In the early 1980s, most of the UK would have scoffed at the idea of a Norwegian band becoming a major musical force. The popular image of Norwegian music was the outlandish, incomprehensible songs that regularly scored 'nul points' at the Eurovision Song Contest. All that changed in 1985, however. Not only did Norway win Eurovision that year, but - horrors - a band behind one of the UK's best selling singles of the year was also Norwegian!
After their first band Bridges split in the early 1980s, keyboard player Magne Furuholmen1 and guitarist Pål Waaktaar recruited vocalist Morten Harket and took the name 'a-ha'2 on the basis that it was easily recognisable and understandable in any language.
Having secured a worldwide record deal with Warner Brothers, the band's first single release was the one for which they are still best remembered3 - 'Take On Me'. Although the song is now a staple of every other '80s compilation album, it was not an immediate success in the UK, and had to be released three times before eventually charting. Helped along by extensive airplay for the innovative promotional video, which featured an animated a-ha inside a comic book, the single reached number one in the US and number two in the UK.
A slice of up-tempo synth-driven pop demonstrating Harket's impressive vocal range, the single proved an accurate representation of the band's debut album, Hunting High and Low. A top five success in the UK and top twenty in the US, it also included the band's next single, 'The Sun Always Shines on TV'. This single outperformed their debut in the UK, reaching number one, but barely troubled the top twenty in the States and became their last hit there. In the UK, however, the band were suddenly heart-throbs for a generation of teenage girls who admired Harket's cheekbones above his vocal abilities, and the album spawned two further top ten hits - 'Train of Thought' and the album's title track, 'Hunting High and Low'.
Following their first world tour in 1986, the band's second album Scoundrel Days provided the first clues that a-ha were not content simply to be another 'teenybop' act. Although successful, the darker mood of singles such as 'I've Been Losing You' and 'Manhattan Skyline' meant that they failed to match the top five positions of the previous year. Despite this, the band's profile remained high enough to land them the prestigious job of writing and recording the theme for the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights, which became another top five hit in the UK.
The Bond theme was re-recorded for their third album, 1988's Stay On These Roads, the title track of which provided a-ha with their last UK top ten single to date. The band's sound continued to shift away from lightweight pop, to the obvious displeasure of their teenage fans, who ignored next single The Blood That Moves The Body in sufficient numbers to prevent it reaching the UK top twenty, prompting the release of poppier - and consequently more successful - follow-ups 'Touchy!' and 'You Are The One'.
After a quiet year in 1989, during which time Furuholmen had some of his paintings exhibited in Norway, the band shed their teenybop image once and for all with their fourth album East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Now sporting long hair and, in Furuholmen's case, an impressively full beard, a moody version of the Everly Brothers' 1960s hit 'Crying in the Rain' returned a-ha to the UK top twenty, although further single releases failed to trouble the top forty. Warner Brothers sought to redress the balance in 1991 with the release of a compilation album, Headlines and Deadlines - the Hits of a-ha. The album reached the UK top twenty, but neither the new track, 'Move to Memphis', nor a, frankly, optimistic remix of 'The Blood That Moves The Body' interested the singles-buying public.
Despite the general assumption that a-ha was a spent force by this point, the band continued to enjoy success in Scandinavia and many European countries, and confounded the critics by returning to the UK chart in 1993 with their album Memorial Beach and accompanying single 'Dark is the Night'.
After writing and recording the theme song for the 1994 Paralympics, 'Shapes That Go Together' - another UK top thirty hit - the band began to drift apart and pursue their own interests. Harket went solo; Waaktaar and his wife recorded together under the name Savoy; while Furuholmen formed a new band, Timbersound, and had more of his paintings and sculptures exhibited in Norway. Harket also co-hosted the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest, held in Oslo4.
Although these solo projects were all successful, especially in their homeland, in 1998 the band was asked to reform for a concert to commemorate the Nobel Peace Prize. The reunion went so well that the band started work on new material, which was released in 2000 as their sixth album, Minor Earth, Major Sky. Despite now sounding just about as far removed from Take On Me as imaginable, enough of the band's UK fan base was sufficiently intrigued to help the comeback single 'Summer Moved On' into the top forty. The success of the reunion prompted them to release another album, Lifelines, in 2002. Although Harket, Waaktaar and Furuholmen are still very much involved with their individual projects, they seem in no hurry to lay a-ha to rest.