A-ha, the hot new pop-rock trio, has a secure place in the history of Norway. It’s the first Norwegian act to have a major hit--"Take on Me"--outside the country. Also, this single is the first American hit by a Norwegian artist. “Take on Me,” a big seller in many countries, rose to the top of the Billboard magazine pop chart.
The band’s success was even more remarkable considering this was its first single from its first album, “Hunting High and Low.”
Unused to home-grown stars, Norwegians are ecstatic about songwriter/keyboards player Mags--he only uses one name--and his partners, singer Morten Harket, 26, and guitarist Pal (pronounced Paul ) Waaktaar, 24.
“All the politicians want to have their pictures taken with us,” Mags said recently. “We’re like national heroes.”
He didn’t seem particularly impressed.
“All that is nice, but we’re not in this to shake hands with politicians or be heroes in our country,” he said. “We want to be respected musicians. We want to do an album that’s much better than the current one.”
With his “Don Johnson” stubble and his jeans outfit, Mags, 23, looked chicly bedraggled. He was at the tail end of a long, trying day of interviews at the headquarters of the band’s label, Warner Bros. Records, in Burbank. Burnout, he insisted, hadn’t set in yet, though there were signs of it creeping up on him. He was pleasant but still seemed rather sluggish.
Mags hinted that his reason for being somewhat indifferent to the praise of Norwegians was his feeling that they’re jumping on the bandwagon. The band wasn’t a hit in Norway until after its international success.
“People at home laughed at us when we said we were going to be international stars,” Mags recalled. “We believed in ourselves when no one else did.”
Norway, Mags complained, isn’t exactly a mecca for musicians. For one thing, there’s no thriving club scene. Radio, he lamented, isn’t stimulating either: “It’s terrible. They play Muzak. You have to leave the country to hear good music or a variety of music.”
He noted another drawback--the negative attitudes that permeate the Norwegian musical scene: “The bands have an inferiority complex. They feel they’re weak and can’t make it outside the country. They have no drive, no ambition. They stay there and play music that’s not very interesting or up-to-date.”
A-ha’s music, written in English by Mags and Waaktaar, resoundingly reflects British and American pop influences. There’s nothing remotely Norwegian about it. Their fans apparently like the band’s melodic techno-pop sound, but their popularity can’t only be attributed to their music. Females, particularly teen-agers, find them adorable. Extensive TV exposure of their videos has been a boost to the band, which may be the best-looking outfit since Duran Duran first reared its handsome head a few years ago.
Mags was uncomfortable with references to the importance of the band’s looks, preferring a-ha to be noted for its musical prowess.
“We don’t want to be exploited for our looks,” he said. “We’re musicians, not models.”
Asked to describe his colleagues, Mags, with a little prodding, pointed out: “Pal is incredibly self-disciplined and very single-minded. He’s really hard-working. I wish I was that way sometimes. I’m the one who bums around and stumbles around and stumbles into things. Morten is an incredible talent, but he’s pretty lazy.
“We’re all different. We have this chemistry going for us. There’s this tension between us that gives us our creativity. If we were too much alike, we’d lose the chemistry. We’d be boring.”
Mags tried to explain why he’s so drawn to music. “Maybe obsessed is a better word,” he said. “Maybe I got it from my father, who was a musician. But I was pretty young when he died. I just know I always had chills up and down my spine when I was listening to music. I had it when I was listening to bAnds like thE Doors and the Beatles. You just want to be part of something that makes you feel that way.”
Mags and Waaktaar were just 10 when they started out as musicians. As their musical intentions became more serious, in a band called Britches, they made plans to leave the country.
“Norway is sort of like heaven,” Mags said. “There’s little poverty. We all come from stable middle-class backgrounds. Just about everybody lives comfortably. It’s a safe and pleasant place.”
This cloud-nine country, Mags observed, offers the wrong atmosphere for musicians. “If you stay there you just get lazy. We needed a sense of urgency. We had to go off and struggle, to force ourselves to be creative. We simply had to get the hell out of Norway.”
In 1982, Mags and Waaktaar left for London and tried to form a band there. That was a disaster. Six months later, they returned to Norway.
“We had a taste of London and wanted more,” Mags recalled. “Being home in Norway was like being dragged down by this slow grinding machine.”
Another problem at the time was the need for a lead singer. For a while, Waaktaar was the vocalist. “He sounded like (Doors lead singer) Jim Morrison,” Mags said, “but he didn’t sound right. I didn’t want him to sing. I figured that out early, but it took him longer to admit he wasn’t the right singer for us.”
They finally hired singer Morten Harket, who looks like a matinee idol. “He has a good voice, that’s the important thing,” Mags insisted, responding to the suggestion that Harket was hired for his handsome face. “Women do go crazy over him and he is very photogenic, but that’s a bonus.”
In early 1983, after Harket joined, they returned to London--which has become their home--and struggled some more before eventually signing with Warner Bros. Records. The addition of a good-looking singer undoubtedly helped them nail down that elusive record contract.
Soon a-ha must face another hurdle. The band, which has minimal performing experience, will tour later this year, promoting music from an upcoming album. The size of the crowds will depend, to some degree, on the fate of the second album.
Though it’s impossible to predict the size of the crowds, it’s easy to forecast their composition. Undoubtedly, they will be mostly female.