Boris Johnson makes me hopping mad. A couple of weeks ago, as you certainly know unless you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere, he announced that he favoured a British exit from the European Union. Now, his reasons for this – his various cunning little schemes, his double-bluffing, his jostling for Conservative leadership – I don’t want to get into, or we’d be here all day. The point is: the current Mayor of London came out in favour of Brexit, with still a couple of months’ active mayor-time left to serve. And so did the Conservative candidate to potentially succeed him, Zac Goldsmith. That, to me, is pretty shocking, and allow me to tell you why.
After the 1993 Maastricht Treaty permitted free movement of labour within the EU (one of the “four economic freedoms”), lots of people started moving around. People from various countries moved to various other countries to live, work, study, start businesses, and so on. That was the idea. Naturally, a lot of them ended up in Britain, and naturally a lot of those people ended up in London. Over the next 23 years – that’s twenty-three years, almost two and a half decades – this movement continued all over the EU. Businesses thrived. Cultures were exchanged. Families were created. The cultures of the various European countries were not diluted and weakened into one boring, monotonous mass, as was feared by some. Quite the opposite: local cultures were respected, and largely strengthened. Like any group of societies, it hasn’t been without its problems, but generally the fusion of cultures has created a more colourful, cosmopolitan collection of places, and few cities have benefitted from this process as much as London.
So, Boris Johnson comes along in 2008 and finds himself mayor of a city of eight million people, of which, recent estimates suggest, 600,000 are EU nationals. These particular individuals have chosen not to seek British Citizenship, partly because it’s a lengthy, arduous process which costs close to £1500 (yes, even if you’re married to a British citizen), but mainly because not doing so was the whole point of the free movement of labour, which has been in place for the aforementioned 23 years. Now the EU Referendum looms, and nowhere (and I’d be delighted if someone could correct me on this) – but nowhere have I read or heard anyone, in any political capacity, stating what they expect to happen to these 600,000 people – let alone those in the rest of Britain – if we Brexit. I’m going to list a few possibilities, and I would suggest that the reader refrains from immediately scoffing, “oh, I’m sure that won’t happen” – because, again, I have no reason to believe anyone has the faintest idea.
They could be given a period of time in which to gather their things and return to their country of origin.
They could be asked to apply for Indefinite Leave To Remain and/or a work permit.
Possibility 2 could either fail, or take an inordinately long time (we can reasonably assume HM Revenue & Customs will be rather busy in the event of a Brexit vote), and therefore these people could be in line for Possibility 1.
Some arbitrary “long-term resident” rule could be invented, stating that people already living and working here prior to, say, 2010, could be automatically given Indefinite Leave To Remain and/or a work permit.
Everyone already living and working here at the time of a Brexit vote, or at the actual point of us Brexitting, could be welcomed to stay.
Free movement of labour from the EU could simply be permitted to continue; but given that this is one of the major bees in Brexit supporters’ bonnets, that seems unlikely.
One of the big problems is: Britain currently has little idea how warmly and/or cooperatively it will be treated by the remaining EU nations if we leave the EU. It’s conceivable, for example, that Britons will have to apply for visas to travel to the EU. I said conceivable. In his book The In/Out Question, Reuters journalist Hugo Dixon advises that “the best guess is that tit-for-tat would prevail… if we started requiring Romanians and Bulgarians to get visas before visiting the UK, the EU would probably respond by requiring us to get visas if we wanted to visit anywhere in the EU.” You may think this is highly unlikely, and maybe it is, but let me remind you: no one knows.
The inevitable result of all this “not-knowing” would be, in the event of a Brexit vote, an atmosphere of acute uncertainty. Individuals and families across the country will have long-term plans – houses, jobs, schools – put into disarray (just as British nationals living and working in other EU countries will also). EU nationals with careers in the UK may find their employers hesitant to promote them. New job applications may be tough, as perspective employers have doubts about the applicants’ long-term prospects. In short, it will bugger a lot of things up. Not sure about this? Show me something that suggests the contrary. Show me one high-profile Brexit supporter who has been able to say, as the expression goes, “this is what OUT looks like.” They… don’t… have… a… clue.
