I have no interest in Led Zeppelin reforming. The once all-conquering hard rock band, who bestrode 1970s Earth like a four-headed colossus, have performed one-off gigs sporadically over the past thirty-five years. The only time they reunited for a full, two-hour-plus concert was in 2007, as a tribute to the founder of their American record label. Ever since then, in EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW undertaken by any of the band members, they’re asked if they’ll ever get back together for a tour. God knows they’ve been offered billions of dollars.
It’ll probably never happen, and I’m glad. I’d love to see Led Zeppelin, but I want to see 1975-Led-Zeppelin, in all their pomp, with all their energy, and Robert Plant effortlessly hitting the high notes. I don’t want to cringe through a set performed by pensioners, strolling, not gliding, across the stage, taking oxygen between every song while they attempt to do justice to their glorious back catalogue.
The way things are going, I could well get my wish. In September this year, it was announced that ABBA, another band who have long suffered the “when are you getting back together?” question, announced that they will tour Australia in 2019. As holograms . That’s right, people will pay good money to see a ‘live’ ABBA show while the four members of the band are at home cutting flowers, bingeing on Netflix, or whatever it is that reclusive multi-million-selling Swedish Rock Gods do.
The use of holographic images in a concert setting isn’t that new a concept; on the contrary, it’s centuries old. It was first written about in 1584 in a book titled Natural Magic. Back then, the execution relied on sheets of transparent plexiglass positioned at appropriate angles while an image was projected on to them. Amazingly, the science underlying the concept has changed very little in 500+ years. It was refined somewhat in the 1800s to make it easy to achieve on a stage, and became known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ after it’s inventor John Pepper
The advances in technology of the early 21st century have made it more effective still. Back in 2012, the very-much-dead rapper Tupac Shakur appeared on stage with fellow (living) Hip-Hop legends, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, at the 2012 Coachella Festival in California using the classic ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ trick
This method was employed again the following year when a virtual image of comedian and gurn-merchant Les Dawson was created for an hour-long comedy show in front of a live audience, which was filmed for TV. In 2014, in the most impressive use yet of the concept, the couldn’t-be-more-deceased King Of Pop, Michael Jackson, performed at the Billboard Music Awards through the use of a purpose-built mini-stage and multiple cameras (to achieve a 3-D effect), interacting with live dancers onstage.
The reception afforded these virtual performances has been mixed. The Tupac trick was genuinely innovative at the time, the innovation picking up most of the commentary. Upon reviewing the Les Dawson creation, The Telegraph newspaper had this to say:
THE HOLOGRAM WAS BILLED AS “STAGGERINGLY REALISTIC” AND PERHAPS IT WAS IF YOU WERE IN THE SAME ROOM. ON TV, IT MERELY LOOKED LIKE A CUT-OUT IMAGE OF DAWSON WEARING AN UNNATURALLY BRIGHT BLUE JACKET AND A LOW HAIRLINE, STANDING STRANGELY STILL AND OCCASIONALLY MOVING JERKILY.
While the Jackson creation was breath-taking in its execution, a close-up of the hologram’s face proves it to be too stylised, and looking very much like a CGI-rendered image:
Image: Hollywood Life, 2014
With the proliferation of these performances, it was only a matter of time before these pixelated superstars were sent out on tour. As I write, apart from the upcoming ABBA extravaganza, there are live shows in the works for Frank Zappa, Ronnie James Dio, and Roy Orbison. Interestingly, ABBA are the only artists we’ve spoken about who currently benefit from actually being alive, and their upcoming tour is particularly significant.
In marketing these holographic tours, I foresee several obstacles to be overcome:
- Regarding the deceased artists, isn’t it somewhat macabre? While I was fascinated watching Michael Jackson’s hologram moonwalking across the stage at the Billboard awards, I also felt uneasy. The guy is dead. I was, and remain, a huge fan of Jackson’s work, but the thought of going to see an imaginary version of him in concert is just a bit, well, icky.
- One of the main attractions of attending a live show, certainly for me, is the idea that it’s a one-off event. For example, in December 2009, Paul McCartney played the O2 Arena (now the 3 Arena) in Dublin. This man, a BEATLE for chrissakes, who certainly doesn’t need the money, deemed it appropriate to take a night of his legendary life to cross the sea and play for 14,000 Irish fans. I felt honoured to be there, partly because of the back catalogue, but mainly because I was in the same room as a true icon. That’s just not the case with a hologram. The show is set in stone, the interaction with the crowd (if there’s any interaction) is scripted, and by definition, there are no surprises. Every show on the tour is exactly the same.
- If you watch footage of the Tupac hologram, or the Jackson one, or the…err…Les Dawson one, the physics are lacking. They just don’t move like a human does. Regardless of how far computer animation has come in the past decade or two, there just isn’t the same freedom of movement in these holographic representations that there is in a real person. They’re a bit stiff, a bit glitchy, a bit jerky. This renders it difficult to suspend disbelief. Perhaps the ABBA tour will change this, as the creators will be able to face- and body-map the individuals in three dimensions instead of having to work from a piece of video.
The marketing of these holographic tours will largely rely on the WOW Factor, centring around such lines as ‘The Concert You Never Thought You’d See’. As new generations of fans become interested in the careers of deceased icons like Jackson, Tupac and Zappa, the prospect of seeing these artists in a ‘live’ context will generate much excitement. Not only that, but long-time fans will be motivated to purchase tickets because they thought they’d never again get the chance to experience such an event. Thirdly, there will be those who attend out of pure curiosity: to see what it looks like, how it sounds, how the crowd interacts with what’s going on up on stage.
ABBA are an interesting example, because all four members of the band are still alive. While this may be, they will never reunite as a working entity. Thirty-three years have passed since their split, Agnetha is a near-recluse, they’re all pushing 70, and probably most importantly, they don’t need the money. We mentioned Led Zeppelin at the start of this piece. They too will never reform. Lead singer Robert Plant just doesn’t want to do it, and has been emphatic about that for a decade. Fans will never get to see Led Zeppelin live again, but they may well get to see a live Zeppelin experience. Other artists also fall into this category: The Smiths, for example. All members are still living, but lead singer Morrissey can’t abide the rest of them, and the drummer took him to court some years back. The Jam are another example. All members are alive, but vocalist Paul Weller and drummer Rick Buckler can’t stick each other. And what about Oasis? If the appetite is there for a live show, but the principles don’t want to do it, surely there’s a market for avatars in their place. ABBA are the first to do it, but won’t be the last.
What effect these holographic tours will have on the live event industry remains to be seen. We could possibly be facing a future in the next five to ten years where Dave Grohl’s band Foo Fighters are competing with a holographic rendering of his old band Nirvana for fans’ ticket money, or where tickets for a Morrissey solo tour remain unsold because his fans are going to see a holographic version of The Smiths. Perish the thought. Then again, if the thought perishes, it could come back as a hologram….