11
Sep 09

ELAINE PAIGE AND BARBARA DICKSON – “I Know Him So Well”

FT + Popular54 comments • 9,423 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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Comments

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  1. 1
    punctum on 11 Sep 2009 #

    The duet Agnetha and Frida never got to sing, “I Know Him So Well” is the tenth Abba number one in disguise, though I think it would have been better without the disguise. Still, Abba were just over two years gone and writers have to write, so Bjorn and Benny met with Tim Rice and conjured up a shaggy dog of a musical about various romantic goings-on at an international chess tournament with extremely vague analogies to then-current global affairs. As with “Argentina” Rice’s lyric is subtly misleading, once more to do with how people’s words and actions are misinterpreted according to different perspectives. The song is sung by two women apart, in parallel lives, both of whom have had an affair with the same chess grandmaster; they are rueful if not especially surprised (“I could have…/Learned about the man before I fell”). The key couplet, however, is Paige’s “He needs a little bit more than me/More security” followed by Dickson’s “He needs his fantasy and freedom.” In other words, he is a bullshit merchant, a liar-by-night. The joint deep breath, or sigh, they take before the final, shoulder-shrugging “I know him so well” suggests that subliminally they have long since worked this out.

    Although artfully done – catch the flames of desperation in the “Why?” of Paige and Dickson’s climactic “Why am I falling apart?” – the record doesn’t really work because it is too far divorced from the Abba landscape we knew all too well; where there was never any doubt that Agnetha and Frida were describing something chillingly, or warmly, real, there is equally no question that here we are dealing with two seasoned West End pros singing to the gallery. Secondly the disappointingly dated musical arrangement – very 1976 Rock Follies – lacks the adventurousness of Abba’s finest work even (especially) by their 1976 standards. And finally in the canon of meditative show tune ballads it doesn’t even start to live up to something like “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” in which Yvonne Elliman’s voice is palpably hurt in its own awe – how to afford physical love to someone you worship as a God? In contrast the foreknowledge of “I Know Him So Well” is efficiently projected, with its clever counterpart of Dickson’s warm, honeyed tones against Paige’s strident declamations, but rather pallidly delivered.

  2. 2
    Pete on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Another singers not the song / context is all kind of number one which looks overblown and ridiculous, and yet… Its an audience participation gem (though Dickson gets considerably less lines). But the girl on girl bitterness duet, which always seems to dovetail nicely with Another Suitcase In Another Hall to me is unusual, and an interesting Radio 2 / pop radio friendly show tune. My Sis and Mum saw it, we had the album but I wasn’t allowed to go, DESPITE being the only Chess player in the family. It is a pretty odd musical truth be told.

    And if you want to see it again in some way, starring Marti Pellow no less, Chess In Concert seems to be doing the rounds in the cinema no less at the moment from a redo at the Albert Hall last year.

    Not as good as the play Chess theme tune.

  3. 3
    Alan on 11 Sep 2009 #

    i cannot write about music. there is music i like and i don’t know how to convey that, except through personal enthusiasm. there is music i don’t like, and i don’t spend much time on that. between the two is music that is, so goes the phrase, “part of the furniture”. THIS song is a sofa sat on for so long that it’s become part of you. i have no idea how you can score stuff like this. well done.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Yes, it’s almost as good as ABBA but – crucially – isn’t! I always really enjoy this one, though. I can’t imagine it being improved in the context of the musical. I like the imaginative exercise of visualising the unsatisfactory and charming man who both ‘Florence’ and ‘Svetlana’ has wasted their love on, but imagine that actually seeing a show with him in it might be something of a slog

    My most interesting memory of this was watching Top Of The Pops with my mother, and her question “Why are they both singing about the same man?”. “Because they’re both in love with him, but he’s left both of them” I reasoned. “Oh I see” my mother responded.

    (Looking back, I really appreciate the value of television at this time in giving my mother and I some sort of common ground to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise – an emotional register that wasn’t immediately related to our own lives.)