Now we return to London. Boris Johnson, the mayor of the city, is effectively saying he doesn’t give a hoot that some 600,000 of his residents would be plunged into turmoil. Zac Goldsmith is applying for the job of Mayor of London, while simultaneously backing a move that will deeply unsettle almost ten percent of the city’s population. Neither of these men has mentioned this. Both are instead concentrating on figures and economics, the former uttering jingoistic tripe about how marvellously strong and rich Britain can be on its own, the latter peddling quotes like “We [London] dominate in financial services, tech, media, culture and much more besides”. Does Goldsmith really have any idea what knock-on effect leaving the EU will have on this so-called “domination”? Finally, there’s the psychological question. How do you think the EU citizens living here personally feel, knowing that the mayor of their city essentially couldn’t give a damn about them? “Oh, come on,” you might think, “backing Brexit doesn’t mean he doesn’t give a damn about them.” Well, show me Johnson’s or Goldsmith’s long-term plan for these vital residents of our city. Show me the picture of a post-Brexit London either of these men have in mind. Because I don’t think either of those things exist.
The EU Referendum is not some random, figure-counting question where a decision is made by comparing numbers on a screen. It’s not even an important but largely political question, such as an in/out NATO referendum might be. The EU Referendum is about people. Without those 600,000 EU nationals, London would be an infinitely poorer place, in ways too numerous to mention, and if you think this is wrong, I would respectfully suggest that – very simply – you haven’t given it anywhere near enough thought.
Earlier this week I brushed past a Guardian article by the writer and comedian David Baddiel, concerning a pro-Brexit pop video that entirely pilfered the hit football song Three Lions, originally written and performed by Baddiel with Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds. History has ably demonstrated that it’s damned hard to write a decent football pop song, but Three Lions managed simultaneously to be warm-hearted, funny, emotionally stirring and massively singable. If it was mine, I reckon I’d be hopping mad if someone nicked it for political ends, regardless of the angle. But the general tone of Baddiel’s Guardian piece suggested he’s pretty chilled-out about it. Which is nice. But it’s not really my concern. What bothered me was something Baddiel wrote in his penultimate paragraph.
The truth about Brexit v Bremain is that most people, myself included, know Bruckallaboutit… Whether or not we should stay in the EU is something that politicians and journalists get remarkably wound up about, but most common folk are either bored of the subject, or, more likely, feel excluded from the basic information they might need to decide about it.
Sorry, but isn’t that rather alarming? This is one of the most important decisions the people of our country have had to make, and he claims to know “Bruckallaboutit”? David Baddiel is a presumably urbane, intelligent, cultured and worldly fifty-something parent who works in the international entertainment industry. If HE hasn’t got the Bruckingest clue about the Brexit question, then really – what hope do the rest of us have?
It says one thing to me rather loudly. That neither the In or Out campaigns, and associated supporters, are doing a particularly good job. Scaremongering from the In campaign, which puts people off. Gung-ho, everything’s-gonna-be-all-right bluster from the Out campaign, which puts people off. Badly written, over-complicated polemic pieces of writing, which no one can be bothered to wade through. Well-written, well-reasoned and nicely concise pieces, but by people (e.g. Lord Mandelson) that the public stopped trusting a long time ago. Surely it must be easier than this. Baddiel states that he’s not sure what to do because “he hasn’t read the 237 pages of the Treaty of Lisbon”. He’s having a laugh, of course, but his joke reflects a worrying situation: people think they need to read a diplomatic document hundreds of pages long in order to form a fully balanced view of the situation. His article links to another Guardian piece, in which the writer, bemoaning the lack of clarity, claims that “we need some detail”. Actually I think that’s the last thing we need. There are plenty of intrepid souls out there who pore haplessly over facts and figures, many of which are conveniently presented to virtually cancel each other out, but mostly, swathes of the country probably do feel thoroughly disconnected from the issue, because they’re unable to tell what a Brexit or a Brstay really means for them.
Because it does mean something. It is worth “common folk” forming a strong opinion on it. How will it affect your job, your wallet, your hospital, your doctor’s surgery, your local cafe, your favourite restaurant, your holiday, your weekend break, your foreign business trip, your German, Italian or Slovakian friend who lives round the corner, your foreign property, your children’s worldview, your opinion of the UK’s position on the planet? Because the EU Referendum will affect all of those things, very deeply. If, hand on your heart, you claim to not give a shit about any of them, good luck to you. But forgive me if I don’t believe you.
And the shame of it is: a writer like David Baddiel giving his opinion on how an In or Out vote would affect his life is exactly what either campaign needs. He may be planning to bring himself up to speed over the next few months and write a scintillating article in May, in which case, bravo. But I fear time is running out. Personally I’m both lucky and unlucky: lucky in the sense that I have a very strong, personally and professionally-influenced view on how I will be voting on June 23, and unlucky in that I’ll feel very nervous about the outcome and the far-reaching effects it will have on my life. I’m sure I’ll be writing something about this between now and voting day. But it won’t be enough. We need more clued-up people to give their view, and I’m not talking about journalists and politicians. We need artists, business owners, filmmakers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, actors, market researchers, scientists, IT consultants, chefs, lorry drivers, police officers, and dozens of other professionals I haven’t thought of, to come out and say how they think an In or Out vote will affect their day to day existence. No more facts and figures; we’ve had enough of those. It needs to get personal, and right soon. Bring it on.
