Oct 07

ABBA – “Waterloo”

FT + Popular108 comments • 7,977 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. 61
    Erithian on 25 Oct 2007 #

    Snif – compared to how Australia felt about Abba, we Brits just sort of didn’t mind them (as seen in Abba The Movie). Didn’t they spend over half of 1976 at number one in Oz?

  2. 62
    Snif on 25 Oct 2007 #

    That i can recall, “Waterloo” was a hit, then “Honey Honey” (re-released?) moderately so. It all hit the fan with “Mamma Mia”. The Oz equivalent of Tops Of The Pops, called Countdown thrashed it, and it was on for young and old from then on…at the end of each show there’d be a countdown of the national top ten, and the credits would roll over the music clip of the Number One act. It got to the point where they were playing Abba so much that they’d put something else on just to have a change.

    The movie was shot during their Australian tour which caused no small amount of uproar with the punters – standard concert ticket price back then was about ten dollars – Abba had the cheek to be charging fifteen (they were bringing a full orchestra with them, mind). Dark mutterings were heard about whether any act could be worth such an enormous sum.

  3. 63
    jeff w on 28 Oct 2007 #

    I’ve been away, and most of what I would have said about this (and The Rubettes and Ray Stevens) has already been said by others. So I’ll just add some personal reminiscences on ABBA.

    I have distinct memories of watching Eurovision ’74 with my family. It was probably the first year I was old enough to stay up and see the whole thing, including the voting/result. It may also have been the first year we had a colour telly.

    Some of my 70s Eurovision memories are conflated with recollections of watching “Jeux sans frontieres” around the same time (another EBU-sponsored inter-europe contest with a big scoreboard). But ABBA in Brighton were distinctive enough to stand from this blur of memories. Obviously in our family were ‘patriotically’ rooting for ONJ. But, as others have noted upthread, it was pretty obvious from the get go that “Waterloo” was a winner. And by the time of their encore performance that night, I’m sure the chorus had lodged so effortlessly in our minds that the next day my sister and I could sing it still.

    On the question of ABBA’s reputation before ABBA Gold and the surge in their popularity in the 90s, I can’t recall a time when they were ever not granted at least a grudging respect. I remember an occasion in 1979 (I’d have been 14 or thereabouts) where one of my schoolfriends received some ridicule when the conversation turned to pop music – which NB it had never done before then, that I can recall – and he cited ABBA as his favourite group. But he made an eloquent case in support, and I suspect our mockery was more to do with the fact that ABBA were so much part of the fabric of pop by then that it was more seemly in a teenager to support something a bit more dangerous. Secretly, we all agreed with him. The friend in question went on to become a huge heavy metal freak in his 18th year. (Hi Chris – you were a true poptimist before its time.)

  4. 64
    jeff w on 28 Oct 2007 #

    Oh and on the Richard Cook thing, which MC countered with a Robert Wyatt example – didn’t Wyatt himself argue the same thing as Cook circa 1982? I remember an interview with Wyatt on Radio 1’s Saturday afternoon magazine show – around the time “Shipbuilding” was released – where he bemoaned rockism and pointed out that most rock musicians can’t even write as well or play their instruments as well as pop musicians do.

  5. 65

    yes, to the best of my memory, wyatt has always been pretty rigorous about this — and he says it again the recent issue of wire

  6. 66
    mike atkinson on 10 Nov 2007 #

    (cf the AWESOME “King Kong Song” as played often at Poptimism)

    Mixes we’d like to hear:

  7. 67
    Geir H on 23 Dec 2007 #

    I don’t follow you when you say ABBA didn’t change pop.

    Surely, very few changes in pop will last forever – for instance, you don’t hear a lot of The Beatles in the music popular among today’s kids, but it isn’t like that means The Beatles didn’t change pop.

    And ABBA did. Human League cited them as a major influence. Same with several of the other early 80s synthpop or new romantic acts. Sure, synthpop and new romantics didn’t last, but they dominated the early 80s scene. And without ABBA (and Giorgio Moroder) it is hard to imagine synthpop ever happening.

  8. 68
    koganbot on 31 Dec 2007 #

    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

    Mark, if you ever look at this thread again I’d like you to elaborate on what the “it” is that people are trying to find a way out of. (Your sentence structure would make “rock” this it, but surely that’s not right; at least, I can’t think that the glamsters/glitterers thought they were trying to get out of rock; in Creem the idea would be, “We (the glitter-glam-punks) are the real rock ‘n’ roll in comparison to the Eagles” (which isn’t fair to the Eagles, but who the fuck wants to be fair to the Eagles?).)

