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Jun 08

ABBA – “Knowing Me Knowing You”

FT + Popular54 comments • 4,434 views

#403, 2nd April 1977

It does no real work in the song, that “a-ha” – it’s an afterthought, another little hooky Easter Egg from a band committed to packing as much as they could into their tracks. No fault of ABBA’s, honestly, that for British listeners of a certain age and background (mine) it dominates the song now, that tiny bridging sigh cueing up a Norfolk bellow in the head – “Knowing me, knowing you – AH-HAAAAA!”.

Steve Coogan and Armando Ianucci’s selection of this mini-moment for Alan Partridge’s signature phrase was a stroke of cruel inspiration – too easy to take the Abigail’s Party route and make the monstrous (later tragic) Partridge a fan of, say, Manhattan Transfer: even that would have suggested a curiosity quite beyond Alan P’s galumphing populism. But it was also curiously ill-timed: Knowing Me Knowing You (the radio and TV show) started just before ABBA’s return to critical respectability. The sudden inescapable Partridgeness of this song made it a ghost at the new ABBA feast, a reminder that a corner of the fanbase would always be patterned sweaters and light ent.

The bad end of mundane, in other words, but mundane is what ABBA do so well: “Knowing Me Knowing You” is the first of their great wintry epics of boring grown-up heartbreak and the acceptance of heartbreak, trying to cadge a bit of hope out of a hopeless situation, balancing between the numbed verses and the wonderful cascades of backing harmonies from the guys on the chorus. It’s Frida’s star turn – though her first verse performance is a little wobbly – but Agnetha nearly steals it with her spectral whispers. The keyboards hit the grandeur they’re aiming for; the guitar solo doesn’t, but even in its forever-sabotaged state “Knowing Me Knowing You” has cohesion and power.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    intothefireuk on 4 Jun 2008 #

    They do this best – sombre verses and uplifting choruses. One reason I never liked Dancing Queen. Knowing Me is near their best and certainly brought me back on board (albeit temporarily). The uh-huhs are the worst part though and Coogan was right to lampoon them. I find with almost all ABBA records the element of Euro cheeze is never too far below the surface and so it is with this one (also in the multitracked guitar interludes). Having said that the verses are so good I can easily forgive them. Icily compelling. A decent 7 from me.

    #20 Yes the b-side of the splendid SNC is indeed the horrendous folk medley and goes a long way to undo some of the good made by the a-side.

  2. 27
    DJ Punctum on 4 Jun 2008 #

    “Going In With My Eyes Open,” incidentally, was the second of the three singles to debut within the top five in the second half of the seventies, and like “Somebody To Love,” failed to reach number one.

  3. 28
    Matthew H on 4 Jun 2008 #

    The harmonies on the chorus blow my mind.

    Man.

  4. 29
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Jun 2008 #

    This is the “look-past-shoulder and ZOOM and 90-degree-head-turn and PAUSE” one, isn’t it? I love that video, but I lump this song together with the other first four tracks of ABBA Gold in the ‘songs I never need to hear again’ category. Nothing to do with Partridge (that one passed me by) – but compared to other overfamiliar ABBA tunes there are fewer interesting sonic flourishes (like Dancing Queen’s heart-rending wedding bell chimes), and it plods along without the bounding puppydog energy of, say, Waterloo.

  5. 30
    David Belbin on 4 Jun 2008 #

    I looked down on ABBA a bit until this song, which knocked me out. It knocked Elvis Costello out too. I saw him do a terrific version of it on the Wheel of Fortune residency at (I think) the Dominion in London, and he played it at the famous Glastonbury (89?) show where he did an acoustic set then suddenly produced the Attractions for a 45 minute encore. So Steve Coogan couldn’t put me off either. Actually, I like Steve Coogan, we’re going to see him in October.

