A-ha retire after 25 years and not a moment too soon. In depth analysis by Iain Regnier-Wilson.
Edvard Munch is not the only famous Norwegian to make someone scream - a-ha have been doing it for twenty-five years.
The pop 'n' rock band has been in and out of the charts for a quarter of a century but they are finally to retire after their farewell tour ends in homeland Norway in December 2010.
Could it be they are cutting the glory short, getting out when new artistic ground could be broken and their fan base widened?
A-ha feels they have gone full-circle, releasing their final Album, the ultra-polished, synth-pop infused "Foot of the Mountain," in 2009. Keyboardist, vocalist and co-writer Magne F extolling "this is a potent and vibrant album, it has a vitality."
Well, actually, "Foot of the Mountain" is the death knell of the trio, and I have a hunch at least one of them knows it.
The problem with going back to your roots is that you have to surpass that first time round experience. A-ha's last album is certainly nothing like their first: "Hunting High and Low." It is drab, emotionless, and impossibly clean and perhaps most insultingly - it sounds like it would have been thrown in the bin by Coldplay - the very same group that have championed Norway's finest most vocally.
Lead vocalist Morten Harket believes their recent effort "is an album that I think a lot of people will feel is more related to some of the earlier things we did." Many a-ha purists would demur.
When a-ha were the band du jour, releasing their 1985 debut, they were bringing something fresh to the table. Dramatic, Nordic melancholy that caused pulses to race and hearts to yearn. Sure, it was mostly pure pop tinged with callow, nascent rock, but it worked, and boring it was not.
"Take on Me," with or without that video, "Hunting High and Low" and "The Sun Always Shines on TV" are visceral vignettes that have lodged themselves in many a memory. Do not try to pretend that "Foot of the Mountain" has anything of the class of '85 - in fact it is the nadir of a-ha's career. The 2009 lowlight has split the opinion of many die-hard fans, some feel it is a glorious return to form, and others wonder where it all went wrong.
So, has everything else they've produced over the last two and a half decades been brilliant? Of course not, no artist creates a masterpiece ever time. However, there has always been beauty, passion and edges in a-ha's work. Life is not a straight line, yet the people involved are comprised of edges and it is the musical edges of a-ha that have always insisted they are more than the sum of their cheekbones.
Until now, a-ha's music has always evolved. Their second release in 1986, "Scoundrel Days," produced the guitar-gobbling hits "I've been Losing You," "Manhattan Skyline" and the less spectacular "Cry Wolf" and created an interesting dilemma, how dark and gloomy could they get without risking commercial success?
The answer did not come with 1987's James Bond title track "The Living Daylights." However, their status as one of the biggest international acts around was cemented and they are still justifiably proud of a Bond track that ranks amongst the top five in many a poll - even if Bond composer John Barry does not agree. In a 1996 interview about his experience working with the Scandinavians, Barry said, "They refused to go to Pinewood (studios) to see the movie. I said to them, “Look, when we did We have All the Time in the World, Louis Armstrong had been in hospital for over a year, he came out and we showed him the movie in New York. Everybody who had ever done a song has been willing to do that. They had an attitude I didn't like at all, it was a very unpleasant experience."
A-ha styled a different version of their Bond theme for third album "Stay on These Roads" (1988), which beckoned the final moments of their chart dominance but hinted at their impending metamorphosis. The single of the same name, a sweeping, operatic ballad, was a massive Euro hit. "Touchy" a conventional, peppy effort followed but "You are The One" just sounded like "Touchy" vomited. Yet preceding them was the curious single "The Blood that Moves the Body" - a tersely sung number about teen suicide in Japan. So, the band continued to shed the lightweight image stamped by sceptical critics, but would the record label stick with them?
1991 saw their fourth studio effort, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," where the band flourished with piano and strings, flowering a layered, mellow sound. Wistful at times - "Waiting for Her" and at others psychotic - "Sycamore Leaves." Quite a trick, and one they never revisited. Their only hit was a cover of "Crying in the Rain" - which impressed original recorders of the song, the Everly Brothers; they later presented a-ha with a set of guitars.
The band had become creatively drained, perhaps inevitably. They had toured most of the globe, and wanted to express themselves individually...jealousy over Morten's higher profile had reared its ugly head. The greatest irony in a-ha's career is at the moment they cared least about what they did as a group, the unit created their greatest work. A comparative commercial flop with sales of 1.2 million, "Memorial Beach" was nothing like its predecessors. Unremittingly sombre, caustic, desperate, and lyrically disparaging. The craftsmanship in songs "Cold as Stone," "Lamb to the slaughter" and "How Sweet it Was" unquestionably answer the snide "do a-ha really rock?" jibes. "Lie Down in Darkness" is a seriously cool, histrionic tune that could have been a massive hit 5 years later. Harket's career apex is not the fairy tale high note in "Take on Me" or the lung-defying one in "Summer moved On" - it is his incorporeal performance of elegiac "Memorial Beach," the song closest to his blues origin with Oslo-based outfit Souldier Blue.
That long holiday they needed then took four years.
