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Nov 08

ABBA – “The Winner Takes It All”

FT + Popular104 comments • 11,711 views

#463, 9th August 1980

“The Winner Takes It All” is pure theatre. In the sense that it’s a showstopper – Andersson and Ulvaeus had been getting itchy with the singles-albums routine and thinking towards the stage for a while, and this song by itself pretty much demanded that an ABBA musical come into being one day. But also in the sense that the song’s context is a performance – a final performance, with an audience of one – and the song is a sequence of desperate, doomed ploys by its singer to win over that audience, even as he’s flipping up his seat, putting on his coat and hat and walking out of the show forever.

This isn’t to say “Winner” is at all phoney – these ploys aren’t really trying to mask the singer’s underlying emotion, which is anguish. But there are plenty of songs about anguish: this is a song about attempts to use it, or spin it. The song, like “Maggie May” or “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, takes place in real time; a monologue. The attempts fail – but gloriously.

The first ploy is negotiation – don’t worry; I’m not here to rake over old embers, we’re reasonable people, we both tried our best. The music is gentle, reassuring – the falling piano melody that dominates the song is stately. The chorus, restrained on its first appearance, has a philosophical air.

And then the tone changes, the song becomes a guilt trip. Since we’re reasonable people, how could you let me believe these things? “Building me a home / Thinking I belonged there” – that slightly elongated, stressed “me” is the first hint of steel in Agnetha’s performance. The music has stepped up its pace, the pianos more urgent. There’s more venom in the singing as the song’s trap is sprung: if only fools play by the rules, and life is a dice throw – this metaphysical turn the song’s only lyrical mis-step – then the outcome of the reasonable game is still in doubt. The chorus, second time round, is more strident, more desperate.

The third ploy – a frontal attack. “But tell me, does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” Agnetha has never sounded sexier, all caressed sibilants and soft vowels, then the regal sweep of “deep inside”. Rules must be obeyed, she shrugs, and the message is – throw the game! But the moment passes: resignation returns, and there’s real bitterness in “a lover – or a friend?”.

Which leaves just abjection, the real last throw of those dice: the music subsides, and for the first time the singer sounds broken, hesitant, perhaps horrified by how the conversation is turning out. “Seeing me so tense – no self-con…fidence”: it’s pitiful. And in the end, with a flick of the voice – that conspiratorial “but you see” – her pride returns, and the ranging final chorus is a defiant self-justification of what she’s just put her audience (him, and us) through.

On the video, the members of ABBA laugh and clink glasses, reminding us that there’s a third layer of theatre here, the public disintegration of a real life marriage. That layer’s become shorthand for the whole song – “Winner” as a divorce epic. But the specifics are unfair on the song: as “Dancing Queen” was to their world-beating peak, “Winner” is to the wintry late ABBA – a monumental combination of supreme craft and bittersweet subtlety. And more – it’s one of pop’s great pieces of acting.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    pink champale on 20 Nov 2008 #

    p^nk s #50 (belatedly), true. i’m probably too tainted from reading late 80s/early 90’s NME&MM where there just wasn’t a genuine pop lovers faction (maybe david quantick at a push), it was either routine ‘huzaah, thousand yard stare are here to save us from the banality of this pop mush’ or ‘look at me, i love aqua, that’s right AQUA! got a problem with that indie boy?”

  2. 62

    big post as promised (warning: ridiculously big)

  3. 63
    Pete on 20 Nov 2008 #

    From a note on the Swedish-to-English grammarians out there, it should of course be
    The gods may throw a die as dice is plural. So there is an opportunity for those who find this lyric clunky to REWRITE ABBA, as it strikes me that die is easier to rhyme than dice.

  4. 64
    admin on 20 Nov 2008 #

    their minds as sweet as pie

  5. 65
    DV on 20 Nov 2008 #

    what Pete says is all very well, but in the world of real people “dice” is effectively both singular and plural.

