It’s been way too long, I can tell you that! smiles Björn Ulvaeus, 34, fresh-faced, guitar in hand, at the microphone in front of a crowded arena of cheering London fans.
Abba is resplendent in the tightest lycra and draped capes, every hair brushed within an inch of her life. Backed by a huge funky backing band, the band strings together hits, including Agnetha’s sultry rendition of the original thirsty anthem “Gimme!” Give me ! Gimme!’, as Frida performs a twirling, driving disco dance breakdown over the thumping bassline before kissing hubby Benny on the keyboard. But is this the band’s now iconic last gig at Wembley in 1979, or have we fast forward 43 years to watch Abba Voyage?
“It really is a throwback to the future,” laughs Ulvaeus, now a relaxed and refined 77, sitting on a plush cream sofa in his Stockholm flat, contemplating the band’s return after decades have passed. “It’s a shame that the title was taken by the film. Otherwise, we could call it Back to the Future. Because that’s it.
In terms of forming a group, an Abba meeting is as important as it gets. With a net worth of nearly £1 billion and 400 million albums sold, they are second only to the Beatles in earnings. And while very few urban youngsters would have openly raised their hands as Abba fans in the ’70s (although all baby boomers seem to have aged into nostalgia for jumpsuits and anthems), one can’t say the same for now. In 2022, there are 1 billion views of #Abba on TikTok, with everyone from Olly Alexander, Mabel and Sigrid posting renditions of their songs, Kylie unboxing their original product and Agnetha-inspired movie tutorials collecting 2.3 million likes. Meanwhile, there are Abba parties across London where the Gen Zers get together for songs and the ‘ultimate disco party’.
A fortnight ago Coachella fans saw Harry Styles running around on stage in a fit and flare jumpsuit that absolutely would have been on Ulvaeus’ 70s tour rail. ‘When we opened Mamma Mia! The party at the O2 a few years ago, just for fun I put on my old outfit from the last concert in Tokyo”, he laughs at having inspired new look-alikes. “Always suits me! But I felt a little ridiculous in those boots.
The fact that Benny and Björn knew a pop song also “opened the door” to the strong Swedish hitmaker tradition that Max Martin et al continue to do business in, Ulvaeus acknowledges. “I can objectively say yes, we started this, because before Eurovision nobody ever listened to anything from Sweden,” he laughs. “They threw everything that wasn’t Anglo-Saxon in the trash. Swedish producers, songwriters, never thought it could be done. Then [we] proved that it was possible”
The realization that Abba’s appetite for heady brewing of crowd-pleasing pop and upbeat double-date performance dynamics hadn’t been dampened by a record-breaking two-decade streak of Mamma Mia! the musical (seen by 65 million people) and the two Hollywood films that followed (which made $1 billion between them) weren’t exactly a surprise for Benny Andersson.
After forming the band with his friend Ulvaeus and vocalists Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad in 1972, the band enjoyed a decade of worldwide Abbamania before the act (and their respective marriages) finally disbanded. in 1982. after being beaten for nearly 10 years,” he says. ‘So even if you didn’t listen to us from the start, you couldn’t avoid hearing it. That’s why we have such a dedicated following.
And it doesn’t matter that the band are now more or less 70 years old and haven’t played as a band in 40 years, or that they prefer the comfort of daily errands to cook dinner for their family rather than go around the world. . Because Abbatars, designed in its heyday in 1979 by visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, will do the heavy lifting, performing night after night, multi-part harmonies, and there won’t be a mark of sweat on a satin jumpsuit in sight. This is the ultimate retirement job…
The seed of an idea to revive Abba came about five years ago, when a still-ambitious Simon Fuller visited them with a suggestion: how about we tour the band, but in the form holograms? The idea was quickly dismissed as old-school tech, but something similar was already brewing between Andersson and his music producer son Ludvig, who unearthed a written note about the project in his iPhone notes from 2016. .
“Of course, there hasn’t been a clear six-year path,” Andersson Jr says as we speak in the production office of the show’s custom-built arena, surrounded by product prototypes, tea trays from Swedish folk print to pink plaid sweaters and everything in between. “It was a lot of research and development in those early years. But then from the moment we found this land [in 2018]I lose track of time.
They knew straight away that the show was to take place in the capital, explains Andersson Sr from his spacious home studio in Stockholm. “London is the best city in the world. It’s a magnet for entertainment. People come to London to see football, theater, musicals or exhibitions. So we thought it was the right one. decision.
