FOR 25 YEARS, Norway’s pop gods have harboured a deep, dark secret that even the most dedicated News Of The World smut-sleuth would never have ferreted out.
Their finely-chiselled good looks, pastel-tinted Smash Hits cover shots and string of pop hits gave no clue that a-ha were secretly – whisper it – very cool indeed and, quite possibly, one of the most influential bands of the ’80s.
At the time, though, who knew? While Morten, Paul and Mags were notching up 36m worldwide sales, 3m US radio plays for ‘Take On Me’ alone and pulling the world’s biggest-ever paid audience to their 1991 Rock In Rio show, they were continuously being dismissed by the hip cognoscenti of the music press as disposable pop hunks.
Indeed, the band became so dismayed by the disdain showered on them that it was a significant contributing factor to their break-up in 1994.
Then, as the new millennium dawned, the band re-united and a minor miracle occurred. They started selling out arenas, their Definitive Singles Collection shifted bucketloads and, most remarkably, they scooped a prestigious Q Inspiration Award in 2006. Around the same time, credible contemporary rockers started falling over each other, in a veritable orgy of guilty pleasure confessions, to declare a-ha timelessly cool.
Chris Martin of Coldplay admitted they were, “the first band I ever loved.” Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane declared ‘Take On Me’, “quite possibly the best pure pop single of all time.” Even Liam Gallagher of Oasis hailed a-ha as, “f***ing amazing”.
Whatever the reasons behind this extraordinary volte-face, when a-ha released their ninth album, Foot Of The Mountain, through the Universal Music Record Label on July 27, 2009, it charted immediately at No5. They’re back and no mistaking it.
Just a couple of days earlier, in an elegant room at the Cumberland Hotel, facing onto London’s Marble Arch, Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy were shuttling efficiently from one international phone call to another under the omnipresent scrutiny of a fly-on-the-wall camera crew, while they waited to begin rehearsals for their imminent iTunes Festival gig at the Roundhouse.
Harket looked up, noticed one patiently hovering Music Week scribe, smiled and asked, “I’m fifty years old. Why am I still doing this?”
Harket has always been the trio’s major heartthrob, but it’s less well-known that he has also always been perhaps the band’s most philosophically-inclined member. “The first time we met,” reveals Furuholmen, “he had a long ponytail and was studying to be a minister. He had his disciples around him and there was quite a forbidding aura about him.”
This was back in 1982 when Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen were leading lights of Oslo band Bridge, and Morten was paying his dues in a bluesy combo called Soldier Blue. As Furuholmen remembers it, “Morton came up after one of our shows and said, ‘You’re the best band in Norway but you need a vocalist’. He claims he didn’t say that, but we remember it, and it was pretty clear that he was the vocalist.”
All three were as ambitious as they were talented and quickly realised that international acclaim would never be theirs if they remained in Norway.
England seemed to offer the best opportunities for success, so they quit their comfortable middle-class Norwegian homes and headed south, only to find that the streets of London were not paved with gold. “We were too proud to ask for money from our families,” remembers Magne, “and we could only get poorly-paid work as labourers or in pubs.” They were, however, nothing if not resourceful. “I remember Paul discovering he could make bread from absolutely any leftovers in the fridge. I particularly remember his cabbage bread. If someone needed the loo they had to take the living room light bulb with them because we only had one.” Anything, however, was preferable to admitting defeat and going home.
In April 1983, they scraped together enough cash to book a few days in a recording studio. “I’d like to say A-Ha booked my studio, Rendezvous, because of its reputation, fantastic engineers and superb ambience,” says John Ratcliff. “Unfortunately, I can’t. It was all down to the line in my advert that said we had a Space Invaders machine. Mags loved those machines, so he insisted the band should come to Rendezvous. That’s how it all started.”
When he heard what they were up to, Ratcliff was stunned by the quality of their songs and, in particular, by Morten’s voice. Ratcliff funded the band, paying for studio time, legal fees, accommodation and more. He also formed a partnership with former EMI Director Terry Slater, TJ Management, which took over management of the band five months later.
This then, was the team that secured a-ha’s first publishing deal. “We got 3000 quid each from ATV Publishing,” recalls Paul, “and it was like, ‘Wow, we’ve made it’, but it took another year and a half before things actually happened.”
The Rendezvous demos also secured a-ha a recording deal. “We put around a story that lots of companies were interested,” laughs Ratcliff, “when, in fact, lots of companies had passed.” Eventually, though, Warners’ A&R man Andy Wickham saw the same potential that Ratcliff had already bought into.
