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‘Waterloo’ Brought ABBA to the World, Which Didn’t Know What to Do With Them

In honor of Will Ferrell’s ‘Eurovision Song Contest,’ we pay tribute to the show’s most beloved winning song — and the band that were popular before they were cool

Early on in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the film flashes back to 1974 — specifically, April 6th, one of the biggest days in Swedish music history. We’re in Iceland, where our main characters, Lars and Sigrit, are seen as children watching that year’s Eurovision finals. A group that derives its name from the first letters of the band members’ first names — Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — take the stage to perform their new song “Waterloo.” The show’s conductor, Sven-Olof Walldoff, has gotten into the spirit, dressing up as Napoleon Bonaparte, the vaunted French military genius who was famously defeated in Waterloo in 1815. Nobody knows it yet, but ABBA are about to become a global sensation:

In the movie, ABBA’s rendition of “Waterloo” gets young Lars and Sigrit up and dancing, triggering their lifelong love of music and Eurovision. That moment was also a pretty big deal for the Swedish quartet. They’d had hits before “Waterloo,” and they went on to write a few tunes that are probably more popular. But “Waterloo” is the one. It’s catchy, it’s a buoyant love song and it provides a nifty history lesson. What’s not to like? 

Before they were ABBA, they were Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida, a less-appealing mash-up of their names. Their 1973 debut Ring Ring had done pretty good in their homeland, as well as places like Norway, Australia and New Zealand, and its title track was a smash in those countries, too. The group competed that year in Eurovision with “Ring Ring,” but they failed to reach the finals. (Andersson had previously competed in 1969 with a song called “Hej Clown,” which also hadn’t made the cut.) Eventually rechristening themselves ABBA — incidentally, also the name of a Swedish fish company — the band decided to take one more shot at Eurovision. And so, in November 1973, Ulvaeus and Andersson holed up on the island of Viggsö, where they’d end up writing several ABBA hits over the years, to come up with something upbeat.

“Out there you can concentrate completely on one thing,” said Andersson. “No unwanted telephone calls, no recording studios, nothing. We write, eat and have a beer or something a bit stronger every now and then.” The duo laid down a few tracks they liked, but they didn’t worry about lyrics, passing the demo along to their manager Stig Anderson, who often figured out the right words to match ABBA’s cheery music. As demonstrated in Eurovision Song Contest, musicians from Nordic nations have to think globally if they want to win, which means singing in English. “I was looking for a word that wouldn’t need a translation,” Anderson later said, “something that everybody would be familiar with: something like ‘Ring Ring.’ I needed a three-syllable word that would fit the melody.”

After deciding that “Honey Pie” wasn’t quite right, Anderson (according to ABBA expert Carl Magnus Palm’s biography Bright Lights, Dark Shadows) started thumbing through his library, finding the word “Waterloo” in reference to Bonaparte’s defeat. Lightning struck. As Palm notes in his book, “[Anderson] completed the lyrics on the afternoon of that same day, using the Battle of Waterloo as a metaphor for a girl surrendering to the love of a persistent suitor.”

If ABBA’s men were responsible for the band’s music, the quartet’s women brought it to life. Fältskog and Lyngstad usually handled lead vocals, their voices expertly melding to capture the songs’ unrestrained emotion. The band members weren’t just creative partners, of course: Fältskog married Ulvaeus in 1971, while Lyngstad and Andersson were a couple, finally marrying in 1978. In the early 1970s when rock and pop bands were still heavily male-only, ABBA offered a gender equality that was rare. And with “Waterloo,” they’d hit upon a piece of gooey ear candy, complete with ringing guitars and pre-yacht rock saxophones. These were its opening lines:

My, my
At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender
Oh, yeah
And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way 

The history book on the shelf
Is always repeating itself

Waterloo, I was defeated, you won the war
Waterloo, promise to love you forevermore
Waterloo, couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Waterloo, knowing my fate is to be with you 

The Waterloo album hit Swedish record stores in March 1974. The following month, they were at the Eurovision finals at the Dome in Brighton, U.K., to perform the title track. ABBA weren’t the favorites — the competition, which started in 1956, had never been won by Sweden — but the band’s joyous performance electrified the audience, the women’s big smiles and Andersson’s honky-tonk piano too much to resist.

Afterward, Andersson was sure they’d won. “I had a £20 bet on it, in Brighton, at 20/1,” he said in 2018. “There were some good songs, but I did think ours was better. I was standing there, and I’m good at mental arithmetic, so I knew exactly the moment where we would win even if we got no more votes, and I told the others, ‘That’s it, we’ve done it.’”