“And then we had fallen into reality. What could be done? said Ulvaeus. ‘They are avatars. These are digital copies. On giant screens.’ It’s a good time that the metaverse is a concept on everyone’s mind in 2022, he admits. “What I love is that not only are we pushing the boundaries of the digital world, but we’re trying to integrate the physical world and the digital world, in an immersive way. You’re in an arena with 3 000 other people, human beings, flesh and blood, and nothing beats that.
“We often say the term ‘shared experience’,” laughs Svana Gisla, the Icelandic music video and film producer who co-produces the show with Ludvig Andersson. “That’s why we’re building this thing. People were like, “Why didn’t you do that in the metaverse. Everything should be online. And we would say, “That’s not what it is. It’s a shared experience, we have to feel this thing we’re talking about.
But pushing the digital boundaries of creating a full 90-minute pop extravaganza in CGI should be an attraction for even the uninitiated. “First, we began with a period of forensic archaeology, research and digitization of thousands of original 35mm negatives and hours of old 16mm and 35mm concert footage and apparitions. on TV,” says Ben Morris, Creative Director of Industrial Light & Magic. “From there, our team of character specialists began building the faces and bodies of the Abbatars, understanding how Agnetha and Frida wore their hair, manicured their nails, applied their signature makeup. Plus, we’ve designed stunning digital costumes from a number of modern designers that move and react to every nuance of performance.
This performance was based on a five-week shoot in Stockholm where the newly reunited Abba recorded live versions of a 21 set roster wearing motion capture points and silver balls. “They instantly came together as a group,” Morris recalled. “We spent the whole month dancing behind our workstations.”
Their innate showmanship was coaxed by choreographer Wayne McGregor who attempted to capture the movement and interactions of an original Abba show, but with a new twist – without pushing the limits of their now 70-year-old bodies. .
During the motion capture sessions, “that performance magic came out,” says McGregor, who grew up learning to dance to the band’s songs. “They behave differently than they did back then and it’s brilliant and beautiful.” But then we watched thousands of hours of gigs, hijacked all that physicality, tied it all together with some new moves as well. They did this by matching body doubles to themselves from 1979 to piece together some of the more intricate moves. McGregor was delighted to see Agnetha’s “liquid sheen” and “sultry roundness” still in play, while Frida’s style is “more angular, tougher and funnier”. Equally important was expressive facial capture – trying to achieve Benny’s “effortless and cheeky” style of performance, while “taking a trip across the stage” with Björn was equally difficult.
Director Baillie Walsh has overseen the entire show for the past two and a half years, which has made a name for itself creating jaw-dropping music videos like “Unfinished Sympathy” for Massive Attack, as well as Bond promos at big budget. “The show changes visually throughout,” he says. “You understand it as a show because of the Abbatars, they are the anchors and there are a lot of other elements. Lasse Hallstrom [director of the band’s 70s videos] created a visual language with Abba that we all know so well, but it was transformed into a 2022 version of it.’
It’s not just the live entertainment that makes the Abba Voyage experience memorable. Not content with just settling into a generic concert hall, they also built a 3,000-person “flat pack” arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to experience it. Sitting like a Scandi spaceship in front of the Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, it houses some of the most cutting-edge technical rigs and has been allowed to remain for four and a half years by the Mayor of London. If they played at full capacity for nine shows a week during that time, more than 6.3 million visitors would grace its dance floor.
“By building the stadium, we could afford to fill that arena with lights,” says Walsh. “It’s not a platform that has to be moved from place to place. It combines film and light so you can’t see where the light ends and the digital begins to make it as immersive as possible.
The plan is that it doesn’t end there. The goal of creating a ‘flat-pack’ arena that hasn’t been inaugurated and uses carbon-neutral fuel sources, is to ensure that the fun can potentially move into the future. “It was always a traveling space circus,” says Andersson Jr. “That’s the hope. What we can do is make sure no stone is turned over in order to end this in the best possible way, and I hope the audience will feel that too. And I hope it can continue to work. And if so, then yes, for sure we want to go everywhere.
So will Abba be in the audience as the show opens, only to finally see the whites of the audience’s eyes as he watches confused? As with all Abba, there is a division of opinion.
Andersson describes it as “a risk”, but Ulvaeus is a game. “It’s such a privilege,” he says. “No artist has ever experienced this. You’re there on stage, and yet you can see it and feel it. I’m really looking forward to it.
Abba Voyage opens May 27 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Buy your tickets at abbavoyage.com