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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

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  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…

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