    My idea is that this “it” here is like a Superword but without a word. So there is a general feeling that leaps from person to person and generation to generation that we want to get out from under something, but what that something is keeps shifting and changing. “Out from under something” is the quasi-permanent structure, but there’s the continual search for a something that one needs to be out from under.

  9. 69

    will do!

  10. 70
    Travis G.L. on 29 Feb 2008 #

    LOL ABBA is the Alpha Flight of 70s rock: to 90% of the population the native country is the whole point.

  11. 71
    Travis G.L. on 29 Feb 2008 #

    I think I get what Mark was trying to say, somewhat…’74 was still seven years before I was born, plus I’m an American, so I don’t really have a clue, but by then glam was pretty widely disseminated across the British youth, wasn’t it? But it was still a youth-sub-counter-culture wasn’t it, still in a state of insubordinate subordination (=rebellion) to the dominant trad Brit culture (as well as blues-rock-metal establishment, but that’s slightly besides the point). To hear Waterloo’s Suffragette City/1812 Overture hybrid (which btw is not at all f***ing cheesy; those verses are not only a mighty fine hook, they’re pop music’s Demon Drop), there must have seemed to be a sort of link between ABBA’s outsider status and glam’s. Plus the basic fact of hearing glam rock from Scandinavia must have been a (welcome or unwelcome) confirmation of glam as a sort of force that transcended the locus of aforementioned trad/dominant culture (but then again I wasn’t there, and Mark S’s professed ignorance about Waterloo’s affinities with Glam implies that most glam cadets were not really in a state of receptive awareness when it came to ABBA being a Glam ally) (which is prolley appropriate considering I’m not even sure that glam was even looking for allies in 1974, considering that according to Mark S, the nature of glam rebellion was not revolutionary-aggressive like punk, but much more like star-struck self-involvement?)

    Whatever, it matters not…

    You ever hear Eddie Izzard’s routine about the American Revolutionary War paradigm in American movies, where all the villains have British accents (eg Star Wars) and the friends/allies/mentors are French (eg ?????). I propose that all glam/punk/disco counterculture-revolutionary movies from here on out have at least one friend/ally character with a Swedish accent.

    In honour of ABBA.

  12. 72
    tim davidge on 4 Mar 2008 #


    A generous appraisal of this record might run something like this: “It’s a brilliant record – for its genre. You just have to like the genre.” But this jingly, tinny, overdone piece of bubblegum uses a dubious metaphor to boot. Am I the only one to cringe at the notion of a seduction resembling Napoleon Bonaparte’s last stand?

    Didn’t like it then. Don’t like it now.

  13. 73
    flahr on 16 Nov 2010 #

    I heard this *properly* for the first time about two weeks ago* and jesus, what a racket**! I got the impression it was some weedy synthstravaganza but no there’s that mentalist saxaphone, demented barrelhouse piano that’s more like “I’m Waiting for the Man” than anything else and the lyrics belted at top volume over it. Brilliant stuff.

    *I came into a load of HMV vouchers and felt I probably ought to go and get ABBA Gold. Also: a Bananarama best-of and two Pavement CDs

    **this was also my reaction to *properly* hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” for the first time. it is worth remembering that racket is ALWAYS a good thing, and i look forward to discussing this in more depth when we reach “Only Shallow”‘s 34-week stay at Number One

  14. 74
    Billy Smart on 16 Nov 2010 #

    “It is worth remembering that racket is ALWAYS a good thing”

    Flahr,Have you heard ‘Cumberland Gap’ yet?

    ‘Baby Jump’ might test this theory beyond its breaking point, though.

  15. 75
    flahr on 16 Nov 2010 #

    Billy – I have now and, er, blimey. Will listen to it a couple of times and probably post on ver appropriate thread tomorrow – truly, the music’s pumping & it gives [comment threads] new life ;)

    Am slightly afraid to approach “Baby Jump” though – I am not old enough for “Baby Jump” to have been the “Baby Jump” of the seventies but I am still wary of its power!

