SWEDEN – ABBA’s win with Waterloo in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest is perhaps the most famous part of their story. But things could have turned out differently. In this feature we examine the song that ABBA almost chose over Waterloo as their submission to the contest.
A new ballad
The story of how ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, in 1974 has been told many times. ‘Waterloo’ triumphed beyond the group’s wildest expectations to become a global chart success and give them their international breakthrough. But what about the “runner-up”, the other song ABBA were considering as a submission for the contest? Well, far from being branded “a loser” or “inferior”, the main reason ‘Hasta Mañana’ wasn’t chosen was because it would have made less of a splash in Brighton. The previous four years’ winners had all been solo female singers equipped with a ballad, which was how the Agnetha-led ‘Hasta Mañana’ would have come across. For 1974, ABBA wanted to be different and really stand out from everybody else, throwing a rock’n’roll spanner in the well-oiled works of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Both ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Hasta Mañana’ were written and recorded towards the end of the sessions for ABBA’s second album (ultimately entitled Waterloo) in December 1973. All the parts for the rocky ‘Waterloo’, including its lyrics, were in place, and it had been more or less decided that this would be ABBA’s submission for the Swedish selection for the Eurovision Song Contest. The new ballad was still entitled ‘Who’s Gonna Love You’ when its backing track was recorded. ABBA manager Stig Anderson, who often wrote the words for the most important of the group’s songs at this stage of their career, had already spent considerable time sweating over the ‘Waterloo’ lyrics. He was just about to leave for a Christmas holiday trip to the Canary Islands, when a cassette tape with the backing track was given to him with the instructions: “Please write some lyrics for this!”
A crackly telephone line
Stig, ever the workaholic, relished the challenge and spent a great deal of his supposed holiday on finding the right lyrics for the new tune. As was his wont when writing for an international audience, he was searching for an expression or a phrase that would be recognised all over the world. The announcer on the Spanish radio channel Stig was tuned into finally came to the rescue, albeit unknowingly. Every night the broadcasts would be finished off with the phrase ”hasta mañana”, meaning ”see you tomorrow”. Stig knew that he had found the title. There was no time to be wasted, so once the lyrics had been completed Stig shocked his fellow tourists by dictating the lyrics very loudly down a crackly telephone line between Spain and Sweden.
At the end of December, Agnetha and Frida arrived at the studio to record the vocals for this yearning ballad. At first, the session did not go well: however hard they tried, they just couldn’t find the right way to interpret the song. It was Agnetha who finally came up with the right solution. As a young girl, her biggest idol had been American singer Connie Francis, immensely popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Judging by Agnetha’s own early solo hits, it was primarily the languorous, heartbroken Connie that had inspired her; in an interview she once mentioned Francis’ wistful ballad recording of ‘Carolina Moon’.
At the ‘Hasta Mañana’ recording session, she put the inspiration from her youth to good use. ”We realised that neither of us were able to sing it and we had actually started to give up on it,” she recalled. ”Then I ended up alone in the studio and fooled around a bit, thinking that I might do it like Connie Francis would. I sang it in that really emotional way and then we found that we were on the right way.” Agnetha’s approach, which included a melodramatic spoken part, was exactly what ’Hasta Mañana’ needed. With backing support from a melancholy, twangy guitar-part and Benny’s eerie mellotron-generated strings, it all came together as one of the most compelling tracks from the ongoing album sessions.
The song was so convincing, in fact, that it felt as a suitable contender for the Eurovision Song Contest. By the look of it, ‘Hasta Mañana’ had every chance of becoming a success. With Agnetha at the solo microphone it aligned itself with every Eurovision winner since 1967, all of them a female solo artist, most of whom were performing dramatic ballads. Stig arrived back in Stockholm on January 5, just two days before the deadline for submitting entries to the Swedish selection contest. The next day, Björn and Benny arrived at his house to make that crucial decision – which song would they choose?
At first they discussed ’Hasta Mañana’, reasoning that this would perhaps be a better contender for the Eurovision Song Contest. But ultimately, the “solo female ballad” formula went against the image that ABBA wanted to project. ’Waterloo’ was the better choice precisely because it broke with the Eurovision tradition on every conceivable level. Also, the song focused on both Frida and Agnetha as lead vocalists, which meant that the actual performance of the song would work much better.
The story of ‘Hasta Mañana’ may have ended here, with its inclusion as a particularly strong track on the Waterloo album, released in March 1974. But it was far too catchy to be contained within the confinements of those vinyl grooves. Although it has never counted among ABBA’s most famous international hits, ‘Hasta Mañana’ was in fact a chart success in a handful of countries. Just a few months after the album’s release, the song reached number one on the much-loved Swedish radio chart Tio i topp (“The Top Ten”), simply through its status as an attractive album track. Meanwhile, a Swedish-language version by Polar Music recording artist Lena Andersson spent three weeks at the top of the Svensktoppen (“The Swedish Top Ten”) radio chart.
A real Boone ‘Hasta Mañana’ was then released as a bona fide ABBA single in some countries, hitting number two in South Africa, entering the Top 30 in Italy and reaching the Top Ten on the Japanese radio charts. In Australia and New Zealand, where it was originally used as a single B-side, it was flipped over in 1976, reaching the Top Twenty and the Top Ten, respectively. Moreover, ‘Hasta Mañana’ was featured on immensely successful, multi-million-selling compilation albums released in 1975 and 1976, such as Greatest Hits (issued in the Nordic countries, the UK, and many other territories) and The Best Of ABBA (two different compilations thus entitled, released in West Germany and Australia). Finally, the title ‘Hasta Mañana’ made the song a natural inclusion on Gracias Por La Música, ABBA’s album of Spanish-language recordings, released in 1980.
As a curious coda to the story of ‘Hasta Mañana’, in 1977 the song achieved spectacular success in the United States – but not in ABBA’s version. ‘Hasta Mañana’ was recorded by a group called The Boones, consisting of the sisters Debby, Cherry, Lindy and Laury Boone, daughters of 1950s teen idol Pat Boone. “We got [ABBA’s original version] from one of our representatives in Europe,” explained the group’s producer, Mike Curb. “He had heard it and insisted that we really should listen to the song.” The Boones’ lively recording of ‘Hasta Mañana’ was released as a single, reaching the Top 40 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart in 1977. Later the same year, Debby Boone went solo, releasing her first single, ‘You Light Up My Life’. The Boones’ version of ‘Hasta Mañana’ featured Debby on lead vocals, so therefore it was used as the B-side of her solo début.
This decision turned out to be exceptionally fortunate for Benny Andersson, Stig Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus as songwriters. ‘You Light Up My Life’ became a massive hit of phenomenal proportions, spending 10 consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s singles chart. According to some sources, ‘You Light Up My Life’ was the best-selling single of the 1970s in the United States. But although ‘Hasta Mañana’ wasn’t the hit side of the single, it earned its writers just as much money on sales as the A-side did for its composer. It was estimated that Andersson/Anderson/Ulvaeus would receive more than $200,000 on single sales alone. Add to that the inclusion of ‘Hasta Mañana’ on Boone’s Platinum-selling début album, and the song did very good business indeed – without really becoming a major US hit on its own terms.
All in all a highly impressive run for a song that struggled to find its own platform under the overwhelming shadow of ‘Waterloo’!