The band felt they were on the verge of great things when they found themselves in Pete Townshend’s famed Eel Pie Studios during the summer of 1984 with ’80s hotshot Tony Mansfield at the production helm, but the partnership didn’t deliver as much as they hoped.
Their debut single, ‘Take On Me’, was released on October 19, 1984, but it flopped spectacularly. “It was the catchiest thing we’d recorded but we were never happy with that version,” remembers Mags. “We knew it could be bigger.”
Against all of Wickham’s instincts, Mags persuaded Warners to withdraw the single and let them re-work it. This time they linked up with Alan Tarney, whose keen pop sensibilities had guided Cliff Richard’s career revival. According to Mags, “I remember hearing Morten singing the third verse and slightly changing the lines. I thought, ‘OK. Now we have a hit.'”
Except they didn’t. Re-released on April 5, 1985, the new version of ‘Take On Me’ floundered again.
On the point of despair, salvation came from across the ocean. “The Americans got wind of it. They thought it sounded like a hit,” recalls Mags, “so they flew us out to Los Angeles and all of a sudden we were being driven everywhere in limos.”
Their champion at Warner Bros in America was Senior VP Jeff Ayeroff, who had been sufficiently impressed by an award-winning student animation, Commuter by Mike Patterson, to want to use its technique, rotoscoping, for a pop video. So when ‘Take On Me’ surfaced for the third time, in June 85, it was promoted through an innovative £125,000 video made by Steve Barron (of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ fame) enhanced by Patterson’s rotoscoping technique. Bingo!
Finally, a-ha could watch their song taking off in America, but slowly, creeping up just a couple of places each week.
They were already back in England working, with Barron again, on a video for ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ when the big moment arrived. They were about to go to bed on October 9, 1985, when the phone rang. ‘Take On Me’ had reached No1 in Billboard. To celebrate, they treated themselves to a champagne dinner at Joe Allen’s restaurant in Covent Garden, only to have reality re-assert itself when the bill arrived and their American Express card was refused.
The rest of the ’80s rattled by in a rush of international chart-topping hit singles and albums but still there was something not quite right. “We had deliberately gone very commercial with songs like ‘Take On Me’,” admits Mags. “We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t realise it would inhibit our moving forward into more serious territory.”
Morten adds, “We would do a photo session and it would only occur to us when we saw the pictures later that they’d put a pink backdrop behind us. We didn’t realise how that came across, how it shaped our image.”
Morten was also being singled out as the focal point of a-ha and, for a group of serious young musicians who considered themselves all equals, it was hard to take. “We realised we had to become involved in shaping our image but, instead of going actively out and presenting something better, we just ducked down, hid away and avoided it, which meant we became difficult to work with.”
The music too began to change, shifting away from bright synthpop towards a more guitar-oriented, introspective sound that neither satisfied their teen audience nor convinced the critics of their musical worth.
By the onset of the 90s a-ha were falling apart. “For me it was like battle fatigue, and frustration that A-Ha had not become what I had hoped for,” reflects Mags. “Our model for this adventure was The Beatles. We’d go in, write pop hits and then five years down the line we’d do our White Album. But that didn’t happen. I knew I had to get out.”
The 1991 Rock In Rio festival, which should have been the jewel in a-ha’s crown, was, instead, a moment of crushing despair. The nine-day event featured mega-headliners including Guns ‘N Roses, George Michael and Prince, but towering above them all was a-ha whose show at the Maracana Stadium drew a Guinness World Record-breaking crowd of 196,000 – the largest paying audience ever.
“MTV interviewed everybody except us,” remembers Paul. “They were all calling their bosses and saying, ‘We must cover A-Ha, it’s the only night that has sold out.’ But they weren’t allowed to.”
“I felt very alienated,” says Mags. “Still, we were excited to read the NME and the Melody Maker, because we felt at least they’d have to acknowledge our popularity. Instead, they wrote about Happy Mondays. It made us feel hopeless. We played to the biggest crowd in the world and they ignored it.”
In 1994, with Paul now living in New York, a-ha called it a day and focussed on solo projects. The glory days seemed behind them but, insists Paul, it was actually a much-needed period of self-renewal. “I loved all those bands like Nirvana that came out then. My songwriting had become very complex, with amazing chord changes, so it was great to hear bands taking it back to zero again. I found my second wind.”
Mags, similarly, found satisfaction in working as an artist, earning acclaim for his exhibitions, which remain a significant part of his creative life. “Ultimately,” he feels, “the break made us stronger. Everyone came back more creative and self-assured, and started writing complete songs.”
Their well-received 2002 album Lifelines restored them to No1 in Germany, but it was 2005’s Analogue, their first for Universal, which turned the corner of critical acclaim for the band.
