Tag Archives: 1982

43 – Abba: The Day Before You Came

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I’ll tell you a story about Abba. Far from the sunny, happy foursome that grinned from my Dad’s album covers, I actually thought they were a bit rude when I was a kid. The most played album of all was Greatest Hits Volume 2, which contained so many of those gleaming popjets d’art that define their incredible sound: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Knowing me knowing you’, ‘Gimme gimme gimme’. It was a car staple, a constant loop. And every time we got to the final strains of ‘Chiquitita’ (a sort of bierkeller, clash-glasses, slap-knees schlager fadeout) I used to get a pit in my stomach. I knew that the next track was about to leave a trail of mess all over the speakers.  Even now, I have an irrational hatred of ‘Summer Night City’. I don’t think many people would consider it a peak – though it went Top 5 in the UK, even Bjorn has admitted it’s ‘really lousy’ – but while its clog-heavy disco thud is a bit annoying, I’m not sure I could find anyone who actually blanches on hearing that first, clashing chord. It wasn’t the music that was the issue with me as a child anyway. No, it was the fact that Abba were singing about…coitus.

Well, that’s the last thing you want to have to encounter with your parents present, even if you’re sitting in the back of the car. You do everything to change the subject. Only you can’t when the tape is playing, and asking it to be fast forwarded is just giving it even more attention than it deserves. So my solution was to talk – to chatter incessantly – through the entire track. About anything that wasn’t coitus. Butterflies. Athletics. Stamp Collecting. Ah, I used to think, thank God ‘I Wonder’s round the corner. Bet you never thought you’d hear that. Of course, when I grew up, and the internet happened, and lyrics became searchable, I finally laid to rest the mystery of ‘Summer Night City’. The line is not ‘fucking in the moonlight’, but ‘walking in the moonlight’ (though you can see how I jumped to the wrong conclusion when it’s followed by ‘love-making in the park’). You still won’t find it on my playlist though.

Still, as a lover of Abba more generally (and who isn’t?), it’s their ambiguities that always intrigue me most. And by that I don’t mean the clichéd conjectures about wife-swapping that invariably dog lazy commentary on the group. It’s the music, stupid. Yes it’s big and shiny –still possibly the most brilliant studio production in the pop canon, in the true sense of that word – but the sheen is so frequently misleading. What I hear more than anything is unabashed longing. Listen to a few Abba songs back to back and you might be startled by the number of sighs and shrugs among the high-on-life harmonies. Abba are champagne pop. They bubble and fizz, and the giddy foam overruns the glass; but while the first few glasses are warm and tingly, there’ll be tears later and hangovers in the morning. At midnight, it’s ‘Dancing Queen’, shimmying onto the floor in a cascade of multi-tracked grand pianos, or ‘Take a chance on me’, flirty and determined; hungry eyes across the room. There’s even some superior early-hours chillout: an unexpectedly dramatic country-pop epic, ‘Eagle’ (Abba do Fleetwood Mac and beat them at their own game), and ‘The name of the game’, whose introduction is the sound of bedroom lights going off and stockings being shed (though judging by the video it could just as easily be the sound of someone dealing the cards for another round of rummy). All of these jewels come from Abba’s sales peak, the years 1976-78, when they had hit after hit all over the world (even America) and seemed the very paragon of pop; ambassadors for the lovingly crafted single, sometimes daft, sometimes even a bit weird, but seldom anything other than feel-good and endorphin-rich. Then the seventies turned into the eighties; leaves began to brown and roses fade. There was to be payback: Abba were to get sad. And my oh my, does any classic pop band do sad with so much…sadness?

