Sep 09


FT + Popular55 comments • 11,667 views

#545, 9th February 1985, video

Beware of what you wish for: Benny and Bjorn had spent much of ABBA’s imperial phase wanting to write a musical. They even put together a little taster, with their “Girl With The Golden Hair” trilogy at the back end of ABBA: The Album. And then, after the band drifted apart, they got their chance – Chess, with lyrics by Tim Rice, about a cold war clash of grandmasters and a romantic tangle: very ABBA, somehow. The themes were right, the collaboration was right – surely it would be a triumph?

Alas, no. I have fond memories of Chess because we took my Dad to see it for a birthday treat and it was the first time I’d ever seen a big West End musical. But beyond this and fellow single “One Night In Bangkok”, not one of the tunes made an impression. I’d be intrigued to go back and listen again now, but my feeling is that Andersson and Ulvaeus choked.

“I Know Him So Well” seems to bear this out. It’s ponderous, a good few beats too slow. It’s ugly – from the moment that hideous guitar tone scrapes past on the opening verse you know you’re in for a tough ride production-wise. It’s plummy – Paige and Dickson are troupers and their reading of the song is braced with certitude and has little room for vulnerability. And while Tim Rice certainly could throw the kind of emotional daggers Benny and Bjorn once did, he’s not bothering here: this is a pro forma weepie at best, its coding of wife as security, mistress as fantasy summing up its basic laziness.

And yet – none of those issues are really Andersson and Ulvaeus’ fault, and what redeems the record is the one thing they could control: the composition. Like the previous number one, “I Know Him So Well” is an absolute belter to sing along with: at weddings, karaoke, anywhere. There’s one moment – only one, really – of ABBA-level brilliance, the “Didn’t I know how it would go?” climax where the two women’s accounts join up. Paige and Dickson almost ruin it with fruity finishing-school “o” sounds but if you’re singing along in the disco or the booth you’ll find the song sweeping you into the intended confusion and release.



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  1. 31
    Conrad on 11 Sep 2009 #

    “Check out if you dare “Kiss The Spiky Fringe” which trumps even Kajagoogoo’s “Ooh To Be Aah” as the ultimate example of 80s vacuity in pop.”

    “Ooh to be aah” is vacuus but in a strangely sublime way.

    the title of that King track alone makes me think of an 80s version of Nathan Barley, only without the humour obv.

    I think everyone’s missing Abba on this thread and wondering what sort of sound a 1985 version of Abba might have produced

  2. 32
    Tom on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Wasn’t it “Spiky FRIDGE”? (even worse!)

  3. 33
    MikeMCSG on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Tom – yep you’re right.

  4. 34
    Erithian on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Barbara Dickson did a very pleasant version of an early David Whitfield/Frankie Laine number one, “Answer Me” (as indeed we were discussing a couple of years ago on the Frankie Laine thread).

  5. 35
    Billy Smart on 11 Sep 2009 #

    #31 – Well, on ‘More ABBA Gold’ you can hear ‘I Am The City’, which – I think – is a demo from an abandoned comeback session in about 1983. Its really good, but perhaps the joy and tenderness couldn’t ever return.

    An album of songs like ‘Under Attack’ and ‘The Day Before You Came’ would have been astonishing, but perhaps something that would make me very unhappy to hear.

  6. 36
    Billy Smart on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Top Paul King facts from Smash Hits, IIRC;

    1) He used to be a policeman!

    2) He claimed to have lost his virginity at 12!

    3) He had the biggest feet in pop!?

    In a hideous sixties pastiche way, I always find myself really enjoying their sophisticated ballad ‘The Taste of Your Tears’, although I suspect that I may be alone in this view…

  7. 37
    pink champale on 11 Sep 2009 #

    #36, you’re not quite alone. iirc the ‘now 6’ (or possibly ‘hits 3’) track commentary for ‘taste of your tears’ describes it as a classic that would have been a hit at any point in the preceding 30 years.

