Oct 07

ABBA – “Waterloo”

FT + Popular108 comments • 7,978 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. 31
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    To accept Abba in the 2000s is arguably to accept the whole poptimist agenda

    Possibly that’s only plausible if you adhere strictly to liking artists who take an explicit aesthetic lead from Abba (naturally I have great difficulty accepting any agenda, since it is easy for agendas to stiffen into a dull, constricting new set of rules which the next generation will have to trash, thus we get people tying themselves up in knots trying to explain why they think e.g. Abs > My Chemical Romance or vice versa) and by doing so I think one runs the risk of shutting several million other possible worlds out.

  2. 32
    Waldo on 22 Oct 2007 #

    My, my… Abba won Eurovision with this in Brighton. Bearing in mind their subsequent undeniable deistic status in the world wide gay community, I can’t help thinking that God had been to Ladbrokes that day. You can bet on-line these days, Lord!

    I remember very clearly watching Eurovision ‘74 and seeing Abba and falling for the blonde (to this day I still get their names confused). Sweden indeed was the country of the moment, Abba’s triumph running alongside the beginning of Bjorn Borg’s astonishing career. I too was bitten by the bug and “running away to Sweden” was very much on the agenda in times of stropiness, although it actually took me another twenty-four years to fulfil this threat, having “run away” to just about everywhere else in the interim.

    “Waterloo” itself was a stonking hit and I knew it was going to win the moment I heard it, thereby surrendering a hitherto unswerving fidelity to Olivia Neutron Bomb, who sung the UK entry so sweetly. I think the dramatic Grieg-like use of the Piano during the hook gripped me most. As a sideline, I also recall hearing the Dutch entry (which actually charted here) before the contest and thought that it would be second behind Olivia. All this changed when Abba took the stage, the conductor dressed as Napoleon… By the way, let me now bury a myth. France famously didn’t enter Eurovision in 1974 and it has long been believed in some quarters that this was a petulant protest against the Swedish entry “Waterloo”, which was being sung in England and in English to boot (“boot” – geddit?). This is not correct. The Frogs actually pulled out because President Pompidou had just joined the choir invisible. Having cleared that up, if they had in fact entered, I don’t for one moment think they would have given the Swedes any points.

    Another footnote is that the broadcasting of the entry from Portugal provided a trigger signal for a military coup in that country. Remember, kids, this was well over thirty years ago and the Iberian peninsular was not as agreeable as it is today. Next door in Spain, one General Franco was still in residence. That lad was a wee rascal, was he not?

  3. 33
    byebyepride on 22 Oct 2007 #

    When I was growing up there were few records in the house which had been purchased later than my father’s university days. Those I remember: a couple of Wings albums; some stuff by Kate Bush, Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre… and Abba. I think Abba records may be the first pop music I can ever remember consciously choosing to listen to (my brother and I liked ‘Money Money Money’ because it was quite jolly – but he also liked the intro music on a flexidisc titled ‘Teach yourself Heath’ which I think must have come with Private Eye, and I definitely preferred the Monty Python comedy albums to (what I thought of as rubbish old pop music). [For reference, only non-classical music played ‘out loud’ was early Pink Floyd and the Beatles.] The point at which I can remember ‘pop’ reaching me from the public, as opposed to the private, sphere, it was M’s ‘Pop Musiz’ and Bucks Fizz, so I guess Abba could still function as ur-pop template in my world. Of course growing my ears in the 80s, I didn’t hear any music that I really thought of as ‘AH! This is MY generation’s kind of pop music’ until electro and hip-hop tinged stuff was charting: tracks that stand out looking back include Love Bug Starski ‘Amityville’, Whistle ‘Just Buggin’, ‘Hey You the Rocksteady Crew’, and then Beastie Boys, P.E., Cameo, RunDMC and Aerosmith, but also the early UK housey stuff. (Obviously I caught the ‘cool’ virus a few years later and my taste died.) So Abba have not only always already been there, but have also always meant specifically trans-generational pop to me.

  4. 34
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    To be fair, Abba were viewed in Britain at the time as a slightly more luminous Eurovision novelty, but a Eurovision novelty all the same – the follow-up (“Ring, Ring”) stopped at #32, the one after that (“So Long”) tanked altogether, and the one after that (“I Do, I Do, I Do” which frankly might as well have been the New Seekers featuring Hurricane Smith) struggled to #38. So it took quite a while before the Abba we know and love really got going; by ’75, Guys ‘N’ Dolls featuring HIDDEN EMBRYO OF NEW POP were giving them a fair run for their money.

  5. 35
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Indeed, a 1975 feature in Record Mirror lumped Abba alongside Mouth and Macneal as “Eurovision fly-by-nights”.

    Waldo – Eurovision, Abba and Brighton. Obviously three names with iconic status in the gay community *now*, but was it the case then? I’d have been too young to appreciate any link, but didn’t this predate the gay link with Eurovision, and when did Brighton gain its connection with the gay scene? I don’t know – any answers welcome. Certainly the BBC didn’t go in for sending up Eurovision with witty Wogan asides back then – the commentator was David Vine, also known for Ski Sunday and It’s a Knockout, who came out with phrases like “My goodness, he sold that song well!” – for the Portuguese entry. (Not surprising he did when you know of its links with the revolution. Odd Eurovision connection – the major who led the convoy of armoured cars into Lisbon was named Fernando).

