Agnetha Fältskog at 70: why The Day Before You Came is ABBA’s most overlooked masterpiece

Few platinum pop artists got to experience the ups and downs of huge superstardom like “the girl with the golden hair” Agnetha Åse Fältskog. Still blonde, still beautiful and still singing (now and then), the ABBA singer, born on 5 April 1950, celebrates her 70th birthday today.

Four decades after the fabber four released their farewell recordings, there’s one Agnetha ‘solo’ vocal in particular that’s so poignant, so perfectly nuanced, that it’s a masterpiece of melodrama rivalled only by The Winner Takes It All in the heartbreak stakes.

This is The Day Before You Came

There once was a time when it was beyond uncool to like ABBA, and covering their songs was certainly not on many artists’ agenda. Far from it. But after the awesome foursome went on hiatus in 1983, an English synth duo changed all that with their version of what many regard as the last true ABBA song. 

Excise Erasure, because in 1984 it was Blancmange who became the first notable act to have a hit with an ABBA tune, taking The Day Before You Came ten places higher in the British charts than the original had managed.

Combining that noted Swedish melancholy and trademark melodicism with the artful quirkiness of Synth Britannia, the lengthy song fitted well with Neil Arthur’s deep melodramatics. Add in the mystique of the Indian sub-continent and it was pure heaven.

I remember being slightly puzzled at the time, because, for some reason, the original had completely passed me by.

I don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, and as the track only limped into the Top 40 at a lowly No.32 there was no promo spot on Top Of The Pops, which made Blancmange’s pair of appearances plugging the same song less than two years later all the more ironic.

This is one of them.

There was clearly trouble at mill. The chart prophet of doom had a field day when the previous 45, Head Over Heels, was issued early that March. For the first time since I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do in 1975, an ABBA single failed to reach the Top 10 in the UK, stalling at number 25.

For the band viewed the British chart as an indicator of what was hot and what was not, and the signals were suggesting lukewarm at best. As is often the case with the musical landscape after the turn of the decade, there were signs that the changing of the guard would be post-dated by a year or two. And the collective taste arbiters decided that there would be a stay of execution for ABBA while Adam And The Ants and Duran Duran really got into their stride, but eventually the Swedes were indelibly marked with a Best Before label; cf Nirvana and the grunge explosion that took off in 1991.

The LP which The Day Before You Came was attached to, the double disc overview The Singles: The First Ten Years, had given the quartet their eighth and final No.1 album as a working entity, but it was patently obvious that the days as a mighty hit making machine were over for this Nordic colossus that had completely dominated the pop world in the second half of the Seventies.

ABBA’s 1982 recording sessions for a projected ninth studio album yielded six completed songs, recorded in two batches of three with a couple of months’ break in between. The Day Before You Came and Cassandra were released as the autumn single, while Under Attack and You Owe Me One were released as the winter single. I Am The City was released in 1993 on the More ABBA Gold compilation, the odds-and sods follow up to 1992’s phenomenally successful ABBA Gold, which had capitalised on the chart-topping success of Erasure’s ABBA-esque EP. 

A sixth, the sugary Just Like That, remains unreleased due to its authors Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus remaining unsatisfied with it, although a snatch of the chorus section is included in an ABBA Undeleted medley, which is a 20 minute or so sequence of tantalising tasters of unfinished songs from their entire career stitched together and issued on the comprehensive 1994 box set Thank You. 

What a way to go, though. On August 20 1982—ten years and five months after ABBA’s first recording, the yodelling kitsch that was People Need Love—the now divorced ex couples ventured into their own Polar Studios in Stockholm and recorded the last of the sextet of songs, and their last ever track as a working group. 

In an attempt to keep up with the New Romantic electronica that ruled the charts after the enforced death of disco, ABBA’s heavily layered instrumentation had become overly synth dominated, in particular due to Benny’s infatuation with the Yamaha GX-1, an enormous contraptions with no less than three keyboards, but what Andersson would refer to as “the world’s nicest synthesizer,” which, handily, would replace parts that would normally have been played by an orchestra.

Always great recyclers of their own material, the ber-der-ber synth riff is on loan from minor work Should I Laugh Or Cry, the 45 flipside to One Of Us, the quartet’s last chart-topping single in most of the world.

Sadly, or not, Björn seems to have almost disappeared from ABBA’s 1982 recordings. Carl Magnus Palm, anorak author of the excellent ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions, is pretty sure Ulvæus is strumming away on acoustic guitar somewhere, but it’s mixed down to nothing.