    #8 and paul young’s backing singers were called ‘the royal family’ i think

  8. 38
    Al Ewing on 11 Sep 2009 #

    My main memory of this song is, for years, thinking that it was part of Jesus Christ Superstar, and sung by Mary Magdalene about Jesus Christ. Not sure what put me onto that, but I suspect, transplanted, it might have improved both IKHSW and JCS considerably.

    EDIT: Reading the comments, it becomes obvious that I just confused this with ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’. That only strengthens my theory that swapping the two would have vastly improved JCS.

  9. 39
    anto on 11 Sep 2009 #

    EastEnders fans might have already noted that this suitably melodramatic showtune was sitting at the top of the charts when the residents of Albert Square first barged onto our screens.
    Perhaps Bianca and Sam could resolve their dispute over Rick-Kayeee by singing a duet together. It would make a change from chucking pints over one another at the Vic.

  10. 40
    Tom on 11 Sep 2009 #

    #38 yes sung as a duet between Mary Magdalene AND GOD

  11. 41
    Caledonianne on 12 Sep 2009 #

    Oh, Mike – what a great story. I was also at a place in my life where the song had resonance, despite the staginess. And I share Conrad’s delight about Barbara Dickson having a number one. She played Paisley Town Hall! What more could I ask! And Punctum’s observation about that final hesitant sigh is the key to the whole thing. It’s a bit of a girly song and shamelessly melodramatic, but because of the personal history, an 8 or 9 for me.

  12. 42
    abaffledrepublic on 12 Sep 2009 #

    #37: Paul Young’s backing band were called the Royal Family, and included Pino Palladino, name later spoofed by Mark and Lard as Penis Palladinis. His backing singers were called the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts.

  13. 43

    […] ELAINE PAIGE AND BARBARA DICKSON – “I Know Him So Well Like the previous number one, “I Know Him So Well” is an absolute belter to sing along with: at weddings, karaoke, anywhere. There’s one moment – only one, really – of ABBA-level brilliance, the “Didn’t I know how it would go? All the UK number ones since 1952, reviewed in order and rated by whim. As featured on Radio 2, The Times, Metro, Paul Cornell’s LiveJournal, etc etc. If you enjoy Popular please link to it or tell your friends about it. […]

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 13 Sep 2009 #

    Cover Version Watch: Steps’ 2001 interpretation got to number 5. It doesn’t really add anything to the song, and takes away some of the sense worldly-wise lived experience that two middle-aged actresses can bring to such a tale. Not a patch on Steps’ uptempo cover versions.

  15. 45
    Pete Baran on 14 Sep 2009 #

    Is it me or does the “exploded chess board” background of the single cover, coupled with Babs and EP both wearing black make them look like some terrifying Musical Theatre Behemoth, a conjoined twin of camp, the Siamese of Showtunes?

    (Just thinking of the battle between this double headed beast vs Mechastreisand).

  16. 46
    katstevens on 14 Sep 2009 #

    Can confirm that Elaine can still belt this out good and proper! Full review here: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/pop/2009/09/mumpop-iii-folk-you-for-the-music/

  17. 47
    Matthew H on 15 Sep 2009 #

    Grossly unfashionable, even at the time, but for me there were (and I suspect still are) a couple of serious spine-tingle moments in El and Babs’s delivery. I kept quiet about it – I was 12 and a half, for goodness’ sake – but rather liked hearing the record.

    Missed all the chat about pop-post-Band-Aid, the fallout, the peak of pop’s hierarchy – 1985 struck me as a mess, which chimes with those thoughts.

  18. 48
    intothefireuk on 15 Sep 2009 #

    Show tunes – not exactly my favourite – usually bland instrumentation, usually over-sung and full of over-wrought emotions playing to the cheap seats. IKHSW does not disappoint it is all of these and more.

  19. 49
    MikeMCSG on 17 Sep 2009 #

    #47 The list of no 1’s would certainly give the impression 1985 was dire but the year that produced “The Boys Of Summer” , “The Whole Of The Moon” and the release that became the first new no 1 of 1986 wasn’t all bad. In year the closest one of my favourites got to the top spot was Red Box’s “Lean On Me” which peaked at 3.

