Back in 2012, Cherry Red had released the first two Blow Monkeys albums in DLX RMs, and the next one also followed suit a year later. Each of them in 2xCD packages with many unreleased tracks as well as remixes and B-sides. It was some time a few years later when flush with surplus cash, that I ordered all three editions. I made the mistake of ordering “Animal Magic” from an Amazon dealer, and this dealer advertised the 2cCD but sent me the 1986 RCA US single disc that I already had. And when I brought this to their attention, they gave me grief for it, insisting that it was the same UPC code! I eventually got a refund but having lost the momentum, I never bought that one edition of the reissue program.
Part of the reason was that I always saw new copies for sale at good prices for that album. Meanwhile, the other two editions I did manage to successfully buy are now pricey OOP discs. So I thought I could just buy a new copy at any time. Then I recently learned of Cherry Red’s predilection for “re-pressing” titles on CD-R. And I gave up any hope of getting the DLX “Animal Magic” in a used copy since the dealers listing it on Discogs never answered my queries as to its provenance.
That seems to be changing next January. It’s not been released on the Blow Monkeys official channels, so this is one of those retail leaks that you might take with a grain of salt, but right now a Dutch CD retailer is hosting a pre-order for a SDLX RM consisting of four CDs worth of material, with what looks to be all of the many, many mixes and B-sides all present and accounted for. Here’s the breakdowns below.
The Blow Monkeys: Animal Magic SDLX RM – UK – 4xCD 
Digging Your Scene
Aeroplane City Lovesong
I nearly Died Laughing
Don’t Be Scared Of Me
Burn The Rich
I backed A Winner (in You)
Heaven Is A Place I’m Moving To
Guess I Love Her Now (Demo)
Forbidden Fruit (Demo)
Animal Magic (Demo)
Wicked Ways (Demo)
I Nearly Died Laughing (Demo)
Sweet Murder (Demo)
Wicked Ways (Single Edit)
Digging Your Scene (Single Edit)
Walking The Bluebeat
Digging Your Scene (Scat Mix)
Aeroplane City Lovesong (Alternative Recording)
Man From Russia (Remix)
Digging Your Scene (Instrumental)
Wicked Ways (Instrumental)
Sweet Murder (Single Version)
Sweet Murder (Sweet Beat Version)
Forbidden Fruit (12″ Version)
Digging Your Scene (Digging Your Remix)
Digging Your Scene (12” Mastermind Remix)
Digging Your Scene (U.S. Mix)
Wicked Ways (Wick-Ed-It Version)
Digging Your Scene (Long Version)
Wicked Ways (Long Version)
Digging Your Scene (Phil Harding Remix)
Don’t Be Scared Of Me (Extended Version)
Superfly (Long Version)
Don’t Be Scared Of Me (Mix)
Sweet Murder (Extended Version)
Digging Your Scene (Longer Mix)
Sweet Murder (Murderess Dub Version)
Sweet Murder (feat. Eek-A-Mouse)
Digging Your Scene (Pete Wilson Mix)
Aeroplane City Lovesong (Pete Wilson Remix)
Impressive! Tracks in red are new to CD. That’s 15 tracks; many of which are US promo mixes, now accounted for. But there’s only one track on the 2012 edition missing here; the “Forbidden Fruit” B-side “Kill The Pig [Pig Mix].” But that one was also on the 2xCD of “Limping For A Generation,” so that was maybe included on “Animal Magic” in error? The Dutch Sounds website lists availability on January 27th, 2023, and the best part of all is the price: pre-order right now for € 18.99, so I’m guessing that this will be a clamshell box with four discs in card sleeves. I’m more than fine with jamming econo, though the top selling Blow Monkeys album is one I’d gladly pop for a $70 large box with the bells and whistles. That release date is six weeks away, so save your shekels. Official channels have not sounded the horn yet on this but it is definitely real as multiple sites have the pre-order. US dealers could hardly beat the $24.07 price at the normally unbeatable importcds.com webstore. Hit that button!
We all know that “Rage In Eden” was [magnificently] produced by Conny Plank, who capped a three album arc of producing Ultravox with the climactic “Rage In Eden.” But nothing is black and white anymore in the 21st century. And we can now re-experience the album as mixed by Steven “No Time To Sleep” Wilson; king of the post-modern remix. Even the iconic Peter Saville cover art has been remixed!
