A credibility issue

One hit wonders, apparently.
One hit wonders, apparently.

It must have seemed like déjà vu for Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen, two-thirds of rock band a-ha, as they sat on the GMTV breakfast time couch in London on Friday morning.

The scene was set when presenter Emma Crosby – somewhat understandably given the universal reference point – started the interview with a “Take On Me” reference. She then proclaimed that the Norwegian “masterminds of pop” are back, introduced a video package which included the aforementioned 1985 hit single and three clips of the band performing newer hits on the very same breakfast show from 2000, 2002 and 2005.

“Does that bring back fond memories, looking at that?” she asked, as if it were an achievement for them to remember songs they recorded in the last decade.

The baffling statements continued. “I bet your fans are over the moon that you decided to come back together and do this album and the tour,” she said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was their fourth album and tour of the decade and as recently as 2006 had achieved a top ten UK single.

“Was it a question of digging out the guitars and drum kits or have you been performing?” was next out as Magne just about managed to keep a straight face.

“What kind of reaction have you had from your fans that you are getting back together?” was a step too far for Morten. “Well, we have been doing this for 25 years so, uh…,” he laughed.

After an awkward exchange about what songs are their “favourites” (a redundant question in any interview which is akin to asking parents which of their children they prefer), co-presenter Andrew Castle then returned the topic to “Take On Me” to which Magne cordially explained is a song they’ve now made their peace with and joked about starting a gig with it some time.

“Will you enjoy it more this time around?” Emma asked, which is like asking U2 or any other band on the planet if they will enjoy their 2009 tour any more than their 2006, 2002 or 1999 tour.

The interview mercifully came to an end and they turned their attention to an online webcast to answer some mainly sensible questions from fans (part 1 and part 2).  The difference in demeanour between the two “interviews” was noticeable.  Maybe fans should always write the questions for inane interviewers.

But herein lies the problem for a-ha, a band still wrestling to find credibility in spite of spending half their lives as professional musicians. Unlike many other artists of their era, a-ha have never been dropped from a record deal and they clearly still make money for their employers – they have sold almost forty million albums worldwide.

But record sales are distinct from peer group respect and it has become customary for interviews of the last four or five years to try and rubber stamp a-ha’s credibility by wheeling out the names of contemporary acts like Coldplay, Keane, U2, Bloc Party and Robbie Williams, all of whom have cited admiration for the Norwegians.

In a 2005 interview with Metro, Magne addressed this very issued:

“It’s always tough to gauge your own history but it’s a good thing when people you yourself have respect for give you credit for what you’ve done. It means a lot more than some idiot critic saying something condescending about the group based on them not knowing much about us.”

Four years later Magne had to make similar points again in Metro in an article entitled “A-Ha: We’re more than cheekbones”.

“That’s part of the vindication on our part that we get credited for the music that we left behind these days. That’s the inheritance you want to leave behind, not the frustration of being an awkward pop star or a misplaced poster boy.”

You feel he’ll be making the same points again in 2013. No matter what the band achieve they will for ever attempt to become bigger than “Take On Me”.

Like many maligned pop stars, a-ha have no such credibility issues in Germany with their latest album hitting number one and the title track being their highest charting single since “Take On Me”. They are comfortable there, safe in the knowledge that interviewers and critics take them seriously. They command prime TV slots and have no need to defend their legacy.

The Scotsman sat down with the band and conducted one of the most honest interviews I’ve ever read. Journalist Paul Lester describes the band as a “Joy Division for anxious, adolescent girls” and as “doyens of exquisitely dolorous synthpop, sung with soaring yearning by Harket”.

The band may have been all that but they were marketed as pin-ups. Guitarist and chief-songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy describes how their vision of being The Doors-meets-Soft Cell evaporated very quickly.

“When my wife saw the first album and the poster it came with, she went, ‘Uh-oh’.”

Three years after that debut album a-ha were still making bad decisions. The 1988 hit single “You Are the One” owed nothing to The Doors or Soft Cell and the accompanying video (complete with sailor suits) can only be explained away by an early mid-life crisis.

Maybe that was the nadir because the band got moody, grew their hair and sported bandanas for their 1990 record “East of the Sun”. As their fan base lost interest, so too did a-ha, moving further from their roots in the search for credibility on the gloomy “Memorial Beach” in 1993.

About this period, Harket tells The Scotsman:

“We were at the peak of denouncing ourselves and what we had been. When you’re at war with yourself you will go under. I don’t think we were focused. We were fighting too many demons, and trying to avoid things.”

Over fifteen years later a-ha still find themselves trying to change perceptions but at least now they seem comfortable in their own skin.

Read my review of the new a-ha album here.

9 thoughts on “A credibility issue

  1. Once again, you got it spot on with your review of the GMTV promo.
    Something that doesn’t help is the fact that the horrendous and cringeworthy sofa interview is still readily available, but the very excellent webcast is slightly harder to view again, no longer available on the GMTV site (as from Friday evening), so when folk have read the excellent review in The Times, and heard the new single on Radio 2, all anyone sees is the embarrassing Emma Crosby interview.