    This certainly wasn’t popular with any of my peers at school – soppy girls music sung by people who weren’t pop stars, criteria which gave the rock stylings of an act like Foreigner gave them an easier ride than things like this. Being at a boys school, the amount of girls that I knew at this time had radidly diminished, but all those who I did know really responded to the drama of the situation and the contrast between the two protagonists in a big way.

  5. 5
    Alan on 11 Sep 2009 #

    (i like that in Tom’s Last FM data -> the title of this song is ALL CAPS)

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 11 Sep 2009 #

    #2 watch: Three weeks of ‘Love & Pride’ by King, which I seem to recall as being one of the biggest-selling hits of the time not to get to the top. It always worked better on the radio than on television, where Paul King’s galoot-like appearance sabotaged the considerable excitement that the tempo of the song created.

  7. 7
    Tom on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Haha yes for all that Paul King was plainly an incomparable fool “Love And Pride” was totally my favourite record for these couple of months. I must listen again!

  8. 8
    Erithian on 11 Sep 2009 #

    This was the record that created a little bit of Radio 1 history, if you saw it the way Paul Gambaccini did. At the time he was co-hosting a series of Sunday shows with Tim Rice, and in one of them Rice opened the show by introducing Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England” (my favourite record at the time) only for Gambo to interrupt Kirsty and announce that it was the first time a serving Radio 1 DJ had written a number one single! – and played “I Know Him So Well” instead. (Rice was good enough to apologise to Kirsty fans when the record ended.)

    This was another of those “older generation” type of records for me – even though it’s the missing tenth Abba number one, it’s staid, slowish and a little wooden, and nowhere near the class of, say, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”. You just acknowledged it was the kind of thing that occasionally took a turn at the top and waited for the next thing to come along – which turned out to be very different indeed.

    Number 2 Watch: the song from “Chess” kept King in check (ha!) – “Love and Pride” at two for three weeks. What a twerp the bloke looked as well. I don’t think there was ever a chart in which King, Queen, Prince and Princess featured together, but we came close that year…

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 11 Sep 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Paige & Dickson twice performed ‘I Know Him So Well’ on Top of the Pops;

    10 January 1985. Also in the studio that week were; Strawberry Switchblade and Bronski Beat. Mike Smith & Mike Read were the hosts.

    7 February 1985. Also in the studio that week were; King, Phil Collins and Howard Jones. Richard Skinner and Gary Davies were the hosts.

  10. 10
    mike on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Just before this song got to Number One, I split up with the chap that I’d been stepping out with since October 1984. Ours was never what you might call a Grand Passion; more an arrangement of convenience, that gave us a reason to go out on Saturday nights. We had next to nothing in common, apart from a shared appreciation of the mighty Hazell Dean, and we joked about this frequently. But although I knew from the start that He Was Not The One (and vice versa), there had been comfort in the convenience, and unexpected sadness at its passing.

    A couple of weeks later, we ran into each other at the local gay club. Happy, superficial chit-chat ensued, with an ease that had eluded us in our final weeks as a couple.

    And then – because it was Number One, and because plenty of clubs still played occasional “slowies” during the night – this song came on. I knew he liked it. He knew I liked it. From its opening notes, all chatter ceased. Instead, we stood there in silence for the full duration of the track, as every word hit us afresh, with a sharp pang of recognition. (Oh, you could forget all that grand master/wife/mistress nonsense – this was about US.)

    I knew what he was thinking.
    He knew what I was thinking.
    Closure.

    It’s a 9 from me.

  11. 11

    I like that this song is strong enough to create a cross-ply of space across which Billy and his mum can discuss the dialectics of romance, across which Mike and his ex have nothing left to say — it’s a metaphor for popular! Protect us from the Hooded Claw! etc

    I realise he’s not exactly a recluse and many of his doings are amiably nondescript at best, but I realise I would like to know more about what drives Tim Rice…

  12. 12
    Kat but logged out innit on 11 Sep 2009 #

    I have to say I’ve rarely noticed Elaine’s or Babs’ vocals on this, my main outlets for hearing this song being:

    – karaoke
    – Harry Hill w/ Stouffa the cat
    – Poptimism w/ everyone BELLOWING over the top of it drowning out poor old E&B

    …which are all tick vg of course. WHY am I FALL-ing a-PART (wuzznitgood)

  13. 13
    Alan on 11 Sep 2009 #

    more important q then: favourite Harry Hill w/ Stouffa the cat?

    mine has to be D*** B*** S******** “B******** at T******’s”. it’s hard to say why

  14. 14
    Tom on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Stouffa the bunny moar laik :(

    #12 yes please note that no matter what you might vote for on this it is getting played at Club Popular and we can expect to see grown men on their knees with liquid emotion.

