Thirty years after a-Ha unveiled their debut, Hunting High & Low – and as they release a new album, Cast In Steel – Wyndham Wallace talks to the band about their life as young, starving artists, Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, understanding three-dimensional space, and the quest for the perfect ‘Take On Me’…
IN A DISTANT, dark corner of the internet, you’ll find a baker’s dozen of videos by a band called Bridges. The songs have archaic, awkward titles – ‘Death Of The Century’, ‘The Melancolic (sic) Chevaliers’, ‘Pavilion Of The Luxuriant Trees’ – and betray the budget with which they were recorded. Not one has been watched more than 3,500 times. They’re specialist interest, one might say.
There’s another clip out there too, recorded a year later – albeit only credited to Bridges in the small print – that might sound familiar if you listen carefully enough to the thirty or so seconds available. But, for the most part, these tracks, recorded in 1980 by a quartet in their late teens, are notable for little more than their evident debt to prog rock, folk and – especially – the Doors.
“Hence the name,” one of the men responsible for the self-released album containing these songs tells me, almost 34 years later, as a waiter in a spotless uniform reverently pours him tea in London’s Dorchester Hotel. His smile acknowledges the follies of youth, and he laughs as he continues. “We still have a few copies of that vinyl. If everything else fails, that will be our pension scheme.”
It’s unlikely this gentleman is going to need to head to the attic any time soon. Even before the next band he helped form in 1982 broke up, 28 years later, in 2010 – at the end of a world tour that is said to have grossed over £39 million – they’d apparently shifted some 36 million albums, a figure that, particularly given their recent reformation, must now surely be substantially greater. But even for the biggest bands – and his remains amongst the biggest of all time – there was a time when every penny counted. The modest, approachable individual seated across from me – when I see him next, he’ll be travelling on his country’s popular budget airline, Norwegian – remembers those days well. Magne Furuholmen may be part of Norway’s biggest selling act of all time, but even a-Ha were once starving artists.
It’s October 15th, 2013, and Furuholmen is in London with his colleague, singer Morten Harket, to collect a BMI Million-Air award honouring four million American radio and TV plays for ‘Take On Me’. Harket has declined to be interviewed at the same time as Furuholmen, though we’ll meet a little later on, while the band’s third member, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, has remained in New York, where he lives. We chat via email a few days later.
I’m here on behalf of Classic Pop magazine to talk about Hunting High And Low, a record I hated so much as a teenager that I would taunt my sister mercilessly about her feverish fondness for it, but which I have recently been forced to concede contains a masterful understanding of song writing and melody, as well as a number of quite extraordinary vocal performances. I’m most fascinated, however, by the challenging years that led to its existence. One forgets that men like these once struggled, that they made genuine sacrifices in pursuit of their art. Their success and wealth have separated them from the likes of Fat White Family – or indeed any grubby indie act that’s currently dossing down on a friend’s sticky floor trying to save money to get their guitar amp repaired – but they lived that life. They lived that life emphatically. There’s therefore something inescapably incongruous about our surroundings.
Bridges was the first band with which Waaktaar-Savoy (who, back then, was called simply Waaktaar) and Furuholmen (whose affable informality invites the hard-to-resist use of his first name, abbreviated to Mags) succeeded in releasing any music. They’d grown up through the ’60s and ’70s in the same middle class Oslo suburb, Manglerud, but didn’t meet until Furuholmen was about ten, mainly because, Furuholmen says, Waaktaar-Savoy was a year older, and that made a big difference at that age.
“I saw him perform on a third-floor balcony,” he recalls of their earliest encounter, a performance by one of Waaktaar-Savoy’s first bands. “They were performing inside, but there was a group of people stood outside, and they’d come out and he’d put the drumsticks in the air. I think it was just a Hammond, a living room organ, and cardboard drums – a very makeshift concert – but I remember being incredibly impressed, not by the music but by the spectacle of it all. It was like, ‘Wow!’ So we got to talking and – the usual thing – I had a guitar and an amplifier, so I think we found the common dedication, and we started writing right off the bat, like competing to write. We started with rock operas.”
I tell him I’ve seen Hair mentioned as an early influence.
“Yeah, probably,” he replies, with just a hint of sarcasm. “If that’s around in interviews I’m sure it’s correct.”
He takes a sip from an exquisite china teacup before continuing.
