ABBA: 50 years since Waterloo

ABBA performing Mamma Mia on The Best of ABBA Bandstand Special in Australia, Ma
ABBA performing Mamma Mia on The Best of ABBA Bandstand Special in Australia, March, 1976. (AAP Image/ Polar Music International)
Dr Jadey O’Regan, lecturer in Contemporary Music Practice at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, recalls the magic of ABBA’s Waterloo as the group releases a 50th anniversary edition of their classic pop album.

As the world eagerly anticipates the 50th-anniversary edition of ABBA’s iconic album, Waterloo on 5 April, enthusiasts and music aficionados are gearing up to immerse themselves once again in the catchy melodies and driving rhythms that defined an era of tight satin pants, glitter and bouncy piano pop-rock.

Dr Jadey O’Regan , lecturer in Contemporary Music Practice at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, is an expert on pop music and how popular "hooks" are made unforgettable for pop fans. She says ABBA’s single Waterloo has had an enduring impact on the music industry.

"Waterloo was ABBA’s first truly worldwide hit," Dr O’Regan said. "The song Ring Ring had been a hit the year earlier in Europe; however, it was Waterloo that introduced the world to ABBA’s music."

Formed in Sweden in 1972, ABBA was made up of Björn Ulvaeus (keyboards), Benny Andersson (guitar), and singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. The group entered the 1973 Melodifestivalen, the Swedish selection for the Eurovision Song Contest, with the song Ring Ring and placed third. But the song and the album of the same name become a big hit in Sweden and several other countries.

ABBA’s Waterloo on Eurovision

News footage of the 1974 Sweden entry in the Eurovision Song Contest

ABBA entered the competition again the following year with Waterloo. The song took them to the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton England, where they won on 6 April, 1974.

"Waterloo was written specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest so it was a song built for purpose and success," said Dr O’Regan.

Waterloo catapulted ABBA to international fame and set the stage for their unparalleled success. The song was a huge hit in Sweden and topped the charts in many countries in Europe. It made the Top 10 in Australia and the US, where Eurovision wasn’t known. Years later in 2005, Waterloo won the best overall song in the competition’s history.

Dr O’Regan said, musically, Waterloo has many unique and fascinating qualities.

"Waterloo’s lyrics were oblique," she said. "They are referencing a historical battle as a metaphor for a relationship. I can’t think of another song that does this! And the way the lyrics were delivered were also unique. ABBA had a particular way of pronouncing English words that catches the ear and is a part of their identifiable sound."

The song’s "shiny arrangement" and production style created a very different sound in pop music at the time, Dr O’Regan noted, which was dominated by prog-rock, soul and funk, or solo singer-songwriters. "It definitely had elements of glam, but in a new kind of package, and with female vocals."

ABBA’s global success after Waterloo

Beyond their musical prowess, ABBA’s theatrical flair and flamboyant costumes brought a new dimension to the Eurovision stage, captivating audiences with their glittering performances. "Their colourful outfits and dance moves were different for Eurovision at the time - most songs were ballads, and the glitter and drama we see in modern Eurovision didn’t exist back in the early 1970s - so if you love the fireworks and outrageous costumes of Eurovision, you might want to thank ABBA!" said Dr O’Regan.

The band struggled to be taken seriously after winning the Eurovision Song Contest - but they made strong follow-up albums, including ABBA which featured hits and Mamma Mia, which was Number One in the UK and Number One in Australia for 10 weeks. ABBA went on to enjoy enormous global success, and were much loved in Australia, where they had six Number One hits in the years after Waterloo.

By 1976, ABBA was one of the most popular bands in the world. Hit singles included Dancing Queen and Fernando, and from their fourth album Arrival, Money, Money, Money and Knowing Me, Knowing You. The following year, they released a feature film, ABBA: The Movie and ABBA: The Album, with hits Name of the Game and Take On A Chance on Me.

"Waterloo set ABBA up for a string of unforgettable singles that are particularly loved here in Australia," said Dr O’Regan.

"While many may consider their music cheesy or uncool, if you listen to the depths of their arrangements, their songs are very sophisticated - the layers, chords, melodies - are all cleverly put together to connect with so many people over such a long time," she said.  "I am constantly amazed at the arrangement of a song like Dancing Queen which feels effortless but is made up of endless catchy hooks."

From their humble beginnings to global superstardom, ABBA’s music continues to resonate with audiences across generations, transcending cultural boundaries and uniting listeners in a shared love for timeless melodies.

Dr Jadey O’Regan , is a lecturer in Contemporary Music Practice at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and an expert on pop music. She is the co-author of Hooks in Popular Music . Hero photo: Swedish pop group ABBA, from left: Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus posing after winning the Swedish branch of the Eurovision Song Contest with their song "Waterloo".  (Olle Lindeborg/TT NEWS AGENCY via AP/AAP Photos) 

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