A-ha star says keeping apart is what keeps the band together
He was a bright, handsome boy who was also the one thing bullies hate most – different. Consequently, Morten Harket was punched, kicked, shoved, and insulted at school on an almost daily basis for three long years. “I was constantly beaten up, it happened a lot from when I was 12 or 13,” the singer with Norwegian pop sensations A-ha tells me.
“Partly because I would say things that seemed strange…”
He pauses and adds, “If there is a ‘why’…I don’t think it takes very much to trigger it, a sense of difference, of vulnerability.
“The people that do the bullying are also very insecure. They love the excitement, making other people laugh at their cruelty, but hurting someone is easy.”
Harket, who grew up in Asker, lived a few miles from his secondary school. “Luckily I had time to calm down before I got home, but sometimes I’d arrive back in a mess, with tears still running down my cheeks…”
The son of a hospital physician father and an economics teacher mother, he was a curious child, interested in nature and the “mechanism between things”.
Now a serious, thoughtful man, Harket is philosophical about his ordeal. “It prepared me for what was to come,” he says. “Bullying is a good preparation for stardom.
“There is a paper-thin wall between being hailed and being crucified.”
A-ha were the iconic faces of eighties pop with their pin-up looks, chiselled cheekbones, and steady supply of smash hits.
Global stardom happened quickly. Harket, who bore the brunt, likens the experience to “standing in a cascade that never ends…an eternal crescendo of noise” which continued well into the 90s.
“When fame hits you, you’re no longer part of the human community,” he says. “You become something else, an outcast; you’re not a subject anymore, purely an object. You lose the tube, buses, taxis, trains. There’s no privacy if you’re famous.”
Blue-eyed Morten looks a good twenty years younger than his 63 years. Even now, news that he’s calling my home sends a frisson of excitement through the female residents…
He’s busy promoting a new vinyl box-set of the trio’s first album, Hunting High & Low.
Ratcliff asked if he could play their demo tapes to his business partner Terry Slater, then touring bass-player with the Everly Brothers.
“Terry loved us and put us back in the studio with funding. He had to go to the US for an Everly Brothers reunion but said keep writing. We worked day and night, using the studio whenever there was free time.”
When Slater returned, they’d amassed nearly forty numbers, many of them melancholic gems written in minor keys.
Take On Me was the stand-out. Mags had written its main riff in his teens; Paul built the song around it.
“The first time I heard the riff, I knew it was a hit,” says Morten. Getting signed to Warner Brothers was almost a formality.
The single’s ground-breaking animated video – which saw a pencil-drawn Harket reach out of a comic book to pull in and serenade the girl reading it – helped propel the song to the top of the charts around the world.
Their multi-platinum second album, Scoundrel Days, produced more hits – Cry Wolf, Manhattan Skyline, I’ve Been Losing You.
They then wrote the theme tune to 1987 Bond film, The Living Daylights, falling out with composer John Barry over their refusal to compromise. The film music legend later likened them to the Hitler Youth in a Belgian newspaper interview.
Their biggest live audience was 198,000 at Rio’s Praca da Apoteose stadium in 1991. Success didn’t surprise Harket. “I always had the conviction, the strangest feeling; I never doubted it.”
Sensible middle-class boys, at the height of their fame A-ha shunned booze, drugs and groupies. Now based in Oslo, Harket doesn’t smoke and drinks only the occasional whisky.,
He has three grown-up children with ex-wife Camilla Malmquist, a daughter with former girlfriend Anne Undlien and another with Inez Andersson – his other half for 17 years.
As teenagers, none of A-ha were into pop. All cite English rockers Uriah Heep and the late Jimi Hendrix as their idols. Morten even “dreamt consciously” of taking over as Heep’s vocalist after they sacked David Byron. “I knew I could do it.”
Mags and Paul, childhood friends from Oslo, formed rock band Bridges in their teens. Both played guitar but persuasive Paul talked Mags into moving to keyboards. They recruited Harket, awed by his strong falsetto and majestic three-octave singing range.
“I wouldn’t have listened to A-ha,” says Morten. “I wouldn’t have gone there because of the image we were given in the early days, in teeny mags.”
The trio broke up in 1994, reuniting for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, which sparked a comeback and a new record two years later. They split again In 2009, four months after their ninth studio album, Foot Of The Mountain.
Internal band issues include Morten having earnt less from their 100 million-plus sales than the others, who wrote the hits, Mags and Paul squabbling over who should take the most credit for Take On Me, and both dealing with Harket’s perfectionism.
Mags thinks they’d all be a lot happier with each other if they’d split the song-writing credits three ways, arguing that their songs “wouldn’t have been so successful without Morten’s voice”.
As the unflinching 2021 film, A-ha: The Movie, showed they still suffer with creative tensions. Before concerts, they have separate dressing rooms. They don’t fight, says Morten, “It’s that brooding Scandinavian variety of uncommunicated things.”
Even promoting last year’s terrific Top Ten album, True North, they insisted on being interviewed separately.
Keeping apart is their way of staying together.
In response to the film, they made their own – 2022’s True North, built around a live show with a small orchestra, “to make the music central” and filmed north of the Arctic Circle where Mags owns a 2,000 acre “regenerative farm”.
Morten, the more downbeat of the three, admits he’s critical – “that’s my nature” – but says he’s compassionate, adding “It takes a lot of my energy to deal with other people.”
Life, he feels, “is much better now, people know how I am, and we deal with that the best we can.”
A Kierkegaard fan, Morten is haunted by big questions. “I’m interested in our situation in the universe,” he tells me. “And how something came from nothing.
How is that possible?” He is also fascinated by biodiversity. He sums up his 2018 run as The Viking on ITV’s The Masked Singer as “s***e”
Morten still gets recognised but tries to make sure fans feel “they haven’t made an arse of themselves”.
A-ha have little planned. “We’ve done a lot of work later, so we have nothing for the immediate future. I’ve got a number of songs I’d like to work on. That’s what I’m doing.”
But there will be more to come. “I know the potential of what could be,” says Morton with conviction. “There is so much greatness that has not been met.”
- The 6xLP vinyl boxset of Hunting High & Low is out now on BMG, including demos and extended mixes
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