Oct 07

ABBA – “Waterloo”

FT + Popular108 comments • 7,972 views

#348, 4th May 1974

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.



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  1. 1
    Lena on 20 Oct 2007 #

    The beginning of time. I wish I could say something more specific, I’m sure others will.

  2. 2
    Doctormod on 20 Oct 2007 #

    As much as I despise most mid-70s music, I’ve always had a soft spot for ABBA. They succeeded where none of their European contemporaries did in breaking through in a field dominated by American and British performers, and if they “didn’t really change pop,” perhaps their quintessential “foreigness” in a musical form so determinedly Anglophone goes far in explaining why this might be the case–even though I’m not absolutely convinced that they haven’t had some lasting influence in some obscure pockets of pop culture.

    ABBA’s appeal lay in their ability to produce that oft-maligned thing, well-crafted pop. So did the Beatles, but, at the risk of uttering blasphemy, I wonder if ABBA didn’t outdo the Beatles in that regard. And despite their pronounced accents and occasional non-idiomatic English phrasing, their music wasn’t just well-crafted but also often more sophisticated lyrically than much of the sentimental or have-a-nice-day-smiley-face garbage du jour that comprised so much of 70s pop. I mean, how many songs–then or now–could turn a historical allusion into an apt metaphor for a love affair or, for that matter, paraphrase Santayana without being heavy-handed about it.

    And, yes, “Waterloo” rocks–then and now. I still play it when I need something to cheer me up. It transcends the decade that gave birth to it.

    A well-deserved “9.”

  3. 3
    intothefireuk on 20 Oct 2007 #

    No, No, No and yes, even No. I couldn’t agree less with Tom on this one. Waterloo is NOT a pop classic – it is just another Eurovision song which sounds – exactly like almost every other Eurovision song. Probably faster paced than some of the other entries that year but it has that cheesy euro-ness that the contest specialises in and gay community now revel in. If it’s a Wizzard rip off it’s a very poor one. Give me Wizzard any day. It actually comes across more like euro-glam lite. Visually they wanted to be glam too but Benny & Bjorn are more MOR. Agnetha & Anna-frid are something else though – they are stunning (although their dress sense was appalling). The record is ok but not the dawn of pop – not by a long chalk. A year later though, they’d turned it around and become more than this.

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Oct 2007 #

    Well, Popular isn’t quite let off the seventies Eurovision hook yet…the Argos version of Abba comes up in a couple of years’ time and not just the once either…

    Reflecting on Richard Cook, it was he who came up with the theory that “Waterloo” displaced rock and re-placed pop in the centre of things. It was very, very far from being as simple as that but the record does give the impression of something new being born – from the best elements of the old – and “Waterloo” could in extremis be considered the first number one of the eighties.

    However, it is worth placing “Waterloo” in the context of 1974’s other Eurovision entries since interest in the event was probably at its peak, such that four of the entries were big hits in Britain. In second place was “Go (Before You Break My Heart)” by Gigliola Cinquetti, Italy’s 1964 winner – a very strong ballad which in any other year would have walked it but which, when faced with Abba, suddenly seemed to recoil to another and immediately remote era (I can’t quite remember how and why Italy dropped out of Eurovision – Mike?). But the song peaked at #8 in our charts, as did Holland’s third-placed “I See A Star” by the hairy, scary duo Mouth and MacNeal, much more in the old Eurovision bierkeller tradition.

    The only one of the four to miss the top ten (symbolically it stopped at #11) was, predictably, ours – what a bipolar pop career Olivia Newton-John had in ’74; a huge star in the States with credible pop-country hits like “Let Me Be There” and the awesome “I Honestly Love You,” but over here still forced to be Cliff’s gingham nun and made to sing oompah-oompah dirges about Salvation Army brass bands.

    There isn’t too much to add to Tom’s excellent summary – yes, they took from Wizzard but made more clearly delineated pop (don’t know if that counts as necessarily better), and their “my my”s started my life. Even watching the Brighton performance now I’m pleasingly reminded of the time when I started to put away childish things – Agnetha in blue satin, fair enough, but Frida was my fancy; always seeming to grin and wink at the camera, not just in a fourth wall sense but also in a “see you round the back with the lemon jelly afterwards” knowing way. And Robert Wyatt on keyboards!*

    *to evoke a parallel life-changing strand of 1974 music

    Abba did change pop but in a gradual, osmotic way rather than a huge concrete block of influence on other subsequent bands – but discussion of those changes properly belong in the context of another of their later, landmark number ones.