“I think musically we were just following what everyone else was listening to at the time. I remember I said to Pål – because we’d talk about, ‘What are you going to do in the future?’ – and I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be a musician’. And I remember Pål saying, years after the fact, that that was such a radical thought for him, because his family is all about making an education. My mother is a teacher, but she was so relaxed about what I wanted to do. But I guess it was just because my father is a musician. He died very young. I think that made it easy for me to think that thought. From that moment on, Pål realised, ‘Shit, that’s what I want to be too!’ and we just kept going through various band set ups…”
Like Furuholmen’s father, who had been a trumpet player, Furuholmen’s grandfather was a musician, and, it was the latter, he says, “who supplied Pål and I with pianos and organs and instruments and amplifiers. Even a rehearsal space: he was the one who owned a little loft somewhere where we could rehearse.”
As well as helping provide many of the necessary resources, Furuholmen – a broad-shouldered, easy-going man who exudes a quiet but undeniable confidence and an occasionally inscrutable charm – was also the more outgoing of the two, meaning that he tended to represent the public face of the band.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say Pål was the more artistic type, unless you want to make a cliché of it, but he was very shy, painfully shy,” Furuholmen concedes. “I became the guy who vocalised, who spoke, who interrelated with the outside world. He would always be very withdrawn or self-protecting, and I would be more willing to go out there and flog it.”
His friend, I remind him, later referred fondly to him as “a fool and a genius”.
“He’s only half right,” Furuholmen laughs. “You have to decide which half.”
With Waaktaar-Savoy taking on the role of singer, songwriter and guitarist in Bridges, while Furuholmen played keyboards, the two began to play their first public shows. Drummer Øystein Jevanord and bassist Viggo Bondi completed the line-up. By the time they were recording their first album, Fakkeltog, Harket – who was three years older – was already established with a band who were slowly making a name for themselves playing blues and soul on Oslo’s club circuit. They were, inevitably, called Souldier Blue.
“S – O – U – L,” Furuholmen points out. “So yeah, quite a clever name, come to think of it.”
He chuckles quietly.
“I always thought it was cheesy,” he owns up a second later. “It’s just a spelling mistake between cheeky and cheesy.”
For a while, it was the whole of Oslo that lay between Harket and his future band mates. While Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen grew up to the east of the Norwegian capital, Harket was raised to the south west, along the Oslo fjord in Asker. It’s now one of the wealthiest of the city’s suburbs, but at the time it was little more than a small, rural village. Harket’s mother was an economics teacher and his father, despite having harboured dreams of becoming a concert pianist, worked as a hospital physician. For Harket, however, the path to a career as a singer was a confused one.
“I was always interested in music at an early age,” he tells me an hour or so after Furuholmen and I have parted. He’s so tanned and buff that my eyes keep playing tricks on me, and I think I’m interviewing David Hasselhoff. “But then it completely died in me the moment my mother came up and delightfully announced that they had got me a tutor for piano lessons. And this just extinguished all joy associated with music. It died there and then, and it stayed dead for about eight years. I took lessons for a number of years, and I never learned to read music. I just copied what he played. I got good at faking it. I was never confrontational about it, because I didn’t want to let my parents down. But I had this aversion to being taught anything. I have a very curious nature, but I don’t want to be taught anything. I want to discover things. That’s the way I am. And I’ve stayed like that. That’s not to say that I’m not a keen listener when somebody has interesting things to say. But I very often find that I listen maybe not so much to what people say, but to what lies behind their need for saying what they say. That’s interesting to me. What people actually say is very often quite polluted.”
In fact, during the course of our 45 minutes together, it will often seem that Harket hasn’t heard me at all, such that I wonder whether he thinks that what I’m asking is so polluted that it in fact stinks. When I enquire a few moments later if he’s bothered that people might consequently think he lives in his own head, he embarks upon a puzzling monologue.
“I am very attentive to things,” he states carefully, “but what I find interesting are not always what other people find interesting. But, at the same time, that’s where I discover the things I discover. I’ve realised in later years, as I grew up, that I’m fascinated with mechanisms. What actually lies behind things? Why do things behave the way they do? Why do things perform the way they do? Why do they land like they do? And when you understand, or when you discover, certain mechanisms, they apply in very different walks of life. The same mechanism controls processes in very different walks of life and they’re the same. And once you’ve picked them, you instantly know quite in depth things about walks of life you have no insight to, and all of a sudden you have that insight.”
