Oslo last week: In an old, white villa in Vinderen the sliding doors between the living room and the large garden are open wide. A robotic lawnmower works quietly in the heat of the late summer day. Inside, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy sits with his hat on. He doesn’t appear to be stressed in any way by the fact that only a few days remain until a-ha’s comeback-album, Cast of Steel, will be released, and just a few weeks until the reunited band’s world tour starts.
Waaktaar-Savoy browses through some worn old notebooks and diaries, full of unfinished lyrics, notes, plans, sketches and drawings. They´ve been missing for 26 years.
— It feels as if I wrote the contents yesterday. I recognize the entire «essence». It reminds me of everything that happened back then: We were trying to make a career. To make things happen. I was broke. I had just met Lauren (Waaktaar-Savoy, who became his wife in 1991). There were so many things going on simultaneously, he says.The missing items were returned to him and the other band-members, Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen, four years ago. Diaries, 15 tape reels with historical recordings, one forgotten lyric which has found its way to the new album, and numerous memories of what a-ha were in the years before the band became pop stars.
The story of how it transpired features one of the band’s biggest fans and a frustrated ex-manager.
The meeting in London
On Tuesday, June 30th 2011, a tall, slender, shaven-headed man rushes from one cash machine to the next in London. He withdraws the maximum amount from each, and by the time he´s finished his jacket is bulging with pound notes. The father of two has mortgaged his house in order to borrow the amount he needs, 247500 Norwegian crowns, almost 19.500 pounds. The money doesn’t bother him, he knows he´ll get it back when his mission is accomplished.
The man is Petter-Anton «P.A.» Stenersen, a high school teacher. In his spare time, he is one of a-ha’s biggest fans and the owner of what is probably the world’s largest collection of a-ha memorabilia. In cooperation with the Welsh music historian Christopher Hopkins, he has started working on a three-volume book, 3000 pages; the history of a-ha.
But as he and Hopkins stand in front of a solicitor’s office in one of London’s finer districts on this June morning, they are not acting on their own behalf.
Stenersen is all dressed up: freshly ironed shirt, blue blazer. Before he enters he thinks: «This is surreal». In his hand is an empty, rolling suitcase. It will be full on his return to Norway.
The bags that remained
In the years 1983 to 1985 a-ha had their base in Rendezvous Studios in London and the studio owner, John Ratcliff, became the band’s first manager. The band-members were so broke that they often slept on the floor in one of the rehearsal rooms. There was a carpeted floor, walls and a roof, but no windows. As they closed the door before going to sleep, there was a darkness they had never before experienced.
— Wow, it was like an «abyss», says Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, smiling.
— We were simply broke, most of the time. And we became more and more penniless. Luckily we were a threesome, so we could «boost» each other. And there were always things going on, little rays of light here and there. But I remember them saying for a year, or maybe a year and a half, that «from now on you're going to be so busy that you will miss these days». It never happened. They just repeated it again and again, but somehow it just didn’t take off.
- Did you share the money?
— Yes, there was a common cash box. But that only meant having the same breakfast cereal. I remember the first time I went to visit Lauren in America. I brought 30-40 dollars in one-dollar bills, in order to make it look like a lot of money. And in fact this was a lot of money for us in those days. She exclaimed: «What! Did they let you into the country with only that amount?» It helped a lot that we were unreflective types. We didn´t think about everything that might go wrong, says the songwriter and guitarist.
John Ratcliff, who owned the Rendezvous Studios when a-ha were camping there, remembers those years like this:— I was a successful musician, but gave up everything in order to make a-ha happen. Everyone else had rejected them. I found them, got them off of the street, and they were all my life until they made their big hit. All the fans know that Hunting High and Low was my baby. Thanks to me, Norway – who almost always received zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest – got a place on the world map of music. I contributed to increasing the nation’s gross national product, and expected to be invited by the government or the royal family to the ceremony, when a-ha were awarded their medals. Instead, the papers portrayed me as a terrible person, Ratcliff complains.
On their way to success, things had gone wrong in the relationship between Ratcliff and a-ha, and not least between himself and the man he had invited in to help manage the band, the mighty Terry Slater. Ratcliff says he probably should have understood what was coming when he «had to use lawyers against Slater to get his name included in the credits for Hunting High and Low ».