    I love this song, but I think I have listened to it enough.

  6. 66
    Conrad on 21 Nov 2008 #

    I recall gushing praise from Morley for Tight Fit’s “Fantasy Island” at the height of New Pop. Rightly so, too. I don’t think he mentioned Abba by name. But as Abbalite goes it’s pretty fantastic.

  7. 68
    Tom on 21 Nov 2008 #

    NB I am not sure I agree with this. The 7″ is not better than Led Zeppelin III, but there might well be enough improvement in the 12″ for me to side with PM.

  8. 69
    lonepilgrim on 21 Nov 2008 #

    re 67 – blimey, that takes me back. It’s interesting to see that he was peddling this line back then. ‘Words and Music’ is pretty much this article remixed and expanded to book length with extra lists

    re clumsy lyrics – I like the fact that the lyrics aren’t always coherent and a little awkward – it fits the mood of the song and makes it seem more immediate and less rehearsed

  9. 70
    Conrad on 21 Nov 2008 #

    better than Led Zep III, haha that’s a ludicrously brilliant comparison. I’d forgotten that.

    I love Led Zep III actually – my favourite Zep album.

  10. 71
    mike on 21 Nov 2008 #

    OMG OMG OMG that Paul Morley piece, thank you thank you thank you! It had a stong influence on my thinking at the time, and I can still remember parts of it more or less verbatim.

  11. 72
    Conrad on 21 Nov 2008 #

    What a fantastic Top Ten that was – 12 June 1982 to be exact pop pickers. So I’m guessing that must have been the NME for 19 June? I must try and get a copy of that one.

  12. 73
    Tom on 21 Nov 2008 #

    It’s the only NME from that entire era I own (aside from a couple of Xmas specials) – complete fluke!

  13. 74

    i think that piece is responsible for tom contacting me to tell me about freaky trigger and his new “message board” — i had written something somewhere about how great it is (which it is), one of my five favourite music pieces ever

  14. 75
    thevisitor on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Imagine a barfly sloping up beside you and attempting to establish eye contact before slurring, “I don’t wanna talk” – and at that point, you know he’s going to tell you his life story whether you like it or not. The Winner Takes It All is a tour de force of drunken self-pity. No conjecture, this. Bjorn opened a bottle of red wine and started writing. By the end he had more verses than he could possibly use. By his own admission, he didn’t usually drink and write, but The Winner Takes It All came out in one sitting, and you can sort of tell by the sense of emotional unravelling that characterises that music and words. It’s also worth noting the sadism involved in writing the lines, “But tell me, does she kiss/Like I used to kiss you” and then getting your ex-wife to sing them. Ouch.

  15. 76
    punctum on 17 Sep 2009 #

    She stared at the songsheet in open-mouthed disbelief. They hadn’t been speaking or socialising much of late; how could they, both couples having divorced – any association was now purely professional. As professional as she always was, however, even she found it hard to be compelled to spend so much time with people to whom she was no longer that close – days in the studio, months on the road – and yes, it did hurt.

    The fun seemed to have disappeared from their music, too. It was hard to believe that it was less than five years since the glee of “Mamma Mia”; harder also for the men to cope with the fact that it had now been well over two years since they’d last had a number one in the country they called “the home of pop.” Oh, all the intervening singles had gone top five, of course – they’d hardly vanished from pop – but there seemed something stilted about the treading of commercial water, as though they were forcing themselves to go disco. Well, where else could they have gone? A punk Abba? How sad a joke would that have been? So they’d tried different gimmicks – their first 12” remix (“Voulez-Vous”), giving Bjorn a lead vocal (“Does Your Mother Know?”), even trying to conjure up the Hootenanny Singers ghosts of old youth with “I Have A Dream.”

