Wednesday 13 February 2013

ABBA: Super Trouper

(#241: 22 November 1980, 9 weeks)

Track listing: Super Trouper/The Winner Takes It All/On And On And On/Andante, Andante/Me And I/Happy New Year/Our Last Summer/The Piper/Lay All Your Love On Me/The Way Old Friends Do

She stared at the songsheet in open-mouthed disbelief. They hadn’t been speaking or socialising much of late; how could they, having divorced the year before – any association was now purely professional. As professional as she always was, however, even she found it hard to be compelled to spend so much time with people to whom she was no longer that close – days in the studio, months on the road – and yes, it did hurt.

Note how in the film Citizen Kane the camera is consistently drawing the viewer in through a miasma of darkness to focus on a central ring of light. It is a simulation of the spectator walking into the cinema and realising, too late, that they are sitting in the dark, perhaps alone.

There is the ring of light, slightly north of the centre of the cover picture, and although the spotlight is not a “Super Trouper” as such, it is shining very firmly on the four musicians, all obligingly dressed in white (this is one way of interpreting 1980’s number one albums, a constant battle between dark and light). The women are smiling, but rather grudgingly so, as if they had to smile; the men are not smiling at all. None of them is looking at us.

Who are these people surrounding them? Acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters, possibly a soldier (where did he come from?) In front of them is what might be a velvet rope, or perhaps the boundaries of a boxing ring, or maybe even a primitive stocks. They are all applauding the musicians; on the rear sleeve, the positions are reversed, and the musicians are now applauding their audience. The rope, or whatever it was, appears to have been removed.

Although this scene is highly reminiscent of a music video which is still some time in the future – in 1980, not even the song has been imagined – it was actually a compromise; the original idea was for the musicians to be surrounded by circus performers in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, but Westminster Council said no and thus robbed us of what would undoubtedly have been one of the great London album covers. Hence the group retreated to a film studio in Stockholm, rounded up the members of two local circuses, and the pictures were taken.

They could therefore be in the middle of nowhere. Or in the middle of the road, which puts you at far greater danger of being run over.

The fun seemed to have disappeared from their music, too. It was hard to believe that it was less than five years since the glee of “Mamma Mia”; harder also for the men to cope with the fact that it had now been well over two years since they’d last had a number one in the country they called “the home of pop.” Oh, all the intervening singles had gone top five, of course – they’d hardly vanished from pop – but there seemed something stilted about the treading of commercial water, as though they were forcing themselves to go disco. Well, where else could they have gone? A punk Abba? How sad a joke would that have been? So they’d tried different gimmicks – their first 12” remix (“Voulez-Vous”), giving Björn a lead vocal on a single (“Does Your Mother Know?”), even trying to conjure up the Hootenanny Singers ghosts of old youth with “I Have A Dream.”

If the twenty-one albums which went to number one during 1980 tell us anything, it is that there were two distinct, perhaps opposing tendencies among two distinct, perhaps opposing groups of record buyers. The Woolworth’s types who didn’t really buy records as such but wanted something easy, familiar and reassuring, and the more exploratory, impatient types looking to break the mould of complacency and reach out towards something they might call a future. It’s hard to imagine who would have bought both Sky 2 and Back In Black, or The Magic Of Boney M and Telekon.

But Super Trouper sold more and stayed at number one longer than any of them, and I suspect that not only is it the record that brought these two factions together, but it might also be the year’s most frightening and disturbing number one album.

Now, the “I Have A Dream” thing, the guys had been particularly upset about that one. It was a return to the nicer old days – or so they’d hoped - and there was the children’s choir and here was the irresistible chorus to a song designed to be number one at Christmas. But then those bastards Pink Floyd, who NEVER released singles, suddenly put one out with their own children’s choir without warning! They shouldn’t say that about groups like that, they knew; still, it was difficult to maintain a straight face after reading Roger Waters saying that he’d gone off Abba about five seconds after he’d first heard them. That was a kick in two heads, but still they had to grin and settle for second place over the season.

Abba in second place to anything or anybody! The crass impertinence!

Let’s start, as the album does, with the title track, which, as a single, became their ninth and final UK number one. The last wave of the old, jolly Abba – at least until you listen to what they are singing.

“Super Trouper,” the song you think you know so well.

A song which, from the off, warns that the beams of the titular spotlight “are gonna blind me” and goes on with words of the calibre of “I was sick and tired of everything,” “Wishing every show was the last show,” “There are moments when I think I’m going crazy,” “The sight of you will prove to me I’m still alive.” A song which alters its musical backdrop, so that the verses are predominantly acoustic and introspective, while the choruses are brilliantly shined and outgoing.

