. On Friday evenings we loaded my father’s car with more things any family of five could possibly make use of for a fortnight, let alone a couple of days, and dashed off down the highway around the Vicente Calderón football stadium, zig-zagging along the Tajo river with baskets between our legs. And all the way I would listen to my walkman — always a worn, beaten ABBA cassette clinging to structural integrity by the thinnest of threads.

In a remarkably short time even for an 11-year old gay boy, I had made my family so nauseously sick of ABBA that I was only allowed to listen to them through headphones. At low volume. Preferably inside a vault.

I didn’t mind because I was always wearing headphones and listening to ABBA. I listened to many other things, but ABBA made me the happiest by far, and so I kept coming back to them. And for many years I didn’t know why, because these were times well before that awful Mamma Mia film and nobody was playing their music anywhere. I only really found out about them because I used to hide from the world in record stores and once I went into the VIPS store in Serrano and they were playing Take A Chance On Me, and it was the most joyful thing I had ever heard; I was too shy to speak to a salesperson so I just meandered through the aisles pretending to browse for CDs and listening to half of what turned out to be their greatest hits compilation. And because this was 1992 and I was eleven and I had no money, I had to wait for months until Christmas rolled around to get my first ABBA record.

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Not these. These are fridge magnets.

Now I know why ABBA shut out the bad noise from outside better than anything else. When I was younger I was sad nearly all the time and all the edges were rough and jagged, and at the end of each day I would take a deep breath and while in bed, or while taking the dog for a walk, I would put on my headphones and listen to four Swedes, one Norwegian-born, and so many times it felt like it was the only thing I had that was right. I daydreamed of a life with lines that were smooth and simple, with soft waves instead of edges, and there you go — that’s (Almost) Every ABBA Song. Even towards the end when they got introspective and cranky at each other and wrote songs about murder.

For years, every time I would pass by a record store I would go in and search for old ABBA records. I was luckiest at flea markets, and after my parents got me a turntable one year for Christmas, the only vinyls I ever bought were theirs. I had a few really old singles – a copy of Knowing Me, Knowing You that I found in Paris and I had to hide from my mother because the sleeve looked so beat up and dirty she would have made me throw it away on family health grounds. My favourite was an original copy of their 1975 album, which in an astonishing display of creativity they have titled ABBA and which had the old cursive band logo before they did the bit with the inverted B.

Which leads me to Aranjuez. Where things from my childhood go to die. My stories always have a point.

My parents, like most parents out there, appear to suffer from a sort of crippling, neurotic guilt about disposing of their kids’ stuff when they move out. It’s just stuff taking up a lot of space! goes the head; it’s the delicate, caducous life force of our bond of love! says the heart, and in the confusion they end up throwing your stuffed bear into an incinerator and holding on to your old vaccine records. My folks have found the perfect way to deal with the fate of childhood mementos in four magic words:

“It is in Aranjuez.”

Your guitar which you played since you were five until you left the country is in Aranjuez. Your old books which you bought with your pocket money are in Aranjuez. Your stuffed bear was thrown into an incinerator but your vinyls are in Aranjuez.

I haven’t been to their summer place in many years, but last time I was there I could swear I saw none of those things. Between you and I, I don’t think they are in Aranjuez at all. In fairness, they may be – my parents have an astonishing, Harry Potter-like ability to manifest long-lost items no other mortal would be capable of even conceiving (It’s just that they are almost always very odd things to keep, such as last time when they handed me my old psychological evaluations from primary school and I really should have never read those).

Anyway. Better not to dig too deep into Aranjuez and all it represents. Now I am an adult and I am having a great time roaming for ABBA vinyls once again. Some things just aren’t meant to be listened to in digital.

Yesterday I went to the record store to pick a copy of The Visitors. Their best album, as an album. The man at the counter pointed at the box set with all nine studio albums on vinyl. It’s much cheaper, he said, and easier. I said I wanted to buy them one by one, bit by bit, like I did when I was little – and I thought, back when edges were jagged and I saved all my pocket money for soft waves.

He smiled, handed me my record, and said, “That’s the best way to do it.”