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+ {Bridges} + {Morten Harket}

Norway had seen little international success until a-ha bounced on to the pop scene in the mid-80s, and with falsetto pin-up Morten Harket (plus songwriters Pal Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen), the Scandic synth-trio could laugh all the way to the bank, after their debut single, `Take On Me’, finally scaled the charts all over the globe.
Formed in Manglerud, Oslo, in 1982, both Pal and Mags – from The DOORS-inspired Spider Empire – had gained a modicum of musical grounding, when, with BRIDGES (a quartet also featuring bassist Viggo Bondi and drummer Oystein Jevanor), they despatched the rare and almost-forgotten FAKKELTOG (1980) {*3} – `Torchlight Procession’ LP.
Gaining a foothold in the music business through fronting various combos, cloning the falsetto style of FREDDIE MERCURY along the way, Morten Harket was duly poached by lyricist Waaktaar and his songwriting buddy Furuholmen. Relocating to a run-down flat in London early in ‘83, a-ha caught the ear of studio producer, John Ratcliff, who was captured by a demo of a track entitled, `Lesson One’. Roping in A&R executive-cum-manager, Terry Slater (whose CV included working with The EVERLY BROTHERS), they would sign to Warner Bros.
Subsequently remixed by the mighty Tony Mansfield and renamed `Take On Me’, the Norwegian chart-buster initially failed to impress the British buying public when issued in October ‘84. The following summer, with Alan Tarney overseeing production, it bombed yet again and led to the lads returning for a summer solstice in Norway. However, things looked brighter in the States when the song received a Steve Barron-directed $100,000 animated video facelift. This resulted in some precious MTV airtime and a trip to L.A., which paved the way for a surprise US chart entry. On the strength of the Grammy-nominated disc topping the Billboard Hot 100, the platter was immediately given a third release in Britain where it peaked at No.2; Morten, Pal and Magne were now up there with the DURAN DURANs and the SPANDAU BALLETs.
The accompanying parent album, HUNTING HIGH AND LOW (1985) {*7} – already No.1 in the homeland and Top 20 in the States – was finally re-promoted in the UK towards the end of 1985, its blend of electro-pop and Harket’s high-pitched delivery setting it up nicely for a Top 3 chart placing. In the space of a year, the Norwegians had no less than five other British Top 10 hits, `The Sun Always Shines On TV’ (their only No.1), `Train Of Thought’, `Hunting High And Low’, `I’ve Been Losing You’ and `Cry Wolf’; the latter two spawned from 1986’s sophomore UK Top 3 set, SCOUNDREL DAYS {*6}. The beautiful `Manhattan Skyline’ stalled at No.13.
Although fading fast in America, a-ha were still one of the most popular acts on the continent and, in Britain, they had a safe European home to bolster their solid chart cred; third set STAY ON THESE ROADS (1988) {*4} for instance, produced a string of hits, from the title track of the James Bond movie, `The Living Daylights’ (penned by Pal and JOHN BARRY) and the equally-fruitful Top 5 `Stay On These Roads’, to the not-so-inspiring `The Blood That Moves The Body’, `Touchy!’ and `You Are The One’.
Whether Slater’s influence had led them to cover The EVERLY BROTHERS’ classic, `Crying In The Rain’ (again a Top 20 hit), there was a plummet in sales for the accompanying EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON (1990) {*5} album. Time out then to re-group and stick out a `Headlines And Deadlines’ greatest hits, which introduced a fresh minor ditty by way of `Move To Memphis’. With a-ha becoming a laughing stock for some, 1993’s MEMORIAL BEACH {*3} helped fill the bargain bins, and it looked on the cards that a split was imminent.
In 1995 – while Pal and Magne moonlighted with Timbersound and Savoy – MORTEN HARKET delivered his second solo album to date, WILD SEED {*3}; his debut had been the Norwegian-only religious set, POETENES EVANGELIUM (1993), composed by Olivind Varkey. Of his Chris Neil-produced English-sung “pop” album, a thumbs down was dished-out by critics and public alike, although a single `A Kind Of Christmas Card’ was a minor UK hit.
A-ha re-formed for a one-off, Nobel Peace Prize concert on the 11th December 1998 and, by 2000, the trio were threatening to go full-time again (not a laughing matter me thinks!?). The long-lost Vikings of 80s video-pop did indeed strike out across the treacherous waters of the music biz come the new millennium. Granted, there was little hope of pillaging a decent chart placing (Top 30, to be exact) but in MINOR EARTH MAJOR SKY (2000) {*5}, long-time fans – who’d now presumably grown up – could content themselves with a suitably grown up set of MOR pop from a still angelic sounding Harket and Co.
Just to prove that the music business had indeed wanted them back for good, the lads followed up within two years courtesy of LIFELINES (2002) {*5}, an even more mature effort with allusions to an unheralded darker side. A brace of top name producers made for an interesting if uneven listen, with layers of studio gloss failing to dampen their star man’s vocal ardour. The “live” HOW CAN I SLEEP WITH YOUR VOICE IN MY HEAD (2003) {*5} was given short-shrift by the buying public outside the wintry confines of their homeland, while the UK Top 20 compilation, “The Definitive Singles Collection 1984-2004”, proved that as former conveyor-belt hit-makers, they could still pull in the punters.
Augmented by a usual raft of backing musicians to bolster studio prowess (including GRAHAM NASH on backing vox for `Cosy Prisons’ and `Over The Treetops’), 2005’s ANALOGUE {*6} shocked even the ardent of sceptics when it garnered some decent reviews. Buoyed by the UK Top 10 success of `Analogue (All I Want)’, this was a-ha back to their radio-friendly, synth-pop best – not since the mid-80s had Messrs Harket, Waaktaar-Savoy (as he was now called) and Furuholmen been at the top of their game.
Compared to COLDPLAY, KEANE and others, 2009’s hook, line and sinker FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN {*6}, was another to satisfy their loyal fanbase. On the back of some solo experience from all three members, was this album going to be the pinnacle of their career? Judging by its Top 5 status in Britain, and respectful download sales for its title track, plus `Nothing Is Keeping You Here’ and `Shadowside’, the record was timely in re-positioning a-ha as a top pop-rock act – not just in the awful 80s. The appropriately-titled ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE – THE FINAL CONCERT (2011) {*6} – live at Oslo Spektrum December 4th 2010 – strung together all but a few of their smash hits, as HARKET, who’d topped the Norwegian charts with his LETTER FROM EGYPT {*5} set in 2008, embarked on a solo career with the similarly-productive, OUT OF MY HANDS (2012) {*5}.
Just when one thought one’d heard the last of a-ha, out they popped again with “out-of-retirement” Top 10 set, CAST IN STEEL (2015) {*6}. Mixed reviews depending on affiliations to the 80s or Euro-pop, the Alan Tarney-produced trio crafted out some sweeping and swooning melodies, Harket hitting the high notes on `Living At The End Of The World’, `The Wake’, `Giving Up The Ghost’ and the title track. Expect another set in the pipeline, but only if they adamantly state their intentions to close shop for good. Don’t discount it.
© MC Strong 1994-2004 /GRD// rev-up MCS Nov2013-Sep2015

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