The Day Before You Came is ABBA at their wrist-slitting best. In fact, it also sounds like a band that’s already split. All you hear is Benny’s synths as proggy electronic flutes flutter moth-like… and Agnetha not singing, just saying—Björn had instructed his former wife to sound bored. She did—in plainly plaintive spades. But lovely Frida, or Anni-Frid Lyngstad to be precise, is on there too, doing that glacial ethereal “Ahh….”.

In fact, much of the girls’ trademark vocal melodies remain on the other ’82 tracks. Spend a little time listening closely to the backing vocals on any of these half-dozen and maybe you’ll be amazed at the layering and interplay between Agnetha and her Norwegian born counterpart, who, curiously, only takes the lead on one solitary song, the pretty, complentative Cassandra.

The most perfect pop record by the most perfect pop group, and how did ‘Great’ Britain respond to the awesome foursome giving them the gift of their greatest song? Harumph. Whereas ABBA 45s had traditionally crashed straight into the upper echelons of the chart after just a few days’ sales, TDBYC climbed to the giddy heights of number 32 on its second week on chart, then did an about turn and went into terminal decline.

Never has the record buying public rewarded an act’s best track so tattily since, well since Ultravox’s Vienna was deprived of the top spot the year before, because of an almost criminal ‘comedy’ record called Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce. Where was Gabbana to step in and put a stop to the madness, eh? Eh.

To add insult to injury, the Top 10 the week “Came” peaked was stuffed full of the new breed of British pop, from Culture Club sitting pretty at the top, to fellow Blitz kids Spandau Ballet, Tears For Fears et al, but also, occupying fourth place, the other fab four; a bunch of mop-haired Scousers who hadn’t recorded a note for well over a decade. 

That must have been torture for ABBA to endure, seeing a plain Jane re-release of an old Beatles song be at the opposite end of the charts the their brand new record. Coincidentally, the reported working title for The Day Before You Came was Den Lidande Fageln, which translates as Suffering Bird. Maybe it was meant to be. Palm says this doesn’t sound as hilariously sexist in Swedish, though it does point to the song being a sequel of sorts to the majestic Winner Takes It All. Remember, it’s another one of those deceptively complicated tracks with no clearly defined verse/chorus structure, but, remember it’s also Agnetha’s ex-husband who writes the lyrics and you’ll know what I mean.

A “matter of routine” laundry list in (almost) six minutes. Groundhog Day without the laughs. Crossing off the stations of her day, The Day Before You Came details 24 hours in the narrator’s mundane, lonely life in such heartbreaking detail that it’s either purposeless or profound depending on your perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYxsk1Sv3dE

In fact, what the song does is recite the miserable minutiae of all our lives: sleep, commute, work, eat, work, commute, telly, eat, read, sleep. Oh, and then I met you, and suddenly my pointless life had some meaning. Crikey.

In creative terms it was a sublime if utterly unconventional swan song for a band who had done much to evolve the pop landscape, and Benny and Björn certainly deserve some respect for experimenting and pushing the envelope when the group was running out of steam. Some acts would have dashed off a retread of past glories or uninspired cover version to satisfy record label demands for product.

But that was the delicious contradiction of ABBA. Although karaoke queens the world over love them as the sound of fun, fun, fun, hardcore ABBAholics have always heard something else in their music. The far fabber four were Sweden’s uncrowned kings of sad. Their last studio album, 1981’s The Visitors (my personal favourite, natch) was so unbelievably bleak that my dearly departed old mucker Richard Smith told readers of The Guardian “it made Joy Division sound like Jive Bunny.” Pretty accurate so far.

 

There is a palpable sense of foreboding throughout the entire five minutes and fifty seconds. Our bored protagonist is waiting for someone, for something to happen, but we never learn who she’s waiting for, nor what they brought. She hasn’t been living as much as she’s been maintaining, and the romantic assumption is that she’s about to meet someone who opens up her deathly dull life.

Yet there are hints (in corners of the lyric, in the dark colours of Agnetha’s phrasing) that the “you” of the title is malignant, that she’s referring to the grim reaper in all his gory glory, and that if it is in fact a man she encounters, he doesn’t change her life for the better: the murderer at the door, the tumour on the chart, the train driver that doesn’t brake in time. Maybe even a suicide.

At the time, however, Björn, who had developed into a wordsmith of some complexity whose lyrics were often open to many interpretations, was reluctant to state outright what the song was about. He wanted to retain a sense of mystery, though I also think it would have been too off-putting to the band’s majority female audience to state categorically, “Oh, this one’s about a poor woman who gets bumped off.” 

