348. ‘Waterloo’, by ABBA

And entering, stage right: some genuine pop music legends.

Waterloo, by ABBA (their 1st of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 28th April – 12th May 1974

Are ABBA the best pop group ever? Like, pure pop? Well, they get my vote. I will not hear a bad word spoken against them. And these days, you don’t often hear much bad spoken about ABBA – they’ve shaken off the image that they were fit only for gay bars and hen nights, and have assumed their rightful place in the pantheon. Everyone loves ABBA. But… I’m writing as if wrapping up their final chart-topper; not introducing their first. To business!

It is perfect, the manner in which Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid shoot out the blocks on their first #1. ‘Waterloo’ is not a record that takes its time to reveal its charms. It’s a wham, bam, thankyou ma’am sort of pop song. It won the Eurovision Song Contest, for God’s sake: a feat not often achieved through subtle means. The churning bass, the thumping piano… My, my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…

For a band that specialised in camp melodrama, this opening line – comparing their love for someone to an 19th Century military leader’s last stand – is as camp and melodramatic as it comes. Oh yeah! And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way… Cue one of the catchiest choruses ever recorded: Waterloo! I was defeated you won the war, Waterloo, Promise to love you for ever more… (A big part of this song’s success, I think, is the way they pronounce the title in their Swedish accents: Wardahloo! With added emphasis on the ‘ooh’.)

It’s pointless looking for the hook here. The entire song is a two minute forty eight second long hook. The ridiculous saxophone licks, the woah-woah-woahs, the pounding piano ‘n’ drum intros to each chorus, something the band admits were ripped straight from Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’. ‘Waterloo’ is a huge, unashamed sugar rush of a song. Perfect, perfect pop.

In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated once and for all, and exiled to the south Atlantic. In 1974, Agnetha and Anna-Frid give in and admit their love. As they put it in the song’s best line: So how can I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose! (The writers of ‘Mamma Mia – The Musical’ clearly gave up on trying to shoe-horn a song about a two-hundred year old battle into the story, and stuck in at the very, very end, as an encore.)

As a kid, this was my favourite track on ‘ABBA Gold’. It is no longer my favourite ABBA song, but it is the perfect first chart-topper for the band. They would go on to reach much greater heights of subtlety and sophistication; though it’s debatable whether they wrote a catchier hit. Meanwhile, it was also voted as the greatest Eurovision song for the contest’s 50th anniversary.

This hit proved to be a bit of a false start for ABBA, though. They struggled to follow ‘Waterloo’ up, in the UK at least, and we’ll have to wait almost two more years for their next #1. Once that arrives, however, there will be no looking back. It feels like we’ve entered a new phase in our journey through the chart-toppers… It’s the mid-seventies, and we’ve finally met the decade’s greatest band!


41 thoughts on “348. ‘Waterloo’, by ABBA

  1. Yes, yes, and yes! 🙂

    I fell in love with Abba the moment I saw them perform Waterloo in what was a cracking Eurovision Song Contest (4 of the entries became UK chart hits, and let’s not forget they beat a brilliant entry by a previous brilliant winner – Gigliola Cinquetti – and the future global star Olivia Newton-John) by virtue of a massive Arrival and statement of intent. I was babysitting for pocket-money that night so I know exactly where I was, and getting the kids upstairs so I could watch the show in peace when it started.

    I bought this, it entered my chart at 1, I bought Ring Ring, and I was about the only one who bought So Long in the UK. So Long is Waterloo Part 2, Glam Rock on speed, and largely unknown, unfairly. By the time of the next chart-topper it was obvious to me that Abba were special, just as I thought other new 1974 bands Queen and Sparks were exciting and new. And Rock Critics who slagged 2 of them off until the sheer quality forced them to eat their words were found guilty in the court of public opinion (at least with Abba and Queen) in the long run. Hah! Never trust a critic with an obsession for “cool” over content….. 🙂

    • I love So Long – I discovered it on a second-hand vinyl Greatest Hits (that only covers 1972-76). Even though later ABBA is objectively ‘better’, there’s something so so appealing about their early balls to the wall glam pop.

  2. I will always remember hearing ‘Waterloo’ for the first time, on Radio 1 about two or three days before the contest took place, and remember thinking at the time, ‘This is one of the greatest pop records ever made!’ It’s probably still one of my three, certainly five, favourite ABBA tracks ever. Though I don’t remember the source, I think I read somewhere that Tony Macaulay, co-writer of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, was briefly tempted to consider taking them to court for plagiarism. Roy Wood also paid it an ironic tribute when he guested on Doctor and the Medics’ cover version in 1986 (a.k.a. ‘RW’s Revenge’) and appeared with them in the marvellous Eurovision spoof video, alongside Katie Boyle, Lemmy and Captain Sensible. (Should still be on Youtube with a little searching).

    • I can definitely hear the ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ similarities now that you mention it. And I just found the spoof version by Doctor and the Medics… Bizarrely brilliant! Napoleon himself gives them neuf points at the end…

  3. re: popchartfreak – ‘So Long’ was an absolute belter, I always loved it too. Tony Blackburn introduced the group when they played (mimed!) it as a new release on Top of the Pops in late 1974, but Radio 1 ignored it and it finished up in the ‘Top 50 breakers’ (Nos. 51-60). By that time, ABBA were suffering the usual critical backlash of ‘Eurovision winners may last for two follow-up singles and then they’ll be toast’. Little did the world know what was coming…

  4. This was my least favorite of their hits but yea they were huge and yes…they knew how to write and produce almost perfect pop…there is no denying that.

