In Focus: Does Your Mother Know – the anatomy of a hit single

They could do it

What is the mark of a great hit single? That’s a question many songwriters across the globe would dearly love to have answered. One characteristic could be that it sounds natural and effortless, as if, the moment the song was born, its songwriters knew exactly how they wanted it to sound on the finished recording. That is certainly true of ABBA’s big hits, not least ‘Does Your Mother Know’, a single released in tandem with its parent album, Voulez-Vous, in late April 1979. But, as was usually the case, reaching that sense of effortlessness required plenty of effort, and there were many hours of hard work behind the finished song that raced up the charts all those many years ago.

By early 1979, ABBA had been working on their forthcoming album for a long time, yet they had not come up with too many songs they felt truly happy with. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus – ABBA’s songwriter/producer team – felt they needed a change of scene. In late January, they boarded a plane out of Stockholm and ended up in a house in the Bahamas, owned by their American record company, Atlantic Records. They spent a week there, listening a lot to American radio, and were sufficiently inspired to write both the album’s title track and its closing number, ‘Kisses Of Fire’. Recollections differ, but it’s possible that ‘Does Your Mother Know’ was conceived there as well.

The song was certainly ready for recording on 6 February 1979, ABBA’s first studio day after Björn and Benny had returned to Stockholm. The location was the group’s very own Polar Music Studio, and the musicians were veterans of many ABBA sessions: guitarist Lasse Wellander, bassist Rutger Gunnarsson and drummer Ola Brunkert. At this time, however, the song hadn’t acquired its final title. When Björn and Benny wrote songs, their primary goal was to find a strong melody, and so, while they were composing, they would sing random English phrases, just to have words to sing as they were working out the tune. In this case, the working title of the song became ‘I Can Do It’, which Björn was singing where the phrase “take it easy” is now heard in the song’s bridge.

Does your mother know about ragtime?

In fact, the story of the song’s long journey to a finished tune starts right there, for the “I can do it”/“take it easy” section had been lifted from a song called ‘Dream World’, which they had recorded the previous year but then decided to leave on the shelf. The songwriters always stored the best bits of songs in their brains, to be brought out as new songs were written – if they were lucky these discarded pieces of melody would find a perfect home in an entirely different song, and that’s what happened here. “The only really good section in ‘Dream World’, at least from my point of view, was the bit that ended up in ‘Does Your Mother Know’,” Benny reflected many years later. “That bit is almost a like a ragtime thing, if you bring it down to its essentials.” Maybe we don’t exactly think of ragtime when we hear ‘Does Your Mother Know’, but that was also part of the secret of ABBA’s success: they found inspiration in all sorts of musical genres and would try any number of arrangements for one and the same piece of melody. If it worked, it worked – that was their motto.

Today, we know ‘Does Your Mother Know’ as a tightly arranged dancefloor stomper, but on that first recording session in February 1979 it was performed as a rock’n’roll number, including not one but two lengthy guitar solos, played in a fierce heavy metal style by Lasse Wellander. By this time in ABBA’s career, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad were long since regarded as the group’s main vocalists. However, the band thought it made for good variation if Björn handled the lead vocals on a track every now and then. In the case of ‘Does Your Mother Know’, it seems the conclusion was reached to let him be the singer even during the backing track session. “Björn was singing and it sounded all right,” recalled Benny, “so we said, ‘Let’s record it in this key, it’s suitable for him’.”

Trimming it down

The next step was for Björn to write the lyrics. His method was always to listen to a recording of the backing track over and over again until a theme or a story emerged, his philosophy being that the music itself conveyed a message and would eventually tell him what it was all about. In this case, he would also get a little extra help from a newspaper article about relationships between men and young girls. “It was most likely about predatory older men using younger women,” he remembered, “and I had the idea of reversing the situation and creating a song about a man who, instead of trying to pick up a girl, turns round and says, ‘Oh, what are you doing out tonight, does your mother know that you’re out?’”

Yet, Björn would later suggest that maybe ‘Does Your Mother Know’ would have been a bigger hit if Agnetha or Frida had been the lead vocalists. It would certainly have worked if sung from the point of view of a woman, as was proved in the Mamma Mia! musical, where it’s a showcase for the free-spirited character of Tanya. In recent years, Björn has been more forgiving towards his own singing, though, saying that he finds his voice “a bit charming” in this song.

With the vocals added – including Agnetha and Frida’s stellar contributions as backing vocalists – and then some saxophone overdubs, the group had a rollicking rocker on their hands, running to a whopping 6 minutes and 25 seconds. But instead of just mixing it and preparing it for release, this was the moment in the process when Björn and Benny would take a step back and consider if they could improve the song. They began by trimming ‘Does Your Mother Know’ down to a more manageable hit single length, the first victims being both guitar solos (one of the solos was reinstated during ABBA’s live concerts later in the year, though). With the song now running to about 4 minutes, it was performed in a unique mix on the television special ABBA In Switzerland, taped in mid-February 1979.

Worth every penny

When ABBA returned to Sweden, they did even more work on the song, adding one of its most characteristic sounds. Benny had recently bought a state-of-the-art synthesizer, the famous – and very expensive – Yamaha GX-1. Manufactured in limited numbers, it was an advanced synthesizer for its time, referred to as a “dream machine” because of its seemingly endless possibilities. After Benny had taken delivery of the GX-1 in the spring of 1979, it was immediately put to use. As he recalled, “I created my first sound as soon as I got it: the bass synthesizer you hear at the start of ‘Does Your Mother Know’. Then I thought: Worth every penny!”

With that distinctive riff added to the mix, ‘Does Your Mother Know’ was no longer a carefree boogie rocker but was evolving into something much tighter and metronomic. But the session musicians had originally performed the song in a rock’n’roll style, so drummer, guitarist and bassist (Mike Watson instead of Rutger Gunnarsson this time) were brought to the studio to replace previously played parts, adapting their playing to the new feel. The song was still rocking but would also work well in clubland. After further editing, ‘Does Your Mother Know’ was now down to 3 minutes and 15 seconds – half of its original length.

After all that fine-tuning, ABBA were finally happy with the song. And when released as a single, ‘Does Your Mother Know’ was a Top Ten hit in at least eight countries. It may have sounded effortless – but, as we’ve seen, there was plenty of effort behind its success.

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