So after 5 years of waiting, ABBA finally unveiled their new album Voyage this morning. It’s landing unexpectedly early, on 5 November. I have already pre-ordered a stupidly large number of copies in multiple formats.
Naturally, I watched the YouTube livestream announcing the album (and the virtual “ABBAtar” concerts in London next year) at the entirely antisocial hour of 2:45am. The obvious highlight? The two new songs, ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ and ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. The first has a Frida lead vocal, the second showcases Agnetha. (The biggest complaint about the livestream was that neither of the ladies showed up in person. Can’t win ’em all!)
It’s all very recognisably ABBA, and you can easily imagine these songs popping onto 1980’s Super Trouper, for instance. (The synth stylings of 1981’s fantastic The Visitors, what we thought was the “last” album from ABBA, are rather less in evidence.)
‘I Still Have Faith In You’ builds and builds, moving from a almost-naked Frida vocal to layers of percussion alongside characteristic ABBA-esque guitar breaks, combining shades of ‘Our Last Summer’ and reminding me also of the magnificent ‘Anthem’ from Chess.
‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ is boppier, and has some melodic disco touches that are quite reminiscent of ‘If It Wasn’t From The Nights’ from 1979’s Voulez-Vous.
The lyrics for both songs both cleverly tap into feelings of nostalgia. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ tells the tale of a woman attempting to reunite with a former lover. It’s a classic Bjorn story song, but lines like “And now you see another me/I’ve been reloaded” also seem a fitting commentary on the prospect of new ABBA material after four decades away.
The Voyage album promises other unexpected treats. Two of the tracks, ‘Just A Notion’ and ‘Bumblebee’, would seem to be full and complete versions of songs which appeared in demo form as part of the 1994 ‘Abba Undeleted’ medley on the Thank You For The Music box set. That’s not surprising: ABBA often spent years playing with melodic fragments before they finally became full songs.
I’m guessing that ‘Bumblebee’ in particular will have been considerably reworked, since the demo version includes a melody which ultimately ended up as part of ‘I Know Him So Well’ from Chess. It was also used in ‘I Am An A’, the track the band used to introduce itself during its 1977 tour.
The ‘Bumblebee’ demo features a Bjorn lead vocal. Will this be the token male vocal on the album (every ABBA album had one), or is 2021 ABBA all about the women? Time will tell. Roll on November!
The Tourists are chiefly famous as the band Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were in before Eurythmics. That’s apparently famous enough to justify one of the other members writing a biography about their time in the band.
Drummer Jim Toomey tells his version of the band’s history in We Were Tourists (2018) (available on Amazon for under $15, pop pickers). I stress “his version” because while it’s an engaging read, it’s apparent that no-one checked all the details.
In an interview when the book was published, Toomey noted that he “had loads of diaries I could refer to”, but also wanted it to be “tight, like a three-minute pop song”. That means we’ll sometimes have to fill in the gaps.
The Elton John problem
My factual hackles immediately rose when I encountered this paragraph early on:
I knew Dave from when he was in a band called Long Dancer. They had signed to a new company called Rocket Records. Unfortunately for Dave Rocket Records had also signed a singer-songwriter called Reggie Dwight who promptly, and wisely, changed his name to Elton John. Long Dancer were left in the shadow of Elton’s massive popularity and the band had split.
Any semi-informed pop fan will spot the inaccuracy. Elton John first used that name in 1967. Rocket Records was Elton’s vanity label, founded in 1973. By then, Elton was already a global star. He made Rocket; Rocket didn’t make him.
It’s true Longdancer (no space) did sign to Rocket and failed to achieve much, but Toomey’s framing of this as Dave-vs-Reggie is simply wrong. So any other celebrity anecdote he tells will need cross-checking.
Enter the Doctor
I remembered this when Toomey described an early appearance by The Tourists on the BBC music show Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT) in 1979. Apparently, the band arrived for filming at 9am and quickly knocked off three live performances (‘Blind Among The Flowers’, ‘Another English Day’ and ‘The Loneliest Man In The World’) in front of a somewhat indifferent crew.
