GIRL IN THE SONG – PART 12- Abba, Elton John, The Band, Johnny Cash.


ABBA – Knowing Me, Knowing You (1977), The Winner Takes It All (1980), One Of Us (1982 )


The Swedish Fab Four of Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Ani-Frid Lyngstad, known collectively as ABBA, ruled the international music scene for a decade with their Euro-inspired disco/dance pop songs. Initially regarded as nothing more than Eurovision curiosities after they won that contest in 1974 with the Andersson/Ulvaeus song Waterloo, the band would sell over 150 million records, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, and see their legacy endure via a plethora of ABBA-themed movies, stage musicals, and back catalogue record sales.

ABBA were a fascinating mix of marital/non-marital relationships before the four band members were ultimately wed, Bjorn was in a relationship with Marianne Ackerman before he started dating Agnetha in 1970, they were married in 1971, and had two children while they were touring as ABBA – Linda (’73) and Peter (’77) , above left. Benny was engaged to Christina Gronval from 1963 to 1968 and they had a son Peter(’63) and daughter Helene (’65) above centre, he became engaged to Anni-Frid in 1969 and consistent with his obvious commitment-phobia, he did not marry Anni-Frid until 1978,  she had previously been married to Lars Ragnar Fredericksson and had two children, Hans (’63) and Anna-Lise-Lotte (’67), and they were divorced in 1970, above right.

Innergroup tensions amongst the quartet would ultimately tear the group apart, and cause their private lives to implode in full view of the pubic, and their songs charted the trajectory of their failing relationships and disintegrating marriages.

Knowing Me, Knowing You was one of the first ABBA songs to tackle the break-up of a relationship in its lyrics, it was released before the divorces of the ABBA members, but clearly cracks were beginning to appear, and in the promo video the quartet are not concealing the anguish and heartache they are dealing with. Increasingly Agnetha was unhappy about touring and leaving her two children behind, she was also an aerophobe who dreaded flying around the world to concerts. A year after this song was released, she and Bjorn would split, he would move in with rock journalist Lena Kallersjo in 1979, and he and Agnetha would be divorced in 1980, Bjorn would re-marry in 1981, and commence a family with Kallersjo, fathering two daughters, Emma (’82) and Anna (’86).  

By 1980 the heartbreak ballad The Winner Takes It All reflected the broken bonds of matrimony within the band, the song puts Agnetha in the uncomfortable position of having to sing a breakup song written by her ex-husband, just a short period after they had split up. Bjorn has denied that he was inferring that his wife was the winner in the divorce, or that he deliberately pitched the song in a way unsympathetically to his former-wife to record, but the case for the defence of Bjorn is weak in this case, particularly as his original title for this song was The Story of My Life. When One of Us was released in 1982 the two couples had divorced, it lacked the jaunty bonhomie of ABBA’s big hits and was a much darker and more introspective song, about a woman trying to revive a relationship she herself had ended, “One of us is crying/ One of is lonely/ Waiting for a call/ Wishing she had never left at all”, was it Agnetha or Annni-Frid, take your pick? Clearly the estranged couples found it difficult to continue to work together, some of their later songs were inspired by their personal regrets and misgivings, 1981’s Slipping Through My Fingers reflected the regret that Agnetha feel about not spending more time with her daughter Linda Ulvaeus, who was seven at the time, and with the release of their last single Thank You For The Music, they delivered the swansong on a glittering career, albeit one that led to the disintegration of their two marriages.

 Elton John – Tiny Dancer (B Taupin / E John ) 1972

elton john

The song was inspired by Maxine Feibelman who married Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1971, and became a part of the group who toured with Elton John in the early 1970’s. Tiny Dancer was a touching tribute to the girl from Los Angeles who stole Bernie’s heart, after the boy from Lincolnshire visited the USA for the first time in 1970, and noted that Californian girls were quite different from the lasses back in his home town of Market Rasen.


Maxine had trained in ballet and she often danced her way through the up tempo numbers during live performances at the side of the stage, she also assisted with wardrobe and running repairs, and is referred to as a seamstress in the song’s lyrics “Blue jean baby, LA lady, seamstress for the band/ Pretty eyes, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man” and she most certainly did in February 1971, as reported by the local newspaper in Market Rasen “”Bernie John Taupin (21), remembered not so long ago as a rather shy and unassertive Market Rasen schoolboy, returned to the town again on Saturday as the song writing hero of the pop world, who was marrying a sweet girl from Los Angeles, Maxine Feibelman – who arrived in a lilac-colored Aston Martin”.  Photo of wedding below, Maxine would have struggled to match Elton’s Best Man outfit.  


 Tiny Dancer became the first track on Elton John’s fourth studio album Mad Man Across the Water (1972), its subtle pedal steel guitar, strings, and John’s piano accompaniment on the verses produced a sensitive and wistful song, similar to Taupin’s composition Your Song (1970) which was an early hit for Elton John. Backing vocals were provided by Tony Burrows, the most successful unknown lead singer in UK music history, who was the lead session singer on all of the hits for Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, First Class, The Flowerpot Men, and Brotherhood of Man.  

In 1974 it was Feibelman who gave Bernie the idea for the lyrics to the 1974 hit The Bitch Is Back, as she was fed up with Elton’s tantrums and complaints, when she turned to Bernie and said “Uh, oh, the bitch is back”, which was the catalyst for a self-mocking song that Elton quite happily performed. Taupin and Feibelman would divorce in 1976 due to his drinking and infidelity, and he would marry three more times – Lynn Russo (’79), Stephanie Haymes (’93), and Heather Hodgins Kidd (2004, below with Taupin) to whom he remains married. Tiny Dancer was a minor hit globally, #13 Aust, #41 USA, but not released as a single in the UK, as it was over 6 minutes in length and did not fit easily into radio station play lists of the time.  


