CSFTD #42: ABBA – The Day Before You Came

With my penchant for all things Swedish /Scandinavian/Nordic I suppose it was inevitable that I’d choose an ABBA song as a CSFTD eventually. I mean, they’ve only sold 500 million records, one for every 16th person in the world, and spawned a musical film – Mamma Mia – which generated $610 million in receipts off a $52 million budget.

Incidentally, I justify my faith in popular music from Sweden if only courtesy of this fascinating titbit, from The Independent. They detailed a clutch of journalists to find something that every country in the world is best at.

Britain came top for ‘billionaires’ the US for ‘spam emails’ and Russia for ‘dashcams.’ The world’s fastest broadband connection is in Lithuania (actually, I knew that one, I’ve tried it and it’s like Usain Bolt compared to our Rab C Nesbitt). The UAE is top for ‘men’ while the accolade for ‘women’ goes to Latvia (determined by how many of one sex there are compared to the other).

‘Pop music?’ You guessed it. Sweden.

I’ll throw in another one as well. A couple of years ago Swedish writers and/or producers were in involved in one of every four hits on the US Billboard Hot 100. No more Swedish chef jokes from Statler and Waldorf in the Muppet Show gallery then. Anyway, he always sounded Canadian to me.

But, down to business. My favourite ABBA song without question is SOS, which such luminaries as John Lennon and Pete Townshend, amongst others, have described as possibly the best pop song ever written (though many songs have been written since they made those remarks of course). Everything about it, the melody, the harmony, the power chords, is just sublime.

But I didn’t choose SOS. Instead I went for The Day before You Came, a relatively much less known song from 1982 as ABBA was coming to an end, partly on the basis that it was selected by the public in 2010 as ABBA’s #3  best song in one of those ‘top 50’ type programmes you often see on ITV.  You could have knocked the presenter over with a feather. He probably had Waterloo and Dancing Queen in his DNA and I don’t think he’d even heard of it. The point is that the pollsters, i.e. the public, possibly got it right this time.

The Day before You Came was originally released in 1982 as both a single, and a track on the compilation album The Singles: The First 10 Years. At close to six minutes it is their second longest song and was the last recording by the band although it wasn’t their final single, which was Under Attack, and which was on the same album.

It didn’t chart well, reaching #2 in the Finnish charts (one place higher than in Sweden!), and #32 in the UK. It has no ranking at all in the US and was possibly not released there.

It is about the banal day to day life of a woman before the arrival of her lover, who changes everything, though there are several other interpretations; it has become something of an academic challenge being as it was their final recording. The working title was ‘The Suffering Bird’ which hints at something much deeper, while bizarrely it was also referred to as ‘Wind.’

The sudden arrival of a new beau might be typical 1980’s pop song fare perhaps but the approach was quite different from ABBA’s previous showbiz image, complemented as that was by humungous harmonies and outlandish stage outfits. Quite different in style, too. In a clean break with their previous tradition of trying to cram as much stuff into a song as they could, it meanders along like heartbreak in slow motion, almost mesmerising, with only synths and Agnetha Fältskog’s vocals for company (unusually, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, or ‘Frida’ only added backing vocals on this song). What’s more, there is no clear ending; it is more like a mystery tour.

As is often the case with ABBA there’s some personal history in it.  Björn Ulvaeus wrote the lyrics, and has never denied they were influenced by his divorce from Fältskog, as was also the case with Winner takes It All. ABBA’s sound engineer recalls that Fältskog performed the song with the lights dimmed, the mood was gloomy and everyone knew the band had reached its end point. Fältskog removed her headphones and walked solemnly out of the studio, never to return.

Ulvaeus himself believed the song to be too different and ahead of its time for the ABBA fans, or too much of a change, too removed, for many of them. Benny Andersson considered Ulvaeus’ lyric to be the best he’s ever written.

The song is replete with contemporary cultural references such as to the then popular American feminist author Marilyn French and to the TV series Dallas (‘JR’ had just been shot). The latter prompted Björn to write one of his many odd ‘lines-written by a non-native English speaker that don’t quite scan’ – “there’s not I think a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see.”

The official video, below, features Agnetha flirting with a stranger on a train, played by the Swedish actor Jonas Bergström as her love interest. The aforementioned Marilyn French, better known for her misquoted claim that “all men are rapists” had by then written her novel The Bleeding Heart, in which two strangers meet on a train, fall in love but quickly realise they have nothing in common and that their relationship is doomed. Much like the video really.

The song has often been covered, by such as Tanita Tikaram and Blancmange, but strangely by no really big name in the business. To some critics it is a ‘forgotten masterpiece.’

In March 2010, ABBA was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Rumours persist they are going to reform for one last fling. My man in Sweden, who was the last person to interview Agnetha Fältskog, does not think they will. I’m not so sure, time is pressing for them because of the physical demands of ageing but in any case touring would be limited (she hated it). Early in 2016 they made a public appearance at a Mamma Mia event in Stockholm, the first time in eight years and then later that year at a private party celebrating 50 years to the day since Andersson and Ulvaeus first met, all four took to the stage, singing the ABBA song ‘The Way Old Friends Do.’ In October it was announced they would reunite to work on a new digital entertainment experience, details of which would be announced in 2017.

Voulez-vous, ABBA? On attend votre retour.

©D J Bentley, 2017