Jul 08

ABBA – “The Name Of The Game”

FT + Popular58 comments • 5,922 views

#415, 5th November 1977

A young – or maybe not so young – woman, settled in her own mind to unhappy but unruffled spinsterhood, finds her hopes unexpectedly awakened. Can she trust her instincts? Can she even read them? Can this really be happening? “The Name Of The Game”‘s scenario is romance-novel standard, and its emotional territory is ABBA heartland, the twilit world as a relationship shifts between ‘on’ and ‘off’. ABBA regularly find unease where most pop strides boldly forward: “Name”, in its ambition as well as its mood, anticipates “The Day Before You Came” (which could be its narrative prequel).

“The Name Of The Game”, first single off a new album, is a self-conscious step forward in craft, clustered with ideas and contrasts and hooks – I remember an Elvis Costello interview in which he singled it out as the moment he realised that, yes, ABBA were Proper Songwriters. Anyone who hadn’t spotted that by now was being a bit chumpy, in my view, and I’m also not totally sure “Name” succeeds – sometimes I love it, but on balance it’s my least favourite of their Number 1s.

The guiding principle behind the track isn’t difficult to figure out – diffident synth sweeps and clammy bassline dramatise the doubt in the verses, fanfares and harmonies on the chorus bring the hope to life. All the individual parts are terrific, and Frida and Agnetha interpret the song magnificently – but for once, I think, ABBA’s arrangements let them down. The brass feels squeezed in and almost sounds canned; the omnipresent bassline is too upfront, lumbering where it should be nagging. Lyrically, too, this is a mixed bag: the “and I am never invited” bit is striking in its candour, but the bad poetry of the “bashful child” line is an unusual mis-step. An awkward record about awkward feelings: one of ABBA’s transitional singles, where they’re staking out territories they’d explore better later on.



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  1. 1
    Dan R on 17 Jul 2008 #

    This song always creeps up on me. It’s one of the ABBA songs I think I’m not really fussed about. It’s probably the funk-lite backing or something, and I always cringe a bit at the ‘bashful child’ moment.

    But the magic of it is the way Frida’s vocal gives way to Agnetha’s, the voices coming together for the chorus and THEN as the song continues you get the layering on of those call-and-response backing vocals, which in their rhythmic angularity (‘that it means a lot’) cumulatively evokes overwhelming emotion. What could be a very ‘doormat’ song about a woman yielding her independence in a conventional and supine manner ends in the last incarnation of the chorus – at around 4’10” – as a wholly honest and beautiful rendering of the vulnerability of love.

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    DJ Punctum on 17 Jul 2008 #

    The groove doesn’t quite sashay, nor does it fully recoil. The palindromic introductory bassline comes forward and then backwards, as though indecisive about whether to commit or to retreat, walking the same square foot of pavement.

    The singer has clearly been hurt, or even destroyed, by an unnameable pain of her recent past (see “Knowing Me, Knowing You”) and any confidence she might once have possessed has been shattered. She is reapproaching life with such tentativeness it’s arguable whether she’ll survive the second foot of sidewalk. “I’m a bashful child beginning to grow” – sung by a woman who in 1977 had already passed thirty.

    But that’s what life does to some of us, we both know that; and the triumph of “The Name Of The Game” is to witness its protagonist slowly and painfully piece herself together again as a functioning human being, capable of receiving love as well as giving it – “It seems to me, for every time, I’m getting more open-hearted”; note the serenely rolling four-beat lines as opposed to the staccato two-liners of its predecessor.

    “I was an impossible case/No one ever could reach me,” she confesses, “But I think I can see in your face/There’s a lot you can teach me” – and the poignantly fragile way she sings that last line (you can palpate her tremble) makes you want to hug her right here and now. Then the bold rise to the blossomed chorus: “What’s the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?” with its brash acoustic guitar thrash – you only notice after several hundred listens that it’s playing “Wild Thing” – before falling back to highlight the singer’s still fearful doubt: “Tell me please, ’cause I have to know.”

