17
Jul 08

ABBA – “The Name Of The Game”

FT + Popular55 comments • 3,934 views

#415, 5th November 1977

A young – or maybe not so young – woman, settled in her own mind to unhappy but unruffled spinsterhood, finds her hopes unexpectedly awakened. Can she trust her instincts? Can she even read them? Can this really be happening? “The Name Of The Game”‘s scenario is romance-novel standard, and its emotional territory is ABBA heartland, the twilit world as a relationship shifts between ‘on’ and ‘off’. ABBA regularly find unease where most pop strides boldly forward: “Name”, in its ambition as well as its mood, anticipates “The Day Before You Came” (which could be its narrative prequel).

“The Name Of The Game”, first single off a new album, is a self-conscious step forward in craft, clustered with ideas and contrasts and hooks – I remember an Elvis Costello interview in which he singled it out as the moment he realised that, yes, ABBA were Proper Songwriters. Anyone who hadn’t spotted that by now was being a bit chumpy, in my view, and I’m also not totally sure “Name” succeeds – sometimes I love it, but on balance it’s my least favourite of their Number 1s.

The guiding principle behind the track isn’t difficult to figure out – diffident synth sweeps and clammy bassline dramatise the doubt in the verses, fanfares and harmonies on the chorus bring the hope to life. All the individual parts are terrific, and Frida and Agnetha interpret the song magnificently – but for once, I think, ABBA’s arrangements let them down. The brass feels squeezed in and almost sounds canned; the omnipresent bassline is too upfront, lumbering where it should be nagging. Lyrically, too, this is a mixed bag: the “and I am never invited” bit is striking in its candour, but the bad poetry of the “bashful child” line is an unusual mis-step. An awkward record about awkward feelings: one of ABBA’s transitional singles, where they’re staking out territories they’d explore better later on.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Mark G on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Ah, come on, nobody slow danced to OW! oh ok……

  2. 27
    katstevens on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I hadn’t heard ‘Name Of The Game’ (or ‘Does Your Mother Know’) until I bought ABBA Gold c.1998. Freshness = instant plus point! The song seems alternately clunking and AMAZING:
    1. opening bit = CLUNK
    2. “I was an impossible case” up until “Can you feel it the way I do” AMAZING
    3. bashful child etc until “and you make me…” CLUNK
    4. “If I said I caaaare for you, aaahhhh-AH!” = SO amazing! It’s like Agnetha has been quietly burbling away to herself all passive-aggressive-like and then suddenly lashes out at the jugular of whoever Done Her Rong! Woah there!

    Er also I hate the brass band Sgt Pepper-y bits but love the ploddy-bass?

  3. 28
    SteveM on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I never did have a slowie disco moment. I was both too cynical and too coy.

  4. 29
    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Re 27. If you “hate the brass band bits” you should try to avoid ‘Two For The Price Of One’ on ‘The Visitors’, where – once the twist of the song has been revealed (the protagonist thought that he was getting an offer of troilism, but it turns out that the girl wants him to meet her mother, the most enormous brass band arrangement comes lurching in, as if to signify “That’s the punchline, folks!”.

    It’s not their best moment.

  5. 30
    SteveM on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Billy #20 interesting stuff re Essex. i do think it was unfairly singled out as you could find those same stereotypes in Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Kent, the remnants of Olde Middlesexe etc. just as easily really. The ‘thick and promiscuous’ thing, unpleasant as it was, surely applied all over the country really tho (perhaps it was just sheep-like laziness on most comedians/commentators part).

  6. 31
    thevisitor on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I’m with Will (14) on NOTG’s spot-on evocation of new love in all its vulnerability and is-it-ok-for-me-to-let-go-ness. Hearing it, aged eight, was like being given a free sample of emotions I wouldn’t get to properly use for eight or nine more years. Bjorn said that this song was written for a scene in Abba: The Movie where someone is opening up to a psychiatrist (it’s been so long since I saw the film that I can’t remember if such a sequence was actually used). Like the rhythm section’s almost involuntary funkiness too.