  6. 31
    jeff w on 4 Jun 2008 #

    If pressed to name my favourite ABBA song, I will say it’s this one. Fortunately, I’m old enough to remember its topping the charts reasonably well – and the Partridge usage hasn’t really affected my original affection for the song. And I would quibble slightly with Tom’s suggestion that the ‘a-ha’ isn’t doing much work in the song. When singing along to this in the car back in the day, it was certainly the part of the hook I would emphasise.

    Have we mentioned the video yet? I couldn’t see much above on a quick skim (although I’m sure MC has commented on it on FT in another context). It’s arguably even more iconic than the song.

  7. 32
    Martin Skidmore on 4 Jun 2008 #

    re Billy at comment 15, I think there are better examples. George Jones’s A Good Year For The Roses features, among other lines, the narrator noticing “the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray” and “a lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn’t drink” after his wife walks out on him.

  8. 33
    Matt on 4 Jun 2008 #

    I’ve noticed that sleeve looks quite unseasonal for an April chart hit. Is it just intended to signify their Swedishness (snow!) or did it have some kind of Christmas connection ?

  9. 34
    wwolfe on 4 Jun 2008 #

    The “Uh-huh’s” remind me of the responses from the lead singer’s friends during the spoken intro to the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” For that reason, this record seems like an adult’s version of the operatic teen Death Rock songs of the early 1960s, with the “death” in question here being a marriage (or two). What the early 1960s New Yorkers and the late 1970s Swedes share is a love of finely detailed Pop as a vehicle for grand passion.

  10. 35
    Doctor Casino on 5 Jun 2008 #

    (Disclaimer: I know nothing of your British partridges. I’m gathering that some sort of Ali G-esque performer became linked with the song? Ah well.)

    “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is a 10 if there ever was one, for me, now in Month Six of a love affair with Abba that shows no sign of letting up any time soon. Despite some sorta hokey moments (“Good days….bad days”) it achieves a perfect, depressed plausibility. Resignation is tough to do in pop without it turning absurdly maudlin, and in lesser hands “There is nothing we can do” would sink the whole affair – but “Knowing me, knowing you” makes it stab rather than drag. The “Ah haaaaaaa” is a bit funny from a distance… weirdly warm, almost seductive. In the midst of the recording, though, it’s as if the narrative is drawing you into its world, so that the piercing crystalline cry that follows can achieve maximum impact…

  11. 36
    DJ Punctum on 5 Jun 2008 #

    British TV culture has in fact produced two Alan Partridges; the broadcaster whose story should maybe have ended in Norfolk (since the last series when everything works out for him is awful) and the Brookside character of the early-mid eighties, last viewed staggering around Brookside Close and howling at the moon like a Scouse Lear.

  12. 37
    pink champale on 6 Jun 2008 #

    as with all the later, sadder abba (and as others have said) it’s the matter of factness that gets you. in most pop music heartbreak is a terrible breach in the natural order of things, a unique cataclysm that leaves the singer leer (scouse or otherwise) on the moors*. and who hasn’t felt like this? but here – “breaking up is never easy i know” – heartbreak is just another one of things, it’s not nice but it’s happened before and it’ll happen again, each time you die a little inside but what’s left of you will pick up and carry on before. it’s the same stoicism as dancing queen, the absent narrator is yearning for what she’s lost, and for what the dancing queen will lose before she even knows she has it but that’s just life and no reason not to dig the dancing queen. it helps of course that the resignation and regret are wrapped up in some of the most sumptuous music ever made.
    *and of course, one of abba’s later number ones paraphrases leer to devestating effect

  13. 38
    pink champale on 6 Jun 2008 #

    er, lear

  14. 39
    Doctormod on 7 Jun 2008 #

    For me, this song has always been infinitely sorrowful yet overwhelming moving, possessing a depth of feeling that none of the syrupy, melodramatic “sad” songs of the period (“oh-woh-woh feelings”) could even hope to replicate. The sorrow of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” doesn’t flaunt its gravity; instead it’s filled with a certain Scandinavian fatalism that accepts the inevitable without wallowing in grief. All in all, one of the most mature and sophisticated “break-up” songs then or since. No posturing, no blame, no self-pity–simply “There is nothing we can do.”

