A-ha (usually stylized as a-ha; Norwegian pronunciation: [ɑˈhɑː]) is a Norwegian band formed in Oslo in 1982. Founded by Morten Harket (vocals, guitars), Magne Furuholmen (keyboards, guitars) and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (guitars), the band rose to fame during the mid-1980s after being discovered by musician and producer John Ratcliff, and continued its global success in the 1990s and 2000s.
A-ha achieved their biggest success with their debut album Hunting High and Low in 1985. That album peaked at number one in their native Norway, number 2 in the UK, and number 15 on the US Billboard album chart; yielded two international number-one singles: “Take On Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV“; and earned the band a Grammy Award nomination as Best New Artist. In the UK, Hunting High and Low continued its chart success into the following year, becoming one of the best-selling albums of 1986. In 1994, after their fifth studio album, Memorial Beach, failed to achieve the commercial success of their previous albums, the band went on a hiatus.
Following a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 1998, the band returned to the studio and recorded their sixth album, 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky, which was another number-one hit in Norway and resulted in a new tour. A seventh studio album, Lifelines, was released in 2002, and an eighth album, Analogue, in 2005, was certified Silver in the UK – their most successful album there since 1990’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Their ninth album, Foot of the Mountain, was first released on 19 June 2009 and returned the band to the UK top 5 for the first time since 1988, being certified Silver there and Platinum in Germany. The album peaked at number 2 in Norway (their first release not to reach number one in their home territory).
On 15 October 2009, the band announced they would split after a worldwide tour in 2010, the Ending on a High Note Tour. Thousands of fans from at least 40 different countries on six continents congregated to see A-ha for the last leg of the tour. On 4 December 2014, A-ha officially announced its participation at Rock In Rio 2015 which celebrated 30 years for both the band and the event. In 2015, it was announced that A-ha would re-unite for two years. Their tenth studio album, Cast in Steel, was released on 4 September 2015. A tour, named for the album, in support of the album happened in autumn 2015 and March–May 2016.
The trio, composed of lead vocalist Morten Harket; guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, formed in 1982 and left Norway for London in order to make a career in the music were trying to think of what to call themselves, focusing on Norwegian words people could say in English. They jettisoned that idea when Morten spotted a song called “A-ha” in Waaktaar’s songbook. “It was a terrible song but a great name,” says Morten.
They chose the studio of musician, producer, and soon-to-be-manager John Ratcliff because it had a Space Invaders machine. John Ratcliff introduced them to his manager, , and after a few meetings, A-ha enlisted Ratcliff as a manager as well. Slater and Ratcliff formed TJ Management. Ratcliff dealt with technical and musical aspects, and Slater acted as the group’s international business manager and as liaison to Warner Brothers’ head office in Los Angeles.
Hunting High and Low (1984–1986)
An early version of “Take On Me” was the first song that Morten Harket had heard Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar play in Asker. At that time, the song was called “The Juicy Fruit Song”, and the two men were still known as Bridges. It was named “Lesson One” when it was first recorded by A-ha. After some re-writing, multiple re-recordings, and three releases, “Take On Me” became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1985. The first version of the song, released in 1984, was promoted by a video of the band performing the song in front of a blue background. The song was then re-recorded with production by Alan Tarney, but both of these releases failed to chart. It was then re-released with a new, groundbreaking video which peaked at number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. A-ha became the first Norwegian band to have a number 1 song in the US; the song’s popularity earned the band a spot on the American television series Soul Train in 1985, making them one of the few white artists to appear on the black music-oriented show. (Gino Vanelli, Elton John, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, Sheena Easton, and Teena Marie all had performed on Soul Train prior to A-ha’s 1985 performance.)
The video used a pencil-sketch animation/live-action combination called rotoscoping, in which individual frames of live video are drawn over or coloured. It became one of the most instantly recognisable and most enduringly popular music videos in the US where it was nominated for eight awards at the third annual MTV Video Awards in 1986, winning six, including Best New Artist in a Video, Best Concept Video, Best Direction, Best Special Effects, and Viewer’s Choice and Best Video of the Year. Their six MTV Award wins for that video gave them twice as many wins as Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” and more than any artist in the three years of the awards combined.
The band’s second single was “The Sun Always Shines on TV“. In the US the song peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number 17 on Radio & Records airplay chart. A remix version was a club hit, rising to number 5 on the Hot Dance Singles Sales chart. The music video for the song was another popular and critical success, nominated in three categories at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards and winning two awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Editing, bringing A-ha’s total to 11 nominations and eight wins. The following year, Peter Gabriel would earn 13 nominations and win nine awards, also for two separate videos. In successive years, even as the award categories have expanded, only a few artists have approached — and none have surpassed — the single-year award totals of A-ha and Gabriel.
