348. ABBA (Bjorn, Benny, Anna & Frida) – Waterloo (1974)

I’m not giving you earth-shattering news when I point out that ABBA are one of the best-selling groups of all time. But here’s a few statistics to set the ball rolling. With nine UK number 1s between 1974 and 1980, they’ve had more than any other mixed-sex group in history. Seven of those number 1s occurred in the 70s, which is the most any single act had in that decade. They were the first group from a non-English-speaking country to have consistent success in English-speaking charts like the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Estimates suggest that their total sales are over 150 million. They’re easily the most successful group to have ever entered the Eurovision Song Contest, and ABBA Gold is one of the best-selling compilations of all time.

ABBA became cool again in the 90s, with their songs turned into the musical Mamma Mia! in 1999, before it was adapted into a hit film in 2008, spawning a sequel a decade later. In 2020 it was reported that they just might be making a comeback, though that could just be wishful thinking for a world turned on its heels that needs the pop bliss conjured up by Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid once more.

And yet despite all this – and I’m in agreement that Dancing Queen is one of the best number 1s of all time – a lot of ABBA’s output does little for me. I think a lot of it is down to the sheer overload during my 20s of ABBA covers and media coverage shoving them down the nation’s throats. Some truly awful acts were recording their songs, and they may have become guilty by association in my mind. Perhaps I will now grow to appreciate them more, as I work my way through their biggest hits?

Before I look at the song that first made them stars, some background knowledge, as the story usually begins with ‘Swedish pop group ABBA entered Eurovision and became famous’.

Songwriter Benny Andersson, from Stockholm, joined his first band, The Hep Stars, aged 18, as their keyboardist. They were known as Sweden’s answer to The Beatles and often performed covers of international hits. Soon, Andersson was composing original material for them, and scored his first Swedish hit with No Response in 1965.

While touring, occasionally The Hep Stars would cross paths with folk-skiffle group The Hootenanny Singers, who featured Björn Ulvaeus as their songwriter and guitarist. In June 1966 the duo wrote their first song together, Isn’t It Easy to Say, which was recorded by The Hep Stars. The manager of The Hootenanny Singers (and later founder of Polar Music), Stig Anderson, encouraged them to write together more often. Andersson and Ulvaeus became friends and would occasionally join each other on stage in their respective bands, both of which were fracturing by 1969. Their first real hit together, written with Anderson, was Ljuva sextital (Sweet Sixties), recorded by Brita Borg that year.

Also in 1969, Andersson submitted Hej, Clown into Melodifestivalen 1969, the competition to decide Sweden’s Eurovision entry that year. He narrowly lost out, but he did meet a singer there called Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and within the month they had become a couple.

Lyngstad had become a jazz singer in 1967, winning national talent competition New Faces and appearing on television with the song En ledig dag (A Day Off). She signed with EMI Sweden and in early 1968 while appearing on TV she briefly met a singer named Agnetha Fältskog, who was performing her self-penned first single, Jag var så kär (I Was So in Love). A few months later Fältskog met Ulvaeus for the first time. In May 1969 they met again on a TV special and fell in love.

In 1970 Andersson and Ulvaeus recorded an album together called Lycka (Happiness). Both Lyngstad and Fältskog featured on the LP, with the latter co-writing a song. The two couples performed together for the first time while on holiday in Cyprus in an impromptu performance for soldiers stationed there. That November they presented a cabaret show, Festfolket (Party People) in Gothenburg, performing material by all four, but it was panned, and further collaborations were shelved, but not for long, as Hej, gamle man from Lycka, credited to Bjorn & Benny but featuring all four, became their first hit in Sweden.

Ulvaeus and Fältskog married in July 1971, and began performing live with Andersson regularly soon after. The collaborations became more frequent, and in 1972 the Swedish hit People Need Love was credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Anderson had also encouraged them to make another attempt at entering Eurovision that year. They missed out again, but Säg det med en sång(Say It with a Song), performed by Lena Anderson (another Anderson!), also did well in Sweden, and may have even done well in the US had it been on a bigger label.

