Saturday 14 May 2016

Thank You for the Music - and the lyrics

With a surprise visit to Sweden coming up at the start of June, thanks to my well-documented affinity with the FreestyleLibre and those good people at Abbott, I have suddenly found myself wanting to be immersed once again in the wonderful music of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid, collectively known to the world as Abba. I know that there's much more to Sweden than Abba, but let's face it, for most of us, Sweden is about Abba, Volvo, Ikea and, erm....

So as soon as I heard I was going to Stockholm, their Summer Night City, those songs flooded my brain as they do every so often and out came my Abba Gold and More Abba Gold CDs.

I have watched with amusement over the past twenty years or so as the rest of the world has decided that Abba are indeed very talented and cool. I always thought they were, unlike the Johnny-come-Latelies who have reassessed their work and its enduring appeal and influence. I was an Abba fan right from the start, and especially all the way through university in the late 70's, while my friends were more into punk, new wave, and disco. I loved all that stuff too, but I always said that Abba would survive and prosper long after their extravagant clothing had faded into the realms of  ridicule or ironic nostalgia. I well remember telling a group of friends at university that Thank You for the Music was what our generation would be singing along to in an old folks' home when we had all gone ga-ga. How right I was. And how pleasing it is for people of my generation to see my own children and the young people I teach discover Abba's wonderful musical legacy. It's very hard nowadays to find anyone who doesn't like Abba.

Now of course it's about the music in most respects. Benny and Bjorn are peerless tunesmiths, be it in the exuberance of Dancing Queen, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Mamma Mia or the melancholy of The Winner Takes it all, Knowing Me Knowing You and One of Us. Moreover the arrangements, instrumentation and production are also touched by genius. Just imagine Dancing Queen without those descending piano chords, or Chiquitita without the guitar introduction. Imagine Voulez-Vous without the chords that lead into the verse, or Super Trouper without that piano-backed middle eight. Imagine The Day Before you came without those synthesised little twirls or Mamma Mia without the crash crash of cymbals that accompanies the "Just one look" line. I could go on. Those guys certainly know how to write, harmonise and arrange a good melody, and their ability to create a whole song from one simple melody is at times awesome. The Winner Takes it All is not only a lyrically devastating song, but musically it is so very simple: it's actually just two melodic phrases, repeated.

However, I think we can all too easily overlook the words. Considering they were penned by two men for whom English is not even their mother tongue, the lyrics of Benny and Bjorn demonstrate a mastery of our language which puts the rest of us to shame. The searingly honest account of a broken relationship as told in Knowing Me, Knowing You, or The Winner Takes it All is genuinely heartbreaking, while if anyone ever lays bare the pains of parenthood better than is done in Slipping Through My Fingers, I wouldn't want to hear it. I defy any parent of older children to listen to that and not shed a tear.

So how come a couple of Swedish folk singers (for that is what they were long before the platform heels and outrageous flares took over) became such masters of our subtle and nuanced language? Well they don't always get it quite right: there's a clear error, for example, in Fernando, where "since many years I haven't seen a rifle in your hand" should surely be "for many years..." not "since many years..". And in I have a Dream, their Germanic languistic roots are showing in "And my destination makes it worth THE while/pushing through the darkness STILL another mile". But almost everywhere else, they nail it as well as, if not better than, most English-speaking lyricists, and I have only recently started fully to appreciate why this is.

Basically, it's because they are uninhibited by the clichés and conventions of English, and therefore dare to do things that a native speaker would find too embarrassing or too banal. Wherever you look in the lyrics of Abba, you'll find turns of phrase which a native speaker just wouldn't dream of using as a lyric. And because we are not used to that kind of language in a song, the banal suddenly becomes unusual and therefore powerful. Try this for an example, from Waterloo:

"...and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way.."

I very much doubt that the phrase "in quite a similar way" has ever been used in lyric poetry before or since. Abba's songs are full of phrases which, when detached from the context in which they have become so familiar, sound like they have no right being in a song. Try this from the wonderful narrative that is The Day before you Came:

" and having gotten through the editorial no doubt I must have frowned"

or this from that same song:

"And stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go
I'm sure I had my dinner watching something on TV
There's not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see
I must have gone to bed around a quarter after ten
I need a lot of sleep, and so I like to be in bed by then
I must have read a while
The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style"

That song is actually full of the most outrageously prosaic lyrics - but isn't that the whole point of that sadly under-rated song? And while you're at it watch the video - how dark and Scandinavian is that?

Or how about this for an opening line of Super Trouper:

"I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow"

What a line, but who else would have dared write it? Very few English songwriters produce stuff like that, preferring to express emotions with clichés and words from the stock lexicon of love. Of course a few do: The Beatles did on occasions, with the sometimes derided Paul McCartney in particular responsible for touching sublime heights with the most banal of language. Think "Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear" in Eleanor Rigby, or the whole of She's Leaving Home. Some of McCartney's solo stuff has also hit the same spot, but he's often been ridiculed for it. Another Day is a good example. Another band who had the knack of making silk purse lyrics out of sow's ear words was that popular 70s art-rock band 10cc: think anything on The Original Soundtrack or How Dare you?

However, in the case of Abba, it's not just about daring to use banal language; sometimes it's quite the opposite. Interestingly, I've heard it suggested that Abba's unfamiliarity with English led them to come up with turns of phrase that an anglophone writer would be scared to use. What English writer would dare, even in the 1970s, to come up with the lines:

"See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen"

"Digging"???  An expression that was perhaps cool and trendy for a few weeks in 1967, but does anyone use that word without irony? It obviously stuck in the minds of two young Swedes...and where would Dancing Queen be without those lines? It's all part of its enduringly camp, "so bad its good" appeal.

Elsewhere, just by using "Eurotrash" words and names they developed a pan-European appeal with titles like Mamma Mia, Voulez-Vous, Chiquitita, Hasta Manana and Fernando. All instantly memorable hooks which are foreign intruders in English lyrics. The Euro-connection leads me to another thought. I'm pretty sure that in other languages, notably French, some of the features I have identified in Abba lyrics are also there. I would quote as evidence the incomparable Armenian-French nonegenarian Charles Aznavour, writer and performer of some memorable chansons in which the banal and the sublime pop up to devastating effect. His work must wait for another blog post, but if you're curious, try this wonderful tale of an old flame rekindled. Sorry if you don't know French:-

"Non, je n'ai rien oublié"

Or try this tale of a romantic evening gone wrong..

"Bon Anniversaire"

But back to Abba. We must also not overlook the many times when there are no linguistic oddities, no banalities, but just astonishingly powerful lyrical expressiveness. Take this from The Winner Takes it All:

"The Gods may throw a dice
Their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here
Loses someone dear"

Those lines are conceptually straight out of classical tragedy, but then in the next verse the same idea comes crashing into the modern world of the divorce court:

"The judges will decide
The likes of me abide"

And don't forget that those extraordinarily personal and poignant lyrics were written by two men to be sung by the two women from whom they were going through a messy divorce. The most public group therapy ever?

So there you have it. Musical and lyrical genius in my humble opinion. A band who could have drifted into a category marked 70's nostalgia, but have become an enduring global brand. I'm pretty sure people will still be listening to Abba years from now, long after they, and I, have gone. What intrigues me about Abba is that the more times I listen to their songs, the more I like and appreciate them. There are not many artists of whom I can say that: possibly just David Bowie and the Beatles. I rest my case.

PS Take time to watch some of the Abba videos. They, too are iconically wonderful. Click the link on any of the songs mentioned.

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