Sunday, February 18, 2007

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” / ABBA

I suppose this fits in the category of Guilty Pleasures – except I refuse to apologize for loving ABBA. I am, however, willing to admit that my ABBA fondness owes a lot to the Time and Place Factor, right along with Carole King’s Tapestry and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. I was living in Europe, where ABBA was always bigger than in the States, and over the 1976 Christmas holidays, every third song played at every party and disco we went to was “Dancing Queen.” You know that keyboard glissando at the beginning? Everytime the crowd heard it, they let loose a matching hoot of delight. “Dancing Queen” is a fantastic dance hit, at least for the dances people danced in 1976 -- not too fast, full of whoo-oohs and shick-a-shick drums and string section twirls that let you peel off a disco flourish or two.

If pressed, though, I'm willing to concede that “Dancing Queen” is no masterpiece – it’s too much a rip-off of “I Saw Her Standing There.” But “Knowing Me Knowing You”? There’s a song with substance. Really. Bear with me.

Once on a flight to Europe, I saw a documentary about ABBA and I was positively riveted by its account of the tangled love lives of the band's four members, Benny, Bjorn, Frida, and Agnetha. I can’t keep straight who’s who, so don’t ask me which two were married and which ones had the affair, but you get the picture. It struck me as tragic, much more so than the similar affairs that busted up Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and the Papas in their day. “The Winner Takes It All” is the most poignant song they ever recorded about this betrayal and break-up, but “Knowing Me Knowing You” comes close.

Yes, it’s a break-up song, despite its mid-tempo synthesized glitter. Hear that bitterness in the girls’ voices, especially when the men’s voices weave weakly in and out, ineffectually protesting. Those strident female vocals never worked better than in this song (well, this one and “Money, Money, Money”). Then there’s the tantalizing “a-ha’s” thrown in, not to mention the whispered echo of “memories…good days…bad days…”, like the devil on her other shoulder tempting her back into the relationship.

The lyrics casually drop details of this affair. Clearly it's been volatile – “this time we’re through” they keep saying, so you know they’ve broken up before. She’s “walking through an empty house / tears in my eyes,” so they’re been living together; “in these old familiar rooms / Children would play / Now there’s only emptiness / Nothing to say,” so there’s kids involved. I imagine a tough, independent woman (blond of course), pulling the plug on a marriage that’s put them both through the wringer -- hence the hardness of the music's electronic texture, the flat affect of the singing, the forced snappy rhythm. They're past fury, but not yet in acceptance mode; hear how the voices waver briefly on the line “Breaking up is never easy / I know / But I have to go,” with its plaintive echo of all those girl-group songs. It’s practically like a Bergman film in my opinion; those doubled vocals make me see Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Persona.

Did you know that Frida and Agnetha’s vocals were recorded separately, at slightly different tempos? They were then adjusted for playback at the same tempo, which made one girl’s voice come out ever so slightly lower than the other. The result was a distinctive mix of dissonance and bottom, which invested those tracks with an anthemic grandeur. When I heard that (that airplane documentary again) it was like a bell going off – of course! It wasn’t just how great Frida and Agnetha’s voices were; this studio “sweetening” was a stroke of genius, especially given the disco-like shimmer of their wall of sound.

If this were a slow and mournful song, it wouldn’t work. It’s a hard and determined song. She is walking out, and calling on all the steel in her soul to do so. But she’s the level-headed one here, the one who knows her man and knows herself and knows there’s no hope. They’ve given it an honest shot, but it is TIME TO MOVE ON. Well, godspeed, sister. You go, girl.

Take a listen:


Carol said...

Marshall Crenshaw does a killer version of "Knowing Me and Knowing You" on his live CD (he's such a good geetar player. As a mostly single Mom, this tune always got me. My baby girl whom is nearly 32, loves Abba (although she's a great geetarista in her own right)as she remembers spinning around in dress up to "Dancing Queen". We laugh about that now. By the by, Holly, got your link from the Nick list, so I'm the Carol from Nickland.

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, now I KNOW we were twins separated at birth, Carol -- if you love Marshall C AND Dave Alvin AND Johnny Hiatt AND our man Nick. Though, come to think of it, it's not that strange, since they are all amazing talents. Keep checking in here, because I'll bet we have a lot more musical loves in common -- both being both women of such impeccable taste...