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Dec 08

ABBA – “Super Trouper”

FT + Popular52 comments • 5,244 views

#470, 29th November 1980

The mockery of pop stars who write songs about how tough their lives are is as routinised as any of the tour grind they complain about: a reliable cue to take a celebrity down a peg. “Super Trouper” seems to have escaped this, maybe because ridicule was diverted to its silly, awkward title – or maybe because its exhausted candour rings too true. “Wishing every show was the last show”; “bored of a success that never ends”; “how can anyone be so lonely?” – as sung here these aren’t just the decadent complaints of over-indulged divas, they’re the sound of a miserable woman who’s stuck on a golden treadmill and wants off.

The figleaf these sentiments are clothed in – she wants to escape into the arms of a lover – is hardly convincing. The feelings are too stark, the wash-out in Frida’s voice too obvious, for even that lovely soaring middle eight to seem like anything but fantasy. No, this is ABBA hitting a wall, an apt last number one for the band.

As a song? It’s good – flashes of greatness (Frida’s vocals; the middle eight again, with its last hurrah of “Dancing Queen” piano grandeur; harmonies on point throughout), but moments of clumsiness too. That repeated keyboard riff at the beginning feels heavy-handed, and of course there’s the “soo-pah-pah troo-pah-pah” backing vocals, which emphasise that it’s really not a great idea to name a song (let alone a whole album!) after a brand of spotlight. True to its topic, “Super Trouper”’s an uneasy mix of introspection and crowd-pleasing, a half-hearted cheer before the band slip finally into their private ice age.

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Comments

  1. 1
    peter goodlaws on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Sorry again but this was grim even for Abba. I KNOW it’s good pop and certain kinds of blokes get excited about all this but sorry, no. I expect all you old folk to say it’s great and that’s fine but I didn’t like this when I was five and still don’t. I was too young to lust after the girls and today I can’t even like this stuff on an ironic level. Only speaking my mind.

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 3 Dec 2008 #

    I can’t think of much to add to your comments Tom other than to say I enjoy the melody and sounds of the words without actually paying much attention to the content. It feels slightly undeveloped compared to their other hits.

  3. 3

    i’ve always rather liked the march-time feel to this song — in fact i think i like all songs with a march-time feel (so sousa me!)

  4. 4
    will on 3 Dec 2008 #

    This is an Abba song I feel affectionate towards rather than love outright. Frida’s vocal performance has a warmth and reassurance to it and though it lacks the melodrama of their very best work it’s still the work of master craftsmen – personally, I’ve always loved those ‘soo-pah-pah’ backing vocals.

    Good to see a British provincial city getting namechecked in the first verse too..

  5. 5
    Conrad on 3 Dec 2008 #

    The teetering-on-the-edge-of-ridiculous backing vocals and the super-dupa Not The Nine O’Clock News spoof make this was one of the least credible Abba releases.

    Yet, as Tom says there is still much to be admired and yes, the middle 8 is where it all comes together and really soars like vintage Abba.

    And I like the lyrics; they do convince and they add a suitably melancholic air to their valedictory Number One.

    Edit – yes, great to hear Frida’s “when I called you last night from Glas-gow”

  6. 6
    Erithian on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Yes, certainly one of their lesser lights (see what I did there?) and probably low down anybody’s ranking of their number ones. I’m reminded of the saying that an act’s first album can be about the years they spent getting to that point in their career, but if their second album is about the period since their first, and all they can write about is the experience of being up there, they can be in trouble. I’m not saying that Abba were doing this so far into their career (on the evidence of one track) but it’s obviously the one where the listener can least identify with the feelings expressed, however touchingly phrased. I suppose you could say the same about “Thank You for the Music” too, but that’s showbiz.

    This one’s notable for its lyrical reference to Glasgow as well – handy that it rhymes with “show”, but it does perhaps illustrate again the oddity of hearing UK place-names in songs (which we last discussed on the “Angel Fingers” thread – blimey, all these cross-references, Popular will eat itself!) Don’t know whether Benny and Bjorn were thinking of Glasgow as glamorous or tour-treadmill humdrum, but the reference sticks out.

