The first single from 1980’s Super Trouper album, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is a classic example of making the commercial and musical best of a break-up (not quite on the same scale as Adele’s 21, but not far behind).
Like ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ before it, the lyrical focus of the song is the breakup of the band members’ marriage – the song starts in typical ballad fashion, with vocal plus minimal accompaniment, but when the rhythm section enters the song takes on an altogether different feel and becomes surprisingly danceable.
The unusual quantity of groove present in this ballad is down to the superb bass work of Mike Watson (the author’s opinion might possibly be biased), who also contributed bass to other ABBA hits including ‘SOS’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’.
One of the key features of Mike’s style is the feeling of propulsion that he imparts to a song. The bass part to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ begins with a staple of ballad playing – long tones in the middle register of the bass (there’s even a cheeky double stop in there) but as soon as the drums enter for the verse, Mike shifts gears. The use of varied note values combined with well placed rests gives the verse groove a sense of momentum that feels more at home on a straight-ahead disco song than a ballad – notice the classic trick of a crotchet on beat one of the bar followed by a rest on beat two to leave space for the snare drum.
The chorus is a neat variation on the classic ‘root-5th’ pattern; beginning each bar with staccato quavers and ending with a double chromatic approach into the next root note adds interest to the part without overplaying or venturing outside the harmony.