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Sunday, 13 July 2008

Written in granite: Within The Usual Frame

Well, with all the hoo-ha over the film version of the Mamma Mia musical and the allusion to Waterloo in my own Greasepaint and grapeshot
(which has, admittedly, attracted slightly less attention), I thought this might be a good time to look at ABBA from a lyrical perspective. Most musicians of my acquaintance adore ABBA – it's hard not to: they represent a perfection in the art of arrangement and recording of a kind found only patchily in most artists' careers, a Pet Sounds, a Forever Changes and yet they sustained it over a decade producing what is probably the greatest single body of singles in popular music history, particularly if you use a few selective memory techniques and conveniently overlook the very occasional mawkish aberration such as I Have A Dream. My favourite "greatest hits" compilation of all time, The Singles: The First Ten Years (the only ten years, actually, but we should be thankful for what we got) features just one dud, I Have A Dream, but
if you replace it with Angeleyes, the double "A" side of Voulez-Vous then you have a double album of unbelievable quality. And, unlike most greatest hits packages which, even (or indeed especially) when arranged chronologically tend to be terribly front-loaded, on this one side four of the original double LP is possibly the strongest... Or if not then it's certainly a very close second (admittedly side two is phenomenally strong as it has the singles from Arrival AND The Album). Another personal thing is that ABBA are one of the few groups to have been important to me throughout my life. On my 11th birthday I received a mono cassette player (the latest technology at the time) and shortly afterwards I acquired the ABBA album and then, in 1976 on release, Arrival. In spite of punk I bought The Album in 1977 and Voulez-Vous sat next to my A Certain Ratio records as the 1970s segued seemingly seamlessly into the 1980s (yes, well, that didn't work out too well, did it?) A few years ago I splashed out on the Complete Studio Recordings boxed set of 9 audio CDs (8 expanded albums plus one set of rarities) and two DVDs, and what an investment that's been.

However I'm getting distracted. As I think I mentioned in the G&G piece, people are often rather dismissive of ABBA's lyrics. Now admittedly some of them are truly awful, especially early on; it's clear that English is not the lyricist's mother tongue. Even so, some of the oddness is rather appealing – who else would release songs called What About Livingstone?, Sitting In The Palmtree and, pushing the jungle theme a little further, King Kong Song on a single album (Waterloo)? But gradually they began to get the hang of writing lyrics in English and as they did the idiosyncrasies began to become a trademark. There's that famous "...when I called you last night from Glasgow" in Super Trouper, a lyric of some subtlety (the title comes from a kind of spotlight, I believe). Even so, it came as quite a shock when I first heard The Day Before You Came in 1982. Let's make no bones about this: it's one of the finest lyrics in all popular music, it craps all over 99.9% of everything written by native English speakers. Of course, it wasn't a huge hit; it's an incredibly brave record for a major artist to make in so many ways. There's the 14/8 time signature for a start, the fact that it has no chorus, is six minutes long...

Whereas most of the earlier more successful (non-jungle) lyrics tended to show at least some autobiographical content (it's generally accepted that The Winner Takes It All deals broadly with the intra-band divorces, Super Trouper is about life on the road), TDBYC is about a girl who works in an office. This is the extraordinary thing about it, the way that it looks as the minutiae of her everyday life. The only thing which know is that the day being described is "the day before you came". Like many ABBA songs, the English is slightly odd, mixing in occasional Americanisms even though it's very European... I think that this was the first time that I'd ever encountered the expression "food to go". Actually the line is: "I must have opened my front door at eight o'clock or so/And stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go", which suggests people in Sweden are so well-off that every single home has a Chinese takeaway in the hall and thus, after a hard day at work, you can unlock your front door and pick up a takeaway on your way through to the dining room. Now that's what I call convenience food. However it is this level of detail that gives the song it's monumental emotional content, although the staggering simplicity of its construction shouldn't be overlooked either. We encounter the young lady in question leaving her house "at eight, because I always do", we learn that she "must have lit my seventh cigarette at half-past two", that at the time she didn't even notice that there was anything missing in her life. The rest of the afternoon is so humdrum that... well, it would appear that fag no. 7 was the high point because next thing we no it's five and she's off to catch a train home again, and that newspapers are printed twice a day (she reads the morning paper travelling to work, the evening paper going home), something which used to happen at the time only with local newspapers in England, as far as I can recall, then she gets home exactly 12 hours after leaving, picks up her Chinese takeaway in the hall and plonks herself down to eat it in front of the telly: "there's no, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see". She then clearly allows her food to digest for around an hour before heading up the wooden hill at quarter past ten, where she sits and reads for a while, again we're given the detail: "the latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style" – I must confess that I didn't even know Ms French had written anything other than The Women's Room, which caused an awful fuss and so this is telling us something more about our character and doing so with a wonderful lightness of touch: French is – or certainly was at the time – synonymous with feminism. The ending of the song is beautifully done: it resists any twist or big payoff and remains as prosaic and down-to-earth as the preceding five minutes or so: "and turning out the light, I must've yawned and cuddled up for yet another night/and rattling on the roof I must've heard the sound of rain/The day before you came".

There are so few lyrics like this: the other truly great one of this kind, dealing in the detail, the sheer minutiae of a character's everyday life, that springs to my mind is Dory Previn's astounding The Lady With The Braid. In fact the two songs are close relations and I've often wondered whether perhaps Björn, who I assume wrote the lyric, was familiar with that song. Then there's Good Year For The Roses, most famously performed by that greatest of all purveyors of the heartache of the humdrum George Jones, which has a character who can't help thinking about trivial stuff while his world is falling apart ("the lawn could stand another mowing..." genius). Either way The Day Before You Came is one of my very favourite songs, with one of my very favourite lyrics and the fact that it was written by someone whose mother tongue is not even English should chasten us all. I keep promising myself that one day I'll write my own song full of commonplace detail, although it turns out that it's a hell of a lot harder than you'd think... You need some kind of idea to hang it on and it has to be the right idea. When I get the idea hopefully I'll be able to pull it off without simply indulging in plagiarism... So if I ever announce that I've written a song called A Couple Of Days After You Went you'll know I gave up and just stole... Although at least I'll've been stealing from the best.







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