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Haunted, high and low: a-ha’s 40-year quest for respect

The Norwegian trio’s new album arrives with their legacy secure - but it hasn’t always been that way

Image: The New European

“So tell me where you’ve been, and I’ll show you where you’re going,” a-ha
sang on A Fine Blue Line (2005). The Norwegians have always known what
direction they wanted their career to head in – even when their record company disagreed.

The trio’s new album True North arrives on October 21 with their legacy secure. It hasn’t always been that way. When singer Morten Harket, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy topped worldwide charts in 1985 with Take On Me and debut album Hunting High and Low, they were being written off by the music press as, in the words of Harket, “a cartoon band” – and being pushed to deliver more of the same.

It was perplexing for a group that had arrived in London in the early 1980s touting heavyweight influences like the Velvet Underground and Uriah
Heep and found themselves rubbing up against the heroes of the New
Romantic scene. But just as Boy George quickly went from Vivienne Westwood-clad outsider style icon to guest star on The A-Team, a-ha soon
found themselves locked in a regular flow of uncomfortable-looking photoshoots for teen magazines and popular music publications like Smash
. On YouTube, where the Take On Me video has racked up 1.5 billion views, you can watch them squirming on Saturday Superstore, being asked if
they did any impressions (“no”) and to name their favourite possessions (“I don’t really know… maybe my camera”).

As Harket admits in a-ha: The Movie, released last year: “We ended up wrapped in packaging. ‘Don’t worry it’ll pass’. We were wrong. And we
remained in a way that none of us could identify with at all. We were very naïve about what we had to protect, what was unique about us.”

Furuholmen added: “We just went with the flow and it’s nobody else’s fault that we became a teen band. We posed for all the shoots. No matter how cheesy we thought it was, we turned up. Let ourselves be photographed in the most humiliating setting.”

As had happened earlier to ABBA, while parts of Europe feted them for smuggling Scandinavian angst into the pop charts, the UK and USA in
particular saw a-ha in far less nuanced terms. A lengthy spell in North
America in 1986 appeared to cement their popularity there, but the not
unreasonable desire to be taken more seriously as a band made that limelight fleeting in the States.

Talking to the New European ahead of the new album’s release, Furuholmen ponders: “I think [Warner Brothers] were looking for a Take On Me part two, to be honest, but we’d moved on by then – for better or worse. We made creative decisions and Manhattan Skyline was one we insisted should be a single – we had the power at that point to influence the choice of the record company.

“It was an odd song for a single with the 6/4 and the 4/4 (time signatures), and the quiet section and the rocky section, but we just felt it was important to show the breadth of our creativity at that point. I think the second album (Scoundrel Days) – lauded as it has been over the years as one of the seminal albums – set a different tone than our American record company was expecting.”

Yet nearly four decades on, a-ha no longer need to plead to be taken seriously. A lifetime achievement award from Q magazine in 2006 – on the back of a first UK Top 10 hit since 1988 the previous year with Analogue (All I Want) cemented a restorative path that continues with the release of True North this month.

They have veered off course a few times between 2006 and now – notably
the decision to apparently split up for good after 2010’s Ending On a High
tour – but the Scandinavian trio are, to coin a phrase from one of their
songs, Riding the Crest.

Furuholmen was the instigator of the break-up 12 years ago – suggesting
during the hiatus there was more chance of ABBA getting back together – but when the opportunity to appear at Rock in Rio in 2015 became irresistible they all set sail on the latest a-ha voyage.

A new a-ha album came out that same year – Cast in Steel – followed by an acclaimed MTV Unplugged recording in 2017 and a hugely successful world tour that ultimately took three years to complete due to the pandemic.

That period of downtime waiting for travelling restrictions to be lifted proved a fertile one for the band as all three have been writing prolifically
(Harket’s songs will be used for an upcoming solo release).

Furuholmen has long been resistant to another intense period together in
the studio, due to the constant battle of wills among the band, so he viewed
what ultimately became True North as a way to make it “the least painful way
of [recording together]”.

He continues: “I’m always sceptical because we’re not where we were in the ’80s as a well-connected, tight-knit group, so the only reason to do a new album is if you feel you are adding something of value to the legacy and I
think we have. I think, for me, some of the best songs I’ve ever written are on this album. There’s always good material from Paul, so even though they aren’t necessarily coming from the same place in concept they kind of find their own way.”

Also renowned as a visual artist, Furuholmen began writing for True North on the ocean, inspiring a set of compositions rich in nautical symbolism.

The 59-year-old elaborates: “In the area of maritime metaphors, and I must admit I went quite deep into it during this process, one of my favourites – which I didn’t manage to work into a song – is the concept of VMG, which is an abbreviation of Velocity Made Good and I think it is in a way both an apt symbol of how a-ha works and also kind of a hopeful symbol for the global future.

“What it means is that you know where you are, you know where you are going but you can’t make it in a straight line. You have to make allowances for wind and current and you snake your ways towards the target. It’s not always plannable – you have to allow for things to happen. As long as we (a-ha) are moving closer to the target, I’m pretty happy to be in there.”

