By Justin Go, Canwest News Service May 10, 2010
You would be hard-pressed to find a pop melody from the 1980s more recognizable than the keyboard line that opens a-ha's Take on Me. From there, the song only gets catchier. With its multiple hooks, call-and-response chorus and singer Morten Harket's soaring vocals, the single is about as close as you can get to a perfect pop song. At least, it was good enough to get played more than three million times on American radio - an average of 375 times a day over the past 22 years.
What might prove more difficult is finding a typical North American music listener who can name another song by the trio from Norway. Or even someone who wouldn't be surprised to hear that a-ha is only just now calling it quits, embarking on a farewell tour nearly 25 years after the release of Take on Me. During that time, they've managed to sell more than 35 million albums. So how is it that the group's longevity and enormous success is so overshadowed by one song?
"I prefer to think of Take on Me as a gateway drug," guitarist and principal songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy says via e-mail from New York, his new home and starting point for a-ha's Ending on a High Note tour, whose only Canadian stop was in Toronto on May 10.
"It can lure an innocent listener into our heavier substances."
Dabbling in a-ha's catalogue reveals a wealth of hit singles, including The Sun Always Shines on T.V., Manhattan Skyline, Stay on These Roads and The Living Daylights - the theme song for the 1987 James Bond film of the same name - and a trajectory that hardly fits the description of a one-hit wonder musical act. But Waaktaar-Savoy does acknowledge that their impact was always greater in Europe than in North America.
"Outside of America, we've had over 30 top-20 hits. Over here, we've only had a couple. We've sold a fair amount of albums in America and Canada over the last two decades, but nothing like we did with the first album."
That debut, 1985's Hunting High and Low, and the strength of its aforementioned lead single and iconic music video, made Waaktaar-Savoy and his bandmates an overnight sensation. But what it brought them in fame and fortune, it also deprived them of critical respect. The band's image as pin-up pop stars would frequently overshadow their musical output. As the self-described Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau prefaced his negative review of the album as follows: "Quite aware that I don't qualify as a pubescent female ..."
"Perhaps a slower rise to fame would have been nice, so the learning curve was a little less steep," Waaktaar-Savoy says. "But, coming from Norway back then, everything was either British or American. We didn't rely on getting a second chance."
While Waaktaar-Savoy says they weren't reluctant pop stars ("We probably should have said 'no' more often"), a-ha's quick success did result in the band's "quirky, dark and independent side sometimes getting too polished up on the final product." It's a side to the group he hopes people will hear when the band releases the demos and unreleased songs from that era on reissues of the group's first two albums this year.
But that side of a-ha was never lost on some listeners. If anything, it informed them. Some of today's premier bands, including Coldplay, Oasis and Keane have all expressed the importance of a-ha's influence on their music. As U2's Adam Clayton claimed, "a-ha was always a rather misunderstood band. They were looked upon as a group for teenage girls, but, in reality, they were a very creative band."
Certainly, three decades together - with the exception of a hiatus in the mid-'90s - is an admirable playing career worthy of retirement. But when you take into account the accolades by today's taste-makers and the resurgence of synth-pop they helped pioneer, why the decision to break up now?
"That sounds like us. 'Hey guys, we're hip again. Now let's shut this thing down,' " Waaktaar-Savoy jokes. "Actually, there are a lot of other things I would like to try, and I'm very much looking forward to. We had a good long run. "
Waaktaar-Savoy is equally humble regarding what kind of legacy a-ha will leave when things officially come to a close with a three-night stand in Oslo, the capital of their homeland, in December. "It will all fade," he says. "I can't even remember my own past. How is anybody else going to keep track of all this?"
As for being a misunderstood band, Waaktaar-Savoy notes that the biggest misconception has always been "that we are Swedish. . . . and that our middle names are Stig, Stig and Stig."