    Now, the guys had been particularly upset about that one. It was a return to the nicer old days, and there was the children’s choir and here was the irresistible chorus to a song designed to be number one at Christmas. But then those bastards Pink Floyd, who NEVER released singles, suddenly put one out with their own children’s choir without warning! They shouldn’t say that about groups like that, they knew; still, it was difficult to maintain a straight face after reading Roger Waters saying that he’d gone off Abba about five seconds after he’d first heard them. That was a kick in two heads, but still they had to grin and settle for second place over the season.

    They’d started recording the new album that March, and both she and Frida were concerned about the vaguely depressing nature of many of the songs being scheduled – “Our Last Summer”? “Happy New Year” with its cold final warning of “May we all have our hopes/Our will to try/If we don’t we might as well lay down and die…you and I”? “Me And I,” with its conclusion of “Everyone’s a freak”? There was no doubt; the shadows of Samarra were closing in on them. Frida still carried on gamely, clowning around with the reluctant rest of the group for photographers, but really they were growing older, and growing apart. She could barely stand to speak to her ex-husband. No third party on either side; they drifted as extremely rich, hardly intimate couples have a tendency to do.

    Still, this was something of a shock. Now she knew her husband didn’t write the words; that had always been Benny’s job. But of course he would have read them, set them to music – perhaps even sniggering in the back room at the suffering they intended to put her through? No, surely not; they weren’t exactly strangers to doing yearning ballads of lost love. Yet this one seemed ominously final. She thought briefly of the stories she’d heard about Ronnie Spector; kept a prisoner in her husband’s mansion while being forced (at gunpoint, some claimed, or was that just a past ingrate embellishing tales with retrospective relish?) to sing things like “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine.”

    But no one was holding her hostage in Polar Studios. If she didn’t want to sing the song she could just refuse; if they pressed her she could always just walk out and quit – it wasn’t as though she needed the money. Besides which, she reminded herself through internally gritted teeth, you’re a professional. Just sing it. But turn their words back upon them; sing them as though you’ve never meant anything more fervently in your life.

    She donned headphones and waited for the backing track to start up. A dolorous piano treated with echo and Wurlitzer, just like that odd “Video Killed The Radio Star” thing they’d heard in Britain a few months earlier. It plays the mournful chorus harmonies, and then stops, pauses.

    She takes the biggest breath she has ever taken in her life, and begins to sing:

    “I don’t wanna talk about things we’ve gone through.
    Though it’s hurting me, now it’s history.”

    But you bastards won’t let it lie, will you? she thought to herself. The song was one about a cuckolded, humiliated lover, forced to hand over the keys to her life to someone else. This wasn’t the noble, selfless grace of “Make It Easy On Yourself”’s self-sacrifice. No, the song is, she discovers, all about the necessity to grit one’s teeth as one’s life and purpose are being destroyed in front of her, defenceless.

    The song builds up in intensity, as their ballads always tended to do, and she rides its waves – “I was in your arms,” “Building me a fence,” “Building me a home” are all sung as succeeding ascending steps of a spiral staircase leading to nowhere except a huge fall. She noted the Thomas Hardy allusion of “The gods may throw a dice/Their minds as cold as ice,” and all the while she is finding it less and less easy to control her flood of feelings, her surfeit of sorrow – “It’s simple and it’s plain! Why should I complain?” she nearly cries.

    Then, the song pauses and lowers down to knee height for the difficult bit, the most bastard bit for her to sing. She feels as though she is stabbing herself as she sings it, quietly:

    “But tell me, does she kiss like I used to kiss you? Does it feel the same when she calls your name?”

    A woman divorced by her husband being asked to sing a song co-written by her husband wherein she asks her ex-husband whether his new partner is as good as she was. “But what can I say? Rules must be obeyed.”

    Then the song fills up again, with distant echoes of keyboard and backing vocals – Frida is practically a poltergeist on the record – and as she reaches the penultimate chorus it feels like the end of everything. Again the quiet piano to give her a final, doomed chance of defiance:

    “I don’t wanna talk if it makes you feel sad.
    And I understand – you’ve come to shake my hand.
    I apologise if it makes you feel bad
    Seeing me so tense.
    No self-confidence.”

