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Songs of ’74: ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ Brings Pop Perfection to an Unsuspecting World – best news

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When ABBA took the stage at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, few outside Sweden had any idea who they were. A little short of three minutes later, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were on a road to superstardom that has only been matched by a handful of artists in music history.

“Waterloo” – a song that not only used the highly-unlikely device of the defining battle of the Napoleonic Wars as a metaphor for a love affair, but also did so in the writers’ second language and during what was supposed to be a celebration of European harmony – was the eighth of 17 songs performed at the Brighton Dome that year. (Sadly, France had pulled out of the contest after the death of President Georges Pompidou; it would have been interesting to see how they would have voted.)

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ABBA – stars from the moment they took the Eurovision stage.

From the ringing, insistent opening D chord and the genius/ridiculous first line, “My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way…” (historians and pedants will of course be aware that Napoleon did not surrender at Waterloo, but the following month, at the port of Rochefort), to the full-on glamtastic outfits they wore, ABBA were stars from the moment they took the stage. The irresistible energy, supreme catchiness and sheer joie de vivre of the song effectively signaled the end of that year’s competition, and “Waterloo” easily won the vote.

Sure, the song was bubblegum pop – but it was bubblegum pop written and performed to an astonishing standard. ABBA did not come across like a bunch of ingenuous European wannabes; they looked, and sounded, like a seasoned stadium act hitting their mid-career high.

Perhaps because, in a sense, that’s what they were. In Sweden at least, the four band members were already household names.

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Each of ABBA’s four members had enjoyed individual success in Sweden before winning Eurovision.

In the decade before “Waterloo”, both Benny and Björn had enjoyed success in their homeland, the former as a member of The Hep Stars – nicknamed “the Swedish Beatles” – and Björn as frontman for popular Scandi folk-skiffle group The Hootenannny Singers. Anni-Frid had scored Swedish No. 1 singles in 1971 and 1972, and Agnetha had released no fewer than four solo albums. By 1970 the four artists had begun performing together as a kind of Scandi supergroup, and in 1973 had their sights set far beyond anything the brightest lights and biggest venues of Stockholm or Gothenburg had to offer.

The only question was how to actually do it. Being the biggest fish in Scandinavia’s scarcely-stocked pond was all well and good… But in the early 1970s at least, internationally successful pop acts from outside the U.K. or America were almost hopelessly rare – and the fact that all four members had enjoyed Swedish hits without ever being noticed outside their home country was testament to the truth that domestic success alone was never going to lead to global sales.

The Eurovision Song Contest, on the other hand, was a genuine platform to the world. The contest was broadcast to all 17 participating countries, as well as another 15 territories worldwide, and simultaneously aired live on the radio to at least nine nations… providing a potential audience of up to 500 million people. Winning would be a bonus – but even getting noticed might be enough.

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‘Waterloo’ would provide the platform for world domination.

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“Waterloo” was not ABBA’s first shot at Eurovision glory. The previous year, calling themselves simply Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anna-Frid, they had entered the Swedish heats with “Ring Ring”, losing out to a duo called The Nova, who eventually achieved a respectable fifth place and promptly sank without trace.

“Ring Ring” may not have been deemed good enough to represent Sweden in 1973, but it became a huge hit at home nonetheless, resulting in ABBA becoming the biggest selling act in Sweden that year. It made perfect sense that for the April ‘74 Contest, they should be put forward again. Benny and Björn, along with songwriting partner Stig Anderson, wrote “Waterloo” specifically with Eurovision in mind, and this time they sailed through the domestic heats.

On April 6, 1974, now renamed ABBA, the quartet bounded onto the stage at Brighton, and turned in a performance for the ages.

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If there was a specific plan behind “Waterloo”, it succeeded beyond even Benny and Björn’s expectations. After winning Eurovision, the song became a worldwide smash, entering the British charts two weeks later and climbing to No. 1 two weeks after that. It also topped the charts in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa and made the Top 3 in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Spain, and the Top 10 in Australia, Canada, and the United States.

The following year, ABBA topped the British charts again with “Mamma Mia”, and reached No. 6 with “SOS”, and by 1976 were arguably the biggest pop band on the planet, with “Dancing Queen” hitting No. 1 in 17 countries, including the U.K. and U.S.

Fifty years after anyone outside Sweden first heard “Waterloo”, ABBA remain one of the best-selling music artists in history, just behind Barbra Streisand and above Frank Sinatra, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart and the Bee Gees. And it was all arguably down to two minutes and 42 seconds of pure pop brilliance.

As Record World drolly noted at the time: “Napoleon’s downfall shall be this act’s victory”.

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