Wednesday 11 July 2012

ABBA: Arrival

(#179: 15 January 1977, 1 week; 16 April 1977, 9 weeks)

Track listing: When I Kissed The Teacher/Dancing Queen/My Love, My Life/Dum Dum Diddle/Knowing Me, Knowing You/Money, Money, Money/That’s Me/Why Did It Have To Be Me/Tiger/Arrival

What do they know of Abba who only “Dancing Queen” know? Despite its very brief running time – a shade over 33 minutes – and the general critical consensus at the time being one of three major singles surrounded by an awful lot of filler, or a lot of awful filler, it is clear that a lot of work went into Arrival; recording sessions for the album began in August 1975 but were not completed until October 1976. In truth, these were interrupted by the need to tour and promote the Abba album and the “S.O.S.” and “Mamma Mia” singles; in addition, both Agnetha and Frida were working on Swedish language solo albums of their own. Consequently, work on the album began in earnest in March 1976, but “Dancing Queen” (under the working title “Boogaloo”) and “Fernando” had been worked on in the original sessions; “Fernando” had begun life as a track for Frida’s album but once the band realised how huge a hit it might be, they redid it as a stand-alone Abba single (and, although appearing on several international versions of Arrival, and also as one of the bonus tracks on the CD edition, it was never intended for the album as such, and therefore misses a second chance of being talked about here; do not worry – its time here will come).

What do they know of Abba who only “Dancing Queen” know? Did they bother listening to the albums, or just buy them and file them away as uneasy listening? Here is an album which begins with a girl causing everybody to scream, and more or less ends with the same girl screaming. Yes, they are there, in the cockpit of their helicopter, ready to arrive, to make themselves known to the world – but note that none of them is smiling, and that, although blue skies are behind him, there is a gathering darkness, or possibly a storm cloud, directly over their heads.

And, though voiced through the voices of two women, this album is the story of the journey of a woman from idolating child to fearful or vengeful adult; as has been the case in most of these instances, familiar hits gain a new dimension from being heard in their original context. “When I Kissed The Teacher” begins like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air” – the same earnest acoustic guitars, the same tempo, the same key – but then goes somewhere entirely different: “Everybody screamed when I kissed the teacher,” Agnetha sings, “And they must have thought they dreamed.” The rest of the music slides into view from stage left, like a radio volume knob discreetly turned up, and the mood turns celebratory. At the first part of the middle eight (“One of these days…”) it sounds rather like a song from Fame would go on to sound; pupils up on their desks, dancing through the corridors, as though they had been waiting their whole, brief lives for this one kiss, this solitary signal of liberation. Meanwhile, both keyboards and chords point a very clear way towards the future (“As I held my breath, the world stood still”), and although Abba never had anything to do with punk, the underlying playfulness of authority being questioned, mocked and, indeed, hugged must have had some kind of subcutaneous effect at the beginning of this year, of all years.

A downward piano zip of an introduction, recalling “I Want You Back,” and we are into “Dancing Queen.” The schoolgirl is now seventeen, or perhaps merely an observer of a seventeen-year-old, thinking thoughts that could have come out of the fifties (“You can dance, you can jive”) even though there are hints of 1976 throughout (at one point there is an almost imperceptible paraphrase of “That’s The Way (I Like It)”). It is no revelation that George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” was the initial inspiration for the song, or that drummer Roger Palm was thinking of Dr John’s Gumbo (in particular, I would venture, his version of “Iko Iko”); what is new is the way elements old and new are blended and synthesised. I have written about “Dancing Queen” two or three times before, and each time I have indicated how and why many observers considered this to be as radical, or more radical, a 1976 single as “Anarchy In The U.K.” in light of its long-term influence; the synthesiser arpeggios in the verses, combined with Rutger Gunnarsson’s raised eyebrow bass at “You can dance,” suggest a new form of three-dimensional pop; we had become so used to the two dimensions of voices and instruments (plus or minus arrangements) that this novel third layer beguiled; the notion of a musical middleground where (largely) keyboards comment on the song without actually stepping in, like semi-passive observers. So full and febrile are the keyboards on “Dancing Queen” that you momentarily wonder whether they are being touched by human hands at all; this feeling pervades through to the early eighties work of Simple Minds and the Associates, while the influence of the grandiose piano flourishes (and Gunnarsson’s bass) on the subsequent work of Trevor Horn almost goes without needing to be said.

