15 September 2009

"I must have kept on dragging through the business of the day..."

The Day Before You Came by Abba. As un-Abba as you can get when you look at their career really, given its understated, monotonous progress as it appropriately charts the mundane life of someone profoundly lacking excitement.

It captures an affinity with ordinary life that must come difficult to most pop superstars, with all the references to trains, offices, watching trash on television and listening to the night-time rain after turning in. But in 1982, when this was released, Abba were dying as a band, having gone through their brace of divorces over the previous two years and therefore making them no different to millions of other warring couples.

Maybe it isn't remarkable that the two Abba couples managed to maintain a working relationship and a amiable terms for as long as they did. Many couples stay on reasonable terms after the end of their marriages. Yet these two marriages were such an endearing part of one of the most high-profile, successful showbusiness stories and the world was there to watch them collapse. Abba's reaction was to do The Winner Takes It All.

So, The Day Before You Came then. It's Agnetha singing about the functionalities of life that so many people have to endure - getting up, going to a workplace that does not inspire, relying on public transport and getting back to a home with nobody to greet you. What makes this song brilliant is what it lacks, not what it has, and this is the most un-Abba thing about it - there is no chorus. Three straight verses which build the story up, and by the end you're wondering exactly when the next day, during this vicious tedium the storyteller relates, the person who will save her from herself will turn up, and what he will do.

The lyrics are intricate, pedantic and deliberately anal. "I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two" never fails to raise a smile. Previously, the line "And having gotten through the editorial no doubt I must have frowned" gives a great image of a person who, like so many, deliberately purchases a morning newspaper with political views that do not reflect their own.

And, of course, there wasn't a single episode of Dallas that she didn't see, apparently. Especially in the early 1980s, when JR had been shot and then in the next series, we waited to see for ages whether it was Pam or someone less significant in that swimming pool. Not sure it would have had the same effect had she spent her singleton years obsessed with Mog or Gems, really.

As good as this song was, the combination of Abba's disintegrating shelf-life and its lack of familiarity with the Abba sound curtailed its progress and it only got to No.32 in the UK charts. Evidently Abba were on their last legs, though it wasn't until a year later that it was confirmed.

The video crosses between the two days, with Agnetha sometimes smiling at her beau-in-waiting while flashing back to his absence the day before. She seems to have the most picturesque journey to work possible prior to a car journey in the rain, without seat belt, that offers no obvious explanation (unless she drives to and from the station each morning).

The rest of the band get to stare moodily at the camera for a brief spell during the third verse (something Benny simply can't carry off properly while sporting that beard) before we return to the platform as the train disappears, wondering whether the man of Agnetha's dreams had made it to his seat or not. Most of the video is inconclusive, save for one obvious thing - Agnetha with those light curls was probably at her most completely gorgeous.

People remember fondly, and with good reason, the joyous version that Blancmange released in 1984, reaching a respectable No.22. For reasons known only to themselves, they opted to alter the identity of the bedtime author to Barbara Cartland from the feminist writer Marilyn French. If one assumes Neil Arthur wouldn't have ever read a French novel, it's equally hard to imagine him settling down with one of Cartland's treacly tomes. Maybe that was the point, and it's the sign of fine composition that one can find a point in a song so obviously about life's pointlessness.


Charles Nove said...

Mmmm...Agnetha ......(sigh;)
What a voice.

Bright Ambassador said...

Who'd have thought it, you've written about a song I like! Hurrah!

I read recently that it's told from the perspective of a murder victim.

Blancmange's version was pretty pointless if you ask me though, it sounds exactly the same but with a bloke singing. Why do a cover if you're not bringing anything new to the party?

JM said...

I've always thought there was a delightful ambiguity about the song, as its melancholy tone meant you were never quite sure whether the imminent transformation of the singer's life was a change for the better or not.

On a similar note, try viewing 'Missing' by EBTG with the idea that the object of the song has died rather than just left her. The whole song takes on a very different tone.

Jon Peake said...

I much prefer the Blancmange version. It retains the creeping menace without being dirgy like the original, which I heard Benny from Abba say was his favourite ever Abba song.

Nation Stole My Robots said...

So Abba invented Pet Shop Boys, it seems. The Americanisms ("gotten through the editorial", "Chinese food to go") always sounded odd when sung without an American accent

I see they resisted the urge to do a literal video, where Agnetha peers coquettishly over her Daily Star.

Kolley Kibber said...

Might I recommend another cover of this song by The Real Tuesday Weld? It has an excellent bit of oboe.

Simon said...

I've also read recently that it is told from the perspective of a murder victim. This theory fits the atmosphere of the song much better in my opinion.