Abba: Iconic Swedish pop music band marks golden anniversary  

Swedish pop group Abba (from left) Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, pose during the Eurovision Song Festival on February 9, 1974.

Photo credit: File | AFP

It is exactly half a century to the week a pop music phenomenon burst onto the world stage for the first time. Fifty years ago, the Swedish quartet Abba won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in the seaside town of Brighton, UK, beating entries from 17 countries across Europe and launching a pop revolution that was to spread the world over.

The 19th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday 6 April 1974 was the first time an act from Sweden had won the contest since its inception in 1956. Each participating country submits an original song to be performed live on television and the winning entry is picked through both a public and jury vote.

The winning song in 1974, Waterloo, was composed by bandmembers Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus and written by their manager Stig Anderson, the so-called “fifth member” of Abba. The group that was formed in 1972 comprised two couples Agnetha Faltskog who was married to Ulvaeus and Anderson’s partner Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Abba is an acronym of the first letters of their names).

The victory at Eurovision marked the start of an extraordinary era of pop music whose popularity has transcended generations of music fans and turned Abba into one of the most successful bands of all time.

Four weeks after their Eurovision triumph, Abba topped the charts in 10 countries across Europe, including the UK with Waterloo, and the song also reached number 6 on the US Billboard Hot 100. However, they endured a dry spell after that, until 1975 when they returned to the top of the charts with the single S.O.S and from then on, the Abba juggernaut was unstoppable with a string of hits into the early 1980s.

Incidentally, Waterloo was the Abba’s second stab at Eurovision after an unsuccessful attempt in 1973 when the single Ring Ring could only manage a third-place finish at Sweden’s pre-selection. The group then decided to write a song specifically for the 1974 contest seeing Eurovision as their ticket to global stardom.

The recording began on December 17, 1973 with the working title Honey Pie, before that was replaced by Waterloo. Writer Stig Anderson recalls looking through his book of quotes by William Shakespeare and stumbling on a three-syllable word ‘Waterloo’ around which he created the lyrics about a girl who surrenders to love like the French Emperor’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The single was released in Sweden in March 1974, and the group subsequently returned to the studio to record German and French versions of Waterloo.

However, the band members started having second thoughts about the song, worried that its raucous mood and glam rock influences would be too risky for Eurovision given the sedate mood of entries that had been successful in previous competitions. Abba's history might have turned out very differently if they had replaced Waterloo with the ballad Hasta Mañana (Swedish for “see you tomorrow) which the group had recorded the day after the Waterloo session.

In the end, Waterloo beat nine other songs during Melodifestivalen, Sweden’s national final for the 1974 Eurovision Contest and was chosen to represent the country at the main event in Brighton.

Abba’s stage show at Eurovision complete with the bright coloured costumes and orchestra conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff dressed as French Emperor Napoleon, remains one of the most iconic moments in the history of the competition.

They emerged winners beating a field that included the UK’s Olivia Newton-John, who finished fourth and later went on to become a global music and film superstar. As Abba singer and guitarist Ulvaeus said in a BBC documentary, the band had “gone overnight from this obscure Swedish band to world fame.”

A decade-long stretch of classic hits started from the mid-1970s: S.O.S, Mamma Mia, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Money Money Money to Knowing Me Knowing You, The Name of the Game, Chiquitita, Voulez-vous, Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie (A Man After Midnight), Super Trouper and The Winner Takes It All.

Both couples divorced at the height of Abba’s fame and the band eventually disbanded in 1982 saying it was no longer fun being in a group together. Andersson and Ulvaeus composed music for stage productions like Chess in 1984 while Lyngstad and Faltskog pursued solo careers. In 2005 Waterloo was chosen as the best song in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest. Abba also paved the way for Sweden to emerge as a music powerhouse with the success in later years of bands like Ace of Base and Roxette.

The Golden Anniversary of Abba’s first foray into the international music scene comes almost two years after the group reunited to record their first album in 40 years, Voyage.

The story of how four Scandinavian artists went from obscurity to create pop music history will be re-told for generations. In the words of one of their most popular songs, Thank You for the Music.

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