Liner notes, part 1

Published April 06, 2010


There was a time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when that peculiar phenomenon known as the Eurovision Song Contest encompassed a musical universe all to itself. Largely ignoring current pop music trends, each participating country had its own specific role to fullfil: dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, the French, Italians and Spaniards excelled in dramatic ballads, the English-speaking countries became perky oompah nations for one night, and the Germanic artists put a little extra glitzy oomph in their natural oompah. Add to this a number of often bizarre musical concoctions from the remaining corners of Europe, and the picture was fairly complete.

On the night of April 6, 1974, four Swedes - husband and wife Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog, and engaged couple Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad - temporarily overturned this entire set-up when they decided to bring a bit of rock'n'roll and irreverent fun into the proceedings. As a collective they called themselves ABBA, and the main weapon in their Eurovision coup was a song entitled 'Waterloo'. To maximise their impact, all four members of the group had dressed up in sequinned, glittery costumes and platform boots that shone and sparkled. Even their orchestra conductor, Sven-Olof Walldoff, had joined in the sartorial fun, dressing up as Napoleon Bonaparte. In the course of two minutes and 46 seconds, the time it took to run through the song, ABBA had essentially achieved their international breakthrough. Incredible as it may seem, three decades have now passed since that night in Brighton, England, and with this 30th Anniversary Edition of ABBA's Waterloo album we commemorate that important date in popular music history.

It wasn't the first time that the two couples that made up ABBA tried to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. A year earlier they had featured in the Swedish selection for the contest with 'Ring Ring' - written by Benny and Björn in collaboration with the group's manager, Stig Anderson - but only finished third and thus missed out on the chance of appearing in the main contest. Since then, however, much had changed for the group. Although 'Ring Ring' didn't triumph in the heats, it became a huge hit in Sweden, where two singles featuring the Swedish and English versions of the song and the album of the same name battled it out for the Top Three positions on the combined singles and albums chart that prevailed in Sweden at the time. Up until that point, the foursome had regarded the group as something of a side project, the temporary nature of their collaboration reflecting itself in the unwieldy moniker Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid under which they traded. A much neater solution was found when the first letters in each of the members' first names were jumbled around, the result being "ABBA". Most importantly, though, the success of 'Ring Ring' meant that Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida, who up until then had all enjoyed separate careers, decided to give most of their time to the group for the foreseeable future.

For the last few months of 1973, the goals were twofold: write and record a new album for release the following spring, and come up with a new song that would secure that elusive entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. But why, one might wonder, this fixation with Eurovision? After all, ABBA wanted to be a modern pop group and, certainly, the current pop charts were as far from the type of music and atmosphere of "safe" family entertainment featured in the contest as a Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or David Bowie show was from a polite tea party? The answer was quite simple: this was the early 1970s, a time when few pop or rock groups outside the English-speaking world were taken seriously by the international music business. Trying to get attention through traditional channels - British or American record companies, publishers and media - was virtually impossible for a Swedish band.

Nevertheless, ABBA and Stig Anderson refused to accept that their music couldn't be just as convincing as that made by the international competition. Therefore, they reasoned, the Eurovision Song Contest would be the perfect way to bypass the nay-sayers who were laughing behind their backs. If ABBA just got the chance to appear in front of millions of television viewers, the song would speak for itself and all resistance would be futile. It didn't even matter if they won or not - previous years had proven that the runners-up often became bigger international hits than the victors, so the exposure was what they were after, the chance to use the contest as a platform from which they could take the next step. And with their domestic 'Ring Ring' success, Stig felt fairly certain that the Andersson/Anderson/Ulvaeus songwriting team would be invited to submit a contribution to the Swedish selection for the 1974 contest.

With this knowledge at the back of their minds, in September Björn and Benny set to work writing and recording songs for the next album - the second for the group, but the first to be credited to ABBA instead of the old, longwinded name. On September 24, 1973, the first backing track for the album was recorded. It was a good start, for the song, 'Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)', turned out to be one of the strongest tracks on the album. Indeed, in many ways 'Dance…' was a sort of blueprint for what ABBA tried to do in the first years of their career, namely to bring the innocence and direct communication of early 1960s pop into the high fidelity world of 1970s recording techniques. The multi-layered wall of sound technique utilised by legendary producer Phil Spector was hugely influential on ABBA at this time, perhaps no more clearly so than on 'Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)', which borrowed its beat from Spector productions such as The Ronettes' 'Be My Baby'. Throughout the autumn, Björn and Benny continued writing and recording songs in that innocent spirit, creating a pure pop album that wanted nothing more than to entertain with a batch of melodic and well-performed tunes.

With about half the LP completed, it was announced that Benny, Björn and Stig Anderson had indeed been invited to submit a song for the Swedish Eurovision selection, much as Stig had predicted. Soon afterwards, Björn and Benny retreated to their songwriting cottage on the Stockholm archipelago island of Viggsö, and quickly came up with a batch of new tunes. One of them, an uptempo, rocky number, seemed to be the right song with which to make an impression on the European television audience. Armed with a cassette tape demo of Björn and Benny humming and strumming their way through the tune, Stig Anderson set to work on the lyrics. The song was catchy, and Stig knew the importance of matching such a tune with equally catchy lyrics - above all, it was vital to find the right title. If ABBA were to reach out to an international audience, they couldn't take any chances with obscure lyrical conceits; again, direct communication was the key phrase. "I was looking for a word that wouldn't need a translation, something that everybody would be familiar with: something like 'Ring Ring'," Stig recalled.

At first, he landed on 'Honey Pie', but that just didn't seem right; to Stig, it didn't trigger any lyric suggestions. In the early hours of a Saturday morning he finally found the right title: looking through a book of familiar quotations he suddenly chanced upon the elusive three-syllable word he needed: "Wa-ter-loo." The title, of course, referred to Napoleon Bonaparte's legendary defeat by British and German forces at the battle near the Belgian town on June 18, 1815. Stig used that historical event as a metaphor for a girl surrendering to the courting of an insistent suitor, and before the day was over, the lyrics had been completed. Just a week before Christmas, the backing track for the song was recorded at Metronome Studio in Stockholm. It didn't take many attempts for Benny and the other backing musicians - Janne Schaffer, guitar, who invented the catchy bass and guitar riff, Rutger Gunnarsson, bass, and Ola Brunkert, drums - to arrive at the rocky feel they were shooting for. With an exuberant vocal performance from Agnetha and Frida added, ABBA had a track that was a winner in every sense of the word. The recording was in perfect tune with contemporary glam pop such as Wizzard's recent UK number one, 'See My Baby Jive', to which 'Waterloo' bore more than a passing resemblance in general feel.