10. The Winner Takes It All – Abba When: 1981
There are some records that are so well known, so entrenched in cultural memory, that they will elicit a response, for good or ill, purely from reading the title. Their ubiquity making a straight appraisal of the original work more difficult – shorn of surprise and laden down with acquired baggage across the years.
Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” is very, very much one of those records and, to some extent most of Abba’s songs have now taken on a life beyond themselves. They’ve spawned a musical which, apparently, 54 million people around the world have seen. That, in turn, produced the highest grossing musical film of all time, taking north of $600 million at the box office, which is now the biggest selling DVD ever in the UK. One in four UK households gazing in wonderment at how Pierce Brosnan, utterly incapable of carrying a tune in a bucket, landed his part. There are innumerable tribute bands, from the affectionate Australian parody “Bjorn Again” (now a franchise in its own right spanning several bands) to Abbatoir, possibly the only Abba heavy metal group – certainly the best named – amongst the tributes.
There’s a slew of cover versions spread across a surprising range of artists. From U2 to Kylie to the Glee cast (“Dancing Queen”), Swedish metaller Yngwie Malmsteen and The Sisters Of Mercy united in their desire for a man after midnight on “Gimme Gimme Gimme (although disappointingly Yngwie changes “man” to “love”), Wilco having fun with “Waterloo”, Elvis Costello taking “Knowing Me, Knowing You” pretty seriously, Erasure less seriously tackling “Take A Chance On Me”, and McFly – putting it politely – butchering “ The Winner Takes It All” for the Olympics.
Somewhere in all of that are the songs. Somewhere underneath the layered on kitsch, the gurning Meryl Streep, that French & Saunders skit, the inevitable stampede to the dance floor of all generations at every wedding in Britain, are the songs. And what songs. If you think there’s a better run of pop singles, excepting that other fab four, in the last forty years then I’m happy to have the debate: meet me at Ikea and we’ll sort it out over some meatballs. Seriously. “Dancing Queen”, “Waterloo”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “Take A Chance On Me”, “SOS”… Three minute masterpieces one and all. No irony. No guilty pleasure. Just dazzling, mesmerising nuggets of pop music gold.
Top of the pile amid all of those great songs sits “The Winner Takes It All”. Famously it’s about divorce and often assumed to be autobiographical, charting the breakdown of the marriage of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog – the song’s writer and vocalist respectively. Ulvaeus acknowledges the song’s broad inspiration but outright refutes that it’s a specific commentary on his own marital failure. It’s a view that Faltskog shares, both of them claiming that there were no winners or losers in their divorce, but it’s hard to believe that personal circumstances didn’t bleed into this song; art surely mirroring life. In some senses it almost doesn’t matter whether it really is or isn’t about the songwriter and the singer. In knowing the narrative, understanding their circumstance, the damage is essentially done – it’s too compelling to ignore and you find yourself inclined to layer in additional pathos to the song that the knowledge evokes.
However, the song doesn’t need the listener to be aware of that context for its weary, almost broken, sadness to resonate. If anything perhaps all of that real life, intra-band drama is just another of those distractions, those side shows, that have attached themselves to Abba. Just something else that gets in the way of being able to purely hear the song.
So I count myself fortunate that my introduction to Abba wasn’t via any of the myriad spin offs from recent years. I was utterly unburdened by back story or by camp revivals or by West End musicals or by Julie Walters dancing on a table. I experienced Abba, and this song, as it happened, not through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia. Probably not rose tinted glasses of nostalgia given how their legacy seems to have been treated. The official Mamma Mia hotpants* of nostalgia perhaps. The feather boa of schmaltz. You get the idea.
I was 10 years old and “Super Trouper” was one of the first albums (vinyl) that I owned – I think it was a Christmas present but I might be mis-remembering. Perhaps it was the year that I didn’t get the Millennium Falcon and that’s why its melancholic stylings resonated so strongly: it didn’t look like much but it had it where it counts. At that point I imagine my preoccupations largely revolved around Star Wars, making up stories in my head, and wondering whether Anna Jackson liked me more than any of the other boys in class. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Apart from the Anna Jackson bit obviously…
Then I heard this song and something new was added to that list of preoccupations; the realisation that music could give voice to how you felt. Clearly I didn’t feel like I was going through a divorce with an attractive blonde woman from Sweden. Not literally. I probably didn’t even know where Sweden was given I had a teacher at the time that insisted that Sydney was the capital of Australia. I could, though, feel the hurt in that voice, the vulnerability in the section towards the end when the instrumentation drops away and Agnetha sings “I don’t want to talk” for the second time in the song. The vocals on this record are extraordinary, technically accomplished but, more importantly to my ears, they just ache. Underneath the arrangement, the typically Abba-esque soft focus production, the trills and frills, there’s a lead vocal that is simultaneously pure but brutally raw. She sounds bruised, resigned and hurt beyond measure. I think it’s quite astonishing. Even as a 10 year old I understood that this was a song rooted in deep sadness; it was probably my first experience of hearing some of my own feelings of sadness echoing back through a song.
It fascinates me where this comes from. I play a game now with my six year old daughter – putting on a piece of music and asking her whether it’s happy or sad or angry or whatever she thinks it is. She’s almost always right. No baggage, no real understanding of the lyrical content, and yet she’s almost always right. We are seemingly preconditioned to process certain sounds, certain patterns of sounds, and for them to evoke a particular emotional response. Someone smarter than me can perhaps explain that to me one day, tell me why it came about, why we evolved in such a way. To me it’s one of the few things in real life that feels like magic and “The Winner Takes It All” was my first glimpse of that magic.
*This one is essentially a real thing although presumably without any in built capacity to look back wistfully to the past: available here.
I couldn’t satisfactorily make this fit in the rest of the piece but it would be remiss of me to not also point you in the direction of the rather wonderful Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon version of the song from the utterly fantastic “The Trip”; funnily enough, in the context of that whole series, they probably got closer to the underlying spirit of disconsolance in the song than any other version I’ve heard since the original.