To be fair, the melancholy had always been there, lurking in the speakers. Sweden’s all light in the summer, all sunny sparkle; but even that is tempered by the knowledge that winter is going to be sometimes crushingly dark (‘Summer Night City’, I grudgingly concede for the purpose of example, is a tribute to Stockholm’s 11pm sunsets and 3am sunrises, but it doesn’t sound remotely happy about it). One of Abba’s earliest hits, 1975’s ‘S.O.S.’, is a masterpiece of pop bipolarity, lurching from desperate verses to powerhouse choruses as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And in 1977, Abba spent five weeks at number one with ‘Knowing me knowing you’, a song so operatically sad-happy – thrilling major-key choruses and triumphant guitar solos picking through the spoils of separation – that they had to remake Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the video (don’t you think Frida looks uncannily like Julianne Moore too?) But in 1980, the weather changed for good. Both couples were either divorced or about to be, and their songs became a sort of public talking cure. Even the more upbeat numbers on the Super Trouper album are wistful (the rather adult Rive Gaucherie of ‘Our Last Summer’) or downright neurotic (‘Lay all your love on me’ is one of the angriest disco records you’ll ever hear: banks of synthesizers like a stack of furrowed brows). ‘Super Trouper’ itself may have a fairground bounce in its step, but it’s really about fame fatigue; a sighting of Frida’s lover will ‘prove to [her] she’s still alive’ (check out its more radical cousin, ‘I’m a marionette’, a nightmare ode to stage fright). ‘Super Trouper’s verses also share their chord sequence with ‘The winner takes it all’, which is perhaps the greatest example of Abba chiaroscuro. A tour-de-force of extended metaphor in which marital discord is miraculously translated into major-key defiance, ‘Winner’ deploys a battery of sweeteners to help the medicine go down. That leap of a seventh in the main chorus melody, the sound of heartbreak trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps; the grand piano, octaving and trilling, keys smiling in the gloom; but then, oh then, the break in Agnetha’s voice as she comes to shake her adversary’s hand, the questions hovering hesitantly on her lips (‘Does it feel the same when she calls your name?) Kissed on the left cheek, slapped on the right; Abba don’t half put us through the mill.

But they saved the darkest till last. ‘The day before you came’ was released in late 1982, a year on from 1981’s sombre farewell album The Visitors. The Visitors is the critics’ favourite Abba, the album least dogged by misguided pastiches and bouts of whimsy. It updates the story of ‘Winner takes it all’s jilted wife in poignant pop-reggae (‘One of us’, their last ever top ten hit), muses on death to the ticking of a metronomic clock (‘Like an angel passing through my room’), and, believe it or not, even stages a Cold War psychodrama (‘The Visitors’ itself). But Abba’s leftfield turn into anxiety and paranoia wasn’t finished yet. ‘The day before you came’ really is a complete curveball. It bombed on original release; the Blancmange cover version actually sold more copies. But gradually, over time, it’s become a fan favourite, and a proper piece of pop mythology. I bet you didn’t know that it came in at number six in the NME’s ‘greatest pop songs of all time’ survey; that’s light years ahead of ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Fernando’.  

Its sparseness is the first thing that strikes the ear. Where most of the great Abba arrangements are poster-paint, Spector-esque affairs, ‘The day before you came’ is a black outline with a few tints to highlight it; if The Human League had proclaimed themselves ‘the electronic Abba’ over the previous year, then the four-piece were responding in kind with their own unique take on minimalist synth-pop. As Agnetha sings her first lines, we immediately realise that she is going to tell us a story: ‘I must have left the house at eight, because I always do / My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due’. OK, so this is a day in the life: Paul McCartney woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across his head; Agnetha woke up, read the paper, and made her desk ‘around a quarter after nine’. Except she keeps having to reassure us that she’s remembering it all correctly, that the details tally. ‘I must…’, ‘I’m certain’, ‘no doubt’, ‘I’m pretty sure’: virtually every line is appended by such qualifications. By the time the first verse is over, I’m pretty sure I’m listening to a witness statement. Or else a woman who has just awoken from a coma and can’t quite recall the run-up.