  5. 5

    nothing to add analytically — but clearly as a response to this epochal moment in the british pop charts, when the shockwave came from the east rather than the west, my singles shelves (always rather wobbly and gimcrack) started listing alarmingly last night

    before there was a nail that kept them from collapse — now it looks to me like the only thing keeping the whole set-up from disaster is a

    “for the want of a PROG the SINGLES WERE LOST” — this is not even symbolism is it? we have entered the end-times i think

    (also, hi doctor mod, nice to have you back!)

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 20 Oct 2007 #

    My my! How fantastic a record, but how strange a record. It’s odd how – for one of Abba’s two most famous singles – it really doesn’t sound much like anything else that they did, to the extent where it’s omitted from ‘Mama Mia’, the package musical. It’s the lyric in the verses that I keep on coming back to. Although I know the record back to front, I never remember it quite well enough to sing along, and in its stoical recognition of the inevitability of unhappiness, it presages so many great things to come.

    Re: Nobody now sounding much like Abba or trying to, I was listening to ‘Oops I Did it Again’ the last time that I was at my parents’ house and my 79-year old father asked me “Is this Abba?”.

  7. 7
    CarsmileSteve on 20 Oct 2007 #

    now, where’s that stork icon gone…

    anyway, according to my GIANT BOOK OV EUROVISION Italy last entered in 1997, although that was their first entry since 93.

    not a lot to add from what tom says, think he gets it pretty much spot on

  8. 8
    admin on 20 Oct 2007 #

    a present. to get a stork, type:

    [stork-boy] to give you:
    [stork-girl] of course for:

  9. 9
    Kat on 20 Oct 2007 #

    I always used to put on ABBA Gold as teenage bedroom-cleaning music – cheery, energetic, rhythmic – it is excellent stuff to push a hoover around to. I’d usually finish off a few tracks before the end and be sitting down having a cup of tea, then suddenly the last track would take me completely by surprise: “Bum-ber-dum-ber-dum-ber-dum! MY MY!” After an hour of dreamy-then-disco-then-divorce the utter joy and bounce of Waterloo really stood out, and became a firm favourite of mine. Also, never seemed to suffer from over-playing (though I’m sure this wasn’t the case in 1974) compared to eg Dancing Queen. I’d give it a ten.

  10. 10
    Rosie on 20 Oct 2007 #

    Ah, the Seventies begin in earnest!

    Hey, I like Abba, and I always did, and I’m not ashamed to say so. My daughter – now 27 and a big Muse fan – loved Abba from a very early age. They did what they did, and they did it supremely well. ‘It’ being something not terribly demanding and yet never grating or becoming threadbare with time. The very essence of the age!

  11. 11
    Stevie on 20 Oct 2007 #

    I’m surprised you say that ABBA had no offspring – aren’t SAW and Max Martin, defining a kind of pure pop for the 80s and 90s, direct descendents?

  12. 12
    mike on 20 Oct 2007 #

    Well, I’m firmly in the Abba As Pop Geniuses camp, and would argue that their best work is a good deal more subtle and sophisticated than most people give them credit for; but then, part of their genius was to make it all look so easy, accessible, inviting. And there’ll be plenty of opportunity to make that case further down the line, of course. But even here, right at the start of their hit-making career, “Waterloo” stands as a classic example of a pop record that looks obvious – and, OK, cheesy and corny to some – but whose construction is anything but, as Tom correctly points out.

    However, as regards the “Modern Pop Music Started Here” argument, I require further convincing. Abba’s popular and critical rehabilitation didn’t commence until 1987 at the absolute earliest, and didn’t kick off in earnest until the early 1990s. I don’t hear much Abba in early 1980s New Pop, or if I do hear it (Bucks Fizz? Dollar? Propaganda?), then its influence remains fairly confined, and I’d argue that punk and disco were by far and away the primary sources for that particular explosion of creative energy. And I don’t hear much Abba in late 1980s Stock Aitken Waterman, either – those boys knew their limits, and again the primary sources surely lay elsewhere: Hi-NRG, Motown, house and disco.

    As for my reaction to “Waterloo” at the time, it was absolute, total, love: for the surging, all-enveloping joyfulness of its approach, for Anna and Frida’s (yes, and especially Frida’s) strut and sass, for the bold, brash daftness of the central conceit, for the scrunchy, chunky Wizzard-isms, for giving Eurovision a kick up the backside, for bringing a bit of glam back to the top of the charts… and so I played it and played it and played it, never tiring of it, then or now.