    You never know how foreigners will think of UK place names (or even non-locals – someone from Salisbury told a friend of mine that “Erith” sounded poetic and magical.) Once while staying with a French family we had a table wine which was a blend from various EU countries, and the label was an EU place-name picked apparently at random. Which is why we were drinking “Rochdale” wine. (They pronounced it Roshdarl.)

  7. 7
    pjb on 3 Dec 2008 #

    While not their best, and certainly not their worst, I do think this sums up much of Abba’s greatness, and some of their contradictions – the slightly over literal second language lyrics (including the bizarre even at the time name check for Glasgow), the rhythmic, near-nonsense backing vocals recalling Take a Chance.., and above all the emotion in the main vocal and fabulous multi-layered melody lines throughout. Which add up to far more than the sum of their parts – which is why Abba clearly had access to a degree of alchemy denied almost all pop groups.

    Possibly worth noting that they never toured again…

    At the time, while a devoted Abba-fan, I thought of Abba and Blondie as the two big pop groups of the time. In hindsight, understanding far better their utterly different cultural origins, this seems odd. But their career trajectories were uncannily similar by this point. This and Tide is High were their final #1s (in original runs) and rapidly diminishing chart returns followed.

    Blondie imho went on to release some not very good singles and a dire ‘final’ album, while Abba went into a bizarrely compelling Bergman-electropop final act, in the process securing some unlikely positive critical collateral. In retrospect Supertrouper was probably their best album, helped to be fair by managing not to contain anything truly terrible, and The Visitors is a very very odd combination of suddenly contemporary elctronic pop, near show tunes and some enduringly downbeat songs. Although also, to spoil it, probably the worst recording they ever made. Ho hum.

    Still, in the main, they went out on a creative high, of which this, despite its slight novelty elements, is a part.

    I guess we sort of get to discuss them again…

  8. 8

    i was SO the wrong age for ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ — NEVER KNOWINGLY FUNNY (or the other kind either)

    spitting image’s song parodies were actually worse, mind

  9. 9
    Stevie on 3 Dec 2008 #

    The Glasgow reference is sweetly played on in the unusually successful indie cover track by Camera Obscura – http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=BD3fvoe74pE – which inadvertently returns ABBA to their roots in twee folk pop.

  10. 10
    Tom on 3 Dec 2008 #

    ABBA will show up again separately as songwriters, sample-providers, and in cover version form: has anyone else achieved this treble?

  11. 11

    lou reed?

  12. 12
    Mark G on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Actually, the whole song would have been better if the title had been removed entirely.

    As it stands, so many people think this is about toy soldiers.

    Also, the backing vocals way too jolly.

  13. 13

    ok lou’s contributions in the other areas will not fuss popular will they?

  14. 14
    Mark G on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Paul McCartney provided a sample for Ferry aid.

  15. 15
    LondonLee on 3 Dec 2008 #

    This is such a schizophrenic record, there’s a typically lovely sad ABBA song in there (“I was sick and tired of everything…”) but there’s also that annoying oompah-pah-pah which is awful Euro-cheese. It’s like the best and worst of ABBA in one record. They pulled off this sort of tightrope walk a lot better before.

  16. 16
    AndyPandy on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Re Erithian’s No6 comment about the oddity of British placenames in songs; this being with the obvious exception of London which paradoxically is mentioned in more songs/song titles than any other city in the world except possibly New York (and in the post 1963 pop world probably including New York). See “Songs about London” on wikipedia (which I obviously wouldn’t usually recommend as a point of reference but the list seems ok).

  17. 17
    Taylor on 3 Dec 2008 #

    I get a reasonable amount of pleasure from “Super Trouper”, partly for personal reasons – firstly, it transports me back to being eight years old more effectively than any other hit of the year (and it does this in a good way). Secondly, it reminds me, semi-comically, of being in a relationship with someone in a pop group who didn’t like touring (and it does this in a way that is… bittersweet).