Yesterday in the pub I made the mistake of idly flicking through a copy of the Sunday Times – a newspaper I don’t usually read unless I’m at my parents’ for the weekend – and soon found myself reading a column by Camilla Long. This article was a closing flourish to a colourful week for Ms Long, a week that has seen her shift from respected (one must assume) film critic to a kind of online H-bomb. The chief reason for this, as those who’ve had better things to do might be unaware of, is that she’s become rather worked up about how worked up everyone’s getting about the death of David Bowie. All this riveting action has taken place, I need hardly add, on Twitter.
“FUCK OFF. Man the fuck up and say something interesting,” was her opening gambit, followed by numerous other posts, few of which were any nicer. The inevitable torrent of bilious replies followed. Her Sunday Times article was less an explanation or apology for her actions, more the grinding of any emotional response to Bowie’s death into a muddy puddle. Within its 800 or so words, she dismissed allsocial media reactions to Bowie’s death as “fake” or “infantile”, bafflingly refusing to acknowledge the existence of any middle ground between a) people who agree with her, and z) people who have been sending her online abuse. Worse, she attempts to regulate people’s emotions by flatly stating that “there are so many more meaningful things to cry about”. It’s unclear what she’s aiming to achieve. Perhaps she’s hoping to become a new controversialist: a sort of Katie Hopkins with slightly better hair.
Anyway. The reason I’m mentioning this is that over the next five, ten, fifteen plus years, lots of rock stars are going to die. This is not a statement of murderous intent, it’s just a scientific and mathematic certainty. Some of them will be very famous and universally loved. Some more “niche”. But die they will. And not just rock stars: comedians, sportspeople, movie stars. All of these deaths will be accompanied by online reactions of some sort. To keep the number of spats like Camilla-Long-gate to a minimum, I think it might be worth remembering a few things. I’ll start with a really obvious one.
1. If you don’t want online abuse, don’t tell 50,000 Twitter followers to fuck off.Online abuse is reprehensible, in all its horrid colours. But there’s an element of “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” here. If reading people’s over-the-top reactions to something pains you, don’t look at it. If it’s hard to avoid it, deal with it some other way. Vent spleen at a friend. Text someone. But indiscriminately ranting at large numbers of people is going to solve nothing and improve no-one’s life, least of all your own.
2. To perpetually insist that social media is not the “real universe” is to deny that the world is changing. Just because something passionate is written online doesn’t mean the emotions that gave birth to it are “plastic” or “fake”. Many people feel something – whether it is sadness, mirth, anger, whatever – and their way of dealing with it is to write something online about it. That’s 2015. It doesn’t mean people are wasting their time, or that they are necessarily seeking to “feel famous for 15 seconds”. Naturally, there are swathes of online scribblings that are fake, or excessive, or with an ulterior motive. But that precisely mirrors what goes on in the non-virtual world, does it not?
3. Grief for famous people CAN be real grief. They created art that you loved, and now there won’t be any more of that art. They wrote words that touched you, and now they’re gone. They acted in your favourite films, they said things that made lonely people feel less lonely, they lived a life that inspired you, and now that life is over and you’re sad. THAT’S OKAY. One of the more perplexing bees in Camilla Long’s bonnet is her great issue with the statement “he [Bowie] was the soundtrack to my life”. You know what? He probably was. That’s how being a big music fan works. You discover them when you’re young and you listen to them throughout your life, and when you hear their music it reminds you of stuff you’ve done, people you’ve met, places you’ve been, and so on. This is why you’re sad, because the person who provided you with this channel to your inner memories and feelings has gone. And this, Ms Long, is irrespective of whether that artist is still making their best work, or indeed any work at all. I could say Nick Drake has been the soundtrack to my life, and there have been no new Nick Drake albums since 1972.
4. Showing your emotions is still good. It is a scientifically proven fact that letting your feelings show, whether through screaming or crying your eyes out, is good for you. Bottling them up is not. In response to a perfectly reasonable tweet which said, simply, “It is okay to cry”, Camilla Long wrote “Only once or twice in life. The rest of the times [sic], pull yourself together.” So… what? If I find myself crying at something, have I used one of my “cries” up? Have I only one left? I have absolutely no desire to return to a Britain where you can’t hug a friend or cry at a film without being called wet or, worse, a “pansy”. And who, exactly, decides what constitutes a “genuine” reason for crying? People cry at all sorts of things. Some when a parent or close friend dies. Some when they stub their toe on the bed. Others for practically no reason at all. No one has the right to tell you what you should and shouldn’t cry about. And to say that tears over a celebrity death are automatically “synthetic” is puerile. When Diana died, I remained largely unaffected all week until her brother gave his eulogy at the funeral, at which I was – to use Camilla Long’s most hated phrase – “in bits”. And do you know why? Because it made me realise how much I loved my sister. And having had a good cry, I felt – hey presto! – better. Neat, huh?
