Tag Archives: Abba

Riffs and variations on Abba, Dark Souls, charity shops, and bad analogies for grief

“It is not about Agnetha’s sexual awakening.”

“I didn’t say it was Agnetha…”

“Okay, then,” said Jen. “It is not about either Agnetha or Anna-Frid’s sexual awakening, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.”

“We’re just going to have to disagree,” replied Pete. “The whole song is one extended metaphor for learning about sex. All that stuff about being under a spell, finding new horizons, riding on the breeze. Spreading my wings. Spreading. C’mon, it’s not subtle.”

“Really? Learning about sex? It’s not that at all. It’s just Abba doing a 70s stoner anthem. Benny and Bjorn – probably Benny, he always looked like he liked a smoke – stayed up one night wired to the gills and wrote a song about soaring with the eagles. Maaaan. They even made the girls emphasise the ‘high’ in the chorus. You’re right that it’s not subtle but it’s about drugs, it’s not about sex.”

“You’ve got to view it in the context of their broader work,” said Pete.

“How so?”

“Name Of The Game. All that ‘I’m a bashful child, waiting to grow’ stuff. Does Your Mother Know. Possibly underage girl propositioning older man. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Frustrated, repressed desire. When I Kissed The Teacher. Do you need me to go on? They had loads of songs about young women being shepherded into womanhood with the help of an older man…”

“I don’t agree on Eagle but you’ve got a point about some of the others,” said Jen. “To be fair I don’t think you could release Does Your Mother Know now.”

“It hasn’t aged well. I know it was the 70s but…”

“Which one was your favourite?” interrupted Jen. “Agnetha or Anna-Frid?”

“Agnetha, obviously. Mostly for her voice. I barely noticed her blue eyes, blonde hair, or her perfect behind in those purple jump suits.”

“Now we’re getting to the bottom of your sexual awakening…”

“Boom and indeed tish. Very good,” acknowledged Pete. “She can’t lay claim to that though. I was too young. Maybe something stirred in my sub-conscious but it was really Jenny Agutter in American Werewolf In London that made me a man.”

“It was Simon Le Bon for me. Maybe Nick Rhodes. Maybe the thought of both of them together. Possibly on a yacht.”

“Easy tiger.”

“I was never the same after that ‘Wild Boys’ video,” said Jen.

“Georgie hated Duran Duran,” said Pete. There was a pause as there often was at mention of her name.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Jen. “After we first met it came up, I can’t really remember how but I presume we were drunk. She said she hated them but I used to put on ‘Planet Earth’ sometimes when we came home from the pub when we lived together and she knew all the words. I think it was like me pretending to hate house when she got into that.”

“I’ve still got all of her records, back from when she was DJ’ing a bit, a load of limited edition, white label, 12 inches that I don’t recognise. They’re with all her stuff. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“I think I can understand that. I don’t think she’d have wanted them to stay unplayed though. She always loved it when she could fill the floor and she wasn’t too snobby about what she played to do it, Duran Duran notwithstanding. In fact, speaking of Abba, didn’t she used to occasionally slip Mamma Mia in? Said it used to tip the night into a mess – place would go insane or everyone would go to the bar but either way it ended up in a mess,” said Jen.

“Yeah, she did. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should get rid of her records at least. She’d want someone to be making a mess with them if they could. Where’d you get shot of stuff like that though?”

“Charity shop?”

“Not much chance round here anymore, they’re hardly ever open to taking things now,” said Pete. “I think people were just dumping stuff off on them all the time. It was like middle class fly tipping: great piles of Dan Brown books, Fifty Shades Of Grey, three quarter size guitars that little Harry didn’t take to after all, Friends boxsets on VHS, twice worn tuxedos that used to fit, and stacks and stacks of CDs long since replaced by Spotify playlists.”

“I guess you could trek over to Notting Hill, see if the Record & Tape Exchange would take them?” suggested Jen.

“That would involve leaving the house and visiting a place we used to go to together. It’s been three years and I still don’t know if I’m ready for that. Every time it feels like it’s getting a little easier I trip over something and I’m right back where I started.”

“Two steps forwards and one step back?” offered Jen.

