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ABBA single couplings: Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!/The King Has Lost His Crown

May 17, 2010

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) is quite a mouthful as song titles go, but one that slides into this provocative pop anthem as smooth as silk. Benny and Björn were still quite bewitched by the disco beat, and wove around it a colourful veil of electronic and orchestral threads that shed a glittering light over the nocturnal laments of lead vocalist Agnetha and her trusty harmonic accessory, Frida.

The solo guitar riff that launches Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) follows in the novel footsteps of the arrival album’s When I Kissed The Teacher. Each features an opening guitar riff that reappears, tempo unchanged, in each chorus, playing in a loop against a totally independent theme.

The synth-led refrain of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! is as striking as they come, and the signature sound of the track. (Pop diva Madonna certainly thought so; twenty-six years later, on a mission to salvage her star power after a series of chart disappointments, the volatile singer sought permission from Benny and Björn to sample the entire refrain of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! for her comeback single Hung Up in 2005. Sure enough, the song became a smash hit all over the world.)

This is a telling example of just how melodically astute ABBA songs are, the less-gives-more approach working its uncanny charms. The refrain synth riff in Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! states its intentions in a most musically-succinct way, and revels in its minor tonality. The song’s harmonic economy has a hypnotic effect, particularly in the chorus melody, where the multi-tracked vocals of protagonists Agnetha and Frida sound for all the world like a Zulu tribal war chant.

Agnetha’s interpretative talent for finding the right inflection and enunciation is certainly on show in Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!; in the verses, she reveals yet another intriguing timbre to her voice. The clipped delivery of her lead vocal has the urgency of a lit fuse, and it sizzles all the way to chorus detonation. Seething with suppressed excitement, Agnetha massages and provokes Björn’s suggestive lyrics into submission, aided and abetted by late-night party-girl Frida, who gleefully joins in on the exotic, almost Oriental harmony grabs (“half-past twelve” / “autumn winds” / “movie stars” /“tired of TV”) that launch each verse statement.

The piano makes a stylish appearance in this electronic melting pot, giving Agnetha’s atmospheric plea – “there’s not a soul out there” – a dramatic melodic boost as she leads the charge to her fraught chorus destiny.

Adding its mellow voice to Benny’s synth and piano riffs in Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! is the penultimate Rutger Gunnarsson string arrangement. This is arguably one of the most multi-dimensional ABBA string outings. Doubling Benny’s signature refrain and providing a dramatic three-note descending riff into each chorus, the violins have even more personality traits to reveal before the song is over: a series of fleeting but virtuosic flourishes at the end of each chorus statement, which are easy to aurally overlook, but worth singling out.

These could accurately be described as manic, mini string ‘temper-tantrums’, and they hit the girls’ vocal pauses with the velocity of a tornado. The girls are not the only natives getting restless in this disco jungle!  The violin section then takes centre stage for a scene-stealing instrumental section that runs for a mammoth twenty-four bars. Before the ‘extended dance mix’ became a common fixture of pop music marketing, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! set the pace once again.

To set the mood for this atmospheric interlude, the girls slip into something a little more comfortable, filling the speakers with a sonorous falsetto rendition of the title hook. Then, unprovoked and unexpected, thanks to the hypnotic lumbering of the bass synth and detached guitar licks, the strings slowly carry out their mission of seduction. Whisper-quiet at first, they build, layer upon layer, as if summoning up some more powerful but subliminal force.

Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight … will Agnetha’s prayer be answered?  The tension-laden violins, which could programmatically be reflecting Agnetha’s clandestine desires, soon submit to a smouldering layer of gently clashing choral harmonics; whether these in turn portray fantasy longings or reality pleasures, let the listener’s imagination be the judge!

This is a sublime piece of musical imagery, and an intricate musical distraction from the tribal chant of the chorus, which returns for one last fiery fling before the spirited clout of Benny’s signature synth steals back the limelight for the fade.

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) was the ABBA song that closed not only the 1970s, but also the group’s dalliance with disco. Further experimentation lay ahead, when Benny and his synthesisers took the group sound – spearheading a trend towards synth pop across Europe – on an exhilarating new electronic ride.

Knowing that both Just A Notion and Dream World were initial hopefuls for Voulez-Vous, one can appreciate Benny and Björn’s decision to ultimately shelve these two in favour of tracks more stylistically akin to the album’s sensual theme. Upholding this sensuality is the second of Frida’s three lead vocal tracks on voulez-vous, the suave and sophisticated The King Has Lost His Crown.

This understated treasure is a beguiling piece of songwriting, which Frida herself singled out in 2004 as one of her favourite ABBA tracks. A renaissance of the celebrated major-to-minor tonality shift – which evoked such dramatic tension in the choruses of SOS and Eagle – re-emerges in the chorus of The King Has Lost His Crown, but here the tonality switch is reversed.

Another aspect The King Has Lost His Crown has in common with Eagle is the minor-key hook of the refrain. With a tweak to the strategic repetition, the first three bars of The King Has Lost His Crown’s rhythm track bear largely the same notes as Eagle’s majestic guitar riff.

This is quite understandable; The King Has Lost His Crown was one of the first tracks of the Voulez-Vous sessions to be completed, and the previous album’s work would likely still have been resonating in the minds of Benny and Björn, providing worthy points of reference as they began the creative process all over again.

Frida’s major key lead in The King Has Lost His Crown is smooth and relaxed, with no hint whatsoever of the Pandora’s Box lying in waiting. Then, suddenly, high drama as Agnetha joins the charge in a cataclysmic vocal sideswipe, the sheer magnitude as startling as it is exhilarating. This rich harmonic layering touches on the exotic as the tension reaches boiling point, with an effective sustained (but unresolved) suspension at verse end.

The girls take no prisoners, erupting spectacularly into an unforgiving chorus in which fiery retribution (minor) and pathetic humiliation (major) are masterfully differentiated. Supporting this relentless sequence of tonality shifts is a gravel-edged electric guitar-led backing track, which boasts a strategically placed string arrangement that complements the dramatic tension superbly.

The King should have known better. His new girl turned him down. As the woman scorned, Frida proves a formidable force. Add Agnetha in full voice and the outcome is positive annihilation.

© Christopher Patrick 2004 – 2010

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