How ABBA are still on top of the world 50 years after winning Eurovision

The brilliant Swedish band, which shot to fame on the Eurovision Song Contest, continues to live on through stage shows like Mamma Mia! and ABBA Voyage.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s definitely a year to say thank you for the music as we reach some major ABBA milestones. April 2024 sees the beloved Swedish band mark 50 years since they shot to worldwide fame as winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, while, that same month, the West End’s hit stage musical Mamma Mia! turns 25.

The love for ABBA has only grown over the years, thanks to the use of their music in stage shows, movies, and even a cutting-edge hologram concert, ABBA Voyage. Let’s look back at half a century of dancing queens and super troupers, and celebrate the songs that are still pop music at its finest. The winner really does take it all!

Book Mamma Mia! tickets and ABBA Voyage tickets on London Theatre.

ABBA win Eurovision

It was actually the second try at Eurovision for Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – aka ABBA. The group first auditioned for Sweden’s Melodifestivalen in 1973 with the song “Ring Ring,” but finished in third place, so they didn’t make it through to the actual contest.

However, the group then put out their debut album and had international success with that, as well as with the single “Ring Ring.” They were well prepared for the 1974 Melodifestivalen and eventually submitted a total banger: “Waterloo,” inspired by the UK’s burgeoning glam rock scene.

ABBA wowed Swedish TV viewers when they performed in February 1974. But they needed to win over the rest of the world too – and they did. Singing in English was a clever choice, plus “Waterloo” drew on Phil Spector’s hugely popular Wall of Sound in its layered instrumental overdubs.

The band were also canny in taking what was at that time a very different approach to Eurovision, which then favoured the angsty ballad. Instead, ABBA stormed in with their rocky, up-tempo, and catchy song, and added a big performance with eye-catching costumes and fun choreography.

It all paid off. ABBA decisively won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, and also had a massive chart hit with “Waterloo.” It went to number one in the UK, Belgium, Denmark, West Germany, Ireland, South Africa and more, and it was big beyond Europe too, reaching the top 10 in America, Australian, Canada, and New Zealand.

Even more remarkably, 50 years later the band is as popular as ever – maybe even more so.

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ABBA return with Mamma Mia!

Following Eurovision ABBA went on to massive success, but they broke up around 1983; they never formally announced a split, but they didn't make any new music until the announcement that "I Still Have Faith in You" and "Don't Shut Me Down" had been recorded in 2018.

However, that was far from the end of the ABBA legacy. British producer Judy Craymer convinced Ulvaeus and Andersson – after much persistent pestering – that their songs would be perfect for a stage musical.

In 1997 playwright Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd came on board, and Mamma Mia! was born. As Craymer had said, the theatrical energy of the numbers was immediately apparent: after all, this was a duo who wrote with great pathos about heartbreak and the passage of time, as well as getting us all on the dance floor.

Johnson cleverly wove the songs into a new story about a mother and daughter running a dilapidated hotel on a fantasy Greek island. Sophie is about to get married, but wants her father there, so she steals mum Donna’s diary and invites three potential dads along – forcing Donna to confront her past.

Just as Ulvaeus and Andersson always wrote brilliantly for their female bandmates, so Mamma Mia! has women at its heart: both the mother-daughter relationship, plus Sophie and Donna each has two girlfriends to support them through this crazy time.

Mamma Mia! opened at London’s Prince Edward Theatre on 6 April 1999 – or 25 years ago this April – and then hopped into the Prince of Wales Theatre, and finally its current home the Novello Theatre. It’s been a West End staple ever since.

The show then opened on Broadway in 2001, and went on to play in 60 countries over six continents. It also spawned two massive Hollywood movies, Mamma Mia! in 2008 and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in 2018.

The show then opened on Broadway in 2001, and went on to play in 60 countries over six continents. It also spawned two massive Hollywood movies, Mamma Mia! in 2008 and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in 2018, starring Meryl Streep as Donna, Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, Dominic Cooper as her fiancé Sky, and Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård as the three potential fathers.

You can even combine the fun of the movies with a live stage show, thanks to the immersive dining and theatrical experience Mamma Mia! The Party at the O2.

Plus we recently saw the new stars of the West End Mamma Mia! – Stevie Doc, playing Sophie, and Tobias Turley, playing Sky – cast via TV show Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream.

It’s all testament to the lasting power of ABBA. Mamma Mia! is only the third musical in the history of the West End to reach the massive milestone of 25 years, its Silver Jubilee, and – knowing me, knowing you, and knowing ABBA fans! – it’s going to run for another glorious 25 years.

Book Mamma Mia! tickets on London Theatre.

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ABBA Voyage breaks new ground

I have a dream, and it came true when ABBA reunited and released a new album, Voyage, in 2021. But that was just the start of a new journey.

ABBA teamed up with motion capture experts, the visual effects wizards Industrial Light & Magic, and choreographer Wayne McGregor to create a show that had never been attempted before: ABBA Voyage, a concert residency featuring virtual avatars of the band – or ABBAtars, as they became dubbed.

It’s basically ABBA as they were on their 1979 tour, but with newly recorded vocals and dancing – all combined. So the ultra-realistic hologram figures you see on stage look like Seventies ABBA, but sound and move like the band now, giving you both a nostalgic thrill and a sense of artistic authenticity.

The use of cutting-edge technology required a purpose-built venue: enter ABBA Arena near the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. The arena features incredible lighting and a whole laser show.

ABBA Voyage features 20 classic hits, including “Chiquitita,” “Fernando,” “Mamma Mia,” “Voulez-Vous,” “The Winner Takes It All,” and “Thank You for the Music,” all backed by a live 10-piece band. You can even buy Dance Floor tickets to really indulge your inner dancing queen.

Fifty years on from that all-important Eurovision win, and 25 years since Mamma Mia! first hit the West End, ABBA is still on top of the world.

Book ABBA Voyage tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Mamma Mia! (Photo courtesy of production)

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