“It feels more like one step forwards and two steps back most of the time,” said Pete.

“Sorry, I guess it was the wrong expression.”

“It’s okay. There’s no way to get it right in words,” said Pete. “I think I’m going to write a book called ‘Bad Analogies For Grief’. I’ve been collecting them. The ones people offer by way of condolence, the ones you pick up in counselling, the ones you come up with yourself. There’s no proper way to express how overwhelming it is so you come at it from an angle, think you can pin it down and force it to make sense if you can put it into some sort of words… Want to hear my latest one?”. Jen didn’t fill the pause and so Pete continued. “I was pulling a glass down from a cupboard last week and it slipped, fell, and broke on the floor. Pieces everywhere. And the first thing you do after it happens is that you don’t move, because if you move you’re probably going to get cut. You freeze. And then you notice the big pieces. So you pick those up first because you know they’re going to hurt like hell if you step on them. But broken glass is hard to handle and even when you see a piece that looks like it broke clean it’ll sometimes surprise you with a sharp point and the more you pick up the more you start to notice that there are fragments everywhere, small diamond slivers scattered across the kitchen floor. And then you remember it’s the kitchen floor you both used to walk barefoot across in the morning. And you remember something stupid like making coffee and toast and taking it back upstairs to read the papers under the duvet on a Sunday morning. And then, as you’re remembering, you stand on a piece of glass you hadn’t noticed and the shock of it, the pain, makes you step again without looking and before you know where you are you’ve stepped into more and more unseen pieces. Each one a tiny broken fragment of the perfect, whole thing that you remembered. Just the smallest splinter, the tiniest memory, is enough to start it. Enough to bring you back to a halt.” It had come in a rush, Pete’s words tumbling over themselves. Neither spoke until Pete finally concluded. “That’s my latest one. My new analogy. The breaking glass one.”

“God, Pete, you know I don’t know what to say,” offered Jen apologetically. “I guess I’m supposed to say that eventually you sweep up most of the pieces?”

“Yes, you are,” said Pete. “Only grief doesn’t work like that. It’s like there’s a new glass dropping on the floor every single day. Maybe you’re supposed to say that eventually you go a day when a glass doesn’t drop. All I know is that I haven’t had one of those yet.”

“But you will.”

“But I might. That’s my best guess. Right now I think I’m getting a little better at spotting the shards even if I can’t stop the glass falling,” said Pete. “I guess I need to git gud.”

“You need to what?”

“Oh, sorry.” Pete laughed. Some of the tension on the line dissolved, eased. “It’s from Dark Souls. Video game I’ve been playing a lot instead of having to interact in the real world. It’s a really hard RPG where you die over and over again and when you get stuck and look up advice online people tell you that there’s no short cut to it, just that you have to git gud…”

“Get good?”

“Yeah. But spelled g i t and then g u d.”

“Why don’t they say ‘get good’, then?” asked Jen. “What’s with the ‘git gud’ thing? Doesn’t sound very nice either way.”

“I don’t know where it came from,” said Pete. “Gamers with too much time on their hands. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very nice but there’s a weird kind of community in the game. If you get really stuck you can ask other people to come into your game and help you out – online obviously, you don’t literally invite them into your house or anything.”

“There you go. That’s a ready made metaphor or analogy if I ever heard one. You need to add a chapter to your book – maybe a post script – about ‘Bad Analogies for Help With Grief’.”

“People helping? I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I guess you’re right. There have been moments, stupid as it sounds, when some random character popping up in my game and getting me past some impossible boss fight has been the highlight of my day.”

“I like the sound of this game,” said Jen. “I thought all those online things were just people trying to shoot each other and shouting abuse about getting owned.”

“I feel bad for spoiling it for you and wrecking the metaphor but people can invade your game in Dark Souls and just randomly attack you too. It’s all a bit arbitrary and chaotic.”

“Like I said. It’s a ready made metaphor. Analogies aside, Pete, are you alright?”

There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“This is just like Dark Souls, Jen. Repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re strong enough to move on. No. I’m not alright. Not today. I need to level up. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

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I don’t want to talk, if it makes you feel sad

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.