Yesterday I alluded to the one RSD Black Friday title I definitely needed to buy and anyone who knows me well would probably guess correctly that it was the “addendum disc” that will accompany the Ultravox ultrabox of “Rage In Eden.” When they made “Vienna” two years ago, Steven Wilson remixed the album into 5.1 for the box, but that meant that he took the intermediary step of a new stereo mix for that process. As an afterthought, the Wilson 2.0 mix was issued as a separate CD afterward, with the added bonus of an instrumental Wilson 2.0 mix on a second disc. This was for RSD in the spring of 2021.
At the time of the announcement of the “Rage In Eden” box, I assumed that we would also see a similar remix/instrumental disc and this has happened with 600 discs unleashed into the world last Friday. I seem to recall that I bought my “Vienna Addendum” disc online at Discogs, and I’ve already checked my local emporium. I’ll have to do the same this time. What have we got this time?
Ultravox: Rage In Eden [Steven Wilson Stereo Remix/Instrumental] – US – CD 
Disc 1 – Steven Wilson Stereo Remix
We Stand Alone 5:33
Rage In Eden 4:13
The Thin Wall 5:40
Stranger Within (Full Length Version) 9:56
Accent On Youth 4:44
The Ascent 2:27
Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again) 4:23
Disc 2 – Steven Wilson Instrumental Remix
We Stand Alone (Instrumental) 5:33
Rage In Eden (Instrumental) 4:13
The Thin Wall (Instrumental) 5:40
Stranger Within (Full Length Instrumental Version) 9:56
Accent On Youth (Instrumental) 4:44
The Ascent (Instrumental) 2:27
Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again) (Instrumental) 4:23
The front cover has been re-colored using the burgundy color scheme from the back cover, and sharp eyes will notice that two tracks, “The Voice” and “I Remember [Death In The Afternoon]” are missing owing to the master tapes that could not be found for a remix on this job. Eyes that were sharper still will notice that perhaps as a sop, we now have the unedited, almost ten minute mix of “The Stranger Within” to soothe our [undoubtedly European] angst. And…correct me if I’m wrong, but it sure looks like they could have fit all of the tracks on a single CD.
The 2xCD is how we roll but Black Friday also saw the mania for PVC being stoked with the inevitable 2xLP, clear vinyl, 180g pressing with obi [pictured at the top of this post] also hit the stores. Alas, my local emporium only has the LP version for a not bad $24.95. But my days of buying anything with the Ultravox name on it are long over.
They irony was that the “Rage In Eden” ultrabox is being released in America as of tomorrow; a week after the remix/instrumental version got released. The big box was delayed in America this time to allow for freight ships to bring the goods across the Atlantic, and to save an extra $20-30 off shipping charges, yes, I can wait two months! I preordered months ago, but my account was just charged yesterday, so the boxed set will probably ship tomorrow.
Right now I still need to order the 2xCD in question, and for now I’m all talk and no money as there isn’t any surplus for music purchases currently. But seeing as there were only 600 copies pressed, I’d better find some since right now it will only cost me $20 to have one shipped to my Record Cell. Wish me luck.
Last Friday was Record Store Day Black Friday, and while I actually bought a few 7″ singles and a CD – not at a record store, it must be said, I was aware that DEVO’s Gerald Casale had another EP out with the 12″ version being part of the RSD Black Friday wave. We’d remarked about Casale’s moves in the face of a seemingly moribund DEVO mothership earlier. And like the Jihad Jerry release, this new EP unites Casale with DEVO’s drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Steve Bartek of Oingo Boingo. So what’s on it?
Gerald Casale: The Invisible Man – US – CD 
The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man [De-Construction]
The Invisible Man [Instru-Mental]
I’m Gonna Pay You Back [Lounge]
I’m Gonna Pay You Back [E-Z Listening]
I’m Gonna Pay You Back [E-Z Listening Instru-Mental]
I will admit to being fascinated that linchpins of both DEVO and Oingo Boingo are now collaborating. But the real reason why I’m discussing this today was the email I had received earlier today trumpeting the fact that “The Invisible Man” has been remixed by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware!
Mr. Ware [no, the other one…] has been quite the vocal fan of DEVO and his podcast, Electroncially Yours, has featured Casale as an early guest and I guess having both acts represented by the same manager [Elliott Roberts] in the US back in the 80s was the impetus for their friendship. Ware has discussed touring the US with DEVO but I think that ship has sailed. So what’s that viddy like, anyway?
