A-ha: How Sweet It Was
The swing of things
I was nine when a-ha hit the coveted number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. I had no idea what the Billboard Hot 100 was, but I assumed it had to be a big deal because it was on the evening news and in all the papers, just like the Treholt spy trial, and stayed there for what seemed like weeks before being (reluctantly, I suspect) bumped in favor of, well, newer news.
A nation losing is collective shit over a pop group getting to number one might seem quaintly histrionic to a person from somewhere … let’s just say larger, but keep in mind that this was Norway in the 1980s. The Swedes could afford to be jaded; after all, ABBA had but a few years prior straddled the four corners of the world, the biggest-selling band since The goddamn Beatles and Roxette was waiting in the wings with The Look.
But yeah: a-ha were huge, and they were everywhere. I, like many others, had the requisite “The history of a-ha” book, which I presumed lost until last month, when I found it in one of my moving crates. (Didn’t re-read it) I had the posters, and the stickers and, of course, the cassette. The guys were on every front page imaginable, and if a TV producer could squeeze in a music video on any given show, they would.
I remember arguments about which one was the coolest (Mags, followed by Morten, with Paal at the end, the poor bastard saddled with being merely good-looking compared to the other two – not unlike being the ugly Corr sister. Exactly.). They won a ton of awards, toured the world, wrote the theme song to the best of Timothy Dalton’s Bond flicks and everywhere they went, they made girls scream and cry and possibly wet themselves.
More importantly, though, they were good. Take On Me is still propulsively irresistible, a slick and stylish pop gem that seems damned effortless, and its seminal music video remains one of the best ever made, an instantly recognizable and intrinsic part of the pop cultural landscape.
But tempus just keeps fugiting and when you’re nine, time goes way slower than you want it to (not like when you’re in your thirties with this total bitch of a deadline to deal with and no way can you pull this shit off on time and goddamnit!), and what was probably only a year at most seems like a lifetime, which is a long time to wait for new songs.
I didn’t warm to Scoundrel Days right away (though I would in time) despite the undeniable awesomeness of first single Cry Wolf (Q magazine lamented that the album was a poor effort lyrically. Later, they would call Be Here Now a timeless classic while hinting that Noel Gallagher was a genius, which taught me something important about critics), and when Stay on These Roads was released, I was surprised I liked Touchy! as much as I did, because everyone told me that a-ha weren’t cool anymore and that I should like Prince instead. (It never took; while I recognize Prince as one of the – or perhaps the – greatest musical talent of the 80s, I never came around to actually liking him. Such is life.)
Anyway, when East of the Sun, West of the Moon was released in 1990, I had grown up a bit and a-ha had grown up a lot; their version of Crying in the Rain is stellar, haunted and filled with ache; I’d yet to suffer a broken heart, but I suspected it felt something like that. (As I would learn, it felt far worse. Nor have I ever dealt with break-ups with anything resembling stoicism) The rest of the album is just as good. It hit me in a place I didn’t even know about, and has stayed with me ever since, one of those desert island discs of the soul.
Memorial Beach drowned in grunge, an undeserved fate, but for all its ethereal beauty (Angel in the Snow, Dark is the Night), it’s almost too stately for its own good. Besides, a new generation, indifferent and beflanneled, wanted to crash the party, because that’s how life works; in with new, out with the old. Q magazine listed Memorial Beach among the 50 best releases of the year, and when the tour finished, the band took a prolonged break.
When Paal released the first Savoy album, Mary Is Coming (took me longer to figure out the title than I care to admit), everyone assumed a-ha was dead. Hell, the opening track contained (probably?) a pissy dig at Morten (“I had a band of certain fame / the singer was fair, but got it wrong / never did justice to my songs”), so this had to be the end, right?
It wasn’t. Return they did, and once again a-ha became a national matter; editorials were written, by actual grown-ups working in actual newspapers, voicing concerns about the internal politics of the band and the possibly outdated sound of Minor Earth Major Sky. As it happened, it was a good album, bordering in places on the very good, but times had changed, as is their wont.
At the time, Norway was high on the FIFA ranking, Sophie’s World had become that decade’s The Alchemist and movies like Junk Mail (Budbringeren) and Insomnia stubbornly refused to be embarrassing. Norway had become a nation of winners, and some people with too much time on their hands deemed it unseemly for a-ha to embarrass themselves – and by proxy the nation – with a sub-par product. a-ha, confident in the abilities that made them the biggest band on the planet for a while, took the bullshit and hysteria in stride and went on to conquer the world one more time, finding most of the old fans still around, and a bunch of new ones happily coming along for the ride. (All while Norway’s FIFA ranking plummeted.)
With each album, more respect was afforded them; even jaded British reviewers had to admit it was good stuff, and Bono, U2’s mouthpiece, took time out from saving the world and avoiding taxes to call a-ha one of the great bands.
It was a thing of beauty, but like all things, it must end. And it does, with a stately panache befitting royalty. Because here we are, in Oslo, at the farewell show (well, the first of ‘em – there are two more to go), surrounded by visitors from near and far, to witness the end of the greatest musical feat Norwegian pop music has seen. I feel almost solemn, which feels borderline ridiculous, and yet … I grew up with their music, it’s part of me and my internal tapestry, if you will. Why not allow myself to be caught up in it for the one night? So I do, and I’m excited like a kid, though I should be jaded and too cool for this.
And at last, the lights go down, the crowd roars and they appear: Morten, every inch the pop star, enters the stage, aviator sunglasses covering his eyes, aloof and untouchable. Paal Waaktar-Savoy, the broody, serious one, content to groove with the music, flanks him on the right. And finally Magne “Mags” Furuholmen … visual artist on the side, jazz lover and experimental musician … by all rights, he should be unbearably pretentious. Yet he is surprisingly jovial, greeting us with an easy smile and asking if it’s OK that they speak English for the benefit of the many foreign visitors. (It is.)
The show is, quite frankly, great. They’re a tight unit, 25 years of experience and skill shining through, permeating their every move. They sound beefier, too, older and rockier than you’d think, but unmistakably themselves. As for the songs …Christ! It’s just hit after hit after hit, like Ivan Drago giving Rocky a Moscow work-over, and this actually catches me off-guard; their catalogue is so extensive and has been so ubiquitous that I think I’ve just sort of zoned it out. It hardly matters, though: it’s a very impressive body of work and thankfully, they do it full justice.
Morten, the smile never far from his face, takes off his sunglasses after a while. “For 25 years, we’ve been a part of your lives, and you ours. Thank you so much.”
You’re welcome. And thank you.