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'Waterloo' at 50: Revisiting ABBA's charge to Eurovision victory in 1974

05 April 2024 at 19:25 CEST
ABBA in their iconic stage outfits for the release of Waterloo
As one of the most important milestones in ABBA's career is celebrated on Saturday 6 April, we take a look back at their journey towards that Eurovision Song Contest victory in Brighton 50 years ago.

By now we're all well familiar with the countless achievements that ABBA went on to collect in the wake of their unforgettable Eurovision Song Contest win in 1974. The Swedish foursome's triumphs across the globe were plentiful, they were wonderful and - my my - they were colourful!

On this Golden Anniversary of the group's Eurovision victory, we take a look back at the platform-clad steps that got them there; from the determination that was fuelled by a failed attempt, to a conductor who had the genius idea to dress himself that day via taking the lyrics of the song quite literally. 

ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden in 1974.

After missing out on a ticket to the Eurovision Song Contest 1973 in Luxembourg, when their entry Ring Ring could only manage a third-place finish at Sweden’s pre-selection Melodifestivalen, ABBA decided to sit down and write a song specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest 1974. Something that would definitely smash the competition at Melodifestivalen and get them onto that international stage in Brighton.

The recording of this song with Eurovision success in mind began on 17 December 1973, with a more saccharine working title of Honey Pie having been given to it, before the more battle-worthy Waterloo was bestowed upon the anthem ahead of the two contests it was to (hopefully) be put through.

Once Waterloo was finished, however, ABBA actually started having second thoughts about it. The band became a little concerned that it was perhaps a little too risky for the Eurovision Song Contest, what with its comparatively raucous tempo, its schlager sounds, and its influences that had been taken from the glam rock of the early '70s. 

For a while, they heavily toyed with the idea of sending another song of theirs, Hasta Mañana. They’d started recording that song the day after the Waterloo session, and they felt it was more in line with the slower songs that had done so well at Eurovision Song Contests past. 

The history book on the shelf tells us that this perceived risk ended up driving the foursome in the end, and so Waterloo was submitted by an excited ABBA to Sweden’s national final for the 1974 Contest. 

Melodifestivalen took place on 9 February, with Waterloo competing against 9 other songs, ultimately coming out on top by a landslide; scoring 302 points to runner-up Lasse Berghagen’s Min Kärlekssång Till Dig and its tally of 211 points. Lasse, as with ABBA the year before, wouldn’t have to wait too long for redemption, however - he got to triumph at Melodifestivalen the following year with Jennie, Jennie, which represented Sweden at Stockholm 1975.

The Waterloo single was released in Sweden one month after Melodifestivalen, on 4 March. It may surprise you to learn that the single didn’t in fact go to number 1 for the band at home. But that’s only because back then in Sweden, there was just one chart which had singles and albums combined. As a result, the Waterloo single stalled at number 2 - kept off the top spot by ABBA’s Waterloo album, which had been released at the same time. So we can't imagine they were too dismayed by that blip on their hit-list history.

Throughout the rest of March, our Swedish friends had the good foresight to think about the charts around the rest of Europe too, while basking in the glow of their domestic number 1. That month, they got back into the studio to start work on the German and French versions of Waterloo

For the French adaptation of the text, they invited Alain Boublil to work his magic on their own lyrics. Alain, a lyricist for musical theatre, would go on to pen some of the most popular musicals of all time, such as Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. And the multi-lingual approach worked for ABBA too, with Waterloo going on to become number 1 for the band in both Germany and France.

For the 68th Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, rehearsals will begin on Saturday 27 April, two weeks ahead of the Grand Final on Saturday 11 May. But back in 1974, things were done a little differently.

For the 6 April Grand Final, rehearsals began on Tuesday 2 April, with ABBA touching down in Brighton shortly beforehand. In between rehearsals, the Swedes got to lark about in the British seaside town, before retreating back to their aptly named Napoleon suite at The Grand Hotel.

Saturday 6 April was the date of the 19th Eurovision Song Contest, and it was Sweden’s 15th time competing - alas thus far without ever having achieved a win. 

Just over 1,000 attendees rocked up to the Brighton Dome that evening, down from the usual 2,000+ capacity of the venue, thanks to the lavish production of the Contest needing more space than what the Dome was used to, and with some seating therefore having to be removed.

In the week leading up to the 50th anniversary, the Dome in Brighton unveiled a plaque to commemorate ABBA's Eurovision victory

17 countries took part that night, which was actually down from the 18 that the BBC were expecting less than one week earlier. This is because France understandably took the decision to withdraw, following the passing of the French president Georges Pompidou on 2 April. 

The official logo of the Eurovision Song Contest 1974

Amongst the 17 countries that did perform on the night, we got to see Greece participate for the very first time, with Marinella performing Krassi, Thalassa Ke t' Agori Mou. Italy's Gigliola Cinquetti, meanwhile, almost became the Contest’s first double winner. She had previously won the Contest 10 years earlier in 1964 with the song Non Ho L'età, and returned in 1974 with Sì, which would eventually go on to finish in 2nd place behind Waterloo

We also had Olivia Newton-John representing the United Kingdom. The artist was in the early stages of her career but already having achieved some success in both the UK and the US. Her song Long Live Love was considered the favourite to win ahead of the Contest, but finished in joint 4th place for the United Kingdom along with two other countries (Luxembourg and Monaco).

Host Katie Boyle opened proceedings, after having done so in 1960, 1963 and 1968. And 50 years on, she still holds the record for having hosted the Eurovision Song Contest the most times - with that 4th turn she breezed through that night in 1974 remaining an unbeaten haul. 

After all 17 songs had performed, and we’d had a brief musical interlude by The Wombles, we got to get down to the exciting business of the voting. Each of the 17 competing countries had a 10-person jury, with every member getting to award one point to their favourite song, with the maximum score any jury could therefore award a song being 10 points.

The Wombles were the interval act for Brighton 1974, but made a late bid for victory themselves

In the end, the most points any song got from one jury was 5 points, which Waterloo received twice - from Finland and Switzerland. Once the voting had played out, ABBA’s total points tally was 24, which was 6 points ahead of the runner-up on 18. Sweden had achieved its very first Eurovision Song Contest win - the beginning of the 7 victories that has placed the country as joint record holders for the most wins 50 years later.

After just 1 hour and 48 minutes, it was all over. ABBA’s performance at the Brighton Dome - bursting with bright colours, brimming with joy, and with conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff dressed as Napoleon - is one that cemented itself inside the minds of the millions who had been watching across Europe that Saturday night, and is still solidified as one of the most iconic images associated with the band; 50 years on and with them having achieved many more career highlights since.

Waterloo itself went to number 1 in 10 countries across Europe, charting inside the Top 10 in many more. It also became a Top 10 hit outside of Europe, too, in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And it even reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, charting at 6. 

It was the very beginning of ABBA's enormous international legacy, and it's safe to say it's remained a highlight in the Eurovision Song Contest's own legacy too. 50 years on, and it's an honour to be able to toast the occasion of a Golden Anniversary and all that has happened in those 5 decades. 

See you again in Sweden in May!

You can listen to all 37 songs of Eurovision 2024 via your favourite streaming service or watch the music videos on our YouTube channel.

The Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Malmö, Sweden on Tuesday 7 May (First Semi-Final), Thursday 9 May (Second Semi-Final) and Saturday 11 May (Grand Final) 2024.

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