And yet “Dancing Queen,” for all its regal perfection – if there were a cinematic equivalent, it would be the final third of Visconti’s The Leopard - is among the saddest of pop songs. “You come in to look for a king – anybody could be that guy,” the voices sing, and later: “You’re a teaser, you turn ‘em on/Leave ‘em burning and then you’re…gone/Looking out for another, anyone will do.” Not the teacher, not a potential lover, just the partner as personal tabula rasa, because all the dancer can see is herself. “Feel the beat from the tambourine” – does this European layer cake hide an essence of voodoo?

But the yearning in the singers’ voices, particularly in the final chorus, suggests a feeling that already the song and its singers know things are never going to be as good again. “Dancing Queen” was and is Abba’s “peak” – if you think of pop as a mountain range – but like “She Loves You” its formal perfection is in part rooted in its own foreboding; this moment is so right, so “pure,” so unsullied, and, like the opening and unrepeated chord of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, it will never reoccur.

“My Love, My Life” is one of Agnetha’s best solo features with Abba, and is a peculiarly distended track; beginning with an introduction of partly backwards vocals (thus tying it in with the very similar sequences to be glimpsed in Wish You Were Here), the song becomes a hymn. The backing harmonies were fashioned after the example of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” and although there are no Ligeti speaker-filling totalities to be heard here, both Agnetha and the rest of the musicians perform the song with great and natural grace. And yet it is a song of something ending: a romance, an affair, is coming to its natural end, but Agnetha doesn’t quite want to let it go (“Answer me sincerely,” she pleads more than once). The impassioned fatalism of her performance, however, makes the song a sort of bookend to “The Day Before You Came,” although this song’s structure is much more patient; there are bells, and the music swoops up like a hopeful eagle to Agnetha’s trembling “My one and only…” which is answered by a long pause, or a silence. And is there something faintly sinister about her line “I know I don’t possess you”? “Dum Dum Diddle” lands us back in bubblegum, with some scatty double entendres about fiddling and desire, and trots along rather unconcernedly, except that, unlike the teacher, there’s no indication that the singer even knows the fiddle player.

And what would happen if they had got together; would their fiddling have been joyous and eternal, or would they end up like the walking ghosts in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”? What a strange, almost schizophrenic song this is; what a spectre it created when it topped the charts as a single (and thus brought the album back for its extended second wind at number one). There are the verses, as blank and neutralised as any non-punk 1977 pop; Frida with her grim two-syllable triplets (six, six, six): “No. More.” “Care. Free.” “Laugh. Ter” – behind her, a whispering phantom Agnetha echoing in the tortured chambers of her mind, bouncing off the treated electric piano chords. A transitional and apocalyptic bridge (“This is where the story ends. This is goodbye.”) – and yet they cannot bring themselves to push the button. The chorus is rousing, hopeful (despite its lyrics; note how Björn and Benny respond in the background) and topped by a disingenuously cheery guitar (Lasse Wellander). Musically it’s a follow-on from their earlier “Hey Hey Helen” – what’s going to happen if you don’t commit? What worse things could happen if you do? – but structurally it oddly resembles a Beatles composition; Lennon verses (terse, minimalist, huskily sung) against McCartney choruses (verbose, maximalist, sung high and light). And there’s the underlying question of those children (“In these old familiar rooms, children would play”) as though this is not just a marriage, but an entire lifeline, that is being methodically snuffed out. She began the side kissing the teacher, she ends the side by regretting ever having kissed anyone.

