545. ‘I Know Him So Well’, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson

More balladry, as we continue into 1985. This winter has been very heavy on the slow dances. The closest we’ve come to a toe-tapper was ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a floor-filler…

I Know Him So Well, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 3rd February – 3rd March 1985

Except this next #1, while very much a ballad, has at least got a sense of theatre to it. The intro uses an intriguing combination of plinky-plonky synths and a distant guitar, with a hint of ABBA at their most bombastic (more on that shortly…) Then in comes Elaine Paige. And the second she opens her mouth, you can tell that this song comes from a stage musical.

Nothing is so good it lasts eternally… It’s the diction, you know. Enunciating for the back rows. Proper singing. It’s from ‘Chess’, a musical about, um, chess. Or more accurately, an American and a Russian Grandmaster who compete over the chessboard, as well as for the love of a woman. Elaine Paige is Florence, the Russian Grandmaster’s lover, while Barbara Dickson is Svetlana, his unfortunate wife (in the video Dickson is wearing a luxuriously fluffy ushanka hat, to confirm her Russian-ness).

Why do I enjoy this more than the previous chart-topper: another blockbuster ballad, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’? In that post, I complained about power-ballads which take themselves too seriously. Power-ballads are inherently ridiculous, and if an artist pretends they aren’t then they end up looking pretentious. And it’s not that Paige and Dickson are taking the piss here; they sing it beautifully. It’s more that any song that’s been wrenched from a musical and slapped on a 7” will sound a bit silly. In Act III of the show all the vocal gymnastics and power chords make perfect sense; as a single it’s very OTT.

The way the chorus comes striding in… Wasn’t it good…! is a brilliant moment, as is the change in octave for the More securi-teee…! line. While the way the two women intertwine their lines towards the end is how all power-duets should end. I can’t imagine that this was at all a cool #1 in the playgrounds of 1985, but who cares for cool? It also helps when your ballad is written by two of the finest pop songwriters of all time, Benny and Bjorn from ABBA, alongside Tim Rice. You can hear it in the little synth and guitar flourishes, and the chord progressions (it’s based on ‘I Am an A’, a song that the band played on tour in 1977 but never released).

Not only does ‘I Know Him So Well’ give us our umpteenth ballad in a row, it gives us our third Cold War chart-topper in the space of a year. The real world encroaching on the pop charts yet again… And before writing this post I had no idea I’d be able to link it with ‘Two Tribes’, but there you go!

Before we go, I have to reveal my most tenuous of connections to this disc. Barbara Dickson is Scotland’s most successful female chart act and, as far as I know, the only chart-topping artist to have attended my high school. While that was a good thirty years before I stepped through the hallowed doors, I can still feel the most tepid of reflected glows as I write this post. Anyway. Up next… Raise your glowsticks to the sky! It’s not a ballad!!


11 thoughts on “545. ‘I Know Him So Well’, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson

  1. Looking past the production (it doesn’t hurt this one)…this is a song that could have been made in any decade… I do like their voices in the chorus.

  2. Abba fans wuz robbed! Elaine and babs are great – cue their earlier fab hits answer me and memory. Both had tim rice previous. But this would have made an even better abba hit with frida and agnetha battling the duet. One Night In Bangkok was the debut chess single though. And terrific it is too. Murray head also has previous tim rice starring roles. And that bloke lloyd webber i should mention too! Murray is brother of buffy the vampire slayers anthony head – Giles. But surely sheena easton is the biggest scottish singer. Or lulu. Both topped the us charts and lulus chart topper is still to come in the uk…

    • Interestingly, I can’t think of an ABBA song where the girls sing a duet ‘versus’ one another, like this song… Though I’d defer to your expertise. As for Barbara Dickson, I think the stat referred to weeks on chart and number of singles and albums, rather than big hits. A slow and steady wins the race sort of thing… Of course Lulu and Sheena Easton had the bigger hits, especially when you take the US into consideration.

      • No i cant think of another abba song where they battle lyrics in a duet either! Albums babs certainly did well on not so much on singles and yes she spanned a good 15 or 20 years. Lulu tho had hits throughout the 60s and comeback hits in the 70s 80s 90s courtesy bowie disco shout remix soul revival album and singles plus hits with ronan take that bobby womack among many not to mention a 50 year career and writing a hit for tina turner. Love barbara dickson but lulu has a bit more edge reinventing herself and taking risks. She had a record at one time for most hit singles on the most record labels! : )

      • To be fair, whoever wrote Barbara Dickson’s wiki page could just be bare-faced lying… Wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m choosing to believe them, as she is a hometown heroine 🙂

      • And she kept her accent – lulu had hers poshed out of her as per all young ladies in the 60s who had a tv career though she still drops back into it when she feels like it. Poor old sheena moved to america got a USA accent and then got bottled when she did a Scottish concert. I dont think shes been back publicly since…

      • Lulu has what I’d call a ‘posh’ Glasgow accent… And yes, such a thing exists… That’s a shame about Sheena, and quite the double standard given Rod Stewart gets to happily prance around in tartan despite his very English accent…

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