In 1973, they tried for Eurovision again with Ring Ring, a direct, catchy pop song with interesting production techniques designed to emulate Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, and English-translated lyrics by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody. This was a good little pop song, but Eurovision still wasn’t ready for them. Despite that, it became the title track of their first album, credited to Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida. Anderson recognised this name was a bit unwieldy though, and began referring to them as ABBA, using the first letter of each member’s first name. It was also the name of a fish-canning company based in Gothenburg, and the band asked Abba for their blessing. They said it was fine as long as they didn’t do anything to make them feel shame for the association. I’m sure they were happy with the way things turned out.

In late 1973 the group was invited to take part in Melodifestivalen 1974, and set to work finding a song. They considered Hasta Mañana, sang by Fältskog, but decided to work on something that gave Fältskog and Lyngstad an equal chance to shine. Waterloo, originally titled Honey Pie, was inspired by the nostalgic rock’n’roll sound of Wizzard’s 1973 number 1 See My Baby Jive, and the lyrics came from Anderson.

Waterloo was a brave move for Eurovision, as at the time, the standard template was to use dramatic ballads, sung in the mother tongue of the country being represented. From 1973, the language rule was lifted, and Anderson and ABBA knew if they could garner a Eurovision win with an English language song, they could make it big beyond the competition.

Recording commenced on 17 December 1973, featuring regular ABBA session musicians Janne Schaffer on guitar (he wrote the guitar and bass parts), Rutger Gunnarsson on bass and Ola Brunkert on drums. Swedish and English versions were recorded, with German and French versions recorded in March and April 1974 respectively. The French version was adapted by Claude-Michel Schönberg, who later went on to co-write Les Misérables.

I’ve a new-found appreciation of the fact Waterloo was something new for Eurovision, and I loved See My Baby Jive, so I should love the retro jive of Waterloo. The lyric is a clever conceit too – it’s a bold move to start a pop song in the mid-70s with ‘My my/At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender’ and to compare a historical moment with surrendering your love to someone. And I have always liked the way Andersson attacks the piano here. I just can’t love Waterloo, for some reason. I’d never listen to it by choice. One for the ‘admirable, but doesn’t connect with me’ pile.

But Waterloo connected like no Eurovision song ever had before with the public, or probably since. Credited to ABBA (Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida) in Sweden and ABBA (Björn, Benny, Anna & Frida) in the UK, it was released on 4 March, and on 6 April, they made history at The Dome in Brighton, rocking out in their glam rock-influenced outfits and huge platforms. The beautiful Faltskog particularly stood out – you could easily argue she may be the most beautiful woman to ever grace the pop world, without wishing to sound sexist. After winning the competition, ABBA partied all night in – of all places – the Napoleon suite of the Grand Brighton Hotel. Waterloo climbed the charts and a month later, they were number 1 in the UK. They also topped the charts all over Europe, and went top 10 in the US, but surprisingly didn’t hit number 1 in Sweden.

For a while however, it appeared ABBA could end up a one-hit wonder in the UK. Their second album, also named Waterloo, didn’t light up the charts, and a European tour led to cancelled dates due to poor ticket sales. Would ABBA become a footnote in 70s pop?

Of course not. Waterloo was voted the best Eurovision song of all time at Congratulations: 50 Years of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005.

Written by: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson

Producers: Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus

Weeks at number 1: 2 (4-17 May)

Births:

Singer Lynden David Hall – 7 May

Deaths:

Writer LTC Rolt – 9 May

Meanwhile…

4 May: Liverpool win the FA Cup for the second time with a 3-0 victory over Newcastle in the final at Wembley, with two goals from Kevin Keegan and one from Steve Heighway.

6 May: The inauguration of full electric service on British Rail’s West Coast Main Line through to Glasgow.

17 May – The Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force carries out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in the Republic of Ireland. 34 people died in the bombings, which were responsible for the single deadliest death toll in the Troubles

347. Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun (1974)

It’s another death disc! And one of the most famous, and controversial, as Canadian singer Terry Jacks’ loose cover of Jacques Brel’s Le Moribond (The Dying Man) has as many critics as it does fans.

Terrence Ross Jacks was born 29 March 1944 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The family moved to Vancouver in the early-60s, around the time Jacks first took up the guitar. He formed his first group, The Chessmen, when he was 18, and they gained quite a following in the area. He then formed, with future wife Susan Pesklevits, psychedelic pop group The Poppy Family, who had a big Canadian (number 1) and US (number two) hit with Which Way You Goin’ Billy?, written and produced by Jacks, in 1969.