“Money, Money, Money” opens side two, and although always a rather lacklustre piece for me as a single, it sounds in this context unexpectedly angry and even venomous. Once again, Frida is called upon to sing the lead and she sneers resentment throughout the song, as though ripping apart the entire “old fashioned house/millionaire” façade, even though she recognises her own predicament and does herself down (“And if he happens to be free” – think for a moment about the meaning of the word “free” in this song – “I bet he wouldn’t fancy me”). In the first and third section of each verse, Frida, piano and bass come charging towards the microphone in accumulative rage before settling into the song’s matrix, and throughout the percussion work is particularly fierce; Ola Brunkert’s agitated drums, far less settled than Nick Mason on “Money,” and Malando Gassama’s raging, echoing timpani. What does money mean anyway?

“That’s Me” is perhaps even more disturbing, not least because it welds an upbeat, purposely tinny dance tune with lots of unexpected chord changes – hello, Stock, Aitken and Waterman – to a potentially gruesome lyric. “I’m Carrie not-the-kind-of-girl-you’d-marry,” sing both Agnetha and Frida, “That’s me” – and Carrie, the film, was showing by this time. “If I’m sweet tonight/Things look different in the morning light,” “Are you sure you want to hear more?,” “I can’t help my ways,” and, somewhere in the middle (bolstered by incongruous forties deep harmonies), “It’s lonely to be free.” Throughout, Benny’s keyboards are especially florid, shooting up like Catherine wheels, never resting, as though predicating that the girl herself will be forever restless.

“Why Did It Have To Be Me,” with verses sung by Björn and choruses sung by Agnetha and Frida, muddies the water further. He took “Carrie” at his own word and is angry and bemused at now being rejected; all the girls can do is offer a regretful, extended “told you so” response. Meanwhile the music, ostensibly midtempo rock ‘n’ roll, veers just clear of chaos; Lasse Carlsson’s tenor sax solo is like a razor on the verge of cutting, Janne Schaffer’s lead guitar chords sound at points like glass breaking, and the whole is a horrific hall of mirrors distortion of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”

And so to the album’s climax, “Tiger,” one of many Abba songs I’d forgotten I knew. This is an “S.O.S.” beyond anybody’s help (Brunkert’s drums pounding as though trying to escape the dagger cane) and we could not be further from the carefree cheek of “When I Kissed The Teacher”: the girl is now an adult, wandering alone and scared in the city, putting on a cloak of protective defence (“People who fear me never go near me”) to hide her fear under a bushel of defiance. “The city is a nightmare, a horrible dream,” the girls sing. “Some of us will dream it forever,” and now the dream has indeed become a nightmare, the city a prison for one’s self (“Look into the shadows and you’ll see the shape…of me”), with the meditative middle eights only offering a brief respite. Agnetha, born in 1950, the Chinese Year of the Tiger – and those ascending, horrifying screams with which they sign off forever (a contemporary parallel? What about “Side Streets” by Saint Etienne?).

Then, with the closing title track, Abba disappear into themselves. The bagpipe undertone recalls the similar function “Amazing Grace” served at the end of Glen Campbell’s story, but it is synthesised, and the only voices present are a distant, wordless chorale. They have found something, discovered something, and are now hiding within it; wordless because no words could express what cannot be anything less or more than pain. I note the resemblance of the synthesisers to those of Brian Eno (the track’s main theme could pass as a variant on “Another Green World”) and the drifting ambience of voices without words, of souls, minds, lost. We’ll be getting back to that soon enough. Of course, there’s another interpretation of this song, and the album as a whole; had it not been written by men it would be a crash course in why females rebel, but also there is the sense that something is being welcomed in, something that eventually will be called New Pop – in so many ways does Arrival tug in advance on the sleeve of the eighties – and that this record is in some ways summoning up these spirits, willing them into being (see also the remarkable parallel of the closing instrumental track of Sparkle In The Rain).

Of course, “Arrival” is also the title of the pilot episode of The Prisoner.

“Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes.”

So deep in these rooms, they never leave those rooms.

“It’s lonely to be free.”

Sometimes you get so lonely.