Yow. That was super freaky. But I don’t get out much. Your mileage may vary. The sound [and video] of Casale is cyber-drenched so it sits further left from DEVO on the Sliding Scale of Rock™. DEVO was always trying to be cyber-funk and it’s probably easier than ever, now. Did I hear Martyn Ware’s BVs in the remix? Possibly. There was a lot going on there and I’m short on time. The Cassette and CD EPs are available directly from Casale [$15.00/ea.] with an autograph option at a $49.00 premium. Hopefully not Autopenned™. But that would be thematically congruent if that was the case. The 12″ EP [$24.99] is sold out at Casale’s website but it could be sitting in your local record store in the RSD zone if you look. There’s one thing I actually wanted from RSD Black Friday, and we’ll discuss that tomorrow.
I was recently shopping in a mass market retail chain [Target] and when queuing to pay, my gaze stopped upon the souvenir Life Magazine special edition. There they were, as bold as life; the Fab Five original lineup of Double Duran™ [a nod of the cap to J.J. Jackson, R.I.P.] each heavily laden with metrosexual hair care products as depicted at the height of their pomp. I’d place the photo session at fall 1982 at the latest. Duranies would have a better grasp of such things, perhaps. I’m just a fan. But at that moment, I knew for certain that I had crossed over to the elderly demographic.
Normally the checkout of such a large retailer is where People Magazine, supermarket tabloids, and snack items you might need right now await the less discriminatory shoppers; neck deep in a rushing torrent of capitalism in the zone where nothing you ever came to the store to buy resides. Yep. It was Duran Duran on a Life Magazine special edition. We are getting old.
Who buys magazines anymore? The elderly. Magazines cost around $10 each now! Who can afford them? Anyone under the age of 55 obtains all of their information from the internet, or some form thereof. For those reading this in cultures thousands of miles from America, let me paint a picture. Life Magazine is a standard of American magazine publishing. It has been publishing intermittently for over 135 years. At the height of its of popularity, millions of Americans read Life Magazine every week.
As the Seventies dawned, the market for mass market weeklies began to break down and atomize into magazines with a narrower demographic focus. It stopped publication in 1972. It renewed publishing as a monthly starting in 1978 and continued publishing monthly issues until throwing in the towel in the year 2000. Since then they publish only special editions. But Life has still been publishing for over half of America’s lifespan. It’s that kind of publishing bedrock.
Throughout my lifespan, I’ve seen Life’s demographic become older and older. Though Reader’s Digest’s demographic was always older than Life Magazine’s! I actually wasn’t aware that the Life monthly stopped publication until I was researching this post! But I was certainly aware of the parade of special editions that I would see peripherally when shopping for groceries. Here’s a brief sample of some recent editions.
So that selection gives an idea of what sorts of topics seniors might like to read about when shopping for groceries. The BIG War [II] was a perennial topic I’d see on books and magazines growing up, but I suspect with every veteran now dust, that the days are numbered for the viability of that nostalgia. We can clearly see that The Beatles are at least as big as Jesus, but it’s your guess if they were ultimately bigger or not. Royals? Does any American under the age of 70 really care? Look at the “100 People Who Changed The World.” Fewer than half of those photos were in color! [Jesus was hand-tinted…]
So that now brings us to Duran Duran. Who are all at least 60 years of age, so I guess they have earned their place in line honestly. But it’s still jarring to see a phenomenon as ephemeral as a New Romantic band being marketed on this mass market level [especially in a country where there was no New Romantic movement] and assumed to hold the same commercial standard as Elvis and The Beatles. When 41 years ago, they were seen as the antidote to examples of mass culture Rock Hegemony like those two.
I tend to think of Duran Duran as a cult band who got lucky, but that sentiment dates from the era when The Rolling Stones were long in tooth at 20 years of fame…not the 60 they can count forty years later! In 1982 bands that reached 20 years of history were counted on the fingers of one hand. Now it’s as common as dirt underfoot and yes, Duran Duran have also notched over into the 40-years-and-over club, which includes such Monastic faves as Simple Minds, Shriekback, and OMD. Yes, even the mighty Shrieks, who have never troubled the fever dreams of John Hughes [though Michael Mann was another matter…] released the “Sexthinkone” 12″ 40 years ago this year.
