50 years since ABBA’s Waterloo performance in Brighton that launched their career

ABBA’s Benny, Anni- Frid, Agnetha and Bjõrn line up in costume for 1974 event in Brighton. (Image: )

The security detail posted outside an entire floor of Brighton’s Grand Hotel on the night of April 5, 1974, created an uneasy atmosphere, one more redolent of a tetchy political summit than a pop contest. The crisis level was so extreme in Israel, Greece and Ireland at the time that the musicians from these nations had been given round-theclock protection ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, staged that year in the historic Dome theatre.

Stepping into the phalanx of police and security services that year were four Swedes, still barely recognised outside of Scandinavia. As Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Bjõrn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad checked into their suite – ironically and coincidentally called the Napoleon – they were ignored by the hotel staff and the raft of press stationed outside.

It’s fair to say the band’s expectations for success were modest.

“Before 1974, no one in the Anglo-Saxon world ever wanted to hear anything coming from that little country in the North,” Bjõrn explained recently, after it was announced thatABBA’s global record sales had exceeded 400 million. “We sent tapes around, but they were thrown in the bin.”

In fact, until their shock Eurovision win, the band had only performed sporadically for four years. Two years before they arrived in Brighton, the foursome’s debut song People Need Love had bottomed out at number 17 in the Swedish singles chart.

“Agnetha, Bjõrn, Benny and Frida were all experienced artists by the time they appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest but, as a group, they were still finding their feet,” says ABBA biographer Carl Magnus Palm. “They were still trying to find out what their strengths and weaknesses were.”

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The band had considerable competition for the Eurovision crown on that night, particularly from the UK who were hot contenders with Olivia Newton-John singing Long Live Love. But working in their favour was France’s entrant pulling out a few days before the event, as a mark of respect to their recently deceased President Georges Pompidou.

However, rehearsals were a disaster. ABBA’s manager Stig Anderson berated sound engineers for not amplifying them loud enough. And the host broadcasters, the BBC, were so amateurish that they struggled to supply a drum kit for the musicians to use on the night.

In retrospect, half a century on,Waterloo may sound like the very quintessence of a Eurovision hit. But in the early 1970s, its style and delivery were totally unexpected.

“Waterloo was completely different from anything ever heard in Eurovision,” says Palm, who has written multiple books about the Swedish band. “At the time, the typical Eurovision song was a dramatic ballad or a cheerful oompah stomper. ABBA brought modern pop music to the contest.”

Yet even Agnetha wasn’t confident of success. She thought the British and the Dutch songs had a better chance. “Frankly, I think Waterloo was one of our poorer songs,” she later admitted. The male half of Dutch pop duo Mouth and MacNeal didn’t endear himself to ABBA’s female members at a dinner the night before the event.

Mouth goaded Anni-Frid and Agnetha by bellowing: “Who are you? ABBA? Don’t think you’re the strongest. I’m the strongest.” After he lifted a far-from-amused Agnetha into the air, his management team were forced to intervene, removing him from the room.

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Then came a near sartorial disaster. Standing backstage before their performance, Bjõrn found his outfit stretched so tight across his body that he couldn’t sit down. Later describing his on-stage appearance ance as that of a “fat Christmas tree”, he immediately went on a strict diet.

Not that anyone cared. The performance, available on YouTube, was a triumph of uniquely Swedish charisma and showmanship. Bjõrn brandishes a star-shaped guitar. Anni-Frid and Agnetha’s outfits are a miasma of sequins, glitter, platform boots, maxi dresses and tiered cotton.

Afterwards, Bjõrn’s discomfort with his outfit was compounded by nerves as the group waited for the results to come in from across the continent. “No one can imagine the tension at such an event,” he said later. “Your skin crawls, your stomach knots up and your throat gets all dry. You want to run away from it all, at the same time as you’re standing there transfixed and spellbound.”

Katie Boyle, presenting for the BBC, eventually announced ABBA as the winner, with 24 points. Notably, none of those points were awarded by the British judges – but Bjõrn only found this out in 2022, when the last surviving jury member of that year told him.

Then in further unbelievable scenes of chaos, Bjõrn and Benny were prevented from reaching the stage to make songwriters’ thank-you speeches, alongside Stig Anderson, as overzealous security guards refused to believe he was responsible for both performing and writingWaterloo.

“The guard said: ‘You’re not a writer, you’ve misunderstood this, you dumb Swede.You have to wait!'” Bjõrn recalled.

Elated with their win, the group partied until 6am the following morning. But Terry Wogan, broadcasting for Radio 2 from a caravan outside the contest, cocked things up by losing his power supply just moments before ABBA arrived to be interviewed.

“We sat there in the dark,” the broadcasting legend later told the BBC. “That was my chance to interview ABBA, and it went up in smoke.”

And incredibly, ABBA’s home nation – or at least, the members of the Swedish media who were in Sussex to cover Eurovision – didn’t seem at all willing to share in their success.

When Stockholm reporter Ulf Gudmundsson spoke to Stig Anderson the next morning, his interview was confrontational and rude. “Last year you made a song about people phoning each other,” he said, in a reference to ABBA’s 1973 tune Ring Ring. “This year, you did a song about how 40,000 people died, cynically speaking.”

This sneering, says Palm, was not untypical. “There was a strong trend in Sweden at the time that popular music should have a political or socially conscious message,” he explains.

“ABBA weren’t interested in all that and because they were so successful, they became the symbol of everything that was wrong with the music business.”

Contrary to popular belief, Eurovision didn’t usher in a period of instant success for ABBA. They had no hits for 18 months and music industry insiders in both Britain and Sweden were convinced they were one-hit wonders.

It wasn’t until the release of Fernando as a single in March 1976 thatABBA had another huge UK hit.The rest is history, of course.

ABBA remains one of the bestselling and most loved music acts ever. Their songs inspired musical Mamma Mia!, which spawned the successful 2008 Hollywood film of the same name, starring Meryl Street and Pierce Brosnan, plus a sequel in 2018. Then there’s ABBA Voyage, the group’s avatar concert, which has also been a critical and commercial success since its launch in mid-2022.

By the beginning of the 2020s, Waterloo had sold more than six million copies worldwide, but Palm believes ABBA’s Eurovision triumph ultimately was a mixed blessing.

“In terms of long-term credibility, it became a bit of a millstone around their necks,” he says. “There is much more appreciation for their accomplishments today, but there is still a tinge of that ‘superficial Europop group in platform boots’ label.

“With the talents of all four members and the sex appeal of Agnetha and Frida, they would probably have found success in the UK sooner or later, even without Eurovision.

“But winning it made everything much bigger, much more explosive.”

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