When a band that's sold 40 million records worldwide tours America for the first time in 25 years, that's big news. And when they're doing it as part of their year-long farewell tour, that's even bigger news.
But that's not why I needed to score an interview with the members of this particular band, or why I bought tickets to see them three nights running at their sold-out shows in New York.
You see, my wife is not a particularly big music fan. Her preference when we're listening at home is "Whatever you want to play." Going to a live show? "No, that's OK. Why don't you take (fill in name of any friend or relation she can think of)?" Of my entire collection of music to which I've exposed her -- thousands of records and CDs, featuring untold numbers of artists, stretching from this week's hot new releases back to recordings from the days of wax cylinders -- there's only one band that evokes her true passion. Only one group that makes her as much of a B-side-collecting, bootleg-hoarding, trivia-amassing music geek as I am.
That band, dear reader, is Norway's own a-ha. And yes, their name is spelled in lowercase.
If you're American, you know a-ha -- if you know them at all -- as the purveyors of the bubbly and infectious 1985 synth-pop hit "Take On Me," featuring Morten Harket's impossibly high falsetto vocals and an iconic animated video that's still pretty cool to watch even today.
But if you live on one of the world's other major landmasses, a-ha are a certifiably big deal. "Take On Me" may have the only big hit a-ha ever had Stateside, but around the globe, it was just the amuse-bouche for a smorgasbord of hits that stretches to this very day. Their latest album, 2009's Foot Of The Mountain, was a Top Five smash in the UK, and an equally massive success throughout Europe, South America and Asia.
I suppose it's ironic that I, a music-mad record store owner (until 2005, anyway), would choose to wed a woman who is totally indifferent to music save for one band that, in all honesty, I hated. At least I hated them back in high school, when "Take On Me" was so inescapable that I swore to my friends I would kill myself if it hit #1. (When it did make it to the top, my friends were gracious enough to let me wiggle out of the deal under the pretense that the song it overthrew, Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love For You," was even worse.)
How much does my wife love a-ha? She collects the three members' solo albums. She loves them so much that her friend who worked at a restaurant frequented by a-ha's Paul Waaktaar-Savoy would text or call whenever he came in ("HE'S HERE"). My wife would run downtown just to get a glimpse of him; inevitably, he'd be gone by the time she arrived. She loves them so much that one time, when I was telling her about a heavily-hyped new band I liked, she said, completely without sarcasm, "So what's the deal with these guys? How close to a-ha are they?"
A-ha had a couple of other minor hits in the States in the late '80s, and then completely faded from sight here, and from my memory as well. I had no idea they were still together, let alone an arena-sized act throughout the world, when I met the future Mrs. Sachs in 2003. She hipped me to a little bit of their history -- from their humble beginnings in Oslo to everywhere-but-American fame and fortune -- and played me their more recent records. Most of them were superior to "Take On Me," and I actually listen to a few of them voluntarily (if you want an entry point for post-'80s a-ha, I heartily recommend "Analogue (All I Want)," their moody pop masterpiece from 2006). At their best, they're like a combination of Depeche Mode and U2 -- disconsolate and uplifting at the same time, with soaring, minor-key melodies that make you want to sing along and hold your lighter aloft.
My wife saw a-ha on their first American tour in 1986. She was twelve years old. Her mother took her. It was her first concert. Until last weekend, they'd played exactly one concert in America since then, in 2005 at Irving Plaza in New York City. It sold out in an hour. She was out of town and missed it.
Because news of their doings never made the mainstream media in the US, and because the only way my wife would ever see them again would be to plan a European vacation around one of their tours, a-ha acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. And then came the news they were breaking up. Friends of mine actually emailed me to make sure the poor gal was OK (she handled the news with great dignity and stoicism, if you're curious). Her chances to see them again -- and my desire to see her see them again -- seemed more in doubt than ever.
But the silver lining to this cloud was pretty damn shiny. Turns out they were not only coming back to the States as part of their "Ending On A High Note" farewell tour, but they'd also be doing interviews in New York. To see them and meet them? This was an opportunity too good to pass up. Which is how, last week, I found myself face-to-face with a-ha's vocalist and heartthrob-in-residence, Morten Harket, trying to figure out what on earth to say to him. My missus, the obvious choice for the job, was unavailable, citing a meeting at work that she couldn't get out of. She promised to bust into the interview as soon as the meeting was over.
Which still left half an hour of alone time with Morten. Thankfully, seven years of osmosis had made me pretty conversant in a-ha, so I was able to hold up my end of the interview. Although I'm still not sure what to make of some of Harket's responses. For instance:
Me: You recorded part of your latest album in New York. Do you feel that the city came out in the sound of the album at all?