    Objectively, though, it’s one of their more workmanlike singles, seemingly written as A HIT at a time when B&B were starting to think beyond (beneath?) the hit as a first-line means of self-expression. It feels as though more care’s gone into the streamlined arrangement and spotless production than the song itself – not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems that ABBA were moving on, beginnning to concentrate their energies elsewhere. None of the remaining ABBA singles quite recapture the effortless simplicity/complexity of “SOS” or “Dancing Queen”. They’re adult ballads, exercises in genre-play or similarly-spectral Euro-pop, slightly divorced (ha!) from what made ABBA such a potent chart-pop group. And of course, none of them went to number one.

    “Super Trouper”, though, has tricks up its sleeve. Referencing Glasgow drives this rather distant song back into the here-and-now, for a British audience at least (despite the fact that here, Glasgow = “away from home”). Out of context – as most hooklines are heard – “somewhere in the crowd there’s you” is a nice bit of finger-touching, reconnecting ABBA with their audience as the rest of the song blanks them out.

    Best of all is the abrupt shift in the sound as Frida cuts short her contemplation and takes the stage.. again. The wistful verse is all synth bells and acoustic guitars; as showtime arrives, she has to shunt her feelings to one side, psych herself up (that heart-quickening surge on “everything will be so different when I’m on the stage tonight”), and suddenly, as the chorus comes in, we’re jolted from the relative comfort of melancholy to the airless, unreal environment of the performance space. It feels like stepping into the glare of fifteen spotlights, fifty thousand baying fans; it’s subtly done, but the effect is devastating.

    Touches like these elevate the song, which sounds unusually forced; it’s clear that something was drawing to a close. Some of ABBA’s most effective (and affecting) work was still to come, but the chill had set in. From now on, when they try to sound like ABBA, they sound like ghosts.

  18. 18
    Mark M on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Re: 11/13 – unfortunately, the wonderful Reed-sampling Can I Kick It? sets off no Bunny alarms, but grumpy Lou in some form (I say no more) has a Popular future…

  19. 19
    Kat but logged out innit on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Hurray the return of Learn To Play Keyboard Book 1! IIRC ‘Super Trouper’ required a lively tempo, bright and cheerful, Brass 1 setting. It was proper easy as well, I even had time to press the ‘fill’ button at the end to make a ‘woddly-idly-woddly-WOOOOOO’ noise in time with the beat.

  20. 20
    will on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Re:17 Even at the time I felt that ‘something drawing to a close’ feeling in ST. Though it’s a thoughtful, cute song, played alongside contemporaneous hits like Spandau Ballet’s To Cut A Long Story Short, it couldn’t help but sound staid and a little old fashioned. By the end of 1980 it was clear something was about to change and that Abba, though they were still producing great music, were unlikely to be part of the brave new (pop) world that was coming into view on the horizon.
     

  21. 21
    wichita lineman on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Yes, their end of the pier song, in more than one way. It had an air of resigned finality; somehow all their late singles, quality notwithstanding, do sound tacked on to an era that closed with this. Think I’m the first person to mention this – the gorgeous “synth-bell” melody (could’ve been a 12-string in the hands of the Searchers) between intro/chorus and verse is easily the highlight for me.

    Such a shame we won’t get to comment on One Of Us, another song that meant little lyrically to me at the time (“I saw myself as a concealed attraction, I felt you kept me away from the heat and the action” – christ! Too good) but, like The Winner Takes It All, only hit hard when I reached my 30s. Surely they’re the most adult POP group of all – pardon me if someone brought this up years back.

    “Su-pa-pa tru-pa-pa” bv’s, though, are one of the most obvious sticks with which to beat Abba, considerably worse than Deb’s mugging on the Tide Is High’s fade. Had a pub chat with a h8r last night who thinks Does Your Mother Know is their best 45. There’s a first.

