A-ha is the name given to a Norwegian popular music group, formed in 1982. The group consists of Morten Harket (lead vocals), Pål 'Paul' Waaktaar-Savoy (guitar) and Magne 'Mags' Furuholmen (keyboards, piano)(1). Since 1985, with the release of their single, 'Take on Me', until the present day, A-ha has developed a major global following, selling millions of albums and setting milestones that have yet to be broken by any other Norwegian band. This biography shall look into the history of A-ha, with attention paid to such areas as the formation of the group, the bands many highs and lows and to the unexpected success A-ha has generated in the present day.
A-ha's origins centre around the town of Manglerud, a suburb in Oslo, where during the 1970s a young Pål Waaktaar-Savoy (born 6 September 1961) and Magne Furuholmen (born 1 November 1962) grew up together as neighbours in one of the many high rise flats of Oslo(2). Together they formed a number of bands including, Spider Empire, Soldier Blue and Bridges, with the latter releasing a relatively unsuccessful Norwegian album(3). Whilst working on a second album under the name of Bridges, the two meet Morten Harket (born 14 September 1959) who is in the audience of an amateur band competition in which Bridges is performing(4). This encounter led to Harket joining Bridges, however it was realised that the group must produce a more commercial form of music in order to achieve the success that Pål and Mags desire. As a result of this, Bridges dissolves, with Harket, Pål and Mags remaining.
They chose to rename themselves as A-ha, due to it being an exclamation easily remembered in many languages(5). Aware that the Norwegian market would be an ineffectual launch pad for an international career, Mags and Pål relocate to London in 1982 in order to secure label interest. At this point Harket was unwilling to follow, due to the desire of travelling with a friend to Greece, as well as being aware that at the age of twenty three he had not yet acquired any post secondary education(6). Although Mags and Pål had hoped that they would become successful pop stars within two weeks(7) the venture to London was unsuccessful, with the two returning to Norway £2000 poorer(8). Joined once again by Harket, the trio retreat to a small cottage outside of Oslo, where until January, 1983 they work on demo recordings.
After leaving the cottage, A-ha return to London, this time with Harket. They set up residence in the suburb of Sydenham, in a basic flat, described by one visitor as being 'a cross between a garbage dump and a bombed out bunker'(9). In the quest to find a recording contract, the members of A-ha lived in near squalor, with stories circulating that they were so poor that they regularly ate salt and pepper sandwiches. Needless to say, the group gained a contract from Warner Brothers, who realised their potential as 'pin-up pop-stars'. Now with their future appearing secured, the group returned to Norway for the Christmas of 1983.
Returning to London, the group recorded the song 'Lesson One', eventually rewritten and to be renamed as 'Take on Me', with producer Tony Mansfield. The song was issued in the United Kingdom, in 1984, after a successful Norwegian release, however it was unsuccessful and sold only 300 copies(10). The following May, 'Take on Me' is re-recorded and reissued, yet fails once again to capture the imagination of the public. This brought the group close to breaking up, however what was about to happen would change the fortunes of the trio(11).
A third version of 'Take on Me' was recorded and issued in September, 1985. This time around it was supported by a 'breakthrough' (and later award winning) half animated promotional video, costing $(US)100 000. Overnight, A-ha had gone from nearly splitting up, to having a number one song in nine countries, including the United States(12). This led to the release of their first album, 'Hunting High and Low', which sold nearly 8 million copies(13). Three more singles from the album were to follow - 'The Sun Always Shines on T.V', 'Hunting High and Low' and 'Train of Thought', all of which become top twenty successes across the World.
In October 1986, less than a year after their first album, A-ha released their second album, 'Scoundrel Days'. As with their initial releases, both the album and the accompanying single releases went on to be global successes, with 'Scoundrel Days' going on to sell over five and a half million copies(14). Capitalising on their success, the group began its first World tour beginning in Perth, Australia in June of that year.
As well as attracting fans from across the World, The groups continued success caught attention of the film industry. In 1987, A-ha's success was so evident that they were bestowed the honour of recording the theme song to the upcoming James Bond film. They recorded 'The Living Daylights', the title song to the film of same name with long time James Bond Film Composer, John Barry. It was during the recording of the song that a rumoured disagreement between the band and Barry occurred over the song's finished version, resulting in there being two versions of 'The Living Daylights'. One version appears as a single and also in the James Bond Film, whereas the other version appears in the forthcoming album, 'Stay on these Roads'(15).
Their third album, 'Stay on These Roads', was released in May, 1988. Again it resulted in high sales across Europe and went on to sell slightly under four million copies(16). Five out of the ten songs featured on the album became singles which became top 20 hits across Europe; however the trio had noted that they were facing a gradual decline in support, particularly in the United States. Although sales occurred at similar levels across Europe as with their two previous albums, it was evident that their fan-base in the United States had evaporated, with their third album charting at a mere #148.
This had placed the band in a very messy position, as they were aware that their status as a 'pin-up band', could not last them forever. Initially it was feared that the band would break up, rather than continually release material to a declining support base(17). Rather than disband, the group made the uneasy transition to ensure their long- term success. Gone were the catchy synthesised based tunes, replaced in favour of a more guitar based rock and roll sound. The change in style also led to Mags replacing his keyboard with a piano.