  15. 15
    Alan on 11 Sep 2009 #

    NO WAI!! so so sorry mr bunny sir.

  16. 16
    Tom on 11 Sep 2009 #

    #7 Revisiting this pop titan my main impression is that I can almost feel the shower of spit whenever Paul King sings “pride”.

  17. 17
    punctum on 11 Sep 2009 #

    “Love And Pride,” one of the many beneficiaries – and probably the least deserving one – of the post-seasonal stock clearance policy which seems to have dictated the early 1985 charts, with lots of underperforming 1984 discs (“Solid,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Yah Mo B There,” the next number one) getting a second wind in the absence of much else.

    In addition “IKHSW” was already in the bargain bins at WH Smiths, Our Price etc. when it charted and undoubtedly that helped. The success of Foreigner also had much to do with WEA’s, um, individualistic approach to singles marketing but I can’t remember what (if anything) was given away free with each copy (see also “Baby Jane” which largely got to number one on the back of the free beach ball each customer also received).

    King’s final hit was called “Torture”; never a truer word, &c.

  18. 18
    mike on 11 Sep 2009 #

    King had been waiting in the wings for donkey’s years by then; they’d been tipped as a Hot New Band To Watch at the end of 1984, but they’d also been tipped as a Hot New Band To Watch at the end of 1983! I’d seen them live in our local hipster club in the spring of 1983 and had come away unimpressed… and as for “Love And Pride”, BIG UGH. “Take your hairdryer, blow them all away”… the game really was well and truly up for “style” pop!

    Re. “Solid” – I picked it up in a bargain bin for about 25p just before it charted.

  19. 19
    Rory on 11 Sep 2009 #

    To me this song has always represented Thatcher’s Britain when she was most in command: that 1985 moment when the Tories were riding high, the Cold War gloom had lifted slightly, the miners’ strike was over, bankers were getting rich, and everyone was going to West End musicals. I suspect it fused in my mind with the Goodies’ parody of Evita, which had Tim Brooke-Taylor in drag as Thatcher/Peron singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Marge and Tina”.

    I can’t have been alone in seeing it as a UK song that didn’t really speak to Australia, because after entering our charts in March it reached only number 21, although it did hang around for six months. It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of Chess: we sent “One Night in Bangkok” all the way to the top.

    Listening to it now, the sense of what might have been had ABBA still been together is strong, but their late singles make me wonder whether this would ever have been an ABBA track, given where their music seemed to be heading. All hypothetical, of course, but it’s fun to wonder. (Actually, I’d be just as happy if the last singles hadn’t existed and their final word was effectively “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”.)

    This is solid in many ways, as one would expect from Benny and Björn (and Rice, come to that), but the staginess of the vocals isn’t really my thing, and as I have no “I was there” nostalgia for the track I’ll agree with Tom’s 5.

  20. 20
    Conrad on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Barely remember it, I don’t know this one so well, so will have to relisten before reviewing.

    But am delighted that Barbara Dickson had a Number 1 – always enjoyed her performances on the Two Ronnies, and “January, February” was a bit of a belter.

    King were truly terrible. L&P sounds like a bad attempt to rewrite “My Old Piano”. Much better fare to be had elsewhere in the 40 at this point – take a bow Kirsty, and the Commodores’ mighty “Nightshift”.

  21. 21
    Pete on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Don’t you mean Jer-han-er-you-haarry, Feh-heb-ar-you-haary?