Somewhat baffled, I choose not to pursue this avenue, and instead ask him what turned him back onto the idea of making music. What was it that led him to become the star that, he’s often said, he always knew he’d be?
“I’m trying to think if that’s a mechanism that lies behind my drive,” he answers thoughtfully from behind chic yet bookish spectacles. “The drive is really a recognition of the promise of my potential in different areas, the excitement in seeing what’s possible. And once you see that it’s possible, you’re half way there. I realise that I understand music: ‘I can do this, I know what to do.’ But I was sidetracked by other areas or interests in life where I felt equally suited. In terms of art – depending upon how you define art – I understand three-dimensional space. It’s my thing, in a way. I know what something looks like from behind if I see it from the front because I understand the lines and I understand what they need to do, what they are, basically – how can I say that? – what they are there to do. They have no choice but to operate or to behave or perform like that. But it’s a combination.”
I stare at him, even more befuddled, as he politely waves away a waitress who’s come to check we have what we need. He then turns back to me to continue. Over the coming weeks, after I’ve had a few beers, I will regularly read my transcript of his subsequent soliloquy to incredulous friends.
“If you see something – that something could be a woman, or it could also be a horse, it can be a man, and you can understand a lot about what you don’t see by what you see – that is fascinating, because it’s almost like a game. When you see someone walk in a big robe, I find it interesting to know what it’s like, what they are like underneath. Because of the way they move, you can gauge the weight behind the momentum. So that always has to do with understanding what industrial design is about… But that came later. More interesting for me, where it came from, was what a line can do. And that’s something that I played around with when I was younger. But I never really did much later on. Because music became very noisy, became very loud. Not music, but the consequences. The repercussions, rather.”
Frankly, I’m now a little unnerved. Each time I’ve felt like I’ve grasped his point, he’s wrested it away from me, spun it nonchalantly in the air to distract me, and then passed it back, like a relay baton covered in butter. By now, I’m settling back into my chair after every question, certain that otherwise I’ll be leaning forward a while. When I’d remarked to Furuholmen at the end of our earlier interview that I had an hour or so to kill before I met Harket – which was good since I needed to recharge my phone to record it – he’d joked, “Oh, you’ll need a lot of battery.”
I start scanning my questions, wondering which ones I can sacrifice to get to the meat of the story, then try to steer him back again to what it was that revitalised his interest in music after educational encouragement had failed. Harket commences telling me about “an interesting journey, starting with heavy metal type of stuff”.
“When that happened to me,” he elaborates, “when I first became aware, I had no idea these things existed. But they were kind of theatrical. No, not theatrical: bands like Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Camel, Pink Floyd later on. And I was also sucked into the tribal response to music where you belong somewhere. You root for a band. You’re ready to go very far for them. And you need to establish they are the best there is. Why are we like that? It’s an interesting aspect to our nature. But it’s a very fiery…” – there’s a long pause, a very long pause – “…impulse, or whatever it is, to root for something. And it’s very much about identifying yourself. And it invariably more or less always will side against your parents, and what they represent. And that is a necessity in the process of becoming you.”
He nods a moment, then launches into another sermon. I begin to see why people have often repeated the assertion – one he’s in fact denied – that he was studying to enter the priesthood before he joined a-Ha.
“But then what happened, I was very confident about what was the right music, and what was just shit. I could hold that speech very well. And all of a sudden I was maybe 18, 19 years old, and one thing changed everything for me. It was ‘Hey Joe’, by Jimi Hendrix. And everything stopped for me, dead in its tracks. I just stopped listening to music. I stopped everything. I heard it once. I nicked the record. I had to have it. I just impounded it. I took possession of it for the higher good. It was very much a moral act. And I never played it again. I played it once. It killed everything that I’d done. I realised that everything that I held high and was talking so loudly about was just… It really fell apart. It really did. I accepted that I knew nothing. It was a relief as well. Not that I expected it, or wanted it. I wasn’t looking for it at all, not to my knowledge. But it happened, and I had to deal with it. And I dealt with it instantly. I stopped everything I was doing. And I also realised something very important: that I couldn’t trust myself. I couldn’t trust what I thought to be knowing. Something else had to happen first. A lot of stuff had to happen first.”
And that, I venture, was Souldier Blue?