  20. 50
    AndyPandy on 25 Sep 2009 #

    Surely another addition to the very small category of post-1980 Number Ones (Barbara Streisand ‘Woman In Love’ etc)that owed almost all their success to Radio 2 plays.

  21. 51
    Billy Smart on 27 Sep 2009 #

    Light Entertinment Watch: Quite a few British TV appearances for Elaine over the years;

    CALL MY BLUFF: with Robert Robinson, Frank Muir, Arthur Marshall, Sheila Steafel, Stephen Fry, Elaine Paige, Lord Havers (1988)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with David Frost, Elaine Paige (1983)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Roger de Courcey, Elaine Paige, The Flying Pickets, Miss World (1984)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Freddie Starr, Elaine Paige, Ursula Andress, Mai Tai (1985)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Bob Monkhouse, Elaine Paige, Thea Vidale, Jimmy Somerville, The Real McCoy, Chris Barrie (1995)

    LADYBIRDS: with Elaine Paige (1983)

    LIVE FROM HER MAJESTY’S: with Marvin Hamlisch, Bob Monkhouse, Elaine Paige, Max Bygraves (1983)

    LIVE FROM THE PALLADIUM: with James Galway, Elaine Paige, Chieftains, Richard Digance (1987)

    THE MAIN ATTRACTION: with Larry Grayson, Roy Jay, Modern Romance, Elaine Paige, Shakin’ Stevens, Shields and Yarnell, Charlie Drake, John Junkin, Anna Dawson (1983)

    MARTI CAINE: with The Drifters, Elaine Paige (1980)

    MICHAEL BALL: with Cliff Richard, Elaine Paige (1993)

    MICHAEL BARRYMORE’S SATURDAY NIGHT OUT: with Frank Bruno, Gary Lavini, Lulu, Frank Oliver, Elaine Paige, Adrian Walsh (1989)

    NIGHT MUSIC: with Elaine Paige, David Essex (1982)

    ONE MORE TIME: with Paul Curtis, Kim Davis, Jane Marlow, Elaine Paige, Mike Redway, Carolyn Smith, Danny Street, Maynard Williams, The Fine Tooth Combs, Quicksilver (1978)

    THE RONNIE CORBETT SHOW: with Bruce Forsyth, Elaine Paige, Frank Thornton, Punt & Dennis (1987)

    THE ROYAL VARIETY PERFORMANCE: with Adam and the Ants, Robert Hardy, Acker Bilk, Patti Boulaye, Lonnie Donegan, Anita Harris, Lenny Henry, John Inman, Lulu, Elaine Paige (1981)

    THE ROYAL VARIETY PERFORMANCE: with Des O’Connor, Cliff Richard, Brian Conley and the cast of Jolson, Elaine Paige, Joe Pasquale, Bob Downe, Allan Stewart, Alistair McGowan, Marvin Hamlisch, Pendragons (1992)

    A SONG FOR CHRISTMAS: with Elaine Paige, Peter Skellern (1986)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: Elaine Paige (1996)

    STARBURST: with The Nolans, Elaine Paige, Joe Longthorne (1982)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with James Galway, Elaine Paige, Jeremy Beadle, Rex Harrison, Henry Kelly, Matthew Kelly, Eric Morecambe (1982)

    THIS IS YOUR LIFE: Elaine Paige (1979)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Elaine Paige (1982)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with Elaine Paige (1983)

    THE VIDEO ENTERTAINERS: with Elaine Paige, Greengage, Tammy Cline (1981)

    THE VIDEO ENTERTAINERS: with Elaine Paige, Stan Boardman, Gilbert O’Sullivan (1981)

    WOGAN: with Janet Brown, Derek Nimmo, Elaine Paige, Norman Parkinson (1986)

    WOGAN: with Glenys Kinnock, Doctor Tim Lobstein, Elaine Paige, Miriam Stoppard (1988)

    WOGAN: with Ronnie Corbett, Elaine Paige, Jean Rook, Tania Tolstaya (1989)

    Sadly these three shows are lost to posterity;

    FRIDAY NIGHT… SATURDAY MORNING: with Elaine Paige, Tim Rice, Tom Stoppard, Bob Willis, George Martin, The Searchers (1979)

