One of the odd things about ABBA is that they didn’t really change pop. They are still widely loved and more widely bought, but nobody now sounds much like them, or tries to. They are the giant pandas of pop, world-famous symbols viewed with immense affection, but incredibly bad at actually breeding.
ABBA’s lack of impact beyond themselves is no reflection on their quality, or even their craftsmanship – we don’t build pyramids much these days either, but Cheops is still a wonder. And anyway there’s one area where ABBA did change everything. For the European Song Contest “Waterloo” is a year zero event – it brought Eurovision crashing into current pop, so effectively that it cut it off from the future. I’d say it took the contest more than twenty years to recover from this song, and even now ABBA-likes still enter and hope to grub up points from the dwindling nostalgists who think big melodies and bigger costumes are what Eurovision “should be about”. (A crucial Old Europe/New Europe divider – the former East didn’t know or care much about ABBA). Actually if you look at the contest performance now, the costume clash is ugly – Agnetha in a blue air-hostess outfit and Frida as some kind of gypsy farm girl. They’re also incredibly diffident, unco-ordinated dancers at this stage. But it doesn’t matter.
“Waterloo” is six months behind the Wizzard records that inspired it, but a six month time lag was still shockingly modern for Eurovision. And also, with all respect to Roy Wood, “Waterloo” is better pop than those tracks – tighter, higher-impact, zeroing in on its best ideas and using them to awesome effect. Ideas like the revved-up intro and the double beat at the start of the verse – “My my” – d-dum, a crisp guitar sound – “at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” – an intriguing opening line, grabbing the audience at once (and how very ABBA that diffident “quite” in “quite a similar way” is).
The real glory of “Waterloo”, though – one of the finest 30-second passages in all of pop – is the second verse. The backing “aaaaa-aaaahs” that lead into it; the thunderclap return of the double beat, now pumped and piano-ed up, the ice-clear enunciation on “I tried to hold you back but you were stronger” (this bit of the melody is the song’s best hook), and then, after “giving up the fight” those ecstatic descending surrendering chords. The second half of “Waterloo” is the straightest Wizzard-lift, a really good rock and roll knees-up, but those thirty seconds, so stuffed with life and confidence and flamboyance – thats why I listen to this stuff in the first place.
And then they disappeared, as soon as they’d come, and the Seventies shrugged, forgot Eurovision and got on with it.