1986: A-ha, riding the success of Take On Me in London. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
No one sounds like A-ha’s Morten Harket. Millions of us have tried singing along with Take On Me, but none of us can reach the places Harket does, his voice soaring into the stratosphere in one of the all-time great pop choruses.
In 1985, Take On Me was a No1 single around the world and now its iconic video has 1.6 billion views on YouTube. But for A-ha, Take On Me was just the beginning.
A-ha became one of the biggest bands of the decade – which was exactly what lead singer Morten Harket was expecting.
“I knew all of this would come,” he said, in a new interview with The Big Issue. “It was more like knowledge than confidence. Not a dream. Not a hope. Much more matter of fact. And I knew I would have to deal with it in the best way I could.
“When we hit number one in America, everybody celebrated us. We’d made it. But for us, I remember very distinctly it felt like we had just come to the starting point. That is what it felt like: now it begins. Because I knew the potential in the three of us and the spirit of the band.
“And I knew loads of other songs were lying waiting to happen, and that they would have that thing in common – it would be the same spirit of the band.”
If success felt inevitable for Harket and A-ha, it is little wonder. An incredible coincidence, discovered during a long walk home after Harket had his mind blown by future A-ha bandmates Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen’s previous band, Bridges. It was like the universe had a plan for them.
Because as Furuholmen detailed how his jazz trumpeter father Kåre had died in a plane crash in 1969, Harket realised, to his astonishment, that he had witnessed the plane going down as a nine-year-old. This was 13 years before the pair met.
“Magne and I had a long walk home in the middle of the night and had a great talk along the way,” recalls Harket. “But then what happened completely blew him off of his tracks. After that, he felt he could never see me again. That was his immediate response. He needed a break. I sensed that, but I believed something else. He turned up on my door some days later.
“I wasn’t sitting waiting for the phone to ring, I knew it would happen. And the phone did ring, and it was Magne and he asked if I wanted to join them and go to England.
“The funny thing is, that when they asked me to join and become a band, they knew nothing about me musically. Isn’t that fascinating?”
They must have been very pleasantly surprised when they heard you sing, Morten…
“Maybe not both of them! Pål saw himself as lead singer and that was fine with me,” recalls Harket. “He thought I could play drums to begin with – he didn’t know whether I could or not. And I would have played whatever makes sense. But I knew eventually I would end up doing the voice. It would be decided by the nature of things.”
For Harket, Waaktaar and Furuholmen the eventual overnight success was the culmination of years of work. They had put in the hard yards, left their home in Norway, on a mission to make it big.
Morten Harket, especially, threw himself into the London club scene. There he was, rubbing shoulders with the stars of the New Romantic and New Pop scenes at the Camden Palace and in Soho’s cooler establishments, regularly getting photographed by paparazzi who documented the scene. He would also, he says, pose for tourists who were convinced he was already a pop star.
Video emerged a few years ago of a pre-fame Harket dancing at the Batcave in Soho in 1983 – hair styled with Dulux white paint, home-crafted ripped vest and t-shirt.
“Moving to London was great,” he says now – allowing himself a chuckle at the memory of their youthful hijinks.
“We had hardly any money but a lot of fun. We would often walk long distances, walking across London, back and forth, like a vagrant.”
The idea of Harket walking through South East London on his way Soho is quite something. This was very much pre-gentrification. It’s little wonder he turned a few heads.
“My photograph was taking quite a lot. We were playing with style,” he said.
“We lived in Forest Hill and went to Camden Palace and different clubs. The Hippodrome was pretty new – this was 1983 and early 1984 – but it was a little more boring, because it was just a disco, it was just flashy. It didn’t have a soul or a spirit to the place. But the Camden Palace did. And certainly some of the smaller clubs.”
As a new boxset is released (“an interesting product. It’s heavy!” is Harket’s verdict), featuring demos and early versions of the songs that would form Hunting High And Low – which went on to sell 10 million copies – Harket is enjoying harking back to those early days.
“It became more difficult over the years to go back into the place we reached in the early period of A-ha as a unit because we would live separate lives, and naturally so,” he said. “It’s different from when you live together in a shack and it’s the three of you against the world for life.”
He also revealed how he has struggled with fame over the years.
“Fame is a massive onslaught on any human being. It’s not very different to what animals feel like caged up in zoos,” he said. “You become an outcast of society the instant you become known. So I’d describe my relationship to fame as troublesome. Society no longer belongs to you. But you belong to it. You become an object, instantly. Even when you talk directly to another person, you are essentially an object. And it’s not up to you to decide. It’s a thing of mass psychology.”
A-ha continues. And Take On Me continues to evolve as new audiences take it to their hearts. A moment of hope as the world falls apart in apocalyptic drama The Last Of Us, a mournful piano lament in their MTV Unplugged appearance in 2017 (above), a surprise appearance by Harket himself in The Masked Singer – performing the song that catapulted him to fame.
“What matters most is what you actually leave behind,” he said. “The music. The songs. All the rest – success, acclaim, the critical response – are passing things.
“I’m not in it for the fame and I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for what service it can be. All the other stuff comes with it, you have to handle it and enjoy it whenever you can. Because that’s a duty also, out of respect. Sometimes I have to allow myself to enjoy it.”
The full interview with Morten Harket is in the current edition of The Big Issue. If you cannot buy from a local vendor, copies can be bought via The Big Issue Shop