Morten: I do, yeah.
Me: In what respects?
Morten: Well that's... again, you asked me if I feel that it does, and it's what I feel. To point at what does that is like trying to explain why a bird is flying from the nest and the other one isn't. When you pluck them apart, they all look the same - both the one that didn't fly and the other one are perfect from a physiological point of view. But one didn't fly, and it doesn't say why.
Such moments gave me ample time to stare at him and think, wow, he really looks great. How old is he, 50? He must have had surgery or something, because he looks almost exactly like he did in 1985, minus the poofy hair.
To be fair, not all of the interview was so obtuse. I was especially intrigued with what he explained as the band's conscious decision to not pursue success in America. "It was a very strange choice to make, to decide between North America and the rest of the world," he said, "because we couldn't look after both. And looking after North America meant moving here." In fact, main songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy did move to New York, and lobbied unsuccessfully for Harket and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen to come here as well. "The regrettable part of it was to, in many ways, to let down so many people that had worked, believing in us here, and being right about it.... But after that, there was - what can you tell anyone? We've chosen not to do it. And then to have a lukewarm continuation here, is not very interesting to anyone." I've got to admit, it was a ballsy move, and probably the right one, because -- did I mention this already? -- the guy looks great.
Since a-ha are known for one song in the States, I asked Morten which one song from their catalog he'd choose to be remembered for, if he had the choice. I expected him to name some obscure album track from a more recent a-ha album, but to my surprise, he said, "Oh, I'm fine with ["Take On Me"]. It's got a lot of character to it, it's got a very strong identity." And he ended on an upbeat note, leaving the door open to future collaborations with the other two a-ha-ers, even though he made it clear that "it's for real that we are stopping, that's for real. But it's not illegal to consider certain things that, maybe not as a-ha, but just something that makes sense."
By now, my allotted time was just about up, and my wife was nowhere to be found. In her more athletic days, she could have hightailed it from her office to where we'd been chatting in no time. But being seven months pregnant, she was unable to waddle the half mile in time to meet Morten, no matter how much I stalled -- and believe me, I tried to stall. But we still had three nights of a-ha in concert to look forward to, and I worked every angle we could think of to get her backstage to meet the a-ha boys in person.
After my up-close-and-personal time with Morten, seeing them onstage felt a little anticlimactic. Given the years of buildup, I half-expected three Nordic gods to descend from the heavens when the lights went down. Instead, I saw three very well-preserved middle-aged men saunter onstage and perform a two hour set that was... good, I guess, if you like that sort of thing.
They performed their biggest hits in backward chronological order, starting with songs from their latest album. Since I think their recent work is their best, they did my two favorite songs in the first fifteen minutes of the set. The rest of the audience, however, was there to hear the '80s stuff. As the show progressed and the songs got older, the cheers got louder and the sing-alongs got more enthusiastic.
Naturally, they closed the show with "Take On Me." The place went bonkers, but even as the last notes were echoing throughout the theater and the band was still taking their onstage bows, the audience was streaming toward the exits. I almost wish they'd played it first, and then played the rest of the concert for the hardcore fans who wanted to hear the lesser-known songs.
It wasn't the greatest concert I'd ever seen, though I had to admit they were a lot better than I thought they'd be. For my wife, however, this was the culmination of a quarter century-long journey. For the first couple of songs, she sat with a dumbfounded stare, hand over her open mouth, virtually motionless. Once she snapped out of her reverie, she clapped and whooped and sang along -- all the things one traditionally does at a rock concert, but which I'd never seen her do at any show I'd taken her to. She wasn't thrilled with the set list, commenting that "they pretty much stuck to the hits, which I don't have much use for," before quickly adding, "But I'll take what I can get."
I'd love to conclude by telling you about how I got my wife backstage for the long-dreamed-of Mrs. Tony/a-ha summit. But despite our best efforts, we never managed to make it into the inner sanctum of a-ha-dom. We never even made it to the third concert. Bun in oven plus three a-ha performances is apparently not a workable equation.
But she's happy. She's got a picture of her husband with Morten Harket, and an autograph. She got to complete the circle and once again see the only band that's ever mattered to her. And when this tour is over and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy heads back to his home in downtown New York, she'll still have one member of a-ha to stalk.
(American a-ha fans still have a chance to catch them in Chicago and Los Angeles this week before the "Ending On A High Note" tour returns to Europe. Don't say you haven't been warned.)
Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC