Eurovision, the flashy original song contest that captivates Europeans, tends to get roundly mocked in the U.S., where we choose our stars by having them sing other people’s songs on TV in ridiculous costumes. Nonetheless, Americans have fallen in love with many a contest winner, and that’s no more true than in the case of ABBA, the Swedish pop-disco juggernaut who broke through to international stardom when they won in 1974 with “Waterloo,” chosen twice as the greatest song in the competition’s history.
The two couples — Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaus; Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — first formed as Festfolket (“Party People”) in 1970, and Ulvaus and Andersson began submitting songs to Swedish national contest Melodifestivalen. In 1973, they submitted “Ring Ring,” finally placed third, then released an album called Ring Ring as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida. They had taken on a new glam rock look and sound, and the album was a hit in parts of Europe and South Africa, but didn’t break the UK and US charts.
It was time for another name change, an anagram formed from the first letters of their first names. (They were obliged to ask permission from a local fish cannery called Abba, who agreed on condition the band didn’t make the canners “feel ashamed for what you’re doing.”) The name, producer Stig Anderson thought, would translate internationally, and the band would sing in English for their next single, the song that would launch their rapid ascent into seemingly eternal relevance.
How did “Waterloo” not only break ABBA into stardom but also “reinvent pop music” as we know it? As the Polyphonic video at the top explains, it did far more than raise the bar for every Eurovision performance since. ABBA brought glam, glitter, and theatrical bombast into pop, using Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” studio techniques to coax an enormous, enveloping sound from their vocal harmonies, guitars, pianos, horns, drums, etc., and taking heavy inspiration from English band Wizzard’s song “See My Baby Jive,” while “pulling back on the rock” and leaning into cleaner, more dance-floor-friendly production.
ABBA wisely put Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s vocal harmonies in the center, and they took a decidedly quirky turn from glam rock’s love of sleazy come-ons and songs about aliens. Originally called “Honey Pie,” the band’s breakout hit became “Waterloo” when Stig Anderson turned it into an odd reference to Napoleon’s surrender, “such a novel conceit for a song that it’s hard to forget.” ABBA continued this tradition in short story-songs like “Fernando,” first written with different lyrics in Swedish for Lyngstad, then rewritten in English by Ulvaeus as a tale about two old campaigners from the Mexican-American War.
Smart songwriting, catchy hooks, impeccable vocal harmonies, and flashy beauty — once the world saw and heard ABBA, few could resist them. But it took their uniquely theatrical (at the time) Eurovision performance to break them out, as Ulvaeus says. “We knew that the Eurovision Song Contest was the only route for a Swedish group to make it outside Sweden.” The win was huge, but the contest was a means to an end. True validation came with hit after hit, as ABBA proved themselves indispensable to wedding dance floors everywhere and “completely transformed what it meant to be a pop star.” See their original Eurovision performance of “Waterloo” just above.