But I guess the ambiguity of it is one of the things that make the song so special, and it’s probably for the better that we don’t know what occurred the next day, therefore designating the song as a musical mystery in a similar vein to the identity of the subject of Carly Simon’s classic whodunnit You’re So Vain.

Still, it begs the question, What happened after this guy “came”? In a 2010 interview The Times asked Björn exactly that, but reported that he smiled enigmatically, but refused to elaborate. “You’ve spotted it, haven’t you? The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre. We 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.”

“We were really in the dark”, added Andersson. 

Many years after it was laid down in the studio, sound engineer Michael B Tretow recalled the session for The day Before You came. He remembered Agnetha recording her lone vocal track with the lights dimmed. On completing the final verse, she is said to have taken her headphones off before leaving the studio quietly through the back door. This tantalising image of things left unsaid, under a brooding shimmer fits perfectly with the song’s bald, bleak beauty.

Despite the tunnel losing its lovelight, The Day Before You Came still did pretty well in loyal territories like Belgium and The Netherlands, #3 in the latter. Under Attack, the tangotastic follow up, even reached fifth position. But the writing was on the wall with increasingly shorter chart runs.

Everything about Under Attack seems like a sign of resignation, from the composition—which sounds like a lesser copy of Super Trouper, albeit with the subject matter darkened from stage lights to stalker frights—to the somewhat clinical production. Although it’s still a decent song, some of the magic was missing and being ABBA didn’t seem as much fun.

Put it this way, both Benny and Björn had started the year becoming fathers again — to a son and daughter respectively, born in January just a week apart—so if you had the choice between carrying on regardless with the ex-wife in the face of emotional tension and failing record sales, or exploring new creative avenues away from the relentless record company album-promo-tour-album-promo-tour expectations with plenty of time to devote to your new family, it would have been madness for ABBA to continue into 1983.

The video for Under Attack marks the end of an era. It’s not a glorious narrative like The Day Before You Came, but at the end the four members walk away stiffly with their backs to the camera. Ladies and gentlemen, ABBA have left the building.

For the remainder of the 1980s, Ulvaeus felt that “our music had fallen so out [of fashion] that people looked down on it”. He’s right, they did. In the early 1990s, when tribute bands such as Björn Again popped up, they merely compounded the uneasy feeling in his mind that people were laughing at ABBA. “I heard that they spoke with a Swedish accent between the songs, which made me pissed off. But then I spoke to people who went to the shows. They said that it’s a happy feeling and that people are enjoying themselves immensely.”

Years later, of course, we know that irony is merely the first step on the way to critical and commercial rehabilitation. It isn’t irony that has sold over 30 million copies of ABBA Gold and — thanks to Mamma Mia!’s passage from Broadway to Hollywood — that finally made them famous in America.

ABBA’s all-conquering 1992 compilation continues to be a staggeringly successful album – something like one in four homes in Britain owns a copy, where no other album has ever spent longer on charts (Legend by Bob Marley and the Wailers has recently become only the second title to earn 900 weeks on the chart), an astonishingly enduring record where only Queen’s Greatest Hits, an older compilation by some 11 years, has shifted more units.

Ironically, The Day Before You Came was excluded from ABBA Gold for purely commercial reasons. It wasn’t in the top tier of big hits, though it does feature on the sequel, More ABBA Gold.

Neither does the song feature in either Mamma Mia! movie, though that was largely a creative decision. One that, if I’m honest, slightly rankles with me.

The Day Before You Came was actually recorded by Meryl Streep for Here We Go Again—2018’s jukebox musical film number two—in a more organic style with a sweeping string arrangement and updated lyrics replacing Dallas and Marilyn French with the more contemporary House Of Cards and Margaret Atwood.

Streep’s character Donna dies in the story in unexplained circumstances. So, I can’t be the only one puzzled by the non-inclusion? No, the powers that be decided that a song about a woman who seemingly dies in unexplained circumstances doesn’t actually fit in a film about a woman who seemingly dies in unexplained circumstances, and must be relegated to mere digital bonus soundtrack material. 

It’s a funny old world.

I’ve always wondered if Benny and Björn gave up the ABBA ghost when they listened to The Day Before You Came and realised that they could not make a more beautiful record.

But what do I know? You’ll be telling me ABBA reunited and have been recording new material next. And I’ll tell you it’s a crazy world. 

Happy birthday Agnetha. You are the dancing queen who got away. Still, three out of four ain’t bad*.

Steve Pafford

I was in the audience for this shock 2013 appearance (Agnetha doesn’t fly) at London’s famous gay club Heaven, though that’s as close as we got.

Still, I had a dream…

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