10
Nov 05

What A Difference A Lyric Makes

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ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came” has a superb lyric. If you don’t know it, it’s a haunting song* detailing a totally ordinary day in the life of a single woman – getting up, going to work, eating lunch, coming home, going to bed. She’s vague on the details, because after all it was an ordinary day. It was also “the day before you came”, and we never learn any more about the “you”, but that’s not the point right now.

One of the reasons it’s such a great lyric is that it makes Andersson and Ulvaeus slightly pernickety grasp of English work in their favour. Sung in the voice of someone no more than averagely articulate, their grammatical exactness gives dimension to a life that seems exact, routine and slightly dull. Another reason is that it’s full of delightful little details, like this from when the singer goes to bed:

“I must have read a while, the latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style”

Offhand, vague, and the choice of author is perfect – intellectual but still quite populist, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a serious-minded European woman to be reading in 1982. (Plus as a writer best-known for studying the history and effects of patriarchy, she’s resonant with the song, whose dread-laden music makes it ambiguous to say the least about the benefits of coupledom.)

The single was not a hit, and a couple of years later Blancmange covered it. They changed very little of the lyric, which is mostly gender-neutral and worked just as well for a gruff male voice. But they did change that particular line, probably because Marilyn French wasn’t that well known in the UK. (Although The Woman’s Room was a bestseller.) What did they change it to? Well –

“I must have read a while, the latest one by Barbara Cartland or someone in that style.”

Sorry?

There are several reasons why this totally misfires:

i) It has at least one more syllable, two more when you hear how the original squeezes “Marilyn”.
ii) There are perhaps slight ideological differences between Ms.French and Ms.Cartland.
iii) You find yourself unavoidably thinking, “Why on EARTH was he reading a Barbara Cartland novel?”

Great example all in all of how a song can be made or lost by a tiny detail.

*(A-Ha’s “Stay On These Roads” has just come on my iPod – why are these Nordics so damn good at this?)

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