Eurovision Song Contest hints at the outlandishness of modern Eurovision — with its flamboyant costumes and theatrical staging — but if you want a sense of just how varied the musical styles are on the show, this is Italian singer Gigliola Cinquetti, who wound up in second place that year with her song “Si.” (By the way, she won in 1964.)

“Waterloo” was the band’s first Top 10 hit in the U.S., although it took a few years for ABBA to fully catch on Stateside. The U.K. and other countries were way ahead of us in embracing the group. In fact, ABBA were so hot that their manager Anderson felt emboldened enough to suggest to revered Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman that he use the band’s songs in his philosophical, introspective movies. (“He didn’t say anything,” Anderson said.)

But by the time of 1976’s Arrival (and its single “Dancing Queen”), ABBA rode our disco craze to gold and platinum records. In ABBA’s history, only two other singles ever charted higher in the U.S. than “Waterloo” — “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me” — but they were all over the radio for the next several years, their final hit, “When All Is Said and Done,” coming in 1981.

At that point, ABBA were basically done. Both couples were divorced by the early 1980s — not that they wanted to dissolve the band because of that, mind you. (“At first we still worked together though because we knew what we had,” Andersson later said.) But then Andersson and Ulvaeus started collaborating on the Chess musical with Tim Rice, and ABBA were put on the backburner.

Not that ABBA ever really went away. Yes, as hip-hop, hard rock and New Wave took over the charts, the Swedish group’s giddy pop sincerity seemed dated and lame, but in 1992, the band put out Gold, a greatest-hits collection that became one of that decade’s bestselling compilations. (In 2002, it was certified six-times platinum.) Meanwhile, the charming 1994 Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding starred newcomer Toni Collette as an ABBA-loving insecure young woman. The film was a feature-length tribute to the band, their songs featured throughout — most memorably when Collette and her pal Rachel Griffiths perform “Waterloo” during a talent competition:

Writer-director P.J. Hogan had gambled that he could get the rights for the songs before filming — which almost didn’t happen since Ulvaeus and Andersson kept turning him down. (They’d had a bad experience with another movie, which had used their songs to make fun of ABBA.) But Hogan wouldn’t be discouraged. “I had their address,” he said in 2015, “so I was going to camp outside their offices until they saw me and make my case in person that I’m not that filmmaker and they would be proud of the movie. It’s a hymn to ABBA! Muriel loves ABBA, and I love ABBA. So my producer, being very smart, bought the ticket but sent a photocopy of it to Benny and Björn. And the day before I was going to get on the flight, they said, ‘Stop him, you’ve got the rights.’ … They did not want this crazy person hanging outside their office!”

The hit indie film only further boosted ABBA’s profile, as did the phenomenally popular musical Mamma Mia!, which launched on April 6, 1999 — 25 years to the date of their Eurovision triumph. The musical ended with “Waterloo,” and so did the 2008 film version, with the cast singing the hit over the closing credits. (In the 2018 sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, “Waterloo” showed up again.)

When ABBA were at their commercial height in the 1970s, critics couldn’t stand them. But as poptimism — the belief that pop music was just as artistically worthy as rock music — started taking hold in the early 21st century, ABBA began getting their due. As Aaron Berger, writing in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide in 2004, put it, ABBA were “[p]erhaps the first band to force rock elitists to take fluff pop seriously.” 

Suddenly, it wasn’t strange to see, say, Bananarama, do an adoring cover of “Waterloo” — or for film critic Owen Gleiberman to stick up for the seemingly “shallow” band, writing in 2018, “During the 1970s, they were the soaring expression of female consciousness in pop music, bridging the gap between the girl groups of the Motown 1960s and the rise of Madonna, who revolutionized the music industry — not to mention the world at large — in the early 1980s. Coming between those two eras, ABBA reigned as the Top 40 bards of feminine romantic desire and heartbreak and betrayal and devotion. And that, to put it bluntly, is why almost no one took them seriously.”

Between the success of the musical and the movies, it’s not as shameful to be an ABBA fan as it once was. In 2005, to celebrate the show’s 50th birthday, Eurovision asked the public to vote on the best winning song of all time, and “Waterloo” won. Last month, the producers held a similar contest — this time because the show had to be canceled because of the pandemic — and once again, the masses chose ABBA. 

That’s why it’s fitting that Eurovision Song Contest’s sweet, dopey aspiring musicians fall in love with “Waterloo” as little kids. The whole film is an enthusiastic celebration of melodramatic, go-for-the-jugular pop music, an art form that’s often laughed at for its lack of cool. No wonder why ABBA won Eurovision — they were the embodiment of its brazen, unembarrassed showmanship. Now both are beloved for the exact same reason they were once mocked. 

“Waterloo,” the naysayers were defeated — you won the war.