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 11 Sep 2009 #

    It’s OKish – but I can see what a joy it would be for karaoke.
    A few years later I was living in central London while studying and went along with friends to gawp at the premiere of ‘Chess’ at a theatre on Old Compton Street. We got to see such luminaries as Michael Parkinson and David Gower sloping in.
    I have quite warmed to EP on her radio show where she sounds as mad as a bat after a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. BD looks like she’s going to a replicant theme party on the sleeve.

  23. 23
    col124 on 11 Sep 2009 #

    This was a no-show in the States, unlike “One Night in Bangkok,” so I have absolutely no memories of it. It’s not bad but, maybe given the Tim Rice connection, it sounds like it could just as easily have been a Lloyd Webber song. Which isn’t a compliment. I like punctum’s idea that this is the duet Agnetha and Frida didn’t sing–their vocals probably would’ve pushed this one up a bit higher for me. 4 as is.

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Barbara Dickson also did ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’ from Evita. Much better record than this. Decent song but would have been a 1000 times better as an ABBA record.

    I can’t entirely put my finger on why but this reminds me of Abigail’s Party. Something about the Daily Mail-land dream combo of Babs and Elaine makes me think Beverley would be a big fan, it’s ‘classy’ pop for suburban accountants with the extra gloss of being written for the theatre.

    First West End musical I ever saw was Billy Liar with Michael Crawford in the title role. Apparently Elaine Page was in it too.

  25. 25
    MikeMCSG on 11 Sep 2009 #

    What’s always interested me is how Bjorn and Tim worked together since both were accomplished lyricists. I remember Tim saying that some of Bjorn’s guide lyrics for rhythmic illustration were “embarrassingly good”. You’re always tempted to think that B & B retired after this until the Abba revival kicked in in the early 90s but in fact they remained prolific writers for artists who never crossed over from Sweden. Memo to self : check Youtube/Spotify for some examples.

    King were absolutely awful- the perfect illustration of how bare the British pop cupboard had got by this stage (see also the next no 1). I’m sure they were around as mods as far back as 1980 and by this stage they were trying any style (often two or three on the same song)to try and get a break. “Love And Pride” has a partially-redemptive hookline but their album “Steps In Time” is unspeakable. The lyrics in particular seem to have been assembled on the infinite number of monkeys principle. 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.

  26. 26

    I have literally never seen a West End Musical, not even “We Will Rock You” by Ben Elton and his Queens.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Yep, Frida and Agnetha would have seriously lifted this song (compare with a great late abba song in similar territory such as ‘When all is said and done’). That special tone their voices had individually and together would have helped, but also one suspects their basic v. convincing aging/bitter-but-still-v.sexy-damn-it moppet-ism would have helped salvage the lyrics. And all of that in turn might have helped lift the players – it’s Bjorn and Benny and the abba house band doing the instrumentation but you’d never know it – they sound bored/tired.
    Anyhow, there’s some good stuff in this single somewhere, but that final pseudo-plaintive ‘I know him so well’ is too gruesome. Can’t go higher than:
    4

  28. 28
    TomLane on 11 Sep 2009 #

    Yep, no chart action anywhere for this song in America, but I do remember the song. But not this version. Whitney Houston covered it on her 2nd album in 1987. That’s how I remembered it! Also Barbra Streisand did it on her Broadway Album. But in the U.S. no chart action even on our Adult Contemporary chart. Looking at allmusicguide.com’s list of singers who have done this, I was surprised that more big voice woman didn’t do it. Not even Celine Dion. A modest score of 4: For Whitney’s version only.

  29. 29
    Rory on 11 Sep 2009 #

    MikeMCSG #25: Time to tackle Kristina från Duvemåla? (I’d like to myself, but haven’t yet.) YouTube has some samples – try Du Måste Finnas.

    The Benny Andersson Band has a new UK release out which looks intriguing.

  30. 30
    misschillydisco on 11 Sep 2009 #

    EP is widely hated by the west end musical stage crew/electrics community – my old boss used to call her the poison dwarf. i have always quite liked babs dickson though.

    as for the song – it reminds me of gloomy days, in one of the most miserable periods of my life (new at secondary school and HATING IT).

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