But you can sense the group are struggling to keep, or make, things the way they had once been; the Glasgow namecheck ensured that the song was especially popular in Scotland (and, as a minor bookend, the most famous Scottish version of “The Way Old Friends Do” is by the Alexander Brothers, who in 1964 sold more copies of their “Nobody’s Child” single in Scotland than anybody else, including the Beatles) but I wonder how well, if at all, Abba knew the dim and dismal Glasgow of 1980; eight months later, another single inspired by the same city would go to number one – “Ghost Town” by the Specials.

Nevertheless, who is this “you” in the crowd? It can’t be the singer’s lover; wouldn’t he be backstage, or sidestage, watching her sing close up? “Facing 20,000 of your friends,” sings Frida, “how can anyone be so lonely?” If we are not far away from Gary Numan territory here, the song at least admits the possibility that it’s the fan, the listener, who keeps the musician going, wanting to breathe, and so reaches out in a way that a 1980 Numan couldn’t or wouldn’t.

The key line, however, is: “All I do is eat and sleep and sing,” and I wonder whether Voulez-Vous wasn’t simply a red herring or a delaying tactic; you may recall that the preceding album concluded with the horrifying “I’m A Marionette” and Super Trouper, the album, appears to be taking its lead from there. This is what happens when musicians turn, or are turned, into mocking puppets; this, Abba imply, is how we really are, what we truly feel.

And it’s not pleasant.

They’d started recording the new album that February, and both she and Frida were concerned about the vaguely depressing nature of many of the songs being scheduled – “Our Last Summer”? “Happy New Year” with its cold final warning of “May we all have our hopes/Our will to try/If we don’t we might as well lay down and die…you and I”? “Me And I,” with its conclusion of “Everyone’s a freak”? There was no doubt; the shadows of Samarra were closing in on them. She still carried on gamely, posing with the reluctant rest of the group for photographers, but really they were growing older, and growing apart. She could barely stand to speak to her ex-husband. No third party on either side; they drifted as extremely rich, hardly intimate couples have a tendency to do.

“On And On And On” is, fittingly, a grind, and an unending one; the overall feeling is one of a For Your Pleasure Roxy Music thrust into the midst of the affluent society they were then still mocking – one can sense Eno or Mackay itching to go crazy over the song’s top – with a chorus that peals like a nightmarish inversion of the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again.” They are at this party; somebody, perhaps a minister, comes up to them to talk of impending doom; another man tries to chat them up with a philosophical subtext (“Who are you and who are we?”), and to both the resolution is “Keep on rocking baby” – i.e. fuck off – “’til the night is gone.” Or: to hell with the end of the world, let’s dance.

Remembering that, in 1980, more than one group of musicians were making and releasing albums, convinced that it might be their last.

Still, this was something of a shock. Now she knew her husband didn’t write the words; that had always been Benny’s job. But of course he would have read them, set them to music – perhaps even sniggering in the back room at the suffering they intended to put her through? No, surely not; they weren’t exactly strangers to doing yearning ballads of lost love. Yet this one seemed ominously final. She thought briefly of the stories she’d heard about Ronnie Spector; kept a prisoner in her husband’s mansion while being forced (at gunpoint, some claimed) to sing things like “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine.”

“Andante, Andante” sounds like a milder “Ruby Tuesday,” while the lead guitar makes like Mike Oldfield doing a medley of tracks off String Of Hits, but really, the humiliation of it all; a song sung by a song telling its singer how to sing it (HUH??!!?). Little wonder that Frida finishes it with a final “DOWN” on the line “Please don’t let me down” which is harsh, extended and threatening.

Even the grannies-in-Arbroath songs aren’t quite coming out right, now.

But no one was holding her hostage in Polar Studios. If she didn’t want to sing the song she could just refuse; if they pressed her she could always just walk out and quit – it wasn’t as though she needed the money. Besides which, she reminded herself through internally gritted teeth, you’re a professional. Just sing it. But turn their words back upon them; sing them as though you’ve never meant anything more fervently in your life.

As for “Me and I,” a song explicitly about “split identity,” citing Jekyll and Hyde – “Sometimes when I scream,” “Good old Dr Freud” – which musically goes to Simple Minds land with chunky synth lines and teeth-chattering guitar before encompassing the middle eight of “You To Me Are Everything,” involving a vocoder and whose final conclusion echoes “Le Freak” by Chic (another way of saying “fuck off”), is this Gabriel’s intruder again? The Numan who sings in front of faceless faces by night and keeps them out of his sight by day?

