April 6, 1974 was a very good day for Swedish music. In the U.S., Blue Swede became the first act from Sweden to top the Billboard Hot 100, thanks to a cover of B.J. Thomas’ 1969 hit “Hooked on a Feeling.” And in Brighton, England, the Eurovision Song Contest was won by a new quartet named ABBA. “Waterloo” was the first song from Sweden to win the Pan-European competition and it marked a global breakthrough for an act that was barely known outside the borders of its own country.
Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who were known in Sweden as members of the groups the Hootenanny Singers and Hep Stars, respectively, were hired by music publisher Stig Anderson to write songs for his company, Polar Music. The two composers recorded an album of their own material, Lycka, which included a single titled “Hej Gamle Man!” It was the first song to feature Ulvaeus and Anderson and their girlfriends, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The guys included the song in their live act and it got the best audience reception. “We told ourselves, this is what we should do,” Andersson told me in a 1994 interview.
The two women continued their own solo careers and the two men continued to write for Polar Music. One assignment was to come up with a hit song for popular Swedish vocalist Lena Andersson to sing in the 1972 Melodifestivalen, the Swedish heat for the Eurovision Song Contest. Along with Stig, they wrote “Säg det Med en Sang,” which placed third. Lena didn’t go to Eurovision but Ulvaeus and Andersson continued to write, coming up with a song for themselves, “People Need Love.” That’s when the two men made a discovery. “We realized that the girls were the better singers,” Ulvaeus said in a 1994 interview with me. So when they were invited to perform at a Japanese song festival in 1972, Fältskog and Lyngstad joined them on “Santa Rosa.” “That’s a bad one,” Andersson admitted. “That was originally called ‘Grandpa’s Banjo.’ I don’t like it. It’s one of those we shouldn’t have recorded.”
In 1973, Ulvaeus, Andersson (and Anderson) were asked again to come up with a song for Melodifestivalen, but this time for themselves. With the label credit on the 45 reading “Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida,” the foursome sang “Ring Ring.” The audience in Stockholm loved the song but the decision was not up to the public. A professional jury chose a song by the duo known as Malta (the direct English translation of the lyrics included the line, “Your breasts are like nesting swallows”). A public outcry about the choice followed, resulting in a rule change. In the following year’s Melodifestivalen, the decision would be made by the people of Sweden. “Ring Ring” went to No. 1 on the Swedish singles chart and Stig Anderson had English lyrics written by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody. That version topped the charts in Australia, Holland, Belgium and South Africa but the single failed to chart in the U.K.
With the Swedish media tired of having to refer to the group by four different names, a contest was held in a national tabloid to pick a new name and the winning entry was the group members’ four initials, A-B-B-A. That also happened to be the name of a local fish factory. “We had to ask permission and the factory said, ‘O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing,'” Fältskog told me in a 1988 interview. “I think we did a good job,” she laughed.
With 1974 just around the corner, the group decided to make another attempt at representing Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest. “At that time, that was the one and only vehicle to reach outside Sweden,” said Ulvaeus. “Because there was no way anyone in England or America would listen to anything coming out of this obscure country. You could send your tapes, knowing they would throw them away immediately.”
Despite their loss in 1973 with “Ring Ring,” the two composers had great faith in their chances. “We had a choice between two songs…’Hasta Mañana’ and ‘Waterloo.’ ‘Hasta Mañana’ was the more typical Eurovision song but we went for ‘Waterloo’ because it was more fun to perform. It could have been ‘Hasta Mañana’ and [ABBA] would never have happened. It wouldn’t have won.”
At the Brighton Dome during the first week in April 1974, Ulvaeus and Anderson took stock of their competition. “We were very much afraid of the Dutch entry,” said Ulvaeus. “We thought that one was really dangerous.” But “I See a Star” by Mouth and MacNeal finished third. The two male members of ABBA were less worried about the U.K. entry, “Long Live Love” by Olivia Newton-John, which finished in fourth place.
When all the votes of the national juries were counted, Sweden had 24 points, good enough for first place. “I had not expected us to win,” Lyngstad told me in 1994. “You never expect yourself to win the competition, at least not one like that.” Now it was time for Ulvaeus, Andersson and Anderson to accept their songwriters’ award on stage. There was just one problem, as Ulvaeus recalled: “There was a guy standing at the bottom of the stairs who was supposed to look after these things. Benny and Stig went up on stage but he stopped me. I was in an artist’s outfit and he thought I hadn’t understood that this was for the songwriters.” Benny kept telling the guard to allow Björn on stage, but to no avail. Finally, once the artists were announced, Ulvaeus was able to join his comrades. And he knew in that instant that his world would never be the same again. “To be whisked up to London in a Rolls-Royce directly to Top of the Pops, that was a dream come true, appearing in the same place that the Beatles had.”
Andersson elaborated, “We achieved overnight what we had been working toward for a couple of years, for other countries to realize that we existed, a band from Sweden writing songs in English trying to make pop music.”
Nothing was guaranteed of course, and even when “Waterloo” shot to No. 1 on the British singles chart, there were those who doubted. “Everyone else had decided already that this was the usual one-hit wonder of Eurovision,” said Ulvaeus. “We knew inside – and nobody else did – that we had come to stay. We knew the potential we had as artists as well as songwriters.”
Although “People Need Love” had been released in the U.S. on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy label, it wasn’t until Stig Anderson made a deal with Atlantic Records that ABBA found traction in America and debuted on the Billboard charts. “Waterloo” entered the Hot 100 the week of June 1, 1974, ultimately peaking at No. 6.
The next few singles did reinforce the doubts of some non-believers. “Ring Ring” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” failed to crack the top 30 in the U.K., and “So Long” missed the chart completely. But then in the second half of 1975, the single “S.O.S.” proved what ABBA was all about. Heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the melodies of the Beach Boys, the three-minutes and 22 seconds of pop perfection hurtled up the British chart into the top 10 and became a worldwide hit.
“‘Waterloo’ was one thing but then it really started happening with ‘S.O.S.’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ and we got over that slump we had in England and came back with a vengeance,” Ulvaeus recalled. “We had truly become international.”
ABBA went on to have 18 consecutive top 10 hits in the U.K., and a total of nine No. 1s. In the U.S., “Dancing Queen” became the group’s lone chart-topper. And while the group stopped recording and touring in the 1980s, the legacy of its members has lived on, thanks to stage musicals like Chess, Kristina från Duvemala and Mamma Mia! as well as two motion pictures based on that third production, cover versions of songs by artists ranging from Erasure to U2, and worldwide sales of 30 million for the ABBA Gold collection, which is the second best-selling album of all time in the U.K.
And there is more to come, including two new songs recorded in the summer of 2017 but not yet released, with at least one of those songs due out this fall, according to Ulvaeus. The new tunes are tied into a world tour – not of the original members but of their holograms.
Why has ABBA remained such a phenomenon, with a global legacy that has already lasted long past the group’s dissolution? Not even the members of the quartet are sure. “Other groups have good singers, good songs, good production,” acknowledged Ulvaeus, “but given the background Benny and I had as songwriters, maybe we had a bigger range. Because there was the Latin-American influence, the German, the Italian, the English, the American, all of that. I suppose we were a bit exotic in every territory in an acceptable way. And also we were leaning toward what we thought were strong melodies. In those days, rock groups were not into melody. But I really don’t know the answer. No one does, I think.”