    SHARI’S SHOW: with Buddy Greco, Roz Early, Dee Eldridge, Elaine Paige, Mark Brown, Ray Davis, Bernard Sharpe (1971)

    SHARI’S SHOW: with Dickie Henderson, Mark Brown, Ray Davis, Roz Early,
    Elaine Paige, Dee Eldridge, Bernard Sharpe (1971)

  22. 52
    Billy Smart on 27 Sep 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Many UK TV appearances for Barbara over the years;

    45: with Lynsey De Paul, Viola Wills, Barbara Dickson (1974)

    AND NOW THE GOOD NEWS: with Barbara Dickson (1978)

    BARBARA DICKSON: with Barbara Dickson (1984)

    BOBBY DAVRO: ROCK WITH LAUGHTER: with Barbara Dickson, Shane Richie, Maddi Cryer (1993)

    CALL MY BLUFF: with Robert Robinson, Frank Muir, Arthur Marshall, Barbara Dickson, Godfrey Smith, Sarah Badel, Derek Jacobi (1987)

    CALL MY BLUFF: with Robert Robinson, Frank Muir, Arthur Marshall, Gillian Lynne, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Barbara Dickson, Timothy West (1987)

    CHILD’S PLAY: with Michael Aspel, Barbara Dickson, Jeremy Beadle (1986)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Larry Grayson, Barbara Dickson, Rich Little (1982)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Jim Davidson, Eric Sykes, Barbara Dickson (1985)


    IN CONCERT: with Barbara Dickson (1978)

    JEREMY TAYLOR: with Barbara Dickson, Cambridge Buskers (1980)

    THE KEITH HARRIS SHOW: with Duncan Norvelle, Vicious Pink, Simon Bates, Barbara Dickson, Ian MacCaskill (1985)

    LADYBIRDS: with Barbara Dickson (1983)

    LEO SAYER: with Leo Sayer, Barbara Dickson, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds (1979)

    MICHAEL BARRYMORE’S SATURDAY NIGHT OUT: with Barbara Dickson, Elio Pace, Jess Stevenson, Roy Walker, Tammy Wynette (1989)

    MY KIND OF MUSIC: with Barbara Dickson, Colin Blunstone (1981)

    PARKINSON: with Paul Daniels, Barbara Dickson, Huw Wheldon (1977)

    POP QUIZ: with Rick Wakeman, Barbara Dickson, Brian Setzer, Dennis Waterman, Suggs MacPherson, Martin Fry (1982)

    RHYTHM ON TWO: with Barbara Dickson and Her Band (1979)

    RICHARD STILGOE: with Barbara Dickson, Aiden J. Harvey (1980)

    RICHARD STILGOE: with Barbara Dickson, Jeep (1980)

    RICHARD STILGOE: with Barbara Dickson, The Palatine String Quartet (1980)

    THE ROD AND EMU SHOW: with Barbara Dickson, David Grant, Rondo Veneziano, Ron Looney, Gordon Blacklock, Gabrielle Traynor (1984)

    ROD AND EMU’S SATURDAY SPECIAL: with Showaddywaddy, Nicholas Parsons, Barbara Dickson (1983)

    THE RONNIE CORBETT SHOW: with Barbara Dickson, Philip Madoc, Kit And The Widow, Fred Wetherby (1987)

    RUSSELL HARTY: with Robert Morley, Barbara Dickson, Timothy Davey and mother (1974)

    RUSSELL HARTY: with Barbara Windsor, Paul Golding, Julie Goodyear, Barbara Dickson (1977)

    SHOWSTOPPERS: with Tom Conti, Barbara Dickson, Michael Feinstein (1995)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: Barbara Dickson (1987)

    SUMMERTIME SPECIAL: with David Copperfield, Barbara Dickson, Dominique, The Dooleys, Roy Hudd, The King’s Singers (1981)

    SUMMERTIME SPECIAL: with Bobby Davro, Barbara Dickson, Frank Carson, Chris Tarrant (1987)

