by Sabine Clement
This is the story of how a “shining poet”, a “true artist” and, well, an “inevitable popstar” were appointed knights by their King.
No, it did not happen overnight, nor was there a godmother fairy involved. But there was the scraping by for money, there were the long and lonely nights of hard work, there was the scepticism of so many critical voices. “Becoming a popstar, you say? Yeah, sure!”
Also, as with all true storybook heroes, there was the stubborn belief in themselves, the dreams of a better future, the unexpected help from strangers who saw their potential.
And so, popstars they did become, and all turned out more or less as it was dreamt to be.
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Thirty years onward.
On September 6, 2012 HRM Harald V, King of Norway issues a declaration that a-ha band members Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy will be appointed knights first class in the Royal Order of St. Olav, and will thus receive the St. Olav Cross medal. The official ceremony is to take place on November 6, at the historical cultural meeting house ‘Gamle Logen’.
That November day, the Norwegian media are buzzing with excitement. Already before the ceremony has taken place, one can read lengthy columns in the papers on just how well deserved it is that a-ha receive this royal and national recognition. But also on the plane, on the street, in the shops: almost everybody is aware of the news and even feels a touch of pride or justness in it.
“We do not often realize just how big or how important a-ha is, on an international level. They are, first and foremost, still Norwegian, still one of us. But when we hear other people, foreigners, tourists say how they got to know and like our country through the band, we straighten our collars and just feel plain good and proud about it,” Thomas explains.
Also the sensation of “Hey, they went for it, so maybe we can too” permeates many a conversation that I have with a-ha’s fellow countrymen.
With all those responses, it strikes me that there is no scepticism now. Not one “critical” voice that pipes “What do you mean, ‘exceptional services to the country and to mankind’? It’s only pop music!” Instead, all the Norwegian voices that I hear are unanimous: a-ha truly deserve this reward, no question about it.
So maybe the fact that all the critical voices are muffled should be added as a reason in itself: a-ha unites the nation and the nation stands tall for a-ha.
Part of Norwegian History
“The whole of Norway’s music business is here,” former a-ha manager Erling Johannessen comments, as he overlooks the people waiting at the ante-room to Gamle Logen’s main hall. Sure, the place is filled with representatives from the music industry. They are here because of what a-ha has meant for their branch of business, and to honor the three people who lifted Norwegian contemporary musicians and artists up to the international stage.
But captains of industry are not the only guests present. A fair number of a-ha fans are here as well, all winners of the draw organized by a-ha.com. They, too, are buzzing with excitement and, whilst taking up a strategic position between the fingerfood buffet and the entrance to the Store Sal, eagerly discuss the events at hand.
“I think that this kind of recognition is totally deserved,” says Jeanet from Holland. “They brought joy to so many people.”
Everyone agrees, and then it does not take long before the fans fire off many more reasons why Morten, Paul and Magne are truly deserving recipients of the St. Olav Cross and have indeed performed “exceptional services to the country and to mankind”.
Alexandre from France, who was only relatively recently introduced to a-ha’s music through his wife, thinks that they should also be honored for “remaining true to themselves, despite all the fashion changes and temptations from the music business. They developed their own style and did things their own way.” In that light, they continue to serve as a role model for many people.
“Plus, they also supported people directly. They’ve been doing quite some charity work, they played for the Paralympics in Lillehammer in 1994, they supported several bands and artists,” Martina throws in.
“They have been ambassadors of Norway and Norwegian culture to the world, and they have been able to gather fans from all corners of the world to be ‘one big, happy family’,” Tiffany says.
Juliet and Lisa, from London and Manchester respectively, agree that Morten, Magne and Paul have certainly come to mean a lot for Norway as a nation as well. “I cannot think of any other Norwegians, and definitely not in the entertainment industry, who are so internationally known.” To be rewarded for “services to the country”, then, is only just.
“Of course it is just,” Martina says, “They are part of Norwegian history themselves!”
The mere fact that a few dozen a-ha fans are invited as guests to the ceremony appears almost unreal.
Most people had expected this to take place behind closed doors, with only near family and friends as an audience. To be here, then, on this special day, feels like a tremendous honor.
“I could not believe my eyes when I got the mail from a-ha.com that my name was drawn. I had to read it three times, then closed my eyes, and when I opened them anew, the mail was still there,” Fruzsina from Hungary tells us, still in a daze of disbelief.