A performance at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 1998 led them to perform two numbers together, the best song of their career - "The Sun Always Shines on TV" and "Summer Moved On" written for the occasion by songwriter and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy. The latter was released as a single in their 2000 album "Minor Earth, Major Sky" and gathered plenty of radio play in Europe and some decent chart positions. The album, the most critically acclaimed since their debut opus, was voted a lofty 29th in the top 40 albums of 2000 by a coterie of eminent music scribes. If you only listen to one new a-ha song, let it be "You'll Never get Over Me" - a pop-perfect lullaby caressed by three experienced lovers. Indubitably a song that should have appeared in a romantic Hollywood movie. Instead, the single "Velvet" was chosen for "One Night at McCool's" which bombed at the box office. "Velvet" is a lovely, but forgettable song, whereas "You'll Never Get Over Me" engraves itself into the subconscious.
The follow-up to that album - the strongest of the band's second phase, was the much-diluted 2002 "Lifelines." At 15 songs, it was over-indulgent and suffered from a shorter gestation period than its predecessor. "Forever not Yours" is a unique a-ha tune, it is almost like a song made backwards in its approach to the crescendos, yet it is catchy, thoughtful and eloquent. Sadly, "Oranges on Appletrees" attempts to be a psychedelic parable and fails. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you consider four, admittedly well-respected producers were credited on the album, there is a disjointed derogation with "Time & Again," "Dragonfly" and "There's a Reason for It." The funk-bleeping and marching drums of "Did Anyone Approach You" are ice-cool and "Cannot Hide" is a-ha doing porn, complete with French dialogue...so matters are rescued, somewhat.
The long association with Warner Records had finally come to an end and Universal were the record label at the helm for eighth album "Analogue" in 2005. The album contains the band's most mature work. "Birthright" is downright beautiful with lullaby lyrics that last forever. The glorious, guitar twanging "Analogue" is a lite rock anthem which deservedly secured their first UK top ten hit single since "Stay On these Roads" in 1988. "Cosy Prisons" is a bittersweet caveat for the celebrigentsia and anyone else becoming self-obsessed and removed from society. The echoey, insalubrious "Celice" rumbles with sadomasochism and was nearly used for the "Da Vinci Code" movie, Dan Brown missed that one. After the first five tunes, things tail off into mediocrity with only the touchingly mournful "Keeper of the Flame" maintaining quality control. However, Norway's finest really had become old masters of their art. So, with honed musical landscapes complimented by Waakatar's sublime lyrics and Harket's sacred voice, nothing could go wrong, right?
Woeful "Foot of the Mountain" (2009) was their first top five album in the UK for 21yrs, but it performed badly everywhere else. Unless you count their home country and Germany - where the album went to No 1. Some a-ha fans will defend this album till they pop their clogs, but I'm going to save you some hard-earned cash and time that could be spent washing-up. The album is all things a-ha promised never to be - bland, listless and barren, without a distinctive moment.
Wait one indistinct moment, though - the Nordic trio are commercially most successful in Germany - a snobbish critic could load his or her pen with bullets.
The band renegotiated their three-album deal in 2008. Universal is still included as a partner, but the major partner is now ProSiebenSat, a European media conglomerate. Perhaps a last fling greatest hits album or Live DVD will emerge to fulfil that contract - but that is all fans can expect. A-ha have looked increasingly bored in interviews and it is clear they have had enough. Chief lyricist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy also seems to be pulling in a different direction artistically and stated on television at the beginning of this year: "Foot of the Mountain is definitely the last album."
A-ha has always consisted of three strong characters fighting for their individual creativity within the band, and perhaps the struggle is now an unequal one. However, the one thing these boyish men are not is stupid. They will happily discuss philosophy and theology with you, but be careful - Morten may pull out one of his pseudo-abstruse quotes: "people are like pot plants." If a-ha have been unwieldy at times it has not bothered them. They have kept chiselling their glacial musical monument and finally the critics, contemporary artists and even a few youngsters have paid homage.
"Start the simulator...." warbles Morten on the final song of their final album, but the band have already started the engine to the van and are making their getaway from the crime scene.
Take On Me wins six awards at the 1986 MTV Music Video Awards.
1991, A-ha set a Guinness Book World Record by playing for the largest paying audience in the world: 198,000 people at the Maracana Stadium, Brazil, during the Rock in Rio 2 Festival.
The band performs "Summer moved on" and "The Sun Always Shines on TV" at The Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo in 1998.
"A-ha on the net" in 2001 from Valhall in Oslo Norway, the third most viewed webcast concert ever with 3.6 million hits recorded.
Morten Harket holds the record for the longest note held in a Top 40 pop song. During the song "Summer Moved On" Harket sustains a note for 20.2 seconds.
A-ha wins the Q Inspiration gong at the Q Awards 2006 in London.
In 1985, "The Sun Always Shines on TV" stalls at no 20 in the US. Cry Wolf (No 50) is their only other Billboard Hot 100 hit in the country during their entire career.
Band takes a 4-year hiatus in 1994 as acrimony and listlessness take over.
On 2 July 2005, a-ha performed at the Berlin Live 8 concert, in front of an audience of nearly 200,000 people. Morten Harket has difficulties hearing himself and requests a two-minute break...which becomes almost seven. Although four songs were rehearsed, the band's time has run out and they are told to leave the stage.
Their final single "Foot of the Mountain" released in April 2009 only makes the top 30 in three countries.