Take A Chance On Me and Honey Honey (ABBA)
“Honey Honey” can be found on the ABBA LP/CD, “Waterloo” (1974) or the compilation album “Greatest Hits” (1976).
“Take A Chance On Me” can be found on the ABBA LP/CD, “The Album” (1978) and various compilation albums including “Greatest Hits Vol.2” (1979), “The Singles – The First Ten Years” (1982) and “Gold” (1992).
It seems that ABBA are a band that, despite not having recorded together since 1982, simply refuse to go away. This is evident from the multi-million selling compilation, “Gold”, through CD and vinyl box-set reissues of the original albums, right up to the phenomenal success of the stage musical and film, “Mamma Mia”. This is due in no small part to the combination of the girls’ voices, but often overlooked is the song writing talent of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. In this article, I review, compare and contrast two songs, Honey Honey and Take A Chance On Me, and attempt to analyse the song writing devices that lift these songs out of the ordinary, and turn them into works of art.
Both these songs address the topic of unrequited love, and use different musical and lyrical devices to convey this emotion.
Honey Honey is a perfectly constructed boy/girl duet. It harks back to the 1950’s with its rock and roll backing rhythm, blues chord pattern (F, D minor, B flat and C) and “wah wah hoo” backing vocals. Agnetha’s verses are the musings of a teenager in love for the first time, and the simplistic chord structure affirms the naïveté of her emotions. There is evidence that the boyfriend in the song has had more experience in love than she – “I know what they mean, you’re a love machine”. Newfound sexual freedom bubbles under the lyrics to Agnetha’s second verse, yet all too soon a discordant C11, resolving to C major announce Bjorn’s Middle 8 passage.
Here the key changes to B flat major. This is related to Agnetha’s F major key, although the key chord is not arrived at until Bjorn sings, “I don’t wanna see you cry.” The effect is one of ambiguity – things are not quite as they should be. It is this tension that lifts the song out of the twee, “I love you, you love me”, and adds to the song’s enduring qualities.
Bjorn is too kind to have a one night stand with someone who obviously feels that more will come of the liaison, yet he plans to enter the relationship and leave it just as quickly – “I don’t wanna hurt you …. so stay on the ground, girl”. It is here that Agnetha pulls her killer punch. Despite being in awe of Bjorn’s sexual prowess during the verses, her reply to his cautionary lines implies that she knows exactly what kind of relationship Bjorn is contemplating. Moreover it is her sexual wiles that will win him over and secure the longevity of the relationship. (“I’m gonna stick to you, boy. You’ll never get rid of me…”) The key here is F minor. Although this is distantly related to the F major “happy” key of the verse, it is very different in tonality. The “scrunchy” Gm7sus4 chord that lands on “…rather would BE” indicates that all in this relationship is not perfect, yet the following C7 chord leads the song effortlessly to Agnetha’s happy-go-lucky verses. The song fades out, leaving its audience speculating on how the relationship will progress.
Take A Chance On Me is the more “developed” of the two songs for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was written and released at the peak of their career, and Bjorn and Benny had gained enough confidence to experiment. Indeed, the LP from whence it derives – 1978’s ABBA The Album – was the group’s most experimental to date. Arguably only The Visitors (1981) surpassed it for innovation. Secondly the songwriters’ grasp of the English language had improved since the Waterloo LP – no longer were they simply choosing English words to fit the melodies. (Honey Honey’s “thrill – kill” rhyme is a rather corny example of their early ineptitude.) Thirdly the tensions in the song are often as a result of superimposing darker lyrics over happier-sounding music, and vice versa. If Honey Honey represents the white and black halves of Yin & Yang, Take A Chance represents the black dot in the white and the white dot in the black. Hence it much more closely resembles life experience, where the choices we make in love are not always the ones that make common sense to others or even ourselves.