One of the ideas mooted for the new album was a second MTV Unplugged-style performance but once the logistics became unworkable it eventuated into what Furuholmen describes as “a hybrid album of recordings and live recordings”.

“There’s no audience, it’s us, the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and a live band,” he expands. “But what we wanted to realise was an audio-visual
experience where the music was at the centre. It seemed a nice change from
what we’d done before.”

Alongside the 12-track album, therefore, came a raw and powerful film directed by long-time a-ha collaborator Stian Andersen, shot in Bodo, 90km above the Arctic Circle in the north of Norway – already screened and positively received in selected cinemas around the world last month.

“[True North] became, in the end, not what I expected, not what Paul expected, certainly not what Morten expected and probably not what Stian
expected,” Furuholmen admits, “but the conglomerate of it all is the end
product… and I for one feel it was really worth doing it – I don’t regret it
for a second and maybe that’s the future. That’s how we get things done.
It’s up to others to gauge how it fits in with the rest of our history but the
moment I sit down to write something for a-ha it changes how I write – for Morten’s voice as opposed to mine and I still really enjoy that.”

Conversely, while Harket also retains ambitions to record outside of a-ha, the relish to put his stamp on the extensive songwriting catalogue of both Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy remains undiminished.

“For me it’s always down to the songs and Magne emailed me a demo and asked what I thought of it and would I be interested in putting my voice to it,” Harket says. “One of those earliest songs [for True North] was Between the Halo and the Horn and I thought it was a real nice piece. We went in and recorded that and then I realised Magne had written a number of songs and they were really good. Then I knew that we were looking at an album again.”

Having surprised inveterate fans of the group by appearing in the 2021 series of ITV’s The Masked Singer, another new challenge for Harket’s soaring vocals came when the recording process eventually took the band to a disused warehouse in Bodo.

“It was difficult to record it that way,” Harket admits “because we went for Bodo for its cinematic possibilities, but sonically it was a challenge. I didn’t listen to anything after we did it but I picked it up again recently and it sounded better than I expected.”

That’s high praise indeed for a perfectionist such as Harket, who confesses to putting the sound engineer through the wringer while on tour.

Both of Harket’s colleagues had a lot of material to present to him during the making of True North – some of which had already been showcased by Furuholmen on his Instagram channel. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, the internal workings of a-ha cause the ship to encounter choppy waters before reaching shore. Is there less room to manoeuvre when the songs are given to Harket already “fully formed”?

The 63-year-old responds: “There isn’t necessarily less room – whether there is or not depends on whoever came up with the song when it’s presented at any given time. Ideally one of us then comes up against that – as a musical response that changes it into something more genuine, I suppose. That is how it should be but isn’t always the case because I do find that the guys can dig their trenches, protecting their own babies, which I don’t think is a good thing.”

Harket does, nonetheless, concede: “It always seems to end up somewhere”, which continues to be the case for a threesome that first got together 40 years ago.

Musical credibility no longer seems to be an issue, with the band feted by
everyone from Chris Martin of Coldplay to U2’s Adam Clayton, who has described a-ha as “a rather misunderstood band. They were looked upon as a group for teenage girls, but in reality they were a very creative band.” Credibility of another kind comes from the fact that they were early adopters of electric vehicles. That Norway now leads the world in electric car sales is, in part, down to Harket and Furuholmen’s collaboration with environmental
group Bellona when the former drove round Oslo in a converted electric Fiat
Panda, refusing to pay road tolls and parking illegally to raise awareness of
such vehicles.

BBC Scotland’s Disclosure visited Norway recently to recreate a photo with the a-ha pair along with Frederic Hauge and Harald Rostvik of Bellona, for an episode to be screened at the end of October.

Furuhomen wrote on his Instagram page: “We gave the car to Bellona, whose actions of civil disobedience at the time paved the way for many of the privileges that electric car owners in Norway have since enjoyed. We planted a seed and eventually it grew.”

The trio dwell on highs like these over their low moments, although Furuholmen concedes that their early experiences in America have “always
been a sore point because we have a lot of fans in America and we feel like
we never got to service them enough because we took off everywhere else,
could do big arenas and eventually stadiums and when you plan those tours it’s difficult to hop over to America to do concert halls or club gigs in the midst of a run.”

It took a long time for a-ha to return to America but the series of shows played in 2022 was only the second occasion they have played multiple dates there since 1986. Helped by the original hit version of Take On Me being used repeatedly in popular culture – and the acoustic MTV Unplugged recording figuring prominently in the film Deadpool 2 – they managed to venture into territory that has gone largely uncharted by the band for decades.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world has been championing them and flocking to see a-ha in growing numbers since their latest return in 2015. It was all worth it in the end.

“I don’t regret a single thing,” Furuholmen concludes. “Whatever we did in the past has led us to where we are and we’ve been vindicated by generations of British and other bands and artists around the world since. So we’ve just got to follow our gut instincts and do what we want.”

True North is released on October 21

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