Here’s that day’s take on ‘Blind Among The Flowers’:
Post-recording, The Tourists got smashed in the BBC bar, where they were “rubbing shoulders with actors from the Doctor Who set in full costume”.
To be fair, Toomey himself admits his recollection of events here is clouded by alcohol:
I seem to remember our tour manager stealing my car keys and putting me into a cab which I shared with a rather inebriated Doctor Who, but I might have imagined that.
However hazy the details, I’m obsessed with both 80s pop and Doctor Who, so I need to know if this is actually true. And if it is, which Who story was being filmed?
A little digging through iMDB and the Radio Times reveals that The Tourists appeared on OGWT twice. Their first appearance was in series 8, episode 35, which was transmitted on 29 May 1979 at the late hour of 11.35pm. They were one of two featured acts, the other being punk band The Members. That date aligns with the release of The Tourists’ first self-titled album, which features the three tracks Toomey mentions.
So far, so good. In 1979, the current Doctor was Tom Baker, who was infamous for drinking in the BBC bar (and indeed at any other location supplying booze between there and Soho). Superficially, the tale adds up. And there’s no point asking Tom if he remembers any of it, because he doesn’t remember anything much from the era.
Doctor Who definitely was filming in April and May of 1979 (allowing ourselves a range of potential recording dates for OGWT). The most likely story is the much-loathed ‘The Creature From The Pit’ which had several studio dates across April. It might also be ‘City Of Death’, which filmed in May.
The Pauline Black problem
We have some reason to doubt the account, however. Toomey also says he spent some time in the bar that day trying to “chat up” Pauline Black, lead singer of ska band The Selecter. This raises flags, partly because he incorrectly spells the band name “The Selector”. But more importantly, Black didn’t join The Selecter until July 1979 – several months after the OGWT broadcast. And as her biography Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir makes clear, she wasn’t hanging round London and the BBC prior to that happening.
It’s likely that Toomey is confusing the first time The Tourists were on OGWT in 1979 with their second appearance in 1980 (series 9, episode 19, transmitted on 29 January 1980). The Selecter featured on OGWT on 19 February that year.
So it’s quite possible that both sets of performances were filmed the same day, and edited into different shows. Two recordings and two bar visits, conflated into one anecdote three decades later.
So what really happened?
Assuming that’s the case, how might it change the Who element of the story? Tom Baker was still the Doctor in 1980, though that was the year he gave up the role after a record-setting seven-year stint. But the timing is unlikely. Between November 1979 and January 1980, the only Doctor Who recordings at Television Centre were for the abandoned story ‘Shada’, and those were in early November.
So the best guess is that the Tourists/Who overlap occurred following the band’s first performance on OGWT, not the second, and that ‘The Creature From The Pit’ was the story in question . The Pauline Black anecdote is a red herring, and we’ll never know if Tom Baker really was drunk in a cab with Jim Toomey.
Yes, these are small details. But I like small details to be right.
On 28 August 1979, Mary Wilson made her debut as a solo performer after close to two decades as the glue holding together the Supremes, the most successful US girl group ever. Midway through her set at New York New York, she announced: “Before we go any further, I would like to sing a medley of my greatest hits.” Wilson recalled the moment in her second volume of autobiography, Supreme Faith:
As the band played the opening chords to ‘Come See About Me’ I sang only my background parts: “Boo hoo . . . for you . . . to tears . . . the fears . . . hey, hey, hey, hey . . . hey, hey, hey, hey . . . come see about me.”. Everyone cracked up, then I did the same for “The Happening” and “Reflections”.
Though played for comedy, the moment was a tacit acknowledgement that it wasn’t Mary’s voice that first sprang to mind when people thought of the Supremes. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t often step up, especially during the group’s post-Diana-Ross 1970s career. As the world pays tribute to Mary following her untimely death, here are six tracks from her Supremes tenure that highlight her vocals (and also some fantastic era fashions).