    In answer to the Italian Eurovision question, the reason given for their retiring from the contest was the overall poor quality of the other entrants – although I always suspected that the bloody nose which they incurred when hosting the contest in 1991 played a more significant part than they were prepared to admit. (It was a right old shambles, hosted by the woefully out-of-his-depth Toto Cotugno.) Besides, Italy already has the Sanremo Song Festival, which pre-dates Eurovision, and inspired it in the first place…

  13. 13

    marcello: “Reflecting on Richard Cook, it was he who came up with the theory that Waterloo displaced rock and re-placed pop in the centre of things”

    i think cook’s argument — at least as stated* in that 1982-ish review for abba greatest hits — was that waterloo at that moment showed that rock (as then was) increasingly lacked key things that pop delivered far better; but that it was a glimpse of another type of bliss, which was then struggled against for years

    but of course linking them into wizzard — a link i’d never made before tom did — and to glam proves that this shift in emphasis was indeed underway already… what abba i think HUGELY did was demonstrate that you didn’t have to be part of the extant social structure of rock and its discontents, to find a way “out” of it (which in a sense all the glamsters who were ex-brit-60s-kids were: isn;t this jonathan king’s complaint about the 70s?); you could — by virtue of being swedish — never have been IN it

    (ps possible enabling late-70s offspring: the buzzcocks?)

    *and it’s a deliberate provocation also, an argument about the way punk had already congealed into a machinery delivering yus (“us”) back into orthodoxy (interestingly, he was one of the writers least touched by the swerve away from orthodox group-rock in the months to follow)

  14. 14

    i know seem obsessed with him at the moment but costello is also abba-offspring — though he has many parents — and in fact pub rock always had a “pure pop” wing to it, disguised behind where they got to play (er pubs) and their geezer-esque demeanour

  15. 15
    mike on 20 Oct 2007 #

    Yes, I’d certainly agree with the Buzzcocks connection – indeed, I remember Pete Shelley praising Abba in an early post-Devoto interview, saying that he was toying with the idea of going out and buying their entire back catalogue. And then there’s the direct Abba reference in the piano line of “Oliver’s Army”, of course…

  16. 16

    actually the comments thread to me on oliver’s army covers the cook argt from another angle, maybe?

  17. 17
    Doctormod on 20 Oct 2007 #

    As to whether ABBA had offspring, I’d venture to say that the best place to look for their long-lost progeny would be in the place of origin: Europop. This realm is still ignored, to great extent, within the US/UK pop/rock vista, despite the existence of many interesting Euro performers from the late 1960s to the present.

    But another, perhaps more salient issue accounts for the seeming lack of “descendents.” ABBA were rather unique inasmuch as they were a band with women out front and men in the supporting role. (How many other acts with so much commercial success over that many years have had that sort of structure?) With all due credit to Bjorn and Benny–thank you for the music, boys–most of the appeal was down to Agnetha and Frida. The influence of 50s and 60s girl groups is more than apparent in their singing, except for one significant factor: A&F rarely divide their roles into high/low voice harmonies; they often sound like the same voice overdubbed, and it’s difficult to distinguish either voice individually, except in those instances in which Agnetha did solo lead passages (e.g., “SOS”). Girl groups rarely sang in virtual unison–a one-off example would be the Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy.”* In this regard, we could perhaps consider Bananarama the daughters of ABBA, as they, too, relied more on unison than harmony.

    But if one were replicate the ABBA sound, one would need two singers with similar vocal colours, not terribly distinct but nonetheless strong voices. This sort of pairing isn’t easy to come by–and it’s even more difficult to keep two singers’ egos from exerting some sort of individuality over the long haul. (Did anyone know how Frida’s voice really sounded on its own like until she made her solo album?) That ABBA kept it together for the better part of a decade before disintegrating amidst personal matters (rather like the signature group of the previous decade) is downright remarkable.

    *I’d been listening to ABBA on my iPod when I began writing this, but I had it set on “random” and–low and behold–“Soldier Boy” came on. (While I have dubious feelings about the lyrics, I confess to loving the curious vocal/instrumental arrangement, the result of a rushed one-take recording session. Thus it merits a place on the iPod.) Just listen to “Soldier Boy”–the echoes in ABBA are most interesting.