Where the hell – or to what, or whose, hell – is this record taking us, exactly?

She donned headphones and waited for the backing track to start up. A dolorous piano treated with echo and Wurlitzer, just like that odd “Video Killed The Radio Star” thing they’d heard in Britain a few months earlier. It plays the mournful chorus harmonies, and then stops, pauses.

“Happy New Year” sounds as though coming from the underground bunker; a song to a world which they know in their bones has vanished (“…I see/How the [brave new world] thrives/On the ashes/Of our lives”; “Ashes To Ashes,” anybody?) and they sing – the voices are mixed forward, and harshly so, throughout the record, as though admonishing the world – not just about their world, where blue habitually turns to grey, but…well, try this:

“It’s the end of a decade/In another ten years’ time/Who can say what we’ll find?/What lies waiting DOWN THE LINE/In (sic) the end of ’89?”

Listen to how the singer bites down on, and roars out, that “DOWN THE LINE,” and it is as if Abba are laying the whole of the twentieth century to rest, angrily pulling down the curtain on the world. It is like – well, why even bother carrying on, if 1989 is only going to be as shitty as 1979 was? It’s a far more dramatic and convincing curtain-drawer on an age than “I Was Only Joking” even if only because its very structure implies that there is neither happiness nor newness – nor, maybe, even another year – on the horizon.

Abba, in the slow, procedural act of closing down the planet.

She takes the biggest breath she has ever taken in her life, and begins to sing:
“I don’t wanna talk about things we’ve gone through.
Though it’s hurting me, now it’s history.”

“Our Last Summer” acts as a sort of sister song to “Happy New Year” except that it concentrates on shutting down – or shutting up – the sixties, and everything that might once have represented. The setting is 1967 Paris, full of Notre Dame tourist jams, walks along the Seine, “the flower power” and “morning croissants,” and the song seems as resolutely forlorn as Roxy’s “Song For Europe,” because the listener is never allowed to forget that this scenario, this Camelotian ideal, is now gone, extinct, wiped out. Lasse Wellander’s guitar solo is played like a presumptive Brian May. But the undertow of hissing hatred with which the following verse is sung is genuinely disturbing, just as it is hurtingly regretful:

“And now you’re working in a bank/The family man/A football fan/And your name is Harry…/How DULL it seems.”

Hang on, the listener may wish to interject at this point, wouldn’t he have been named Harry back in 1967?

Or is there nobody left to call him Joe?

That verse is, I think, absolutely crucial to any understanding of this record, because it speaks of a deeper betrayal; that we went through all this once, that you believed it, or told me that you believed in it – but you ended up selling out like all the rest, like everyone we laughed at…

(“Well, listen Mr Average YOU’RE A JERK” – oh yes, that’s coming down the pipeline…)

…like everyone we hated, like our PARENTS.

Because, “Harry the Hippie,” something in you DIED then, or you cut something off, or let somebody else cut it off, and you’re a ghost, just like Jack at the end of Revolutionary Road - making out you’re doing fine, but you know “they” got to you…


Is that who bought Super Trouper? The disappointed floating voters of 1979 who imagined Mrs Thatcher was going to “change” everything for the better but now maybe hate themselves more than they’ve ever done? Who see their lives being mortgaged down the toilet pan? Who loathe themselves because they settled for being twelfth best?

But you bastards won’t let it lie, will you? she thought to herself. The song was one about a cuckolded, humiliated lover, forced to hand over the keys to her life to someone else. This wasn’t the noble, selfless grace of “Make It Easy On Yourself”’s self-sacrifice. No, the song is, she discovers, all about the necessity to grit one’s teeth as one’s life and purpose are being destroyed in front of her, defenceless.

From the title inwards, “The Piper” sounds as though it’s going to be a final flourish for the appealing campfire singalong side of Abba, but even this sounds out of focus; the song’s subject appears to be the Pied Piper, luring its hypnotised victims towards a dance of death. The recorder feels much more like Gryphon than James Last; the vocals are overcooked, the arrangement not quite right. It is like a lost song from The Wicker Man (well, didn’t that feature a Swedish woman as well?).

Clutching at straws, they find that the old game cannot be played any more.

The song builds up in intensity, as their ballads always tended to do, and she rides its waves – “I was in your arms,” “Building me a fence,” “Building me a home” are all sung as succeeding ascending steps of a spiral staircase leading to nowhere except a huge fall. She noted the Thomas Hardy allusion of “The gods may throw a dice/Their minds as cold as ice,” and all the while she is finding it less and less easy to control her flood of feelings, her surfeit of sorrow – “It’s simple and it’s plain! Why should I complain?” she nearly cries.