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (1969)
This Four Seasons hit was highlighted as Mary’s solo number throughout the latter part of the Supremes’ 1960s career, when the group was billed as “Diana Ross & The Supremes”.
This sleek and sensual track saw vocal duties shared by Mary Wilson and Jean Terrell, and was the first-ever Supremes single to feature Wilson as a lead. Wilson signed off her mail with the salutation “Touch” for years afterwards.
He’s My Man (1975)
Disco frenzy ahoy on this number, with co-lead vocals by Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne. Great contrast between Mary’s passionate verses and Scherrie’s soaring chorus lines.
Floy Joy (1971)
Smokey Robinson wrote and produced this 1971 single, again featuring Mary Wilson and Jean Terrell on lead.
Automatically Sunshine (1971)
Another Smokey Robinson production, like ‘Floy Joy’ this was a UK Top 10 hit. The 1970s Supremes were a much bigger deal in Europe and Japan than in the US.
You Are The Heart Of Me (1976)
A gorgeous, understated ballad performance from the final Supremes LP, Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.
The one that got away. Infamously, in the early 1980s, Mary turned down the chance to record ‘Holiday’. It went on to become the track that launched Madonna’s career. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine this working as well as a Mary Wilson number, but it would be amazing to hear a demo.
Damn, Marie Fredriksson from Roxette has died. Obviously, everyone is talking about ‘The Look’ and ‘Joyride’ and ‘It Must Have Been Love’. But here are five less obvious songs from her extensive back catalogue that I want to hear right now.
Alla Mina Bästa År
This duet with ABBA’s Frida (from her best solo album, 1996’s Djupa Andetag) is an absolute belter. Two Scandi-pop queens for the price of one!
So Far Away
Just Marie and a piano, from the much-maligned Tourism. I much prefer this to the original single release.
A fab remix enhances this excellent track from 1999’s Have A Nice Day.
Fact: The only good thing about the Super Mario Bros movie.
It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Broken-Hearted)
OK, I can’t resist including ‘It Must Have Been Love’. But I’ll do it geekily, with the original Swedish release from 1987. When the song was remixed for inclusion in Pretty Woman, the line “hard Christmas day” was changed to “hard winter’s day”, as you do.
The setlist leans heavily towards the band’s second (and best-known) album Hormonally Yours, featuring every track bar ‘Moonchild’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’. Every track from this year’s 5-track Ride Again EP also got an outing (largely in a mid-set block).
The debut album Sacred Heart got less attention, with just three tracks featured: ‘You’re History’, ‘Heroine’ and ‘Dirty Mind’ (the original arrangement, not the 1990 re-recording). I was a little surprised that ‘Run Silent’ didn’t feature.
No cover versions, no B-sides, and no unreleased tracks. But clearly the audience (myself included) was very happy with the overall selection!
It was a great gig. The band were in fine form, and Siobahn was in excellent voice and much more relaxed than when I saw her with the Nanas. (There’s a lot less choreography to remember!) She bounced all over the stage, while Marcy mostly hung with her microphone stand and guitar. But there wasn’t any of that barely-concealed-loathing in-it-for-the-money Spandau Ballet vibe I often complain about.
I saw the legendary ABBA musical Mamma Mia! at its very first public preview back on March 23 1999. Since then, I’ve seen it in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Las Vegas and Auckland, as well as revisiting the London production at least half-a-dozen times. But I’ve not been back to watch it on stage since the movie version of the original came out in 2008.
This weekend, that flipped at last, when I finally caught up with the Australian production that’s been touring this year. It’s still a fantastic show, and the current cast is one of the best I’ve seen across those two decades. But what really struck me was how many changes had been made in the staging.
