How ABBA Won Eurovision and Became International Pop Stars (1974)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to ABBA’s “Danc­ing Queen” Played on a 1914 Fair­ground Organ

When ABBA Wrote Music for the Cold War-Themed Musi­cal, Chess: “One of the Best Rock Scores Ever Pro­duced for the The­atre” (1984)

This Man Flew to Japan to Sing ABBA’s “Mam­ma Mia” in a Big Cold Riv­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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