A-ha: The bouffants have gone, but the fans are still screaming

When the Eighties Norwegian band appeared in London to promote a new album yesterday, they drew a bigger crowd than Madonna or Paul McCartney. Arifa Akbar and Jonathan Brown report
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The Independent Culture

The legend is this. One day in the 1980s an exquisitely handsome young Norwegian rock star was about to go on stage. His acid-washed jeans snagged accidently on the side of a Marshall amplifier stack, leaving a long rip. But in true rock and roll fashion, the show went on and the audience loved it. At the next performance, the rest of the band slashed their trousers as well, this time deliberately. It looked great with their mullets. And for a brief period in the middle of that benighted decade of mainstream fashion and pop, ripped jeans augmented with the band's trademark leather wristbands, was the trendiest look in town.

It was the kind of story that was doing the rounds yesterday at London's HMV where Morten Harket and his band A-ha sparked a "fan frenzy". It may be 20 years since their album Hunting High and Low, with its hits "Take on Me" and "The Sun Always Shines on TV", enjoyed permanent resident status on the turntable of the nation's youth's, but the memory, it seems, has not dimmed. This week A-ha celebrate their first top 10 UK hit for 16 years and yesterday at HMV, they were performing from, and signing copies of, their new album, Analogue.

To mark the occasion, some 1,500 devotees of the Norwegian trio had to be turned away after queuing overnight to see their idols at the Oxford Street megastore. In front of them were the lucky 500 - mainly women in their mid-30s, teenagers at the time of the A-ha phenomenon - with the strength of devotion to camp overnight outside the store. They had come from all over the world, eclipsing the number that turned out to watch Madonna or Paul McCartney when they played here.

Stephanie Koh, 33, a civil servant from Singapore, had booked her ticket to London when she found out about the gig via an internet rumour on the band's fanclub forum . "I started liking them when I was 12 or 13 years old but they have evolved so much, just as I have. It's so tragic they get pigeon holed as an Eighties band in this country. Seeing as English is their second language they write really excellent lyrics which are really meaningful to me. Their songs are full of melancholy. Look at the crowd, they speak to so many of us,'' she said.

Although no teenage girl's bedroom in 1985 was complete without the smouldering, chisel-jawed Norwegians glaring down, A-ha were also able to boast a handful of die-hard male fans. James Whittaker, 29, a sales director from Leeds, was one of them. He first heard the band being played by his older sister and had taken the day off work yesterday to see the band perform.

Apparently impervious to the teasing he had endured from his mates during his years of following A-ha, he said the cold night was well worth it to watch them play the six live numbers. "I get a lot of leg pulling from my football team but I don't care. I tell them that you can like Coldplay and the Arctic Monkeys and A-ha too,'" he said. "They've carried me through school, they've carried me through the ups and downs of life and they've lifted my spirits. All I can remember from A-ha's music is happiness and smiles."

Jennifer Blackbourn, a 27-year-old hairdresser from Lincolnshire, insisted it was wrong to consider Morten Harket, now a 46-year-old divorced father of four, the leader of a boy band. "We're supporters, not stalkers,'" she said. "I love the music and sitting in the cold in a sleeping bag, getting chilblains and not getting any sleep has been well worth it."

It has been a long road for the boys from Kongsberg. At the height of their fame they enjoyed number one hits in the United States and Britain. In 1987 they provided the title song for the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights - Harket apparently declined a part because he thought the producers were hiring him for his fame as a pop star, not his skill as an actor. As their popularity grew, they could command vast audiences, particularly in South America where they easily outsold acts like Queen, Prince and Guns'n'Roses. The high-water mark came at the Rio Rock festival in 1991 where they performed before 194,000 paying customers at Marcana Stadium in Brazil.

