THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL
A little late to the party, I ventured forth to Stratford, London on Saturday to experience the phenomenon rather than take everyone else's word for it. And I was reminded that hype is the scourge of the modern age.
People say it's good because people are saying it's good. There's no denying the state-of-the-art tech, the timeless songs, the transcendence of this once gauche, quirky, space-age-meets-village-disco Eurovision-winning quartet in the stupid boots who were a group for only ten years but whose popularity four decades down the line outstrips everything they experienced when they were active. When ABBA performed their final gig in the UK in 1979, I was living in Paris, and I missed it. I'm not sure I would have gone anyway. They were simply not that rock'n'roll.
Coolness came thirteen years later in 1992 with the first release of 'ABBA Gold': one of those albums, like Queens' original 'Greatest Hits', that graces the collections of most discerning music-lovers. Seven years later landed the stage musical 'Mamma Mia!', which garnered the group, should I say the songs, a whole new audience. Still going in the West End, the sixth longest-running musical in history, it also dominated Broadway for fifteen years. Now Zoe Ball is set to host a new TV talent-spotter to find stars for a variation on the theme. The first jukebox musical film adaptation of the original stage show in 2008, and its sequel ten years later, consolidated the band's ballooning popularity.
Or did they? Throughout all of this first-degree commercial exploitation, it has never been the actual band - Benny and Bjorn, Agnethe and Anni-Frid - that the world couldn't get enough of. It has always been about the Benny/Bjorn compositions: timeless pop tunes with bitter-sweet lyrics reflecting the happy-sad nostalgic streak in the Nordic personality that resonates in the bones of us all. My lifelong friend Mike Charidemou has been saying for years that 'The Winner Takes It All' is the greatest pop song every written. I agree with him more today than ever.
Had the original members of ABBA regrouped to perform a one-off world tour echoing their last more than forty years ago, it would have been akin to the Beatles reforming.They are old now - Bjorn is 76, his former wife Agnetha is 71, Benny is 74 and his ex Anni-Frid is 75 - but the Stones, Paul McCartney, the remaining members of Queen, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson are similar in age or older, and are all still at it. Why didn't they? They just didn't want to, they said. So they recorded and released a new album, 'Voyage', which I did buy and which is actually rather good - and resorted to creating a show featuring 'ABBAtars' - digital versions of their much younger selves using the technology of motion-capture, created by an 850-strong team.
Not for a second, despite the slavering eulogies of the many, was I convinced that I was watching anything other than camera trickery. There was no interaction with the audience, no stepping down from the raised, distant performance platform towards the back of the stage, no hint of spontaneity, no wonder, no magic. Truly, none. I had suspected that I might feel this way, but I rocked up in good faith with an open mind. I was underwhelmed. Glancing around the auditorium and across the half-hearted bobbing in the mosh pit, I knew I was not the only one. The show lasts only an hour and a half. Most attendees will have paid around 200 quid a ticket. Most of them afterwards looked as limp as their feather boas, as flat as the overpriced prosecco slopped all over the floor, as dulled as the sequins half-flashing from medieval berets retrieved from the backs of wardrobes for the occasion. There was an overriding sense of 'What was all that about?'; and more energy, more fun to be had in the makeshift bar across the road, where a live DJ pumped out bangers to an exuberant gaggle of dancing queens, high on ten-quid plastic beakers of passable Sauvignon.
I was reminded of the moment in the show when the live band, confined to stage right but featuring a fine line-up of session musicians and vocalists, is given a moment in the spotlight and permitted to perform a single song. What was it? I wish I could remember. But they belted it, and the place came alive. The throbbing now-ness of live music engulfed the place, and we were all on our feet, even the bladdered gents and the wincey old ladies either side of us. Which proved the point: that for the live rock music experience there can never be any substitute. No matter how hi the tech, how dazzling the lights, how brilliantly innovative the presentation.
I would rather watch an ABBA film, and see the band in their pomp, as they really were. I would sooner see a good ABBA tribute act. I'm not sorry I went. But I disagree most respectfully with those who deem this spectacular 'the future of live music'. If anything, in my view, it will be the death of it.