ABBA – If it Wasn’t For the Nights
I’ve yet to meet a person – or at least a person with an opinion about this sort of thing – who thinks that ABBA picked the right singles from 1979’s Voulez-Vous, the album forever known as their disco one. Of course it’s not quite disco – in any tussle with musical genres ABBA will also come out on top due to their extreme ABBA-ness – but it was very much their ritzy nitespot album and easily one of their strongest collections.
Yet in 1979, the groups’s fortunes in the UK took a bit of a dip – an almost imperceptible one, but even at the age of seven I knew something was up. Of course, if you look at it from the perspective of most chart careers, nothing seemed wrong at all – Chiquitita peaked at no.2, Does Your Mother Know at 4, Angel Eyes/Voulez-Vous at 3 and I Have a Dream at 2, plus Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) made no.3, slipped in between the last two as the single from Greatest Hits Vol.2. Five top five hits (six if you count the double A-side) in under a year is something most people would kill for – but for ABBA this was a bit problematic, considering that six of the eight singles prior to the Voulez-Vous era had gone to no.1. Was this just a blip? Was it part of the natural ebb and flow of a pop career, or was it in fact down to the choices of single? I, not surprisingly, am plumping for the latter. As exhibit A, I present this: If it Wasn’t For the Nights.
And here they are doing it on the Mike Yarwood Show at Christmas 1978.
Everything about If it Wasn’t For the Nights screams “FIRST SINGLE!”, and apparently this was indeed the intention until they finished work on the schlager-shandy that is Chiquitita and decided to go with that. Now, I had a soft spot for Chiquitita from the word go, largely thanks to its sort-of false ending (see also: Go West by Pet Shop Boys), but in the great scheme of ABBA things it’s arguably one of their lesser numbers. And that kept happening with the releases from this album. Had I been in charge, the order of singles would have been If it Wasn’t for the Nights and then Kisses of Fire. I’d have retained Angel Eyes/Voulez-Vous (though I might have given them separate releases) and then finished off the campaign with the slightly sinister majesty of Lovers (Live a Little Longer), which possesses my favourite ever ABBA string arrangement. Then again, I know several other people who would have preferred As Good as New and The King Has Lost His Crown to have had a shot at the singles chart. The possible permutations are almost endless, but we all agree on one thing – why on earth was Does Your Mother Know a single? At seven I hated it – and while I’ve relaxed my opinion since then and can now appreciate its undeniable grooviness, for me it still ranks alongside Two for the Price of One as slightly questionable off-colour ABBA.
Better than any other pop group, ABBA understood the power of a good wallow, and that wallowing in a nice bit of self-imposed misery while dancing is the best feeling in the world. This is why Dancing Queen is probably the best record ever – you can surrender yourself completely to the joy of it but it never lets you forget that the moment will pass and that seventeen doesn’t last forever. If it Wasn’t For the Nights is, however, the ultimate expression of disco-misery. It opens with the most brilliant piece of mis-direction in all of pop history – a jaunty piano intro joined swiftly by those incredible swelling strings that feel like they’re lifting you a couple of feet off the dancefloor. “Oh boy,” you tell yourself, “I am really happy right about now and I never want this feeling to end.” But scarcely a minute later you’re mouthing along to “Somehow I’d be doing alright / If it wasn’t for the nights / I’d have courage left to fight if it wasn’t for the nights / How I fear the time when shadows start to fall / Sitting here alone and staring at the wall” and you’re wide-eyed in horror at the truth of it but it’s far too late to stop dancing – you’re committed now. That, for me, is ABBA’s prime directive: as Agnetha herself would say on 2013’s quite good but not-as-good-as-it-thinks-it-is single: Dance the Pain Away. I can think of no better advice, can you?
Over time, I’ve come to think of If it Wasn’t For the Nights as a first-person sequel to Dancing Queen, and part of a trilogy that ends with The Day Before You Came. It’s a journey that takes us from carefree youthful abandon to adult responsibilities, crippling loneliness and the crushing mundanity of being a grown-up, grasping what affirmation we can from a bit of eye-contact on the train. Surely that speaks to everyone, no?*
*other interpretations are available, but I’m more than happy with mine.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Probably only Calum Scott, joy-robber du jour.