Arriving in London, it’s immediately apparent that Abba fever has swept through the city like a swish of Agnetha’s 1977 blonde flowing mane. Voyage is heralded on billposters, along bus-sides and at every turn of the Underground. They promise as “groundbreaking”, “jaw-dropping” show that “has to be seen to be believed”.
A matinee gig is a strange experience. Here I am among droves of fans walking around in daylight, some in 1970s attire, all waiting to see a virtual concert depicting Abba as they appeared in 1977.
The journey from Kings Cross to the purpose-built Abba Arena in East London takes about 45 minutes. Walking out of the Pudding Mill Lane station, you are immediately hit by a flurry of Abba activity. Fans from every corner of the British Isles pose for pictures or snap up merchandise before even entering the arena.
With just 3,000 people at each show, there’s room to move and no queue for the bar or toilets before we take our seats. After the lights go down there’s a dire warning that anyone caught taking pictures will be thrown out. The show’s lighting producer suggests Voyage is “creating a bridge between the world of cinema and the world of entertainment”.
That sentence sums up the whole experience. During the futuristic opener The Visitors, from the 1981 album of the same name, I am reminded of seeing Ana de Armas as Joi, the alluring hologram from Blade Runner 2049. As an opener it’s pitch perfect.
It takes a few songs to get used to the ABBAtars, which have been five years in the making with a bit of help from Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects company formed by George Lucas in 1975. Unlike the real versions, no-one is having a bad hair day; they’re just a little too perfect.
It’s clear we are not watching human beings but that doesn’t spoil the fun. Like Mama Mia and its follow-up film, this is an Abba experience that further enhances the brand. Although scheduled to run until May 2023, the lease runs until 2026. During Eagle and Voulez-Vous, there is a two-part animated short film which makes the experience feel closer to a state-of-the-art cinematic encounter than a live gig. The performance of Dancing Queen, with every member of the audience on their feet, is the only time the illusion convinces me.
It’s a moving moment when Abba come on stage at the end, looking as they do today. Perhaps it’s the cultural obsession with looking younger that has led them towards presenting a show as their younger selves. I’m sure many of us would rather see Abba as they are now, playing a handful of massive shows.
With the Rolling Stones celebrating their 60th anniversary, I stop by some sites of pilgrimage before seeing the band at Hyde Park. Olympic Studios in Barnes, West London, has returned to its original function as a cinema. (While it does retain a modest studio, a new larger one is being built.)
It’s a beautiful venue which respects its historic past as the studio where the Stones recorded their first single Come On in 1963 as well as their run of now classic albums between 1968 and 1972. The Beatles began laying down All You Need Is Love here while Jimi Hendrix cut the definitive version of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower. It was also a regular haunt for Led Zeppelin and footage exists of Jimmy Page arriving here in 1965. David Bowie would also record sessions for Diamond Dogs here in 1974, cutting the likes of Rebel Rebel. Ronnie Wood’s paintings adorn the private member’s room. Across the road, the Olympic Studios Records shop is run by Roger Miles, who has a fascinating array of Bowie artefacts. The Rolling Stones played Hyde Park back in 1969 to mark the death of band founder Brian Jones. Today they mark the passing of Charlie Watts who died last August aged 80.
The show begins with a video homage to the drummer who famously played behind the beat giving the Stones that dangerous sense that everything could fall apart at any moment. Tonight they prove the wheels are a long way from coming off. Seeing off generations of contenders, they remain the greatest while sounding as raw and impulsive as ever during opener Street Fighting Man. At one point Jagger seemed to disown the track tonight, it takes its place with Sympathy For The Devil. Both were recorded at Olympic for Beggars Banquet.
Milestone Hotel in Kensington, where I spend the night, proves to be a home from home as several Scots are staying here while in London for the Stones concert. (Owners Red Carnation Hotels will open at 100 Princess Street in the autumn.)
There’s an Edinburgh twist to the hotel’s signature drink. The smoky Milestone Old Fashioned looks like something that Dr Jekyll might have downed before turning into Mr Hyde, but it tastes delicious. For dinner, Cheneston’s Restaurant offers a fine dining experience prepared by executive chef Daniel Putz and inspired by the hotel’s founder, Beatrice Tollman. The Scottish salmon cured by H Forman & Son, London’s oldest smokery, is an experience in itself. For the main, I opt for Mrs T’s chicken pot pie, one of many signature dishes by Tollman.
I make a tour of the area, visiting 89 Oakley Street, where David Bowie once lived. Mick and Bianca Jagger spent Christmas with the Bowies here in 1973, and this is also the spot where Bowie met American counterculture novelist William Burroughs. Round the corner at 35 Glebe Place is Uncle Monty’s Chelsea address as featured in the film Withnail and I. Scottish painters James Guthrie (one of the Glasgow Boys) and Edward Arthur Walton also lived at this stunning Grade II-listed building.
A trip to Kensington wouldn’t be complete without a museum visit. I opt for the Design Museum’s Designing The Beautiful Game exhibition, a vital experience for any football fan. The section on identity features the classic Celtic 1988 centenary top along with the much-loved Crown Paints Liverpool home kit. For life-long football fans it’s a nostalgia trip. My favourite moment comes while viewing the Mexico 86 sticker album. All that’s missing is the intoxicating smell from the ripped-open pack of Panini stickers.
For my last night in the big smoke, I switch hotels to another historic venue, Mayfair’s Café Royal, an essential London attraction since 1865 that has hosted the greatest literary figures, artists, actors, sportsmen and musicians of the last century. The Oscar Wilde Lounge is a London legend, named after the Irish poet whose decadent presence still lingers.
The list of previous visitors is endless from Edinburgh-born Arthur Conan Doyle to Andy Warhol. David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust here, inviting guests such as Mick Jagger and Lou Reed to an event known as “the last supper”. Each table is named after an illustrious guest including Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.
I am served afternoon tea including a Scottish smoked salmon sandwich known as the Balmoral. The five-star hotel provides simple, airy and elegant rooms that offer stunning views of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, heated Italian marble bathroom floors and the “greatest wine cellar in the world”. The aforementioned Uncle Monty would surely have approved.
Junior Suites at The Milestone Hotel start from £550 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. www.themilestonehotel.com
Prices for Hotel Café Royal begin at £513 per night www.hotelcaferoyal.com
To book tickets for Abba Voyage visit abbavoyage.com
For Designing The Beautiful Game visit designmuseum.org
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