    She looks at him on the other side of the control booth, eyes burnished with hatred, visibly shaking, audibly trembling.

    “But you see,” she says, “THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL!” And with that the job is done; she removes the headphones, is out of the door before the song has even ended. She will have to come back to overdub some backing vocals but at that second she never wants to come back into that studio again. And also the professional in her takes over; as a horribly real weepie it is likely to be one of the biggest hits they’re ever likely to have, even by their own standards, and, well – it has to be promoted, contracts must be honoured, taxes paid. It is still very far from over. But, just as she reaches the studio door, she catches in the corner of her eye Bjorn and Benny, sitting there, open-mouthed at what they’ve just recorded and listened to and watched; maybe even thinking this is far too raw to come out even as a B-side. Her performance is, she knows, genuine and candid and shrivelling and accusatory; she has sung her hate disguised as regret and gamesmanship right back at them. Yes, Agnetha, she tells herself, that was the greatest performance of your life, maybe even the most emotionally naked vocal performance on a pop record by anyone – and you didn’t even need to perform. You showed them, all right. 9, or 1, depending on which side of the control booth you happen to be standing

  16. 77
    grimley on 25 Sep 2009 #

    I’ve always wondered whether all the teens (and younger) boys and girls that grew up with Abba really got this song or was it bought by their parents who recognised the angst and emotion that for me is one of the great pop records. It set a benchmark for songs that are bittersweet from experience and unsurprisingly made the playlist for my divorce some twenty years later.
    I have it on another playlist with Living Years, Fix You and We never went to church that I should probably title regrets and redemption!
    PS Thanks Puntum for the above

  17. 78
    thefatgit on 16 Oct 2009 #

    Punctum…that piece of writing is one of the best pieces I’ve read on here. Thank you very much.

    One thing I am reminded of are the fly on the wall films that peer in on the group dynamics in a studio situation. Most of us have seen Let It Be or Some Kind Of Monster which highlight the strain put on band members as the creative process becomes a chore or some cruel and unusual torture.
    TWTIA becomes an intriguing case of the latter.
    It must have been the fact that Bjorn wrote the lyrics, I assumed that it had been written from his perspective, but it’s actually written for Agnetha so she has to confront her own presumably suppressed anxiety over the divorce. With this in mind, the song becomes a rather uncomfortable listen. We become voyeurs. Which also implies Bjorn’s dignity is sacrificed for some cheap point scoring off the ex-missus. But he’s behind the glass watching her squirm. Dignity is the last thing on his mind. This is the moment he’s been waiting for, right? Only Agnetha takes the ball and runs with it. “Turns their words back upon them”. She pulls it off with style. Agnetha’s greatest vocal performance? Quite possibly. Logic would suggest Bjorn would try to sabotage such a powerful vocal in the mix out of spite, but even he must have realised this would sell like hot cakes.

    And so the death of a marriage becomes product. A helluva way to make a living.

  18. 79
    robert on 9 Jan 2010 #

    For me, this is the ultimate pop song from pop’s cleverest group. The line: “…and I understand, you’ve come to shake my hand” is sooo bittersweet. Perfect.

  19. 80
    swanstep on 10 Jan 2010 #

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments, but this is actually one of my least favorite Abba songs. For wintry break up songs, I much prefer ‘When all is said and done’, and ‘Knowing me knowing you’, and for Brodaway-ish show-stoppers, ‘I wonder’ and ‘Thank you for the music’ (from the semi-musical that finishes off Abba the Album) have more variationm and for me a suppleness that TWTIA lacks.

    I know that TWTIA is one heck of a performance by Agnetha, and the mind does boggle at Bjorn and Benny handing this one to her to sing (it’s funny to imagine that in something like the way Jared Diamond has fun imagining an easter islander chopping down the last tree on Easter island!), but finally the song just plods a bit to my ears. Benny’s piano throughout feels a little stock/generic to me, and the whole thing just grinds away turning into a bigger and bigger belting it out piece, but without reaching the heights of the best B/way belters (think Streisand doing Happy days).

