The Norwegian band a-ha first toured Australia in 1986, appearing to adoring teenage fans on Countdown. As with international acts such as ABBA and Madonna heralded by the show’s host, Molly Meldrum, Australian music-lovers were quick on the uptake with the new, and a-ha performed some of their first concerts in Australia.
Their debut album Hunting High and Low, released in 1985, was a smash hit globally and its first song, Take on Me, one of the defining and most loved songs of the 1980s. Notable for its cutting edge video at the time that mixed live action with animation, the clip has reached the rare status of scoring one billion views on YouTube.
So it’s with a heightened degree of anticipation that a-ha have returned to Australia to do their first gig in the country in over 30 years – despite releasing 10 albums and touring extensively overseas – with a 35th anniversary tour of their Hunting High and Low album.
At the Day on the Green concert at Rochford Winery, Yarra Valley, the audience forgets that the first track on the album, the one to open the show, is Take on Me and as the opening bars blast, there’s a scurry of screams, hormonal release and getting the phones out as the green lasered light – go! – reveals the band on stage.
Rather than the usual anticipation of a massive hit – will it be an encore? – it’s all too soon passed by after a frenzy of middle-aged bopping. There’s always a risk with playing an album in track order but for a-ha it’s riskier than most; most of their hit songs are over before the album is halfway through.
As the band hits the stage, tracking time since the 80s, the audience is curious to see how they’ve turned out. As with the Countdown clip, they are all in black leather jackets and jeans, though not so high-waisted. Morten Harket’s voice remains transcendent at times, bell-like with a crispness and clarity of expression that soars, while Mags Furuholmen on keyboards appears to be the orchestrator and time-keeper, conducting the band and the crowd with precision. Guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy seems to blend into the background.
The sun may always shine on TV but tonight it’s the bitter chill of a Scandinavian winter. The musicians are serious, not overplaying for the fun of an 80s revved-up crowd, and while the music is technically precise, the three on stage are as far removed as possible from each other on stage, hard to frame together in a photo. They rarely engage with each other, little islands adrift, and Morten in particular lacks the shy smile and the lingering looks from Countdown that got all those hearts pounding years ago. Now in a heavy hooded woollen jumper, brooding, at one point he runs off stage and returns with his glasses on; perhaps he simply can’t see them.
What lingers through the songs is a sense of melancholy. As Morten sings, “Here I stand and face the rain. I know that nothing’s gonna be the same again,” songs become, decades later, no longer poppy and upbeat. The highlights are where the songs slow down, Hunting High and Low with acoustic guitar and moody lighting, the only point where Morten reaches out to engage with the crowd and encourage a sing-along.
The support acts, in contrast, relish in the joy of performing their hits to a well-oiled crowd. Pseudo Echo have a richer sound than the airy synth thinness of the era – the only original band member is singer Brian Canham – and Funky Town manages to funk it up, segueing into Deep Purple’s Black Night with riffs on duelling red keytars.
In contrast, Rick Astley’s repertoire and range seems weak, despite his recent album 50 reaching number one on the UK charts. For the song everyone’s been waiting for, coasting on the rick-rolling meme, he introduces Never Want to Give You Up by playing a game of charades to the crowd, a lead-in of self-mocking parody. The highlight is a cover: he remembers recording a video clip of a band he’d never heard of. “I set fire to the video recorder I played it that many times.” He launches into INXS’s New Sensation, which explains why his backing singers Adetoun Anibi and Lauren Johnson, the best thing about the set, are wearing INXS Kick T-shirts.
During a-ha’s performance, Mags asks the crowd: “Hands up who remembers the 80s?” and politely thanks them for inviting the band back. His question is answered on the bus returning to Melbourne, a tipsy gang of women singing their way home, their raucous and off-key rendition of Take On Me rolling up the seats like a Mexican Wave before collapsing into laughter.
Kirsten Krauth is an author and arts journalist. Her latest novel, Almost a Mirror, shortlisted for the Penguin Literary prize and set around the 80s music scene of Countdown and the Crystal Ballroom, will be published in April 2020 by Transit Lounge