Jacks didn’t enjoy performing live, and the pressures of fame resulted in him disbanding the group in 1972. He wanted to concentrate on production, and was honoured when his friends The Beach Boys asked him to work with them. The song he chose was singer-poet Rod McKuen’s reworking of Brel’s Le Moribond.

The Belgian songwriter’s theatrical songs were becoming influential among the counterculture, and singers including Scott Walker and David Bowie. Le Moribond was substantially different to Jacks’ number 1, musically and lyrically. The similarity in the chorus is clear, but Brel’s song is faster-paced, like a march. Jacks later recalled that Brel told him over dinner how he had written Le Moribond in a Tangiers brothel, and that it was about an old man dying of a broken heart, after learning his best friend was having sex with his wife. Brel had retired shortly before Jacks’ song came out, and six years later it became apparent he had been fighting cancer, which he succumbed to in 1978.

Jacks liked McKuen’s translation of Brel’s song, and it struck a chord with him, as he was losing one of his best friends to leukaemia. He flew to Brian Wilson’s house to work on it, with an idea of getting his brother Dennis to perform the lead. But Brian was in a fragile state still, and tried to take over the sessions. In the end, Jacks felt he had no choice but to walk out, and he chose to record it himself instead.

The first thing you hear in Seasons in the Sun is a guitar that sounds like it’s from a grunge or indie tune several decades later (which might explain why Nirvana eventually covered this), and Jacks’ vocal is unusual too. Combine these, and the cheesy organ, with the morbid subject matter, and you can understand why this song is so divisive. In fact, I can’t decide what I think of it myself. I used to like it, finding the lyrics, in which the dying singer says goodbye to an old friend, his father and daughter, rather moving, and of course, whatever your opinion, you can’t deny that’s a great commercial chorus. But listening to it again for this blog, I found the production offputting and a bit nauseous, truth be told. I preferred Brel’s original arrangement.

Having said that, it still has a curious appeal, is a better death disc than the number 1 that directly preceded it, and is better than the awful Westlife version, a double-A-side with a cover of ABBA’s I Have a Dream, which somehow became the final number 1 of the 20th century. I voted it the worst Christmas number 1 of all time here.

Jacks was as surprised as anyone at his number 1. It became the biggest-selling Canadian song in history at the time and has sold several millions worldwide. Despite the arrangement being his own, as well as the last verse, he missed out on royalties by not bothering with a songwriting credit. But he bought a boat and named it after the song. Jacks had another Brel/McKuen cover hit in the UK with If You Go Away, but that was his last success here.

As the 70s went on, Jacks withdrew from the public eye, and found religion while travelling around on his boat. He would occasionally produce other artists, however. He’s only recorded three other albums since the 1974 one named after his number 1 – in 1975, 1983 and 1987. His private life has occasionally made headlines – his first marriage dissolved, and in 2001 he was accused of spousal abuse by second wife Maggi Zittier, and the police cautioned him for improper storage of a firearm while they were there. Jacks has been a strong campaigner for environmental issues for decades and has won several awards.

Written by: Jacques Brel & Rod McKuen

Producer: Terry Jacks

Weeks at number 1: 4 (6 April-3 May)

Births:

Spice Girl singer Victoria Beckham – 17 April

Meanwhile…

6 April: A Swedish pop quartet called ABBA win the 19th Eurovision Song Contest at the Dome in Brighton with a song called Waterloo. More on that next time.

24 April: Leeds United win their second Football League First Division title.

27 April: Manchester United are relegated from the First Division of the Football League, where they have played continuously since 1938. Their relegation is confirmed when they lose 1-0 at home to Manchester City in the penultimate game of the season. The only goal of the game comes from former United striker Denis Law.

1 May: Sir Alf Ramsey, the man who led the England football team to victory in the 1966 World Cup, is dismissed by the Football Association after 11 years. 

2 May: The National Front gains more than 10% of the vote in several parts of London’s council elections, but fails to net any councillors.

330. Wizzard – See My Baby Jive (1973)

Lighting up the charts in 1973, Wizzard became one of the biggest bands in glam rock. Literally, too, as there were eight full-time members, creating an all-mighty cacophony of tributes to Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. They were also visually striking, an explosion of colour, filling the stage with outlandish outfits and make-up. This was all down to their unassuming genius leader, Roy Wood.