“Lay All Your Love On Me” revisits, briefly, the disco age, but its scope is wider than anything on Voulez-Vous and its lyric and delivery much more hysterical, perhaps in the gynaecological sense of the word, as it sings of a love, or possession, that inspires jealousy, paranoia, self-hate…anything but love. The music veers from its basic “Don’t Leave Me This Way” template to synths and voices rudely being turned off at the wall socket in the fashion of “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” before vocoders and overdubs materialise at the choruses to give a catholic grandeur that conveys the mood of a remix of Rachmaninov’s Vespers (via “I’m Not In Love”), echoing stately and mournfully. The 1980 Brotherhood of Man must have listened to this and wept. The people of 1981 and 1982 who would follow Abba’s lead must have listened to this and been inspired.

Then, the song pauses and lowers down to knee height for the difficult bit, the most bastard bit for her to sing. She feels as though she is stabbing herself as she sings it, quietly:

“But tell me, does she kiss like I used to kiss you? Does it feel the same when she calls your name?”

And then the song segues straight into applause, the group finally facing their audience, “The Way Old Friends Do,” recorded live at an unspecified location.

A woman divorced by her husband being asked to sing a song co-written by her husband wherein she asks her ex-husband whether his new partner is as good as she was. “But what can I say? Rules must be obeyed.”

They huddle in the shelter, they know they have had their bad times (“After fights/And words of violence”), but they will stay together, “we all” will stay together because, as 1980 hastens towards its dying light, there is nowhere else for “us” to go.

Maybe one of these lovers of today weeps for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Then the song fills up again, with distant echoes of keyboard and backing vocals – Frida is practically a poltergeist on this song – and as she reaches the penultimate chorus it feels like the end of everything. Again the quiet piano to give her a final, doomed chance of defiance:

“I don’t wanna talk if it makes you feel sad.
And I understand – you’ve come to shake my hand.
I apologise if it makes you feel bad
Seeing me so tense.
No self-confidence.”

She looks at him on the other side of the control booth, eyes burnished with hatred, visibly shaking, audibly trembling.


Not for one second do you believe them.

Not even when the bombastic “Faithful Hussar” fanfares lurch out; all these people gathered in a single, spotlit place in the dark, perhaps the last place to exist on Earth, to sing an anthem, one which might unnerve or inspire.

The only way to end this bitter, harsh and aggressive record. A record which says: “the façade is gone; WE are Abba, and ladies and gentlemen, we are in trouble and probably falling apart. You have been privileged to witness our collapse.”

“But you see,” she says, “THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL!” And with that the job is done; she removes the headphones, is out of the door before the song has even ended. She will have to come back to overdub some backing vocals but at that second she never wants to come back into that studio again. And also the professional in her takes over; as a horribly real weepie it is likely to be one of the biggest hits they’re ever likely to have, even by their own standards, and, well – it has to be promoted, contracts must be honoured, taxes paid. It is still very far from over. But, just as she reaches the studio door, she catches in the corner of her eye Björn and Benny, sitting there, open-mouthed at what they’ve just recorded and listened to and watched; maybe even thinking this is far too raw to come out even as a B-side. Her performance is, she knows, genuine and candid and shrivelling and accusatory; she has sung her hate disguised as regret and gamesmanship right back at them. Yes, Agnetha, she tells herself, that was the greatest performance of your life, maybe even the most emotionally naked vocal performance on a pop record by anyone – and you didn’t even need to perform. You showed them, all right.

The cover. All these performers, these outcasts.
You’re not implying…?
Who are you?
And who are we?
It’s obvious, isn’t it? 1991, a music video set in a gymnasium, all done in slow motion.
My God!
Some people thought that.
So “We will always see it through…”
Leads us to “all in all is all we are.”
It was quite an adventure, this 1980.
I couldn’t have done it alone. It tired me out, it exhilarated me, it contains some of the most challenging music to appear in any year this story is covering.
People will not find 1981 such a comfortable ride.
Especially as it begins with two important hangovers from 1980.
Ah yes. This album managed to stay at number one right through…
Don’t give it away just yet. Perhaps that emphasised how conclusive and colossal this record was.
The “Winner Takes It All” stuff…
…was slightly remixed from what I wrote about the song on Popular. But it was always my intention that it would end up here. Who did you say you were again?
Later. You have to give the readers something to look forward to.