  6. 36
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2007 #

    A few years ago Q magazine ran a feature about the pop scene of the time, during the heyday of Atomic Kitten, S Club and Westlife, saying there had never been a better time to be a 12-year-old pop fan. And I thought – nonsense! I turned 12 while “Waterloo” was number one, and at that time there was Sweet, Mud, Slade, Queen coming up on the rails, Rod and Elton…

    The older lad up the street was introducing me to his record collection – Purple, Sabbath, Zeppelin and lesser lights (never quite got Uriah Heep!) and his sister was introducing me to new feelings, albeit from afar – Diane Richardson where are you now? (A few years later I saw her with her new boyfriend at the same time as I heard Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and that line about pretty women out walking with gorillas – how did he KNOW?!)

    But I digress – anyway, for my 12th birthday I got an Alvin Stardust single (hmm, OK then) and Sweet’s “Sweet Fanny Adams” album. I wouldn’t trade what was around in 1974 for the S Club era – maybe there’s no bad time to have been a 12-year-old pop fan.

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Blimey, David Vine – was “Waterloo” “the one they’ll all have to beat” then (used on innumerable occasions by DV on subsequent snooker/skiing commentaries)?

    Of course, being 12 years old is always the best time to be a 12-year-old pop fan…

  8. 38
    mike on 22 Oct 2007 #

    (They were playing “I Do x5” in the pub last night, as it happens. “New Seekers feat. Hurricane Smith” is a perfect description!)

    1974 was also the first year that the Eurovision language rule was relaxed, which basically meant that countries other than the UK and Ireland could field English language entries – a rule which was then reversed a couple of years later (can’t recall when), only to be relaxed again in 1999 (IIRC).

    As for the overt gay sensibility within Eurovision, I’d say that it started gathering steam during the 1990s, with Sonia, Gina G and (most significantly of all) Dana International as key staging posts.

  9. 39
    Rosie on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Can I be really naff and suggest to ‘o sobek!’ that any point she is trying to make is completely lost on me because trying to read her posts gives me a headache.

    Tedious as it may seem, there’s a good reason for conventions like punctuation, spelling out words in full, and starting sentences with a capital letter. Not least because people like me who are old enough to remember Waterloo in its original incarnation are starting to need reading glasses to see the screen!

  10. 40
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    *other listings magazines are available*

    Additionally, your first sentence should have ended with a question mark rather than a full stop.

    Furthermore, as there is no qualifying clause in the second sentence of your second paragraph, it should have been linked to the first sentence by means of a comma or semi-colon.

  11. 41
    Tom on 22 Oct 2007 #

    I’m stopping this conversation right here.

    “Official” Popular policy is that people can be as correct as they like – if there’s a risk of not being understood, that’s a risk I’m sure they know they’re running!

  12. 42
    Waldo on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Erithian (#35) – Not for the first time in this blog, my tongue was firmly in my cheek with regards to the preamble to my comments at #32. I think the key word is “subsequent”, since I am unable to answer your question for certain and can only speculate. It is certainly the case that Brighton has always been linked with a bohemian way of life but I was a teenaged scally living in Stockwell in 1974 and have no knowledge of the town then. As for Eurovision, again without knowing for certain, its adoption as a “gay festival” seems to have been relatively recent but was almost certainly the consequence of Abba being similarly adopted. As a straight man, I am very much an unmarried marriage councillor here, if you get my drift.

  13. 43
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Tom – I know you’ve hinted before that you had a soft spot for the Jive Bunny trilogy of number ones, but I recall a quote from one of the guilty men behind Jive Bunny defending their right to use somebody else’s music on the basis that Abba were using somebody else’s language. Kind of set me thinking about the relative levels of skill and intelligence in (a) nicking bits from other people’s greatest hits to have one yourself and (b) writing 9 number one songs in a foreign language. I always thought Jive Bunny were loathsome.

  14. 44
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    “Guilty men” is right. Scab bastards.

    (in Dale Winton voice) But more about that when we get there!

  15. 45
    Tom on 22 Oct 2007 #

    I think “soft spot” is maybe overstating it, but we’ll get to those eventually. Top reasoning from the Jive Bunny dude though! Benny and Bjorn are among my favourite lyricists.

  16. 46
    mike on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Re. Waldo’s #42: I’m doubly blessed, being a) in The Gays and b) a committed Eurovision fan (I’ve attended the final in person on five occasions). To my perspective, the show didn’t develop an overtly gay sensibility until a) overtly gay-friendly artists started entering it and b) the mid-1990s Irish stranglehold (four wins in five years, lest we forge) was loosened. Post-Dana International, there was a spate of knowingly “camp” entries, many of which referenced Abba, with varying degrees of kitschy pastiche or respectful homage. Now that the Eastern European nations (for whom the Abba days are a barely known irrelevance) have started to dominate the contest, that period now seems to be in decline.

