Sunday, 6 October 2013

ABBA: The Singles - The First Ten Years

(#271: 27 November 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: Ring Ring/Waterloo/So Long/I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do/SOS/Mamma Mia/Fernando/Dancing Queen/Money, Money, Money/Knowing Me, Knowing You/The Name Of The Game/Take A Chance On Me/Summer Night City/Chiquitita/Does Your Mother Know/Voulez-Vous/Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)/I Have A Dream/The Winner Takes It All/Super Trouper/One Of Us/The Day Before You Came/Under Attack

His name was Richard Cook, and I must have first noticed his name in the NME towards the end of 1979. I can’t remember the jazz album he was reviewing except that it was on the Enja label and was probably South African – the likeliest candidate is Abdullah Ibrahim (back when he was still called Dollar Brand) and his quartet recording Africa – Tears And Laughter, a busy but engaging session where undersung players like Talib Qadr and John Betsch work hard, and Ibrahim/Brand even harder, to sound easy and effortless. I thought; well, here’s another new name on the jazz block.

In the late seventies and early eighties the NME had to work especially hard to catch up on the jazz front with Melody Maker, then under the editorship of Richard Williams and whence Brian Case, latterly the NME’s chief jazz voice, had recently defected. Other active voices included the veteran Max Jones, the less veteran but still renowned Michael James, and Max Harrison, who is one of the greatest music writers I have ever read.

But on the NME, Cook and (eventually) Graham Lock had to go it alone, or as a pair. Over the next couple of years I noticed Cook’s name becoming more frequent in the paper’s pages, and, interestingly, dealing not just with jazz but with practically any type of music which was thrown his way. I realised that, like the other Richard, he was thinking in ways which were roughly parallel to my own thoughts about music, that he diplomatically stood for a natural plurality in music, a world in which everything and everyone was entitled to the same critical standard (I cannot underemphasise the importance of the singular tense there).

I gradually realised that he was a magnificent and possibly visionary writer, and thought that with time and experience I could be a better one. Put it down to teenage student arrogance, but my eyebrows were raised by a review he did of the (double) album of Mike Westbrook’s stage show Mama Chicago, of which he approved and which he said far outdid Escalator Over The Hill, which he dismissed as obfuscatory and overblown. As Escalator was even then, or especially then, my favourite album, I couldn’t let that pass (I’m afraid that I found, and find, Mama Chicago literally overblown, hugely overwritten and tediously overlong) and so I wrote a grumpy review, with covering letter, of the 1981 ECM reissue of EOTH, to the NME.

I got back the expected, Xeroxed thank-you letter from Lynn Hanna (the review was written exactly as you’d expect a record review written in the early eighties by an eighteen-year-old Penman and Morley fan, i.e. unreadable) and heard nothing more about the matter. But a month or so later, I saw in the NME a column called Double Take, in which albums were, shall we say, re-viewed, given a second hearing. And there was Cook, talking about EOTH, making it abundantly clear that he’d read my communication, and rather shamefacedly backtracking, admitting that it was, after all, a singular monument (“It just is”). It was the only, indirect moment of contact we ever had.

Being a writer is one thing, but over the next couple of decades Cook proved that he was much more; his skills as an organiser, editor, animateur, broadcaster, encyclopaedia compiler, motivator and proselytiser have been suitably lauded elsewhere and stretch far beyond anything of which I might be capable. Reading between the lines of the tributes, I would guess he was a quietly awkward presence, officious, stern, quick to bark, and other activities which may have helped to shorten his lifespan. I don’t know – I never met him; although we must have been in the same room or concert hall many, many times, I had no idea even what he looked like (his music press byline pictures seemed designed to avoid the reader seeing his full face); when somebody said, oh the guy in the white mac with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, I thought, oh HIM. He lived until 2007, so theoretically could have been aware of my work, and if he were, then undoubtedly he would have crinkled up his nose and snorted at such arrant nonsense. In probable truth he wouldn’t have known me from Adam (Sweeting); he always had stuff to do, more records to listen to, more stories to absorb.

