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a-ha: Why The Norwegian Pop Icons’ Legacy Is More Than Take On Me
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

a-ha: Why The Norwegian Pop Icons’ Legacy Is More Than Take On Me

Since scoring their international breakthrough with Take On Me, a-ha have built a musical legacy that has demanded critical respect.

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It’s not been an easy journey for a-ha. The transition from pop-idol hysteria to creative respect routinely traverses a treacherous path, but there can be something miraculous about the metamorphosis when it finally happens. Consider the assured, stately summit from which Norway’s most successful musical exports can survey their musical legacy today – it’s a long way from where they started. The band’s story has had its up and downs: for every professional milestone – from being picked to record the James Bond theme song The Living Daylights, in 1987, to the iconic Rock In Rio set that saw them play to 198,000 fans in 1991 and their triumphant return at the close of the 20th century – there has been disappointment, too, such as the almost immediate loss of momentum in the US after the global success of Take On Me, and that overarching, lingering uncertainty, understood now for many years, about whether the a-ha project itself might finally implode.

Listen to the best of a-ha here.

The story of three men who defied expectation

For anyone who saw Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm’s 2021 documentary, a-ha: The Movie, the band’s fault lines are plain to see, but there’s a sense of companionable respect between them, too. a-ha’s story is the tale of all great groups: the highs and lows of a long run in the spotlight; the push and pull of conflicting creative influences; and those supernova moments where everything just falls perfectly into place.

Obvious enough, perhaps, but the band’s dramatic homeland and the entrenched sensitivities of Norwegian society also play their part. Who can image the brooding soundscapes of songs such as 1988’s Stay On These Roads, 2002’s Lifelines or 2022’s I’m In coming from a band hatched in the sunshine? a-ha can, of course, capture lighter moments – You Are The One is a brilliant three-minute 47-second example of 80s effervescence – but it’s the big-statement numbers that the group are rightly famous for. That poetic sense of atmosphere threading through the band’s work feels organic and almost certainly homegrown.

Despite the colossal commercial success of the best a-ha songs, the group never planned to be a pop band. The trio’s breakthrough producer, Alan Tarney, teased out the hooks from their early writing and coated their recording sessions in an FM sheen, but look how quickly a-ha would pivot on only their second album. 1986’s Scoundrel Days was positioned as far away as reasonably possible from the catchy synth sounds that characterised much of their first success, the previous year’s Hunting High And Low. Just 12 months on from Take On Me’s phenomenal global impact, and in the wake of another formidable hit, The Sun Always Shines On TV, Scoundrel Days unleashed a harder, rock-oriented edge, brilliantly characterised in its lead single I’ve Been Losing You and, later, by Manhattan Skyline, which the band had to fight hard to get even issued as a single in early 1987.

The group’s sometimes see-saw approach to their music would build over time, with songs such as 1991’s Move To Memphis largely exorcising the band’s trademark synth-led signatures. When a-ha reformed in 1998, they could more comfortably accommodate the different influences that routinely constitute a great a-ha release. Now, accessible pop and darker sensibilities would blend more easily, and the occasional musical provocation – perhaps best illustrated by 1993’s Memorial Beach album, on which the band reshaped their approach with Prince collaborator David “Z” Rivkin – would take them away from a more obvious commercial structure as they played down some of their characteristic flair for accessible melody. Perhaps there is little left to prove now.

A glorious body of work

In vocalist Morten Harket, you have an artist who knows his own mind; there is a steely ambition in his creative vision that is clear and focused. His drive was obvious from the get-go and, if at times that meant the spotlight was sometimes disproportionately focused on him, it wasn’t always an entirely uncomfortable glare. Joining the tight-knit friendship of Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar (now Waaktaar-Savoy), who had both been in the band bridges and recorded two albums – Fakkeltog, in 1980, and Våkenatt, given a belated release in 2018 – gave Harket a distinct role in the band and their ongoing relationship since.

All three men are restless and single-minded, but they share a common understanding: great work won’t always come easy. If the huge impact of Take On Me can be considered a lucky consequence of timing – healthy record-label investment in a relatively new art form called the music video, and the song’s release at the peak of MTV’s powers – everything that has come since is largely down to the three bandmates. And what a glorious body of work that is

Hunting High And Low remains a masterclass of pop songwriting framed by intelligent production and driven by youthful exuberance. The nagging, simplistic earworm Love Is Reason (issued as a single in the band’s homeland) is more obvious than the majestic balladry of the title track – surely this outstanding album’s creative peak – but no less assured. Scoundrel Days balances experimentation with more of those dynamic pop hooks but it properly exposed the core tectonic plates of a-ha’s geography: accessible melody, soaring rock-pop theatre and sharp musicianship. 1988’s Stay On These Roads is a consolidation of everything that had gone before and stands as arguably the most rounded of the trio of albums that a-ha released during the 80s.

Determined to challenge the status quo

With the 90s came a less comfortable accommodation of that formula. 1990’s East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon signalled new directions and louder influences, but the assured pop, such as the single I Call Your Name, still shines. Memorial Beach carries a lot of baggage, and the need for a break was becoming apparent, but Dark Is The Night For All stands up against pretty much everything across a-ha’s extensive catalogue.

The breezy confidence of the reunion project, 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky, offered a greatest-hits record in all but name. The lush Summer Moved On is the statement ballad, To Let You Win the melodic end-of-night crowd-pleaser, Little Black Night the underserviced fan favourite and You’ll Never Get Over Me the nod back to the dynamic pop electronica that made the band’s name. 2002’s Lifelines maintained the momentum, with the hit single title track an obvious standout. The decision to draft in Max Martin for some of 2005’s Analogue demonstrates just how determined a-ha remained about the need to challenge the status quo. The extra pressure paid off: the single Analogue (All I Want) returned the trio to the UK Top 10 for the first time in 17 years.

Reaching a comfortable accommodation with their legacy

2009’s Foot Of The Mountain signalled a decisive step back towards the classic a-ha sound, but it was followed by another of the band’s occasional breaks. When Cast In Steel emerged, in 2015, producer Alan Tarney was back on board and there were moderately successful singles in Under The Makeup and The Wake. By now, a-ha had found a more compelling platform for their work: the live circuit. Their commitment to touring, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought new audiences and fresh investigation of their back catalogue.

In October 2022, a-ha will release their 11th studio album, True North, suggesting their enthusiasm for writing and recording new music largely remains. Most bands would be overwhelmed by the enormity of a hit such as Take On Me, but a-ha have reached a comfortable accommodation with their legacy. Doing so has assured them a career that has stretched across more than three decades, but a-ha’s story is much richer than a series of sales statistics and that respected and extremely passionate fanbase. It’s the story of three men who defied expectation in an era of entrenched conservatism about where international music careers could be built from and who created a body of work that found a more considered audience away from all the pop hysteria. The results have been all the richer for it.

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