I’m standing in a queue across the road from a train station called Pudding Mill Lane. There’s a light drizzle. Looking at some of the people around me, I feel as if I have accidentally stepped into a crowd scene from a film set in the mid-70s, although the mish-mash of styles suggests the wardrobe department hasn’t been quite as diligent as it should be over the costume choices.
We negotiate security and rush into the arena, barely minutes before the “show” begins. The lights dim and then they’re suddenly there, on the stage, in the flesh. Well, not quite in the flesh, but close enough to almost be true. ABBA. Not reincarnated or resurrected as such. No one’s died. Not exactly reunited either. Perhaps “re-formed” is the best way to describe what I’m witnessing here in this purpose-built arena.
Bjorn, Agnetha, Frida and Benny are there, on the stage, singing and playing. Not as we know them now but as we knew them then, back when their songs were dominating the pop charts and they were still performing live. But here they are now, as they were then, 44 years after they last played in this city, in front of about 3000 people, on a wet Saturday afternoon in February, in East London.
It would be easy to say that what I’m watching is a miracle of technology and plenty has been written on that subject. But it’s also very easy to forget that the technology would be nothing without ABBA as performers and their music. Take them out and it’s a fancy gimmick that would barely keep our attention for more than a few minutes.
In fact, it’s when you’re slightly distanced from the technology that the event is at its most convincing, when you’re looking at the figures on the stage singing and dancing, as you would any other concert. The familiar experience of being in a crowd watching a normal concert reinforces the “reality” of what you’re seeing. It’s when the giant screens on either side of the stage show close ups of their faces, that there are moments that seem disconcerting. The skin and features appear just a little too perfect. Sometimes, too, the eyes are devoid of colour and light, blank, dead.
But for someone of my generation, it’s like time travel. Unlike many other acts from my youth, I’m not watching a band that has grown old as I have grown old. I’m watching ABBA as they were in my childhood and there are moments singing along when I feel my voice start to catch, unexpectedly moved at what is happening in front of me.
This isn’t a traditionally nostalgic experience because it’s not about older people joining in a ceremony of reminiscence and memory. Instead, it’s connecting with the younger version of me listening to those songs and watching those performers as we were and, for a short time, still are. In this moment, we have not grown old together.
None of this could be possible without technology to help it become reality. Technology has helped to “re-form” ABBA and there are moments when I can feel it almost “re-form” me. But ABBA Voyage also speaks to an absolute truth, that without us, all of the accomplishments of the technology would be worthless window-dressing. It’s us and our creativity that gives it a purpose and a meaning.
When they were young, ABBA famously asked a question which, slightly amended, is worth asking of the technology at the Voyage event today: “Without a song or a dance what are you?”
Thank you for the music.
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