Oct 07

ABBA – “Waterloo”

FT + Popular109 comments • 8,717 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. 91
    Tom on 13 May 2014 #

    The Jury members in every country are public knowledge now! They’re all music biz/entertainment pros – vocal coaches, choreographers, session musicians, DJs, etc. Nobody famous.

    I broadly agree about Juries. Across Europe, Conchita Wurst would still have won on a public vote (in fact, by a few more points), and the milkmaids would have meant we’d have had a far harder time getting all nationalistic about how “we” are more tolerant than those bigoted Eastern Europeans – Conchita placed in the Top 5 across Eastern Europe and did well in Russia too, it was the Juries in places like Russia, Azerbaijan etc that pushed her down the ranking, not the public. So some grist there to the argument that juries reflect (purposely or not) the implicit state position.

    (The other strong anti-jury argument is that, cross-continent, the track that would have benefited most from them was the godawful Malta Mumford & Sons imitation. Down with This Sort Of Thing.)

  2. 92
    Andrew Farrell on 13 May 2014 #

    Ripping up your ballot is a bit strong – every vote cast still sent its recipient higher.

  3. 93
    Andrew Farrell sent back from the future on 13 May 2014 #

    Arguably the Eurovision is in that way more democratic than democracy, where you vote for someone and hope they do what you want – though of course that’s because the desired effect is ‘elect someone’ in Eurovision and ‘do what I want’ in the real world – I think we’d all agree that the world would be more interesting if the Eurovision prize included a ‘for the next year, enact one policy of your choice across Europe’ voucher.

    Also I put it to you, Mr The Swede, that what you’re annoyed about is that industry professionals neglected to ignore the fact that the Polish entry was a fvcking terrible song in favour of the presence of busty washerwomen (and the jury’s vote was apparently based on the dress rehearsal the day before – who can say whether there may have been a chill in the studio then?)

    There’s another argument of course about whether Curvy Lasses 4 U has any place in 2014 but eh perhaps for another time.

  4. 94
    Tom on 13 May 2014 #

    As a song, I liked the Polish entry: chaotic shouting and boshing, tick VG. Mind you I voted for “Moustaches” by France, which was along similar lines and rejected by juries and public alike. Quelle dommage!

    There is a power imbalance between juries and public even beyond the 5 people vs millions thing, though. Public opinion, in Eurovision, only counts if it’s positive – people vote for the things they like. But the juries’ opinion on every song counts, so they can also punish as well as reward performances (like the Poles in the UK and Ireland). This imbalance could be corrected by allowing the public to downvote as well as upvote – but obviously this would most likely poleaxe Eurovision’s growing reputation as a forum for the celebration of difference. On balance, I still think getting rid of juries again would be a good idea.

  5. 95

    yes, they’re only an “elite” in the sense that they’re professionally involved in music (which in a music-related competition ought to function as a good kind of elite): not entirely different in kind to the role the panel plays in x-factor or the voice (except they’re not famous)

    it’s surely not beyond the wit of erm someone to gamify this division more effectively (at a national level i mean): given that popular and professional perspective diverge, turn choosing our entrant into a talent-show drama between these two perspectives?

    if you could peer past the presentation to the song shorn of visuals, the polish entry was the higher jedwardism and none the worse for that

  6. 96

    the french performance on the night was quite poor compared to the recording — scruffy chaos drowned out precision wackiness — and i think they were probably marked down for that: not living up to an anticipated enjoyment

    (though of course i don’t know what proportion of voters aside from kat have watched the videos with any rigour)

  7. 97
    Chelovek na lune on 13 May 2014 #

    I thought Italy were the best of a pretty poor batch this year – a relative of Suzi Quatro and Pat Benatar providing a soundtrack for a car chase across the Apennines in a movie… Had I been ranking the lot of em, France would definitely have been placed last, though, with Iceland not much above them and (yes) Austria somewhere way down the table too…

  8. 98
    Jimmy the Swede on 13 May 2014 #

    #92, #93 – Hello Andrew F. I’m inclined to agree with Tom. I thought the Polish song was good too, although it was certainly embellished for me in the most pleasant way with the milkmaid/washerwoman routine on the floor. I can’t deny that. You are of course perfectly entitled to opine that the song was “fvcking terrible”. Might I suggest that many who would agree with you think just that exactly because of the goings-on of those lovely girls? And as for the “argument about whether Curvy Lasses 4 U has any place in 2014 “, my answer is a resounding “yes” in the same way that there will always be a place for trannies with beards too.