  7. 32
    wichita lineman on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Could be false memory syndrome but, if I remember right, the girls ‘seduce’ the scared, sweating therapist. Visuals don’t quite live up to audio.

  8. 33
    Doctor Casino on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Quite possibly my very favorite Abba song. Others have done a really lovely job in articulating why that might be, so I’ll just add that this is a song I must have heard in the background somewhere around age 7 or 8 – as I have a very clear memory of adapting the tune to being about Dr. Doolittle, whose adventures I was skimming in a book laying around my elementary school. The actual source material faded while I maintained the Doolittle-themed memory, but somehow when I saw the song’s title on the back of Greatest Hits, Vol 2, it all came back to me instantly and I bought the record without a second thought.

  9. 34
    LondonLee on 17 Jul 2008 #

    How can you tell when an Essex girl has an orgasm?

    She drops her chips.

  10. 35
    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    In December 1991, at the height of the Essex girl phenomena, and while we were all still in mouring for the recently deceased singer, I heard some drunk ask “What’s the difference between Freddie Mercury and an Essex girl?” just before I stepped off a train. I was almost tempted to go on from Blackheath to Kidbrooke and provoke my mother’s ire by being half an hour late for supper, to be able to catch this (doubtless witless) highly culturally specific to the moment example of British cultural history.

  11. 36
    Erithian on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I won’t contribute to this thread’s sudden taste for Essex girl jokes (sorry, how did we get here again?) – but I do fondly remember a DJ recently introducing a Level 42 track with the words “Listen to this and your socks turn white…”

    Billy – you don’t still travel on the Blackheath-Kidbrooke line do you? We’re living spookily parallel lives if you do.

  12. 37
    Billy Smart on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I still take that line whenever I go home to my parents. It’s meant many things to me over a lifetime; going up to town, going to school, going to work, going home when I’ve been living in other places…

    There’s a really interesting passage in VS Pritchett’s autobiography when he writes about taking that same train in the early years of the twentieth century.

    And someone wrote ‘The Red Flag’ on that route in between New Cross and London Bridge!

  13. 38
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Ah, those vast painted deserts of graffiti…

  14. 39
    Waldo on 18 Jul 2008 #

    The Swedes were an unstoppable train by now and it was all gravy, be it of varying textures. For me, TNOTG was an excellent piece of pop. True, the “bashful child” line we could have done without, but it’s no different to the Stones still writing “cruisin’ with my baby in daddy’s car” numbers when Mick and Keith were nearing their bus passes.

    I disagree with Tom regarding the arrangement. IMHO, it distinguishes the number, the trumpet weaving around the chorus and hook brilliantly. I can only amplify an earlier point in another place that it remains astonishing that this group (and these songwriters) came from a stright-laced, order-enriched Nordic country only usually associated with alcohol at prohibitive prices and suicide (one surely qualifying the other) but certainly not popular music. Abba’s salad years also ran precisely parallel with those of compatriot Borg (1976-1980) with the fabulous Wallander and Edberg still to come. Pop music has rarely been better served. And nor (pardon the pun) has tennis.

  15. 40
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Someone needs to tell Ronnie Wood about the inadvisability of “cruisin’ with my baby in daddy’s car” IRL…

  16. 41
    mike on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I love “bashful child”! And anyway, it’s a metaphor!

  17. 42
    LondonLee on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I did write a blog post on the nerve-wracking experience and etiquette of “the slowie” a little while ago

    http://www.londonlee.com/2008/02/slowie.html

  18. 43
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    In my teenage day it was strictly school discos only, and I gave up on those after a while as well. Never even thought of doing any of that stuff and got hugely depressed watching others happily couple to the strains of (especially) Barry White’s version of “Just The Way You Are.”

  19. 44
    Tom on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I have forgiven nearly all the songs I never copped off to, as it was hardly their fault. We’ll be getting to some of them in ’09, posting rate permitting.

  20. 45
    LondonLee on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Did you say school disco?

    http://www.londonlee.com/2007/05/school-disco.html

    I’ll stop now.