    Brilliantly, the instruments then drop out to leave a low-register close harmony acappella backdrop with just one bass drum pulse, as the singer leans towards the microphone to caress it and know that glorious intimacy once more – or is it for the first time? You can picture her scarcely holding her balance on the romantic tightrope as she trembles through “And you make me talk, and you make me feel, and you make me show” – turn the volume up and there’s a sudden golden ray of maximalist light: “WHAT I’M TRYING TO CONCEAL”; yes, it’s the exuberant, life-adoring human waiting to be released, liberated – then back to a near breathless request for a pledge: “If I trust in you, would you let me down?” before the demand turns into a torrent of transient dread: “WOULD YOU LAUGH AT ME IF I SAID I CARE FOR YOU?” behind which latter half-line there is a gorgeous and typically Abbaesque baroque flourish of post-Dowland lamentation harmonies. “Could you feel the same way too?”

    The second verse is make or break, and she knows she must be nothing if she can’t be open and honest: “I have no friends,” she whispers, “No one to see/And I am never invited.” Then, again, the confessional: “”Now I am here, talking to you/No wonder I get excited.” Her delivery is becoming gradually less vulnerable, though she teeters hugely on the line “But it means a lot to me” so that you are left in no doubt that it means life or death. Within the second chorus she retrieves her lost confidence, as the harmonies multiply into artful counterpart: she’s asking him if he feels the same way while her conscience thinks inwardly (“I was an impossible case,” “Got a feeling, you give me no choice”), and when it comes to the second “make me” triptych her voice is no longer shaky; she knows that it is not a unilateral love, she is emerging out of her previously stifled chrysalis, and she knows that he knows that this is happening; she has been rescued, maybe both of them have been rescued, have rescued each other. A shining doorway back to life; wondrous and multidimensional, and its light is so radiant even now that I almost faint in awe of its benevolent genius.

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    mike on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I have to line up alongside Elvis Costello on this one – but in my case, the moment of realisation didn’t arrive until nearly three years later.

    I had been spending August 1980 back-packing solo around Europe, and on one sunny Sunday afternoon I fetched up in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. To my surprise and delight, I’d fetched up just in time to watch a free open-air show by Clive Gregson’s Any Trouble: a nifty little band on the Stiff label for whom I had quite a fondness (I must have seen them three or four times that year).

    Covering “The Name Of The Game” was a bold and unexpected move for its time, as Abba were still very much stigmatised as cheesy commercial pop by a large swathe of Any Trouble’s natural constituency. Aware of this, Gregson introduced the song cautiously, carefully and respectfully explaining that this was a great piece of songwriting. In essence, he was strangling at birth the notion that Abba were being covered for a joke. The song was played with great finesse and feeling, and the scales fell from my eyes in an instant.

    For me, it took this recontextualisation of “The Name Of The Game” into a genre which I felt more comfortable with (the Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson end of loosely new wave singer-songwriting) to make me aware of its greatness. Back at home, I tracked down the Abba version, listened to it with fresh ears, and berated myself for taking three years to appreciate it properly.

    From that point on, the song became something of a personal theme tune. Still closeted and barely sexually active, my emotional life had become dominated by a rolling series of intense crushes: undeclared, unrequited and all-consuming. In the grip of these crushes, I would clutch at any available straw, gratuitously bending the evidence to allow myself the faint possibility that this one could be The One. And in that context, “The Name Of The Game” lent itself perfectly to each situation: witness the song’s desperate, isolated protagonist, feverishly soliloquising, daring to dream, keeping hope alive in spite of all the odds.

    With that in mind, the key sequence for me was the “And you make me talk…” section, and the key moment was the bursting through that occurs with “What I’m trying to conceal”. But really, the whole song and the whole arrangement stands as a perfect articulation of a very particular frame of mind. It’s my favourite Abba song, and it’s an unreserved 10.