A-ha’s American success culminated in their 1986 Grammy nomination in the Best New Artist category, which was eventually won by Sade. “The Sun Always Shines on TV” turned out to be A-ha’s last Hot 100 Top 40 single, and to this day in the United States, A-ha is remembered by the general public almost entirely because of their number one hit single, Take On Me. As such, the band is frequently considered a one-hit wonder there, despite their two Top 40 hits. In the UK, however, the story was very different: “The Sun Always Shines on TV” was an even bigger hit among British fans than “Take On Me”, peaking at number 1.
In the UK, A-ha enjoyed continued success with two more hit singles from the same album—”Train of Thought” and “Hunting High and Low” (with another innovative video) —and the band remained popular throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
The band’s first album, 1985’s Hunting High and Low, became a worldwide bestseller, spending most of October and November in the top 20 of Billboard‘s Top 200 album chart. The album and its four hit singles garnered international recognition for A-ha. Hunting High and Low earned triple platinum status in the UK, and reached platinum status in the US and Germany, while earning gold in Brazil and the Netherlands.
Hunting High and Low has sold 11 million copies worldwide. The album peaked at number 15 in the US on the Billboard 200 albums chart and peaked at number 2 on the UK Albums Chart, and it spent 38 weeks in the top 10 in Norway, including eight weeks at number 1.
A-ha’s second album, Scoundrel Days, was released in the midst of the 1986 world tour and represented a move towards alternative rock, as synthpop began to fall out of style. Although the album received favourable reviews and had three singles become international hits, the album’s sales (6.4 million copies) did not match those of its predecessor (except for Switzerland, where it is A-ha’s best-selling album). “Cry Wolf” would be the last A-ha single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. After the release of the album, A-ha toured in the US, its last appearance there for 20 years. The album has been certified platinum in the UK, Switzerland and Brazil, and has earned gold certification in Germany. Ned Raggett of AllMusic Guide would later write of the album, “The opening two songs alone make for one of the best one-two opening punches around: the tense edge of the title track, featuring one of Morten Harket’s soaring vocals during the chorus and a crisp, pristine punch in the music, and ‘The Swing of Things,’ a moody, elegant number with a beautiful synth/guitar arrangement (plus some fine drumming courtesy of studio pro Michael Sturgis) and utterly lovelorn lyrical sentiments that balance on the edge of being overheated without quite going over…The ’80s may be long gone, but Scoundrel Days makes clear that not everything was bad back then.”
In May 1988, A-ha released their third studio album, titled Stay on These Roads, which matched the number-two chart peak of its two predecessors on the British album charts. Stay on These Roads has been certified Platinum in Brazil and France, and Gold in Switzerland, Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands. The album includes the title-track theme song to the James Bond film The Living Daylights. The version that appears on their album is a re-recording of the film version and single. The band has said that they are particularly proud of the title track, and all three members contributed to its writing. “Stay on These Roads” and “The Living Daylights” would remain part of their live set throughout the rest of the band’s history. After the release of the album, the band went on a 74-city world tour. The album has sold more than 4.2 million copies worldwide.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon featured a cover version of The Everly Brothers‘ 1963 single, “Crying in the Rain“. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, A-ha were very popular in South America, especially in Brazil, where the band sold out some of the largest stadiums in the world. At the Rock in Rio II festival in January 1991, A-ha shocked the international entertainment press by drawing an audience of 198,000 at Maracanã stadium for their top-billed evening concert — a Guinness World Record for biggest rock concert attendance.
In contrast, the other performers (George Michael, Prince, and Guns N’ Roses) each drew less than a third of that audience, 60,000 each. In a 2009 interview from Cody Eide in Musicweek, celebrating A-ha’s up and coming 25-year anniversary, the band members revealed that the record-breaking concert and the lack of media attention they received were a devastating blow to the band. The 1991 Rock in Rio festival, which should have been the band’s crowning achievement, was instead a moment of crushing disappointment. “MTV interviewed everybody except us”, remembers Waaktaar-Savoy. “They were all calling their bosses and saying, ‘We must cover A-ha; it’s the only night that has sold out.’ But they weren’t allowed to.” “I felt very alienated,” says Furuholmen. “It made us feel hopeless. We played to the biggest crowd in the world, and they ignored it.”
East of the Sun, West of the Moon was certified Gold in Switzerland, Brazil, and Germany and Silver in the UK.
Steven McDonald of AllMusic said of their fourth album, “This is a nicely crafted collection of songs, performed and sung beautifully, with lots of echoes and suggestions tucked into the music. While not an album one can discuss at length, it’s an album that’s a pleasure to listen to.” The album sold 3.2 million copies worldwide.
In 1994, the band unofficially entered a hiatus, and band members then focused on solo projects.
80s Studio albums