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Like Taylor, my continued liking for this is probably in some subjective way due to the way that it can recreate the sensation of being eight like no other song of this time can. Perhaps its because its a song that particularly expects an open-hearted response, free of cynicism, such as children feel. Even the weary verses in this about the travails of being a popstar on the road are something that can be transcended by knowing that somebody is in the audience, thinking that the people who love your music are your friends. As a life on the road song, it has little affinities with ‘Travellin’ Band’, let alone ‘Pump It Up’.

    (Incidentally, Taylor wrote a brilliant essay about ‘The Visitors’ in a free Melody Maker book, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ 13 years ago)

  23. 23
    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Re #12, I can remember seeing Tim Rice being interviewed by Selina Scott on BBC Breakfast Time, circa 1983. He must have been talking about writing ‘Chess’ with Bjorn and Benny, because he cited ‘Super Trouper’ as being an exciting song about the ordinary subject of a lighting man. Scott was surprised, “Is that really what its about? I thought it was like ‘Star Wars’ or something?”

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2008 #

    ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ is quite important to contemporaneous reaction to the song here, because we all watched it at primary school, and this may be the first time that we were aware of the case against a popular song of the day to contrast with the actual thing.

    Is this the first time that we have parodies of songs going on simultaneously with their actual chart runs (Something which ‘Radio Active’ and ‘Spitting Image’ will carry on throughout the 1980s. Thank you, Phil Pope…)

  25. 25
    AndyPandy on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Not the Nine O’clock News? a programme not to be surpassed in its smug 6th form unfunniness until the dawn of Hale and Pace…

  26. 26
    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Not the Nine O’Clock News is hard to get a handle on in the present day, if only because the actual programmes as transmitted havent been seen for 25 years – instead we have six half-hour compilations of sketches, and a lingering sensation that we’re getting a misrepresentation of what the programme was actually like (though I am always dead impressed by how Pamela Stephenson managed to extract maximum funniness out of whatever material she was given)

    The bunny reminds me that we shall be presented with further opportunities to discuss the hilarious comedy of Hale & Pace in the fullness of time.

  27. 27
    Conrad on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Will, that was certainly my reaction in Decemeber 1980 – Spandau Ballet’s performance of To Cut A Long Story Short on TOTP made a huge impression on me. It was arguably the single most important event in shaping my subsequent adoration of Japan, Human League and Roxy Music.

    It also, more than other moment up to this point, had the effect of ensuring as 1981 dawned that my ears were open to New Pop. I was first and foremost a pop music fan and a chart follower, a Smash Hits and NME reader.

    My least favourite subjects at school suffered for lack of attention. Even my love of football suffered…

    I have always felt a tinge of sadness at not being old enough to have gone to the Blitz, and been part of the London nightlife at the height of New Romanticism. It all seemed so incredibly exotic and glamourous to a 14 year old stuck miles away from the bright lights on the South Coast of England.

  28. 28
    Erithian on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Yes, something was brewing wasn’t it? Around that time I was puzzled by a piece of graffiti on Egham station reading “Antz R The Warriors”…

  29. 29
    Martin Skidmore on 4 Dec 2008 #

    I would happily read a book discussing songs that discuss what it is like to be in a rock band or to be a pop star or whatever. Mott the Hoople* and Eminem would be my two pinnacles of that approach.

    Ian Hunter did write a fine book, Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, that tells you a lot about this too.

  30. 30

    heh andypandy puts his finger on why i was “so the wrong age” for NtNoCN: “sixth-form humour”! because by now i had left the sixth-form far behind me! nearly 18 months previously! what gulfs are these…

  31. 31
    Erithian on 4 Dec 2008 #

    We’ve had the odd discussion on here about autobiographical songs – they’re fairly rare, certainly at number 1, as songs with more universal themes tend to be favoured. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” was the prime example, and there was a debate as to whether “You Wear It Well” was in the character of an everybloke or a touring rock star like, oh, Rod Stewart.

