ABBA

Showing 31 posts tagged ABBA

The Day Before You Came (1982, Single)

The final song ABBA recorded was released as a single – by then, mid-1982, not many cared, and “The Day Before You Came” struggled for chart attention. By 2010, when ITV ran a schedule-filling show called The Nation’s Favourite ABBA Song, only “Dancing Queen” and “The Winner Takes It All” rated higher. There is something about this long, strange, monotonous, chorus-free ABBA song which gets to people. Me too – when “The Day Before You Came” landed at #3 on that junk ITV chart I punched the air and yelled.

The conceit of “The Day Before You Came” is simple and could be rather sweet – Pulp used it on “Something Changed”, and I think a couple of other people have. It’s about trying to remember what life was like before you met your lover (OR IS IT HER LOVER) (let’s assume it is for now). The lyrics reconstruct a typical day – tentatively, because life has changed so much now the singer can hardly remember the her that used to be. She eats Chinese food, watches Dallas, smokes, hangs out with colleagues, and works enviably European hours. Then everything changes.

As I say, sweet maybe. Except as anyone who’s heard it would tell you “The Day Before You Came” isn’t sweet at all. It’s horrifying. Agnetha sounds bereaved – the world she’s left, and is singing about, is obviously beyond recovery, and there’s a longing in her voice sometimes as she recounts even the most banal details. And in case you think you’re imagining that, in place of the chorus there’s a series of ghostly choral howls, wordless cries filled with sorrow. This isn’t some accident, or a production trick gone wrong: the song was recorded with the lights out in the studio, and the mood was sombre. Because, as observers said, the group was ending and they all knew it? Surely, but the record they were making can’t have been blameless. They knew the effect they were going for.

So what on earth is going on here? Why does “You Came” seem to equate with emotional disaster? What is the nature of the catastrophe?

Is it violent? One song “The Day Before You Came” reminds me of is “Past, Present And Future” by The Shangri-Las, a stunning and horrible record that’s one of the most emotionally gut-twisting things in 60s (or any) pop. The singer in “Past, Present And Future” is traumatised, and fills a melodramatic girl group songform with her pain until the listener – or this listener, anyway – flinches. The Shangri-La’s song isn’t explicit about the nature of what’s happened, but is far more open about the shattering effects. I’m left fairly certain that what I’m hearing about is violence, quite possibly sexual violence.

Some people have speculated similar things about “The Day Before You Came” – is it a murderer, not a lover, who awaits the singer tomorrow? But while the song doesn’t completely close off this possibility it does nothing to encourage it. Unlike “Past, Present And Future” the song isn’t about after-effects, it’s about loss: an utterly ordinary lifestyle which turns out to be something worth mourning.

Why? Well, let’s remember what ABBA spend a lot of their late records singing about – and touched on all through their career: adult choices that turn out wrong (“One Of Us”, “Should I Laugh Or Cry”), and romance as a loss of independence (“Under Attack”, “Lay All Your Love On Me”). Falling in love, in ABBA-land, is a very high-risk activity indeed. And so it is here.

The key detail, for me, is the singer’s choice of reading: “The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style”. In 1982 French hadn’t written many books, and her only famous one was feminist novel The Women’s Room, which became a blockbuster – it was on my mother’s bookshelf, and several of her friends. French’s book is about women’s independence and autonomy – hard-fought, worth celebrating, worth defending.

(When Blancmange covered “The Day Before You Came” in 1983 they changed “Marilyn French” to prolific, ultra-conservative UK romance novelist “Barbara Cartland”, probably the most tin-eared bit of lyrical adaption in pop history.)

So reading Marilyn French slots into the rest of the singer’s life and positions her in a way we immediately get – she’s an ordinary, professional woman, a feminist, and independent: she’s what “Hey Hey Helen” called “a modern woman of today”. And like in other ABBA songs, this is what she’s about to risk and lose – love as a threat to autonomy.

Which puts the other really important lines in a new light. “It’s funny, but I had no sense of living without aim / the day before you came”. I’ve seen an explanation of TDBYC which says, well, it’s sad because she’s remembering how boring and pointless her life used to be. And taken at face value that’s what these lines are pointing to. But Agnetha doesn’t sing them at face value – I think she sings them as a rebuke, her “without aim” more sarcastic than wide-eyed. Because who’s more likely to think a woman’s life is aimless before a man comes along – the woman or the man?

Is all this a stretch? Maybe – in other parts of the song the words point in happier directions – “without really knowing I hid a part of me away”. Anything’s a stretch with this record, which is what makes it so enduring and interesting. Lyrical analysis of pop can be a fool’s game, but here the music provides an answer and the words are a riddle – how do you get to how a record feels from what it says? Perhaps you can’t: feelings are complicated, and this is a pop song which feels ambiguous and complex like a person does, as high a compliment as you can offer.

