The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 9, Abba – Dancing Queen

This glittering pop track, laced with nostalgia, yearning harmonies and a glorious piano line, has inspired many imitators – and some covers during lockdown

It takes 18 seconds for Dancing Queen to drop into one of the greatest moments in pop. It speaks volumes that the 18 seconds preceding it are pretty wonderful too: that song bursting into life on that impossibly joyous piano glissando, before eight bars of sparkling, effortless mid-tempo pop.

Then Agnetha Fältskog and Frida Lyngstad start to sing, effectively bringing us into the middle of a chorus. Their lyrics should scan as simple, bouncy instructions (“You can dance / You can jive / Having the time of your life”) but the women’s longing harmonies transform them. Stretched over two yearning notes, the word “you” is delivered to the listener as if Agnetha and Frida are trying desperately to fill them with confidence. As they sing “having the time of your life”, the melody takes a downward, melancholic turn, and the bassline follows. A moment of enjoyment turns into something sadder, more reflective, perhaps one of nostalgia.

We’re then told to switch our perspective – “to see that girl, watch that scene” – to imagine ourselves as the Dancing Queen, only 17, feeling the beat of the tambourine. Maybe we once were. Maybe we still can be, even if only in our wedding disco-lit memories, or our glittering imaginations.

Dancing Queen was the lead single from Abba’s fourth album, Arrival. Released in the summer of 1976, it got to No 1 in 15 countries including the UK (where it stayed at the top for five weeks) and the US. It first came to life a year earlier, when Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson were in their tiny songwriting cabin on the Swedish island of Viggsö, trying to craft their own take on early disco. They loved the loose, languid drumbeat of George McCrae’s 1974 hit Rock Your Baby, and used it as an inspiration (it was even played in the studio before Dancing Queen’s final recording for them to capture its atmosphere).

Abba: Dancing Queen – video

They initially called the song Boogaloo, but Abba manager and co-writer Stig Anderson suggested a different title. When Benny Andersson played Lyngstad (then his partner) the instrumental demo, she burst into tears.

The dense arrangements in Dancing Queen’s final mix make it especially magical. Their Phil Spector-obsessed audio mixer, Michael B Tretow, talked through the layering of the song in a 2001 BBC pop music series, Walk on By. Multiple tracks of percussion, stuttering guitars, synthesised strings, clavinet and vocals filled every second of the song with nagging pop hooks. In the same documentary, Nile Rodgers said he was hugely inspired by this approach to songcraft (in 1976, he was in the early stages of putting together Chic).

Dancing Queen was premiered in June 1976 in a suitably regal setting: a gala to celebrate the wedding of Sweden’s King Carl XVI. By the autumn, it was an international smash, with even smirking music press critics recognising its brilliance. “Any band that can make even disco sound like the Ronettes can’t be all bad!” crowed Robot A Hull in Creem. “It’s fodder for the masses in its least derogatory sense,” wrote Tim Lott in Sounds. New wavers loved Dancing Queen too. Elvis Costello cribbed its piano line for Oliver’s Army and Chris Stein admitted that Blondie’s Dreaming was “pretty much a copy of Dancing Queen”.

Although some of its lyrics have dated (“You’re a teaser, you turn ’em on” might not pass muster today), the bulk of them capture a sense of boundless possibility. Our dancing queen is looking for someone to dance with, but “anybody could be that guy” – the thrilling mystery of the future from the perspective of youth gleams in those words. A verse later, we’re told “anyone will do / You’re in the mood for a dance”. Even in the less progressive mid-1970s, having someone to dance with was far less important than the dancing itself.

“And when you get the chance,” we’re told, we become the dancing queen – that small word “and” positing this transformation as an inevitability. Today, the song’s legacy still delivers this message. Its way of bringing people together was underlined in the Abba film, Mamma Mia, as an ever-growing crowd gathered to sing it while roaming the streets of the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi. (This montage was revisited, with even bigger crowds, in its 2018 sequel.) Theresa May’s arrival to the song on stage at the 2018 Conservative party conference also showed us its transformative power: the right-wing press briefly turned in her favour in the midst of Brexit negotiations because of it (the Daily Mail said she’d “danced her way back to authority”).

Covers of the song also kept coming in lockdown. US alt-pop artist Elliot Lee released a fragile ukulele version. Lewis Capaldi covered it for an American coronavirus fundraising campaign. It made regular appearances in online social-distancing singalongs too, telling us all that we can dance, we can jive, even when we’re not allowed to look “out for a place to go”. Dancing Queen reminds us that having the time of our lives is something that’s always there, and that’s always possible.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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