Adventures in Pop: Immersed in ABBA at the Southbank Centre, February 2018

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A journey through the world of ABBA guided by the dulcet tones of Jarvis Cocker. What better way to spend a Saturday morning could there possibly be?

ABBA’s songs are the first music I ever remember hearing, somewhere back in the swirling mists of the late 70s when my family lived in darkest Calgary. Along with the Beatles, their music feels to me like it’s always existed. I find it impossible to imagine there was ever a world in which hen parties were not soundtracked by “Dancing Queen” or where doomed lovers did not drown their sorrows to “Knowing Me Knowing You”. ABBA’s songs have such universal appeal that even my exclusively opera-loving Dad was compelled to talk to me at length, when I told him about this exhibition, about how uplifting their songs are, and which particular musical constructions they used to make their sound so unique.

With the promise of narration by the velvet voiced Jarvis, I knew this was an exhibition I could not miss – pop and indie colliding is always a draw for me. I had anticipated a much more laid back affair, with punters roaming freely through ABBA-themed rooms, listening to Jarv’s pre-recorded discourse on one of those walkie-talkie type things you get at museums. Instead, it was a highly structured, precision-timed experience which included a human guide as well as the virtual Jarvis.

I was therefore not able to take any pics inside the exhibition, as we were strictly prohibited to do so and the eagle eye of our guide made any covert attempts impossible as well. However, I would still issue a spoiler warning for this report for those who are planning to go, as I feel it would be most fun to experience it with no ideas of what comes next.

The tour takes place in groups of 16 plus the guide. We were promised an immersive experience, which started when the giant record pictured above turned out in fact to be a door that leads you into the first exciting part of the experience: a completely dark room! But soon a light illuminated a massive metal tubular item at one end of the room: a Super Trouper light. Then a disco ball started spinning, and our guide invited us to recognise each of the ABBA tunes of which a snippet is played. Throughout the whole tour, Jarvis’s recorded narration was interpersed with sound effects, music, and chatter from the guide. Largely it worked well, but occasionally there were confusing moments when the guide was talking over some pre-recorded snippets.

The experience veers between a fan’s eye view and that of the band. From the fan’s perspective, the second room, a lovingly replicated 1970s sitting room, complete with a telly on the blink, was a huge nostalgia bringer for many older members of the group. Even I found it eerily reminiscent of my childhood, born as I was right during ABBA’s mid-70s peak. Memorabilia such as fan-club jewellery was strewn about the room, and the telly eventually burst into life with news stories of 70s austerity: a bleak Christmas on lower pay was predicted. In one corner there was a pile of contemporary music mags and Beanos, and it was very tempting to attempt to pocket a 1973 copy of Melody Maker with Bowie on the cover, but I refrained.

At this point, the one main weak point of the exhibition became clear, and that was the lack of sound proofing. The tours commenced in 15 minute slots, so at any given moment it was possible to hear what was going on in adjacent rooms as well as your own. This made everything a little bit muddled at times.

IMG_1989Other rooms gave us a small glimpse into what it was like to be in ABBA in their heyday.  There was a replica of the Napolean Suite of Brighton’s Grand Hotel, where the band celebrated their Eurovision win in 1974, and later, a reconstruction of the studio in which they crafted their classics. Here, another crucial element of this whole experience became clear, which was: it would have been far, far better to come to this tour in the evening, after one or four glasses of wine. We were invited into the vocal booth for a group rendition of Dancing Queen, and while my Saturday lunchtime crowd did as best we could, how much more fun it would have been on a Friday evening, with all our inhibitions stripped off by the liberal application of Prosecco.

And speaking of Friday evenings, we were also treated to a replica of 1970s nightclub, which I must admit did not differ too greatly from the 1990s nightclubs I used to frequent in my youth, or indeed even the 2010s nightclub I ventured into a couple of years ago to see Little Boots. Trends may come and go, but dingy black nightclub cloakrooms are for all eternity, it seems. The connection to ABBA was a bit tenuous here – people danced to them in clubs, it seems – but we got to see some original fanclub merchandise in the cloakroom, and an actual ticket for their mid-70s Wembley gig, costing all of £7.50.

The penultimate room was full of packing boxes as if to suggest someone – perhaps newly single – had just moved in. It showed us the sadder side to ABBA, echoed in their later hits which detailed the in-band breakups in aching detail. However, the most touching element here was the original fan letter, written in the careful hand of an earnest teenager, and its reply from the band. In this age where idols can be reached by an idle tweet, these hard-won items seem all the more important and poignant.

And then we sat in a mock-up of a 1980s first class plane carriage and were transported from ABBAland back to the Southbank Centre, as scenes from ABBA inspired movies such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding played on the plane windows, and inevitably, we roamed back out into 2018 to the sound of ‘Thank You For The Music’.IMG_1988

ABBA: Super Troupers is a fun way to spend an idle hour on a Saturday, and no doubt an even more fun way to spend a tipsy Friday night. I can’t help but feel however that it was slightly too irreverent in parts. ABBA created the ultimate good time party music for sure – but they also crafted exquisite, timeless pop that rings through the centuries with its emotional truth. It would have been nice to have seen something along the lines of the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition of a few years ago, where defining moments of Bowie’s performing life were shown on gigantic screens, inviting you to sit and exist with him for as long as you liked. Or to be given more time to examine classic costumes in the context of their original appearance. And the sound leaking through rooms really needs to be sorted out.

All that said, it is still a highly recommended experience out of all those currently on offer in London. And I’ve no doubt I’ll be back again, perhaps with a mate or two, one Friday night in the near future.

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