The result of this drastic change in style came in the shape of their fourth album, 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon', released in November, 1990(18). Surprisingly sales of this album were not as radically down as expected, with the album having sold just under two and a half million copies(19). Interestingly the title of the album was named after a Norwegian folk tale, bearing the same name(20).
In the interim years between A-ha's third and fourth album, several non musical related events occurred for lead singer, Morten Harket. Harket took the leading role in the 1989 Norwegian film, 'Kamilla and the Thief'(21). He also married Camilla Malmquist that same year(22). Although their support was in decline, particularly in the United States, by 1991 a new market for their material became evident. A-ha toured South America during early 1991, with unbelievable success. This was a prompt to the release of their first greatest hits album, 'Headlines and Deadlines', for the November of 1991. As with their previous album, 'Headlines and Deadlines', showed that the groups support had stabilised, with the album selling just over two million copies.
The following February, A-ha toured Brazil again. Taking part in the 'Rock in Rio' festival, held in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium. A record 200 000 people were in the audience, establishing their performance as the largest ever paying crowd at a live concert(23).
Although their greatest hits album was to sell reasonably well, it was quite surprising that their follow up album, 'Memorial Beach', released in June, 1993 failed to achieve chart success. The album sold just under three quarters of a million copies and did not obtain the top ten status that its predecessors achieved in major markets such as in the United Kingdom. Featured in the album, is the song, 'Angel in the Snow', a song written by Pål for his wife Lauren in 1991, for their wedding, reflecting a Norwegian tradition(24).
Although by 1994 the group did not appear as popular as they once were across the World, back home in Norway A-ha were still held in high esteem. When it came to selecting a group to head the opening ceremony for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, there was little opposition for the honour being bestowed to A-ha. Throughout the event, the group performed at three ceremonies, as well as writing and performing the theme song to the Winter Para-Olympics, 'Shapes that go Together'.
The Winter Olympics appeared to be the last time the World would ever see Morten Harket, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and Mags Furuholmen work together, as each member set about to pursue other musical commitments. Mags Furuholmen with his Norwegian friend Kjetil Bjerkestrand formed the group Timbersound, which resulted in a number of recordings, including 'Hotel Oslo', in 1997(25).
Pål Waaktaar-Savoy joined his wife Lauren and drummer Frode Unneland to form the group Savoy. In 1996 their first album, 'Mary is Coming', was released internationally. The following year they released their second album, 'Lackluster Me', however this was limited to a Norwegian only release. 1999 saw the release of their third album, 'True August', which was released within a week of Pål's wife, Lauren, giving birth to their first child(26).
Morten Harket also chose to conduct a solo career, in which he released albums in both English and Norwegian. His first solo effort came out in 1993, a year before the group went into hiatus, with the album 'Poetenes Evangelium', being recorded in Norwegian. The most successful A-ha spin-off release came in 1995, when Harket released a second solo effort in the form of 'Wild Seed', this time the album was recorded in English. 'Wild Seed' ended up selling 200 000 copies world-wide, with it being the most popular album in Norway for the year. Harket then went on to tour Norway, playing to countless sold out crowds. He ended the tour with a huge outdoor concert that was free to the public(27).
With no official statement concerning the group's future, it appeared as if A-ha were destined to be forgotten. In late 1998 the news fans had hoped for finally arrived, when the group performed two songs at the Nobel Peace Concert. Further press releases indicated that the group had signed a deal with old record label Warner Brothers to produce a further two albums(28).
In the meantime Pål had flown to the United States on behalf of the group to collect a very special award. By 1999, the recordings of A-ha had been played two million times on U.S radio-stations. This calculated to approximately 143 000 times a year, since 1985(29).
Although A-ha had not released an album since 1993, the seven year absence rekindled an interest in the band, not seen since the late 1980's. When the group had entered the 1990's they decided on modifying their style of music; a change of style also occurred with the comeback release of 'Minor Earth/ Major Sky', in April 2000. Commenting on 'Minor Earth/ Major Sky', 'Mags' states, 'In the 80's we experimented a lot with electronic music, in the 90's it was more organic and live music with acoustic instruments, and now we just took the best from both worlds and put it together in our new album'.
Although interest has been relatively disappointing in many English speaking countries, interest in Europe has been phenomenal. In less that six months, the album has topped the charts in Norway, Germany and Estonia and has sold in excess of over a million copies(30). Many had feared that a comeback album would result in failure, however the group has shown that they still have the successful formula to make music that appeals to a broad audience.
For the last fifteen years, A-ha have been a prominent feature of global music. Very few bands can boast a record that states they have recorded a James Bond theme song, performed in front of the largest paying audience on record, as well as heading an opening ceremony at an Olympic Games. With sales in excess of twenty five million albums sold, it is fair to say that A-ha ranks as Norway's most successful musical export(31).
*(English Translation by, Cindy Kandolf. Extracts available from the official A-ha Website @ http://www.a-ha.com)