“That was just me pulling up my sleeves and getting to work,” he replies swiftly. “I stopped listening to myself. I stopped following my likes and dislikes and started doing something without thinking. That’s what Souldier Blue was about. I hated it. I had no interest in it.”
No less confused than I’ve been than at any stage since we met, I ask him whether this was, in a sense, an exercise in muscle-building.
“You could say that, but it was more of a humbling exercise. I lent myself to something that I really had no interest in, and I didn’t see any future in at all. It didn’t turn me on, on any level. I just thought it was really boring.”
Could it not have been, I suggest a little cheekily, that you knew you had a pretty damned good voice, and so you could stand up there and blow the rest of the band away?
“Yeah, well, but I was more… I had a quite naïve relationship to my singing. I knew that I could do a lot of things, but at the same time I didn’t really have access to the magic of that centre in me where that ought to come from. So that was a stopper, really. And then it just became an exercise. It needed to be an exercise. I couldn’t apply my spirit to it. I just needed it as some kind of service. I decided that I was wrong. If I thought there was nothing to this, there has to be something wrong somewhere in me. And I was opening up to it to see what would happen if I just started making contact somehow. And that is what happened: all of a sudden something started to happen, after some time. And I began to take in some of the great stuff you find in blues – and soul was nearer my heart than the blues itself, but gradually also blues itself – to sit with me. And then obviously someone like Sam Cooke was fairly easy to pick up on, but Otis Rush… Obviously Otis Redding is easier, but Otis Rush is more of a primal source.”
All the same, if he really was waiting for something to happen, it turned out to be neither Solomon Burke, nor B.B. King, but Bridges. He first saw them playing in a school gym hall.
“It really stunned me when I heard them live. This was Doors music…”
With an English psychedelic tinge, I chip in.
“Yes,” he replies excitedly. “It’s fucking good! The big change for me was when I heard Pål and Mags and their band. All of a sudden everything changed. No, I didn’t realise. It stunned me, right there on the floor. ‘This is it. This is how it’s gonna happen.’ It was instant. But at the same time I knew they needed me. I had to be a part of it. That wasn’t a question for me. It wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t a problem. It was just a fact, a comfortable matter of fact. But I was not going to go after them and suggest anything. I just knew, and that was enough for me. So I left it there. For quite some time. Because they needed to pick me. Really.”
He says this with all the serenity of an aging guru recalling how destiny chose him to lead his people. I’m forced to admire the confidence of this muscular, ageless sage as much as I’m disconcerted by his seemingly guileless hubris. But perhaps hindsight gives him the necessary license. Though it would indeed be a while before Harket threw his lot in with his future colleagues, it wasn’t due to a failure on their part to pick him. Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy may not have been fans of Souldier Blue, but they were taken with Harket’s vocal abilities, and Harket revealed the admiration was mutual after going to see Bridges a second time.
“I was really looking forward to it,” he says. “I went there only because of that. I wasn’t interested in any of the other stuff because I knew what it would be like. And they go on stage and they play a bloody blues song. What a complete fall from grace! It was so bad, so poor and so nothing. And then I needed to talk with them. They needed guidance!” He might be poking fun at himself as he says this, but it’s hard to tell. “And I couldn’t approach Pål, who’s not so approachable, but I had a wonderful contact with Magne instantly, and we had a very long walk home.”
The connection between them, however, was rather closer than they might have expected.
“I think he was just searching around for anyone who had the same burning ambition that he had,” Furuholmen says of their conversation that first night he and Harket met. “So we just started talking about everything, and finally got around to what parents do. I told him about my father passing away in a plane accident, and then, as I divulged details, he got very quiet. All of a sudden, he just stopped me and said, ‘I saw that’.”
“We came back from vacation, I believe,” Harket tells me a little later of the 1967 accident, “and drove through Drammen (a city about 25 miles from Oslo). There’s a river that runs through the city and hits the ocean and, across the bridge, my oldest brother looked out of the window and said ‘Ah, look, there’s a Cessna’. And then the next second he says, ‘It looks like it’s having problems’. And then he watched the plane come down, fall out of the sky. And that’s where Magne’s father died.”
“I thought, ‘Woah!” Furuholmen says as he recalls the exchange. “‘He’s either a psychopath, or this is weird.’ But it was lodged in my mind. He was lodged in my mind.”