    (OMG–the iPod just switched to the Cardigans! Can one really deny the ABBA influences in “Love Fool”?)

  18. 18
    Marcello Carlin on 21 Oct 2007 #

    No, there’s a lot of Abba there (and a lot of Orange Juice as well).

    Possibly only their Swedishness qualified them (Sinker multiple xpost obv) since of course the components of Abba were active in the sixties as, essentially, the Swedish Seekers and, er, the Nordic Middle of the Road (Hep Stars!).

    I don’t think the pop-had-what-rock-lost thing fully holds up – where does Wyatt’s “I’m A Believer” come in then (unless as a last stand before Virgin bury the follow-up on a label sampler for being “too depressing” and then, bar Carla B cameos, disappears for half a decade before coming back on Rough Trade), not to mention the continuing Oldfield/Floyd nexus of what essentially are extended 12-inch singles (T Bells/D Side) a generation ahead of the Orb/Aphex (and I think the live Wyatt set from Drury Lane, Sept ’74, encompasses every aspect of the argument, Abba and sixties included)?

    (or indeed Alex Harvey with his free jazz/lad rock/Marvel/pub rock/pre-punk WTFness?)

    (or all the future post-punkers buying The Faust Tapes in ’74 ‘cos it was only 49p and learning WTFness from there??)

    (or Cabaret Voltaire, already active in ’74 and completing/lengthening the loop which stretches in part from the Crimson of Red???)

    or Todd or Can or but anyway.

    (or Waterman and STEPS?????)

  19. 19
    intothefireuk on 21 Oct 2007 #

    I’m obviously ploughing a lone furrow but I really think that ABBA’s subsequent success is clouding judgement here. The fact that they did eventually release some very good pop records does not mean that they started with one. I would also reiterate that for the 70s & most of the 80s ABBA were not lauded for their song writing or held in particularly high esteem amongst the pop intelligentsia. So I find the revisionist thinking here somewhat hard to swallow. As for even beginning to think they were better at pop than the Beatles or representative of the 70s is frankly ridiculous. I don’t recall ever being confronted with an ABBA record during any of the parties or discos I attended during the 70s & 80s.

    They were, however, very good musicians / writers, who, like all other good musicians / writers drew on their own influences and were able to filter those through their own experiences to create their own unique songs. Some of which were very good. It is more the case that rather than them being influential they were themselves influenced by the main pop movements of the 70s, Glam, Disco & Punk (ok maybe not Punk) and would incorporate those into their own music (e.g. Summer Night City). In fact I would argue that they were more noted for washing their dirty linen in public (through their music) than musical importance at the time of their major success. There will be other opportunities to applaud their musical achievements, although sadly we will miss out on my personal fav SOS, but Waterloo IMHO is not one of them.*

    * Although at least it held off ‘Remember you’re a Womble’. Elsewhere in the chart, Genesis disgust the prog mafia by having the audacity to have a hit single, the wonderfully titled ‘I Know What I Like’, and, in my best James Saville Esq voice, ‘open brackets, in your wardrobe, close brackets, no points if you didn’t get that, you see’.

  20. 20
    Marcello Carlin on 21 Oct 2007 #

    Abba were laughed at critically for most of that period for well known reasons which were in equal part due to snobbery and misogyny (since the majority of the Abba record buying demographic were FEMALE) so I don’t think we need waste too much of what’s left of our lives on the weighted, vested opinions of that period’s “pop intelligentsia.”

    I believe Gary Glitter records were very popular in discos and with critics during that same period.

  21. 21
    intothefireuk on 21 Oct 2007 #

    …and of course the modern critic is far more enlightened…..

    Not convinced we can entirely lay the blame at snobbery & misogyny’s doorstep. They just weren’t cool or trendy until the 90’s. Were it not for the critical turnaround they would be perfect guilty pleasure material.

    Glitter would be a 70s phenomenon if his PC hadn’t bust. Or perhaps if he’d actually been normal.

  22. 22
    mike on 21 Oct 2007 #

    Well, generational issues come into play here. Plenty of people signficantly older than me liked Abba, and plenty of people younger than me liked Abba, but during their peak commercial period (say 1976-80) I was of that age where the cool factor becomes all-important. As Abba weren’t questioning anything (at least not outside their own personal lives, which they questioned with immense skill), and as they weren’t pushing at the sort of musical boundaries which most of us felt should be strenuously pushed against, and as they wore sensible chain-store clothes and quoted the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac (AHA!) as influences, they could be dismissed – by precisely the generation of musicians and critics whose views held the most sway at the time, hence that illusion of “by everyone” – as bland and timid, corny and reactionary.