And sometimes a residual stubbornness, mixed with shortness of temper, led to unhelpful postural castle-building; a stupid row developed between Cook and Morley in 1982 over New Pop and the New Thing which I believe tainted that year’s NME writing for the worse (the celebrated May 1982 Morley Quick Before They Vanish column was essentially him having a go at Cook and Pigbag, and even by the time of the year-end Phil Collins interview, reproduced in Ask,  Morley was still firing cheap shots at the writer).

This possibly fatal stubbornness was still in evidence in the NME as late as 1985, when Cook used a singles review column to decry the presumed tunnel-visioned writing of Neil Taylor, the paper’s chief cheerleader for what would become C86. Violent, colourful and genuinely provocative (as set against the bland, dated snobbery, and worse, seen elsewhere in the paper at the time); it has to be acknowledged that in the context of 1985 Taylor’s voice – you may not agree with him, or only in part with him, but at least he believes in something and speaks up for it – was vital, as such voices are at times of crisis.

Cook’s response was to snort balefully and again, and more angrily, preach the gospel of pluralism. His single of that week was Rick Springfield’s “State Of The Heart,” from his album Tao. Now, the latter is not the worst album you could buy; it sees Springfield (who incidentally wrote “Life Is A Celebration” as heard, rather lumpily and stagily, on The Kids From “Fame”) and co-producer Bill Drescher getting to grips with things like drum machines and glossy mid-eighties fist-shakers to interesting effect, and he gives the 1980 Mondo Rock song a fine, controlled reading (as he had done a few months previously at Live Aid). But even I knew that, as the Mary Chain were conquering all, Rick Springfield was just never going to be enough.

He was highly readable when he wrote about music he liked – principally jazz, in The Wire (more so I think than free improvisation), when he edited the magazine and it still primarily dealt with jazz – but when he turned out routine stuff in Sounds to help pay The Wire’s bills, the results could seem forced (though not always; try to find his five/four/three/two/one-star review of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Flaunt It). And then the “jazz revival” found it couldn’t extend beyond Wardour Street, readership figures fell and Cook was called upon by the magazine’s publisher to go eclectic. Whatever happened with the magazine after his tenure there, it must be remembered that the Michael Jackson cover was something forced upon the editor, rather than something in which the editor naturally believed. I applauded his anti-weariness editorial, just as I had applauded his “if you don’t accept Ayler, the new interest is worth nothing” declaration of principles a few years previously, but the nagging question remained: how far did he really believe (in) this?

My feeling, and the reason why I’m being tough here on Cook as a writer, is that, yes, he probably did believe that the church doors should be flung open but remained a Blue Note fan at heart. As mentioned elsewhere, when he began to co-compile the Penguin jazz guides there is no doubt that he saw this as his true life’s work – his, if you must, Then Play Long – and reading them underlines (like TPL) the importance of having two voices and two minds at work (the other being Brian Morton). But leafing through them is a gruellingly didactic and not especially rewarding experience – whereas I go back to David Thomson’s equivalent books about the cinema again and again, boomerang-style. And the eventual Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopaedia carried with it an unwelcome air of sullen impatience.

But then there are all the nineties PolyGram CD releases – and, crucially, reissues – that he enabled or helped to enable, and there’s no doubt that he gave full service to his chosen music. From my own experience I can also say that I believe that he listened – truly listened – to every record he heard or bought or sold or re-bought or upgraded. I bow to the dozens of writers he discovered, mentored and nurtured, one of whom has more or less turned out to be my mentor. I acknowledge the acres of critical insight which he instigated, and not just within the realm of jazz either, and anticipate lots of flustered responses to this piece saying “hang on, RDC was NEVER like that…”. His NME reviews of Imperial Bedroom and No Jacket Required should act as models to anyone who fancies themselves as a music writer. The multi-part guide to recorded jazz that he and Lock published in the NME midway through 1981 probably helped inspire thousands to discover the music. His Christmas 1982 Coltrane requiem was as downbeat and restrained as anything on Expression. His interview with Hex Enduction Hour-era Mark E Smith was startling enough in its semi-spoken implications for one to overlook the Howard Jones interview that he made up a couple of years later.

