There are a number of eyebrow-raising statistics about a-ha.
They are in the Guinness Book of Records for playing to the biggest paying rock concert audience ever (198,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, 1991) and are said to have sold 55 million records over the years. In my 80s childhood however, they played a much more significant and everyday role, inhabiting my bedroom wall. Despite not being allowed to fancy the lead singer Morten Harket (my older sister had already claimed him as her own), I still spent an unhealthy amount of time imagining myself into the iconic Take On Me video and right into the aforementioned dreamboat’s arms. Judging by the demographic of the audience pouring into Scarborough’s magnificent Open Air Theatre and the accompanying chatter, I had not been alone in this pleasant daydream.
So it was with a little trepidation that I approached the venue – had time been kind to those razor-sharp cheekbones? Could he still reach the high notes? Would it turn out that Pål was the coolest one all along? I hoped that these questions would be answered tonight.
The support act was a likeable young band called Deco whose 80s-inspired synth pop was just the ticket to warm up the sizeable audience. After their bouncy set had finished, the anticipation continued to build, with a gasp of excitement every time a member of the crew so much as walked onto the stage. A sustained puff of dry ice, however, was herald to the long-awaited moment and onto the stage strode Magne, Pål and Morten. The crowd went suitably wild.
Sycamore Leaves, from their 1990 album East of the Sun, West of the Moon, was a good choice for the opening song – well known enough but not using up any of their megahits early on. The familiar synth sounds carried through the sun-dappled evening air, drifting us all to simpler times, and Morten’s vocals sounded as solid as ever. It was Magne, though, who warmly addressed the audience at the end of the song, while Morten stood back a little, clearly happier not to be involved in that side of the proceedings.
Then there was The Swing of Things, another blast from the past with its classic moody 80s electro sounds. This is a good moment to mention the excellent rhythm section accompanying the band – so tight and accomplished, with an indefatigable drummer who powered through the drum-heavy pop music with ease.
Crying in the Rain was up next, and sounded record-perfect. Morten’s voice was warm and rich, and the song’s distinctive close harmonies were all on point. The crowd were thrilled to hear one of the big hits and joined in with gusto. It was good to have a delicious taster of the most popular songs that were surely on their way.
Before launching into The Blood That Moves the Body, Morten finally said a few brief words to the audience, and has a “Thank you, Scarborough!” ever been greeted with such relish? No longer middle-aged women, we were all young girls once more, finally being noticed by our pin-up.
The band played on, sprinkling more hits including Foot of the Mountain, Cry Wolf and Train of Thought in with the lesser-known ones. Notable was one of their new numbers, You Have What It Takes, a beautiful, understated ballad that has nowhere for the band to hide and shows that a-ha themselves still have what it takes to play amazing music and delight a packed house.
Hunting High and Low was a particular highlight and the audience leapt at an invitation to join in. The Living Daylights brought similar joy, and when the band trooped off ahead of re-emerging (SURPRISE!) for the encore, the air was fizzing with electricity at the prospect of what was next. We weren’t disappointed.
The rising arpeggio at the beginning of The Sun Always Shines on TV brought deafening cheers. The lighting design was turned up to 11, creating a massive disco effect that spilled out over a crowd delighted to be dancing and singing along to some of the biggest pop hits of our generation.
Unsurprisingly, the song of the evening was their final one, Take On Me. The collective energy from both band and audience filled the high summer sky and created a moment that I suspect will stay with everyone there for a long time.
The band still sounds incredible. Magne is some kind of wizard, creating sounds on his synth that have the power to magic us all back to our younger selves. And while Pål and Morten clearly do not relish interacting with the audience, they deliver everything and more through their brilliant music.
There are two other stars of the evening to mention. One is the Open Air Theatre itself – such a gem of a venue that, through careful design, manages to create a feeling of intimacy between the stage and audience despite having a capacity of 8,000. The final one is the British Sign Language interpreter who signed his way through the entire show with all the emotion and charisma of the band itself, and at the very least deserves his own round of applause, if not a headline slot.
And I was pleased to have the answers to my pre-gig questions. I can confirm that every single high note was hit, Pål was very cool (in the way that people who quietly get on with doing their own thing are) and, thankfully, time has indeed been kind to those razor-sharp cheekbones. Phew.
Photos: Cuffe and Taylor