Poll: a-ha – the final song of the final show of the final tour

After 25 years in the industry, a-ha will sign off on December 4th 2010 with their final ever show.  The Oslo gig – which sold out within two hours – will be attended by fans from all over the world and promises to be a very emotional occasion for both fans and the band.

So, with that in mind, what song would you like to hear Morten, Magne and Paul sign off with?  Feel free to discuss further in the comments section below.

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The right time for a-ha to say goodbye

Morten and PaulDepending on which re-written press release you read today you’ll learn that a-ha were formed anywhere from 25 to 27 years ago, split up in the nineties for anywhere from five to seven years and got back together in 1998 – or is that 1999?  No, it was 2000 apparently.

What you will unanimously learn and can safely take as fact is that the Norwegians have decided to retire as a band in 2010, marking the 25th anniversary of the release of their first album “Hunting High and Low”.

There are a significant number of people raising their eyebrows pondering how it is that the day they find out a-ha are still together is the day they find out that they’re splitting up.

But for many who stuck with a-ha through the last 25 years this announcement will have come as a shock.  Didn’t they always reason that the band would split when they stopped selling records and people stopped coming to see them?  Why would a band who have just claimed their highest charting UK album in over two decades, a succession of #1 albums in Europe and a stream of long-overdue critical acclaim from the media and – more importantly – their peers, pack it in?

Well those achievements are exactly why this is the right time to say goodbye.

In the brilliant rockumentary, “The Making of Pump“, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford says of the recording process: “You can record with 48 tracks, 96 tracks, you can start tying tape machines together.  You got to know when to stop.”

The music industry is full of acts that didn’t know when to stop.  A-ha made that mistake before, rendered irrelevant by the grunge explosion of the early nineties just at the same time they were growing their hair and growing up.  They endured dwindling sales, smaller live venues and bruised egos, and went one album too far with 1993’s (admittedly excellent) “Memorial Beach” before splitting to work on solo projects.

Their 2000 return was a huge success in mainland Europe and they scored their first UK top ten hit single for 18 years in 2005 with “Analogue“.  Yes, they recorded a big hit album this year but that accomplishment almost seems incidental compared to the reaction they received.

Looking at their positive demeanour in interviews and on stage it seems that the genuine warmth they’ve experienced from the media, the public and the many acts of today who have publicly heralded their influence, has completed the circle for the band.

What else is there to achieve?  Where else can they go?  If respect and appreciation was measured in record sales then a-ha have just had their biggest hit in 25 years.  And shouldn’t everyone quit when they’re on top?

Personal addendum

I opened the Google News email alert for “a-ha” that arrived in my inbox and kind of squinted at it.

a-ha to split

It didn’t make any sense to me initially.  And even after I clicked on it my mind was calculating that somehow I had received some old news story from the mid 90s.  Although I’ve no time for overt obsession with something as relatively meaningless as a musical act, I felt my chest tighten as the news started to sink in.

I grew up with a-ha; the soundtrack of my formative years.  I’ve probably mentioned it somewhere on the site – and I’m sure there are hundreds of similar stories out there somewhere – but when you’re 12 and unsure of yourself, songs like “Here I Stand and Face the Rain” articulate what you’re feeling when you are too young to understand.

The Blue Sky“, from their debut record, resonated with this insecurity: “I find it hard to breathe as life just eats away…The lady at my table doesn’t want me here/I just want to talk to her/But would she laugh at my accent and make fun of me?…Though i’m older than my looks and older than my years/I’m too young to take on my deepest fears“.

So here we are almost 25 years later and I’m not sure that I would have the level of understanding and self-awareness that I do if it wasn’t for a-ha’s influence (alongside John Hughes movies and Nirvana).  I’m trying to avoid being mawkish in closing but the fact that their music has endured with such meaning for so many people, means that Morten, Magne and Paul can stand in the doorway of the darkened studio for the final time, look around, smile and say “our work is done here”.

Edit: Please see Karen’s blog on the same subject.  Some very personal memories from their mid 80s touring.

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.