    THAT’S SHOWBUSINESS: with Gloria Hunniford, Kenny Everett, Lionel Blair, Barbara Dickson, Gorden Kaye, Barbara Windsor (1990)

    THIS IS YOUR LIFE: Barbara Dickson (1998)

    TOM O’CONNOR: with Barbara Dickson (1977)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Caledonian Highlanders (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Carol Hawkins, Vicki Michelle (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Jenny Hanley (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Joan Sims (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Julia McKenzie (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Norman Beaton (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson, Vicki Michelle (1976)

    THE TWO RONNIES: with Barbara Dickson (1980)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with Vic Damone, Barbara Dickson (1981)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with Dennis Waterman, Barbara Dickson (1982)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with Barbara Dickson, Alvin Stardust (1984)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with Paul Daniels, Barbara Dickson, Robert Goulet (1985)

    THE VAL DOONICAN MUSIC SHOW: with John Denver, Barbara Dickson (1986)

    WEDNESDAY AT 8: with Barbara Dickson, Richard Digance, Brian Conley, Ronn Lucas (1988)

    WOGAN: with Jim Davidson, Barbara Dickson, Danny La Rue, Sir Peter Parker (1983)

    WOGAN: with David Gower, Belinda Charlton, Elaine Stritch, Barbara Dickson, Craig Charles (1985)

    WOGAN: with Barbara Dickson, John Garnett, Laurie Lee (1987)

    WOGAN: with Kathy Botham, Tom Conti, Barbara Dickson, Mark McCormack (1987)

  23. 53
    Elmtree on 16 Jan 2015 #

    I remember discovering a CD of Chess in my local library as a child in those golden pre-Wikipedia days and thinking it must be bad, because with that list of creators and that promising a scenario you’d never stop hearing it if it wasn’t. (I’ve still never heard it.)

    This feels like one of those great mismatches where something just doesn’t quite click. The rather basic lyric is debatable – is it empathising with the plight of women who love a jerk or treating them as doormats defined by their man? – but it doesn’t quite point up the irony of this man being unpleasable and that they don’t know him at all. It’s well aware of it, but it never comes in enough to give it an edge. The song just sort of unfolds with both women giving their point of view. (Incidentally, I think the scenario of the song – that the man in question is an obsessive chess genius not entirely on the same wavelength as others, not just some sleazy Jack-the-Lad on the pull – adds layers to the lyric that the song doesn’t really have on its own.) It’s no Another Suitcase, which really sets up its own world.

    Andersson’s arrangement isn’t much help either – generic power ballad stuff. That moment of blast-off when the chorus explodes forwards is perfect, but some string pizzicati or something might have helped maintain tension in the verses. That sudden jump into a lower register on ‘madness’ is spine-chilling, but then, the oddest of things: the chorus just deflates on its first couple of run-throughs, until on the last go, as our host notes, ‘didn’t I know’ leads it onwards into a bright future and rescues it. Hmmm. Maybe writing a musical about geniuses who can’t handle relationships wasn’t the best choice for Andersson and Ulvaeus.

    (Looking on Spotify, one cast recording by Maria Lucia has generally more anonymous – if less overplayed – vocals and cheaper production, but an ever-so-slightly dissonant bell chime sound on the verses that might have helped here.)

  24. 54
    Phil on 6 Jul 2015 #

    I never did like the song – the complexity, if it’s there, doesn’t really come through; it just sounds as if they’re describing someone so deep & complex that he genuinely needs both security and freedom (and two separate relationships), and so amazing that when they’re dumped all they can think about is how great he was. Clever irony or awful male fantasy?

    Plus the delivery is All Wrong. I used to take the p. out of this by making out that B&B had written a tune with a Swedish accent, and then demonstrate – Wasn’t eet gooood? through to But hin the hend he needs a leetle beet more than befooooorre… Actually Agnetha’s usual, much plainer delivery (think NOTG or TWTIA) would have worked wonders; those RP/light opera affectations kill it.

  25. 55
    Gareth Parker on 17 May 2021 #

    4/10 from me for Elaine and Babs, much prefer King’s ‘Love and Pride’ myself.

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