THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL - How Björn & Benny created Abba's best song

Another extract from Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story of Abba.
         It is the summer of 1980 and Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson are on the island of Viggsö, their retreat in the Stockholm archipelago, working on songs for Abba’s seventh album which will be released in November.

Björn and Benny had a third song in them before it was time to return to central Stockholm. “We were sitting there on the Sunday – the night between Saturday and Sunday – and all of a sudden it came up, from old ideas, from old small musical pieces we had,” recalled Benny. “It” was the song now widely regarded as the best recording they ever made.
Even at the writing stage, sitting together head to head in the Viggsö cabin, Benny at the piano and Björn with his acoustic guitar, they sensed they were on to something special. Their enthusiasm for the tune, carrying the working title ‘The Story Of My Life’, made them move it to the top of the list as they convened at Polar to start recording the new songs on Monday, June 2.
The first attempt at a backing track was an uptempo arrangement with a regular, insistent beat. It sounded okay, but it just wasn’t what the songwriters were after; Benny recalled the track as “much too stiff and metrical”. Listening to a rough mix of the recording in the car on their way back home, they decided to try again. “We felt that it was a really important song, and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t ‘lose’ it,” Björn remembered. They let the song rest for a few days, in the meantime devoting their attention to ‘Burning My Bridges’ and ‘Our Last Summer’.
Four days later, on June 6, Björn and Benny were back in the studio with the musicians for a new attempt at ‘The Story Of My Life’. Benny provided the key for the new arrangement when he came up with a “chanson-style”, descending piano line, loosening up the structure considerably and giving the song a better flow.
As a guide demo for this new arrangement, Björn put down a vocal track with a French nonsense lyric. Someone even suggested that this new song could be performed by the lyricist himself. “It’s a good thing I didn’t,” he sighed later, much relieved to have avoided such poor judgment. This was clearly a song that called for expert singing by one of the girls.
As was his habit at this stage in Abba’s career, Björn went home with a tape of the backing track in order to write the lyrics. “I wanted there to be some kind of ambience in the recording,” he recalled, “because then I would get a clearer picture of what the song was ‘saying’. There was more pleasure in that than listening to some tape of me and Benny banging away on a piano and acoustic guitar.”
The layers of French chanson in the arrangement suggested something that called for a touch of the melodramatic: strong feelings about an emotional subject. On this particular night Björn opened a bottle of whisky, and drank freely during the writing process. He later described how, when writing lyrics, he would “just listen [to the backing track], letting my associations be completely free. After that I [could] regard it with the other half of the brain, the intellectual one, and work on that which intuition had brought up.”
On this night the alcohol made him exceptionally relaxed, fuelling his creativity; it was the quickest lyric he ever wrote and also one of the best. “I was drunk,” he recalled, “and the whole lyric came to me in a rush of emotion in one hour. And that never works. You think it’s wonderful at the time but it looks terrible the next day, but that one worked.” When he was finished he had come up with the words for ‘The Winner Takes It All’.
The lyrics dealt, of course, with the break-up of a relationship, always the subject at which Björn excelled during his years with Abba. He would freely admit that the heartbreak with Agnetha inspired ‘The Winner Takes It All’, although the words weren’t meant to be taken literally. As he has pointed out many times, their marital split was not a matter of winners and losers, certainly not for him personally. “I was in a happy new relationship, although of course the theme of a divorce or going separate ways was on my mind – the anguish surrounding that situation – but the rest is pure fiction.”
Nevertheless, the choice of lead vocalist was obvious, and Agnetha put in what unquestionably ranks as her best ever performance on record. Whether or not Agnetha was acting a role when she recorded her lead vocal, as she herself has suggested, is anyone’s guess. It is naïve to imagine, though, that being in the same room as her ex-husband, with whom she had experienced a painful break-up a mere 18 months previously, didn’t in some way affect her interpretation of his words. As Björn would remember, when he gave her the lyrics in the recording studio “a tear or two welled up in her eyes. Because the words really affected her.”
Agnetha herself called ‘The Winner Takes It All’ “the best of all Abba songs[.] The lyrics are deeply personal, and the music is unsurpassed. Singing it was like acting a part. I mustn’t let my feelings take over. It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece.” Later she reflected on how she had developed as a singer, from the nervous 17-year-old small-town girl approaching a studio microphone for the first time, to the 30-year-old divorcee standing in the Polar Music studio, fully concentrated on her task as the backing track played in her headphones. “I feel that I became a better singer the more life experience I got. There is so much you want to share. And my way of sharing is through singing. That’s where I put my emotions.”
It is hard not to agree with Agnetha that ‘The Winner Takes It All’ was something of a masterpiece. Anyone wanting a lesson in pop song structure, and a near-perfect blend of music, lyrics, arrangement and vocal performance, need look no further than this recording. “As a melody, [it’s] the simplest ever,” Benny remarked. “There are only two different melody lines in it that are repeated throughout the whole song, and yet I think we managed to avoid a feeling of repetition.” This was achieved by making the limited variations work to their advantage, contrasting changes in lyrics and melody against constant changes in the arrangement.
After the short intro, the first verse sets the tone in the present by declaring, “I don’t wanna talk / About the things we’ve gone through,” accompanied only by piano and acoustic guitar, playing gently in the background. Then, after the first chorus, the full backing kicks in, as the protagonist moves her story out of the present and begins reminiscing (“I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there”). An emotional crescendo in the second chorus is followed by a reflective, toned-down third verse – still with bass and drums driving the song – wherein the singer questions the validity of her former lover’s new relationship (“Does it feel the same / When she calls your name?”). In the fourth verse, the song is brought back to the present and the tone of the opening declaration, accompanied only by piano and hesitant strings, before creating the most dynamic contrast in the whole piece: the launch of the fully-arranged explosion of emotions in the final chorus. Fade-out.
It was here that Abba’s collective roots in the emotional tradition of European schlager music fulfilled its perfect marriage with Anglo-Saxon pop, two disparate elements, hitherto regarded as impossible to combine, walking hand in hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘The Winner Takes It All’ silenced once and for all any accusations that Abba’s music was little more than cold calculation.
It was a song and recording that had truly evolved from the heart, and everyone who ever heard it would sense this for years to come.


Josh T said...

Great post - a lot of interesting material. I was wondering if you could share the citation for this quoted material from the book as I'd like to use it for research purposes.

Kees said...

thanks for the interesting read!