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    Alan on 17 Jul 2008 #

    My most favourite abba, and again this is all without ever really listening to the words of their songs, or imagining they meant anything. musically it’s packed, and the step ups and down into each section and the changes in mood work so well for me.

    and again it’s just about my my memory of the song at the time. this was when they had finally wormed into my consciousness.

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    vinylscot on 17 Jul 2008 #

    This never worked for me as a piece of music; it was a little too fragmented, most likely intentionally. Their harmonies are at their very best on this track, but only in parts – there are at least three songs going on here, and they’re not all good.

    It may possibly be Abba’s most ambitious single (apart from maybe “The Day Before You Came”), but its complexity makes it less memorable than any of their other hits – I had to listen to it again as I didn’t remember the whole track from reading the lyrics.

    …and am I alone in always hearing a lazy wedding band playing “Wild Thing” behind the chorus?

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    Erithian on 17 Jul 2008 #

    ##2 and 3 – Wow, there’s not a lot you can say after that. That’s the particular (and probably unanticipated even by you, Tom) beauty of Popular – that you can get to see certain songs through the eyes of people who not only love them but have hugely relevant life experiences to bring to bear on them; and people you’ve come to know yourself through their postings on this very forum. Those of us who have learned something of DJP and Mike’s backgrounds will gain a lot of understanding from their perspectives on a song like this – the redeeming power of love in one case, and hope battling against unrequited crushes in the other. My own appreciation of Abba is growing the more I read these threads, and thanks to the two of them for their openness.

    I like the idea that narratively “Knowing Me Knowing You” predates this song by, say, a year and “The Day Before You Came” predates it by a week or two. You know, there could be an entire dramatic narrative driven by Abba songs. Someone should do that.

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    David Belbin on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Well, somebody has just done that entire dramatic narrative , Erithian, and ‘Mamma Mia’ the film is fun if you give in to it, lots of great songs and actors hamming it up in a very silly story. But it ignores the tragic Abba songs, so gives a very skewed portrait of their genius. TNOTG was the first Abba single I bought and I nearly named a novel after it (Mike will know the one I mean). I still think it’s their best song after ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, which I once saw Elvis Costello cover brilliantly. His love of Abba was pretty clear on This Year’s Model, and all over the subsequent ‘Armed Forces’ of course. A 10 for me too.

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    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    The thing which is always surprising about this when you haven’t heard it for a while is just how slow it is. For a pop classic, this would be surprisingly hard to do any sort of dance to. This elongated pace compels the listener to hear the song from the singer’s perspective, with the elementary drums and very upfront bassline acting as a heartbeat, emphasising the unbearable magnitude of this declaration, making it life itself (as it would be…)

    And I can’t agree with Tom about the brass feeling squeezed in. It needs that hesitancy, I think – imagine how crass a big karaoke fanfare might be. Every scrap of hope and joy that is achieved by the end of this song has really been earned – and the vulnerability and tentativeness of the declaration is such that the great triumph of this single is that it manages to avoid any trace of sentimentality in the finding of love at its conclusion.

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    rosie on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I have to say that, while I don’t think this is Abba’s best track, it’s quite possibly my favourite Abba track.

    That’s all, really.

    Oh, Billy Smart @ 8: yes, you can smooch to it very nicely, thank you. Or doesn’t that count as dancing?

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    mike on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Well, my clod-hopping attempts at Smoochy Dancing certainly never counted…!

    I was about to say that I could never have contemplated smooching to a song like this – but then I remembered that the first song I ever smooched to wasn’t a million miles removed from “The Name Of The Game”….

    (#6 – thanks for that, Erithian.)

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    wichita lineman on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Re 5: Intensely thrummed acoustic version of Wild Thing, yes, but definitely no wedding band. Chip Taylor, who (as I’m sure we all know) wrote Wild Thing, re-wrote it as two top-notch ballads – Angel Of The Morning and Anyway That You Want Me – which, recorded as a medley by one Mary Mason, charted within weeks of Name Of The Game. Intriguing.