    “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.”

    haha can you say BRITPOP REVIVAL kiddies? :D (i am told that they study britpop in GCSE music these days. it boggles the mind)

  16. 76
    swanstep on 16 Nov 2010 #

    “Only Shallow”‘s 34-week stay at Number One
    Oh please, yes, yes………

  17. 77
    punctum on 17 Nov 2010 #

    If Mr Shields can ever get it together to assemble the deluxe reissue of Loveless, I wonder whether it would do an Exile On Main Street and finally get to number one?

  18. 78
    Mark G on 17 Nov 2010 #

    (i am told that they study britpop in GCSE music these days. it boggles the mind)

    You heard right: On a school visit in advance of Alice’s move up, I saw a sheet music plus dissertation of a piece based on “Britpop” standard structures…

  19. 79
    wichita lineman on 17 Nov 2010 #

    I’ve just put a link to the biggest racket on Popular on Lonnie Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man entry. It is truly astonishing.

    And there is contemporary youtube footage of ‘the Baby Jump of the 70s’ with grinning (German?) kids gamely trying to dance to it. The Mungos look rather earnest which I wasn’t expecting.

  20. 80
    Jimmy the Swede on 14 May 2011 #

    LOOK!!! It is Eurovision tonight and the Swedish entry is called “Popular”. Could win. Probably won’t. Enjoy it, everyone. If Eurovision isn’t a guilty pleasure, I’m a Dutchman (although a few generations back, I was!)

  21. 81

    I was excited by that, too! Sadly the Swede — the er other Swede — is declaring HIMSELF popular, at song-length.

  22. 82
    Jimmy the Swede on 15 May 2011 #

    There we are, “Popular” didn’t win and it’s all off to Baku next year.
    Yeah, fucking cobblers!

  23. 83

    Baku looks exciting!

  24. 84
    Jimmy the Swede on 15 May 2011 #

    Naw! I think it looks like the Mysteron complex on Mars which SPECTRUM destroyed, thus starting all that “we will be avenged” malarkey from the understandably outraged martians.

  25. 85
    flahr on 15 May 2011 #

    That’s no moon etc etc etc

  26. 86
    Lazarus on 9 May 2014 #

    If I may take the liberty of using this thread for tonight’s competition, I will say just two words: Conchita Wurst. The bearded lady singing for Austria has to be seen, and heard. It’s a song Shirley Bassey would have killed for. Kudos too to San Marino for making the final, and with a native Sammarinese too.

  27. 87
    Jimmy the Swede on 12 May 2014 #

    Conchita Wurst is a star without a doubt. And Lazarus is right, Dame Shirley would have nailed this song brilliantly. I watched Fraulein Sausage perform the song, which itself was more than a little suggestive, but then had to turn in, as I was up at stupid o’clock on Sunday for work. When I saw that Austria had won and the Russians were furious, I was more than a little pleased. Even ignoring all the bits and bobs, it was just a great song. The chorus is blinding.

    Before Conchita came the Polish entry which got top marks from the UK. I’m not going to bother to describe it. Suffice to say that it was most certainly to the Swede’s taste. I’ll never think of washerwomen in the same way again. Bloody magnificent!

  28. 88
    Andrew Farrell on 12 May 2014 #

    Tom’s written about this elsewhere (and I see the angle has also made the BBC news site) but it’s only the UK televote that gave top marks to the Polish – each of the jury sent it last or second last, so it ended up without any points.

  29. 89
    Tom on 12 May 2014 #

    There are an awful lot of Poles in the UK. (A rather snookering news story for the Farageiste, this one – EU immigrants hijacking our democratic Eurovision vote, but in favour of just-a-bit-of-hetero-fun, but getting overruled by The Sneering Metropolitan Elite etc etc.)

  30. 90
    Jimmy the Swede on 13 May 2014 #

    Yes, I should have mentioned that the top marks came from the phone vote but this award was countermanded by the “Jury” in the UK. Whilst I clearly do not accept the “EU immigrants hijacking our Democratic Eurovision vote” line, there is not a doubt in my mind that the “overruling by the Sneering Metropolitan Elite” holds some sway. I have no idea who the Jury members were, but it’s reasonable to suggest that had these all been rounded up by the BBC, they would have been either supporters of or mindful of the Corporation’s built-in liberal bias (which has been admitted by the recently arrived DG) and would never have supported busty, sexy milkmaids in a month of Sundays. There is something very worrying about this Jury thing. It’s rather like someone standing by a ballot box and then ripping up your paper if they objected to your choice of candidate.

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