The year after they split in 1993, they put aside personal differences to compose a song for the Lillehammer Paralympics, but for the rest of the decade, A-ha followed solo careers. Paul Waaktaar-Savoy released five solo albums with his wife; Magne Furuholmen developed a reputation as a sculptor. Harket, now a self-styled poet-philosopher, championed the rights of the East Timorese and immersed himself in his twin passions of orchids and tropical fish.

A-ha reformed for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Their work began to be praised by "serious" musicians like Leonard Cohen, Coldplay and Robbie Williams. A tour and a live album followed and a singles compilation took them back into the UK album top 20. It seemed appropriate that they were invited last year to perform at the Berlin Live8 - after missing the main event in Wembley while at the height of their fame 20 years ago.

Gennaro Castaldo, of HMV, said the store had been taken aback by the overwhelming interest in the band and had received thousands of phone calls and emails requesting the wristband that enabled fans to see the band in the intimate space by the 20ft-square stage. "There have only been two or three other personal appearances which were as huge as this and we have had to turn away many of the fans."

According to Mr Castaldo, the vast number of fans who turned out yesterday was nearly as large as in 1986, when 3,000 fans turned out for A-ha's last appearance at HMV. Timing is everything, he said. "You tend to get cycles of bands being big and then a time when they come back in again.''

For those locked out, like Ellen Saunders, 29, a barrister from south-west London, whose job had prevented her from being there in the morning, there was the consolation of a signed copy of the new album.

For Paul Haddow, 18, from Farnborough, seeing Morten Harket and his band was a way of bridging the generation gap. "It made me laugh the way he looked [in the Eighties] because he was supposed to be a heartthrob and my step-mum has always fancied him.

"It was really funny but it got me interested to see what they looked like now. They had a big reputation back in the old days. I wonder if Morten will still be able to get that high note on 'Take On Me'?"

Others were less impressed. Rob Woiwod, 29, a film editor from Hackney, looked at the gathering crowd with bewilderment: "There are some things that should be left in the Eighties. Maybe A-ha should have been left there." Yesterday he was a lone dissenting voice.

Other Norwegian contributions to world culture

* HENRIK IBSEN 1828-1906

Ibsen is believed to be the most frequently performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare. His plays, which include A Doll's House, Ghosts and Hedda Gabler, were considered scandalous to many of his era.

* EDVARD GRIEG 1843-1907

The composer and pianist is best-known for his incidental music to Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, but other works, such as the Piano Concerto in A minor, and the Lyric Suite, are still popular. At the age of 15, Grieg began studying at the Leipzig Conservatory and became music director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra from 1880-1882. The Edvard Grieg Museum in Troldhaugen celebrates his life.

* EDVARD MUNCH 1863-1944

The artist who painted The Scream had a major influence on the development of German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His parents, brother and sister died when he was young, which may explain his preoccupation with misery. One of four paintings of The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2004.

* BJØRGE LILLELIEN 1927-1987

The sports journalist and commentator won international fame after Norway's 2-1 victory against England in a World Cup qualifier in Oslo in 1981. At the end of the match, he proclaimed: "We are best in the world! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!"

* LIV ULLMANN 1938-

The actress, author and film director played the lead roles in nine films directed by Ingmar Bergman, with whom she has a daughter. Born in Tokyo, she grew up in Trondheim in Norway. She was nominated twice for Academy Awards, for The Emigrants and Face to Face, and published two books of her memoirs, Changing and Choices. Ullmann, who is multilingual, lives in New York and is a Unicef goodwill ambassador.

* ANNI-FRID SYNNI-LYNGSTAD, 1945-

Anni-Frid, better known as Frida, is the only Norwegian member of the Swedish band Abba. Born in Ballangen during the German occupation, her father was the German sergeant Alfred Haase. At the end of the war, her family fled to Sweden, and Anni-Frid got her first job as a jazz singer at 13. After winning a television talent contest, she recorded a couple of albums for EMI, and became part of Abba, dominating worldwide charts through the Seventies. She is now 60 and lives in Switzerland.

Geneviève Roberts

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