It’s the song that every wedding and birthday-party DJ is forever thankful for. From the opening bar of that effervescent sweep of the piano keys, to those first soaring harmonies from Agnetha Faltskög and Anni-Frid, any traditional disco will splutter into life when ‘Dancing Queen’ is played, as each glorious layer of this pop classic rolls over the crowd.
Inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame almost 40 years after it was written, ‘Dancing Queen’ sat on the shelf for almost 12 months, initially passed over for single release in favour of ‘Fernando’ because ABBA needed a ballad to follow ‘Mamma Mia’. But composers Björn and Benny were convinced it was the best thing they had written to date, and Agnetha and Frida were certain it had hit potential too. “We knew immediately it was going to be massive,” said the former.
‘Dancing Queen’ made three TV appearances before making its single debut, on 15 August 1976; most notably, it was performed at a televised gala celebrating the wedding of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Silvia Sommerlath. That performance, which saw the band decked out in 18th-century regalia, launched ABBA’s most successful international single. It was their only record to reach the top spot in the US; in their homeland, ‘Dancing Queen’ sat at No.1 for 14 weeks.
“We had chills… our hair stood up”
If ABBA were certain the song would be a hit (and who could blame them? Their releases were breaking records at this stage) no one would perhaps have predicted its ongoing legacy as a bona fide pop classic and one of the best disco records of all time. Demoed as a song called ‘Boogaloo’ and inspired by the soft dance shuffle of George McRae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’, ‘Dancing Queen’ is actually a slower track – at 100bpm (beats per minute) rather than the standard 120 – typical of most dancefloor-filling cuts. Segments of the day’s recording session for the song, which took place in September 1975, can be seen in a documentary made about the band’s manager, Stig Anderson. The only time that ABBA were filmed in the recording studio, it’s clear that something special was in the air.
Perhaps the laser-sharp harmonies that cut through the track’s euphoric swell secured ‘Dancing Queen’ its enduring success. “When we recorded the vocals, I remember we both had the chills,” said Agnetha. “The hair stood up on our arms.”
Or perhaps it’s the story of the song, unambiguous and universal in its appeal: the liberation of the dancefloor when you lose your inhibitions for a few fleeting moments and the spotlight is finally on you. Almost all of us will have been there at least once in our lives. Pop supremo Pete Waterman believes the opening line – “Friday night and the lights are low” – is pretty hard to beat, too.
Its legacy lives on
The song’s complex, melodic structure makes ‘Dancing Queen’ unmistakably ABBA but, despite the impossible-to-improve vocal performance, it’s a track that has been revisited many times over the years by acts perhaps foolhardy enough to try. Meryl Streep’s contribution to the first Mamma Mia! movie didn’t win her another Oscar, but the broader ensemble assembled for the 2018 follow-up cover certainly airbrushes away some of those sharper edges, echoing the Season Two contribution to the catalogue by the Glee cast.
The A*Teens – pint-size ABBA minipops – who enjoyed a handful of hits at the dawn of the new millennium didn’t tamper with the formula much either, but Daecolm’s soulful reimagining helped him get signed in 2017 after it secured millions of YouTube views. It perhaps owed something to American band Sixpence None The Richer’s earlier lush reworking, which never got a single release but should have done.
The MOR kings James Last and André Rieu seized on ‘Dancing Queen’ for many of their shows over the years, and the pop act Steps chose to record it for a new compilation that sparked the first of their comebacks. Perhaps its greatest interpretation, however, came from Kylie, who used the platform of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to make it almost her own. Madonna steered clear when even she raided the ABBA back catalogue for her Confessions On A Dancefloor album, but she knew the ground had been well covered. With close to 50 recordings of ‘Dancing Queen’, it’s certainly one of the most revisited ABBA songs.
Its legacy lives on in less obvious places as well. The song’s piano chords inspired Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’, while MGMT admitted they’d followed the tempo for their ‘Time To Pretend’ breakthrough. It’s almost certainly the disco song that’s OK for everyone to like – both then and now – and helped break the genre on American radio at a time when playlists were notoriously conservative.
As a moment of pop perfection, ‘Dancing Queen’ is impossible to beat – or to truly mess up. S Club 7’s 1999 interpretation may have introduced the song to a new audience at the time, but no one really remembers their version now. That, perhaps, is its genius: a song so universal that anyone feels they can leave their mark on it, but one that only ever leaves you going back to the magic created in Stockholm’s Metronome Studio all those years ago.
Like the girl in the song, its moment in the spotlight seems likely to last forever.
Follow the ABBA Best Of playlist for more classic ABBA songs.