Nonetheless, the connection, as yet, was still not strong enough. Impatient for success, Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy decided to move to London, Dick Whittington style, to seek their fortune. Recognising that their colleagues in Bridges lacked the requisite dedication, they invited Harket to join them instead, but he declined, citing a need to continue his studies in theology. So they tucked an acoustic guitar and a Korg synth under their arms, crossed the North Sea alone, and began answering advertisements they found in Melody Maker and NME. While Furuholmen toiled to pay the bills, Waaktaar-Savoy either stayed at home or headed to the local library to write songs.
“Pål’s shy demeanour left it to me to work in the pub and as a labourer. He was, ‘I think it’s better if I stay home and write. I can’t really talk to people.’ ‘Right. I’ll do the talking. We’ll do the walking together. I’ll talk and you just sit home and write!” Furuholmen pauses for a moment, his timing as immaculate as the waiter’s outfit. “It was a good investment on his part. It was a good investment on my part, too.”
Still, success eluded them, no doubt due in part to their failure to find anyone in the entire city with whom they could actually play.
“We could tell from a mile off when a professional musician came into the room,” Furuholmen says, his pleasure at the recollection visible. “He took one look. ‘Here’s a couple of fucking losers who are going nowhere fast.’ And we felt it, because we were whistling melodies and playing, trying to invite them into the creative hub. But it didn’t really work out. We got the brilliant idea, to be original, that we would have an electrical harp player, like a proper harpist instead of a guitar. Funnily enough, he then wanted to start playing lead guitar, presumably because it got him further with the girls.”
The desperate duo lasted just six months in London, heading home penniless and dejected in the summer of 1982.
“We were just a couple of no hopers,” Furuholmen sighs, “with no work permits and no money and no real experience. I just realised, ‘Shit, this is going nowhere. We’ve got to go back and get more money.’ That came up on my radar quite clearly.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t necessarily an entirely wasted trip.
“We actually had a great time,” Waaktaar-Savoy tells me later by email, though his own opinion may be coloured by his experiences at home and in the library. “The biggest thing that happened was that we heard so much new music. Super inspiring. Got our competitive juices going for sure. But after trying and failing to find local musicians that we liked, we decided to head back to Norway and see if we could convince Morten to give it a shot. He had turned us down a year earlier.”
Most likely to Waaktaar-Savoy’s relief – since, as he says, “Hitchhiking from England to Norway turns out be a lot longer than you’d think, especially when it’s raining most of the way” – this time Harket said yes, and his impact was immediate. One of the first tracks they played him was a version of something that had started out life as ‘The Juicy Fruit Song’. (It’s from this that those aforementioned thirty seconds can be found in the more shadowy reaches of the net.) It had later morphed into a tune called ‘Panorama’ in time for the recording of a second Bridges album that never saw the light of day.
“I referred to it as ‘Paranoia Panorama’,” Furuholmen points out, “which was a much better title! But, with Morten on board, that was the first thing he said: ‘That is a hit riff. We’ve got to do something with that.’ And then we started looking to make catchy songs. I remember talking to Pål about it. He was saying, ‘We can make really catchy songs. Why shouldn’t we do it?’ And I guess that was the realisation that – just six months of going nowhere in the UK, having doors slammed in our faces – made us sharpen the tools in that direction. Once Morten got involved and we formed a-Ha, from that moment on there was definitely a focus on finding the hit that would propel us into commercial success.”
Harket felt that a return to London would be premature, so the three young men began writing together in Asker, where Furuholmen’s parents now lived, and where Waaktaar-Savoy’s family had recently bought a cabin, which the band soon adopted as their new rehearsal studio. Six months later, in early January, 1983, they set off for London as a trio with a new set of demo recordings, including ‘Lesson One’, the latest – if still naively unsophisticated – incarnation of the ‘Juicy Fruit Song’. They set up house together, writing, rehearsing, trying to get shows, and – as strangers from a strange land – worked doubly hard to get the attention of record companies, publishers and managers. But, once again, things, inevitably, didn’t progress at any great speed, and their circumstances began to take a toll.
“We were so excited by what we were there to do,” Harket says. “Very buoyant. But all of a sudden there was a moment when it got serious, because I was starting to drift away. I knew that I hadn’t eaten for a little too long. And there was a harsh reality that started to tap me on my shoulder. We had no money. It came to the point where we were literally starving, and I was starting to drop a little out of consciousness on the street. I was starting to lose my grip. I realised that I was about to have to consider stealing for food.”
