Back in 2009, a-ha fans around the world wept a fjordful of tears as the Norwegian trio called time on a staggeringly successful 25-year career.
With record sales in excess of 100 million and world tours aplenty under their belt, nobody could blame Morten Harket, Magne Furuhomen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy for thinking they’d done it all. In 1991, the band entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest ever paying concert audience at the Maracanã Stadium in Brazil when 198,000 fans turned out to watch them play. Such was the band’s perceived lack of cool among contemporary music journalists that this massive achievement was barely reported: a-ha, they’re that good-looking band from Norway, aren’t they? Some mistake, surely?
This perception of a-ha among the more sneering elements of the music press as a somehow unserious band has never held water, not with fans, nor with bands like Coldplay, who remain unwavering admirers. Their first two albums, Hunting High and Low and Scoundrel Days, are rightly regarded as pop classics. Similarly, the ’80s band’ tag feels dismissive for a band who spent only their formative years in that decade.
The truth is that a-ha are a band who’ve chosen their own musical paths, avoiding the pitfalls of high fashion along the way. They are survivors of popular music and among its finest purveyors. They’ve paid their dues, done their time, influenced other bands and carried their fans with them. Not many bands manage to hold their course within the parameters of success for so long, but a-ha have done just that. They are a class act.
Such is their popularity that hope of a reunion was never far from the minds of their fans. A state of longing is, after all, one that a-ha’s music so seductively instils. Their Ending on a High Note Farewell Tour in 2010 may have felt like the end of the road for them, but for fans it lacked finality – so much more to be said, so many songs left to be written.
So it was in 2015 that Messrs Harket, Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy announced their reformation and the release of a tenth studio album, the sparkling Cast in Steel. Fans sighed with collective relief. A new chapter in their adventure tale had begun.
Tonight, it’s Manchester’s turn to host the Norwegians on the first UK date of their Cast in Steel Tour, almost 30 years after their first foray to the city way back in January 1987. The lights of the Manchester Arena dim to expectant darkness and a bleak soundscape emerges in the form of the pulsating bass line of Giving Up the Ghost, accompanied on a triptych of screens by restless, monochrome visuals of a thunderstorm. Yes, it’s a-ha alright, preparing us for their unique brand of dramatic, musical immersion.
But with the formidable backing band of Erik Ljunggren (keyboards), Karl Oluf Wennerberg (drums), Even Enersen Ormestad (bass) and the energetic Anneli Drecker (backing vocals) having set the scene, the music shifts, and the Ormestad/Wennerberg rhythm section begin pounding out I’ve Been Losing You, as Morten, Mags and Paul appear to a rapturous reception, bathed in purple light and taking in the applause, looking sprightly and age-resistant as ever.
The crunching guitar of Waaktaar-Savoy kicks in, and Harket’s initial vocals illicit a cheer. The brooding suspense of the opener melds into the darker, dancier Cry Wolf, another single from their 1986 album Scoundrel Days. Entrancing visuals complement the song’s sinister narrative, including a wolf howling at the moon, and three lupine heads nod in time to the music, a brilliantly inventive touch from the video design team of Jonas Bjerre and Julien Hogg.
Move to Memphis, from 1993’s Memorial Beach, throbs with fretful, retro energy, before the 1988 classic Stay on These Roads makes a toned-down, successful grab for nostalgia neurons as innumerable mobile phones are held aloft in anthemic solidarity. Never ones to rely on old material, Cast in Steel, next, testifies to a-ha’s continued ability to make great pop music. The Swing of Things follows, a classic full of trademark intensity: “How can I sleep with your voice in my head/With an ocean between us and room in my bed?” sings the slim, still handsome Harket. Waaktaar-Savoy – taller, wiry, sporting rock ‘n’ roll stubble and a beanie hat – lets rip on guitar, and the song’s ethereal, atmospheric conclusion is aural nectar which the audience drinks in.
Crying in the Rain, the Everly Brothers’ classic, was a 1990 hit and change of musical direction for the band that the bespectacled Harket duets beautifully here with Anneli Drecker. Epic versions of Mother Nature Goes to Heaven and We’re Looking for the Whales follow, the pacy drumming of Wennerberg bringing the latter frenetically to a head that explodes into lush tranquillity.
While Harket seeks a little off-stage respite for those well-known vocal cords, still hitting the high notes after all this time at Manchester Arena, a-ha‘s singing duties are duly conferred on his bandmates. First up is Paul, accompanied by Mags on acoustic guitar, singing the captivating Velvet perfectly in his melodic, transatlantic tones. Then Mags: “Morten said I’m not a vocalist,” the ever-genial keyboard player and generally most talkative member of the band tells us, referring to a recent interview with the BBC’s Jo Whiley. “So I thought I’d prove him wrong.” And he really does. But he begins the gorgeous Lifelines by fluffing his words: “Fuck, I’ve got the lyrics wrong. Excuse my French!” (this may have been Furuholmen’s idea of poking fun at Harket, known for botching the odd line or two live). Naturally, the change of vocal guard is warmly received, though one suspects Harket’s job is safe for now.
Morten returns, and the band launch into 2009’s Foot of the Mountain, with its shimmering pop chorus unleashing an irresistible wave of musical elation through the Manchester Arena crowd. She’s Humming a Tune, from Cast in Steel, is more downbeat, a fragment of an unfinished novel: “She’s humming a tune/To keep herself from straying/When everything’s swaying/And decisions are weighing/Ever so hard on her mind.” Sycamore Leaves is another moody Waaktaar-Savoy tableau that culminates in a swirling, maddening frenzy. “Can’t stop thinking ‘bout it/Fills me with unease/Out there by the roadside/Something’s buried/Under sycamore leaves.”
Of course, an a-ha performance wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory rendition of the epic Hunting High and Low. There’s quite a lot of you out there, can I hear you?” Harket asks the Manchester crowd during a pause, urging us to sing. “Hunting high and low…hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh…”, comes the reply. Yes, Morten, Manchester loves a-ha.
The band sign off with a rousing version of the brilliant Scoundrel Days, then leave the stage, returning for their first encore. It’s a chance for a-ha to roll out their big guns, and whereas the audience was a half-standing, half-sitting affair before, the start of The Sun Always Shines on TV gets everybody out of their seats, while images of disconcerting mannequins playing violins grace the display screens. It’s a meaty, magnificent blast from the past, followed by a surprisingly goosebump-inducing version of Under the Makeup, their 2015 comeback single. Its stripped-back format releases the inherent beauty of the melody, and, incredibly for a new song, the audience accompany Harket during the chorus as if it were a classic of old.
The Living Daylights, their 1987 James Bond theme, cranks up the a-ha live experience to all-out euphoria, as lights, images and music fuse to create an anthemic synergy of a-ha/Bond awesomeness. It’s a blistering version, ending as always with those dramatic, original theme chords. The band leave the stage and the audience on a high, returning to extend the party with their biggest hit, Take on Me. Nostalgia levels go through the roof, and Manchester is whisked back to 1985, as images from the famous Steve Barron video accompany gleeful mayhem.
Thirty-one years after the release of their first hit, a-ha still find themselves possessed of a musical potency most bands can only dream of. But a-ha have always been a special band, able to weave landscapes from music and sear souls with longing. Theirs is music that mesmerises, stretching dreams to the horizon, and far beyond. Tonight was a performance full of confidence, gifting every ounce of professionalism the band have accrued over their extraordinary career; a-ha at their most essential, at one with their extraordinary catalogue of melodies.
Photography by Shirlaine Forrest. For more information, click here