When a-ha performed the propulsive, orchestral-tinged hit “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” during its encores at Club Nokia on Saturday night, a montage of old American movies and television shows was projected on a backdrop. Watching brief images from 1980s NBC staples like The Cosby Show and Miami Vice brought to mind how another network — MTV — played a central role in the Norwegian synth-pop trio’s short-lived stateside success.
The cable channel put the groundbreaking 1985 music video for the buoyant single “Take on Me,” in which telegenic vocalist Morten Harket is part of a comic strip come to life, into heavy rotation. Pop radio followed suit. The track went to No. 1, propelled a-ha’s debut album Hunting High and Low to platinum status, and resulted in a Grammy nomination for best new artist.
Yet, despite a shift into more rock-oriented terrain, 1986’s Scoundrel Days was basically met with deaf ears here, and the group faded from view as fast as it arrived. In Europe and South America, however, it was a different story; an extended mid-’90s break notwithstanding, a-ha’s international success has only continued, with more than a dozen UK Top 20 singles and a Guinness World Record for concert attendance in Rio.
More recently, the outfit’s ongoing influence has been evidenced in live covers by Jonas Brothers and Reel Big Fish. Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash and members of U2, Coldplay, Oasis, Keane and Pet Shop Boys have either collaborated with or professed their admiration for the Oslo natives in interviews. The Family Guy even parodied “Take on Me.”
The group’s ninth studio album, Foot of the Mountain — a partial return to a-ha’s electronic roots — was released abroad last year, while Rhino Records finally put out The Singles: 1984-2004 domestically and in June will make available deluxe expanded editions of Hunting and Scoundrel through its website.
The first of two sold-out shows this weekend at L.A. Live marked a-ha’s long-awaited return after a 24-year absence. (Sunday night’s gig concludes the short North American portion of a global farewell tour, due for a December homecoming.) Before doors opened and concert-goers jockeyed for position behind the seated floor area, I encountered people that had flown in from the Bay Area, Portland and Chicago. All were ecstatic to see their Scandinavian idols one last time.
This was definitely a gig for the die-hards; those who came strictly for selections from the debut had a long wait.
Mostly adhering to reverse chronological order and touching upon every album in its catalog (including more than half of Scoundrel), a-ha launched an enrapturing 95-minute set with an atmospheric “Bandstand.” Punctuated by percolating synths, it rivaled Depeche Mode’s latest work. Another new one, the glorious, acoustic guitar-based single “Foot of the Mountain,” showcased Harket’s fluttering vocals. Gorgeous aerial shots of trees in the wilderness provided perfect visual accompaniment.
Harket, now 50, clad in a dark suit jacket and dress pants, looked like he just stepped out of the pages of GQ. His equally sharply dressed bandmates, only a couple years younger, also appeared fit and trim. The frontman kept quiet, though, except to greet a former Warner Bros. exec he spotted from the stage. That left gregarious keyboardist Magne “Mags” Furuholmen to serve as a cheerleader of sorts, getting the crowd pumped up at various junctures.
Aided by a live drummer and a keyboardist/bassist, the ’00s material had a more sophisticated feel, while freshly stripped-down tunes like “Minor Earth, Major Sky” and “Summer Moved On” (during which Harket had no trouble holding a long sustained note) worked wonders. Guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy displayed some funky licks and engaged in a mini-jam with Harket and Furuholmen during “Move to Memphis.”
One early highlight came via the ultra-dramatic “Stay on These Roads,” throughout which Harket’s robust falsetto got another fine workout with more awe-inspiring notes. The extended title track to 1987 James Bond flick The Living Daylights (complete with 007 graphics) was bombastic yet exciting. I’d forgotten how much it had in common with ’80s rival Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” since both shared a producer.
“Thanks for reminding us we have friends on this side of the ocean,” said Furuholmen, before playing a xylophone on the subtle “And You Tell Me” with just his two bandmates onstage.
Elsewhere, the bizarre new wave/rock tandem of Mellotron and eerie synths on “Manhattan Skyline” found fans responding to Harket’s “wave goodbye” refrain, and the dance-oriented “Cry Wolf” was infectious retro fun. The supercharged finale of “Take on Me,” paired with both the original video and other animated footage, as well as Furuholmen’s modern keyboard sounds, definitely ended the performance on a high.
Setlist: a-ha, Club Nokia, May 15
Main set: Bandstand / Foot of the Mountain / Analogue (All I Want) / Forever Not Yours / Minor Earth. Major Sky / Summer Moved On / Move to Memphis / Blood That Moves the Body / Stay on These Roads / The Living Daylights / Scoundrel Days / The Swing of Things / And You Tell Me / Early Morning / We’re Looking for the Whales / Manhattan Skyline / I’ve Been Losing You / Cry Wolf
First encore: Hunting High and Low / The Sun Always Shines on T.V.
Second encore: Take on Me