After years of knocking on America's door, the Swedish supergroup's ''Dancing Queen'' hits No. 1

By Rob Brunner
Updated April 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

They sang. they danced. they dressed like members of a cult, talked like a slightly more fluent version of the Swedish Chef, and were so into themselves they actually married each other. As the biggest international pop phenomenon of the ’70s, ABBA were a triumph of vapid charisma, the era’s ultimate smiley-faced pop group. ”You look at ABBA clips and you know that’s the ’70s,” says John Tyrrell, founder of the London-based ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again. ”It’s the music, the dancing, the long white boots.” Not to mention the songs: Who could resist saccharine masterpieces like ”S.O.S.” and ”Fernando”?

Well, Americans, apparently. At one point, ABBA were the biggest-selling recording act in the world; by the end of the ’70s they had outgrossed Volvo as Sweden’s top export. Yet aside from 1974’s top 10 ”Waterloo,” Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha struggled on the U.S. charts. That all changed on April 9, 1977, when America succumbed to the ABBA invasion as ”Dancing Queen” hit No. 1 in the States.

What took so long? For one thing, to American ears ABBA just seemed so weird — glamorous but oddly bland song crafters who laced their music with such decidedly foreign references as Napoleon. But ”Dancing Queen” was different — a crisp, high-energy work tinged with melancholy that stands with the best of mid-’70s pop. ”Musically, it was a real departure for them,” says David McLees, Rhino Records’ resident ’70s expert. ”Their other songs had that Euro-pop sound. ‘Dancing Queen’ was clearly an attempt to capitalize on disco, which was building at that time.”

ABBA never scored another U.S. No. 1, and they broke up in 1982. Today, the band’s members are still musically active. Agnetha, 49, and Anni-Frid, 53, have released solo albums in Sweden. And Benny, 52, and Bjorn, 53, continue to collaborate: In 1992, they joined U2 on stage in Stockholm to perform — what else — ”Dancing Queen.”

The group’s legacy, heard in such ABBA-bes as Ace of Base and the British bubble-gum band Steps, continues. Just last month, a tribute album featuring such artists as Erasure was released (see review on page 76). Meanwhile, nine ABBA albums have been put out on CD for the first time in the U.S. And on April 6, Mamma Mia!, a musical based on ABBA’s songs (and with creative input from Benny and Bjorn) opens in London. For many, the showstopper will undoubtedly be ”Dancing Queen.”

ABBA’s Biggest Hits

”Waterloo” (1974) — No. 6
”S.O.S.” (1975) — No. 15
”I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” (1976) — No. 15
”Fernando” (1976) — No. 13
”Dancing Queen” (1977) — No. 1
”Knowing Me, Knowing You” (1977) — No. 14
”The Name of the Game” (1978) — No. 12
”Take a Chance on Me” (1978) — No. 3
”The Winner Takes It All” (1980) — No. 8

Time Capsule – April 9, 1977
AT THE MOVIES, Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone (right), packs a box office punch after winning three Oscars, including Best Picture. ON TV, the week’s top show is CBS’ Something for Joey, the true story of Heisman winner John Cappelletti. AT BOOKSTORES, Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal’s sequel to Love Story, rules the fiction best-seller list. AND IN THE NEWS, a controversy erupts over Alex Haley’s Roots after a British paper questions its accuracy. Haley admits that ”there are dozens of errors” but says the book is still ”a symbolic history of a people.”