ABBA's Cheesy Start Was More Than Its 'Waterloo'

Forty years after ABBA strode into the world on platform boots, we consider why this Eurovision winner made it big across the pond.

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Eurovision attracts more viewers than the Super Bowl. And yet, a lot of Americans have scarcely heard of it. Probably more people know that B.J. Leiderman does our theme music. Winners of this pan-European song contest generally become one-hit wonders, if even that, and even more rarely do they make a name for themselves over here. But Sidsel Overgaard reports there have been a few exceptions. The most notable? The band that won 40 years ago this weekend.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: First, it helps to understand what came before ABBA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INGMARIE HALLING: Back in '74, the Eurovision song contest was quite a stiff-upper-lip sort of event.

OVERGAARD: Ingmarie Halling is curator of the ABBA museum in Stockholm.

HALLING: The audience were sitting in the long dresses and bow ties and tuxedos. And actually, they looked the same as the artists did, at the time.

OVERGAARD: For the most part, songs had to be performed in an artist's native language. And when that rule was temporarily lifted in the '70s, it led to some awkward results - like this infamous line from the Swedes who preceded ABBA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING))

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Oh, your breasts are like swallows, they're nesting...

OVERGAARD: And then these four hit the scene in glam-inspired crushed velvet, chains and silver platform boots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO")

ABBA: My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender. Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way...

HALLING: They really stood out. People looked at each other and thought, what is this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO")

ABBA: (Singing) ...is always repeating itself...

ALFRED BJORNBERG: It was a good song to win the Eurovision Song Contest with.

OVERGAARD: Swedish musicologist Alfred Bjornberg.

BJORNBERG: The problem, I think, is that the Eurovision Song Contest has always been very ridiculed as a media event, which is regarded as quite cheesy and ridiculous.

OVERGAARD: ABBA had entered Eurovision as a calculated move to gain exposure outside of Sweden, and it worked in that "Waterloo" topped the charts all over the world. But when the group tried to follow up with its next single - a song similar in style to "Waterloo," called "So Long"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG")

ABBA: (Singing) You think you're gonna make me sulk, you and your fancy car, uh-huh. But I can tell you, honey, your tricks ain't gonna get you far, uh-huh...

OVERGAARD: ...No one outside of northern Europe was having it. According to ABBA's official website, the year and a half following "Waterloo" was plagued by the quote, "stigma" of having won Eurovision.

IVAN RAYCOFF: Oh, that's - I mean, that's kind of funny they say that. That's definitely hindsight speaking.

OVERGAARD: Musicologist Ivan Raycoff (ph) admits that while Eurovision may have a reputation as a bit of a cheese-fest, it was probably still a good strategy.

RAYCOFF: Since then - of course, since they won and they had all this sort of super international career, now they can look back, perhaps, and be like, oh, how embarrassing, you know or, oops, what did we do?

OVERGAARD: Nonetheless, it did take time, creativity and a lot of skillful networking before ABBA was able to land its second worldwide hit, this time with a much different-sounding song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOS")

ABBA: (Singing) So when you're near me, darling can't you hear me, SOS. The love you gave me, nothing else can save me, SOS...

OVERGAARD: "SOS," a song The Who's Pete Townshend would reportedly later declare the best pop song ever written.

BJORNBERG: In the '70s popular music development, many had to go with studio production.

OVERGAARD: And that, says Alf Bjornberg, is where ABBA was truly able to shine.

BJORNBERG: If you look at ABBA's production as the whole, "Waterloo" is not a very typical ABBA song. They were quite eclectic about songwriting. They were successful in quite a lot of distinct musical styles.

OVERGAARD: It's impossible to say whether ABBA's eventual superstardom came because of or in spite of Eurovision. But they certainly tried to make the best of an opportunity before evolving to stay relevant. Love them or hate them, surely that's a hallmark of any group whose music can last for 40 years. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOS")

ABBA: So when you're near me, darling can't you hear me, SOS.The love you gave me, nothing else can save me, SOS...

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