The song begins a capella – vocals only. The story goes that the “Take a chance, take a chance, take a chick a chance chance” rhythm came to Bjorn while he was jogging – it was the rhythm of his feet as they hit the ground! Although the chords are simple in the chorus (B major to F sharp major), tension is created by the irregular number of bars to chord changes. One would expect a catchy pop song such as this to contain a number of bars per section that is divisible by 4, such as the oft-used 12 bar blues pattern. This song’s chorus has 21 bars, the odd bar being split into two 2/4 bars – at the words, “to go when you’re…” and “the test if you” respectively. Halfway through the chorus, the band enters, setting up a straight 4 to the floor dance rhythm. A sequencer-style synthesizer complements the backing vocal rhythm and a subtle country guitar wails plaintively in the background. Euro-Disco mixed with country – experimental indeed, yet the “hardship in love and work” often embodied in country contrasts with the more hedonistic disco lifestyle.
Lyrically the character in the song fantasises about a relationship with a partner who in reality is not interested in her. The chorus basically begs for the man to end the relationship(s) he’s in and get with her – “if you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown.” To add to the pain that she is feeling, she pledges to remain “free” until such a day. There is the unspoken assumption that our protagonist feels inferior, not as attractive as the other women her intended is dating. Certainly the singer believes in “what goes around comes around” – he will be in her position one day, and when he does, she will make herself available. To try to win him over, Agnetha seductively speaks the lines “That’s all I ask of you honey”, and in chorus two, “Come on, gimme a break, will ya!” This technique was oft used on her pre-ABBA solo material, but nowhere is it more effectively employed than here, where her double-tracked voice is panned so that the headphone listener feels her speak right into both ears.
The mood changes for the verse – musically and lyrically. Even the subtler details such as EQ and reverb change. There is an edit where this can clearly be heard out of phase at 0:38 where the opening chorus is joined to Verse 1. Lyrically this is pure idyll – the character lists all the activities that she and her intended could enjoy together. “It’s magic!” But it would be kitsch were it not for the minor key that the song has moved to by this point. Minor keys and chords have a “sadder” feel to them than major chords/keys. So the tension between the fantasy, and the pain that this fantasy is unlikely to become reality, is expressed thus:
“We can go dancing, we can go walking” (Minor chord)
“As long as we’re together” (Major chord – a quick burst of optimism)
“Listen to some music, maybe just talking” (Minor)
“You’d get to know me better cos you know I got” (Major)
“So much that I wanna do” (Minor- it’s just not going to happen!)
“When I dream I’m alone with you” (Major, but lyrics express some acceptance of the situation.)
“It’s magic!” (Minor, followed by 2 major chords in quick succession – pure tension!)
Benny’s “fluttering” synthesizer that carries us off into the singer’s daydream has not finished before we are brought down to reality:
“You want me to leave it there” (Minor)
“Afraid of a love affair” (Major – is she calling his bluff?)
“But I think you know” (Minor – he doesn’t know or care! Followed by major chord.)
“That I can’t let go” (Minor – and she puts her finger on the frustration of her situation.)
The second verse expresses the fantasy/reality situation in the same way.
So, in summary – Honey Honey uses major keys and simple chord progressions to express the girl’s optimism, and darker sounding “scrunchy chords” and vagueness of key to express the boy’s reluctance to commit himself. Happy words – happy music, sad words – sad music essentially.
On the contrary, Take A Chance On Me creates genuine tension in that the girl is desperate for a relationship but at the same time knows it won’t happen, by juxtaposing the optimism of what she would like to happen, against minor (“sad”) chords that express the sad reality of the situation.
I appreciate that the above analyses are pure “after the event” speculation. I make no claim that Benny, Bjorn and Stig Anderson ever sat down and analysed every chord progression and lyric in the way that I have done. Indeed, both songwriters professed to a lack of knowledge of musical theory. But I have no doubts that, however empirical their approach to song writing, they were mindful and knowledgeable of the effect of the combined words and music on its audience. This is comparable to the skill of a romantic novelist – a love story that doesn’t make its readers cry has failed. Therefore, its author must use conflict and resolution, amongst other devices, to make sure that tears will flow at a carefully planned point. I believe that, whatever the desired audience reaction, the most successful songwriters possess similar skills.
Mark Pearce, January 2009, revised April 2016.