“There have been a lot of firsts,” Ludvig Andersson tells me. “Of course, music is music. And I’ve been around that my whole life. We have an enormous building project, an enormous music project and an enormous logistics project, all wrapped into one. I’ve had to learn a few new things. But that’s part of the fun.” Together with Svana Gisla, the pair are not only producing the most ambitious concert ever seen, but they have become partly responsible for an iconic pop band’s legacy.
After a five-year project, which has seen tremendous evolution of ambition and scope, the building of an entirely new stadium venue and the wrangling of leading-edge technology, the pair are just about to unveil the ABBA Voyage experience to the public. They’re talking to me just hours before the show’s debut performance to a live audience, and the atmosphere is filled more with excitement than the nervousness you’d expect. “It’s the biggest day yet, really,” Anderson concedes. “To be able to show this to people after all this time… It’s a momentous occasion.” Gisla has worked on David Bowie Blackstar/Lazarus, Beyoncé and Jay Z for HBO and Springsteen and I, while Andersson helped to create And Then We Danced, Yung Lean’s In My Head and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, so their credentials are impeccable. But this new undertaking is truly gigantic.
For the first time in four decades of ceaseless speculation, ABBA are finally returning with a revolutionary concert experience. Directed by Baillie Walsh (Flashbacks of a Fool, Being James Bond, Springsteen and I), and choreographed by Wayne McGregor CBE (The Royal Ballet, Company Wayne McGregor, Paris Opera Ballet), it will see Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad performing digitally alongside a live ten-piece band. “It’s very simple, for a project that’s this complicated,” Gisla says. “We use a lot of technology in the show, but if you walk out thinking ‘that was great technology’, we’ll have failed. We hope you walk out thinking it’s the greatest concert you’ve ever been to.”
It’s seemingly sparked a fresh period of creativity for the Swedish chart-toppers. Their new album, also titled Voyage, was released with very little warning, receiving widespread acclaim and opening another chapter in their prestigious career. “We didn’t make them do that, but it was a nice addition to the adventure,” Gisla admits, with a laugh.
By the time they won the 1974 Eurovision contest at Brighton Dome, ABBA had already enjoyed tremendous success in their individual rights. But the key to their joint achievements was a revolutionary approach to songwriting. They successfully compressed the essence of European music tradition, from folk to classical, in with an appreciation of classic pop like Phil Spector, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, then gave it all a brilliant polish.
Simply, ABBA Voyage seems to be a logical step for a band with such a rich history and loyal fans. You can ignore the four-piece’s detractors – maybe they’re jealous, struggle to appreciate music or have no soul. Bridging a gap between heady disco populism and the thoughtful genius of baroque, ABBA crammed all of life’s excitement and melancholy into an immaculate parade of chart-topping singles. Their emotionally rich songwriting covered themes like despair, domestic drama, booty-calls and the fleeting nature of existence, all glossed with breath-taking arrangements and vocal counterpoints.
And they made white kimonos cool. OK, that’s maybe a step too far, but this quartet’s contributions to modern music (rather than fashion) cannot be understated. In just over four minutes, Super Trouper packs in more of the human need for agency than U2’s entire back catalogue. And is there a dance floor which has ever remained empty after Dancing Queen kicks in? It might not always be the height of perceived ‘cool’, but this is music which innately understands and unites people.
Recreating such iconic songs live for a modern audience and meeting those high expectations is obviously demanding. Especially for anyone entrusted to do justice to Benny Andersson’s pristine pianism. Gisla and Andersson deliberately recruited a set of musicians who weren’t even born when ABBA originally ruled the charts, but who are more than capable of weaving between beautiful ballads and upbeat glam-rock pop anthems. “As soon as you put this music into the hands of completely new musicians, each one brings their own soul to it,” says Anderson. “It’s ABBA today. It’s not in any way a nostalgic time-capsule. We’re not going back, we’re going forwards. That was always very important for all of us, and it is what ABBA wanted.”
There was a distinct ambition to involve a younger generation of players who could bring a heightened energy to the show. “The music is complex, so you have to be very good to deliver it well,” says Gisla. “We’re incredibly proud of them.” Also, most of the group are women, which wasn’t a conscious choice but it has worked out nicely. The ten musicians introduce an extra level to this ABBA Voyage experience, and the pair describe them as being the beating heart of this extraordinary thing they’ve created.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect ABBA to undergo the rigours of performing live every night. The four are roughly the same age as Prince Charles, but technological breakthroughs have delivered a perfect substitute. “Someone said to ABBA: ‘Do you want to look into if we can make digital copies of you?’ That’s how it began,” says Anderson. Months of motion-capture and performance techniques have gone into creating the ‘ABBAtars’, taking inspiration from the classic look of their late 70s tours. An 850-strong team from George Lucas’ legendary Industrial Light & Magic made their first foray into music, surpassing anything which they’ve done before. “Each frame is ten times bigger than Hollywood film,” says Gisla, with a note of awe in her voice. Over a billion hours were spent on renders for the avatars, and the results are stunningly lifelike.