    A lot of late Abba songs have something a little embarrassing about them, but then there’s also often some delicious melodic twist somewhere that just can’t be denied. ‘One of us’, ‘Super trouper’, ‘Slipping through my fingers’ are three that come to mind that work like that. TWTIA doesn’t (to my ears at least) contain one of those hidden treasures to make the game worth the candle. So, it’s more of a 7 than a 10 from me for this one.

  20. 81
    flahr on 18 May 2011 #

    Was going to comment on the song (though not really much to add to what’s been said above) but alas got sidetracked by how unbearably self-satisfied that Paul Morley piece at #76 is, ugh

    (I will charitably assume it has just dated rather than it was rubbish at the time too)

  21. 82
    flahr on 18 May 2011 #

    Er, #67 rather!

    I’ve remembered what I was going to say now anyway, which is that “One for Sorrow” by Steps (not SB embargoed) rips this one off rather shamelessly.

  22. 83

    Yes at the time it was fairly startling actually, and very memorable as a consequence. PM’s dreamy self-regard has been much imitated since, and lost most of the sharpness it then seemed to have: this was — as i think i said above — an enormously exciting and important piece for me, not so much for the tone and style, as just for the way he treats all the different songs and musics as voices in a conversation, a social argument… like posts on a comments thread almost.

  23. 84
    flahr on 18 May 2011 #

    OTOH the excerpt Tom quotes at #67 is clearly the sort of thing someone should be saying.

    Was that the first in a series? I can imagine subsequent pieces of writing – after he’s set out his stall, so to speak – being a bit better.

  24. 85

    no it was totally a one-off: came out of nowhere, never repeated

  25. 86
    swanstep on 19 May 2011 #

    The excerpt Tom quotes at #67 is clearly the sort of thing someone should be saying.

    Because clearly someone should say ‘2+2 > 75’ ?

    Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.
    Wanda: Yes, they do Otto, they just don’t understand it.

  26. 87
    flahr on 19 May 2011 #

    Someone needs to say things which aren’t said so that we can work out if they haven’t been said because they’re unpopular or they haven’t been said because they’re wrong. Saying 2+2<75 makes the people who think 2+2>75 explain why that is so (or find out that it’s not) rather than just complacently taking it as a given.

    (not having heard the 12″ of Fantasy Island nor, indeed, Led Zeppelin III I don’t know which side is which here)

  27. 88
    Mark G on 19 May 2011 #

    Well, at least that 12″ single is over sooner.

  28. 89
    swanstep on 19 May 2011 #

    Saying 2+2 < 75 makes the people who think otherwise explain why that is so
    Jesus, no. If someone makes an utterly bizarre claim (esp. without a very good supporting story, let alone without any supporting story at all), they almost certainly should not be taken seriously. Perhaps they’re nuts, or just trying to get a rise out of you or are engaged in some sort of ape-like chest-beating display/social manoeuver, or they’re just prone to mindless gainsaying and iconoclasm or…

    You (Flahr) know chunks of Led Zep 3 if you’ve ever watched things like Almost Famous (which uses Tangerine in its final scene) and Rock School (which uses Immigrant Song as Jack Black’s best driving music).
    I don’t know the 12″ mix of Fantasy Island either. It isn’t around in any of the obvious places on-line (whereas most fondly remembered 12″ versions of things are widely available – diehard fans like to share their best rareties), which suggests that it’s nothing special.

  29. 90
    Tom on 19 May 2011 #

    There is a supporting story surely, the rest of the article is all about being in a state of giddy delight about the charts/pop/the moment. In which case the really preposterous claim would be that a decade-old album could be better than a current thrill.

    Sorry for no Popular this week btw, double column deadline and a lot of work on.

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