    Hopefully they’ll have better luck with some of the upcoming radio and TV appearances – many of the radio interviews seem to be getting it right, and hopefully their appearance on Jonathan Ross next Friday will not be as bad as this. GMTV is brain dead TV – needless to say, they didn’t dare air my question, which was “wouldn’t you prefer to appear on a show more relevant to the intelligence of A-ha fans, such as Jools Holland or The Culture Show?”
    I imagine the researchers read that it went in one ear, out the other! he he he he he!

    Well done G Man 🙂

    1. Reading out your question would be like turkeys voting for Christmas!

      I’m a bit nervous for Jonathan Ross. I think he’s a generous guy with his guests and we’re not going to see a repeat of the Clive Anderson/Bee Gees incident (Google it!). But Morten can be such a tool in interviews that I’m afraid he’ll make himself sound pompous again. If only he could be the Morten we saw on the Webchat…

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Well done mate! That’s spot on. Hopefully all this promotion (is it me or this time around they’re REALLY going at it?) will pay off with better sales, better airtime (both TV and radio) and more gigs on the tour. Cheers!

    1. Cheers Carlos. I think the promo is very impressive thus far. It needs radio airplay on the main commercial statements to really ensure a successful single though. I still have fears that the album will underperform as “Analogue” stalled in the lower reaches of the chart in spite of TV coverage and a top ten single. Let’s hope this one performs better.

  3. I think you’ve just hit the nail – too bad the critiques can’t see that and would not give enough justification to the band and their music.
    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the UK promo to work its magic at the right places – afterall, us fans they do not have to charm anymore : we’re hooked already….!
    Glad to see that they are a bit more accessible than used to be…- maybe that will result in more dates and places coming up on the tour-agenda for next year,too !!! xxx

    1. Thanks Ildiko. Just once I’d like to hear an interview that doesn’t mention “Take On Me”. I’m not sure it actually helps all that much to sell their current album – playing more than 11 seconds of the new video would help do that.

  4. im most of interviews some artistical criticals, or i can say some stupid people that have nothing to do in life and they just want to see the worse in a band of rock, pop, classical music, ……doesn´t matter; try to take an advantage over them, i think that they don´t understand the tendencies of music, that change along the years, and these bands follow their tendencies without fear, they don´t mind for such questions as: do you follow fashion? what´s your car? and many other stupid questions!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    So, let the bands develope their intelligence, build their incredible work, because if you don´t sing, or play any instruments……… you´re not a critical of arts, even if you play, but you don´t understand the instruments, and sounds, and voices………please, don´t say anything because you´re a stupid!!!

  5. Agreed – the round of UK morning TV type of appearances does seem like a complete waste of time. I’m presuming though that there is some method to the madness – it’s of virtually no interest to hard-core fans (as nothing ‘new’ is revealed) – but perhaps it does motivate the more ‘normal’ people out there to have a listen? As I mentioned on CAS, my empathy for the lads is somewhat diminished by the feeling that after a number of rounds of these experiences, you’d think they would have worked out some effective strategies for dealing with the mindless morning TV – whether that be witty retorts, a little good-natured tease of the host, or a smattering of charm and charisma ….

    Putting that aside though, I have to declare myself thoroughly confused by the g:position (or g:spot, if you will). I’ve declared myself firmly on the side of ‘art’ in the art vs chart debate – whereas you are on the ‘chart’ side….. but now you seem to be wanting it both ways (*snigger* not meant to be suggestive… just ended up that way) – wanting a-ha to have UK chart success (which would presumably require the viewers of mindless morning TV going out and buying a-ha downloads), but also wanting a-ha to have serious musical ‘credibility’. I don’t think success and credibility need be mutually exclusive – but sadly they aren’t found together particularly often (even if that does sound like a complete cliche pedalled about by people who are fantastically unsuccesful and so console themselves by claiming to be be deeply artistic!)…. so in some ways you have to choose….well, or at least prioritise ‘chart’ and ‘art’.

    1. I’m here to alleviate the confusion currently reigning (or maybe raining) in Kattastic’s life with regards to chart versus art and the search for credibility. In this case the two arguments are not mutually exclusive.

      In context of the re-working of the Magne song, that was a debate about the merits of the band adding a radio-friendly sheen to “The Longest Night”. Overall the context of musical credibility is a far larger issue and concerns a-ha’s career as a whole. I don’t think releasing “Foot of the Mountain” or “Analogue” versus “The Longest Night” or “Minor Key Sonata” brings the band any more or less credibility.

      The real question might be whether or not it is a “sell out” to re-work original compositions in order to get radio airplay. That might suggest a credibility issue within the fan base but not with the general public – which is what the article was about.

      I thank you for the thought-provoking question and I look forward to further…um…thought-provoking questions.

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