It’s all a bit much. I’d like to have a lie down now, but I’ve got to earn my crust so I’ll leave you now with the sobering realization that not only are Duran Duran in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, but also the checkout line of your local grocery store. And their target audience is on statin drugs and blood thinners. The Cult With No Name is now that ubiquitous.
We were slow to acknowledge the many charms of Robert Palmer at first. In 1978, when he got his first US Top 40 hits on his ’78/’79 albums with “Every Kinda People” and “Bad Case Of Loving You” I thought of him as just a mainstream Rock singer. The songs were okay but my interests were elsewhere. All that changed when he released “Clues” in 1980 and, woah Nellie… Gary Numan was writing and performing with Palmer on the album. So I bought that album. Found it to be an excellent, if wildly eclectic, album and let the Palmer bus move on to the next stop. Little did I know that “Clues” was not an aberration, but instead was as accurate a snapshot of Palmer’s peripatetic muse as conceivably possible!
I next heard him three years later with the electro cover of “You Are In My System” which I admired during its several plays on MTV. But I still had not had the coin drop on Palmer. His next move was forming The Power Station and seeing as how he had hooked up with Chic and Duran Duran players to form a supergroup, this was the point where I realized that this guy just wasn’t slumming in New Wave. He quite literally liked every kind of music out there and didn’t want to be fenced in.
From ’85 onward I was buying his albums and eventually worked my ways backwards over time. I saw the man on his amazing “Heavy Nova” tour and it was a startling and eclectic show and my date was the site where they filmed the performance of “Early In The Morning” for the music vid. But that was small potatoes. The biggest jawdropper was an amazing cover of Motörhead’s “Eat The Rich” which I am still trying to obtain. It’s sitting on a pricey syndicated radio concert of that tour that I need to break down and buy as it’s not getting any cheaper!
The last time I saw Palmer perform was in 1997 on the second Power Station tour. The one with him that time, but not John Taylor! It was always something with The Power Station. By then Palmer was off of EMI and his final releases were on Eagle and Universal and hard to find, though I have them now. By the late 90s, I was all-in on Palmer, and in the 21st century, I’ve been buying all of his singles and compilations with weird variants. I have all of his albums except for “Some People Can Do What They Like,” “Double Fun,” and “Maybe It’s Live.” But now those will be in this upcoming Boxed Set Of God.
Robert Palmer: The Island Records Years – UK – 9xCD 
Disc 1: Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley + 4
Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley
How Much Fun
From A Whisper To A Scream
Through It All There’s You
Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley [single mix]
Blackmail [alternate take]
Get Outside [alternate take]
Disc 2: Pressure Drop + 2
Give Me An Inch
Work To Make It Work
Back In My Arms
Here With You Tonight
Which Of Us Is The Fool
Hope We Never Wake [demo]
Disc 3: Some People Can Do What They Like
One Last Look
Keep In Touch
Man Smart, Woman Smarter
Gotta Get A Grip On You (Part II)
What Can You Bring Me
Off The Bone
Some People Can Do What They Like
Disc 4: Double Fun
Every Kinda People
Best Of Both Worlds
Where Can It Go?
Love Can Run Faster
You Overwhelm Me
You Really Got Me
You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming
Disc 5: Secrets +1
Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)
Too Good To Be True
Can We Still Be Friends?
In Walks Love Again
Mean Old World
Woman You’re Wonderful
What’s It Take?
Remember To Remember
Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor) [12” Mix]
Disc 6: Clues + 3
Looking For Clues
Johnny And Mary
What Do You Care
I Dream Of Wires
Woke Up Laughing
Not A Second Time
Found You Now
Good Care Of You
Johnny And Mary [alternate take]
What Do You Care [alternate mix]
Disc 7: Maybe It’s Live
Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley [live]
What’s It Take? [live]
Best Of Both Worlds [live]
Every Kinda People [live]
Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor) [live]
Some Guys Have All The Luck
Maybe It’s You
What Do You Care [live]
Disc 8: Pride + 7
Want You More
Dance For Me
You Are In My System
It’s Not Difficult
Say You Will
You Can Have It (Take My Heart)
What You Waiting For
The Silver Gun
You Are In My System [12” remix]
Ain’t It Funky [Si Chatouillieux – extended version
Pride [12” mix]
Parade Of The Obliterators
You Can Have It [12” mix]
You Are In My System [instrumental mix]
Deadline [12” mix]
Disc 9: Riptide + 8
Addicted To Love
Get It Through Your Heart
I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On
Discipline Of Love
Discipline Of Love [12” mix]
Sweet Lies [12” mix]
Let’s Fall In Love
I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On [12” mix]
No Not Much [live on The Tube]
Trick Bag [live on The Tube]
That’s 25 bonus tracks added to the running. Of course, there are many tracks not accounted for here, giving this selection a faintly late 90s whiff from the era when we were happy to get crumbs and not everything. Sort of like those Eurythmics remasters. The bigger concern is the provenance of the mastering. Apparently, in 2013, Edsel also released Palmer 2xCD DLX RMs that were sourced from MP3s. Ouch! And damningly, the track listings for each disc were exactly what is to be in this boxed set.