Furuholmen, for his part, argues that “it didn’t feel tough,” before admitting that perhaps he’s understating things.
“We omitted certain parts of it when we sent letters home. We didn’t tell them about the mice. We moved from bad to worse as the money dwindled. We ended up in the basement of a studio. No windows, and we slept on polystyrene. We did progress down from quite swanky bedsits to begin with, to dingy horrible places in the end. But we didn’t feel like it was a downward slide. It was just keeping the dream alive. We were starving artists by choice. And I think that just made it into an adventure, albeit a very taxing adventure at times. There was plenty of desperation, and desperate moments, but there was never any sense of, ‘There’s no way out of this.’ There was always a very strong belief: ‘We’re doing this for a purpose’. It was a really big bonding period, to have that time together. It was probably the closest we’ve been ever. Success fragments everything, and everyone gets their own entourage, everyone gets their own bodyguard and their own people that latch on to you. But that was the core of it, those two years.
“The experience of being in London from a musical point of view was super-exciting,” he continues. “Morten was the kind of person who’d get noticed straight off the bat, and he didn’t really make it difficult to be noticed. He went out of his way to be visible in the landscape. Quite extreme. This was in the middle of that Camden Palace, Steve Strange, outlandish costumes, and Morten went the whole hog. I think Steve Strange had a big crush on Morten, and was a bit disappointed that Morten wasn’t more gay than he is. Because he’s not very gay! He just seemed like it. When you saw him in his white painted Dulux hair and ballet tights, you could excuse a guy in peacock feathers for thinking, ‘This guy’s on my team, batting for my team.’ So he was the kind of guy who got us into clubs for free, and we went to see a lot of bands. That was an extremely formative period musically.”
But even so, I observe, there are stories of you living off cabbage bread – whatever that is – and sharing a single light bulb for the whole of your flat. I gather things even got so tense that you once put Morten’s head through a window.
“Well, yeah,” Furuholmen smirks. “Cabbage bread was hard. Putting Morten’s head through a window wasn’t so hard! That was one of the unexpected pleasures of the day.”
But though they refrained from some of the more destructive examples of rock ‘n’ roll’s traditional pursuits – Furuholmen jokes that Slater once “sat people down, our crew, our record company,” and told them, “‘If I ever see anyone taking drugs around this band I’ll chop their legs off”” – there was one incident, at least, that actually led to Furuholmen’s incarceration.
“I was showing off to some Italian girls by somersaulting onto or off – I can’t remember – a parked car. A policeman saw me and ran over and grabbed me. I wasn’t totally sober, but I wasn’t so drunk that I couldn’t actually see before I jumped on that car that it had been parked there for too long. It had probably been stolen, because it was a total wreck. But he started writing down all the dents in the car. ‘I didn’t make that dent! I’m a light Norwegian guy, I just jumped on the roof and somersaulted off it!’ It was no big deal, but I ended up spending a night in jail.”
Anyway, he points out, there were other, more serious problems with the long arm of the British law that took far longer to overcome.
“The main problem was getting in the border. We didn’t have the proper work permits. We literally had to go back and claim we lost our passports to get new ones, because it was full of stamps and they wouldn’t let us in again. That went on even when we had a number one in this country.'”
Ironically, though the band had come to Britain to further their career, it was the country’s almost hermetic borders that made the most significant early contribution to a-Ha’s success. Hunting High & Low‘s songs were largely inspired by a woman with whom Waaktaar-Savoy fell in love early on during their London sojourn, but from whom he was separated by bureaucracy.
“I had met Lauren in London when she took a semester abroad,” he writes in his email. “Then she had to return to the States because her step-dad got sick. I couldn’t go and visit her, as we always had serious problems with UK immigration. Not that I had money for the ticket anyway! Over the next seven or eight months I sent her enough letters to fill up a suitcase, many with songs or drawings, whatever I could think of. Anything to make her not forget about me.”
They married in 1991 and conjugated their surnames, Waaktaar and Savoy. They’re still together. There were no ends to the lengths he’d go. But it was often when the odds were stacked highest against these three persistent Scandinavians that the tide began to turn. With funds running low, they booked themselves in April 1983 into a small Sydenham studio, Rendezvous, run by a man called John Ratcliff.
