ABBA Voyage "live" - We're functioning automatik; and we are dancing mechanik - we are the robots!
Updated: Oct 11
Spoiler alert - the setlist for the show is at the end of this blog - if you don't want to know, look away now (in the style of BBC football coverage in the 70s!).
If you were asked to bet which band would be first to really use technology to recreate a live show, surely Kraftwerk would be top of your list? Let's be honest, their live shows have always looked like it was robots on stage. That's been their aspiration. Kraftwerk's shows are great and I finally saw them live at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. I say live, it was four blokes playing MacBooks, with a REALLY good light show. It was great, but it was pretty soulless.
Photo taken from @abbavoyage twitter account - permission requested!
Other bands you might expect to embrace this technology include The Human League (Phil Oakey would love to but probably doesn't have the cash), the Pet Shop Boys would but let's be honest, they don't do much themselves on stage anyway, so it would be a bit redundant...New Order - too many guitars, and you'd miss the endearing unpredictability of Bernard's vocals...OMD? No computer generated images could recreate Andy McCluskey's unique take on dancing, like a geography teacher after two pints of cheap cider who's been allowed to have his band play the school disco...
So, it needs a special mix of things for this to happen:
the band members need to be alive
the band still get on
there needs to be strong evidence of major interest in seeing them live for a very long time, likely well beyond the actual band's time on this earth
there has to be a lot of people that want to go - ideally more than once
The Beatles? Two dead (very sadly). The Stones? Still touring (unbelievably) - frankly, I now believe Mick'n'Keef are immortal. Fleetwood Mac? Now sadly without the late, great Christine McVie, plus way too much anger and bile between Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. Springsteen? Still alive, still touring and I doubt the tech could keep it up for a four hour show, like The Boss does.
still alive? Very much so
still get on? despite two divorces, still get on well enough to make an album in 2021, 40 years after 1981's The Visitors, their swansong...
strong evidence? Mamma Mia films - two of them
lots of people will go? Christ, Björn Again's career lasted decades - they may even be still going!
Plus further weird evidence of their longevity? My mother, who was wonderful, but quite mad, only really started listening to ABBA songs in 2010 when she was 75, having seen Mamma Mia! the film - she bought the soundtrack CD and would force my poor, and indulgent, father to dance with her in their kitchen in Sligo. I bought her ABBA's Gold CD, and she liked it, though she sort of preferred the soundtrack...as I said, she was quite, quite mad...
And the songs were so good, that SOS can even survive Pierce Brosnan's interpretation for the film...love Pierce, but even he must admit, he has a voice only his mother could love...(and apparently, my mother could love....).
This can't be about the money - ABBA once turned down £1billion to reform....but do they want to embrace technology in their 70s and create a legacy that could last forever and not require them to ever go out on tour - they do, they do, they do, they do, they do, they do!
Anyway, ABBA are the only band I can think of right now who could do this. Strap on the TRON outfits and recreate a live show. According to Vulture, the show cost £145 million to develop, making it one of the most expensive live shows ever. The custom built venue holds 3,000 and tickets sell between £75 and £180, depending on where you sit. If that's a rough average of £110. That means they need 485 plus shows to breakeven. Given it opened on 20 May 2022, and it's basically been sold out ever since, they must already be in profit, once you factor in booze and food sales, merchandise, etc which is incredible.
The ABBAtars (as opposed to avatars - obvious, but you'd still pat yourself on the back if you came up with that, wouldn't you?) appear in human size on the back screen on stage. To their left there is a six piece live band, along with three backing singers - all very talented, if anonymous, and producing a superb backing track to the ABBAtar singing sensations. The latter also appear in magnified close-ups on both side panels and translucent screens that hang at different times in front of the main stage, mimicking the effects we now expect to see at big live shows.
My lovely friend Lozzer takes me as a birthday present and we head down to Stratford to get the DLR to the venue. The tube journey is surprisingly devoid of people in dodgy 70s jumpsuits and ill advised wigs. However, as we board the one stop on the DLR from Stratford to the venue, suddenly it feels like we are stalking a particularly over-enthusiastic, and very large, hen night...
The photo is taken from the Stufish website - permission requested!
The venue itself is impressive - modern and designed by Stufish Entertainment Architects, the auditorium houses high tech capabilities and offers a unique immersive entertainment experience, designed to fit 1650 seats and space for a standing audience of 1350. It's light, airy, cool, and easy to navigate round. And the sound is superb. The bars are easy to get served, the staff friendly, the food generous and I didn't feel ripped off (hello O2 Arena - impossible to get served, outrageously expensive beer and the food is terrible).
The crowd are mixed, between people in full fancy dress, middle aged men accompanying wives or husbands, wearing feather boas awkwardly, as opposed to their enthusiastic other halves. One man is wearing a wig that he thinks makes him look like Björn...sadly, he looks more like awful Tory MP Michael Fabricant...what a tragic error...
And the gig? It starts slowly, with album tracks The Visitors and Hole In Your Soul, then the first of four walk-ons from the band - ABBAtar Benny comes out to welcome us, explain the background to the show, then launches into the theme from Eastenders teasingly, before shifting to the brilliant SOS, our first full on hit of the evening. The show suddenly transforms from spectacle to massive karaoke dance party - I guess the two lesser known songs let you ease in, get your bearings and suss out how it all works.
And the visuals are amazing - it really does look like a real ABBA are on stage. They look incredible and progress through a series of fabulous costume changes. I even briefly wonder how they are getting changed so quickly, before I remember that they are not real. I also find myself checking out Anna-Frid's backside, but again have to remind myself I am admiring some computer programming.
They plough through the hits, with more walk-ons and short speeches from each of the band. It's touching, funny and weird (but in a good way).
Does Your Mother Know? has not aged well, especially when Björn tells a slightly weird anecdote about it...wisely, they don't sing it themselves and the three female backing singers take centre stage for the number, and introduce the band (the real backing band, not the ABBAtars).
Some of the songs are not accompanied by the ABBAtars, but a weird cartoon child on some strange quest, with mythic statues of the band...it's the only weak part of the show. I can only guess that it's cheaper than producing the ABBAtars for a whole show. Or maybe it's part of ABBA's history that I am not enough of a fan to know.
And whilst I am sure the band love their comeback album, Voyage, I found it rather dull. So the choice to play two songs from that album at the price of The Name Of The Game, and worse still Money, Money, Money, is baffling! Also, as my friend Debs has now highlighted, no Super Trouper or Take A Chance on Me - outrageous!! Apparently, they have recorded them, so perhaps their will be a setlist reboot at some point soon?
But this is nitpicking, it really is. It's a hugely impressive achievement. Given it's all programming, the show hangs together and is coherent and never lets up. I was never distracted or bored once - it was mesmerising. The onscreen flashbacks to their Eurovision win in 1974 for Waterloo bring the house down.
Dancing Queen is the inevitable finish, but they come back for one more...the raw, rough, tear inducing, The Winner Takes It All. It's amazing. One wonders how it felt to recreate this, a song so intrinsically linked to their divorces. It must have been like opening up an old wound - a big ask, and it's much appreciated.
Then that's it and the ABBAtars, now aged to their current form come on stage. They look incredible and they take a virtual bow. There are cheers, everyone is on their feet and then everyone politely marches out, everyone excitedly talking about their favourite bits and the amazing lights.
For a "fake" gig, it was more "real" than a lot of bands I have seen. It's amazing, go and see it...I may go again. My colleague Lee has been four times! I get that. It's that sort of show. Like the Duracell bunny and Kraftwerk's Robots, it will go on and on and on..
"We're charging our battery
And now we're full of energy
We are the robots!"
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