The dolorous minor-key music doesn’t help here (or in fact, it does; it helps layer the song with creeping dread, even fear). Vaporous backing vocals swirl in and out of the mix like fog around a streetlamp, sometimes flashing a glimmer, elsewhere retreating into the dark. Baroque keyboard lines shimmy around the root chord, emphasising its determination not to waver from the minor. Agnetha goes on enumerating the most banal details, all still in that mysterious past tense (‘I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two’) but begins to offer some clue as to her motives (‘And at the time I never even noticed I was blue’). It’s at the moment that she sings ‘Without really knowing anything I hid a part of me away’ that you begin to think the ‘you’ in the title must (‘must’!) almost certainly be a lover, someone who has saved her from meals for one and solitary cups of coffee in the works canteen. If a lover, then why so on the brink of despair? Why does it sound like she can barely keep it together? They have split up, clearly, and she’s trying to think of how she functioned before they met in the first place. Yes, that’s what it must be. She’s remembering how life was back then in order to regain her life in the here and now. ‘Before’, she was somnambulating through her schedule; now, she finds herself doing the same. The day before is the same as the day after. And the day after that. The backing track moves on, metronomically, never relenting; almost funereal.

And there’s the rub. You see, there are many people who think this song is actually not about a relationship at all, but about death. There are all sorts of fanciful theories out there (the internet is awash with pop conspiracists). Some take the line that the lover has died, and she is actually coping with grief. Others think that she has been murdered and is singing from beyond the grave. Indeed, it does feel like she is almost stalking or haunting herself, tracking the movements of the person she once was. If you subscribe to this view (creepy when you think that Agnetha herself did have a real life stalker at one point), the last verse becomes almost unbearably spooky, as the heroine makes her way home, ‘stop[ping] along the way to buy some Chinese food to go’, then sits alone watching Dallas (stabs of staccato synth suggesting there’s a shadow rising behind her) before retiring to her bed to read a bit of Marilyn French (Why on earth would she be reading French? This Hitchcock blonde is a feminist into the bargain…) The last thing she hears, and indeed that we hear from her, is the rattling of rain on the roof, before the ghostly backing vox (sounding more and more like a horror-movie theremin with each refrain) and diminished chords furrow, flicker and fade gradually into silence. Definitely plausible.

But what do I hear? Well, for me, this is a song about very adult things, but not the things you think. No, this is a song about disappointment. Agnetha has had a brief affair, maybe even a one-night stand; the video certainly makes it plain that sex has taken place, but that for whatever reason the relationship simply cannot continue. This may have been the defining thing in her life. She may never get another chance. That instrument used to such devastating effect in ‘The winner takes it all’ – the break in the voice that lets you know that tears are welling within – is crushingly sad, as are all those candid details about needing a lot of sleep and liking to be in bed by ten. You just want to give her a big hug. But in a grown-up world where work-life balance is skewed in favour of the former, and the only mates she seems to have are the ‘usual bunch’ she meets for lunch, it just may not be possible for her life to get any better or brighter. Gosh, Ibsen couldn’t really have done it any better. As for the song-video combination on this one, forget Bergman. If the song is about meeting your maker, well, this one could play The Seventh Seal at chess on a beach and win hands down.

And ultimately the song is also about Abba themselves. ‘Turning out the light, I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night’, cries Agnetha at the end. And this was indeed what happened, as legend would have it; the last thing they ever recorded, Agnetha putting her headphones down and walking out of the darkened studio into the daylight, never to return. It’s a bit fanciful; they did of course do promotion for the song on television, and it wasn’t even the last single to be released – that honour went to the chirpier ‘Under Attack’. But I do wonder whether this song’s musing on mundanity is a projection, even a prediction. Post-Abba, life may be all custom calls and in-trays, railway timetables and TV schedules. It will certainly be private, even reclusive (much has been made of the visible copy of Garbo’s biography in the ‘One of us’ video, as if Agnetha had planted it to indicate her growing preference for anonymity; ‘The day before you came’ added to the growing mystique). Whatever the case, life post-Abba would be miserable. As indeed I imagine it was.

See, Abba’s ambiguities go on and on. This is the longest of my blog posts by far, trapped as I am in the Abba labyrinth. If only I’d known this song back in the days when ‘Summer Night City’ blared out of my Dad’s Volvo speakers. I could have talked incessantly as ever over the rude bits, and only got round to my interpretation of the first verse of Agnetha’s sorrowful Schwanengesang. There is always more to spare. There’s always another listen. Undoubtedly you’ll always want to hear this song again: The day before you came.