    • Wait… So you like them, then!? I love that about their outfits. I’d also love to visit the ABBA museum in Stockholm. There can’t be many bands with an entire museum dedicated to them…

      • Honey, hush. When Voulez-Vous came out, I was in 7th grade and that was their first album I bought with my own money. There was an insert that advertised a satin jacket for sale with the album’s design on the back of the jacket. God, I so wanted that jacket. The shiny satin jacket was a hot item back in the late 70s. It was way too expensive for me and can you imagine how much that would be worth today?

  5. Maybe it’s that uncoolness stigma that explains why ABBA were never able to become as big in America as they were overseas. Waterloo did manage to reach #6 which is impressive in a country that doesn’t care much about Eurovision. But between then and their sole US #1 “Dancing Queen” in 1977 they didn’t exactly set the charts on fire which includes classics like “Mamma Mia” at #32. “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” and “SOS” both at #15. And “Fernando” at #13. And even after “Dancing Queen” they managed two more Top 10s with “Take A Chance On Me” at #3 and “The Winner Takes It All” at #8. It seems like ABBA became much more popular after their peak than during it with ABBA Gold selling a lot and the Mamma Mia musical and film franchise. It was also right around the time of Waterloo when Blue Swede became the first Swedish act to hit #1 here with their take on “Hooked On A Feeling” which Tom Breihan marks as the beginning of the Swedish pop invasion that would reach its apex with Max Martin and his team with their carefully crafted pop hits starting in the ’90s lasting to this day. For me, I will say their songs are well made and extremely fun but they never moved me one way or another. Never made me into a big fan.

    This Malcolm in the Middle clip explains a lot regarding people’s attitude about ABBA

    • To be fair to the Malcolm in the Middle clip, ‘Take a Chance on Me’ is one of ABBA’s more annoying songs. That and ‘Fernando’. In American TV shows, from what I’ve seen, liking ABBA is shorthand for ‘gay’. The Dean in Community is a big fan, for example… and then there’s the classic Simpsons scene where Smithers has taped over Ride of the Valkyries with ‘Waterloo’ (that was the moment it finally clicked with 12 year old me… Smithers is meant to be gay!) In the UK too ABBA have huge links to the gay community but we seem to embrace campness in general a bit more readily than the US, and that’s also maybe why glam wasn’t anywhere near as big in the US in the early 70s either. Anyway, to reduce ABBA to simply being camp fun is doing them a huge disservice. They’re up there with the Beatles, Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Madonna… the greats of pop music.

      • That’s probably the reason. There were some glam songs and acts that managed to hit it big but the biggest of them all David Bowie had to abandon Ziggy Stardust and make Black American music to get his two #1 hits “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” More importantly, it could also be that ABBA’s very European influences may not have connected well in America in the ’70s even though they had inspiration from American styles like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound pop and Motown. It could also be that “Dancing Queen” being their biggest American hit made people see them as part of the disco fad even though they aren’t and even “Dancing Queen” is more inspired by disco than full disco.

      • I’d have to agree. There is still a large portion of the US that doesn’t get Monty Python, Doctor Who, Bennie Hill or Are You Being Served. British humor is a little more refined, sarcastic and dry than what we come up with.

        What hurt Abba the most was refusing to tour.

      • They did tour, I think. Maybe not quite as much as today’s standards. ‘Super Trouper’s about being on stage and still feeling lonely…

        I do like the idea of ‘Are You Being Served’ as ‘refined’ humour. I love it… but that’s a stretch!

    • They may not have had the numbers via Billboard but, they were popular enough that they were constantly on the radio. My late elementary years, all of my middle school years and well into my high school years…ABBA was on the radio. Also, keep in mind, Billboard, and other services like them, change their formulas, sometimes and do recalculations. Mack the Knife is in the Top Three of the Top 10 Songs of all time??? Three of these songs, I’ve never even heard of:

      Rhianna is in the same list with The Beatles & Elvis? I know one Mariah Carey song and where are The Stones???:

      There’s not a single 1950s, 1960s or 1970s song that spent weeks at the top? Past the 10 week cutoff, there’s nothing older that 1992???:

      Abba is a lot more popular than they were given credit for by our twisted industry. I would have to differ…they were very cool. The musical and the movies are a testament to how beloved they were. That being said, I have no desire to see the musical or the movies. I’ll just stick with the originals.

      Geez…didn’t mean to get so long. Sorry.

      • I think that’s a good point – even beyond ABBA the Billboard charts aren’t quite as representative of US popular music as the British charts. The most weeks at #1 all being from the 90s onwards is thanks to airplay being counted… which it never has been in the UK.

        ABBA are cool now but, even when I was growing up, they were a bye-word for camp cheese. Thankfully they’ve had a bit of a re-assessment. And ‘Mamma Mia’ the musical is… fun. I’ve not seen Part II, though I am tempted simply because it has Cher in it.

      • Counting airplay and running up the numbers brings on song certifications and, more money for the industry. Payola is alive and well, just in a different form.

        I just never encountered the “non-cool” feeling. I did notice, however, that once they faded and we moved into the 90s, retro stations played Dancing Queen to death…as if that was their only song. I haven’t heard The Name of the Game on the radio in 30 years. You might catch some other Abba songs on 70s @ 7 on SiriusXM satellite radio. One of my absolute favorite Abba songs is Eagle and I’ve never heard it on the radio…ever.

        Pffft. Cher is an excellent reason NOT to see Part II. I’d rather be shot in the ass with a cannon than to watch her do anything. Gimme some Grease…please.

      • Yeah, I could quite happily never hear ‘Dancing Queen’, as classic as it is, again. My favourite ABBA single is probably ‘One of Us’, which you would hear on British radio, on the right station.

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  19. I grew up listening to their French lyrics version which had an even more overwhelming (but so charming) Swedish accent! It’s when I was an adult that I learned about the English “original” version. I like both! The French lyrics had quite a good rhymes in it too.

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