The History Book On The Shelf
In 1995 the UK pop magazine Melody Maker gave away a free book, called Unknown Pleasures. It gave writers the opportunity to rant, froth and hosanna about albums they felt we ought to listen to and probably hadn’t. The book - much sought-after on eBay - feels in memory like the last stand (in print) of a particular tradition in British pop writing. I’ve lost count of the number of British pop bloggers - friends and foes alike - who’ve mentioned it.
The book was effective as hell. I ended up tracking down every record in it, loving more than a few. Bits and pieces of the essays are immovable parts of my mental furniture - Paul Lester on Chic, Chris Roberts on Dexys’, and of course Taylor Parkes’ essay on ABBA’s The Visitors (page 2, page 3, page 4). Before reading it I’d been incurious about ABBA - I had a double cassette of hits (ABBA: The First Ten Years) and my childhood memories, and I felt that was as much as I needed. After reading it I knew I was a fan.
Reading it again - I think for the first time in 15 years - it’s different from what I remember. Parkes’ descriptions of the record are calligraphic - thick, emotional strokes which I’ve since filled up and in with everything musical I came to know about it. This is how pop writing used to work, and never can again: you read a piece before you heard a record, and it was a kind of spell or ritual, creating the music in your mind and - if you were lucky - the music you heard would bring that to life. But the head music came first. High-res

The History Book On The Shelf

In 1995 the UK pop magazine Melody Maker gave away a free book, called Unknown Pleasures. It gave writers the opportunity to rant, froth and hosanna about albums they felt we ought to listen to and probably hadn’t. The book - much sought-after on eBay - feels in memory like the last stand (in print) of a particular tradition in British pop writing. I’ve lost count of the number of British pop bloggers - friends and foes alike - who’ve mentioned it.

The book was effective as hell. I ended up tracking down every record in it, loving more than a few. Bits and pieces of the essays are immovable parts of my mental furniture - Paul Lester on Chic, Chris Roberts on Dexys’, and of course Taylor Parkes’ essay on ABBA’s The Visitors (page 2, page 3, page 4). Before reading it I’d been incurious about ABBA - I had a double cassette of hits (ABBA: The First Ten Years) and my childhood memories, and I felt that was as much as I needed. After reading it I knew I was a fan.

Reading it again - I think for the first time in 15 years - it’s different from what I remember. Parkes’ descriptions of the record are calligraphic - thick, emotional strokes which I’ve since filled up and in with everything musical I came to know about it. This is how pop writing used to work, and never can again: you read a piece before you heard a record, and it was a kind of spell or ritual, creating the music in your mind and - if you were lucky - the music you heard would bring that to life. But the head music came first.

The Visitors (Cracking Up) (1981, The Visitors)

The greatest of ABBA’s political songs, about a dissident in an Eastern Bloc state being visited by what we assume are the secret police. This is, musically, the group’s most ambitious track - dramatic synth flourishes springing from a backdrop of drones, disco pulses, raga influences and Frida’s lurching, deliberately unnerving vocal line. I can’t think of any other pop song which sounds like this.

Some ABBA Songs I’m Not Going To Have Time To Write About Properly

If you specially asked for one of these, I’m sorry!

  • "Hole In Your Soul" (I had nothing much to say about it anyway)
  • "When All Is Said And Done" (Rueful but sympathetic divorcepop, asked for by more than one person and a MASSIVE fan favourite)
  • "Ring Ring" (The creative breakthrough before the commercial one)
  • "Dancing Queen" (Mid-70s single, you might know it)
  • "Summer Night City" (The ‘great lost ABBA single’, it will remain so)
  • "My Love, My Life" (Hankies out)
  • "When I Kissed The Teacher" (I love this one)
  • "Elaine" (Yet another interesting late B-Side, this time trying Noo Wave)
  • "Angeleyes" (ABBA’s autopilot is better than most bands’ etc etc)

And all the others. Still a post or two to go, but I’ll take this opportunity to say thankyou for the likes, reblogs, eyeballs, et al. and thankyou to Hendrik for letting me play in his sandpit again. It’s been, as ever, an awful lot of fun.

Chiquitita (1979, Voulez-Vous)

One of the stranger things about ABBA is how self-contained they are: they hardly ever wrote songs for anyone else, and almost nobody covered them. Most cover versions of ABBA are on themed tribute albums – there’s a metal one, a rather amazing Bollywood one, and a ghastly late 90s pop one. It’s unusual for other pop stars to just cover an ABBA song in the usual run of things – perhaps they’re too encrusted with 70s or Mamma Mia! Baggage.

