a-ha Ask London To ‘Take On Me’ With O2 Final Concert On MTVUnplugged Tour
If you’re of a certain age you’ll know who a-ha are. Even if you’re not, you’ll have seen the iconic music video for their most famous song, ‘Take On Me’, which was released way back in 1985.
a-ha are so much more than one song however. Between 1985 and now, the Norwegian trio have released ten studio albums, ten compilation albums, five EPs, and 39 singles. This doesn’t include their solo material, or other projects the members of a-ha have been involved in away from the band. Comprising Morten Harket, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, and Magne Furuholmen, they first got together in 1982, although Furuholmen and Waaktaar had already been performing together for years as part of a fourpiece, Bridges.
With all this in mind, it meant there was an incredible back catalogue to refer to when putting together set lists. Additionally, this was the final show on their MTV Unplugged tour, and they were accompanied by strings (violin and cello), drums, keyboards and bass. Therefore, it was with a great deal of excitement that this writer went to the O2 Arena on Greenwich Peninsula on Valentine’s Night to check out a-ha.
First on stage was support act, Jess Morgan, a singer songwriter and instrumentalist from Norwich. Jess has long had a close association with Norway, with her first album, ‘All Swell’ (2010), co-produced by Norwegian producer-engineers Hans Petter (HP) Gundersen and Daniel Birkeland. She explained that it was this connection which afforded her the opportunity to perform at the O2, and she also supported a-ha at their Oslo show.
Morgan sang and performed beautifully, her folky music was gentle and appealing, but what we were most struck by was her soft speaking voice, a delightful treat in a venue so large as the O2 Arena.
Jess Morgan has released four albums and a further four EPs and a single between 2010 and 2016, and has received favourable reviews from the likes of The Guardian (among others), who described her music as “gorgeous country folk”.
On Wednesday night she apologised (in advance) for using the harmonica, but she needn’t have worried. The audience, who were majorly there for a-ha, lapped it up. Jess later described the audiences in both Oslo and London as “wonderful. Very attentive as they awaited their band.”
For further information about Jess Morgan, including her upcoming performance dates, check out her website.
a-ha entered the arena to a tumultuous round of applause. This is what we were all here for. The band found their positions; Magne (Mags) took his seat behind the graffitied piano, while Morten and Paul sat on a stool and chair respectively, towards the centre of the stage.
Opening with ‘This Is Our Home’, written by Magne, and taken from their most recent album, ‘Summer Solstice’ (2017), a-ha followed in swift succession with songs plucked from all over their extensive discography, such as the title track from their 2002 ‘Lifelines’ album, followed by ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ (1986), ‘This Alone Is Love’ (1988) and ‘Forever Not Yours’ (also from ‘Lifelines’), and ‘Analogue’, another title track, this one from their album released in 2005.
Quite apart from the songs and the artists themselves, a highlight of the show were the beautiful background images, which went a long way towards conveying a very Nordic vibe to the evening (particularly the images of a glacier, skeletal trees, and a Norwegian house with wooden walls painted red).
It became clear very early on that Mags was to be the spokesperson for the night. Speaking from behind his upright piano, he introduced the songs, spoke about the band, and also pulled the entire Arena together for a resounding rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg, with the quip that we’d all done very well in pronouncing his name correctly, and he hoped the same could be said if they ever performed on *his* birthday.
It didn’t matter that Morten and Paul didn’t say much however. We weren’t there for the patter, we were there for the music, and with a total of 21 songs performed (including two encores) there was more than enough of that to satisfy everyone.
A highlight of the show was when Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen) joined the band on stage. We were told that he had been a major influence when a-ha first moved to London in the 1980s, and they learned a lot when they started listening to his music rather than, in Mags’ words, “the hippy stuff we had been listening to before in Norway”. Ian and Morten dueted on ‘The Killing Moon’ (Echo and the Bunnymen) as well as the title track from a-ha’s second album, ‘Scoundrel Days’.
It was a moving experience, and it was obvious from the sheer joy on Morten’s face how much it meant for him to be singing with Ian (apologies for the very blurry phone photo below, but you can still see Morten’s smile).
Special mention must go to the backing band who performed on the night. Composed of artists from Norway (Mags started introducing people as being “from Norway” before stopping himself after about the third introduction when he realised that *everyone* was from Norway), they included artists such as Lars Horntveth, who in addition to arranging the songs on tour, plays “anything ending with a phone”. Then there was the aforementioned Karl Oluf Wennerberg on drums, as well as Even Ormestad on bass. Ormestad and Horntveth are both also members of Norwegian experimental jazz band, Jaga Jazzist.
*Thanks to @SuzanneLLLL from Twitter we now have the entire band list:
Strings: Violin is Madeleine Ossum, Cello is Tove Margarete Erikstad, Viola is Emilie Heldal Lidsheim. Keyboards: either Morten Qvenild or Lars Horntveth both playing keyboards multiple instruments. Also Karl Oluf Wennerburg on drums and Even Ormestad on acoustic bass.
It would be very easy to suggest that after performing for the better part of forty years, Morten Harket’s voice might not be able to hit those high notes in quite the same way as he had before, but this wasn’t the case on Wednesday night. Harket’s still got it, and with songs such as my personal favourite, ‘Hunting High And Low’, he was able to reach the top notes as well as he had in the 80s.
a-ha saved the best for last, as so they should. Walking off stage after finishing ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’, the audience erupted with chants of “One more song! One more song!” and “Encore Encore” – knowing full well they’d come back on – and indeed they did. Morten said “yes we will be singing *that* song”, but we had to be patient. He had a story to tell, and explained how when he was 20 years old he visited his old school and heard a curious sound, which turned out to be Paul and Magne performing with Bridges. This segued into a cover of Bridges’, ‘Sox Of The Fox’, a curious track I’d not heard before. Performed with a string orchestra the melancholic tune was gorgeous and worked perfectly well with the rest of the more familiar tunes.
They followed this with ‘The Living Daylights’, the song they wrote for the 1987 James Bond film of the same name. Once this was over, they walked off stage, leaving the audience feeling uneasy. Where was *that* song? We needn’t have worried. No sooner they’d walked off they came back on again, and yes. There it was. ‘Take On Me’, but a slower, more stripped back take on the track than we were used to. The addition of strings took it from a mere pop song (arguably *the* perfect pop song) to a piece which would easily find its place alongside any classical composition.
This was to be the final concert on this current tour for a-ha, but the band promised they’d be back in the summer. You can find further information from a-ha‘s official website, where tickets are available now for their ‘Electric Summer’ tour, which starts on 7 June in Canterbury, and wends its way around Europe (as well as Tel Aviv, Israel), finishing on 27 August in Bochum, Germany. While you’re on the website, check out the links to a-ha’s albums, DVDs, and videos.