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Eurovision. How Abba’s 1974 victory divided Sweden

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionAbba have become a symbol of Sweden over the years, but their victory at Eurovision in 1974 was met with hostility by the Swedes

  • Author, Claire Thorpe
  • Role, BBC News
  • May 12, 2024

50 years ago, the Swedish band Abba triumphantly won the Eurovision Song Contest. But this victory had a bitter aftertaste for the musicians, a new documentary shows.

It’s 50 years since Abba took to the song contest stage – all satin, sequins and silver shoes – and came away victorious with their song Waterloo.

It was an incredible luck that this year the competition was also held in Sweden, creating conditions for a brilliant celebration of the country’s biggest musical export. The organizers thanked Abba for Waterloo, which was performed by three previous winners of the competition: Charlotte Perrelli, Carola and Conchita Wurst.

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The legendary four – Agneta Feltskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Ani-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad – did not appear on the stage in Malmö. Last year, Bjorn and Benny rejected the idea of ​​a reunion to participate in the competition, the group has not performed together for more than 40 years.

Fortunately for fans, they got to see the band, if only in the form of digital avatars, who wowed hundreds of thousands at the Abba Voyage virtual concert in London.

After all, no other Eurovision winner has come close to the success of Abba, who have sold 385 million records since winning the contest in 1974 and became one of the most successful groups of all time.

A recently unveiled commemorative plaque at Brighton Dome marks the spot where Abba “launched their career after winning the 19th Eurovision Song Contest”.

But as a new documentary reveals, that victory came with a bitter aftertaste, marking the beginning of an uphill battle to have the legendary foursome’s music taken seriously.

“The mythology around Abba became very strong, they were destined to be stars,” James Rogan, director of Abba: Despite Everything, which is based on rare archival footage and interviews, told the BBC.

“Eurovision was an important milestone on the way to fame, but after winning they immediately faced great difficulties,” says Rogan.

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionBenny was a member of the Swedish Beatles before joining Abba and Bjorn was in a folk skiffle band

The band formed in 1972 and unsuccessfully tried to enter Eurovision in 1973 with the song Ring Ring. Seeing the contest as a ticket to success outside of Sweden, Abba went all out the following year, writing Waterloo specifically for Eurovision.

It paid off. Not only did Abba win the competition in Brighton, their single Waterloo went to number one in the UK (despite getting a zero from the British judges) and topped the charts across Europe.

However, in the film, Benny Anderson recalled how the UK initially thought they were “rather pale”. They were told: “Even if the song was number one in England, if you’re in Eurovision, then you’re dead.”

The band’s music was received reluctantly on the radio, and it was more than 18 months before they had another super hit, Mamma Mia.

Eurovision turned out to be a double-edged sword. The outfits, no matter how fabulous they were, did not help them. “We weren’t taken seriously, I think, because we wore such strange clothes,” says Bjorn. “It was kitsch…we suffered a lot because of it.”

Reaction in Sweden

But it was in their home country that Abba, which shared its name with a Swedish pickled herring brand, faced the most hostility.

“There was a different media climate in Sweden at that time,” says Björn. “We weren’t popular.”

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionAfter winning a national talent competition in 1967, Frida released solo singles. At the age of 18, Agneta had a number one record in Sweden with her song

Archive footage in the documentary shows Swedes being asked what they think of the band. “They’re too commercial,” replies one man. “They only sing pop,” says the woman.

Many believed that the band was created purely to make money. Before joining Abba, Bjorn and Benny performed in popular folk groups, while Agnetha and Frida were successful in their own right. “And then they came together in this brilliant, glamorous, chewy pop formation,” says Rogan.

Another problem was that, according to Eurovision rules, Sweden had to host the contest a year after Abba’s victory. “The fact that they won meant that (public broadcaster – Ed.) SVT had to finance Eurovision,” says Rogan.

“The music culture, which considered itself authentic and as if folk, suddenly saw that the financing of its projects ended, and Eurovision sucked it all,” he explains.

A left-wing movement called Progg, which was against the commercialization of music, protested the contest in Sweden, and 200,000 people took to the streets of Stockholm.

On the evening of the show in Stockholm, an alternative music festival was taking place on the other side of the city. “There was a progressive movement that saw Abba as the antichrist,” says Bjorn.

The protests were so strong that in 1976, the year after the competition was held at home, Sweden decided not to compete at all.

Many people were also angered by the fact that Abba were apparently apolitical.