«Take on me» became a hit at the third attempt. Norway had its first, and so far only, No.1 on the American Billboard charts on October 9th, 1985. After this, things moved very rapidly for a-ha.
When they left the studio to travel the world promoting «Take on me»and their debut album Hunting High and Low , they left practically all their belongings behind. After a while, John Ratcliff took everything to his home.
The missing treasure
It´s Ratcliff that a-ha-fan P.A. Stenersen is about to meet in London on this June day in 2011. For several weeks they have been e-mailing each other about the swap they are going to make. Stenersen has already transferred a deposit. The banknotes in his pocket, in addition to an earlier bank transfer, fulfill his part of the deal: Almost a quarter of a million Norwegian crowns.
As Stenersen is shown what he is will receive in return, it feels like setting eyes on a hidden treasure: 15 tape reels with recordings from the Rendezvous-years, the most creative and productive time ever in a-ha’s career. An eight-track tape recorder. And for dessert: A mountain of old diaries and notebooks from a-ha’s early years. Books filled with handwritten song texts, sketches for possible songs, drawings and notes. Most of them belong to Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, who hardly ever formulated an idea in his mind without committing it to paper.
P.A. Stenersen and Christopher Hopkins put the books and papers into the empty suitcase, and carry the reels and the tape recorder between them. They drive 250 kilometers northwards, to Manchester, and stop at the studios of the Manchester School of Sound Recording. Andy Popplewell is waiting for them. He used to work for the BBC but is now an expert on transferring sound from old sources. Stenersen and Hopkins want to secure the recordings for all posterity, as fast as possible.The next day, P.A. Stenersen flies home carrying the rest of the catch in his hand baggage. The risk of sending it in a suitcase is too great. Well home he sorts the books into three piles of which Waaktaar-Savoy’s is by far the largest. A few days later he hands over the personal belongings to manager Harald Wiik – 26 years after they were abandoned in London.
« a-ha – the match that lit the world »
A number of guitars are dotted around Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s living room in Vinderen. Upstairs is his private Steinway & Sons, a grand piano worth millions. His wife Laura comes in to fetch breakfast, and says «Hi, how are you guys?». Waaktaar-Savoy smiles as he shows us a page from his 1981 diary – he beleieves he wrote it after finishing high school, when he worked a few months for the public tram company, Sporveien, in Oslo.
The notes contain a-ha’s «Plan of attack» for the world, where young Waaktar argues with himself whether it is smart to bring a trailer on tour, or if they should just use a roof rack.In a different note someone, probably Magne or Morten, wrote: «From Norway to Royal Albert Hall» and «a-ha – the match that lit the world». And in an almost prophetic lyric on the page dated December 7th 1981, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy writes:
«Oh I’d like to go to England/
And make a millions pounds
The old man thinks I’m crazy/
Put my life at stake for this/
Still in my teenies/
C’mon spot my genius»
The young a-ha members’ cocksuredness about their own success, unusual in Norway, has often been noted. Jan Omdahl, the author of the band’s official biography, The Swing of Things, writes: «In the early eighties, three young men in their twenties from Manglerud and Asker hang around, certain that it is just a matter of time before they become international pop stars. They don’t dream of it. They know it.»
— Our ambitions were always the same from the age of 16. We had what you might call «The Big Plan» ready. In the event that failed, we had an additional plan. The reserve plan was The States. A dash of panic was included, but I don´t think we ever wondered about whether we had a security net, says Waaktaar-Savoy.
The band was always thinking ahead and because of that none of them gave a moments thought to the things they left behind in the Rendezvous Studios, until many years later.— I think someone told me that certain items were beginning to appear on eBay, and when I look through what I´ve got, I can see that some pages here and there are missing , torn out, «eBay-ready» for auction, says the songwriter and guitarist.
- To put it correctly, should we say Ratcliff helped himself or that he sorted things out?
— Well. He tidied up a lot of things, and he was good at tidying. Some things are gone for ever, says Waaktaar-Savoy, who is happy that he got so much back.
Career – or the «first boat back home»?
John Ratcliff says in an interview with Aftenposten that he never posted a-ha’s things on the internet, and states that he is glad Waaktaar-Savoy is now reunited with his belongings. Ratcliff says he was the one who discovered the brilliance of a-ha. It still makes him sad that his cooperation with the band was broken in the mid 1980’s, and he hopes for a chance to work with the Norwegians again. He even reveals that he has prepared a few songs that may suit Morten Harket’s voice.