The scale of the show is also reflected in its crew, which dwarfs even the largest sports events or West End productions. Anderson tells me on any day at the venue, there’s hundreds of people working on the show. “Being part of a gang or a crew like that is an experience I wish everyone could have, it’s second to none to be part of a group trying to achieve something so complex, but enjoyable.” If we include all the people working on the visual effects side, the number of people involved rises to 1500 people, which is more than most Hollywood films.
The technology used in ABBA Voyage doubtlessly has numerous other applications and could even be used to recreate performances or create a new wave of avatar-centred shows for other disciplines. The pair says they get asked a lot if they think the venture will change entertainment. “I’m not sure, because this is unique and technology isn’t everything,” says Anderson. “Just because you’ve a camera and a sound crew doesn’t mean you can make a wonderful film. There are other aspects to it. You can’t just apply the same theory to everything.” Part of the appeal is clearly ABBA’s direct involvement in the project. You could, theoretically, design a concert with an avatar of an artist like Michael Jackson or Elvis. But if they’re (for obvious reasons) not directly involved, is it truly their artistry? It provokes some interesting conversations around the creative process, provenance and authenticity.
There’s nothing in ABBA Voyage which the quartet haven’t given their input on. For now, this makes the concert series so unique. World-class musicians and revolutionary science are helping to recreate the talent and chemistry of pop’s most enduring phenomenon. This is more than an uncomplicated homage to a band who last played live over four decades ago, because they’ve made sure of it. “They’ve had every input,” says Gisla. “There’s nothing in this concert which they haven’t watched and approved. Without the relativity they bring, this wouldn’t be an ABBA concert. Digitally or physically, they got to ‘be’ on that stage…”
While Fältskog and Lyngstad might be waiting until opening night to see the concert, the other two are heavily involved with preparations. Anderson tells me that his pop-icon namesake has been onsite for over two weeks. “Benny is musically responsible for it, so he’s been here doing sound and music rehearsals. It’s their show, they’re not going to leave it to…” Gisla interjects: “A couple of idiots like us?” Anderson can’t help laughing. “Thank you,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to say, but I’m glad you did.” This is the kind of forensic approach to music that made ABBA such a successful live proposition at the height of their career. So, it should be no surprise that this kind of effort is being put into working with the sound crew and musicians. “It’s wonderful to watch,” says Gisla. “And humbling… You’re seeing someone who is exceptionally talented, massaging that music into the arena. It’s so nice to be around.”
Staging the shows in London wasn’t even up for debate. “The UK is a place which has always loved ABBA,” Gisla tells me. “They’ve played some of their greatest shows here, and they’ve said they feel at home here. London is the greatest city in the world, in terms of culture, art and the people.” The sheer scale of the show meant it was incapable of being housed in any existing hall or theatre. So, a bespoke 3,000 capacity ABBA Arena has been erected in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Gisla tells me they couldn’t have staged it any other way. “The roof of this building is designed so every single millimetre of it has something hanging from it. It’s been redesigned several times to carry the weight of the technology. You couldn’t walk into another building and do that.” Design came directly from the concept of creating the perfect space to see ABBA perform, and both consider it an immense privilege to not only create a show but the venue it’s presented in.
“Very early on, we realised we’d have to build our own arena,” says Anderson. “It becomes much more than just a building. It becomes a physical manifestation of this idea.” Looking to the future, the Arena can also be broken down and shipped to other locations. “It’s supposedly flat-packed, if you’ll excuse the Swedish pun,” says Gisla. “Although, it’s a lot less portable than we thought it was going to be.” “It’s the least portable portable concert, in the slowest tour of all tours,” chips in Anderson.
Despairing of touring, and after releasing the critically-acclaimed, yet commercially cool, The Visitors album, ABBA’s output had coasted to a halt by 1983. Looking elsewhere, the two men went on to write a musical about a love triangle amidst the backdrop of a Cold-War chess tournament. Lyngstad released an album with Phil Collins and Faltskog chalked up several hits before moving to the countryside. Any global reissues of the group’s music were hampered by complicated business arrangements, but it was kept alive by adoring tribute acts, numerous gay clubs, artists bringing those songs to their own audience with cover versions, and finally 1992’s iconic compilation album, Gold. More recently, there’s been a jukebox musical and blockbuster film franchise thrilling whole new generations.
Now, finally, we’re at the point where the impossible seems to be coming true. Previously, ABBA have reportedly turned down significant sums of money to perform live, saying they’d be unable to offer something all four would be happy with. Fans had all but given up on seeing the band take to the stage again, but a small army of creatives, a procession of technological advances and a little vision has finally brought the dream to London. “They may not have been writing music together for 40 years, but they’re very creative, all four of them,” says Gisla. “They’ve been loving this process as much as we have. And it’s been joyful doing this project with them.”
ABBA Voyage is at the ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for the foreseeable future.