You only had to be at the Genesis farewell concerts earlier this year to wonder about the future of rock music.
The O2 Arena looked on as Phil Collins, stymied by age and illness, gamely sung their greatest hits sitting in a chair and moving to the stage with the aid of a walking stick, while Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks – never the most flamboyant showmen – played all the twiddly bits. As fine as it was, it was a far cry from seeing Genesis in their seventies or eighties’ prime.
Sadly our rock stars are getting older, or – like Depeche Mode’s Fletch just this week – joining the great jam session in the sky. And so the question becomes whether the songs they composed and/or performed can have a life after they retire from performing.
The new ABBA show is perhaps the most effective such attempt (in the wake of early attempts with Whitney Houston, Roy Orbison and Elvis) to separate artist from performance. Rather than giving the audience a startling reminder of their own mortality as Genesis have done, this performance gives the audience the ABBA of their memories. The band appear immortalised as their seventies avatars, wearing their seventies costumes, and dancing in a carefree, seventies way, perhaps before their seventies divorces had hit home.
ABBA built their own state of the art arena in London to house the ambitious show, which will run for at least seven months (that’s how far out tickets have sold) and probably more.
Walking in to the arena, there’s something called an “Oceanbird Departure Lounge”, something that sounds rather too much like God’s Waiting Room for comfort, but is effectively a VIP area for the sort of visitors who are accustomed to drinking in Airport departure lounges.
The shop offers a dozen or so different T-shirts that all resemble clothing you would have sent to the charity shop at the beginning of the nineties.
But the neon-lit bar outside the arena entrance is nicely done, and the arena itself, with its “Dance Floor” section and spacious seating is comfortable and stylish, blacked out everywhere and full of tricks to be unleashed and lowered from the ceiling during the performance.
If you worry that a hologram show might lack the personal touch, I can offer the observation there was more interaction between the audience and the individual members / holograms of ABBA than I witnessed the last time I saw Madonna in concert. It is beautifully done.
Could it replace a traditional rock show? Well, the drawbacks with such an audio-visual feast is that there are times in the new ABBA show when you feel you are watching an IMAX theatre experience. You sense it isn’t a perfect recreation of a live show, because they are seeking to transcend a mere live performance – it’s an experience in itself.
There’s an animated scene, there are extended breaks (presumably to give the holograms a breather – it must be heard work hologramming) where the four figures in front of you are superseded by large screens. But those visuals, while truly stunning, never feel quite the same as “seeing” actual performers (even though you aren’t really of course).
Sitting at the side, as we were, you sense the holograms look slightly imperfect at times. Nevertheless, the parts of the show where a live show is recreated with the holograms are still unquestionably the most effective parts of the show. It’s not completely perfect. The holograms move laterally, but don’t move back and forth or approach the audience. They dance around each other (which seems amazing – there’s no “Total Recall” style glitching here) but you realise the technology still has its limits. In that sense we are still a way off a traditional rock show.
But these are quibbles.
The technology is just a fraction short of miraculous. Extraordinary. Cutting edge. And it will only get better. Stage magicians everywhere are made immediately redundant by the trickery on offer here. David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Derren Brown, David Blaine, both Penn and Teller and all the rest of them can retire now, knowing they will never better what ABBA have just done.
As well as dancing around each other, itself jarringly clever, they also cast a shadow on the floor. The interaction between the holograms and the large screens at the side of the stage (which we are all used to seeing during large arena gigs) reinforces the illusion you are watching a live band, even though the image onscreen is CGI (which doesn’t grate half as often as you expect – Benny and Bjorn especially look so lifelike) and it’s a while before you realise there are no cameras on stage capturing the “video” images you see on screen.
And then there’s a time when you are watching an animated film, the band are flying in space on the IMAX-sized screen, and then land on stage, and then morph into their “actual” (is that right?) figures. The combined effect is more stunning, frankly, than seeing, say, Razorlight at the O2 Academy will ever be.
There’s even a bit at the start where one of the holograms knocks a microphone stand and the stand wobbles like a normal mic stand. Was it a hologram of a stand as well? Or was a real stand animated in synch with the hologram? It’s amazingly well done either way.
Supplementing the ABBA-tars are a live band which play all the songs live on stage, and they are supplemented by three excellent live (female) backing singers. We are told Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s voices and backing vocals are taken from the original song recordings, as are Björn’s piano and Benny’s guitar.
Overall, we came away amazed at how the technology was used to create something that seemed real. It is fair to say there were times we were fooled by the technology. This won’t replace the thrill of seeing a young band fight their way to greatness in a sweaty club, but the technology is convincing and ever improving, and I dare say it won’t be long before more bands give it a go. Who’s next? Oasis? The Beatles?