“27 years ago, I heard ‘Take On Me’ on our kitchen radio in Holland. Who could ever have thought back then that I would now get to see a-ha being knighted?” Tiffany describes her amazement.
“Just the opportunity of seeing the three of them together again is fantastic,” Juliet smiles.
Also the prospect of seeing Paul “with their own eyes”, after a public absence of well over a year, seems to be a source of relief for many fans.
The importance of having fans
Shortly before 1pm, the doors to the Store Sal open and all the guests spill into the hall. Left and right, neat rows of plush red chairs lead to a small semi-circular stage. On the stage itself, four striped seats silently announce the yet invisible string quartet. A quiet sigh from somewhere around: so a-ha won’t perform.
The bandmembers’ parents and siblings take their seats on the front row. Ten minutes later, Morten and his partner Inez walk down the aisle, closely followed by Magne and his wife Heidi. Paul and his wife Lauren are a few steps behind; sons Filip Furuholmen and August Waaktaar-Savoy make up the rear. Everyone inside veers upright and starts clapping. As they walk by, Morten looks a little apprehensive, Magne sports an enigmatic grin, while Paul lifts his hand and greets the assembly. Then they all join their respective families.
The audience hushes, the door in the back wall opens. Three violinists and a cello player emerge, sit down and play a song which refers to a-ha’s repertoire. While they take their bow, the back door opens anew and Inger Dirdal, managing director of Music Export Norway, enters the stage.
She announces, “It is with great pleasure that I can welcome Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to this place. Also, a warm welcome to their families, minister Trond Giske, chief chancellor Anders Flågen, industry colleagues and, none the least, a-ha’s fans.”
And suddenly, unon hearing this, I realize that maybe it is not so strange to invite fans to this very special occasion. Perhaps it is not just an “extremely nice gesture”, but there is a real reason for it. Because those named here – family, dignitaries, people of the industry and fans – all represent a group of people who through all the years, and all in their own way, have been important to the band, and to whom the band has been important. In other words, the fans have been invited because they, too, play an important role in a-ha’s story.
As if to support this dawning insight, Mrs. Dirdal continues: “Back in 2009, Music Export Norway was forwarded a message from an a-ha fan named Morten Øvestad. He requested that a-ha would receive official recognition for their fantastic international contribution to music.”
According to these words, it was actually this suggestion by a fan that set the wheels in motion. It was a fan’s letter that had Music Export Norway look into the possibilities for officially rewarding the country’s biggest band to date, and which, eventually, led to their nomination for the Royal Order of St. Olav.
Homework and dreams
After Ms. Dirdal’s introduction, taking her place on the stage is Viggo Bondi, childhood friend of Paul and Magne’s and bass player in their former band Bridges.
Mr. Bondi’s speech (read full translation here) takes us all wandering down memory lane, as he recalls anecdotes and conversations from his dealings with Magne, Paul and Morten. He proves to be a captivating speaker, who has the audience laugh out many times, when he tells us of the bandmembers’ antics, that portray their characters so well.
He explains how he got to meet Magne and Paul for the first time, back in 1977. Their sixties garb and long hair shocked him, but “there were two things that drove me to those fellas: homework and dreams.”
“The only homework we did during high school was what we assigned ourselves – or more accurately, what Magne and Pål assigned one another. A new song for every practice. The result was a huge number of songs: ‘True for Love’, ‘The Endless Brigade’, and so on. The list was incredibly long. Songs about dreams, songs like musical building blocks for what would later become a-ha.”
“[Bridges’] most important concert took place at Asker Gymnasium in 1979. […] On the way to the concert, Terje Nøkleby, Magne’s stepfather, played a tape recording of the previous weekend’s jam session. It sounded dreadful.”
“We were in shock. Were we really that bad? We could not live with that. It became one of our best concerts ever. True enough, Paul had his back to the audience almost all through the performance.”
But, more importantly, among the audience in the hall was Morten Harket. And he was intrigued.
“He came to me at home and in a very clumsy way said that he had heard us play at Asker Gymnas and was interested in the band. He didn’t make much of an impression on me or any of the others in the band. You have to believe in yourself. I still remember I thought: ‘Who does he think he is?’”
Some time later, Bridges split up and Magne and Paul joined forces with Morten after all. Together, they created a spark that eventually took fire.
“What is one of the key factors in a-ha’s success and a-ha’s genius?” Mr. Bondi asks the audience.