- What can you tell us about the process which led to the return of the items a-ha left behind in London?
— I don’t know how much I would like you to concentrate on that. But remember that I had spent enormous sums of money on lawyers in relation to the rights. They had a whole bunch of lawyers.
- The belongings had to be bought free from you?
— It seems you are familiar with the whole story, Ratcliffe asks. He counters the question by saying that it was he that saved the production of the debut album Hunting High and Low, and thereby a-ha’s career. He thinks he only received «a fraction» of the money he deserved for his effort.
— Half way through the process with the Hunting High and Low album, Warner (the American record company) informed us that they wanted to pull out of the agreement. They thought the recording didn’t sound like the one we had played for them in the beginning. I told them I could save the album. They gave me a few weeks but made it clear that the a-ha must be kept out of the process while I finished the job. That was difficult, because I had always been honest with the boys. Everything was at stake: would they make a career, or would they be on the first boat back to Norway? Some of the things I did are still unknown to the boys. They don’t know how close they were to the boat back home. - What did you do?
— We made new recordings after (the producer) Tony Mansfield left, but this was never mentioned on the record’s cover. I sang in the background on some of the tracks, and played keyboard on the «Hunting High and Low» track. I had 18 days to make the record acceptable to Warner, and I think it was a success, if you consider the sales figures!
The record sold more than 10 million copies, by far the best of all the band’s productions.
The Brit, who is still producing his own music, jokes that «perhaps in the future I might be fighting Harket in the charts». Finally he adds: - I would like you to write that I do not blame the band for whatever happened back then . They were newcomers i 1985, and did not understand how this business functioned.
Upon hearing Ratcliff´s version of events, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy say:
— I don’t agree with all that John says, but there is no point in dragging it up again now. He is right in saying that things looked dark for a while, as the record-budget was spent and we only had produced seven songs that we could present. We mixed five of them to their final version. He mixed the two others without telling us, for some reason.
At home in the a-ha-museum
As P.A. Stenersen invites Aftenposten into his home outside Moss, almost four years after the «London-operation», he is still excited when he talks about all he accomplished with Hopkins.
— I am not the important one here. But the job we did is important. a-ha is the biggest thing that ever happened in the history of Norwegian pop. We were afraid that the old recordings would disintegrate. We are not talking about vintage wine here. It was such a wonderful thing that we could go straight in and get everything fixed in such a quiet and orderly fashion, he says, and goes on:- a-ha and Ratcliff had been at loggerheads for a decade. They couldn’t sort things out on their own. The only ones profiting were the lawyers. That is why Hopkins and I made a deal with manager Harald Wiik, so that we could buy the material from John Ratcliff for a sensible fee.
Wiik confirms: - There is no doubt that the whole band was behind P.A. Stenersen throughout this process. His enthusiasm and ability to get things done was essential for arriving at a solution. It was invaluable to have someone neutral, whose only concern was preserving the material, to do this.
Stenersen shows Aftenposten his private «a-ha-museum». On the first floor shelves are arrayed, holding meter after meter of a-ha recordings. One version of Scoundrel Days is not enough, a collector must own at least one version from every single where the record was released. The museum’s collections run through the house, all the way up to the attic above the garage, which is filled with all kinds of oddities connected to a-ha, gathered from the surplus stocks of abandoned record shops .— Look here, an extremely rare single. It was produced in only 1000 copies. The surplus stock is here.
- What do you say when people claim you are mad?
— Well, I am!
The door bell rings. He opens, and the messenger outside says: «package for Stenersen». P.A. Stenersen knows what´s inside, but still looks like a child opening a birthday gift. It is a test-edition of the «super deluxe»-version of Hunting High and Low – four CDs and one DVD – three months before the release date.
Stenersen doesn’t say it aloud. But on these records are many of the songs he salvaged from London in 2011.
Rocking in Rio again
This week Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Magne Furuholmen og Morten Harket met at Union Scene in Drammen for a rehearsal. Nearly five years after their «farewell» in Oslo Spektrum in December 2010, a-ha are back again. Their first comeback-concert will be in Buenos Aires on September 24th. Then Rock in Rio, three days later. The same festival that the band played for an audience of 198.000 in 1991. At the time a world record for a paying audience, which was only beaten 12 years later.