Every version I’ve seen until this year has used the choreography, blocking and set design from the original London production, including the very clever revolving stage. OK, Las Vegas cut corners by not having a rising and falling wharf (used during ‘I Have A Dream’ and ‘The Name Of The Game’), but otherwise it stayed the same.
But Mamma Mia! Australia 2018 dumps the revolve entirely, settling instead for a static set with a stage-right staircase and a lot more shuttered windows (as pictured below, though my position over-emphasises the wharf, which is only used for entrances and exits and Sophie’s posting of the letters).
That’s understandable: a set with fewer moving parts is cheaper to build, easier to rig and can go into a wider range of theatres. More evidence of cost-trimming? The ensemble is a little smaller than in previous productions.
However, those two modifications also results in alterations to the choreography and blocking, not all of which I enjoyed so much. I realise that I should just adapt to change and that no theatrical text is locked in stone. But hey, if I’ve seen a show this many times, I’m going to notice.
One inevitable and sensible change: the dialogue is delivered a lot faster, with fewer pauses for the audience to laugh. For instance, Rosie’s “It’s very Greek” line about Donna’s three potential fathers flies right by, where in the original staging there was a definite pause both before and after. That makes sense; you have to assume most of the audience has seen the movie and is familiar with these quips.
There are also changes that have been a feature of the production right from the start. Eddie’s apology when Pepper first flirts with Tania has always been localised (for Adelaide, it was “He’s from Elizabeth”, while Sam was also said to come from Burnside). Similarly, in Australia Donna has always said “housing commission” rather than “council flat” when explaining her past to Sophie during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. (That’s a plot point that clashes wildly with the storyline continuation in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, incidentally, but I digress.)
Those aside, these are the changes that jumped out at me (I’m sure there are others):
During Donna’s dusting when the prospective dads first see her, she’s singing a snatch of ‘Ring Ring’. There was no song here when the production first started, and then ‘Fernando’ was used. I’m guessing maybe the latter has been dropped to avoid making people think of Cher. (It is never wrong to think of Cher, obviously.)
The boat that comes on stage during ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is now branded ‘Abba Dabba Doo’, not ‘Waterloo’. Fair enough given ‘Waterloo’ is now part of the encore, a change that didn’t happen until some months into the original production.
The boys don’t fully change into wetsuits during ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. That has broader consequences than just less waxed flesh on stage; it also means that ‘Under Attack’ no longer has the surreal vision of everyone in fluorescent versions of the same costumes, instead playing up the gothic wedding aspect for the rest of the ensemble. I didn’t find this as visually effective.
‘The Name Of The Game’ is staged on the balcony, not on the wharf. This puts Sophie and Bill centre stage, but it’s notably less intimate and therefore, I think, less impactful.
The sequence of Pepper exhausting himself during ‘Does Your Mother Know’ has been dropped, and the other boys don’t try and impress Tania either. I’ll forgive this because the current Pepper can do epic back flips, and because the current Eddie has been allowed to retain his chest hair.
Donna and Sam lighting a joint is no longer the climax to ‘Our Last Summer’. Instead, it’s mimed briefly on the bed earlier in the song. There’s no picnic blanket sequence either.
Rather than lighting candles, Rosie is rigging up a chain of lights when she has her “ding” moment at the start of ‘Take A Chance On Me’. That’s a good adjustment that works with the different set.
Donna doesn’t change into a wedding dress or veil prior to marrying Sam.
One of my favourite bits of choreography, the double-tapping heels during the final two reprises of the verse in ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do’, has been dumped in favour of more Greek-inspired line dancing.
Bill sobs manically when Sophie departs and has to be comforted by Harry. This jokey interlude heavily undermines what’s supposed to be an emotional moment (I’m wondering if it was inserted to reflect Bill’s crying sequence in the second movie).
And a final point: the boas used by the ladies during “Dancing Queen” left large feathers all over the stage. The lack of a revolve meant these stayed on stage for the entire first act, and were very visible from my second row seat. But no-one bothered to sweep them up during the interlude either, so they remained visible all the way through. No excuse for that.
