How Abba Found Pop Perfection with “Dancing Queen”
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
At the start of the seventies, the idea of a musical group from a non-English speaking country having significant and consistent chart success in the English speaking market, seemed unimaginable. But in the mid-seventies, one group transcended all of these expectations, with songwriting and a sound that illustrated pop perfection. The group was ABBA and their most iconic hit - “Dancing Queen” - brought an infectious, American disco groove to EuroPop, taking the world by storm and changing the course of popular music history.
ABBA - as a quartet - was formed in Stockholm in 1972…when two married couples: Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad formed a pop group with a name built as an acronym of their first initials..
But the member’s musical and personal relationships go back even earlier. Björn and Benny had begun working together in the mid-sixties. Benny had been a part of a band called the Hep Stars - often referred to as “the Swedish Beatles.” He recalled: “I was in a band in the ‘60s called The Hep Stars, a rock and roll band, really. We used to do covers. And then The Beatles came along. I mean, they wrote their own music, and I was thinking, ‘hmm. Well, if they can do it, maybe we can do it too.’ And I thought then, ‘If I can write one good song, I could probably write two. And if I can write two songs, I can write three songs.’ So, I decided there on the spot, ‘Okay, I’m going to give this a go and see if it works.’”
The Hep Stars began playing songs written by Benny, some of which achieved Swedish chart success by 1966. Björn was playing in a Stockholm-based skiffle group called the Hootenanny Singers when the pair’s paths crossed. They co-wrote their first song together in 1966 - “Isn’t it Easy to Say” - and collaborated off and on for the next 4 years until, in 1970,.they released their first full album together - Lycka (“Happiness” in Swedish).
During this same time, the group’s female members had been pursuing their own solo careers. Agnetha had already achieved her first number one Swedish single in 1967, at the young age of 17. “Frida” Lyngstad had been performing regularly as a singer since the age of 13 and by 1967, she had signed a solo recording contract with EMI-Sweden after winning a national talent contest. Agnetha met Björn at a concert in 1968, and the pair began working closely together. She even co wrote a song - “Liselott" - with him and Benny for Lycka. Agnetha and Björn would marry a few years later, in 1971, before the formation of ABBA in 1972.
A 1969 “prequel” festival to the Eurovision Song Contest brought another two of the ABBA members together. The Melodifestivalen was a national festival intended to select Sweden’s entry into the Eurovision contest, and it was here that Benny and Frida first met. Shortly thereafter the future ABBA bandmates became romantically linked and Benny began producing her records. Her first number one hit came from this musical and romantic partnership in 1971 with the song “Min egen Stad”. Perhaps most interestingly, this hit features all four members of the future ABBA group on the recording.
In 1972, the first song credited to all four musicians, “People Need Love,” was released hitting number three on the Swedish radio charts and even getting some attention in the US. The following year, the newly formed quartet submitted a joint effort to the Melodifestivalen contest - “Ring Ring”. While the song did not win, it did take third place and garnered attention in Europe and South Africa. It also became the title track of the quartet’s first album together. At this release, the group was performing under their first names: Björn & Benny, and Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Their manager, Stig Anderson, then came up with the Acronym for the group's name, one that has familiar, even biblical, associations; “Abba” means “father” in both Hebrew and Aramaic.
The group was gaining traction, but their first big break came in 1974, when ABBA earned a spot in the Eurovision Contest with their song “Waterloo.” It was the first time performers were allowed to sing in their choice of language - rather than the language of the country they represented. ABBA sang in English and eschewed the ball gowns and tuxedos of the other competitors. They appeared on stage in their glam-rock attire, singing in English in a style unlike anyone else around them. The quartet would go on to win the entire competition, and the song’s release would be the first one credited under their new name, ABBA. After its success at Eurovision, “Waterloo” hit the number one spot in not only Sweden but also, the UK, Germany Switzerland, and it made a powerful showing on the American stage, hitting number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The following years would bring additional success and powerful hits: “S.O.S,” “Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” The band’s most iconic track “Dancing Queen” was released in 1976, capturing the band’s ability to mergy glittery (and yet elegant) Europop songwriting with an infectious dance groove.
“Dancing Queen” was written by Benny and Björn, and manager Stig Anderson. They credit George McCrae’s 1974 disco hit, “Rock Your Baby” as a major inspiration. Under the working title of “Boogaloo”, Benny played the instrumental track for his wife Frida who was brought to tears by the sound. She recalled: “Benny came home with a tape of the backing track and played it for me. I thought it was so enormously beautiful that I started to cry.”
From the shimmery keyboard slide at the song’s start, listeners are transported into an joyous, almost magical sonic space. The track is pop perfection, brilliantly opening with a half chorus. Vocally, the chorus is exuberant and full of energy. The vocals on the verse pull back, although the infectious groove remains strong. This vocal phrasing mirrors the storytelling of the lyrics, setting the scene of a night club:
“Friday night and the lights are low
Looking out for a place to go
Where they get play the right music
Getting in the swing
You come to look for a king”
The low range of the melody on ending phrases like “you come to look for a king” creates a tone of anticipation. Further preparing for the glorious excitement which comes at the return of the chorus. The first verse is a double verse, whereas the second is shorter and quickly returns the listener to the highly anticipated chorus. The song is perfectly unbalanced; it is chorus heavy, and centered around the satisfaction of hitting the chorus’ final phrase.
Like many pop songs that describe dancing, there is a parallel between the joy and addiction of the song’s hook, and the physical motion of dancing to the music. “Dancing Queen” epitomizes that experience, bringing in a sonic color and energy that mirrors the experience of a night dancing the night away under the mesmerizing and brilliant lights of a night club.
“Dancing Queen” was recorded at Glen Studios, located in a suburb of Stockholm. On August 4, 1974, Björn and Benny entered the studio, along with some session players, including Rutger Gunnarsson on bass guitar and Roger Palm on drums. Gunnarsson had known and been working with Björn since the sixties with the Hootenanny Singers. Palm was a local session musician who had been working with ABBA since 1971. It was in these sessions on August 4 and 5th, that they laid down the instrumental backing tracks and melody which had so moved Frida. The rest of the track took several months to record. Even as late as December of 1975, Benny and Björn were still refining the recording. The track was produced by Benny and Björn, with Michael B. Tretow as the engineer.
“Dancing Queen” was completed around the same time as another one of their major hits, “Fernando”. The group wanted to release a single in March of 1976, but there was disagreement about which one to release. Anderson insisted that the group go with “Fernando,” a ballad which would contrast the group’s previous release, “Mamma Mia.” His choice was a strong one, and “Fernando” became one of ABBA’s best selling tracks. It remains one of the best selling singles of all time. Still, the group was confident that “Dancing Queen” was destined for success. Agnetha recalled: “It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.”
While the song had to wait another five months after “Fernando” to be released as a single, it got an early start in performance, including a January 1976 TV special in Germany and another television performance in Australia in March. And then in Sweden, the song was introduced at the televised wedding gala for King Carl XVI and Silvia Sommerlath on June 19, 1976. On August 16, 1976 “Dance Queen” was released as a single in Sweden. The response was massive, as it took the number one spot on charts all over the world - including in the US, when in April of 1977, it became the group’s first and only US number one hit.
And it remains their most popular and iconic hit. It is the quintessential ABBA recording, showcasing the band’s pop perfection. In 2015, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. ABBA, as a group, remains one of the world’s best selling artists, and in 2010, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.