Analogue was, however, still largely predicated on the traditional guitar-band format. “We made a couple of records since the comeback where Paul and I were not in the same room,” says Mags. “I’ve been recording my material and Morten’s, and Paul’s been recording his.”
This, he felt, was a denial of their greatest strength. “When Analogue came out,” he remembers, “I said I would like the next album to be called Digital.”
In the event, it was called Foot Of The Mountain, but it embodies to a large extent the approach Mags had envisioned. He sensed that the time was right for a return to the way they had made their first tracks, with all three of them together in one room building songs around catchy synth melodies. They had abandoned that two decades earlier because it represented the pop image they’d come to hate. Now, though, they could step back and recognise it for what it really was – their natural modus operandi.
The yearningly anthemic title track was released in Sweden on May 5 with no plan to bring it out here before the band’s upcoming November tour. Then fate took a hand. Samantha Cooper, a long-time Radio 2 producer, was enjoying her maternity leave when she heard the track on the Universal Norway website. “I’ve been an a-ha fan since I was a girl,” she explains, “so I’ve always kept an eye on what they’re up to.”
Convinced it was the best a-ha track she’d heard in years, she took it to her husband, Radio 2 music systems administrator Michael Banbrook, and they then approached Ken Bruce who gave it its first UK radio play.
“Then we spoke to a-ha’s manager, and to Universal, and pointed out that it was already getting plays,” adds Cooper. Recognising that they were being handed a runaway airplay hit on a platter, Universal sprang into action, releasing the single on June 27.
Manager Harald Wiik, part of the a-ha organisation since 1999, continues the tale. “Sharon Hardwick and Thom Wrafter at Universal really rolled up their sleeves and got to work, mobilised the company to get it turned round very quickly. They put a great promotional team in place, which was vitally important.”
UMRL product manager Wrafter confirms, “We had the band in for a month, doing lots of tv, from Jonathon Ross to The Lottery, GMTV and BBC Breakfast, as well as a raft of national newspaper features. We’re leaving no stone unturned so, as well as all that, we’re running ads across Spotify, and the online side has been fantastic.”
There have been mutterings, given that much of a-ha’s loyal fanbase were teens in the 80s, about whether more could have been made of the single by releasing it as a physical product but nevertheless, Radio 2’s unflagging support (they also made the album record of the week) helped a-ha achieve a chart presence to match their new-found critical acclaim.
A second single, ‘Nothing Is Keeping You Here’, is scheduled for September 21, when the band will return for a second media onslaught, prepping the nation for their November tour, of which Simon Moran of SJM Concerts says, “Ticket sales are great. The O2, for example, is close on 10,000. We’ve tried to keep tickets reasonably priced and the album doing so well has been a real bonus.”
The Agency Group’s Neil Warnock, overseeing the global touring strategy, adds, “A-ha has always been strong internationally and the first territory they started to enjoy renewed success in was Germany, so that’s where we put the first gigs, but English ticket sales have already far exceeded our expectations.”
Starting with the new album, a-ha’s publishing moved to the Berlin-headquartered BMG Rights Management. Company CEO, Hartwig Masuch, says, “We’re honored to represent Morten, Pål and Magne. They are brilliant songwriters and the album entered the German Media Control Top 100 Longplay Charts straight at number one. We are constantly working on exploiting our artists’ songs. A-ha’s hit single ‘Foot of the Mountain’ is obviously a huge success, which is already great.”
Historically too, a-ha’s catalogue remains buoyant. Sony/ATV Music Publishing (UK) Limited oversees a-ha’s songs for the first three albums and, as their UK Head of Administration, Gary Bhupsingh points out, “The hits from these albums continue to feature prominently in sync activity. Recent highlights would be the use of ‘Take On Me’ last year in a US computer karaoke game, and ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ in the trailer for Slumdog Millionaire.”
The sun, it seems, always shines on a-ha.*
Hunting High and Low Warner Bros. Records 31 May 1985 UK Chart No2
a-ha’s first album, despite its convoluted genesis at the hands of two separate producers, introduced their distinctive combination of poppy electronica contrasted by thoughtful lyrics delivered with Morton Harket’s extraordinary voice. Grammy-nominated, it sold 10m copies worldwide, included ‘Take On Me’ and ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’, setting the bar high for the future.
Scoundrel Days Warner Bros. Records 6 October 1986 UK Chart No2
Their Alan Tarney-produced second outing initiated their drift away from electronica but was another UK platinum offering. “It was a natural step for us,” says Magne Furuholmen, “but the business people began wondering, ‘What are they doing? We need another Take On Me.’
