“I Know Him So Well” — Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

I heard a lovely new version of “I Know Him So Well” recently, but the definitive performers will always be Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson for me. Their version was a UK Number One in 1985 and remains a favourite song for many almost 40 years later.

The new version (linked below) is by Amanda Holden and Sheridan Smith. Neither are top of my favourite artists list, if I’m honest, but they do a lovely job together and the end result is a credit to them both.

Of course it helps when you’re starting off with great material.

Written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba, together with incomparable lyricist Tim Rice, “I Know Him So Well” comes from the musical Chess.

It’s also known to Abba fans as one of the best Abba songs that never was.

Recorded after the Swedish supergroup broke up in the early 1980s, Benny and Bjorn wanted to get their teeth into something more substantial than three-minute pop songs. (As a fan, I’d say their three-minute pop songs were about as substantial as any musical creation could ever hope to get, but I can see what they were getting at.)

The result of their collaboration was the concept album Chess, which was later transferred to the musical stage in the West End.

Long before Anya Taylor-Joy’s worldwide hit Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, made the board game cool again, Chess was a Cold War-inspired story of intrigue played out through the medium of a chess tournament.

Slightly confusingly, the musical Chess had completely different versions for UK and US audiences — to protect the political sensibilities of Broadway theatre patrons, I can only presume. Portraying Russians in a sympathetic light wasn’t seen as a wise commercial move in Reagan’s America of the mid-1980s.

At any rate, the UK version of Chess was significantly more popular than the US one, and has stood the test of time in the West End in a way that its sister production struggled to do on Broadway.

“I Know Him So Well” has an intriguing dramatic premise. To be fair to Benny and Bjorn, this element of the song has the influence of Tim Rice written all over it.

As someone used to thinking about the stage presentation of a story, following his long and very successful partnership with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, this is a dimension more likely to have come from someone with a theatrical background than a recording artist.

Whoever’s idea it was, though, it’s not something you see often…and certainly not executed so well. In Chess, Barbara Dickson plays Svetlana (the Russian champion’s wife) and Elaine Paige plays Florence (his mistress).

As they duet on “I Know Him So Well” they sing about the same man from their own perspectives. Each has seen a different side to him, using another well-known theatrical theme of exploring the ways in which people present a different side of themselves depending on who they are talking to and their motivation in that moment.

“I Know Him So Well” is such a fine piece of work not only when Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson’s voices intertwine around one another…although that is especially lovely…but the fact that even in the solo pieces, actually either of them could sing the same words and they would still be true.

So much so that several artists have recorded “I Know Him So Well” over the years as a solo performance and the song works just as well…

Nothing is so good it lasts eternally
Perfect situations must go wrong
But this has never yet prevented me
Wanting far too much for far too long
Looking back I could have played it differently
Won a few more moments
Who can tell?
But it took time to understand the man
Now at least I know
I know him well

Back in their Abba days, Benny Andersson wrote the music and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote the lyrics. And I have to say that, for someone who isn’t writing in his native language, Bjorn Ulvaeus is a tremendous lyricist with a flair for expression you rarely see even in lyricists whose first language is English.

Quite how much of this verse is him, and how much is Tim Rice, we’ll never know. But whoever was responsible, this is one of the finest first verses you’ll ever find in a pop song.

As a story of heartbreak told in a few lines, it’s delightfully poignant, insightful and emotional, as well as setting up the rest of the story beautifully. It really is a lyrical masterpiece.

Part of the drama in “I Know Him So Well” comes from the recognition by both women that, even though they did everything they could, and everything they knew how, still, in the end, it wasn’t enough…

No-one in your life is with you constantly
No-one is completely on your side
And though I moved my world to be with him
Still the gap between us is too wide
Looking back I could have played it differently
Learned about the man before I fell
But I was ever so much younger then
Now at least I know
I know him well

Everyone who has experienced heartbreak will be able to identify with the day they woke up and realised the person they thought was “the one” wasn’t the person they thought and hoped they were.

Humans are wired to overlook the danger signs when love comes along. While our more rational selves might recommend caution, we dive in anyway, our hormones turned all the way up to 11, the surge of chemicals in our brain overriding our better judgement.

Sometimes it works, of course. And if it worked for you, that’s fabulous.

But often it doesn’t. And it doesn’t work often enough for masterful lyricists like Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice to make a very nice living writing songs about broken hearts, betrayal, longing and loneliness.

While I never begrudge an artist for showcasing their talent, and making a good living from it, I do sometimes wonder if the world could do with fewer broken hearts, and perhaps a bit less betrayal, longing and loneliness.

But that’s only when I’m feeling down and a bit sorry for myself.

When I’m in a more positive frame of mind, I realise I’d miss wonderful songs about love and loss, joy and heartbreak, togetherness and loneliness too much.

And, on balance, I’d gladly pay the price in heartbreak if that was the trade-off I had to make in order to hear songs as good as “I Know Him So Well”.

There are a variety of videos to choose from below.

The original Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson one comes first, of course. But the more recent Amanda Holden/Sheridan Smith one is there too. And, for amusement only, there is also a version with British comedian Paul O’Grady, as his alter ego Lily Savage, together with Barbara Dickson which just makes me laugh.

Whether you prefer it straight or played for laughs, “I Know Him So Well” is a fabulous song, written by a genuine all-star songwriting team, and performed beautifully by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, along with many others over the years. Songs don’t get much better than this…

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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