“We had no work permits, so we couldn’t play anywhere,” Harket reminds me. “We couldn’t really be active with the music. We just had to be in the studio and do demos, which is all we did.”
They didn’t normally have the wherewithal to record for long, however, and in truth Rendezvous was chosen simply because it offered equipment when they had little of their own. But, setting out to lay down three or four songs per day, they in fact only needed one before Ratcliff’s ears pricked up.
“He said, ‘That sounds really interesting. Do you have more?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, but we can’t afford to pay.’ ‘Well, why don’t you come in on off time?’ He started talking about, ‘I know people in the music industry. I can get you a singles deal’. And then it escalated from there. He started giving us time during the night, so we’d come in after the session finished, do our thing, and the next morning we’d play him something before going to bed. John was the first person to really believe in the band. He gave us time in the studio for free, recognised the talent, started talking it up. He was an instrumental character in making A-Ha get noticed. And he brought in Terry Slater.”
Slater was a music industry veteran, a former member of the UK touring bands for the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino who’d gone on to become Head of A&R at EMI, and then, in 1979 – for a short while, at least – the company’s director. He’d in fact signed Ratcliff to EMI, though they’d not enjoyed as much success together as Slater did with some of his other signings, including Duran Duran. Still, from time to time, Ratcliff would feed him with music recorded by acts he’d discovered in his studio.
“That’s where a-Ha started,” Furuholmen reiterates. “Over a period of three or four months, we built up a catalogue of demos that secured interest from Terry Slater and subsequently from Warner Brothers. They (Ratcliff and Slater) formed a management company, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“There was a marked difference,” Harket says, and now that he’s focussed he makes considerably more sense, “between Terry’s response and everything else that we’d been met with up to that point, which was a lot of talk. There were people who thought it was very interesting what we were doing, but it never amounted to anything. And that was very different when we hooked up with Terry. Terry had a completely different take on all of it. And he just said things: ‘It’s gonna be like this; this is what’s going to happen. Keep writing songs. Keep writing songs whatever you do. That’s what you need to do. The magic? There is no magic. You write songs. And it’s either a hit song or it’s not a hit song.’ He was just straight to the point: ‘This is brilliant. Just carry on. I’m not going to tell you what to do. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Here’s enough money to get by. There’s this. Stay there. Here’s food.’ Nothing extra. Just what was needed. Very pragmatic, down to earth, straight.
“He kept his word,” Harket continues. “He said, ‘We’ll set up a showcase, we’ll start rounding up the record companies, and we’ll go for a deal. By that time, you’ll need as many songs as you can possible write, because when this happens it’s going to hit you like a train. And you’re going to wake up on the other side not knowing what your name is. And at that point you’re going to need more songs.”
They signed with Warner Brothers’ US arm, having fostered loyalty from an early admirer, A&R Andy Wickham, who’d been handpicked to work for the company by the legendary label executive, Mo Ostin, and who, within his first week, had helped sign Joni Mitchell. He and Slater cast around for a producer, and settled on Tony Mansfield, a synth expert who’d previously enjoyed some success as the leader of New Musik. But progress on their debut proved slow, and the band found some of the results, recorded at Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studios, less than satisfactory too.
“That first session was full of hope and promise,” Harket recalls, “and we just went gung ho with Tony Mansfield. But as we progressed with him, there were was a lot of things that… You know, you start with a hundred per cent trust, and then the trust starts to wear off as you go along, and by the time the record was finished we weren’t completely happy with it.”
With the album finally in the can but well behind schedule, Warners began to set up a-Ha’s first single. ‘Lesson One’ had now become ‘Take On Me’, but though Mansfield’s version reached the Top Three in their homeland, where Furuholmen says there was “sort of an A-Ha fever growing”, it stiffed everywhere else. Additionally, a bland video, Furuholmen recalls, “made us realise, ‘Shit, it’s better not to do anything than do something shit'”, though he states proudly that the track picked up a few Radio 1 plays. Otherwise, it seemed like all their work had been for nothing. Yet they still weren’t ready to give up. Their £125,000 advance probably ensured they couldn’t.
“We actually went in and asked the record company to re-record it,” Furuholmen says, “which was a tall order for a newly signed band. But we just felt like, ‘Shit, this could be so much better.’ And, luckily for us, we had an A&R person who also felt the same way. He felt the promise he’d heard in that song early on wasn’t fulfilled. But the first release, we didn’t feel like we had much of a choice. Things were moving along, and you did the best with what you had…”
They turned to Alan Tarney, a former musician who’d written Cliff Richards’ ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ as well as other recent hits for Leo Sayer and Barbara Dickson.