    Unlike other commentators, I actually think the aching guitar break adds to the song, contributing that note of pathos that the lyrics eschew, as does Frida’s slightly unsteady vocal as she enunciates the heartbreaking lines.

    The picture sleeve strikes me as incredibly ironic–all that cheerful togetherness even as this song hints at what was already going on within the group. That “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was, in some sense, the beginning of the end for ABBA has always added to the sorrow (mixed with empathy and appreciation) that I feel whenever I hear it.

  15. 40
    Erithian on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Been away for a week or so, and my goodness you’ve been cracking on with this, Tom, haven’t you? A couple of thoughts:

    This was a stately rather than lively piece of work, wintry in tone as well as its video (quite surprising to recall that it was number one in springtime). Not one of my very favourites, but as usual chock-full of quality moments – the boys’ backing vocal “this time I know…” particularly effective. I think it was this backing line that French and Saunders had in mind with their glorious spoof “C’est La Vie” (“c’est good for you, c’est bad for me – quite definitely”).

    Reading the thread I’ve been struck by how much it reminds me of the day in May last year when I left my Mum’s house for the last time, having cleared it after her funeral. Walking through the empty house… etc. Obviously the setting was different from the theme of the song, but much of the lyric still applies. It was her widowhood bungalow rather than the house I grew up in, but children – mine – had still played in the old familiar rooms. In those moments before closing the door I thought – it might be a cliché to think of spectral voices at a time like this, but they do echo in your head, which is why it’s a cliché.

    To lighter matters: Abba (it’s surely a matter of choice whether you write ABBA in capitals or not, but it does cause me irrational annoyance when people do) played shows in the UK around this time, and Record Mirror’s review began something like this:
    “It was the talking point of the night. Everybody around me was amazed by it, some said it was the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen. It’s Anna’s bum we’re talking about…”
    Boy, did that generate some hate mail! But yes, many years before J-Lo this was a talking point wherever they went, to the extent that Agnetha remarks in “Abba The Movie”: “Don’t they have bottoms in Australia?”

  16. 41
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

    I don’t know when I got into the habit of capitalising them! My rationale is that the name’s basically an acronym anyway, so I’d no more write Abba than I would Epmd. But deep down I know that if my keyboard had a reverse-B I’d be using that too.

  17. 42
    Tom on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Totally understand the irrational annoyance though – my personal bugbear is the nickname “The ‘Mats” for The Replacements, who I’ve never even HEARD (partly because of this).

  18. 43
    Lena on 10 Jun 2008 #

    The Replacements shortened to The Placemats shortened to The ‘Mats – yeah, kind of irritating but affectionate too (and don’t let it stand in the way of hearing them)…

  19. 44
    mike on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Oh! The Placemats were my fantasy primitivist/DIY/post-punk/art-rock band, inspired by Devo/Pere Ubu/The Residents/Desperate Bicycles, whose limited edition cassette release Rowing Across The Chesterfield Canal With The Placemats (Boots own brand, 1978) was a ground-breaking classic of the genre. Oh yes.

  20. 45
    ace inhibitor on 9 Jul 2009 #

    wwolfe@34 – I liked the idea of KNKY as an adult update of 60s operatic teen death rock. The missing link, here, would be the Shangri-Las ‘Out in the streets’, a personal favourite because its about, precisely, that transition: what happens to the leader of the pack when he doesn’t crash the bike, but grows up and settles down? “He don’t / hang around / with the gang no more / He don’t do the wild things that he did before… it makes me so sad / cos I know that he did it for me”. A recipe for 30-something divorce rock if I ever heard one. And now you’ve made the connection everything about ‘out in the streets’ – its doomy measured pace, the two-words-at-a-time start to each verse, the interplay between lead and backing vocals, could be proto-Abba.

