"Waterloo" was the first single from Swedish pop group ABBA's second album Waterloo, and their first for Epic and Atlantic. This was also the first single to be credited as "ABBA".
The song won ABBA the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest on 6 April and began their path to worldwide fame. The Swedish version single was coupled with "Honey, Honey" (Swedish version), while the English version featured "Watch Out" as the B-side.
The single became their first #1 hit in several countries, reached the U.S. top 10 and went on to sell nearly six million copies making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.
"Waterloo" is the quintessential Eurovision song, according to Dr Harry Witchel, physiologist and music expert at the University of Bristol.
"Waterloo" was originally written as a song for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, after the group finished third with Ring Ring the previous year in the Swedish pre-selection contest, Melodifestivalen 1973. Since it focused on lead vocalists Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson chose it in place of another of their songs, "Hasta Mañana". "Waterloo" is about a girl who is about to surrender to romance, as Napoleon had to surrender at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The song proved to be a good choice. It won Melodifestivalen 1974 (in Swedish) in February and won the Eurovision Song Contest 1974 (ESC) final on 6 April by six points.
"Waterloo" was originally written with simultaneous rock music and jazz beats (unusual for an ABBA song); this was later discarded in favour of more disco-esque rhythms. The song broke the "dramatic ballad" tradition of the Eurovision Song Contest by its flavour and rhythm, as well as by its performance: ABBA gave the audience something that had never been seen before in ESC: flashy costumes (including silver platform boots), plus a catchy uptempo song and even simple choreography. The group also broke from convention by singing the song in a language other than that of their home country; prior to "Waterloo" all Eurovision singers had been required to sing in their country's native tongue, a restriction that was lifted briefly in the 1970s (allowing "Waterloo" to be sung in English), then reinstated a few years later, then ultimately removed. Compared to later ABBA releases, the singers' Swedish accents are decidedly more pronounced in "Waterloo," as their understanding of the English language was limited.
Though it isn't well-known, Polar accidentally released a different version of "Waterloo" shortly after ABBA's Eurovision win before replacing it with the more famous version. The alternate version had a harder rock sound, omitting the saxophones, plus an additional "oh yeah" in the verses. The alternate version was commercially released in 2005 as part of The Complete Studio Recordings box set. However, it was this version that ABBA performed in the 1979 Europe/North American tour.
The "Waterloo" single introduced the world to the phenomenon that was to become ABBA. The song shot to #1 in the UK and stayed there for two weeks, becoming the first of the band's nine UK #1's, and the 16th biggest selling single of the year in the UK. It also hit the top of the charts in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, West Germany, Ireland, Norway, South Africa and Switzerland, while reaching the Top 3 in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and ABBA's native Sweden. (The tune did not reach #1 in their home country, its Swedish (#2) & English (#3) versions were beat out for the top spot by the Waterloo album [At the time Sweden had a combined Album and Singles Chart].) The song also spent 11 weeks on Svensktoppen (24 March - 2 June 1974), including 7 weeks at #1. Surprisingly, the song never made a huge impact in Italy, only reaching #14. In fact, ABBA would only achieve Top 10 success in Italy 3 times.
But the song's appeal transcended Europe; unlike other Eurovision-winning tunes, which are usually ignored outside the continent, "Waterloo" also reached the Top 10 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia and even the United States (peaking at #6, "Waterloo" is one of only two Eurovision winners, the other being "Save Your Kisses For Me", to be an American Top 40 hit). "Waterloo" is the only Eurovision song to reach the Top 10 in 15 countries. The Waterloo album performed similarly well in Europe, although in the US it failed to match the success of the single.
ABBA had originally cited the Wizzard song "See My Baby Jive" as influences; in the wake of their Eurovision victory, were quoted as saying that it would not surprise them if artists such as Wizzard would consider entering the Eurovision contest in future.
In 1994, "Waterloo" (along with several other ABBA hits) was included in the soundtrack of the film Muriel's Wedding. It was re-released in 2004 (with the same B-side), to celebrate its 30th anniversary, reaching #20 on the UK charts.
On 22 October 2005, during the 50th celebration of the Eurovision Song Contest, "Waterloo" was chosen as the best song in the competition's history.