Tag Archives: synth-pop

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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18 – Depeche Mode: Enjoy the Silence

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I remember Christmas 1992 for one thing more than any other: it was the year that some guys came to attach a satellite dish to the front of our house, just to the left of my bedroom window. It seems quaint now, in the age of set-top boxes, EPGs and I-players, but back then it was a bold step into the broadcasting future. It heralded the increasing globalisation of communications (or at least, it revived my Dad’s interest in foreign languages, with its raft of tacky Italian game shows and German arts programmes). But for me, it was mainly thrilling because I got to see MTV for the first time.

MTV in 1993? Well, there was a lot of REM. This may have had something to do with my early love of that band: all those doomy black and white videos from the Automatic for the people era (‘Drive’, ‘Man on the moon’). There was David Bowie, with his new, gleaming dentistry and tailored suit (the unjustly forgotten ‘Jump they say’). And then there was a Depeche Mode special, timed to coincide with the release of their new album, Songs of Faith and Devotion. The lead single was ‘I feel you’. Another black and white video (my, were they popular in the 1990s – I blame Madonna’s ‘Vogue’).  I found it all a little scary, truth be told. Up to that point, the only Depeche Mode I’d heard was their dizzy 1981 hit ‘Just can’t get enough’; ‘I feel you’ was clanking, grinding and dirty, and I couldn’t square the bubblegum with the blood. Dave Gahan was doing Bono on smack; a personal Jesus with track-lines for stigmata. But the MTV special introduced me to the back catalogue that got him there: neoclassical gloom on ‘Little 15’, mulleted S & M on ‘Master and servant’, the sound of yuppies converting warehouses into penthouses (‘Everything counts’, probably the first industrial pop record to reach the UK Top 10). The one that got me in the chest though? Probably an easy guess; it’s the song that even professed Mode-haters grudgingly admit to liking. You know – the one with the king and the deckchair.

Anton Corbijn’s video for ‘Enjoy the silence’ is one of the very finest, I think; it’s safe to say this now that videos appear to have reverted to the ‘let’s put a singer in a room with dancers’ model. The scenario is very simple. Dave is a monarch, crowned and gowned, travelling the world with a fold-up seat under his arm. He has everything that anyone might covet – jewels, status, underlings (we imagine) – but all he wants is a quiet place to sit and watch the world in peace. We see him on the Portuguese Coast, watching the waves; in the Scottish Highlands, surveying a loch; traversing the Alps, a speck of regal red in the snow. It’s beautifully directed, and beautifully shot: saturated colours are interspersed with monochrome group shots, accenting the light / dark dynamics of the song, while also inferring that if being in a band is a bed of roses, it’s one in which thorns lurk. It’s clever too. King Dave only mimes one line of the lyric: ‘Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm’, a double irony when you realise that the mountains and cliffs can’t listen or answer back.

You’ll find another ‘Enjoy the silence’ video on Youtube, a lip-synched rendition from the top of the World Trade Centre. The implications of this in 2011 are vast, of course, though irrelevant to Depeche Mode in 1990. Back then, the Twin Towers performance signalled their true American breakthrough, the point at which they became beloved of misfit Europhiles the States over; indeed, ‘Enjoy the silence’ remains their only top ten hit on the other side of the Atlantic. The WTC video is a variation on the Corbijn theme. Both videos confront the sublime – that point at which the power of one’s surroundings creates a sense of dumbstruck awe – and seem to confirm that this is the song’s message. When you look at it like that, it could almost have been written by Wordsworth or Coleridge. Almost.

It’s borne out by many of the other songs on Violator, a record so good that Neil Tennant recalls being ‘deeply jealous of it’. Its key songs grapple with being a small thing in a big world, and try to cut that world down to size, try like William Blake to see eternity in a grain of sand. On the first track, Dave Gahan offers to ‘take you on a trip’, to show you ‘the world in [his] eyes’; on the epic, orchestrated electro-rock of ‘Halo’ (a truly gorgeous, wondrous thing it is too), he’s almost beckoning civilisation to collapse, willing himself into the paradox of feeling so small he’s huge; in ‘Personal Jesus’, we get a domesticated messiah, the sublime reincarnated in ‘flesh and bone by the telephone’ (though the irresistible swagger of the record hints at the Mode to come). Martin Gore’s lyrics excel at these tensions, these little clashes of ego and id. They’re not always subtle, but they have extraordinary power. It’s something that Dave Gahan himself has learnt, in his own belated songwriting; in my opinion, their best track of recent times is his own ‘Suffer Well’, so typically titled it might be a self-parody, but so expertly written and elegantly produced that it winds up being Depeche in excelsis.

Still, it doesn’t quite measure up to ‘Enjoy the silence’s strength and soul. It’s a record that contradicts itself again and again, is about contradiction. If you want to enjoy silence, you don’t write a song about it, least of all one which is so great it demands you hit repeat after every listen.  It’s big, beauteous, blessed music, which in 1990 silenced the band’s numerous critics, the hacks who thought Depeche Mode couldn’t write from the heart or were incapable of melody. The most contradictory thing of all, though, is the music itself. ‘Enjoy the silence’ comes from the New Order school of disco – electro-pop so melancholic that you just want to sway to it with your eyes closed. I wonder if those who took ecstasy to it in 1990 wept tears of joy as it stormed the floors; the pill has never passed my lips, but this song still makes me want to hug someone close amongst a sea of dancers. The verses pivot around a jolt: that first chord, C minor, rubs up against E flat minor, which is no friend, and you feel that ‘violence’ is indeed in the air. There’s trouble brewing, but the chorus works a little alchemy and brings the E flat major right on time for the word ‘arms’. You sink into security, fall into an embrace; the person you thought was going to nut you has ended up offering you a shoulder to cry on. This surprise never leaves the music; believe me, I’ve listened to it obsessively for years and that frown always creases into a smile. Nevertheless, the song never feels safe. It depends on friction; the grain of that sad, plaintive guitar hook against the silk of Flood’s elegant production, or that other unexpected chord, that leaves the song in alien territory on the word ‘harm’.

These are similar qualities to many of the songs I’ve lauded on this blog, but ‘Enjoy the silence’ moves me in a different way to The Supremes, or Robyn, or Rufus Wainwright. It’s not just the chord structure or the sheer beauty of the sound that gets me where it matters. It’s the fact that this is a record  sung by a heterosexual male which acknowledges the difficulty of being just that; a man who, like many, finds it hard to express himself, but in expressing this reaches a level of perfect eloquence. It’s a track that blurs the edges too. Dave Gahan’s dramatic baritone, one of the richest and manliest in pop, is complimented in the chorus by Martin Gore’s limpid, even slightly effeminate falsetto, a shiver-inducing little accent. It’s then that you realise he isn’t playing the straight male pig, but baring his soul, and trying to welcome the feminine in. Though his renditions are rather sweaty and breathless these days, to watch Gahan singing the song live at his prime is to see this embrace of vulnerability in action. He’s an undeniably handsome man, but except in his druggier days, a surprisingly shy, circumspect one. Forgive a sentimental queen like me for finding this almost claustrophobically sexy; yet another contradiction, given that the song is so expansive and cinematic.

‘Enjoy the silence’ is about escaping to the wilderness with the one you love; or dancing in a club where the music is so loud you can’t hear or speak; or being a working-class lad from Essex struggling with your sensitivity. As you can probably tell, I can’t really do justice to all that the song means to me. It’s fitting really; ‘feelings are intense, words are trivia’. If you want any further explanation, silence me. Stick on Violator instead, and enjoy the sensations that words can’t voice.

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