But the principal reason why I am mentioning him here at all is because of the review which appeared in the NME of Abba’s double compilation The Singles – The First Ten Years, a review which confirmed, to these expectant eyes at least, that he knew and understood more about New Pop  than we, as readers, thought. First, the assumption that New Pop really wouldn’t be anything without the prior example of Abba; second, that this compilation marked the turning of the critical tide. Not uniformly; Colin Irwin in Melody Maker was a sourpuss, but as that paper’s chief folk correspondent he was probably pissed off at the gradually reducing space his editor was giving him.

And third, that The Singles – with that always fatal subtitle – came at a point when New Pop was on the wane, might even have been dying. The mood of pop in late 1982 was becoming progressively darker; Love Over Gold may only have been a starting point. Even when superficially bright and upbeat, there was a warning sheen of grey, or charcoal sunset, on pop songs of the period; as if the whole adventure were coming to an end. Here are a few other examples:

“I’d Like To See You Again” by A Certain Ratio.
“Desperate But Not Serious” by Adam Ant.
“Living On The Ceiling” by Blancmange.
“Theme From Harry’s Game” by Clannad.
“She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby.
“I.G.Y.” by Donald Fagen.
“Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac.
“Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You)” by A Flock Of Seagulls.
“I Know There’s Something Going On” by Frida.
“’Til Tomorrow” by Marvin Gaye.
“One On One” by Daryl Hall and John Oates.
“Let Me Go” by Heaven 17 (12”).
“Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.
“Shopping” by The Jam.
“Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel.
“The Apple Stretching” by Grace Jones.
“All About You” by Thomas Leer.
“Ice Cream Factory” by Mackenzie Sings Orbidoig.
“Primrose Hill” by Madness.
“Empty Eyes” by Marc and the Mambas.
“Dirty Laundry” by Curtis Mayfield.
“Don’t Make Me Wait” by The Peech Boys.
“1999” by Prince.
“Just Drifting” by Psychic TV.
“Uncertain Smile” by The The (7”).
“Eastworld” by Theatre of Hate.
“Parade” by White and Torch.
“Shipbuilding” by Robert Wyatt.
“Ode To Boy” by Yazoo.

But then with Abba an end was, I think, always in sight. Listening to The Singles, the group’s developmental arc – it is not quite a rainbow – is evident. The quantum leap from jolly Eurovision singalong types (Scott Woods accurately describes “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” as the exact midpoint between Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In The Summertime” and Hurricane Smith’s “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?”) to something else, and darker, was more or less accomplished with “SOS” and that knowledge doesn’t make the latter record any less startling. Then they got as definitive as pop music could be defined; like the Beatles, they kept raising and raising the bar to a level where many people felt they couldn’t keep up; disc one ends with “Summer Night City” which is in danger of overloading the unwitting listener with its remorseless adventure (and hear, elsewhere, the full-length version, complete with Lexicon-style orchestral prelude).

So there was a retrenchment of sorts, back to Eurovision singalongs or sideways steps into disco (side three), but by the time we reach the eighties (side four) there really is no hope left. But was there much hope to begin with? The record starts with the singer pleading with her lover “Why don’t you give me a call?” (does anyone else hear an overlap with Coldplay’s “Talk”?), and by “One Of Us” the message has remained unchanged (“One of is only/Waiting for a call”). And it may be, as Cook persuasively argued, that “Waterloo” saw the immediate displacement of prog by pop, but “Under Attack” – this record, and effectively the group’s, last word – sees the conquering metaphor turned from dream into nightmare, such that the song barely hangs together; its main rhythm line anticipates Massive Attack, but the construction is ungainly, as if Björn and Benny had forgotten how to write a pop song.

Elsewhere it can be noted how “So Long” sounds like Status Quo covering “Little Honda,” how the backing track to “Does Your Mother Know” – is the subject of this song the seventeen-year-old dancing queen seen from a different, and maybe truer, angle? – could well be Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien” and how even campfire singalongs like “Fernando” (finally getting its TPL day here) do not quite escape being disturbing; they have been fighting a war, and appear to have lost it (“Everybody knows that the good guys lost” – Cohen), and are now old, and that Fernando may have lost the will to live (“Since many years/I haven’t seen a rifle in your hands”); what exactly has happened to them? And freedom in whose land? Which war? The Mexican-American one? Furthermore, we note that the trio of number two hits sung by Frida – “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and “I Have A Dream” (two of these were NME-only number twos) – gently suggest that the singer is slowly going out of her mind.

