a-ha, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews
a-ha, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall
The Norwegians bow out orchestrally after 25 years
Twenty-five years ago, a-ha achieved something unprecedented for a Norwegian band: they entered the British charts. The week of 5 October, 1985 saw “Take On Me” enter the Top 40. Three weeks later it peaked at number two. To mark the anniversary, a-ha have chosen to do two things: embark on a worldwide farewell tour and play a special show at the Royal Albert Hall, running through their debut album, Hunting High and Low, with a full orchestra. That not being enough for a full show, they also played its follow-up, Scoundrel Days. Both a first and a last, the concert was a homecoming to the scene where they first scored success.
Of course, 2010 is seeing other rock farewells: the Eagles, the Scorpions and Simply Red. But none of those define something quite as specific as a-ha. Although Simply Red were fellow Eighties newbies, their pattern-book soul looked to existing templates. a-ha’s moody, electro-informed pop was (and is) more exotic, perhaps a partial explanation for last night's multi-national audience. There was more Norwegian overheard than English. A flag hanging from a balcony was emblazoned, “Hi from Moscow”. My row and the one behind was crammed with Germans. Even though a-ha’s songs are in English, they all sang along.
As well as the “Take On Me” anniversary, this week has seen a new release: the career-spanning double CD a-ha 25. Both those first two albums, from 1985 and 1986, have recently been re-issued. There’s even a new single, “Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)”. Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy might be bowing out, but there’s an awful lot going on – an inversion of hitting the ground running.
Watch the original video of "Take On Me":
Which is apt considering last night’s reversal of the usual rock-show ritual. Audiences wait for the most well-known song – the expected peak at the end of the set. But a-ha stuck to Hunting High and Low’s running order, so “Take On Me” opened the evening. It was weird hearing that era- and band-defining hit first. In dark suits and white shirts, the main men initially looked serious. Accompanied by regular keyboard player/bassist Erik Ljunggren and drummer Karl-Oluf Wennerberg, they were also bulked out by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite the grand surroundings and the occasion, Harket froze during “Train of Thought” for an audience member’s mobile-phone snap. After a soaring, string-textured “Hunting High and Low”, Furuholmen quipped, “As the actress said to the bishop, please concentrate, we’re only going to do this once.” Tracks buried within side two of Hunting High and Low, such as “And You Tell Me” and “Love is Reason”, shone alongside their album mates.
Following a quick break, Scoundrel Days was aired. Rockier and edgier than its predecessor, the live reading was powerful, with the audience even more vocal. The orchestrations didn’t shadow the songs, but offered punctuation and colour. Again, Furuholmen made the announcement: “The observant among you may have noticed we’re playing the second album, Scoundrel Days.” When not singing Harket was largely silent, bobbing from side to side while smiling enigmatically. His voice intact, during the portmanteau epic “Manhattan Skyline” it was shatteringly pitched. “Cry Wolf” found the audience making wolf cries and Waaktaar-Savoy leaping, Pete Townshend-style. Scoundrel Days’s downbeat closer “Soft Rains of April” had its final line strung out: “the soft rains of April are… over.”
And it was over, no encore, some bows and that was it. Playing straight, a-ha paid tribute to themselves and their audience. The songs weren’t overhauled or monkeyed with, the sympathetic orchestrations enhanced rather than swamped. Whatever the period these albums come from, they were delivered with commitment and joy. Side-stepping Eighties-revival ham, a-ha invested a dignity into an era which is so often disinterred with crass ugliness. Geographic separation can be a wonderful thing.
- a-ha continue their UK tour from 15 to 27 November. They are also touring elsewhere in Europe
- Find a-ha on Amazon
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