    This is my favourite Abba 45 too, one of the few where I can’t pick any fault in lyric, arrangement, production… It very firmly reminds me of nights drawing in, with its big, autumnal, northern lights atmosphere. I love the coyness of the “bashful child” line, too.

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    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Hm, yes – But its not a single that seems to automatically position itself as being a “slow dance number”- when compared to something like the definitive example of the genre that we’ll get to in 1978.

    Incidentally – and reading your Donna post today made me think of this – when did the ritual of ending an ordinary disco (at a venue like a Students’ Union, say) with a slow dance – die out? It seems to have been going as strong as ever for most of the 1980s, but by the early and mid-nineties, it was something that I never – once – came across, despite feeling culturally primed for it through the recounted experiences of older boys and girls. Did acid house kill it off?

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    DJ Punctum on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Number Two Watch: “We Are The Champions” by Queen (B-side: “We Will Rock You” – I don’t think it was an official double A-side though most radio stations and punters have subsequently treated it as such).

  14. 14
    will on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I’d have this down as a 9. No song, by Abba or anyone for that matter, has ever described so beautifully or so accurately what it’s REALLY like during those early uncertain days/ weeks of a new love affair – the fear of exposing your feelings, the shifting sense of self and all the awkward adjustments this entails, and above all the hope that something real and long lasting may eventually emerge.

    Shame that none of these complexities were ever captured in the video, which as I recall featured Benny, Bjorn and the girls guffawing over a game of Snakes And Ladders.

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    mike on 17 Jul 2008 #

    #12 – The tradition hasn’t completely died out; the last time I went dancing in public (two Saturdays ago), the DJ ended the night with a smoocher.

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    Tom on 17 Jul 2008 #

    The demise of the “erection section”? The slowie was a school dance thing for me more than a student disco one (well, I say “for me”, but only in theory rly!) but I don’t think it was acid house that killed it off, it felt more like a growing-up thing. In your early-mid teens it provided a handy cue to legitimise trying to get a snog, whereas by the late teens you were meant to be socially adept enough to not need that kind of thing.

    I think the decline of partner dancing is something somewhat separate but I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on that.

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    Tom on 17 Jul 2008 #

    #15 – we very often feature big ballads in the closing legs of Poptimism but they’re not intended for smooching.

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    LondonLee on 17 Jul 2008 #

    “Did acid house kill it off?”

    That’s what I used to think (and I also thought Acid killed off a lot of good dance music in London clubs), though I also thought it could just have been that as the 80s moved along I was hipper and had more money so was going to more fashionable clubs in the West End where they never played a slowie anyway. For all I knew they were still playing them at Tiffany’s and The Cat’s Whiskers but I’d just left that world behind.

    I do remember a club called ‘Discotheque’ at Busby’s on Charing X Road which tried to revive the suburban disco style in a very smug ironic way (getting people to do the rowing dance on the floor to ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ for example) and they played a slowie at the end which they called ‘The Erection Section’. My girlfriend at the time was from Essex and hated it, “I thought I’d escaped this crap when I left Essex!” she’d say.

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    rosie on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Part of every Open University summer school throughout the 1980s was the “Desperation Disco” on the final Thursday evening – the theory being that if you wanted to score and hadn’t by Thursday, you couldn’t fail by the end of the DD. Playing a slow number was de rigeur

    The last summer school I attended as a student was the week of the Great Open University Murder at York in 1992, and for fairly obvious reasons nobody felt much like any end-of-week entertainments. Although there was an outbreak of black humour on the message board in the lobby, at least for those on the A319 Literature in the Modern World course which was the most badly affected (the victim being one of our tutors). For example: “Ted, your dinner is in the oven. Sylvia.”