The Band – The Weight (R Robinson) 1968


In 1968 The Band ( left to right above Manuel, Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Danko) released their seminal debut album titled Music From Big Pink, which reflected the distinctive blend of country, rock, folk, classical , R&B, and soul, that would define the country rock genre for the rest of the decade, and blaze a trail for Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers,the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Eagles, and the Byrds. The Band composed their music partly in “Big Pink”, a house shared by Band alumni Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson in West Saugerties, New York (USA), which featured distinctive outer weatherboard walls painted pink (below), Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, and Bob Dylan would also participate in the creative process there, and the album itself would be recorded in studios in New York and Los Angeles in 1968, following the band’s stint as backup for  Bob Dylan on his 1966 world tour (as the Hawks).


Further collaborations with Dylan and the Band were released as the Basement Tapes in 1975, having been composed in the basement of Big Pink, Dylan himself would release three seminal country rock-influenced albums in the coming years, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline, and the Band would follow up Music From Big Pink with another serve of back to basics roots music with  their self-titled album in 1969, and Stage Fright in 1970.


Songs such as The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag, This Wheel’s On Fire and Up On Cripple Creek, became country rock standards, and although The Band were not strictly a singles band, it would be the Robbie Robertson song The Weight which would become famous via cover versions by Aretha Franklin and Jackie De Shannon, and inclusion at #41 in  Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Sings Of All Time, and as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Robertson has explained the influence that film director Luis Bunuel had on his song writing, the sense of surrealism and vaguely religious connotations, inherent in trying to satisfy others, the crushing “weight” of their expectation, the futility of even aspiring to something like sainthood.

The lyrics tell the story from the perspective of a southerner who is passing through a town called Nazareth in Pennsylvania, the home of the Martin guitar workshop, and the place from which Robertson’s very own 1951 Martin D-28 guitar came, on which he composed this song. The general perspective and deep south ambience of the song was inspired by drummer Levon Helm, a native of Elaine, Arkansas, who has identified several real people who appear in the lyrics in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire:  “The song was full of our favourite characters, “Luke” was Jimmy Ray Paulman, “Young Anna Lee” was Anna  Lee Amsden a good friend of mine, “Crazy Chester” was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who would pretend to police the town wearing a toupee, and a pair of cap guns on his hips, ”Carmen and the Devil “ “Miss Moses” and “Fanny” were just names that worked with the rest of the song’s lyrics.”

Excerpt from Martin Scorces The Last Waltz – The Band with some Staple Singers Magic Dust Sprinkled on Top.

The sole song writing credit for Robbie Robertson for The Weight, and many other songs performed by The Band, was disputed years later by Levon Helm, who insisted that the composition of the lyrics and music was collaborative, and that each band member made a substantial contribution, this unresolved dispute was cited as the reason for the group’s breakup in 1976. Helm (2012), Danko (1999), and Manuel (1986) are all deceased, while Robertson and Hudson are the only surviving members of the original band. Below left to right Robertson and Helm.   


Johnny Cash – Ring Of Fire (J Carter Cash / M Kilgore) 1963


This is a song which is surrounded by more controversy than most relating to its provenance. Who actually wrote it? Who inspired it? Just what was the ring of fire that Johnny Cash fell into? Around the time the song was recorded Johnny Cash was in a strained relationship with his first wife, Vivian Liberto. They had married in 1954 and had four daughters (the family below), but she filed for divorce in 1966 citing Cash’s drinking, drug-taking, and infidelity as the reasons for the breakup of their marriage.


Cash and June Carter had been touring together for some years and Liberto was aware of the intensity of her husband’s relationship with Carter, who was twice-divorced, and had two children of her own. Cash would claim that she and Merle Kilgore jointly penned the song and that the title was a phrase she saw underlined in one of her uncle’s books of poetry, and further that she conceived the lyrics while driving around aimlessly one nighty trying to locate her husband-to-be who was on a drink and amphetamine-fueled bender, which was the “ring of fire” that surrounded their relationship with him.


Contrary to this Cash’s ex-wife Liberto has strongly rejected June’s claims of authorship in her book I Walked The Line: My Life with Johnny, she wrote “To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn’t write the song any more than I did. The truth is Johnny wrote that song while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part. All those years of her claiming she wrote it herself, and she probably never knew what the song was about.”

Johnny Cash with the Carter Family Singers and Mariachi Trumpeters.

Musician Curly Lewis, who toured with Cash backs up Liberto’s claim, saying that he was there when Cash wrote it himself, “he was on a fishing trip with Merle Kilgore, and myself in Casitas (Calif) and wrote the song there and then. He was confident that the song would be a hit, and as he was heading for divorce from Liberto, he said he would put down June’s name as one of the writers and not his own.” Lewis also confirmed that the devout Cash did use the lyric “ring of fire” as a metaphorical reference to June Carter’s genitalia. The couple married in 1968 and had a son of their own, and despite John’s lifelong addiction to amphetamines, her support for him was unwavering throughout the next thirty-five years until her death in 2003, followed four months later by John’s passing. Below, Merle Kilgore (left) was Johnny’s Best Man at his wedding to June.



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