But the bigger Abba got, the darker they got, in ways that the Beatles did not (Abba came down from the top, the Beatles found that they couldn’t get down) and finally, once again, they got so big that they virtually became invisible – and untouchable.

The Singles had been a last gasp decision; the original intention was to make another Abba album – as if any album could be made after The Visitors – and so they trooped into Polar Studios in May 1982, recorded a couple of songs and weren’t too pleased with them. They returned in August to write and record three more songs – one of which was “The Day Before You Came” – but it was clear that the group had come to a logical end, and so two of the new songs were appended onto a deluxe greatest hits package. Well, deluxe to a point; there are no notes, pictures or credits within the album, and the cover sees the quartet, dressed very smartly (Frida already looking like royalty) looking, smiling, away from the camera, perhaps looking back and being both proud and grateful that they had made it through to here. Other proposed songs (which turned up as B-sides and so forth) included “You Owe Me One,” “Cassandra” and “I Am The City”; was this a Gary Numan record?

But what to say about the song which was, essentially, Abba’s farewell?

(And isn’t it strange how, thirty-one years later, Abba have still not, technically speaking, broken up?)

Things to note might include the following:

1.       Agnetha tries to keep her countenance but cannot help sounding anguished. At many points throughout the song she resembles Buffy Sainte-Marie (with an undertow of Stevie Nicks).
2.       Where’s Frida? In the background, distant, like the lover on the faraway opposite bank in Cohen’s “Tower Of Song,” wordless, heartbreakingly exquisite; also available to buy as a single in late 1982 was “Death,” Klaus Nomi’s rendition of Dido’s Lament, recorded when the singer was under the death sentence of Aids, and of which I am strongly reminded here.
3.       But I disagree that the “you” who, or which, comes the following day is death. That would make nonsense of lines like “At the time, I never even noticed I was blue” and “I had no sense of living without aim.” The question is: was she aware of these feelings at all before she met him, and did he instil these feelings in her?
4.       If there’s “death” here, it’s the death of an old life which reads like a living death. She tries to recollect what she did every day without thinking, painfully and painstakingly, at a distance of – what, ten, twenty years? All we are led to believe is that once she had this life and now she doesn’t have that life anymore. What happened in between?
5.       The constant build-up of musical background as emotional intensity steadily increases; more synthesisers, more backing vocals verging on the choral, as if moving towards an unpleasant ending.
6.       Agnetha sounds upset with herself; did she really “live” like that? And how much of this can she actually, or accurately, remember?
7.       The song is an inversion of “I Say A Little Prayer” crossed slightly with “Losing My Mind” (and acknowledging “Alone Again (Naturally)”).
8.       “A matter of routine/I’ve done it ever since I finished school.” The daughter in “Slipping Through My Fingers”; is this what she grows up to become?
9.       The part on the swings in Lanark when Coulter talks about how going to school was just something you did, but the day job wasn’t compulsory; he had chosen to live like this. But he escapes, and Thaw doesn’t.
10.   Add the necessary black humour, in both construction and delivery, and the song really wouldn’t be far away from the Cohen of “Waiting For A Miracle” in a what-have-I-done-with-my-life sense.
11.   She has lunch at the same place with the same people at the same time every day. She reads the paper going to work and another one going away from it. She doesn’t cook (“Chinese food to go”). Why does she need a lot of sleep? Abdication from the need to think about one’s life?
12.   Joy Division. “Decades.” It doesn’t matter whether Björn and Benny knew about them or not. It’s just there; anyone could hear it.
13.   But as “Decades” helped usher open the doors of New Pop, then perhaps this song closes it again, like a coffin lid. There appears to be a deep acknowledgement, not just that Abba were over – while recording the song in half-light, all four knew that the game was up, that there was nowhere left for them to go – but that New Pop, or at least a phase of it, was closing down; there was, after all, a limit to how far you could push the pop envelope. Björn has made it pretty clear that the song was about his and Agnetha’s divorce, but this is an art song, nearly six minutes long with no obvious hooks and acres of linguistic silence (an alternate title could be “Is That All There Is?”); Tim Rice warned the writers at the time that the song might go over the heads of British record buyers as well as Abba fans, and so it proved; as a single it peaked at #32, their worst showing in the UK since “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” six years earlier. Did the stuff in between actually happen? Or were the composers’ feet already halfway out of the pop office, heading for musical theatre?