In any case, to return to point number one, what damage does it do to anyone else if someone is waxing lyrical in a slightly embarrassing manner? If they want to make a twerp of themselves, that’s their own affair. One of the good things about living in Britain today is that we largely have the right to do what the hell we want without having someone swearing at us. Most of the time, this works just fine: the UK can be a model of tolerance, but it’s been said that an equally attractive quality is indifference, i.e. no one cares what you think, wear, do, believe, eat, drink, buy, say or write, as long as you don’t harm anyone else in the process. I like this state of affairs. I also like moments when it seems that a large group of people are reading off the same page, just as they have been this last week with the almost universally warm response to the passing of one of music’s most invigorating and exploratory artists. In his own dignified and measured way, I think David Bowie would be pleased at this response; I really think he would.
In 1988, a school friend lent me Electric by The Cult, and my love of alternative, or indie, rock was born. With the assistance of my publication of choice, Melody Maker, my eyes were opened to an increasingly large list of often ridiculously-named bands. The movement’s zenith for me will always be the early 1990s; but time (i.e. the press) has not been kind to the memory of the indie music from this period. Sometimes, one is given the impression that the only indie prior to Britpop was composed and performed upon the instruments of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Smiths. Not so. Here, then, are 10 records to which I would draw your urgent attention, accompanied by a cheeky little Spotify playlist including all but one of the songs….
The wonderful people at the Huffington Post UK published my “ABBA – 10 Songs That Say It All” article recently.
Call me a sad stickler, but they ballsed up some of the copy-editing, so here’s the perfect version, the way I want it…
In 2009, the American writer Chuck Klosterman wrote, “It’s difficult to say anything new or insightful about ABBA, mostly because they’ve already absorbed every possible criticism and accolade that a musical act can entertain.” I agree with the first part, but not the second. I actually still believe ABBA to be somewhat underrated. I know that probably sounds as nuts as if I piped up with “I really don’t think Rupert Murdoch’s got enough money yet,” but honestly: I have spent more than 20 years waiting to read a piece of ABBA criticism that speaks of their music in quite the same tone that I would employ. Back in the early 90s, no one had written seriously on the subject at all, save for a couple of grudging, repetitive references to “perfectly crafted pop”. Since then, what with the elegant writings of Carl Magnus Palm and the well-balanced if slightly sardonic essay by Mr. Klosterman, things have improved. But it’s not enough. I’ve realised that when you love something – truly, genuinely love something – you don’t necessarily want everyone else to feel the same, but you find it difficult to rest until everyone knows how you feel, and understands why you feel it.
Not that I am the world’s greatest ABBA “fan”. I do not collect memorabilia. I do not obsessively hang around in Stockholm hoping for a glimpse of Benny Andersson going out for coffee. I don’t even own every ABBA record (the first couple of albums, after all, were largely bollocks). I have never seen Mamma Mia!, the musical, nor (emphatically nor) the film. But I do believe my appreciation of the music created by ABBA to be as great as that of any other living human. So, in an attempt to demonstrate this, here are 10 songs that say it all.
1. “So Long”
A catastrophic chart performance and a production that, for many, was a blatant attempt to repeat the successful bombast of “Waterloo”, “So Long” is, for me, nonetheless the first time ABBA started to really sound like ABBA. The devil is in the detail: a strange, spiralling intro with what sounds like a boiling kettle in the background, Agnetha and Frida hollering perpetually at the very top of their register, a sassy pre-chorus in which a moneyed-up suitor is soundly given his marching orders (“The girls might fall for everything you’ve got / But I’m not one of them, you know I’m not / You won’t have me tonight“) and a coda in which an off-key saxophone is incongruously dropped over the regular beat and riff, changing the picture entirely. What could have been a standard, even boring 50s rock’n’roll pastiche acquires an unnerving, almost menacing edge.