Stay on These Roads Warner Bros. Records 1 May 1988 UK Chart No2
4m international sales, platinum status in Brazil and Gold in the UK, their third album delivered another four international hits including a UK No5 with the James Bond theme The Living Daylights.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon Warner Bros. Records 22 October 1990 UK Chart No12
Darker in tone than the first three albums, but creatively satisfying with Paul Waaktaar-Savoy already finding inspiration from America’s fledgeling grunge scene. Norway remained faithful and gave them another No1, but international sales declined.
Memorial Beach Warner Bros. Records 14 June 1993 UK Chart No17
Continuing the rockier course of East Of The Sun, this sold 1.2m copies worldwide and delivered another UK Top 20 entry, ‘Dark Is The Night’. With the band in emotional turmoil, this was their last effort before splitting.
Minor Earth Major Sky Warner Bros. Records 17 July 2000 UK Chart No27
Returning re-invigourated after their late 90s wilderness, the title track took three European No1 slots, and a healthier 2.75m sales confirmed that the public was ready to welcome them back. During the song ‘Summer Moved On’, Morten sustains a note for a record-breaking 20.2 seconds.
Lifelines Warner Bros. Records 2 April 2002 UK Chart No67
Album No7 achieved top 10 album placements in nine territories, four of those (including Germany) at No1, and continued the re-appraisal that saw the band securing the critical acclaim they’d always deserved.
The Definitive Singles Collection 1984–2004 Warner Bros. Records 5 April 2005 Chart No14
Building on their new found status, this gold album included no less than 17 hits and sold so well that it was clear a major appetite for the band still existed.
Analogue UMRL 4 November 2005 UK Chart No24
With the title track restoring a-ha to the UK Top Ten for the first time since 1988, Analogue was unmistakeably a-ha revving up into top gear, leaving them poised to reclaim former glories.
Foot of the Mountain UMRL 19 June 2009 Chart No5
Produced by Steve Osborne, whose impeccable dance-pop credentials from New Order to the Fratellis perfectly complemented a-ha’s long-overdue return to electronica, this Top 5 album delivers everything that made the band world beaters to begin with.*
ANATOMY OF A COMEBACK
Asked to analyze the steps by which the almost forgotten men of the late ’90s were transformed into new millennium heroes resurgent, a-ha manager Harald Wiik, takes a deep breath and admits, “I’d like to say it was all planned and engineered, which would make me look a lot better, but in reality it wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, pushed for a little more detail, he unerringly pinpoints the critical events:
2000 : Minor Earth, Major Sky
“The comeback started in Europe in 2000, with this album, which surprised a lot of people. When they took their break back in 1994, I don’t think anyone expected them to come back, but with this album they started selling out arenas everywhere.”
2004 : Definitive Singles Collection
“In the UK, however, it took off in 2004 when they released The Definitive Singles Collection, which did unexpectedly well everywhere. The core fans had remained loyal over the years but that album opened a lot more eyes to a-ha, reminded people of how good those singles really were. That compilation did the groundwork.”
2005 : Analogue
“Then they released Analogue, which gave them their first UK Top Ten single hit in a long time, and drew a lot of critical acclaim.”
2006 : Q Inspiration Award
“Then they got the Q Inspiration Award in 2006, which was a big and very welcome endorsement.
“I think the story from day one is that they have been under-estimated and under-rated. To some extent, though, that creates a groundswell, because you get all the fans disagreeing with that, determined to prove the critics wrong. And some of those fans, as we now know, grew up to be stars in their own right, such as Coldplay and Keane and all these other bands. Those artists have the attention of a lot of people and whatever they say will have an influence. It’s not the only factor, but it helps.”
2007 : Foot Of The Mountain
“So, all of those are markers along the path and then, on top of all that, they’ve delivered what is, for my personal taste, one of their best albums ever, which is really not something you expect from a band that’s been around for 25 years.”
Wiik has managed Paul Waaktaar-Savoy since 1999, and took over the reins of a-ha in 2005. He acknowledges that his job is not made any easier by the fact that a-ha’s internal personal chemistry is almost unique. Most bands are led by one, occasionally two, highly creative individuals, but in a-ha all three seem to have their hands firmly on the steering wheel. “Yes, they’re three strong-minded, strong-willed creative people, so there’s always going to be friction,” he concedes, “but the upside is that you have access to and the benefit of all that talent, which I think outweighs any problems. I’m reminded of the Spinal Tap quote where Nigel is speaking about how lucky they are to have two visionaries in Spinal Tap. Well, we have three, so we’re even better than Spinal Tap.”
© Johnny Black, Music Week, September 2009