    More recently there have been a wealth of songs giving the latest bulletin on what it’s like to be J-Lo, Fiddy, Robbie or whoever, and as often as not they’re a pain. Then you come to Britney’s “Piece of Me” and OH SHUT UP I DON’T BLOODY WANT TO KNOW…

  32. 32
    LondonLee on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Oh God, I was watching that “Britney: On The Record” program on MTV last night. The horror, the horror…

    Pamela Stephenson did a very good Kate Bush, I remember those parodies far more than I do the ABBA one.

    Oh, and Ian Hunter also wrote two of the best rock band autobiography songs too: “Saturday Gigs” and “The Ballad of Mott”

  33. 33
    lonepilgrim on 4 Dec 2008 #

    The Stones did a couple of good songs about the life of the band – ‘Moonlight Mile’ on Sticky Fingers and ‘Torn and Frayed’ on Exile on Main Street – which suggest that Jagger was struggling with the demands of the rock and roll lifestyle – but without being too self pitying about it

  34. 34
    vinylscot on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Okay, although even on first listen it was obvious this was Abba’s weakest single since the misses before “SOS”, it was also the first one since “Waterloo” which I bought when it came out. I can’t explain what made me buy it – it certainly wasn’t as a thank-you for the mention of Glasgow, and I honestly can’t remember if I ever played it.

    I presume I must have done, as I am aware of the b-side, which was perfectly pleasant, but which would not have had me running out to buy it.

    I think someone touched on it earlier. This is paint-by numbers Abba; formulaic with motifs from a number of their earlier songs; despite what one or two posters have suggested, they’re taking no risks here, just doing what they do with their eyes shut and their swag-bags open.

    There is a story that the album was all but ready and already titled before this song was even written. One more track was needed so they dashed this one off double-quick, and lo and behold, another monster from the Swedish geniuses.

    I take both the story and the “Swedish geniuses” bit with a rather large pinch of salt. (Although “The Day Before You Came” was a work of art, both their original, and Blancmange’s sublime cover)

  35. 35
    CarsmileSteve on 5 Dec 2008 #

    lord sukrat at 2, i put it to you that you came up with that pun first then worked out how to shoehorn it in ;)

    i think this is the first song i consciously remember being A Number One and to six year old me the SOO-PAH-PAH TRUE-PAH-PAH bits were clearly top fun, to be sung around house and playground at any given opportunity (and also with hilarious word changes it could be made to sound a bit rude). also i kind of always knew what the title of the song referred to as they appeared on swap shop and the question to win a pile of abba goodies was “what is a super trouper?”

  36. 36
    KeithW on 7 Dec 2008 #

    Funny, Steve: that’s the only Swap Shop competition question I have any memory of. I had no idea what it was until they revealed the answer – some sort of massive soldier with a big f*** off gun?

  37. 37
    Malice Cooper on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Not their best single by a long shot, but still far better than most of what was around. Agnetha was looking more like a young Paul Walsh (footballer). I thought the video was rather silly but then they usually were.

  38. 38
    Malice Cooper on 26 Dec 2008 #

    Re #34 “even on first listen it was obvious this was Abba’s weakest single since the misses before “SOS” ”

    I think this is a far stronger single than “Angel eyes” and “Chiquitita”

  39. 39
    The Lurker on 7 Jan 2009 #

    I’ve just worked out that this is a landmark Popular entry – if you take the midpoint of the date of the entry (3/12/2008) and the date of first number one (14/11/52), you get 23/11/1980. Therefore this is the first Popular entry to be over half way chronogically!

  40. 40
    Erithian on 8 Jan 2009 #

    Or look at it this way – we’re halfway through a marathon, the twist being that the finishing tape is held by a couple of blokes who’ve been slowly walking into the distance since we started the race!

    Still some distance short of halfway through the list of number ones though, since the average tenure at number one has been somewhat shorter for the past 15 years or so.

  41. 41
    Tom on 8 Jan 2009 #

    The next #1, as I write this, marks the halfway point as it stood at the time I began Popular!

    Apologies for the delay, by the way: it’s been caused by work, toddler-related lack of sleep, the Poptimists Top 50 of 2008 taking up my available faff time, and the next track being quite hard to write about.