Generally regarded as the moment the world finally realised ABBA had a life beyond “Waterloo”, this three-and-a-quarter minute chunk of bliss provided the template for much of what was to come: piano-accompanied heartbreaking vocal, winning chorus, strumming guitar/bubbling synth combo and unexpectedly rocky bit. So rocky, in fact, that Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols – as oft-repeated legend has it – reversed the chord progression of said rocky bit and birthed the chorus to “Pretty Vacant”. More important to my mind is ABBA’s employment of the quiet verse/loud chorus technique pioneered by Led Zeppelin on “Baby I’m Gonna Leave You”, and subsequently used by every 90s grunge band. Kurt Cobain was reportedly quite an ABBA fan; perhaps this is why.
3. “That’s Me”
1976’s Arrival might be full of hits, but it’s also the record on which ABBA mastered the art of the album track. While the likes of “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” made all the noise and the money, ABBA were quietly content to let “When I Kissed The Teacher”, “My Love, My Life” and “Tiger” languish: awesome songs that would all have been swiftly earmarked as singles by any other group. Even lesser known is the dreamy “That’s Me”, a pop song so effortless that it doesn’t even bother with a chorus. Benny propels the whole thing along with a piano riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a late-80s house track, while the girls pour their velvety voices into a lyric that seems to depict some tricky, attention-seeking girl Björn might have encountered at a swinging singles night in his pre-Agnetha days. All this, and a pre-chorus* with harmonies so beautiful they actually give me a toothache, and you have one of ABBA’s finest non-single songs.
*Yes, I know I said it didn’t have a chorus. Humour me.
4. “The Name Of The Game”
Right. Deep breath. In his excellent song-by-song guide to ABBA’s music, Carl Magnus Palm frequently mentions the band’s love of west-coast American soft rock and Stevie Wonder as a major influence on the sounds ABBA were creating towards the latter half of the 70s. Until I read this, the thought that ABBA had influences simply hadn’t occurred to me. Bands such as Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles creeping into the consciousness of Benny and Björn was as unthinkable to me as Radiohead being influenced by Cliff Richard. ABBA’s music seemed to come from nowhere at all. Okay, I could detect hints of 50s rock’n’roll and schlager in the likes of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”, and folk had naturally informed “Fernando” and its ilk, but songs like “Eagle” and “Take A Chance On Me”, to my ears, arrived fully formed from another planet. “The Name Of The Game” – mysterious, claustrophobic, painstakingly assembled but still blindingly catchy – was the track I found hardest to imagine the genesis of: a moment when one of its writers said, “Hey [or ‘Hej’, more appropriately], I’ve had Songs In The Key Of Life on my record player all week, and I’ve come up with this great riff.” And yet, of course Carl Magnus Palm is absolutely right; of course Andersson and Ulvaeus were ingesting the big, creative tunes of the time. So why, still, does “The Name Of The Game” sound like no other music on earth? The answer, I suspect, lies in their own locality. The group’s songwriting and production engine might have been sparked into life by sounds from the USA, but once Benny and Björn got going, their centre of musical gravity was completely different. For example: there ain’t no blues. Or jazz, come to think of it. A more musically literate man than I would be able to accurately pinpoint, but crudely: the scales, chords and inflections of blues and jazz are almost entirely absent from everything ABBA created from about 1975 onwards. In the same way that the Beatles started as a thoroughly rock’n’roll oriented outfit, but went on to make an unusually English record like Sgt. Pepper’s, ABBA progressed from “Waterloo” towards a typically Swedish straightforwardness, user-friendliness, but with a widescreen ambition, scope and atmosphere. It is nothing but a product of ABBA’s surroundings. In lyrical, musical and stylistic terms, they were neither naturally inclined nor obliged to stick to rules set by any other part of the world. As Chuck Klosterman puts it, “Operating out of Stockholm in the seventies, they were a) singing in a second language, and b) living with real idealogical distance from the trend-conscious worlds of New York and LA and London.” What emerges is a sound unlike any other. Back in 1978, gazing at the slightly dreamy band photo on the back of ABBA: The Album (I was five at the time, so temporarily unable to decide who I fancied more, Agnetha or Björn), something about the tunes emerging from my parents’ record player told me all this. While Boney M were entertaining, Racey were fun but rubbish and the Bee Gees were high-pitched and a bit funky, I already knew ABBA were unique. With Benny’s spooky synths, Ola Brunkert’s chocolatey drums and the girls’ knockout voices (including career-topping solo passages from both Agnetha and Frida), “The Name Of The Game” embodies that feeling like none other of their songs. One can be certain of very few things in the music world, but I guarantee no one will ever make a pop song remotely like this one.