    I attended one more SS as a student residential rep and the the DJ on the Thursday night failed to finish with a slow one even though I specifically requested him to. The cheek!

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    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    ‘Hollywoods’, somewhere in Essex, did seem to possess a legendary reputation as the quintessence of a certain type of British nightclub experience in the early nineties. Many times and in many places I heard it referred to by those who had been there, a kind of word of mouth notoriety.

    (Incidentally, someone should do some research into the effect that coming from Essex had on young women in that period, after the distasteful ‘Essex girl’ joke mania of 1991 (and, to a lesser extent, ‘Essex man’ winning the 1992 election for John Major). Certainly, every young woman who came from the county for about five years had to refer to and dwell on the idea of their coming from an unusual place when they first spoke to you – in a way that was part defensive, part proud. The idea of coming from a place where young women were supposed to be thick and promiscuous left something of a psychic wound for a generation, I think)

    I think that one effect of dance culture was that it marginalised the prevalence of mainstream pop in places like Students’ Unions, with nights out being allocated to large niche genres (various forms of dance, rap/ R & B, indie, 70s and 80s music). So in 1994, you’d rarely get the opportunity to dance to Take That and East 17 in such a place – which I’d have quite liked the opportunity to do.

    Incidentally, I’ve forgotten, wasn’t this sampled by The Fugees (forget where)?

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    Tom on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, “Rumble In The Jungle”, their final single – which is a terrific record, I think.

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    Martin Skidmore on 17 Jul 2008 #

    The slowie continued to find a place, albeit less inescapably, with dance DJs – I recall one saying that no DJ could afford to be without Unfinished Sympathy for that end-of-the-night slowie section. Obviously you wouldn’t regularly get that in all clubs, because in many there isn’t the same sense of having an end point where everyone went home when lots of DJs played sets in succession and it went on until daylight.

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    DJ Punctum on 17 Jul 2008 #

    So how come all the marathon runs at number one throughout the (first half of the) nineties were all slowies, and seemingly all custom built for last dance status?

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    Tom on 17 Jul 2008 #

    That’s a good question! SB forbids discussion of some specifics though.

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    Erithian on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I suspect the fact that the three longest-running 90s marathons were all film themes is a more relevant link – but as Tom says, more of that anon.

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    Mark G on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Ah, come on, nobody slow danced to OW! oh ok……

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    katstevens on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I hadn’t heard ‘Name Of The Game’ (or ‘Does Your Mother Know’) until I bought ABBA Gold c.1998. Freshness = instant plus point! The song seems alternately clunking and AMAZING:
    1. opening bit = CLUNK
    2. “I was an impossible case” up until “Can you feel it the way I do” AMAZING
    3. bashful child etc until “and you make me…” CLUNK
    4. “If I said I caaaare for you, aaahhhh-AH!” = SO amazing! It’s like Agnetha has been quietly burbling away to herself all passive-aggressive-like and then suddenly lashes out at the jugular of whoever Done Her Rong! Woah there!

    Er also I hate the brass band Sgt Pepper-y bits but love the ploddy-bass?

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    SteveM on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I never did have a slowie disco moment. I was both too cynical and too coy.

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    Billy Smart on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Re 27. If you “hate the brass band bits” you should try to avoid ‘Two For The Price Of One’ on ‘The Visitors’, where – once the twist of the song has been revealed (the protagonist thought that he was getting an offer of troilism, but it turns out that the girl wants him to meet her mother, the most enormous brass band arrangement comes lurching in, as if to signify “That’s the punchline, folks!”.

    It’s not their best moment.

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    SteveM on 17 Jul 2008 #

    Billy #20 interesting stuff re Essex. i do think it was unfairly singled out as you could find those same stereotypes in Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Kent, the remnants of Olde Middlesexe etc. just as easily really. The ‘thick and promiscuous’ thing, unpleasant as it was, surely applied all over the country really tho (perhaps it was just sheep-like laziness on most comedians/commentators part).

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