“We weren’t terribly excited,” Furuholmen admits. “Frankly we were really worried about the shift. We thought we were going from someone who kind of us understood to someone who we weren’t sure would get what we were about. Someone who’d had his day and missed the boat. But Alan turned out to be a real godsend. He turned out to take it very seriously and realised the potential. And we ended up recording ‘Take On Me’, ‘The Sun Always Shines’ and re-recording, or reproducing, I would say, ‘Hunting High And Low’. And that was when the album felt complete. That was when we felt, ‘OK, now we’re in good shape.'”
The final revision to ‘Take On Me’ was perhaps the most important work he helped enable.
“Pål and I had the fundamental parts,” Furuholmen says, “but it just wasn’t exactly right. Morten changed a note in the transition as it was progressing, and that ended up being the final version of it, as far as I remember it. So it was very much a communal effort to get there. It didn’t take too long from when that song hit the company offices until Jeff Ayeroff (Warners US Senior Vice President) entered the scene and heard the song, saw the band and felt like, ‘Shit, this act could really fly!’ And he’s the one who turned the atmosphere in the company around. I think we were on the, ‘Alright, let’s put it out and see what happens’ level at that point, and Jeff really cranked up the enthusiasm on our behalf, in America particularly.”
And yet, in the band’s adopted British home, the song still didn’t fly upon its reenergised release. The problem, Furuholmen suggests, was record company politics. “We were signed in America. We were based in the UK. It was an inherent conflict of interest. We had more to do with the UK label in a way than we did in the US label, but we weren’t their act, so they were kind of hesitant about it. So there was a period there that took a little time for them. They didn’t really push ‘Take On Me’.”
Ayeroff, by now, had made the band a priority act, and he hired director Steve Barron – the man behind Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ video – to give things one last shot. Barron in turn hooked up with rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, and the iconic, ground-breaking outcome – in which the band are depicted as comic book illustrations who come to life, and which Furuholmen claims cost $150,000 all in – caught MTV’s eye. Regular screenings began to drive the single up the American charts, and this time it didn’t stop until it had reached the top. The British office now had no choice but to match their American counterparts’ commitment. They fell short, but only just, with Jennifer Rush’s ‘The Power Of Love’ all that kept it from the top of the charts. The album, Hunting High And Low, which had been released half a year earlier to little fanfare, soon followed ‘Take On Me”s lead, stalling similarly at Number 2 but going on to be certified triple platinum. Everything the band had endured – from the cabbage bread to the polystyrene beds to the intensive revisions to their music – at last paid off.
“That was part and parcel of how we worked,” Furuholmen summarises. “We’d walk into a studio and redo a song, and do it from the top completely different, like start from scratch. And we believed that was one of the strengths of the band, that we could do that. We’d start again, programming the drums, in a different tempo, in a different key, with different things on it, different riffs. We kept going with what we believed in. In the words of John Lennon,” he laughs, “we sold out, and we sold good.”
“None of what Terry said came out any differently,” Harket grins, as his current manager, Harald Wiik, hovers behind him, ready to guide his charges to their BMI dinner. Beside Wiik, touchingly, is Terry Slater. “It was exactly what he said. He said, ‘I sat here with Duran, I sat here with Queen, I’ve gone through all this. I’ve listened to all their whining. And it’s like this: this is what’s going to happen. You have everything it takes, and it’s going to be fun.'”
Moments later, Furuholmen and Harket are reunited, met by a storm of flashbulbs as they leave the Dorchester Hotel’s grandiose tea room for the elegance of the BMI London Awards next door. I watch them go, Furuholmen’s bonhomie and Harket’s eccentricity lingering instead around me.
Later on, at the same prize-giving ceremony, John Lydon – a man whose aesthetic once could not have been further from a-Ha’s – will collect an Icon Award for his “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers”. Barricades have been overcome. Bridges have been built. As Harket once sang over the unmistakable, bubbling synth melody that eventually emerged from Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy’s early, almost forgotten, exertions, “It’s no better to be safe than sorry…”
© Wyndham Wallace, The Quietus, 22 September 2015