  21. 46
    thefatgit on 1 Dec 2009 #

    There is an inner bleakness in this study of domestic upheaval. It’s been covered a lot on this thread, but I happen to notice listening to the guitars especially, that here is a pre-cursor to what messrs Morrisey and Marr were going to perfect 7 years hence. The guitar interludes here are a joy to behold, a glam-pop thrill-ride, that provides balance to the devastation of Frida’s walk through a broken home. Not really Morrissey territory, but if his wry take on teen alienation and boredom is half a generation away from ABBA’s adult marital breakdown and existential crisis, then you could imagine an older Morrissey tackling those themes also.

  22. 47
    swanstep on 2 Dec 2009 #

    @46,thefatgit. I think you may be on to something. For example, ‘Back to the old House’ does brush wings both melodically and lyrically with KMKY at some points, albeit, as you say with an alienated teen focus rather than a couple-centric one. Judging from Morrissey on Desert Island Discs last weekend, for better or worse, there’s no sign of age shifting his initial focus!

    Now I think about it too, Abba and the Smiths are fused for me in my imagination as bands that *might* conceivably get together again some time, and that might still produce something shockingly good if they did.

  23. 48
    swanstep on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Oh, and just reading through the comments now, no one has mentioned this wonderful song’s brilliant bass-line. It’s definitely up there in my view, with the bass-line in Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock with you’ as doing the seemingly impossible: be incredibly driving and also very melodic, and yet be so bedded into the song’s structure and played *so* in-the-pocket that you almost can’t hear it most of the time.

    Also, I loved comment 5 from Will above:
    By this stage Abba really were our generation’s version of the Beatles… every single would sound different but still indisputably themselves
    Bingo. Yes. That’s exactly how it felt, and what continues to impress all these years later.

  24. 49
    thefatgit on 2 Dec 2009 #

    @47 Although it seems unlikely right now, you wouldn’t rush to rule out a reunion of The Smiths in future. Obviously, there would have to be changes of attitude on both sides. Johnny seems quite content to work with The Cribs, and Morrissey seems to be content as Dame Edna for now. But who knows…if The Gang of Four and The Police can do it, so can The Smiths.

    ABBA is for me, as close to pure pop as you can get. And it certainly ages well.

  25. 50
    abaffledrepublic on 5 Jun 2010 #

    #15: the breakfast table makes another appearance in One Man One Woman, another album track which had the quality to be a single.

    Another Partridge/Abba connection: his son, mentioned but never seen, was named Fernando. I can imagine Alan thinking of himself as tremendously sophisticated and continental to have chosen the name.

    This might just be my favourite of Abba’s number ones. It seems to consist of short, apparently throwaway words and phrases, but the group alchemise them into a wall of emotion. The very best bit of the song for me comes just after ‘children would play’.

  26. 51
    JLucas on 6 Jun 2010 #

    I disagree with Tom that the first verse is the weak link to this song. Rather than ‘nearly losing it’ for me that opener is the finest vocal of Frida’s career. It’s so dark and brooding.

    “No more carefree laughter
    Darkness ever after”

    It’s almost as if she’s channeling Nico.

  27. 52
    swanstep on 30 Dec 2011 #

    In case anyone’s interested, I’ve put a mid-’90s, indie (Revolver-esque) cover of ‘My Love, My Life’ – one of Arrival’s less-heralded tracks – up on youtube here. It’s by a short-lived, long-forgotten NZ outfit, Bike (half of the often excellent Straightjacket Fits if that means anything to you), and it was (in my view) the standout track on a very patchy Flying Nun Abba tribute album. The visuals are from the (Inception-influencing, ingenious) 2006 anime Paprika.

  28. 53
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jul 2012 #

    re 34 & 45 – I think you’re right to make the connection between KMKY and Shangri-Las – but listening to the song again during the recent string of repeats of TOTP from this time I started hearing the Uh-Huh? as a passive-aggressive response from the male participant in the relationship. While the woman laments the end of the relationship the man has already written it off but is happy for her to take the blame for ending it.

  29. 54
    hectorthebat on 20 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Elvis Costello – The Best Songs from the 500 Best Albums Ever (2000)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 78
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)

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