IN 2005, there are few cooler pop names to drop than a-ha. Coldplay and Travis are not just avowed fans but sometime collaborators with the recently reformed 1980s icons. U2 pay lip service in interviews and musical homage on record. In fact, everybody from Robbie Williams to Keane, Morrissey to Madonna has heaped praise on the moody maestros of glacially beautiful Nordic gloom-pop.
“It’s made huge difference,” says a-ha founder member Magne Furuholmen, who even recruited half of Coldplay to play on his solo album earlier this year. “Chris and the other guys have been very generous and vocal about it, something that has done serious damage to my status as a 1980s has-been pin-up.”
A Norwegian joke, possibly. But a-ha are not laughing. Fame came quickly to Furuholmen, Pal Waaktaar-Savoy and Morten Harket in the mid 1980s. Having topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with ‘Take On Me’, they enjoyed sustained success for almost a decade, selling over 30 million records, scoring 13 Top Ten singles in the UK, and breaking concert records in Brazil. But, they protest, it took years to be forgiven for these youthful triumphs.
“Coming back to it now and discovering there are people that we in turn can respect and relate to is hugely important,” Furuholmen says. “I mean, I can relate to Coldplay’s music, I can relate to Morrissey’s music. I certainly couldn’t relate to some of the people we were compared to in the 1980s and early 1990s.”
In fairness, a-ha always had more emotional and musical depth than most of their chart peers. Even 20 years ago, they were more Munch than the Monkees, more Ibsen than Debbie Gibson. Their richly assured new album Analogue confirms that Market’s pure, aching falsetto has long been one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in pop, even if it has sometimes been obscured by his highly marketable image as a chisel-cheeked Nordic sex god.
Now 46, Harket remains strikingly handsome, albeit slightly freakish close up, resembling a kind of super-sized Tom Cruise. These oddly extra-terrestrial looks certainly launched a thousand photo shoots, catapulting a-ha to global fame. But having legions of lust-crazed fans, the singer argues, has detracted from the band’s artistic ambitions.
“It’s not very interesting, quite honestly,” Harket shrugs. “If am in front of a woman that I respond to and I like, then I would care what she sees in me. You have to take another person seriously if she fancies you – or he, for that matter. I am not gay myself, but he may very well be, and it should be respected. But as a mass thing it becomes, at best, funny and silly.”
A-ha lived in London for most of the 1980s, initially in a shared flat just around the corner from the Kensington hotel where our interview takes place. They always wrote in English, the lingua franca of mainstream pop. For all their retrospective claims on artistic gravitas, they clearly pursued mainstream fame aggressively.
“Of course we had burning ambition,” nods Waaktaar. “But we had the naffest image, when we started, because coming from Norway we weren’t clued in on what was smart to do. And we were stuck in that image, being so big so quickly, everybody had an opinion from the first song. But in a way, if you stick around long enough, that kind of works for you.”
Maybe so, but in 1993, critical disfavour and internal friction speeded a-ha’s break-up. “I think we had closet fans, even in the 1980s,” Furuholmen says. “We were like the most highly inflated currency, but the currency was worth nothing. Success creates a situation where there is no finder’s fee for anyone in discovering you. So in the end we just said: ‘fuck it, we’ll do something else for a while…'”
That something else involved Furuholmen and Harket returning to Oslo while Waaktaar relocated to New York. All three got married, had children and pursued solo musical ventures. Furuholmen also carved a successful sideline in visual art, and elected to spend 18 months doing social work as a conscientious objector from compulsory army service.
Ironically, just a year earlier, a-ha’s anthemic power ballad ‘Hunting High and Low’ had been banned from Radio 1 as potentially sensitive during the first Gulf War. “I still can’t get that,” scowls Furuholmen. “You’d think in a situation like that you would need songs like ‘Hunting High and Low’ to raise people’s spirits.”
The a-ha story might well have ended there, had the Nobel Peace Prize committee not invited them to perform in 1998. Waaktaar composed a new song for the occasion, which led to their first comeback album, Major Earth, Minor Sky, in 2000. This time, the critical reception felt much warmer.
“Of course, we were aware of our genius,” Waaktaar deadpans. “But the only words of praise we got was when we reformed. Before that it was all about cheekbones or whatever. Only when the Nobel Peace Prize committee asked if we could do a couple of songs, and it turned into a big success. Suddenly bands and reviewers started coming out of the closet.”
The musical landscape that a-ha returned to had also changed beyond recognition during their seven-year sabbatical. Bizarrely, Norwegian pop had even become cool thanks to acts such as Royksopp, Kings of Convenience and Annie.
“The overall change since we grew up is that people have self-confidence,” nods Furuholmen. “I think we can safely say we did something for that attitude. We took away the excuse that, just because you came from Norway, you couldn’t be successful. That was a very hard-fought attitude as the time. Right now it’s more like everyone thinks they’re a big star, before they even sign a record deal.”
Currently five years and three albums into their second act, a-ha’s internal politics remain delicately balanced. Whereas Waaktaar used to dominate the songwriting, all three members now compose in isolation, a testament to the ongoing tensions between them.
“It’s true there is tension,” says Harket, “but it’s natural, it’s part of the creative force between the three of us. Sometimes it is destructive, other times creative. Have we ever resorted to violence? No, that’s a thought. Maybe we should. But no, we’re not like that. If we go there we would do it properly. We would kill each other for real.”
Waaktaar delights in revealing that his American wife, Lauren, likens a-ha to Metallica in their emotionally lacerating group-therapy documentary, Some Kind Of Monster.
“We are way beyond that!” he laughs. “But we have that Norwegian, unspoken thing. It’s all layered meanings, like Ibsen. There is a lot of feeling between us but it’s never said, which in a way keeps it interesting and keeps you coming back. Because it never turns unto a big American soap opera with hugs and kisses. It never resolves, it just goes on.”
© Stephen Dalton, The Times, November 2005