“I can’t believe it,” sang The Who in A Quick One. “Do my eyes deceive me?”
It’s like a dream to see Abba again, but the truth is I didn’t see them. I saw a virtual reality Abba show that recreated them on a stage as if they were flesh and blood, achieved through the mystery of modern technology, smoke and mirrors, a slightly weird adaptation of what special effects boffins do with pixels in movies like Star Wars, Toy Story and Avatar. For most of the show I was fooled, captivated, compelled like everyone else to join in the charade, and when it was over I stood and cheered, not quite sure whether I was cheering Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida or the skill of those whose expertise brought them to life again.
Most of the sell-out crowd – 3,000 but it somehow seemed more due to the scrum in the dancing pit – were no doubt cheering Abba’s legacy, “the songs I’m singing”, or simply expressing their genuine love for the group’s evergreen music. For 90 minutes it was performed, with precision alongside giant screens and a spectacular light show, at enormous volume by a live band accompanying the same vocal tracks, perhaps enhanced, recorded by Abba in their prime. Meanwhile, in the centre of the enormous stage, the four of them, Björn with his guitar on the left, Benny on his keyboards to the right, Agnetha and Frida in the middle, delivered 20 of their songs, mostly well known ones, including a couple from last year’s Voyage album. Extraordinary!
Let’s begin at the beginning. We were searched with airport-style scanners as we entered the specially constructed Abba Arena. There’s lots of staff in matching outfits, all of them smiling and wishing us a good time, and plenty of opportunity to spend our hard earned on food and drink, which isn’t cheap, not to mention memorabilia, especially the £15 programmes, in shops, one of which, believe it or not, is located in the Pudding Mill Lane DLR station opposite the venue. The tickets weren’t cheap either. The promoters of this extravaganza, not least Abba themselves, clearly want a good return on their massive investment.
Inside, the audience was as broad a demographic as you could imagine, mums and dads with children, teenagers, groups of women in their twenties sipping Prosecco, middle aged parents, right the way up to a handful that looked even older than myself. The vast majority, however, weren’t even born when Abba quietly called it a day at the end of 1982, let alone when they won Eurovision in 1974. Many had dressed for the occasion, glitter tops and pants, vague recreations of the ice-blue costumes that Abba once wore, a sprinkling of lookalikes.
There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air as the lights dimmed. After a stern warning that photography was not permitted and miscreants would be “asked to leave”, a fanfare struck up. The mesh curtain across the front, a depiction of Scandinavian pine trees, snowflakes gently falling, was drawn back and four slim, dark figures rose from trapdoors beneath the stage. One stepped forward, the signal for lift off: the recreated Frida singing ‘The Visitors’, the title track from their final album, an ominous, synth-driven song about paranoia, not the most obvious opener but reflective of the more mature, late-period Abba; an indication of the way the group prefers to be perceived in the 21st Century. The volume was deafening, as loud as any band I’d ever heard, with a booming bass and sharp, piercing vocals.
Thereafter the songs came thick and fast. “Hello London,” screamed the Benny hologram (henceforth in this review the members of Abba will be referred to as if they were real) before ‘Hole In Your Soul’, not one of Abba’s better-known songs, followed by a couple of belters, ‘SOS’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. The dance floor took on a life of its own, like a turbulent ocean, twisting and churning, the first few bars of these songs eliciting warm ripples of recognition. The tempo slowed for two more crowd favourites, ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Fernando’, played back to back, the former backlit with a glorious golden sun, eclipsed slowly by the moon, and enlivened by singers from the house band dancing in the aisles, their arms waving, encouraging everyone to do the same, which they did. The latter was performed before a twinkling sky, bright stars shining for liberty, for ‘Fernando’. Agnetha and Frida sang their parts as per the records, stepping forward on cue. Someone had taken a lot of trouble over presentation, and it worked. Then it was back to energetic dancing for ‘Mamma Mia’.
It was heady, non-stop stuff. Abbatars – or whatever we choose to call them – don’t need to pause for breath, neither do they perspire. They blink like humans, though, their hair bounces realistically and they smile at one another encouragingly, looking as though they are enjoying themselves. The girls dance and occasionally embrace. The one with the guitar appeared to play it, mostly a blue semi-acoustic 12-string, and there was even a lead connected to one of those radio boxes attached to his belt. The one on piano appeared to play too, his fingers sliding down the keys for a characteristic glissando right on cue. By now these two had both addressed the audience. “Who’d have thought it?” was the tone of Benny’s droll comments, while Björn thanked everyone for coming and explained that he needed to get changed while the band and their on-stage singers took over during ‘Does You Mother Know’.
With the Abbatars taking an extended break ‘Eagle’ accompanied an animated film, a pilgrim progressing through desolate landscapes, the Voyage of the show’s title no doubt, hints of Lord Of The Rings or a Nordic folk tale of some sort. Then the foursome reappeared in those tight black outfits with neon trims, a bit like Kraftwerk, for ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, ‘Summer Night City’ and the disco throb of ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, a triple dose of deafening dance delirium for the mosh pit.
There was more animated film footage while ‘Voulez Vous’ rang out – I’d have preferred to see the group – before Frida stepped forward to talk about female empowerment, quite apt in view of her particular journey. To my delight she sang a favourite of mine, ‘When All Is Said And Done’, the rousing song of heartfelt regret from their final LP that somehow, undeservedly, went largely unnoticed at the time.
Agnetha introduced the two songs from their recent Voyage LP, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, the former sounding like a throwback to their glory years, the latter suggestively autobiographical. (The much-watched video for ‘... Faith in You’ is extracted from the Voyage show.) ‘Thank You For The Music’ triggered a mass singalong, albeit largely unheard above the booming PA, before Björn took us back to Brighton and ‘Waterloo’, accompanied by the only old film footage of the night, the Eurovision look, the big cat dresses and outfits that no doubt still bring on nightmares for Benny and Björn.
Freshly attired while nostalgia ruled, with Agnetha now in a flouncy white gown, they gave us the inevitable ‘Dancing Queen’, which brought the house down, and returned for one encore, the equally inevitable ‘The Winner Takes It All’, nowadays their most admired song, sensibly saved for the very end. It was a superb, well considered, conclusion. Finally, unexpectedly, after the Abbatars had left the stage waving, the real Abba, or at least Abba as they look now, returned for a quick curtain call, or was it simply aged Abbatars? By this time, I didn't care.
It wasn’t flawless. Close scrutiny of the screens revealed tiny imperfections in the lip-synching. The superb light show, scores of illuminated discs and ribbons ascending and descending from the ceiling, may have been designed to distract from this. Either way, at a distance they looked far more real than on the screens. And I’ve have preferred ‘One Of Us’ and/or ‘Take A Chance On Me’ to some of the selections, also maybe ‘The Day Before You Came’, their wondrous swansong.
There will come a time when all rock and pop musicians born in the 20th Century will no longer be with us, but thanks to the technology pioneered by Abba, of all people, in this extraordinary show, they can, if they choose so to do, perform forever. Don’t ask me to explain how they did it but for most of the 90 minutes, while the four members of Abba appeared to perform at their custom-built East London arena, I was fooled into thinking it really was them up there on that stage. It was fabulous, emotionally charged and utterly captivating.