— I look forward to it as much as I dread it. We will surely be on edge before we get on stage, but as a rule the audience in Rio is very friendly, says Waaktaar-Savoy.The schedule for Cast In Steel Tour currently consists of 35 concerts. More will be added, including several in Norway, in 2016. Venues and dates have yet to be decided. In connection with their 10th studio album over their 30 year career Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and their manager Harald Wiik, have signed a formal agreement which commits them to a two year cooperation.
When the music loses something
Waaktaar-Savoy is not anly happy about what he calls the «band policy» of a-ha.
– Two years ago Morten came to my studio in New York and sang on 10-12 songs that I wanted to record. That was actually the best part of this record for me. We did it all without anyone knowing, without deadlines and all that stuff. It was, in a way, like a return to the London years, and we had no obligations.
- Nobody saw you together, thinking somethings going on?
— No. Magne knew, but he was busy with other things, says Waaktaar-Savoy. One year later, the old machinery was up to speed. Recordings, discussions, meetings - but also strong egos.
— That´s when the parts I like the least kick in. There´s lots of policy-stuff with the band, and I notice things are happening to the music that I don’t like. It loses something to my ear. What was easy in the beginning gets…. He searches for the words before he continuing: - There’s just such a lot of background noise.
- What causes the noise?
— Ehh, when you have a song, there is something rough about it, it needs refining and lots of things can go wrong on the way out. And they do go wrong, as a rule.
— How often, in 9 out of 10 cases? - Yes. That’s the way it is.
- Is that when you miss the period the diaries cover, when there was less «band policy»?
— It is not just the politics, but everything and anything that might happen. There are many pieces that have to fit to make the puzzle whole, right? So, in order to protect my own sanity, I always think about the songs as they were composed, the very moment I heard them for the first time in my head. This is the way I think about our first record too. I don’t sit around listening to old things all the time, but when I hear a tune from whenever, and it suprises me, then I often think «oh, was that the way it turned out?»
- Because you remember the feeling from the time you wrote it?
— Yes, you hear a certain arrangement inside your head, and then it came out quite differently. But that’s the way it works.
- Was recording this album difficult?
— The first album after we started over again, Minor earth, major sky (2000), went pretty well in fact. Everything after that has been demanding.
- And this one?
— Quite demanding too. But now we are more used to it.
- What do you think about the result?
— No, well, it is very hard to think of this as a-ha, because it seems to me that there are three different things – which one calls a-ha. It often ends up like this, and many bands do it this way. But I do miss the feeling of us being in the same studio, working on the same song in real time.
- Didn’t you record anything together on this record?
— Errr, no. No.
— When you listen to the three first albums again, do you feel the same?- No, because then we had a strict recording budget, and we had to go in and hope it was sufficient. Now, everything is changed, and you can record a bit here and a bit there. You don’t have the same thing with just one medium that you have to work through.
- Three artists that contribute from three sides – do I understand you correctly, that you´re say something gets lost on the way?
— What you definitely lose, is how this record has become. I think I need a real break before I can listen to it again. This is not two months where you go in, do the job and then you are finished. You listen to so many versions and so many different things, and in the end you think: «Ok, what did we end up with, really?» Was it the version 10 rounds ago that was cool, or was it the one we came up with now?
- Are you bothered about what others think about the final result?
— Not really. No.
- Did you before?
— Not really, because normally, if a song gave you goosebumps, it was a hit, or at least a success. Well, that might not be exactly right , but whether it was a hit or not, you were satisfied with it because you got goosebumps.
- Did you get a lot of goosebumps this time?
— I did get them from the songs, I was happy with the songs I wrote, but if I get goosebumps from where we ended up? As I said, I have to take that…. ask me in ten years time.
From the notebook to the new record
One of the 12 songs on the new Cast of Steel album has a special story. It can be connected directly to the years with John Ratcliff in the Rendezvous studio and with «PA» Stenersen’s expedition to London i 2011. Because when Paul Waaktaar-Savoy got his old books back, he discovered a song he had forgotten. A lyric from 1984: «She’s humming a tune».— When I got the books were back, I saw the text and remembered «that one yes, that was cool». Then I thought it would be cool to record this one in particular now, says Paul Waaktaar-Savoy.
31 years after it was written, and four years after the rescue-operation in London, the song is track number 9 on a-ha’s comeback-album.
Translated by Aasmund Willersrud and Stephen Petrie