Four decades ago ABBA released what many regard to be one of their greatest compositions. Dancing Queen? Too predictable. S.O.S? Too early, girly. The Winner Take It All? Too late, Kate. The record I’m talking about is Knowing Me, Knowing You. A-ha! The third and final single from the Swedish quartet’s appropriately titled Arrival album (being their first studio set to top the charts), it was released on 14th February, 1977.
A song of heartache and mistrust released on Valentine’s Day? Now that’s what I call ennui. Knowing Me, Knowing You is the first of the Nordic Fab Four’s great wintry epics of grown-up heartbreak and the depressed resignation that things, actually, might not get better. As with their previous singular outing, Money Money Money, the track is one Frida’s infrequent star turns, though her first verse performance is a trifle wobbly. Never mind, Agnetha (the blonde one with the sexy bum-bum) nearly steals it with her seductive spectral whispers, and Benny keyboards hit the glacial grandeur they’re aiming for.
Sombre verses followed by uplifting choruses is what ABBA did best, and the recording wisely plays up this emotional intensity while balancing it with plenty of ear-friendly hooks like the devastating multi-part harmonies on the choruses and the tear-jerker guitar riff that follows each chorus. The combination of from-the-heart songwriting and impeccable production savvy resulted in another major international hit. You don’t have to ask if it reached Number 1.
With a video almost as iconic as the song it accompanies, Knowing Me, Knowing You a crucial song in ABBA’s development because its success gave Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the chance to pursue a more serious take on romance in their music and set a precedent that would lead to further stunning ballads like The Name of the Game, The Winner Takes It All and their monumental swansong, The Day Before You Came. Hell, French & Saunders only parodied the best, right?
I recall their erstwhile colleague, Stephen Fry, once saying the joy of ABBA was that they were far, far, better than they needed to be. And if you think who their shiny pop contemporaries were at the time – Manhattan Transfer, Brotherhood of Man, Boney M. – you can totally understand where’s he’s coming from.
To me, they’re the musical equivalent of a deluxe gourmet beefburger – wagyu beef, brioche bun, havarti cheese, artisanal ketchup, organic lettuce and hand-cut double cooked fries on the side – a level of care, expense and quality of ingredients completely at odds with what people expect from that type of food. The end product manages to both be a satisfying quality meal, and scratch that base itch for dirty junk food.
While the music press didn’t have a little respect for ABBA until long after they’d disbanded, musicians that transcended musical genres on either side of the Atlantic couldn’t get enough of them. Take a bow, Brian Eno, Elvis Costello, Pete Townsend, Noel Gallagher, Ritchie Blackmore, Pete Townshend, Adam Ant, Madonna, John Lydon, Sid Vicious, Ian McCulloch, Brian May, John Lennon, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl, Phil Oakey, Chrissie Hynde, Katy Perry, New Order’s Peter Hook and U2’s Bono.
It’s often the case that professional musicians are a lot more open minded and have more eclectic tastes than the tribal gatherings of journalists and fans.
C’est la vie.