Wood, born 8 November 1946 in Kitts Green, Birmingham, was no stranger to pop stardom, having already been at number 1 in 1969 with Blackberry Way in The Move. Their story was covered in greater depth in my review of said song, but prior to that hit, Wood had first learned guitar as a teen, and was a member of various bands in and around Birmingham, the first being The Falcons. He later joined Gerry Levene & the Avengers, who recorded a single before splitting in 1964, then joined Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, later to become The Idle Race. Around this time he as expelled from Moseley Art College.

By 1967 The Move were a constant presence on the singles chart thanks to Wood’s ability to write catchy pop-rock songs with a psychedelic edge. By the end of the decade he was also their lead singer following Carl Wayne’s departure.

Wood was also one of the founders of the Electric Light Orchestra. He came up with the project with the desire to combine classical instruments with a rock sound, picking up where The Beatles had left off. After initially declining, Jeff Lynne of The Idle Race joined The Move on the condition they focused more on ELO. Originally intended to be a B-side for The Move, the epic, excellent 10538 Overture became ELO’s first single.

The Move were supposed to end in 1970, but contractual obligations meant both groups existed until 1972, which proved a pivotal year for all concerned. That March saw the release of Electric Light Orchestra, which would be the only ELO album to feature Wood, who couldn’t see eye-to-eye with their tough manager Don Arden. He departed that July. Wood decided to start a new project, where he could take his ELO experimentation up a notch and see just how many instruments it was possible to add to pop songs.

In addition to being singer in Wizzard, Wood played guitars, saxophone, woodwinds, strings, keyboards and percussion. Also on board were Mike Burney (saxophone, clarinet, flute), Charlie Grima (drums, percussion, vocals), ELO members Bill Hunt (keyboards, French horn) and Hugh McDowell (cello, synthesisers), Rick Price (bass), formerly of The Move, and Keith Smart (drums). Quite a set-up.

Making public Wood’s intention to pay tribute to the rock’n’roll of his youth, Wizzard made their debut at The London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium only a month after leaving ELO. They set to work on their first recordings, and debut single Ball Park Incident reached number six in January 1973.

In his excellent book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley noted that ‘Roy Wood loved pop. He was a superfan. He wanted to be all of pop, all at the same time.’ This is certainly apparent on See My Baby Jive, a joyous audio romp in which a million things are happening all at once. So much so, this song understandably has its critics, who say it’s just too much for their ears to cope with. Not me, I love it, and am fascinated by Wood’s production technique. I thought the reason Wizzard’s singles were so muddy and harsh was down to primitive technology of the time, but apparently he insisted on adding a ring modulator to mess up the quality deliberately. Despite the fact there’s so much going on, and it’s over five minutes long, the tune is so effervescent it seems to be over in a flash.

Wood was of course made for life when he made I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, and I’ve always found See My Baby Jive to be the Christmas song you can enjoy all year round. Try hearing Wood singing ‘Well every one you meet coming down the street/Just to see my baby jive’ and not hear ‘So let the bells ring out for Christmas’. So on that limited knowledge of Wizzard I wondered if this particular project was a one-trick pony. Then I heard their debut LP, Wizzard Brew.

All glam rock is indebted to rock’n’roll to some degree, and became more so as the years went by, but See My Baby Jive is a full-on tribute to the ecstasy of the dancehalls of the 50s, and was also a big influence on ABBA’s first number 1, Waterloo. But you could argue that Wizzard weren’t glam rock at all. If you listen to Wizzard Brew, you get what Stanley meant, and that Wood should be considered one of our greats, not just as a man who got lucky with a Christmas song. More on that when we get to Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad).

Written & produced by: Roy Wood

Vocal backing: The Suedettes

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 May-15 June)

Births:

Comedian Noel Fielding – 21 May
Presenter Dermot O’Leary – 24 May
Comedian Leigh Francis – 30 May
Comedian Iain Lee – 9 June

Deaths:

Painter Montague Dawson – 21 May
Comedian Jimmy Clitheroe – 6 June

Meanwhile…

20 May: The Royal Navy sent three frigates to protect British fishing vessels from Icelandic ships during the Cod War dispute.

23 May: The Matrimonial Causes Act changed the law of divorce in England and Wales.

29 May: The Princess Royal announced her engagement to Captain Mark Phillips.