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27 – Madness: Our House

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This week I’ve been rereading Howards End. It’s one of my very favourite novels, and now I’m getting to teach it for the first time. I don’t love it uncritically; the class issues cause me problems just as they have other readers, and I still fail to see what the Wilcoxes really have going for them. But E.M. Forster is such an avuncular writer, so well-meaning in tone, so ready to sweeten his criticism with a restatement of faith, that it’s impossible not to love him. He’s one of the great English liberal humanists, and a minor hero of mine.

One of the chief glories of the novel is its wisdom on matters of English domesticity: the extraordinary spiritual attachment people have to their houses. I’m not sure it’s something that exists so markedly in the fictions of other cultures. Much classic American writing is fixated with planting roots and building walls, but even the most sentimental of homebodies always has one eye on the speedometer or a suppressed yearning for the interstate. Great German novels are often pervaded by the romantic outsider; classic French and Russian fiction also seems to abound in the adrift and the rebellious. But ask a lover of great English writing and the chances are they will remember bricks and mortar as much as flesh: Pemberley, Thornfield, Manderley, Brideshead, 22b Baker Street. And it’s not just the high-class residences. Switch to TV, and the humble terrace takes on timeless resonances. If Granada decided to move with the times and demolish Coronation Street – and let’s face it, how can it still be standing, now in 2012? – the public outcry would be nothing less than murder. Windows are eyes; letterboxes are mouths; fireplaces are beating hearts.  An Englishman’s home is his castle. It’s still a powerful trope. Some pillocks take it literally of course, and invoice taxpayers for their moats; clearly there are bastilles to be stormed. But in this house-obsessed nation of ours, your armchair is your throne.

In the early 1980s, the Conservative government presided over a mass sell-off of public housing. “Property-owning democracy” was the buzz-phrase of the day. My grandparents were part of that vanguard. Liberated by Thatcher, they exercised the right to buy from Sunderland City Council, and upgraded their redbrick semi with rickety extensions and breakfast bars.  Mrs T certainly knew how much people fetishised their four walls. I imagine you’ve seen that clip of her pruning the roses outside her Home Counties pile, while Denis mows the lawn; that was her initial shtick, you see – the national economy as household debit and credit. Some of this came through in the recent Iron Lady movie, which had its moments (even for this old leftie); but what I couldn’t countenance was the trailer. There, in full cinema surround, was Madness’s divine ‘Our House’, accompanying images of Thatcher’s heels shuffling down the parliamentary corridor. The period was right, at least, but was this a rather forced pun on Commons and Lords?

It’s not the first time that Madness have been politicised against their own grain. Their early ska-based material, not to mention their DMs and Ben Sherman combos, excited the interest of racist skinheads.  I’ve always wondered how on earth a band with such a love of black music could be co-opted for bigotry, but then, I wasn’t alive in those times and am baffled by lots of these seemingly bizarre social contradictions. What I do love is their rejoinder. ‘Embarrassment’ is quite simply one of the finest singles by a British band, ever. The saxophonist’s sister becomes pregnant with a mixed-race child; her family disowns her, declaring her to be ‘a disgrace to the human race’. The irony of their comments is lost on them, but there is an irony more delicious for the listener, as the track is animated by a propulsive Motown swing. By the end, you realise that the final line, ‘You’re an embarrassment’, is directed at the family; they are the disgrace, and the groove has been used to judge them.

Madness aren’t really known for serious social commentary, though. For many, they’re all about silly videos, that formation street-walk, and ‘one step beyond’ party mixes. I guess these things are irritating to some people; I can’t think why. You never get a sense of cynicism from those early singles and their attendant videos. In fact, it’s really all joy, the fearlessness of youth, the sound of kids in the sweetshop: welcome to the house of fun indeed. Some of it is giddy in a too-much-squash sort of way, and yet a proper listen to their run of singles reveals a remarkable degree of musical fluency and intelligence. Mike Barson knows all about the power of the piano octave run and the tinkling arpeggio. Their grin-inducing cover of ‘It must be love’, and the early highlight ‘My girl’ (can I hear a bit of wonky proto-‘Ashes to Ashes’ in there?) are buoyed and bounced by Barson’s keys; joanna in excelsis. There are some surprising little vanguardist flecks in unlikely quarters too. Disentangle ‘Driving in my car’ from its Kwik-Fit fitter pasticherie, and it doesn’t half sound like Prokofiev. Honestly.

