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Elvis, Michael Jackson, Roy Orbison: Technological ghosts return to the spotlight

PUBLISHED: 17:15 02 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:06 05 November 2017

Elvis Presley in his performing prime. Technology keeps bringing him back from beyond the grave. Photo: Elvis Presley Enterprises/PA Wire

Elvis Presley in his performing prime. Technology keeps bringing him back from beyond the grave. Photo: Elvis Presley Enterprises/PA Wire

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Technology has meant that comeback tours are available to music legends who are long dead. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says that perhaps this is a step too far and the hologram makes a mockery of the live experience

1988 photo of Michael Jackson on stage. Hologram technology means that he can appear to perform live, even after death.  (AP Photo/Cliff Schiappa, File) 1988 photo of Michael Jackson on stage. Hologram technology means that he can appear to perform live, even after death. (AP Photo/Cliff Schiappa, File)

While recognising that showbusiness is a business, a part of me wonders why can’t the money men allow the dead to stay dead. This past week we have heard that Roy Orbison – The Big O – the man with the dark glasses and soaring vocals is being resurrected to zap round the UK on a hologram tour.

Yes, it’s the 21st century version of The Comeback Tour. From a financial point of view, I can see why it would appeal and, with bands playing ever-larger arenas, watching performers on big screens has become the norm, so it can become very easy to convince yourself that you are attending a live concert by a long-dead performer.

Indeed, Roy Orbison is the not the first legend to rise from the grave to embark on a new, heavy tour schedule. Elvis Presley, on the back of his recent album successes, has hit the road with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and is currently on a world tour – something he never did in life.

The hologram of Roy Orbison, who died in 1988, will be backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on UK concerts The hologram of Roy Orbison, who died in 1988, will be backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on UK concerts

But, this current revival of two of the founders of modern music isn’t the first 3-D comeback. The first virtual performance was given by rapper Tupac at the 2012 Coachella festival in the USA. This was swiftly followed by a hologram appearance by Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014, while Celine Dion brought Elvis back to Vegas to duet on If I Could Dream, just one number, in her show at Caesar’s Palace following a grandstanding performance on American Idol.

But, the technology required to make these events happen is formidable and costly. The estate of Whitney Houston pulled the plug on a virtual duet with Christina Aguilera on the US version of The Voice last year. The pair were due to sing two numbers together, I Have Nothing and I’m Every Woman, but when the estate saw footage of the rehearsals, they felt that the technology had not yet been developed to the stage where they could let such a duet go ahead and pulled the plug.

This then leads to the artistic conundrum: “Just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should.” It’s clear that all these great artists went before their time and there is still a lot of interest in their musical legacy. A hologram tour is probably better than a tribute but it is still a mistake to view it as the real thing. The show is pre-programmed. The artist can’t really engage with the audience, can’t acknowledge applause or be prompted to deliver a killer version of a song that tops the version they did the night before.

Whitney Houston as performs on stage at Wembley Arena in London.
 Photo: PA Whitney Houston as performs on stage at Wembley Arena in London. Photo: PA

We live in a world where musicians’ careers are filmed, recorded and archived in a way that was unthinkable 50 years ago. Digital technology has allowed artists like Bruce Springsteen and Madonna to record every show they do.

This begs the question: ‘why do we need a hologram show at all?’ What is the appeal of the hologram concert that prompts canny businessmen like American Idol’s British-born producer Simon Fuller to invest millions of dollars in developing a new Elvis Presley hologram-based Broadway show? Particularly, when Priscilla Presley, the executor of Elvis’ estate, says she is yet to be convinced about hologram technology.

The answer, of course, is money. These hologram concerts are expensive to produce but they can also earn the promoter big bucks. While the head suggests that you’d be better off at home, watching a genuinely live concert on DVD, recorded when the artist was alive, the heart, however, craves that live experience, that sense of camaraderie you get when you have a large group of fans gathering together to experience a live event with all the audio-visual pyrotechnics that entails.

Tupac Shakur pictured in the 1997 film Gridlock'd Tupac Shakur pictured in the 1997 film Gridlock'd

You only have to remember the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony when the technological ghost of Freddie Mercury, flanked by Queen band-mates Brian May and Roger Taylor, led the stadium in an enthusiastic call and response vocal exercise which would have convinced those a long way from the stage that the great man had indeed be raised from the dead for this special event.

But, in the cold, hard light of day, it’s clear that this is really just a carnival side-show. That real live experience is absent. Every performance will be exactly the same.

No amount of technological wizardry can truly recreate that genuine live experience so why not leave the concert platform for performers who can still strut across the boards and allow those past musical giants to live on through their recordings.

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