“We were a sad generation,” Michael Vige, singer of the Swedish group Hoola Bandoola Band, explains in the documentary. “We were upset about the apartheid system, upset about the military coups in Latin America, upset about the wars in Southeast Asia. And we were upset that Abba wasn’t upset.”

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionIn the early years, the music press sometimes treated the band disparagingly

All this meant that although the band was doing well commercially, Abba was something of a dirty word in the Swedish music community.

“They sold a lot of records and were extremely popular,” says Rogan. “But those records were then shelved. And some of the musicians who played with them were blacklisted.”

Such musical snobbery haunted them for many years not only in Sweden, but throughout the world. Although Abba had hit after hit, the press continued to be wary of them. The newspaper clippings shown in the film included the following lines: “We have met the enemy, and it is them.”

Looking back at old tapes of the interview, Rogan is shocked at how dismissive some of the reporters were.

“If you had a chance to talk to Benny and Bjorn right after they wrote SOS and Knowing Me, Knowing You, would you have asked, ‘How bad are your lyrics? Do you enjoy playing them? Aren’t they essentially the same thing?”

Disappointment was often visible on the musicians’ faces. “The extraordinary thing is that these four were inventing sound,” says Rogan. “They were creating some techniques that could fuel the Swedish music industry.”

It wasn’t just the press that had doubts about Abba. The band’s rise coincided with the rise of punk, a movement completely at odds with the quartet’s glossy pop image. And when Abba came out with the disco album Voulez-Vous in 1979, the Disco Sucks movement was trying to destroy the genre.

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionIn spite of their rocky start, Abba became one of the most successful musical groups in the history of pop music

As Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy wrote in an essay about his love for Abba’s smash hit Dancing Queen for The New York Times: “As a kid who loved punk rock, (Dancing Queen – Ed.) was located deep in enemy territory, at the intersection of pop music and disco”.

And yet, just as in the case of Tweedy, the melody of Dancing Queen proved irresistible even to the most ardent punk rockers. The documentary reveals that when The Sex Pistols were on tour, they had this tape on repeat all the time.

In fact, many rock musicians were Abba fans.

In 1979, members of Led Zeppelin and The Who sat in the VIP area at the band’s super-successful concert at Wembley Arena in London. Pete Townshend, the leader of The Who, called SOS “the best pop song ever written”.

This song was also a favorite of John Lennon. “I think the musicians took to what Abba was doing more quickly than the critics,” says Rogan.

By the time Abba released Super Trouper in 1980, critics were finally beginning to appreciate their songwriting skills. Hits such as The Winner Takes it All, believed to be inspired by Bjorn and Agnetha’s divorce, embodied what the band did best – combining emotionally devastating lyrics with addictive melodies.

It’s this deep sense of melancholy – something Benny once attributed to coming from a part of the world where the sun almost disappears for two months and snow falls for almost six months – that came to define their sound.

In a segment of the documentary, the interviewer asks Agneta and Frida if they are happy. “Sometimes, sometimes not,” says Frieda. “Life goes up and down,” Agneta adds.

This ability to reflect both dreams and life’s frustrations was Abba’s songwriting superpower.

Photo credit: Alamy

image captionAgnetha and Björn married in July 1971 and divorced in January 1979.

The band disbanded in 1982 after both couples divorced. But the end of the band was just the beginning of the Abba phenomenon. In 1992, they released the greatest hits compilation Abba Gold, the second best-selling album of all time in the UK. In 1999, the musical “Mamma Mia!” debuted, based on their songs, which also became a hit.

Abba’s virtual residency in London was a huge success in its first year, bringing in £178m.

But even more than commercial success, they achieved something that had eluded them for so long – respect for themselves as songwriters and recognition of their enormous influence on pop music.

“All that early criticism has more or less melted away, and the music has remained,” Rogan says. “And music is a kind of cultural force.”

As for Sweden, a country that once struggled to commercialize music has ironically become something of a powerhouse for pop music.

Swedish producers such as Mack Martin have produced hits for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.

And it all started with Abba.

“Sweden has a love-hate relationship with Abba, but I think they’ve accepted it as part of their cultural setup now,” says Rogan.

Does he think that now, 50 years later, the legendary four look back fondly on their Eurovision glory, despite the burden it brought them?

“I think Abba are pragmatists. It was a pragmatic decision to go to Eurovision because it was the only platform that could bring them into the English-speaking world of music at that level. So I think in that sense they have no regrets.”

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