There’s one great exception, though: this Sinead O’Connor reading of “Chiquitita”. ABBA’s original has the seeds of her version in it but it’s also full of sadness and foreboding – a real dread at the truth Chiquitita has to tell, as well as a sincere desire for her to tell it. (What that truth is is not hinted at – for all the healing stomp of its chorus “Chiquitita” is an early ABBA experiment in emotional non-resolution, a forerunner of “The Day Before You Came”)

O’Connor’s version simply zeroes in on the friendship the singer has for Chiquitita – there’s no fear, just immense open-hearted sympathy. In the video you have a Chiquitita’s eye-view of Sinead making you a cup of tea, nodding in understanding, and so on – it’s one of the warmest records I know.

You Owe Me One (1982, CD Bonus Track)

I was delighted someone picked this unheralded latterday B-Side for me to write about. It’s chirpy in a tightly-wound, slightly forced way, Agnetha and Frida’s vocals spring-loaded and stacatto. The core of the song is the “go to the Bahamas” part, complete with swoons – the only time the singers break out of the arrangement’s jostle and soar: but then it’s back to the tautly arranged cut and thrust, a desire for escape tidily brushed away with a brisk “yes-I-really-do.”

What I found really interesting was my selector*’s suggestion that this is what ABBA might have sounded like if they hadn’t broken up in 1982. I can see what he meant - just as they found their own path through disco, there’s a glimpse of a route through electro here, a way for them to come to terms with 80s pop and stay ABBA. It would also have fitted with the other very late tracks that eventually saw release - “Under Attack” and “I Am The City” are both trying for a kind of pop with a very intricate surface, playing with overlapping melody lines and multi-tracked vocals, starting to downplay the emphasis on the big chorus. There’s the tantalising suggestion in “I Am The City” of some sort of Kraftwerk/Beach Boys crossover…

What we do know is that after the split Benny and Bjorn didn’t seem to think “You Owe Me One” - or any of the others - was an interesting direction. They returned to their dreams of the stage and made Chess, and Opus 10 - the projected final LP - became another entry in the daydream gallery of might-have-been albums.

*OK it was Matthew Perpetua - hi Matthew!

King Kong Song (1974, Waterloo)

My most-played ABBA song on Last.FM isn’t “Dancing Queen” or “Waterloo”. It’s not “The Visitors” or “The Day Before You Came” either. It’s this, a song that people who’ve bothered to dig in to the ABBA albums catalogue sometimes hold up as proof that you shouldn’t bother. But “King Kong Song” – surely written, as it admits, late at night after seeing the film on TV – is a fantastic good time.

Why?

  • The girls’ backing shriek after “mighty killer”
  • Even their obvious knock-offs have brilliant hooks
  • It rocks considerably harder than most of the times they were trying to
  • It has the dance instruction: “Let your arms hang down / And waddle all around!”
  • That joyful blurt of guitar after “gorilla”
  • It is a Law Of Rock that no song about King Kong can be bad.

Nobody makes records like this anymore, certainly not for adult consumption – it’s possible the Wiggles or someone do, but I bet they’re not as good. Also, this was the side of ABBA Europeans really dug at the time: once ABBA sold out to the critics and got serious there were several groups (like the excellent Luv’ from Holland) keen to keep the bubblegum vibe going.

Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) (1979, Single)

Like most One Week One Bands, the list of things I wanted to write about far exceeds the list of things I have actually written about (there are a few entries to go tomorrow, including The Best ABBA Cover Version, What Would Have Happened If ABBA Had Not Split Up, WTF Is The Day Before You Came’s Problem, and King Kong Song: Threat Or Menace).

So I had intended to “tackle” the “question” of CHEESE and why things get dismissed as cheesy - which obviously happens to ABBA quite a lot. But I realise I don’t entirely know. I don’t have a very good cheese radar. I thought it just meant “corny” but there’s a load of stuff I dislike and find corny - slow Radiohead songs, Wayne Coyne’s voice, etc. - which I don’t think anyone (me included) would label cheesy. I was once an observer at a real actual focus group with a subset of The Kids taking about genres of music teenagers listened to, and they said that on the list ought to be “Cheese”. “What is cheese?” I asked and they shuffled their verbal feet and ended up basically sayingGrandad, if you have to ask you’ll never know.

Anyway this song is cheesy. And brilliant. If “Voulez Vous” was ABBA’s perfect absorbtion of the lessons of disco to create a gleaming Robo-ABBA, “Gimme Gimme Gimme” is that cyborg rejecting its machine parts and letting its humanity burst through. You hardly need me (or even Madonna) to tell you how great that riff is, or the chords backing up the chorus, or the ratcheting up of tension before the chorus, or… it’s everything grand and funny about ABBA, is the point.

It’s also about casual sex. There are a VAST number of disco, hi-NRG, etc. songs about that - most of them try and sound a bit seedy, adventurous maybe, like the sex everyone’s having is happening in some underworld fleshpot you’ve heard whisper of but aren’t actually in. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” isn’t like that, it’s uncool, but not in a “having casual sex is uncool” way, more in a “everyone has lots of casual sex these days, even the uncool people”. Which in 1979 may even have been true.