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Are the Abbatars a vision of the future for big-name acts?

Abba Voyage, a digital show featuring the band’s greatest songs, is a thrilling and deeply emotional experience that could create a whole new genre

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The Abba Voyage avatars, from left, Björn, Agnetha, Frida and Benny

The Abba Voyage avatars, from left, Björn, Agnetha, Frida and Benny

Inside the Abba Voyage experience. Photo by Johan Persson

Inside the Abba Voyage experience. Photo by Johan Persson

Abba in 2021

Abba in 2021

Agnetha Fältskog in Abba Voyage

Agnetha Fältskog in Abba Voyage

Benny Andersson in Abba Voyage

Benny Andersson in Abba Voyage

Anni-Frid Lyngstad in Abba Voyage

Anni-Frid Lyngstad in Abba Voyage

Björn Ulvaeus in Abba Voyage

Björn Ulvaeus in Abba Voyage

The Beatles in 1967

The Beatles in 1967

Pink Floyd are no strangers to innovation

Pink Floyd are no strangers to innovation

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The Abba Voyage avatars, from left, Björn, Agnetha, Frida and Benny

There is an episode of Black Mirror that features Miley Cyrus playing a reluctant pop star named Ashley. After becoming gravely ill, her manipulative manager creates a digital Ashley avatar that can bring the live experience to her fans no matter what.

That instalment of Charlie Brooker’s tech-inspired drama series may have felt a little far-fetched to some when it debuted in June 2019 yet Abba’s astonishing new show suggests it only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Abba Voyage — which opened in London a fortnight ago and is named after last year’s comeback album — is the strangest show I’ve ever seen. It’s one-part live music gig, one-part musical theatre, one-part immersive cinema. It is so unusual, it feels as though a whole new genre is being invented — and one that could be a harbinger of what to expect from the biggest names of popular music history.

At the weekend, a couple of days after seeing the digital show, I tried to explain to a friend what I’d witnessed. He was decidedly unimpressed. “Hold on,” he said, “you went to see an Abba gig where none of the members were on stage? You were basically watching two-dimensional images on a screen, right? And, punters paid how much for all this?”

On paper, it sounds utterly unappealing, yet the experience itself is extraordinary — one I would have no hesitation in recommending to Abba fans. And there’s a huge number of those.

Contrary to reports from around the time that Abba’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus first announced the show last September, Abba Voyage does not feature traditional holograms, an increasingly dated technology. The Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly estates have tried that already, with reportedly crude results.

Instead, this concert features painstakingly created HD ‘avatars’ of each member as they looked in their heyday. The job was undertaken by the best people in the business — George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Andersson’s son, Ludvig, has been heavily involved from the start and the initial plans were reportedly suggested by Simon Fuller, the impresario who managed the Spice Girls and created the Idols TV format. Fuller is no longer involved.

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Inside the Abba Voyage experience. Photo by Johan Persson

Inside the Abba Voyage experience. Photo by Johan Persson

Inside the Abba Voyage experience. Photo by Johan Persson

The characters appear life-size on an enormous screen in the specially erected venue, with sections of that screen capturing them close up and in extreme detail — much like what you’d see on the big screens at arena and stadium shows.

The avatars — or Abbatars, as they’ve inevitably been dubbed — are uncannily lifelike. When you look at them ‘on stage’, their resemblance to real performers is so good it’s scary. Even extreme close-ups largely keep the illusion in check — the avatars of both Andersson and Frida Lyngstad are uncannily faithful, those of Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog marginally less so.

Rather than depicting the seventy-somethings of today, the avatars capture Abba as they looked in 1979. That was the year they brought out their big-selling disco album, Voulez-Vous, and embarked on a major global tour — their last before informally disbanding in 1982. Dublin marked the final date of the European leg when they played here in November 15 in front of a capacity audience of 4,000 at the RDS Main Hall. It was the only time they played Ireland.

Even in their pomp, the band weren’t enthused by touring. There were only three major tours after their international breakthrough in 1974, when they won Eurovision with Waterloo. Fältskog, famously, had a fear of flying and songs like Super Trouper captured the misery and loneliness of being on the road.