  17. 47
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2007 #

    But then it was won by Ugly Betty this year. (And Scooch were to Steps as Steps were to Abba.)

    The Irish stranglehold was commemorated by that cherishable episode of Father Ted which I watched again on More4 just last night. “My Lovely Horse” – the best thing the Divine Comedy ever did.

  18. 48
    Waldo on 22 Oct 2007 #

    Mike (#46) – I am grateful. Certainly the Eastern Europeans have got their claws into Eurovision now and bloody scary the android who won this year was, as Erithian says. Dear old Ken Bruce has actually suggested two contests, one for the west and one for the east. Doesn’t that just remind you of something? Yet, having said that…

  19. 49
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Oct 2007 #

    It does represent a culture shift, though – as discussed previously on ILM, however, my reckoning is that something like that will happen since the Big Shadowy Cabal of W/European countries who actually pay for the contest are already cheesed off about being routinely fenced out of the top ten.

  20. 50
    mike on 22 Oct 2007 #

    (And Scooch were to Steps as Steps were to Abba.)

    I do like to think that Scooch’s richly deserved belly-flop might have marked the final nail in the “Ooh, let’s make it a bit camp and a bit like Abba!” coffin…

  21. 51
    Billy Smart on 22 Oct 2007 #

    “as Steps were to Abba” – Whither Bucks Fizz or the little-remembered Deuce in this chronology?

  22. 52
    fivelongdays on 22 Oct 2007 #

    RE: Billy Smart – yep, this is an Abba song that doesn’t sound like an ‘archetypal’ Abba song.

    No coincidence, then, that it’s the only Abba song (OK, maybe, just maybe, Fernando…) that I actually like.

    And I remember Deuce. I used to chronically fancy Kelley O’Keefe (sp?) when I was 13.

  23. 53
    Steve Mannion on 23 Oct 2007 #

    ‘I do like to think that Scooch’s richly deserved belly-flop might have marked the final nail in the “Ooh, let’s make it a bit camp and a bit like Abba!” coffin…’

    Yes agreed although I’m not sure taking a leaf out of Serbia’s book is really a step forward either.

  24. 54
    Erithian on 24 Oct 2007 #

    We previewed this debate a little while back but haven’t got into it properly – Agnetha or Frida? I see Mike and Marcello both vote for the latter, but for me, while Frida was mighty fine, I thought Agnetha was possibly the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth. Especially in that “Dancing Queen” clip, although she wasn’t exactly the greatest dancer herself. Sadly, her outrageous beauty seems to have attracted very much the wrong sort in post-Abba years, rather a tragic story in fact.

  25. 55
    Marcello Carlin on 24 Oct 2007 #

    Why she married her stalker rather than report him to the appropriate authorities is truly baffling.

    Whereas with Frida you always felt that you could go down the pub with her and have a decent chat and a laugh, and in addition no one has worn jeans better than she, even though she is an actual living NAZI EXPERIMENT IN COLOUR!

  26. 56
    mike on 24 Oct 2007 #

    I also like the way that on the back cover of the Waterloo album – same set-up as the front cover, but with the band missing and old Napoleon left staring out of the window – Frida hasn’t quite got out of the way in time. That struck me at the time as quintissentially Frida-esque!

  27. 57
    Waldo on 24 Oct 2007 #

    “Why she married her stalker rather than report him to the appropriate authorities is truly baffling.”

    I’m gonna find out where that Welsh bird from “Torchwood” lives and jolly well stalk her!

  28. 58
    crag on 24 Oct 2007 #

    Blimey!I never noticed the(bleedin’ obvious now its been pointed out to me)Wizzard similarities before! Makes sense I guess since Roy Wood recorded a version of this very tune with Dr and the Medics in the mid-80s at the height of ABBA’s supposed irrelevance.

    Surely the weirdest thing about “Waterloo”(and IMO there was nearly always SOMETHING odd abt ABBA’s best tracks that you could usually never quite put your finger on- perhaps one of the factors why they were, in time accepted by the rock snobs of this world) is the contrast between the melody and the lyrics. Any song in which the verses are if anything more catchy and hookladen than the chorus instantly qualifies as a classic pop tune while the lyrics seem to be an admission of defeat not to the the power of love but rather to the realisation that to only pine for the romantic ideal often can only result in loneliness and unfulfilment. They are hardly of the “Hey Ive just realised you really ARE fantastic after all lets hook up” school of much 50s teen pop.Instead they seem to be about somewhat begrudgingly leaving the Mills n Boone fantasies behind settling for a grown-up “relationship” with someone rather less than perfect with all the disapointments and compromises this can mean rather wishing yr life away alone. The relentlessly cheerful performance says “hey, could be worse!” while the lyrics are firmly in ‘glass is half full’ territory. Optimism Vs Pessimism. The score is a draw.

  29. 59
    crag on 24 Oct 2007 #

    Blast! I of course meant ‘glass is half empty’ not full!

  30. 60
    Snif on 25 Oct 2007 #

    “” while Frida was mighty fine, I thought Agnetha was possibly the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth.”

    A lot of punters around this way were with you, but jumped horses when Frida straightened out her hair – go figure.

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