I’m a fan of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly puzzle column The Riddler. This week’s edition is a fairly simple challenge:
If A, B, C, D and E are all unique digits, what values would work with the following equation?
ABC,CDE × 4 = EDC,CBA
This is one of those puzzles that’s fiddly to solve by hand, but dead easy if you write a program. Some quick coding in Small Basic (I’m old-school) reveals that there’s just one solution:
A = 2 B = 1 C = 9 D = 7 E = 8
879,912 = 4 x 219,978
Interestingly, there are no other solutions even if you don’t require every digit to be unique. As well, for this particular equation, a solution only exists when you multiply ABC,CDE by 4 – there are no solutions for any other integer between 2 and 9.
I’ve seen Bananarama in concert half-a-dozen times over the last 20 years, but yesterday was special. The original three-woman lineup (Sarah, Keren and Siobhan) is touring for the first time ever, so naturally I went all the way from Sydney to Ipswich to see it. Here’s a random selection of highlights from the evening.
Weirdly, everyone entering the venue had to empty their pockets and be patted down. Who knew Nana fandom was so gangsta? The security queue manager told us this was based on a request from the promoter, rather than being normal Ipswich procedure. But no matter, it didn’t take long.
Standing room only
From the moment the opening notes sounded (eventually to become ‘Nathan Jones’, fact freaks), the entire crowd in the stalls stood up, and didn’t sit down for the duration of the show. For pop fans in their 40s, this is frankly unusual behaviour, but very welcome.
Best staging ever
The most elaborate staging I’ve seen the Nanas use previously has been a pair of back-up dancers. For this tour, there’s a tiered stage, elaborate lighting, a full band and a mass of video projections, including outtakes and extra footage from iconic videos.
A post shared by Rashid Hales-Khan 🐰🇬🇧 (@rashidhk81) on
I ended up seated next to Rashid. Impressively, it turns out we’d both been at the 20th anniversary gig at G-A-Y back in 2002, which was the last time all three girls were on a stage together.
All the hits you weren’t expecting
Obviously, all the big hits were present, but a huge part of the fun of this night for me was hearing songs the Nanas have never done in concert before when I’ve seen them. ‘Rough Justice’, ‘More Than Physical’, ‘Aie A Mwana’ and ‘Cheers Then’ all made an appearance, while ‘Shy Boy’ got mashed up with ‘Boy Trouble’. And of course the Nanas do a version of Shakespear’s Sister’s ‘Stay’, and also acknowledge the Jacquie years with ‘Preacher Man’, described by Shuv as her “favourite post-me song”.
A key reason I headed to Ipswich was because the timing fitted in. But a secondary benefit is that the Regent Theatre in Ipswich is a much more intimate venue than where the Nanas played in London.
Lots of solo vocals
The essence of the Nanas sound is three voices blended as one, but during the evening every single member got a chance to sing solo lines, with the others contributing backing and harmony. This was put to particularly effective use on ‘It Ain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It’, covering for the Fun Boy Three bits really well.
The band enjoying themselves
With some band reformations, it’s obvious everyone’s in it for the money and is performing with gritted teeth (case in point: Spandau Ballet). That wasn’t happening here. The Nanas looked as relaxed and happy as ever, with Shuv entirely a part of the proceedings.
All in, an amazing night, and tonight I get to do it again in Southend. NANA NANA!
Words written today: 5,031. Running total: 20,414.
Actually, that’s a three-day total of sorts. As I predicted, Friday turned out to be a total non-starter. I did a decent chunk of writing on Saturday, but didn’t blog about it or even update my counter. Still, after a few sessions spread over Sunday, I’m back on track word-count wise. I didn’t get around to building my tracking spreadsheet for the novel, but that can wait. This week I’m jumping on and off planes a lot (even by my standards), so I’ll have to try and make my time in air productive.