  21. 46
    Erithian on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Being at an all-boys’ school, we had to invite the local girls’ school along for a combined SD, which meant that most of us didn’t know any of the girls. Which I suppose made the embarrassment less crushing. I do remember a SD in mid-78 where a girl cleared the floor with an extraordinary solo dance to an early-78 number one and got a round of applause at the end. If I say she only needed the leotard to round off the effect I should *just* evade the clutches of Spoiler Bunny.

  22. 47
    DJ Punctum on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Basically, at my school, if you weren’t in the rugby team you could forget it since each player had approximately six girlfriends each.

  23. 48
    mike on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Never went to any of the school discos, apart from the final one in my Oxbridge term; they were far too terrifying a prospect. We had GURLS! shipped in as well. Oh, the peer pressure.

  24. 49
    crag on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Some great random indie “slowie last dance” memories of the 90s-
    1-FBI, Edinburgh Saturdays 92 thru to 96 finished EVERY night w/Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground (see what they did there???)
    2-Egg, Edinburgh(still going every Sat and still great)-the weekend Sinatra died finished with a massed singalong to My Way after a rather refreshed stranger, no more than 18 yrs old staggered up to me, grabbed my shoulder and said sadly “Oh, I miss him…”
    3-A random dance night last year played the most bizarre “slowie” to close proceedings -the theme tune to “Birds of a Feather”…
    Great days!!

  25. 50
    Waldo on 19 Jul 2008 #

    I don’t think regulars would be surprised to learn that School Discos at Stockwell Manor usually ended up being followed up by a visit from Shaw Taylor.

  26. 51
    wichita lineman on 19 Jul 2008 #

    Still by the Commodores sticks out in my memory. More shipped in girls at our place, but 50% or more of the schools in Croydon seemed to be single sex.

    Is this the place to mention Wigan Casino’s famous enders? I wonder if couples clinched to Jimmy Radcliffe’s Long After Tonight Is All Over while in the less comforting grips of speed paranoia.

    Best ender I’ve heard in recent years – the Monkees’ Porpoise Song at a club in Burton-on-Trent.

  27. 52
    SteveIson on 2 Sep 2008 #

    Brilliant-and prob my favourite Abba song too,it just sounds so original and distinct..I love songs with lots of different parts and textures like this-its like a little musical labyrinth..Really generous-spirited imo to pack so much music and suprises into 4 minutes..9/10

  28. 53
    RChappo on 20 Jan 2009 #

    I’ve always heard the “bashful child” as “bastard child” and still do even though I know it’s wrong.
    If I was pushed this would be my favourite ABBA song. I love everything about it and the different sections. It’s like the main character is having all these thoughts coming into their head at the same time and is trying to make sense of them and express them in different moods. The thing I like about it is that I’m left thinking “how the hell did they write a song like that?”. So complicated but sounding so effortless.
    And the acoustic guitar strumming in the chorus just does it for me.

  29. 54
    swanstep on 2 Dec 2009 #

    Reading through all the comments, I’m a little surprised not to see one name come up: Bacharach. TNOTG is roughly what you’d get if you put Bach.’s ‘I’ll never fall in love again’, ‘Look of love’, and ‘Promises promises’ into a blender (albeit without any of Bacharach’s rhythmic and time-signature mularkey). At any rate, it’s a breath-taking record. TNOTG’s self-conscious sophistication and and adult-orientation may have turned off some of Abba’s younger fans at the time (perhaps especially down under where they’d been thickest on the ground)… That’s sort of what I remember thinking/feeling. But later, particularly when I was trying to learn how to write songs, TNOTG became a fave, and, with Bacharach’s masterpieces, an aspirational gold standard for writing and arranging: 10.

  30. 55
    Brendan on 23 Sep 2012 #

    After two number 1s with choruses more catchy than syphilis this was quite refreshingly grown-up though the lyrics would have gone way over my head at the time. I haven’t heard it much over the years since then but what sticks in my head now seems a little underwhelming – kinda like ‘Dancing Queen’ it doesn’t do much for me though I can appreciate the craft and I would again agree with Tom that 7 is about right.

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