    To accept Abba in the 2000s is arguably to accept the whole poptimist agenda (although these are not arguments in which I am ever minded to partake, it has to be said). Hence the Abba Changed Everything paradigm…?

  23. 23
    Tom on 21 Oct 2007 #

    I can’t ever remember not liking ABBA – but I certainly didn’t think about them much in the mid-late 80s, there was other stuff going on.

  24. 24
    Tom on 21 Oct 2007 #

    The thing about “Waterloo” as a couple of people have pointed out is that while it’s pretty typical of the sound the band were using at the time (cf the AWESOME “King Kong Song” as played often at Poptimism) it doesn’t sound much like the records that drove their fame in the second half of the decade. In fact it could easily be a one-hit-wonder so while I’m happy for ABBA to be the centre of my ideal of pop (and they are, more or less) I agree with intothefire that this isn’t exactly the startpoint for it. (I disagree with him that this is anything less than a stellar record, obviously.)

  25. 25
    Rosie on 21 Oct 2007 #

    Who says Abba weren’t cool or trendy until the 90s? What happened in the 90s? I’m not sure that the circles I moved in called themselves ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ but they were never afraid of playing Abba alongside a whole raft of other stuff. Including Floyd, Genesis, Soft Machine, Miles Davis, Verdi, Gershwin and all points on the Red line via Jacques Brel and Bizet to Erasmus.

  26. 26
    mike on 21 Oct 2007 #

    Ah “King Kong Song” – that was my clear favourite on the Waterloo album at the time, although my favourite moment (or moments) were the strange, almost sampled, Slade-style crowd-clapping noises that briefly featured in the bridge sections of “Honey Honey”.

  27. 27
    mike on 21 Oct 2007 #

    Oh, I think it’s quite simple what happened in the 1990s; the rolling cycle of acceptable revivalism (10 years ago = hideous; 20 years ago = cool; 30 years ago = classic) reached the 1970s, that’s all.

  28. 28
    o sobek! on 21 Oct 2007 #

    obv abba crit rep rised during the 90s – an entry in spin’s alt record guide, u2 covering ‘dancing queen’, w/ muriel’s wedding and GOLD helping breed a new generation of fans – but it existed (even stateside where rockism has a firmer grip) in some form beforehand at least enough for xgau to argue against the ‘abba are pure pop at it’s best’ line and lester bangs to wear the t-shirt w/ some contrarian (and yeah ironic, but probably as ‘ironic’ to skeptics as his count five fandom) pride. while there are more obv paths to abba than paths from them i’d say they’re definitely there – max martin, saw, europop the key ones but also (as he’d tell you again and again) stephin merritt who definitely holds abba as a model (THE model perhaps)(though his work rarely bears this fruit – the most abbaesque mag fields song that comes to mind is (ilx poll winning) ‘all my little words’ (and there only in the chorus)), and commonly drops them as what he means by ‘Pop’ (many many indie acts who say ‘Pop’ mean ‘abba’), a friend of mine interviewed him circa 69 love songs and he bleated on and on about how we need abba more than ever and how nothing like abba could chart now (er, then) due to radio being overrun w/ african american music (mind you a*teens were top ten at the time w/ an album of abba covers)(sasha frere-jones can cover the rest).

    anyhow a very solid ’10′ for me.

  29. 29
    o sobek! on 21 Oct 2007 #

    also re: new europe and abba there’s a milan kundera essay (in testaments betrayed maybe?) where he rails against rock music for being too ecstatic and only capable of ecstasy (and false ecstasy at that)(i recall ‘irony’ and ‘guilty pleasure’ entering the discussion here also). it’s been at least ten years since i’ve read it but i’m pretty sure he was definitely speaking of Rock acts (i remember him writing of rock concerts w/ a repulsion that mirrors jack chick’s), ie. (ironically?) the same sincere ‘real’ music rockists would hold as an alternative to guilty pleasure abba. mind you as ecstatic a record as ‘waterloo’ is (the trumpet’s blare of ‘she loves you”s chorus extended to a full song and turned into ‘you love me yeah yeah yeah’) i’m sure milan kundera would HATE it. his loss.

  30. 30
    Lena on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Kundera is a TOOL (as p^nk lord has said elsewhere).

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