Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

What was a song about Napoleon doing at Eurovision? ABBA had a brilliant plan

Let’s be honest: if it weren’t for the famous victory at… Eurovision, ABBA she would have made a career anyway, although probably a little later and with much more effort. What is more important, however, is that if it weren’t for Eurovision itself, this band might not exist at all. Why? The musicians’ adventure with the competition began several years earlier, when the team had not even worked together yet.

In 1969 Benny Anderson, i.e. the owner of one “B” in the name, took part in the national preselections with the song “Hej clown”, sung by Jan Malmsjö. A certain woman also wanted to go to Spain Anni-Frid Lyngstadlater known simply as Frida, with the song “Härlig är vår jord”. None of these songs won the eliminations, but the artists “won” something else. Benny and Frida met thanks to the competition and soon became a couple. Call it a strange coincidence, but around the same time Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog they took part in a TV show together and soon another musical relationship began.

It so happened that the bands in which the gentlemen played began to fall apart. Yep, you guessed it, almost simultaneously too. So Björn and Benny decided to work together, and from time to time their partners came to the studio and helped with the recordings at the beginning. All four of them also contributed to the single that Frida released in 1971. In fact, it was then that the history of the group ABBA began, although the famous name appeared a while later. First album together, “RingRing”was published under the banner Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. However, the head of the Polar Music label looked at the band, then at the musicians’ names on the paper, and came up with one of the simplest and most famous letter combinations in the world: ABBA.

The group’s success may have been spectacular, but the beginnings were not as simple as it seems. Still under the old name, the team tried to get to Eurovision in 1973. The song “Ring Ring” received good marks, but in the end Sweden sent a different song to the competition. The band was able to shed tears as they watched the song become a hit in their home country, but the consolation prizes – although nice – were not what ABBA expected. The group members, especially after their defeat, decided that they had to get to Eurovision. The musicians were modest, but they knew perfectly well that they had a talent for writing hit songs, and their band had huge potential. They were just waiting for their big chance, and there was no better opportunity to present themselves to an audience, especially an international one, than such an event.

So the musicians decided to try their hand at it next year. This time the group submitted a song “Waterloo”written especially for the competition by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson, i.e. a manager and, at the same time, a talented creator and producer. Benny was participating in Eurovision for the third time, so he was counting on the famous rule “three times a charm” would apply. He wasn’t wrong. “Waterloo” turned out to be the undisputed winner of the eliminations and no one had any doubts that the Swedes couldn’t have chosen a better song from the pool. The single stood out not only during national pre-selections, because reviewers also began to shyly say that it was one of those songs that could be liked around the world.

ABBA decided to increase their chances even more. The artists prepared an English version of the text, which was a very good idea. In the early 1970s, few non-Anglo-Saxon bands could count on international success, and singing in Swedish would hardly have helped in this regard. So the formation did what they could and started packing for their trip to Brighton. It is true that the next edition of Eurovision was to be organized by Luxembourg, but after one final the country decided that it would be a big expense, so this time it gave the event to Great Britain.

On the day of the competition itself, April 6, 1974, ABBA was not predicted as the winner. Behind the scenes and among journalists, it was most often said that the Netherlands or Great Britain could win, although Olivia Newton-John was dissatisfied with her song and claimed that the ballad she had previously proposed was definitely better than what the artist ultimately had to boast about at the stage. However, the Swedes did not care about predictions or assessments of other countries’ chances, because they had their mission: to win Eurovision.

Although many people had already wondered where Napoleon came from in a pop song, the musicians knew what they were doing. The text refers to the famous defeat of the French commander at Waterloo in 1815, but behind the historical background there is a story of a woman who finally “gives up” and falls in love with the man who fought for her. The same story in its usual form would probably not impress anyone, but the song that began with the words “We, we, at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender” intrigued even those who did not know English very well. However, no one predicted how ABBA would use the lyrics on stage.

The Swedes performed about halfway through the evening and when they appeared in front of the audience, people, including those watching TV, could not believe their eyes. The band was dressed in shiny, colorful outfits that glam rock masters would be proud of, and the orchestra conductor downstairs was dressed as… Napoleon. ABBA bet on the show and said it would surprise the audience. Of course, today at Eurovision “surprise” is understood completely differently, but let’s remember that it was the 1970s and people in evening dresses sat in the audience.

The Swedes were smiling on stage and looked confident, but don’t be fooled. The musicians admitted that they were stressed, even more stressed after the performance. Björn tried not to even look at the scoreboard. Indeed, at times it was not a pleasant sight. Five countries awarded “Waterloo” zero points, including the competition organizers. Even this, however, did not prevent the Swedes from winning the hearts of the European audience. When the musicians heard that ABBA was winning Eurovision, they were happy, although their nerves had not yet subsided. The artists couldn’t believe that they had managed to implement their plan.

The security guards turned out to be similar unbelievers. When the authors of the winning song were about to enter the stage, the guards looked at Benny and Björn’s outfits, concluded that people dressed like that certainly did not write the song – and decided to stop the musicians. Stig kept his cool in this situation and approached the microphone and thanked him for the award in several languages. The manager studied his lines all afternoon, just to be on the safe side.

After the official part of the competition, the artists could finally breathe. The musicians called their families and friends in Sweden, although they still didn’t believe what they had achieved. ABBA had many more such moments of disbelief in the following weeks and months. “Waterloo” quickly topped the charts in Europe, but the single was unexpectedly popular in the United States and Australia as well. ABBA may have had its first major international hit, but it also achieved something much better. The Swedes proved to themselves and to the doubters that not only teams from English countries have a chance to make a career in the world. No wonder the group later decided to sing in English. Eurovision showed that “it can be done”. For ABBA, success in Brighton turned out to be the beginning of a long and beautiful adventure.

Final Eurovision 2024 will take place in Sweden. Thanks to last year’s win Loreen with the song “Tattoo” the artists will compete in the country that won this competition exactly 50 years ago. There is no chance of any special performance by ABBA, because the group has ended its career and announced that it does not plan any concerts. Fans, however, are betting that the musicians will appear at the event. After all, who would miss the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of their Eurovision victory at the same competition, only 50 years later?