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)
Singer Lynden David Hall – 7 May
Writer LTC Rolt – 9 May
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