Fri, May 27, 2022 – Sun, Oct 2, 2022
Abba, Sweden’s greatest export after Volvo automobiles, last played London in 1979. A week before the British monarch’s platinum jubilee, they returned to the stage in digital form as avatars in a custom-built 3,000 capacity Abba-arena in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. A major leap forward from previous hologram concerts with deceased superstars backed by live bands, initial scepticism has given way to rave reviews and enthralled audiences. After opening with two deep cuts (‘The Visitors’, ‘Hole in your Soul’), a digital Benny Anderson riffs on Hamlet’s most famous line (‘To be or not to be, that is no longer question’). The digital Peter Pan goes on to say they had never dreamt in their final live concerts that they would return to the twenty-first century looking so good, right before launching into ’SOS’, the first of many bangers to get the crowd in the mood for dancing.
Unlike most of the class of 1977, all the members of Abba remain alive, yet they have never cashed in on reunion tours. As a fifteen-year old I watched the return of the Sex Pistols in 1996 with wonder, the ‘Filthy Lucre’ tour being a career highlight. But by the time of their last concerts together in 2007, they had become sad parodies of themselves. Exercising greater control over their legacy, the image of Abba in their prime has remained in-tact in a way usually reserved for pop and rock royalty with tragic endings (‘Die young, stay pretty’ as Debbie Harry once sung). The ostensible opposition of pop and punk was always a misnomer (Sid Vicious and Rotten were both Abba fans, whilst Elvis Costello has admitted to deriving inspiration from ‘Dancing Queen’ for ‘Oliver’s Army’), but musical snobs are more likely to acknowledge the genius of the Swede’s back catalogue in this rather than the last century.
If Mamma Mia! revolutionised the creative and commercial expectations of the jukebox musical after premiering in the West End in 1999, ageing superstars and their estates are keeping a keen eye on the Abba Voyage concerts (which have already shifted nearly 400,000 tickets for the initial run). Musical heritage was a central part of London’s successful hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games, Danny Boyle stage-managing an opening ceremony in which snapshots of the country’s musical heritage featured prominently. A decade on, it is therefore fitting that Abba Voyage be staged in a bespoke space in the Olympic park with world-class acoustics and video-screens. Keen to retain control over their unique selling points, Abba and their representatives have been quick to stress that the technology works most effectively if all original members are still alive. In terms of emotional connection, the show’s success is predicating on combining the technical precision of youth with the wisdom and humour of the septuagenarian millionaires.
Abba Voyage mimics a conventional 100-minute concert journey. With the exception of ‘Super Trouper’ and ’Name of the Game’, all of the group’s nine UK number ones are performed. There are band introductions and the four avatars leave the stage to allow the live band to perform a song-on-their own midway though ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ – a euphoric staple of festival sets by Fatboy Slim and Disclosure – succeeds in getting most of the audience in the seated areas up and dancing. If DJ Shadow now implores his followers to have a device-free experience of his sets, audiences at Abba Voyage are requested not to take photos or videos in order to preserve the night’s mystique. A slight lull occurs towards the end of the concert with a digital animation to ‘Voulez-Vous’ and the airing of songs from the new album (2021s Voyage, a million-seller which gave Abba their highest ever placing in the Billboard charts) before a final salvo of hits, for which the sound engineers up the decibels. We are taken back to the beginning with ‘Waterloo’, Abba’s debut single, whose appearance in the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding was instrumental to their revival. Back in the day, ‘Waterloo’ won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest despite, the avatars reminding us, the UK awarded the hit zero points. Signature tune ‘Dancing Queen’, segues into an encore break before a final rendition of ‘The Winner Takes it all’.
The technology of the show is remarkable but claims for its verisimilitude have perhaps been exaggerated. In truth, the only moment at which I was genuinely unsure about what I was seeing was in the curtain call when the apparently real members of Abba emerged from the wings. A lost arcadia being recreated before our eyes bought together those who had experienced Abba back in the day with those too young to have done so through a collective nostalgic serotonin high. The concert proved that the presence of flesh and blood performing musicians is no longer a prerequisite for the aura of direct human communication to persist for as long as there is a sense of collective euphoria in the presence of genius albeit mediated.
Spectators embracing the digital avatars so wholeheartedly can perhaps be attributed to a heuristic shift when heritage acts continue to tour global arenas with shows in which the musicians themselves often appear to be side attractions in multimedia spectacles dedicated to commemorating their glory years. Blondie’s recent UK tour featured just two original members (Debbie Harry and drummer Clem Burke, who has also performed with the tribute band Bootleg Blondie). Their arrival on stage was accompanied by animation videos of New York City on giant screens, whilst images of the band in their prime alongside pastiches of pop art detracted attention away from Harry’s vocal shortcomings as they launched into their debut single ‘X Offender’. Freddie Mercury was a singular talent, but Queen have continued to tour into the twenty-first century with a Vegas-style concert show featuring American Idol participant Adam Lambert. Guns‘N’Roses, the one-time most dangerous band in the world, brought out former American Idol winner and country superstar Carrie Underwood for their July 2022 London concerts to cover the notes Axl Rose can no longer reach in ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and ‘Paradise City’. Not many of the million plus customers to buy tickets for the current Def-Leppard/Mötley Crüe US Stadium Tour will, I imagine, have done so because they genuinely expect lead singers Joe Elliott and Vince Neill to be in fighting physical or vocal shape. The human brain has complex mechanisms to process what it sees and hears. In any piece of live entertainment, the key is that the audience buys into the illusion. As Abba Voyage showcases, the desire to congregate to dance and sing is hardwired into us, pre-dating and perhaps outliving the boomer arena rock live experience.
DUNCAN WHEELER is Professor and Chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds. He still thinks that one day he will be a rock star.
Artwork by Eloise Cooke