“[It is] the sum of three strong personalities, of Morten, Magne and Paul. The rest is history. [Manager] Sverre Flatby has said it like this: “a-ha will never come to make their best record. But a-ha… I believe in fairy tales, and so I will say: a-ha have not yet made their best album.”
After those words, he switches to English to express his thanks to Terry Slater, as “the Godfather” of a-ha. Mr. Slater discovered the band when they were in London, recording demos, and became their first manager.
“It was a stroke of luck that you picked them up. A band is like a marriage: good days and bad days. You knew that success is the worst enemy to a band. It is no doubt that it was your skills and your experience that kept the band together throughout those first years.”
To Morten’s, Paul’s and Magne’s surprise, the stage door opens again and a joyful Terry Slater appears.
In his speech, he focuses on the enormous work that it takes to make music and to become successful with it.
“It’s very important to remember that it’s not easy to write songs that will endure for thirty years, like a-ha’s have. Everyone can write a song. “I love you baby”, that’s the first line, easy. Try writing the next one. And the next one. Try to write a chorus, try to create a song that people all around the world are going to remember and love.”
“I am very proud for their parents, for their families and their children. And I am very proud for the people of Norway. Because when the day comes when we are all gone, this beacon of music that these three lads have created, will live on, for future generations, and will be a beacon for Norway. Alt for Norge!” (*)
Breaking the barriers
After a second musical piece performed by the string quartet, Trond Giske, Norwegian Minister for Trade and Industry, takes the stage. He explains how a-ha’s ambitions and success have helped change the Norwegian mentality.
“There is a time before and a time after a-ha in the Norwegian music business, but also in the way that we, Norwegians, are looking at ourselves. […] They broke through the barriers of what was thought possible for Norwegians.”
“This level of professionalism can serve as a touchstone for many who come after them. It is an inspiration for everyone in the business here.”
“As the former Minister of Culture, I am aware that there are many awards in the Norwegian cultural scene. One can go to an award ceremonies almost every day. But this is not like any of those days. This is Norway’s highest distinction. This is a great mark of recognition for Norwegians. This has meaning for the entire art and cultural sector, but above all, it is a big, big honor.”
Chief Chancellor Anders Flågen is announced as the person who will award the medals.
Mr. Flågen explains the history of the Royal Order of St. Olav, and who can receive a nomination for it. In 1997, King Harald decided that from then on, acceptance to the Order would be a reward for exceptional services to the country and to humanity.
He concludes with: “As a representative of the Crown, it is a great honor to decorate Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy as Knights First Class in the Royal Order of St. Olav.”
Focus on the unknown
During a standing ovation, the three band members enter the stage.
As Mr. Flågen tries to pin the medal to Morten’s chest, the latter’s choice of attire seems to slightly complicate matters. It takes a while before the Chief Chancellor manages to pin the medal into Morten’s leather jacket. Paul and Magne follow, and all three also receive the accompanying charter.
Morten then comes forward and speaks on behalf of the band.
“When Paul, Magne and myself set course to England, we had great plans. But we could not imagine that thirty years onward, we would be here at [Gamle] Logen, to be appointed knights.”
“We had to leave Norway to become a-ha. Norway is a leader on natural resources, but not on refining them. That is the case for most fields, including our own. Talents have to be refined and managed. No one can succeed on their own. You need the right people around you. If you do not find them here, you have to leave.”
“And now we are coming to the point. We have great resources in Norway, none the least of the human kind. But, if we want to take part in discovering the future, we have to focus more on the unknown. If we don’t, [the furure] will just be presented to us.”
“In Norway, we have an immature view on failure. It brings a sense of shame. We do not like to take risks. Taking risks is deemed irresponsible. We need a more realistic approach to what it takes to succeed. If there is one reason to honor us here today, it has to be this one: we have remained true to what we believed in. Together, and on our own. Congratulations, guys!”
Surrounded by loud applause, they hug each other and then together bow to the audience. The press photographers are invited to the stage and some confusion errupts: where shall they take their pictures? In the end, all the photographers climb on the stage and then history repeats itself threefold…
Magne, Morten and Paul stand with their backs to the audience.
As the cameras click to capture them thus in front of the spectators, we have come full circle.
And then, just like Cinderellas, they are whisked away by their waiting carriages, off to new adventures.
As for their audience? Well, we are all left with a shiny and sparkling back catalogue, which miraculously fits and inspires so many people all over the world. A beacon, indeed.
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(*) “Alt for Norge!”: “All for Norway!”
Tags: Awards, Norway