    I’m delighted I have an ally in Tom regarding Juries.

  9. 99
    Andrew Farrell on 13 May 2014 #

    I agree with Tom – mandatory multi-preference transferable ballots as a prerequisite of citizenship for the next year.

  10. 100
    Ed on 13 May 2014 #

    Surely, to borrow from the US presidential election system, what we should be doing is electing our juries?

  11. 101
    Andrew Farrell on 13 May 2014 #

    #98 – oh fuck off: when I saw that a song is terrible what I mean is that I think it’s terrible, and (possibly mistakenly) assume that others may reasonably agree, not that I quite like it but that I (and others) will claim to dislike it because bosoms.

  12. 102
    Tom on 13 May 2014 #

    #98 – Glad we agree on Eurojuries, JTS! But can we avoid the word “tranny” in comment threads here? I know you didn’t mean it as offensive but it’s a slur on trans people and I’d rather not have it on my site. Thanks!

  13. 103
    Jimmy the Swede on 13 May 2014 #

    #101 – I’m not going to reciprocate your abuse. We’ll just have to disagree, won’t we, and leave it at that.

    #102 – Yes, Tom. Naturally I acknowedge my error. Cheers.

  14. 104
    hectorthebat on 30 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 37
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1970s (2008)
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 86
    Helsingin Sanomat (Finland) – 50th Anniversary of Rock (2004)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 27
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)

  15. 105
    Lazarus on 13 Sep 2016 #

    Watching a doc on ABBA on Sky Arts this evening, and looking up this entry (which I haven’t done for a long time, and possibly never from page one) an obvious thought has just occurred to me, which surely must have been mentioned here before. The second place to ‘Waterloo’ was indeed taken by Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Go (Before You Break My Heart)’ and Britain’s own Scott Fitzgerald sang exactly the same words to finish runner-up behind Celine Dion, Eurovision’s other major breakout act, fourteen years later! My my, indeed.

  16. 106
    aiksylle on 9 Mar 2018 #

    Tomorrow (march 10) is the final of the swedish qualifications för Eurovision Song Contest 2018. As a tribute to ‘Waterloo’ I give you ‘Fuldans’ by Rolandz (the title roughly translates as ‘Ugly dancing’).
    “The slightly older gentleman reviving glam rock”, as british Metro put it, is Robert Gustafsson, known as the funniest man in Sweden since the 1990s.
    I really hope all of Europe will get the chance to see this, but it probably will not happen.


  17. 107
    Robin Carmody on 24 May 2019 #

    Not sure if this was mentioned in the first lot of comments here (don’t want to go through the lot now) but re. your comment about ABBA being little-known in former Communist countries: they were sufficiently taken into the closed world of Polish pop that, one year, the Polish state record company – the official monopoly, but of course the black market was strong if you knew how to get into it – spent its entire annual budget on Western acts on their records.

    Or so I once read, anyway. Certainly this was why they’d have got Bjorn (or was it Benny? I could check but don’t really want to at present) for ‘Let Poland Be Poland’ – they wanted martial law to be denounced and Solidarity supported by someone who’d been accepted by the Polish state as other huge international pop acts most often hadn’t been, and who of course had just co-written the title track from ‘The Visitors’, the best ever piece of anti-Communist popular art (because it states, correctly, that Communism was wrong not because it denied free enterprise, but because it denied the most basic aspects of human dignity, i.e. it attacks it from a socialist or at the very least social democratic perspective in a way that American anti-Communist popular art generally did not). Although I think they didn’t use his comments in the end, because he mentioned that the US backed equally oppressive regimes, such as Pinochet’s Chile, in the reheated Cold War. His remarks were sufficient, though, that had ABBA not fallen apart anyway they would not have been allowed to perform in the Soviet Union should they have so desired.

  18. 108
    lonepilgrim on 21 Oct 2019 #

    I’ve rarely engaged with Eurovision on TV as I find the format tedious and so didn’t watch the year this hit even though the event was taking place only 25 miles down the road from where I lived.
    This song continues to be a joy due to its cheerful optimism and by undercutting its contrived Napoleonic metaphor with its lyrical esperanto. Whereas Wizzard’s songs often make me feel bludgeoned with a kitchen sink this spreads its 50s signifiers more sparsely and perhaps most significantly doesn’t include any obvious musical cues from Blues or Soul

  19. 109
    Gareth Parker on 7 Jun 2021 #

    Plenty of energy here. 6/10 for me.

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