And yet the whole double album is, if not quite an epitaph for New Pop, at least on the recommended reading list for anyone hoping to understand what it was all about. Cook was unequivocal in his piece, calling Abba “the group who altered the course of pop more than anyone else – anyone…” Including even the Beatles? Cook at least asks us to consider the possibility, to consider all possibilities.

But there is the wider matter of Cook’s legacy. I promised you a resolution in this piece, an explanation of what Then Play Long has been patiently working towards; and now is the time to lay my cards on the table. You see, in handing over the editorial keys of The Wire nearly quarter of a century ago, Cook helped to mentor Mark Sinker, who in turn helped to mentor me, and so I am conscious that a lineage is in operation here; the need to pass on something of importance. I remember when Mark told me about Cook’s death, from a recurrent cancer, six years ago, aged fifty; it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and we were walking through Hackney, and…I didn’t know what to feel; Paul Rutherford, the great improvising trombonist, had died at home, not entirely unexpectedly, at more or less the same time, so my sadness was instantly blunted.

Bear in mind, however, that I am making rank judgments about a man I never knew or met and yet, not that he ever knew it, was one of the architects of me as a writer, or the person who best confirmed what I already felt. And maybe some of his Abba praise was borne out of a darker subtext; that if there had been any sort of “war on pop,” that Abba had actually long since won it, and common people, and particularly women, knew in their bones that they were great, and that hipsters were hopeless. And it strikes me that nothing much in 2013 has changed; everything, from Ayler to Abba, is back in its particular safe niche (rather than at opposite ends of the same CD shelf), all is accounted for, instantly accessible and comprehensible. And it has all ended up making the history of music taste like the blandest of broths.

To want to – not yank, or coax, but maybe to persuade people that all music is worth their attention, that it is all part of the same, interrelated story, is a fast ticket to being ignored

(Kevin Rowland, remixed by the author)

because it’s unmarketable. Everything equal means no arguments, or conflicts, and people want controversy and provocation. Not to listen, or to learn…

And we cannot hope to complete our circle of knowledge about what it’s like to love and understand music until we drop our guard, reach out and listen.

And, by virtue or otherwise at that, we cannot hope to understand and respect each other as human beings.

This tale does not aim to destroy music criticism, but to – reconnect and reconstruct it. To abolish the smart aleck verdicts and either/or traps that keep us all tired and in the darkness.

To stimulate wisdom so that we can all ascend to the same level rather than descend into it.

Never to be afraid of seriousness or to be afraid to laugh.

Other than that I can only hand over to Mr Sinker himself, who put it better than I could ever hope to do when he spoke about Mr Cook in his Wire tribute:

“I remember: his three-fold plan.
To change the way music was written about;
which would change the way it was thought about;
so as to change the way it was played.”

To which I would ambitiously add: and therefore to change the way human beings behave towards one another, so that we might actually save ourselves.

That “we” of Cook’s? It’s still out there –or in here – and some of “us” still feel what he inspired – and, before him and alongside him and after him, writers like Richard Williams, Steve Lake, Karl Dallas, David Thomson, Simon Barnes – and if indeed he is musing on a cloud somewhere, I’d like him to think that his work wasn’t in vain and that the quest, the mission, didn’t die with him.

I see it, and Then Play Long, as a duty to carry on with the work that Richard Cook started, and as a reminder that no exile really ever has to be on their own.

And, actually, don’t Fernando and his lover cross the Rio Grande and escape, thereby becoming exiles?

Time, as so many albums in this tale have concluded, to find our way back home.

Next: A Christmas ghost story.