Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Abba: 'Cassandra'; 'You Owe Me One'

Even at the age of 13, I knew something was up with Abba as they embarked on promotional duties for their career-spanning hits compilation: The First Ten Years. Only three years had elapsed since Greatest Hits Vol II, but here they were on Saturday Superstore and Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show trying to suppress their boredom with a barrage of questions they had answered a million times before. In Abba The Movie, Agnetha fulfils the same role as Thom Yorke does in Radiohead movie Meeting People Is Easy. The more the madness intensifies around her, the more lost she looks. How ironic that the boys gave Super Trouper to Frida. Cocooned in premium patterned knitwear, she doesn’t remotely like she was sick and tired of everything when she calling you last night from Glasgow. Perhaps Agnetha couldn’t get through the first verse without bursting into tears. Or exploding with fury. Certainly, back on the Late Late Breakfast Show with Noel, it looked like it might go either way. Referring back to the time that the European press corps voted her the continent’s sexiest bottom, she icily intoned, “I’m more than a sexy bottom.” Asked to pick his favourite Abba song, Bj√∂rn seemed equally enervated by the whole charade. “I’d like to pick The Winner Takes It All. Partly because I was told [beforehand] this was to be my choice.” 
In fact, the very existence of The First Ten Years was a testament to Abba’s slow deceleration into a state of limbo from which they never emerged. The previous two years, Abba had delivered a new studio album in time for Christmas. Throughout the early part of 1982, Abba worked on songs for the album that has come to be known by their fans as Opus 10. They appear to have completed six before calling time on the sessions. Two of those songs made it onto The First Ten Years. Under Attack holds the honour of being Abba’s final single – although the one that most people remember being Abba’s farewell is The Day Before You Came. Well, it isn’t hard to see why. The blood-curdling portent with which Agnetha delivered her vocal on that song seemed to harbour a pop mystery as enduring as the identity of the subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. So, what happened the day after this guy came? Whatever it is, it’s not good is it?
Interviewing Bjorn in 2010, I got the chance to ask him directly. “Ah, you’ve spotted it, haven’t you?” he said. “The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre. We really got Agnetha to act the part of the person in that song. In retrospect, it might have been too much of a change for a lot of Abba fans. The energy had gone.”
His point was well made. In the 80s, Abba no longer knew what direction they were supposed to be going in. Their magpie-like adoption of whatever was happening around them – the Roy Wood-inspired glam-overload of Waterloo; the pristine Chic inflections of If It Wasn’t For The Nights; the post-Moroder arpeggiations of Lay All Your Love On Me – abandoned them. Like ELO, the digital age miniaturized their sound. Their music didn’t deteriorate, but in those final years, they struggled to sound like Abba. 
The search for new directions was embodied in the b-sides of those final two singles. Bjorn had moved to Henley Upon Thames with his new wife. He had befriended Tim Rice and, along with Benny, rather fancied a crack at writing a proper musical. Cassandra, on the flipside of The Day Before You Came, also sounds like the work of two songwriters “straining towards musical theatre”. Singing about the eponymous prophetess of the Trojan war in a challenging time-signature is Frida – though, having spent the previous five years gazing at Abba’s schedule with an increasing sense of dread, Agnetha might have been a better fit for the song. 


Save for Frida’s new punky hairdo, Abba’s biggest concession to changing times was Benny’s total jettisoning of piano for synths. Cassandra sounded like an old Abba song struggling to get comfortable in its high-waisted lady-slacks. On the b-side of Under Attack, You Owe Me One was much more fun. In his book, Abba – The Complete Recording Sessions, Abba’s chronicler-in-chief Carl Magnus Palm begs to differ. He refers to the song as the “least attractive” of these sessions. It might have seemed that way, but nearly three decades later, You Owe Me One stands apart from pretty much anything else in Abba’s canon. Like Palm, you suspect that having written it, Benny and Bjorn couldn’t quite work out what it was. The chorus is pure bubblegum. “Aha, um hum/Look what you’ve done/I’m missing all the fun/Baby you owe me one,” sings Frida, declaring to her lover that she has earned the right to flee an intolerably joyless relationship. Perhaps this was what being in Abba felt like in 1982. Perhaps, it was a relief to finally say it. Certainly, You Owe Me One is lightweight in the best possible way. If you could visualize what the tune does, you might imagine its odd sudden turns taking on a PacMan like quality. This is the catchiness you remember from old Atari games, accentuated in a vocal which is far more in keeping with the fluorescent colours of J-Pop than the long shadows of Abba’s final two albums.



Of course, another reason You Owe Me One sounds ahead of its time is that, over 20 years, a lot of pop was beginning to sound like this. The term “wonky pop” was coined by Popjustice’s Peter Robinson to describe the wave of mainstream pop boffins – Calvin Harris, Alphabeat, Frankmusic, Annie – who emerged in the slipstream of Girls Aloud. You Owe Me One could have easily emerged from the huge communal pop brain of Xenomania. Neither would it be any great stretch to imagine , say, Richard X retooling it for the needs of a pop audience who had yet to be born when it first appeared. For all of that, Benny seemed less sure when I asked him about the song. “It shouldn’t have even been a b-side,” he said, after pausing to remember how it went. “It’s a jingle, really.” He’s not wrong, but then again, inside every great pop moment, there lurks “just a jingle.”

5 comments:

  1. Pete, your insightful appreciation of these 2 gems sets us spiralling in pleasure and thoughtwhirls; researched, personal, inspired, your love of the tunes and tunemakers shines brightly. Your blogpost is perfect - not too weightily academic, veering on the right side of sanity, and fabulously presented. Hurrah!

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  2. You Owe Me One starts with (and eventually returns to) a feeble knock-off of Funkytown's main keyboard hook. It then appends a couple of unrelated, and individually undistinguished song fragments. That the lack of musical relation between the fragments here indeed seems of a piece with some of the allegedly A-list pop product of the last decade or so says everything about the slap-dash, song-craft of much of that later product, and does nothing to elevate one of Abba's few really inferior efforts (Benny is right). Lyrics are pretty good, but you have to feel sorry for Frida for having to sing over *that* backing track, and for having her vocal squashed into tight little frequency bands and functioning as little more than note-picking/an autotune guide-track.

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  3. 2 further points.
    1. You say, "You Owe Me One stands apart from pretty much anything else in Abba’s canon". But except for its quality, that's false. YOMO is quite similar (structurally and timbre-wise) to a couple of tracks from Voulez-Vous: As Good As New and Kisses of Fire. YOMO is just a weak version of those (already non-optimal) ideas in my view.
    2. You mention in passing 'the pristine Chic inflections of If It Wasn’t For The Nights'. Really? I hear plenty of Jackson 5 and Bee Gees in IIWFTN's guitar parts (I mashed those three things up here), but not much Nile Rodgers (and everything else is completely unrelated).

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  5. I am a big ABBA fan and have been since I discovered their music in the 1990's (since I was not born when they were a band). I started by collecting old 45s and LPs because that was a cheap way to get a hold of their music for someone in high school. I remember listening to You Owe Me One on the B-side of the 45 and thinking how fun and catchy the song was. All my favorite ABBA songs are from the two last albums and the few extra recordings. Thanks for writing about them!

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