  42. 42
    Mark G on 8 Jan 2009 #

    Ah, pull yourself together man!

    Just look riiiiiiight in the mirror…..

  43. 43
    Matthew on 10 Jan 2009 #

    This was musical perfection to my recently-turned-6 self – don’t think I noticed it had any kind of dark side to it, it was just about being Super and feeling like Number One. I strongly suspect I thought it was “when I called you last night from Tesco”, too.

  44. 44
    Brooksie on 15 Feb 2010 #

    This is a combination of ‘Winner Takes it All’ and ‘Take a Chance On Me’. I think it’s a mini-masterpiece of craft, even if it is a cynical attempt to take the # 1 slot again. I’ll take this over ‘Voulez-Vous’ or ‘I Have a Dream’ any day.

  45. 45
    punctum on 13 Feb 2013 #

    The end of 1980, and the end of days: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/abba-super-trouper.html

  46. 46
    swanstep on 14 Mar 2013 #

    Super Jumper (Abba vs Van Halen). Mad geniuses at work on both the audio mashup and the video. Recommended.

  47. 47
    Colin on 22 Jun 2013 #

    Surprised at the comment on the B side of Super Trouper, The Piper. This is a very sinister song about a gullible public being taken in by charismatic leaders like Hitler.

    As for that Abba/Van Halen mash up mentioned by swanstep, I don’t think the vocals are actually Abba. For one thing, “Frida” sings “when you called me last night from Glasgow”.

  48. 48
    swanstep on 22 Jun 2013 #

    @Colin. The Glasgow reference is most definitely in the original; cleverly, doubly rhymed with ‘last show’ in the next couplet. The specificity of the reference like the reference to lighting tech in the song’s title is characteristic I feel of late Abba. Their English is very good by this point and their interest in semi-Broadway-ish acting out of songs and characters is fully bloomed. (All this went way over my head as a young kid but I really appreciate it now.)

  49. 49
    Lazarus on 14 Nov 2015 #

    It’s cake and candles tomorrow for the Norwegian quarter of Abba, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known as Frida of course, who’ll be 70 – in fact she’s the second member of the group to reach the milestone, Bjorn having done so in April. Hadn’t realised there are five years between her and Agnetha. I only mention it because it’s been a quiet week in these parts – no TOTP, and Popular itself seems to have, er, stopped movin.’ Perhaps shorter pieces might be the way to go for a while? Not every will-this-do Westlife cover needs a thousand words devoted to it, and it’ll speed us along to the interesting stuff still to come.

  50. 50
    glue_factory on 24 Nov 2015 #

    Fascinating Fact #245. Despite the date of its release, in the last month this was played 17 times on Absolute 70s and only once on Absolute 80s.

  51. 51
    Adam Puke on 24 Nov 2015 #

    Similar to Head Over Heels (a 1982 single!) popping up in the 1977ish The Kennedys recently.

  52. 52
    Justified Ancient on 3 Aug 2016 #

    I have a very personal attachment to this, because it was the very first LP I ever bought, right when it came out, at the Fellini-esque age of 8 1/2. I remember standing in the record shop and carefully weighing the first-purchase-options between this one and Kim Carnes (needless to say, I never regretted my choice, and never looked back). I also remember poring over the lyrics over and over again, and it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that a little Southern German boy learned English with the rather world-weary songs of late-period ABBA. So far, so autobiographical. Later, I often wondered if this song raised any eyebrows at the time, since (if we assume the singer singing about being in a band is singing about HER band) the line “somewhere in the crowd there’s you” (and most other lines too) make it absolutely clear that this “you”, this lover, is NOT part of the band. Frida and Benny were divorced not much later. Maybe we can see this as a secret companion to The Winner Takes It All, that is, they are both songs in which a male ABBA songwriter makes his ex-wife or soon-to-be-ex-wife sing about the end of their marriage. Considering the well-published fact that it was Benny who initiated the divorce proceedings, maybe it was he who was looking out from the stage, tired and worn-out behind his piano, to that significant “you” somewhere in the crowd.

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