5. “One Man, One Woman”
If ABBA were in a strange, anxious mood for most of 1977, Björn certainly seemed to be reflecting this in his lyrics. “I have no friends, no one to see, and I am never invited / But I am here, talking to you, no wonder I get excited” sing Agnetha and Frida on “The Name Of The Game”; possibly the least cheerful lyrics in a hit pop song since “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted”. This gloom hangs over almost every song on ABBA: The Album like a tropical thundercloud. Cautiously pretty, and with a beautifully understated vocal from Frida, “One Man, One Woman” manages to turn the dark atmosphere to its advantage, capturing those hideous times when a domestic argument in the morning screws up your entire day. The lyric’s fictional story has a happy ending (“You smile and I realise that we need a shake up“) but a song containing the line “Sometimes when I just can’t cope, I cling to a desperate hope / And I cry and I feel like dying” does little to hide the real life pain that was clearly engulfing ABBA’s personal lives at the time. The band’s most famous art-mirroring-reality moment is of course “The Winner Takes It All”, when these relationship troubles didn’t so much boil over as splatter scaldingly all over the kitchen tilework, but this quieter, less melodramatic glance at the foothills of a break-up is, to my mind, an equal achievement.
6. “Hole In Your Soul”
In a parallel universe, ABBA could have been a noughties indie band. I don’t mean an Arcade Fire or a White Stripes or a Libertines. I mean the playful sort: a Go! Team, a Polyphonic Spree, a Futureheads – or, perhaps mostly, a CSS. Holed up in their Stockholm studio, even while making an album with such bleak themes as ABBA: The Album, the foursome were still capable of having unadulterated fun with their music. And in 1977, with the confidence only a series of globally chart-busting singles can instil, this meant effortless, creative pop, the like of which lesser bands struggled for years to produce. “Hole In Your Soul” is perhaps ABBA’s most successful rock song: an unapologetic, influence-less slab of what became, in the 80s, “driving music”. It shares the same audiospace as Starship’s “We Built This City” and Jane Wiedlin’s “Rush Hour”, only with Agnetha and Frida’s incredible elastic vocals and a outro of such chord-changing, synth-pounding sweetness that it’s hard to believe the song was consigned to mere album track status. But then, as Carl Magnus Palm points out, ABBA simply didn’t need the singles.
7. “I’m A Marionette”
If I told you a certain song had multiple time signatures, a discordant orchestra, a minute-long guitar solo (in a four-minute song) and lyrics like “Something’s happening I can’t control, lost my hold, it’s insane” – it’s unlikely you’d think it was by ABBA. But here it is: the closing song on an album by four of the most famous people, at the time, to draw breath. Almost 40 years after I first heard it, I still find it unsettling. “You’re so free, that’s what everybody’s telling me / Yet I feel like I’m an outward-bound, pushed-around refugee,” sing the two ladies; and although one of their male colleagues penned the words, you can tell the girls mean and feel every syllable of them. When I hear the song, I hear the sound of someone who can barely walk the streets of Stockholm, let alone Sydney or London; whose global record companies hang on their every note; who feel like “everybody’s pet, just as long as I sing.” And yet, they’re in the studio, masterfully creating the very raw material that worsens their predicament. Björn is too smart and self-aware a lyricist not to acknowledge this Catch 22: “Can’t complain, I’ve got no one but myself to blame,” he writes later in the song, a concept neatly summed up by Chuck Klosterman’s observation that Agnetha “never enjoyed fame, even while she was pursuing it.” You might think, “Ooh, too bad… pity the poor enormously famous rich person!” – and you’d have a point. But it’s a hell of a listen. Anyone who reckons the dark, experimental side of ABBA only reared its head on The Visitors need look no further than “I’m A Marionette”.
8. “Summer Night City”
It says something about the magnitude of a pop group’s success that a single reaching the top five in 11 countries can be considered a “failure”. But there was always something spiky and off-kilter about this one. Like many of history’s non-album singles, it seems to have one foot in the band’s past (straight-ahead pop) but is already striving towards the future (the disco crossover which eventually filled most of the Voulez-Vous album). Consequently it’s a bit of a mess, but a glorious one. The boys deliver another searing, dramatic melody, the girls veer between their usual caterwauling and a kind of deadpan, robotic sneer which we encounter again on Super Trouper‘s “On and On and On”, no-one seems to be able to make up their mind which of the song’s many hooks is the actual chorus, and the whole thing is delivered with such chaotic, driving urgency that you half expect band and studio to spin off a Stockholm cliff into the nearby Baltic. Björn and Benny apparently wish it had never been released; of course, that only adds to its allure.