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Over the years, especially after their music came back in vogue in the early 1990s, there were hugely lucrative offers to tour again. All were rejected. It wasn’t like they needed the money — as one of the biggest selling acts ever, their coffers were swelled enormously by the success of the Mamma Mia! stage musicals (which opened in the West End in 1999 and at its peak had 18 productions playing the globe at one time) and movies (the first of which was a big box office smash on its 2008 release).

Abba Voyage will surely add to those millions quickly. A reported $170m has been spent to date on bringing the avatar show from dream to reality — a figure that incorporates the design and build of the special venue it’s held in — but with 380,000 tickets sold before the premiere, one imagines they will be in the black sooner rather than later.

The show is calibrated to appeal to casual Abba fans as well as die-hards. Several of the hits that made their 1992 compilation Abba Gold one of the bestselling albums of all time are included, including, of course, the evergreen pair of Dancing Queen and SOS.

But, for me, two of the highlights were provided by Eagle and Summer Night City, helped no doubt by the thoughtful visual extravaganza.

And the visuals are quite something. It’s no surprise to learn that the company behind U2’s big-screen sorcery is involved here.

It’s important to point out that there are musicians on stage — a band has been assembled to augment the music and singing coming from the backing tracks and, on occasion, they take over completely.

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Abba in 2021

Abba in 2021

Abba in 2021

Every single aspect of the temporary venue has been customised for Abba Voyage. It’s located in what was the athletics village for the 2012 Olympics, an area now known as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The venue itself is a few kicks of a football away from West Ham’s imposing stadium, and a very short walk from a Docklands Light Railway station, Pudding Mill Lane.

From the outside, there’s a stark, church-like and futuristic quality to the venue and when you walk into the auditorium, the feeling that you’re in a religious building is enhanced by the high ceiling and the dim lighting.

The venue, which was constructed within the past year, has a licence to operate here until 2026, at which time more housing will be built in an area already busy with high-rise apartment buildings.

Then, almost in deference to another Swedish giant, Ikea, it will be disassembled, flat-packed and reconstructed somewhere else. Already, there’s talk of the show finding a home in Las Vegas. That could work, although Abba were never truly enormous in the US. Sydney, perhaps, would be a better fit — nowhere took to the group quite like Australia.

As a life-long Abba fan, I found the experience unnerving and thrilling and — I wasn’t expecting this — deeply emotional. It helps being in a room with 3,000 other partisan souls.

Might it represent the future for big-name acts who either don’t fancy touring or are playing in the great gig in the sky? The latter’s estates will surely be interested in exploring more.

In truth, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside music’s most gargantuan names having either the fan base or the funds to pull off a digital show of this calibre. Abba fans always revelled in the quartet’s sense of kitsch and there are lashings of it in Abba Voyage.

But as the exorbitant price of this bleeding-edge technology comes down — and the standards go up even higher — it’s something that may be commonplace in 2042. Anyone for the U2 virtual show? Bono and friends will be in their 80s then, after all.

Five acts who could ‘do an Abba’

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The Beatles in 1967

The Beatles in 1967

The Beatles in 1967

The Beatles

It’s the most obvious place to start. Imagine a show that brought the group’s Cavern Club days to life as well as the rooftop show that’s the climactic moment in Peter Jackson’s exhaustive Get Back documentary? You’d have to create lots of different avatars of the four, if only to keep up with changes in hairstyle, facial hair and clothes, but it would be a winner, surely.

Elvis Presley

The King never toured outside the US — something to do with the fact that his manager, Tom Parker, was an illegal immigrant to America — but this show could go anywhere. The teenage 1950s sensation, the black leather-clad hero of the ’68 Comeback Special, the declining Elvis of the 1970s — a Presley virtual show could capture it all.

Michael Jackson

Allegations of paedophilia and sexual assault tarnish Jacko’s reputation, there’s no doubt about that. But this consummate showman knew how to put on a gig to live in the memory. A digital show centred on his early 1980s pomp would surely pull them in — Thriller, don’t forget, remains the bestselling album ever.

Pink Floyd

The British rockers are no strangers to highly innovative shows — they brought audiovisual mastery to a whole new level with their ground-breaking tour The Wall in 1980 and 1981. And if ever there was an album made for the immersive avatar experience it’s 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon.

Fleetwood Mac

The band have been a going concern — in various line-ups — for 55 years, but the virtual Fleetwood Mac show would have to centre on the last few years of the 1970s when they were on top of the world with era-defining albums Rumours and Tusk.



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