Out of all the British pop groups to come out of the late seventies New Wave, only Ian Dury’s Blockheads could match Madness for versatility, polish and joie-de-vivre. It’s something to do with them being a kind of family, rather than a band. Yes, I know they all fell out sometime in 1984, but while they were on top of their game, you really could imagine them all living together in a Camden terrace, zigzagging their way down to the caff for a full English, and writing song lyrics on the back of HP-sauce-blotched paper napkins. This is how I like to imagine ‘Our House’ was composed; their magnum opus, hatched out over rindless back bacon and sweet builders’ tea. Suggs, can you help me out?

‘Our house’ bagged Madness an Ivor Novello award in 1983 for best song, and to my mind it’s the perfect English pop symphony. Behind each anonymous door, on each identikit brick-built row of nondescript houses, lie lifetimes of quiet disappointment and rueful nostalgia. Yet there might, just might, be the possibility of stability, satisfaction and love too. It’s never one thing or the other; living as a family is a constant state of unknowing. The song celebrates this dichotomy. You get affirmations of familial excitement – there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite loud – but then there’s also the nagging feeling that in the past “everything was true” and “nothing could come between us, two dreamers”. It’s the worry that life is speeding up, the choices are closing down, and the dangers of rosy-tintage are looming behind the couch. This is universal stuff, of course; even America loved it (it remains Madness’s only top ten hit over there). But it’s also unmistakeably working-class English. Its message is that this may only be two-up two-down and no garden but it’s home. It’s where we fill in the pools on a Saturday. Where we argue with our parents over long-haired rebels on Top of the Pops.  Where we return to on a Friday night after a skinful at the Jolly Potter. Where we rustle up a cheese and onion toastie after said skinful. Where we sleep and dream and wake up with a stinking hangover (and a noise in our heads not unlike the whirling Blackpool organs of ‘House of fun’). ‘Our house’ is a celebration of that whole life, but it also seems to be questioning how long it has left to run. Those lush Tchaikovsky-esque strings remind us that normal English houses can be dramatic too. They’re not all stasis and boredom. But there’s a real ache to them; it’s those minor chords that slot so easily and sweepingly into the irresistible chord sequence. Is this actually a lament for blue-collar Britain? I do wonder. Suggs as Morrissey? Well, not quite, but this is ambiguous writing.

Still, despite these traces, the overriding thrust of ‘Our House’ is affirmative, and the sparky brilliance of the arrangement and the production see it wrestle its demons and beat them hands down. For me, it really is a kind of home, in so many ways. We used to sing the song at primary school in the playground, reworking the words to fit a silly little formula: “our house, in the middle of our street, in the middle of our town, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the Earth, in the middle of the Galaxy, in the middle of my fridge, in the middle of our…” – you get the drift. Many years later, when I was in a band myself, we played the Dublin Castle in Camden. I was rather nervous, as I sometimes was (remedied too often by an extra pint before the set), but then happened to see a poster of Madness on the wall. At the time, I had no idea that the pub had been their base back in the early days; that it’s the backdrop of the ‘My Girl’ video, no less. Now, I feel rather cheered that we were part of a little continuity there, however small. I sometimes wish we’d covered a Madness number (one of the lovely album tracks from  The Rise and Fall perhaps). You see, just like E.M. Forster, the magnificent seven are minor heroes of mine. Perhaps I might even get to teach my students about the joys of nutty boy dancing one day; and if not, next time I’m in the Dublin Castle I’ll be raising a glass and setting the jukebox to those sweeping strings and singalong choruses.

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