9. “Lay All Your Love On Me”
ABBA were always at their best when there were faint essences of melodrama and the notion that everything might fall apart at any given moment. The Super Trouper album largely leaves me cold, but “Lay All Your Love On Me” is a brilliant exception: with yet more itchy, paranoid synth patterns from Benny, a drum pattern from Brunkert of quite spellbinding economy and a huge, baroque chorus the finest choirs of the world wouldn’t sulk if you asked them to sing, this was arguably ABBA’s most perfect blend of music for grown-ups and the pop of the old days.
10. “The Day Before You Came”
Much like Let It Be-era Beatles, by 1982 ABBA only really fired on all cylinders when they stopped pretending to have a good time. Their last ever recording together was, neatly enough, a work of genius, although as unlikely to become a hit single as someone reading Kafka over a click track*. If you try and ignore Benny’s slightly irritating synths for the first minute or two, you’ll find a near-perfect portrait of an utterly banal, lonely existence, in which the smallest details – “I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two“, “Rattling on the roof I must have heard the sound of rain” – are afforded the status of memorable events. In its depiction of a mundane life soon to be interrupted by some unknown, and possibly uncontrollable, event, it recalls Camus’ The Outsider and even The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin. Once it gets going, Agnetha’s flawlessly offhand delivery is accompanied perfectly: a metronomic rhythm, Frida’s operatic trillings, and cold, synthesized strings. Impressively, the song not only depicts the protagonist’s current world as one throbbing with boredom, but also, via minor-key synth pads and the song’s excellent, foreboding title, somehow predicts the potential future romance as one fraught with complication and misery. With probably few musical places left to go, it was a wise move to wind up the band shortly after this; but at least they left us with a nice depressing masterpiece with which to while away the rest of the ABBA-less decade.
*Actually, not only does this sound a rather splendid idea, but it’s also not a million aesthetic miles away from Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, which reached number two on the UK singles chart only the previous year.
1. ‘ “The worst is the uncertainty,” said Stephanie Zihms, a German national from near Bremen, who lives in Edinburgh. “Everyone talks about Brexit in big-picture economic or political terms; no one considers what it might mean personally, to so many people,” said Zihms, a post-doctoral academic. “My life is here now. Would I need a visa to visit my family? A minimum number of points to be able to work? No one can say.” ‘
2. ‘Chief among EU migrants’ worries in the event of “Brexit” are the end of fast-track EU-only lines at passport control; the return of work permits for employees; the abandonment of reciprocal public healthcare arrangements; tighter restrictions on studying and doing business; possible higher taxes on foreign property ownership and cash transfers between member states; and the treatment of foreign pensions.’
3. ‘In fact, the practical consequences of a Brexit for the approximately 2.4 million EU citizens in Britain and nearly 2 million Britons estimated to be living on the continent are not yet clear. An eventual exit process, which would involve unpicking decades of legislation and regulation, would probably take years to negotiate.‘
Exactly. No one has a clue, least of all – I would wager – the Tory government. If people are given the option to vote OUT, will anyone have any idea what sort of OUT we are going to? I haven’t seen a damn thing written on these subjects, with any degree of certainty or forethought. Anywhere.
4. ‘ “Europe’s about peace, understanding between peoples. Long term, I’m not sure how I’d feel about living in a country that turned its back on that. I do feel resentful, a bit. Like maybe I backed the wrong horse.” ‘
5. ‘Richard Reed, 35, a British educationalist living here with his German partner – also in education – said the “horribly inward-looking nature, the lack of openness, of real engagement” of the British debate around the EU depressed him.‘
6. ‘ “If the UK leaves the EU, I worry it’ll finally push our country over the precipice of xenophobia and isolation on which we have been teetering for the past few years.” ‘
Damn right. Even if EU citizens get themselves British citizenship, how will they feel? I’ve spoken to many of them who feel a real sense of “I don’t want to be part of a club that doesn’t want my country of origin as a member”, kind of thing.
7. ‘ “My work is funded by a generous EU grant, which I’ll have to renew when it runs out in three years. What happens to that if there’s a Brexit?” ‘
Indeed. There are massive swathes of this sort of thing… which – forgive the generalisation – Johnny-UKIP-Waverer would probably have no idea about.
8. ‘ “Citizenship would make me feel more integrated. Strengthen the sense of belonging. But … I don’t know. If Britain really does leave – that might well change my outlook. I might, actually, just go somewhere else.” ‘
Jon Henley, congratulations on doing in one newspaper article what Hugo Dixon and David Charter failed to do in the course of two books: hint at the human story.
