Why Abba’s Dancing Queen is the best pop song ever

Since its 1976 release, Abba’s ‘absolute best song’ (according to Frida Lyngstad) has won over everyone from punks to royalty and almost caused a riot in New York. So how has the song’s low-lit Friday night managed to last for ever?

Roll your hands down a piano, from the high notes to the low, and you’ve mastered the intro to the most perfect pop song ever written. Feel free to congratulate yourself, although don’t get carried away – you’ve still got three minutes and 49 seconds of Abba’s Dancing Queen to learn, and trying to replicate the sheer joy and exuberance packed into that brief space of time may prove somewhat trickier.

It’s 40 years since the Swedish band released their masterpiece (fans of The Winner Takes It All might beg to differ, but does your great auntie leap out of her seat quite as quickly to that?). Back then, it hit No 1, not just in Sweden and Britain, but in countries as diverse as Mexico, New Zealand, Belgium, South Africa and the US, where it was their only chart-topper.

It’s no mystery why – Dancing Queen is beautifully produced: catchy and euphoric, the perfect backdrop for a song that encapsulates the carefree bliss of youth. Certainly, the band knew they had struck gold before it was even finished. Frida Lyngstad told me in 2014 that hearing the music Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had created for her and Agnetha Fältskog to sing on was a eureka moment, so much so that she burst into tears: “Out of pure happiness that I would get to sing that song, which is the absolutely the best song Abba have ever done,” she said.

Agnetha Fältskog arrives in The Hague, Netherlands to record the TV programme Eén van de Acht in 1976.
Agnetha Fältskog arrives in The Hague, Netherlands to record the TV programme Eén van de Acht in 1976. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

What is it that elevates Dancing Queen above so many other beautifully produced, catchy, euphoric songs? Pete Waterman, who knows a thing or two about writing a hit, believes it exemplifies how the best Swedish artists are able to soak up popular trends and regurgitate them as something fresh: “Listen to Dancing Queen and you can hear Elton John straight away, you can hear the Beatles, disco is coming along with the Bee Gees, and you can hear that,” he says. “It’s also got what all great pop songs have – a great first line. ‘Friday night and the lights are low’ … boosh! You’re away. All great records start with a bang.”

Indeed, the record starts with such a bang that, after that initial piano roll, it catapults you straight into the middle of the chorus: an explosive opening before the song has even officially started.

It could have all been quite different. An early version opened with the less immediate line: “Baby, baby you’re out of sight/Hey, you’re lookin’ alright tonight.” Back then, the song was called Boogaloo, too, before the band’s manager Stig Anderson earned his fee by suggesting an alternative title.

The music – which updated the laidback disco groove of George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby with Abba’s sparkling pop panache – was finished before the lyrics were considered, which was how most of Abba’s songs were developed: “I would play the songs over and over again,” Ulvaeus told me in 2014, “and I would literally see images of things coming up.”

In Dancing Queen’s case, these images told the story of a 17-year-old girl on a nightclub dancefloor – lost in the music and the moment. The sonic euphoria mirrors the freedom that the dancefloor can bring, although, as with all Abba songs, there’s a hint of what Ulvaeus called “that Nordic melancholic feeling” to it. The teenage girl isn’t the narrator, after all, so is the listener really just an observer, looking back on their lost youth? Ultimately, the song seems less concerned with making you gaze forlornly back than it does with bringing the abandonment of your teenage years into the present, at least for four glorious minutes.

MGMT used the same tempo for Time to Pretend.
MGMT used the same tempo for Time to Pretend. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

No wonder, then, that it’s such a wedding disco staple (there are only two kinds of wedding discos: ones that open with Dancing Queen, and terrible ones). No wonder that other artists have tried to channel its evergreen properties: the band may have been the definition of uncool at their peak – perma-smiling europop stars in sequinned jumpsuits – but that didn’t stop their more critically adored peers from borrowing from them. Chris Stein admitted to trying to replicate the song for Blondie’s hit Dreaming, while Elvis Costello – who once admitted he viewed Dancing Queen as “manna from heaven” – famously was inspired by the descending octave piano chords for his hit Oliver’s Army. More recently, MGMT told the podcast Song Exploder how they purposefully stuck to Dancing Queen’s relaxed 101 BPM tempo for their breakthrough hit Time to Pretend.

Australian/Swedish twin sister duo Say Lou Lou have a particular affection for the 70s pop/disco sound (their latest release is a cover of Saturday Night Fever) but believe much of Dancing Queen’s magic rests in the lyrics: “Dedicating a whole song to a girl wanting to dance without it necessarily having to be about romance made us feel excited and thrilled,” says Elektra June Kilbey-Jansson. “Crowning a 17-year old girl in a nightclub a queen feels so dramatic and attention-grabbing. They would find great song titles and work it through the song with memorable keywords – in this case swing, jive, rock, king and queen.” (Let’s be thankful once more that the band didn’t stick with Boogaloo).

Elvis Costello was inspired by the descending piano chords for Oliver’s Army.
Elvis Costello was inspired by the descending piano chords for Oliver’s Army. Photograph: IBL/Rex/Shutterstock

While these artists have all helped Dancing Queen live on, there’s another, stronger force that’s kept it at the forefront of public consciousness: the musical Mamma Mia!. Judy Craymer, who conceived the monster hit stage show and film, believes its success has helped pass the music of Abba on from generation to generation. “An 89-year-old would say ‘that’s our song’, but children can learn it, too, almost like a nursery rhyme, and it’s very attractive to them,” she says, pointing out how countless parents have told her that the soundtrack’s version of Dancing Queen is one of their school-run staples.

Craymer credits the way the song “explodes from the stage or screen” for its prominent role in the musical and film. She also recalls the runup to opening Mamma Mia! in New York back in 2001, when the cast were due to perform Dancing Queen as part of a free concert in Times Square. “But the police had heard that it could cause a euphoric frenzy in the crowd!” she says, laughing. “They had heard about the reactions the song had got in San Francisco, with people getting up out of their seats, and in the end I don’t think we were allowed to perform it.”

Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer.
Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer. Photograph: Bobby Bank/WireImage

A police clampdown might seem heavy-handed, but Dancing Queen is a song whose power is hard to resist. It’s the record Waterman calls his “get-out-of-jail card … Whenever I lost the floor as a DJ, I just stuck Dancing Queen on.” It’s a track even the Queen is supposedly fond of boogying to (Chris Evans claimed that she told him: “I always try to dance when this song comes on because I am the Queen and I like to dance”).

If you’re left in any doubt over Dancing Queen’s charms, then just consider the 1996 Sex Pistols reunion show in Finsbury park, north London. To remind the audience just how stale the music scene had grown before Johnny Rotten et al came along, the PA blasted out the likes of the Bay City Rollers and other cheesy 70s pop staples. Unfortunately, that playlist also included Abba’s Dancing Queen – when it came on, the old punks gathered together failed to sneer: instead they began singing in unison. As Craymer says: “That’s what people do with Dancing Queen – they just surrender.”

Contributor

Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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