Waterloo, Belgium

Waterloo by ABBA

The history book on the shelf
Is always repeating itself Read full Lyrics
Re-creating the battle of Waterloo
There comes a time in the course of every megalomaniacal emperor’s campaign of world domination when he starts to wonder if he might have pushed things too far. For Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, that day was June 18, 1815, when he lost the Battle of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium. Days after his defeat, on June 25, Napoleon was ordered to leave Paris, and the Prussian army received orders to seize him alive or, in lieu of that, to retrieve his corpse. With his army in shambles and his dreams dashed, Napoleon fled in a failed attempt to escape what would become his final exile and eventual death. He would never experience the rush of tyrannical authority again.

The Battle of Waterloo saw Napoleon’s Imperial French army take on several allied forces, including the Austrians, Prussians, Russians, and British, to name just a few. Napoleon was defeated decisively and his attempted comeback from his exile in Elba, a time period now known as the Hundred Days of Napoleon, or simply as The Hundred Days, marked the conclusion of one of the bloodiest, yet mind-bogglingly brilliant military reigns in world history.

Ever since that fateful day of June 18, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo has been studied by academicians and war scholars. It was a day that impacted not only the fate of France, but of the world. Considering Napoleon’s aspirations and power, it requires no exaggeration to say that the entire world could be a very different place today if Napoleon’s Waterloo Campaign had been successful. Whether it would have been for better or worse is debatable, but the fact that it was one of the most significant events in history is not.

The story of Waterloo and Napoleon’s fall stands as not only a political and martial history lesson, but also as a moralistic example of the dangers of unchecked ambition. Books were written on the subject and University courses taught on it. Its details were pored over by great minds seeking not only to grasp the full events of what had happened that day, but also to use those lessons in devising military strategies for the future. Then, just when it seemed that no new angle could be taken on the events, no new perspectives offered, nor theories explored… along came ABBA.

In its own way, the phenomenon of ABBA is no less remarkable and dumbfounding than the story of a diminutive militarist from a modestly-sized nation nearly conquering the known world. The band’s name is an acronym composed around the first letters of each member’s name: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Clad in silver platform boots and sequined outfits, the group from Stockholm, Sweden, exploded onto the international music scene with their song “Waterloo.” With that tune, they won the Eurovision Song Contest on April 6, 1974, and went on to become of the best-selling musical acts of all time.

What is truly, endearingly inexplicable about “Waterloo” is that it uses the horrific Battle of Waterloo as a metaphor for a girl preparing to surrender love, all set to a frolicking, disco-ish tune that was performed with big, white smiles and lots of bouncing hair. The band was not yet as accustomed to speaking English as they would become, so their accents were heavy in the song, but this fact did nothing to deter the band from crossing over cultural barriers and achieving a massive, worldwide audience.
The Lion's Mound at Waterloo, commemorating the battle
“Waterloo” held the #1 spot in the UK music charts for two weeks. It also took first place status in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, West Germany, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, and Switzerland. It achieved Top 3 status in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, and cracked into the Top 10 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia, and the United States, where it climbed as high as sixth place.

The song was no passing fancy, either. It has stood the test of time, being named the best song in the Eurovision Song Contest’s history during the event’s 50th celebration on October 22, 2005. In 1994, it appeared on the soundtrack for the film Muriel’s Wedding. In 2004 it was re-released in celebration of its 30th anniversary and went on to reach #20 in the UK charts. The years may pass, but the world just can’t seem to get enough ABBA.

A different version of “Waterloo” was accidently released shortly after ABBA won their first, fateful contest. This new version had less frills and sequins, and was more akin to rock and roll than the original’s disco. It did not achieve the kind of success that the original did, but the band did perform it on their 1979 tour through Europe and North America.

Ultimately, it’s only fitting that the original version of “Waterloo” is the one that the band is most known for. The song embodies the uncompromisingly upbeat, unpretentious, and catchy sound that the band has become known for. Parodied and satirized as much as any popular band in history, ABBA carved out a mirror-ball-lighted niche that the world has never forgotten. They are as infectious as they are silly. We might occasionally stop to think about the fact that “Waterloo” trivializes a gruesome battle in which more than 47,000 people lost their lives, but we’d be too busy dancing to care.
~ Jeff Suwak

Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
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