Two things have changed since I read the Hugo Dixon book. One is that the whole Greek shituation has hit the fan, to the point where even left-leaning EU sympathisers have started to say stuff like “if this is the way the EU treats its members, then I don’t want anything to do with it.” The other big alteration, at least in my mind, is that the Tory government have started to bring in so many irritating, let’s-turn-back-the-clock-and-party-like-it’s-1983 Thatcheresque policies, that frankly “whether the UK is in the EU or not” has started to seem like a lesser concern; the major one being more “is the Tory party starting to turn the UK into the USA?” – and I don’t mean the fast food, Coca-Cola, big cars, highways, roadhouse bar’n’grill Americana parts. I mean all the bad bits. Paying for healthcare, practically non-exisitent welfare state, companies and banks being 100 times more powerful than the government; and the publicly funded broadcaster being painfully quaint and weak, primarily educational and ultra left-wing.
I’m tempted to spend this whole post fulminating on this very topic – and in fact I might devote a future one to it (you can hardly wait) – but I did actually manage to struggle through David Charter’s Europe: In Or Out? so I’d better briefly give it its due.
This book differs from The In/Out Question in many ways, and the two tomes have many minor similarities: both are written in English, both have titles possessing the words “In” and “Out”, both have blue covers with some kind of graphic representation of the EU flag mingling with a totem of United Kingdomness, both are – on reflection – mind-meltingly boring. But the two major things they have in common are more telling. They both suffer from a woeful, although inevitable, focus on economics and statistics. If this was 1974, or even 1985, when the body up for discussion was the European Economic Community, you’d expect nothing more. But the whole point of this wretched debate is that it’s the EU. A union, in lots of different ways; primarily, I would venture, of people. So where are the people? In both books? Where is the boss of a firm in Hemel Hempstead who is really jolly glad he’s employing so many super-reliable Polish people? Where is the unemployed man in Sunderland who is cross that he’s been pipped to the post in his latest job application by a mother of two from Hungary? Where is the Liverpudlian who’s having a lovely time working in Stuttgart, or the retired estate agent living quite a nice life in Malaga? Where is the Italian citizen who’s been living in the UK since 2005, working professionally, who wonders what the fuck’s going to happen if Britain severs its ties? Oh, there are a couple of token examples – a cheesemaker from Somerset who benefits from the EU’s trade deal with (unexpectedly) South Korea – but there is a distinct lack of anything resembling a “human story”, if you’ll pardon the hideous expression.
So, to put it bluntly, what worries me is that most people in this country don’t really give a shit about the human story. A perfectly nice family in Leicestershire or Cheshire who actually aren’t friends with any EU citizens living in Britain probably don’t really care about anything but the economics of the thing. I guess these books are for them. Hugo Dixon of course is undoubtedly pro – to a somewhat bewildering degree, even for an EU supporter like me – but the largely skeptical David Charter has written a book over which hangs something of a fog of depression. He never really comes out and says “we should leave” outright, but what he does fill us with is gloom at the workings of the current EU setup. Some bits admittedly do seem absurd – the money-wasting, environment-punishing shuttling of the European Parliament to and from Strasbourg and Brussels, for example – but Charter relentlessly points out the system’s shortcomings without, as Hugo Dixon does, suggesting improvements. It’s an altogether meatier book, with firmer, more satisfying writing, but I guess we’re not really in it for the writing. The final paragraph is a bit chilling and sums up a large portion of my fears about the situation, so here it is:
Without the prospect of a better EU, there is no answer to the attractions of Brexit. Returning to sovereign control over domestic affairs, Britain will survive outside the EU despite the upheaval of leaving. The question is whether it will thrive. Paradoxically, one of the conditions of a successful divorce is the goodwill of the other partner. This book has highlighted the wide range of shared interests between European nations and shown that some measure of compromise is inevitable. No perfect formula exists for the complete jigsaw of continental cooperation and Britain has much to lose from an acrimonious breakdown in relations with the European Union, in or out.
I rather wish that this notion would be mentioned more in the British press, whether from a pro- or an against-EU media source.
16 and 17 year-olds should be allowed to vote in the UK’s EU referendum. Change.org are running a petition, I expect it’s not the only one of its kind. If you agree: go for it, click the button:
Most 16 and 17 year-olds I know are more clued-up and au courant with the world’s social comings and goings than people in their 30s and 40s. It’s probably because they’re at school, they’re learning right now, and their minds aren’t yet battered by insurance policies, having kids, mortgages, and booze, which they’re not supposed to drink yet. But really: the outcome of a general election lasts four or five years, so it’s not a complete disaster if teenagers miss the boat in having their say. But this referendum’s influence will last decades. The thought of some socially engaged, firingly intelligent 16 or 17-year-old not being able to have his or her say, but some overweight 50-something Sun reader plodding down to the polling station and voting for Brexit “because of all those damned foreigners” makes me so cross I want to start hitting things.