Abba arrival in London
Back to the future?
Courtesy of Anastacia Dvi, Unsplash
The truth is I wouldn't have chosen to see Abba Voyage last weekend. I hadn't given it much thought when the new London venue and hi-tech initiative was announced last year, except to conclude that the Abba brand was going for one last squeeze of everyone's pockets. How could a bunch of avatars, now dubbed abbatars - so cute, be anything but a thinly veiled version of the real thing. I was very happy to wait or miss out completely.
But then I thought back to a fantastic day in Hyde Park last summer, when Adele was topping the bill, the whole day's spectacle capped of with her amazing performance.
I'd only gone because friends had invited me and Mrs H after they'd timed the ticket release perfectly on an overheating web site, capturing a haul in the first few and what proved to be, only seconds available.
Liking her music really doesn't qualify as a good enough reason for having a ticket. The thought of queuing, hordes of people and the chance of rain was enough to make me undeserving. I'd forgotten, again, about the overwhelming power and magic of live performance. Fortunately my friends hadn’t, for which I'm very grateful.
Adele was also very real, at the top of her game, an amazing voice which charmed the vast crowd with her singing and her banter. A genuine live performance, adored by all.
Abba's robots with backing track had to be a very different proposition. But it was another invitation, a birthday treat and not any old one. Another good friend was celebrating his 60th and Mrs H's bestie had organised tickets for her hubby and us.
I musn’t be too ungracious. The nerd in me was very interested to see how this technical extravaganza was being pulled off. The music is pretty special too.
I've never ceased to be amazed at how Dancing Queen can remove resolute reluctance to dance. I’m thinking of those slightly awkward events over the years when the DJ finally saves himself with the old favourite. The dance floor immediately floods with enthusiasm and a lack of coordination. It’s Abba who really deserve the plaudits.
Courtesy of British architecture studio Stufish
The purpose-built Abba arena is near Stratford, at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. Take the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) one stop to Pudding Mill Lane, in the direction of Poplar and Canary Wharf, you can't miss it.
The arena is divided between 1,650 seats and standing room for another 1,350 fans, either in the extended pit in front of the stage or the more novel standing boxes dotted behind the usual theatre-style arrangement.
Standing room only is a good way of dealing with those awkward moments when a bunch of 60 somethings, listening to a group they haven't seen since their twenties are torn between sitting and standing. The music usually makes the decision for them when the first few notes from a big hit are recognised, bodies slowly rise in an impromptu wave. We just can't help ourselves.
The last time Abba played a concert in London was in 1979. It seems too long ago? Perhaps this was one of the reasons for choosing London, a musical mega-centre as the host city for their experiment?
Further delving reminded me that Abba had never been a big touring band, but had certainly been busy in the studio. The Tour, which ran into 1980, helped promote their fifth album, Voulez-Vous across Europe, Asia and their one and only time to the US and Canada.
The group came to prominence in 1974 with Waterloo, their Eurovision Song Contest entry and first time win for Sweden. This was the same event, where the UK judges gave the winning song, zéro point, presumably preferring Olivia Newton John's, Long Live Love which came fourth.
8 short years later, one of the most successful bands in the world were finished, calling time in December 1982.
The first thing you notice when you enter the well signposted arena is its similar in size to a west end theatre. From the staff checking our bags to those pointing out directions, they were all noticeably friendly. Not over the top bonkers, but they were expecting party-goers to be in the mood and they wanted to help.
We didn't have to wait long. Our Saturday show started at 3:00pm and was scheduled to last 90 minutes. It wasn't going to be late because they do it all over again at 7:45pm, just like a West End musical. And a computer doesn’t get tired.
For dramatic effect, as the lights when down and the music started with a song from their latest and final album, Voyage, released in 2021, we were made to wait a little bit longer to see them. Then they were with us, spiralling up through the stage floor, modelled as they had once looked in 1979.
A cheer went up, but not one to lift the roof off. Were we the humans, not quite sure how to react?
First impressions were they looked a long way away. An effect created by them not quite being life-sized nor particularly close to the front of the stage. They're also not avatars, a 3-D model, which you could walk around. If you could get up close, you'd find that it's a 2-D projection and they would actually be flat on the stage. The best example of this illusion that I can think of is international rugby on the TV. The adverts for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), there must be others, painted in behind the try line appear to be standing-up like the regular hoardings around the pitch, until a player or scrum runs through it to spoil the illusion.
But this in no way diminishes from what has been achieved in the five years taken to bring this project to life. Abba Voyage uses the same big screen technology as Adele did last summer. She was also much smaller on stage because most of the audience are too far away. The huge screen surrounds take care of the problem, giving everyone a front row seat and a more connected performance.
Abba's screens worked in exactly the same way. Beautifully rendered images of the band, from all the virtual camera angles you'd expect to see at a live show, just without a cameraman roaming around on stage.
The overall spectacle is that of a band moving as you'd expect live performers to move. The reality is reinforced by providing all of those close-ups and side shots, beautifully in sync because it's a complex computer programme.
Adding another layer of reality for the audience and complexity for the graphic designers, is the stunning light show. It's real, live in the theatre. But in order for it to be believable, it has to be present in all of the computer rendered images being shown at the same time on those screens.
One of the most memorable examples of this is when they played Chiquitita against the backdrop of a slowly eclipsing giant sun. We see this happening in the auditorium, and on the images being projected of the band. Wonderful.
For me, the true stroke of genius aside from this visual smorgasbord, is the live band of ten musicians introduced by Abba part way through the performance. The trio of backing singers then take centre stage to perform another classic without Abba’s help. The introduction of real people seals the deal for me, making the connection with Abba, going back in time to 1979, much more believable.
The concerts began in May 2022 to rave reviews. Tickets are currently on sale until the end of November 2023, although latest news suggests it could be extended until as far as April 2026. It has to close then because permission for the arena expires, making way for a housing project.
It's not a problem. From inception, the idea was to build the world's largest temporary construction because relocation was always part of the plan. Not quite knowing whether this extravaganza would be a hit or a miss, was a smart bit of planning. It can now be relocated anywhere in the world.
Go and see it. After all, it's live. An opportunity to go back in time and see one of the most iconic bands ever invented.
Sounds great. Good enough to go again?! 😉
Abba was just another pop band to me until I won a greatest hits CD. I’m still a rocker at heart but whisper it quietly, I’m also a secret ABBA fan as well