In the 1980s, when he was a freshly-minted, tall-haired pop god, A-ha’s Morten Harket would sometimes be overcome by the burning desire to be more like Bono.
“We felt maybe a little jealous of U2. They had a free ride in terms of how they were perceived,” the singer says over Zoom from a hotel in Oslo. “They didn’t get that massive, Smash Hits-type of embrace in the early days. That really hurt us. It was impossible to move on. We were envious. They had a freer ride in that sense.”
Harket — hard though it is to believe — is now 62 years old. He has been a pop idol most of his adult life. This he regards as both blessing and curse. Sometimes it’s fun. But stardom is always there, even when you’d rather it wasn’t.
“I’m still dealing with it. It’s not very different today [compared to the 1980s]. It is quite different than what people expect or think about it. People read about it through media. How it actually is is somewhat different.”
He is here to talk about the future rather than the past. A-ha are about to release a wonderfully wintry new album, True North, which they made in a studio beyond the Arctic Circle. The project explores environmental collapse and lockdown isolation and originated with guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy.
The concept was eagerly taken up by Harket and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, who had previously struggled to convince Waaktaar-Savoy to go back into the studio. They brought along a camera crew for good measure; a film about the making of the LP is released in cinemas on Friday September 16th.
“Paul had this idea of the “true north”. Which is a compass point. It’s a term, relating, to him, to the situation the world is in. With regards to our relationship to nature,” says Harket. “Where we are heading. And so forth. But, as a musical thing, it was the songs that set it rolling. And then Magne had a number of songs up his sleeves as well. And off we went.”
A-ha’s music might be smart, soulful and catchy. Yet behind the scenes, go the rumours, they’ve never entirely got on. They briefly broke up in 2010 so that they would have time “to get more involved in other meaningful aspects of life”. And a 2021 documentary about the band painted a fractious picture of warring egos and crossed wires.
Harket acknowledges that they’ve had their ups and downs since forming in suburban Oslo in 1982. But the idea they are always at each other’s throats is exaggerated.
“It’s silly. Certainly with the Norwegian press, they kept on about us not being friends. It was kind of a childish thing. We’ve been together for 40 years now. Why on earth are we doing that if we can’t stand each other? It’s stupid if you ask me. The other side of it is that in any relationship that is a creative boiling-pot… what are you expecting? Quite frankly it wouldn’t be credible [if they always got on].”
True North is masterpiece of icy balladry — but then, A-ha were always so much more than Smash Hits pin-ups. Take On Me, the first song they wrote and which they released twice before it stuck in 1985, was a stroke of genius (and the first track by a Norwegian group to go to number one in the US). Yet from there they pivoted into a kind of Norse forerunner of Coldplay, with brooding belters such as Hunting High and Low and The Sun Always Shines on TV.
The problem — from their perspective at least — was that they looked like pop stars, with dangerous cheekbones and wavy fringes. Screaming young women would stampede whenever Harket left the house. They couldn’t shake the image.
“Before ‘fame’ happened. I was curious about it,” says Harket. “I very quickly learned what it was. It has never changed. It’s always been the same. It is very primitive. It comes from primal aspects of our nature. I’ve never enjoyed it. I accept it. It can have some fun sides, now and then — on rare occasions. In general, it is just noise.”
Take on Me positioned A-ha as perfect 1980s heartthrobs — less dissolute than Duran Duran, with tighter tunes than Tears for Fears or Eurythmics. And with better hair than all their rivals put together. Behind the scenes, though, they were unprepared for the acclaim.
“When I first met them there were young and fresh,” Steve Barron, the Dublin-born director of the Take on Me video, told me in 2020 when the promo surpassed a billion hits on YouTube. “They’d had these disappointments. It wasn’t quite happening. I met them in a youth hostel in Bayswater. They were all there on single beds. It was pre-fame, definitely pre-fame. They had no money. I sat down and explained my idea [for the famous ‘comic-strip’ video]. They were totally up for it.”
The video was in some ways the making of the song. One reason it worked is because of the chemistry between Harket and model Bunty Bailey, who, in the film, falls in love with the singer upon spying his picture — that quiff! — in a comic book. On set, they were soon a couple.
“I’m sure Morten wouldn’t mind me saying that he was naive about girls and things. He wasn’t that experienced in relationships,” recalled Barron. “There was one scene where they were holding hands. We did about six takes. I suddenly looked around and they were holding hands off camera as well. I thought, ‘oh, of course.’ It was all over Smash Hits that they were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“We were seen as a band that looked great. That we had an image.” says Harket. “We spent no time on our image. Less than most bands, definitely. We were perceived as the opposite. It was never the case.”
A-ha initially embraced success. This was understandable given their struggles to get the band off the ground in the first place. However, they soon tired of the shallowness of stardom.
“In the early days, well, for one, you’re a band with no position at all. You take what you can get. You work with whatever you have in your hands and on your lap. We very quickly steered away from writing hit songs. We were burned from it. And that’s not the right way to go about it. But we were exhausted after the first couple of years — two, three years, there was nowhere to go. There were no breaks. Nothing stopped.”
They still tour today and still perform their biggest songs. Sometimes Harket wishes they could do things on a smaller scale.
“We never get to play the catalogue. We play the hits. It’s difficult not to do that. It’s kind of a shame. A lot of the people who come to the shows would want it different.”
Sadly, A-ha don’t have the luxury of catering strictly to hardcore fans.
“To have a business set-up that believes that and will go with it, is not the easiest thing. It’s too much work. It could be done. Then, we all have family and commitments. There is a limit, sadly. It would have been a lot better from a band perspective if we lived together as three nerds and nothing else. That we could be a band together, like in the early days.”
Because their new project has a cinema component, it feels only fair to finish by asking Harket about A-ha’s greatest contribution to moviedom. Which is of course The Living Daylights, their theme for the 1987 Bond film of the same name and the greatest 007 song ever (you can disagree and you would be wrong).
It’s a typically sublime A-ha moment: catchy, a bit OTT, and with a chorus that looms like a suspension bridge. So it is surprising to discover they initially struggled to take the commission seriously. The situation grew even more tense when Harket and company informed the producers they’d be skipping the London premiere.
“We fell out with [Bond composer] John Barry, and also the whole Bond Broccoli people [the producers]because we didn’t come to the premiere in London. We informed them that, on the date that they had set, we were booked fully in Japan for a big tour. We couldn’t make it.”
The Bond camp assumed A-ha would give in.
“They didn’t think we were serious. And we didn’t show up. They went ballistic. They pulled the song from the American version. That’s kind of a fun story today. It is what it is. We’re proud of the song. We play it often live. It’s cool. It’s a good thing to have done.”
True North will be released in select cinemas on September 15th. The album of the same name is released October 21