However, the Demon Records website assures us that that these were newly mastered from the Universal files by Phil Kinraid at Air Mastering, but Phil was the engineer credited on the 2013 discs as well. Since the set will be released on February, 17th, 2023, we have a few months for the data to trickle out. I suggest adopting a wait-and-see posture. Given Edsel’s history of a somewhat tenuous grip on QC, it’s best to see what the word on the street is before committing. The set is in preorder for £89/$105 from the usual suspects, and for anyone who had maybe only a CD of “Riptide” laying around, this would be a heady dive into a large body of some fantastic music by one of the most fascinating singers of his era.
Leave it to Trevor Horn at the height of the “High ZTT” era that he could end up making a single with Grace Jones that could balloon into a complete album from the sessions of just one single! One imagines that the making of that single racked up enough studio hours and budgetary overkill that perhaps it was one of ZTT beleaguered accountants who mused aloud, “too bad this wasn’t the budget for a full album” which undoubtedly set Horn off with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
His brain trust; Paul Morley and Stephen Lipson, were obviously up for the challenge. Horn typically spent weeks the studio crafting the latest FGTH opii. Why not do the same with the iconic Miss Grace Jones? Horn’s old cohorts Bruce Woolley and Simon Darlow were roped in to co write with Horn and Lipson and the song was soon on paper, ready to record.
Which they did in several radically different versions. Over who knows how many weeks/months. While the single was released and at number 12, became tied with a later re-issue of the lubricious “Pull Up To The Bumper” to be Ms. Jones’ top charting UK single. Though a glance at the UK Top Ten for that week revealed ten lesser songs [including aha’s “Take On Me” from yesterday’s post] that should have prostrated themselves and stepped out of the way to make room at number one for Ms. Jones. Meanwhile Horn’s Theam managed to craft an entire album out of the sessions for a single A-side. Did they succeed?
The first of “8 bits,” let us know what we were in for in this very Zang Tuum Tumb production. It was immediate up front where the Paul Morley influence first manifested on this album on “Jones The Rhythm,” as actor Ian McShane was enlisted to read excerpts from Ian Penman’s essay “The Annihilation of Rhythm” in the plumiest tones imaginable. Had Richard Burton not been deceased by them, I’m all but certain that the call would have gone out to him! After the stage was suitably set, “Jones The Rhythm” revealed itself to be a drastically radical re-think of the song we all know and love. It opened like a Chinese Opera fed into a sampler before picking up its pace of a stomping, pixilated Rock groove full of the grunts and exhortations of backing vocalist Glenn Gregory. he sounded like his performance might have been made entirely from samples of his performance on “Crushed By the Wheels Of Industry!” The rest was mostly down to strings and beat with Ms. Jones in Valkyrie mode.
Cut into the space between the tracks, and sometimes within the tracks themselves, were sections of interviews with Grace by Paul Cooke and Paul Morley, giving the whole project a hint of a biographical air. Once “The Fashion Show” moved on from the interview snippet up front, it was down to the Go-Go rhythm track from the hit version of the song given a dub treatment, with Steven Lipson’s guitar gliding in on enough sustain for days. Luxurious, for certain.
“The Frog And The Princess” was the biggest piece of reportage here, as it featured McShane reading from Jean-Paul Goode’s autobiography, “Jungle Fever;” relating in brief his time spent as a partner with Grace Jones. Famously making her image over into the look that carried her from cult concern to icon as she made ever more daring fusions of Reggae and New Wave on disc. Since there was more content here than elsewhere, the music bed was content to keep a low profile as the moody rhythm was punctuated occasionally by crashes of white noise percussion.
The least musical thing here was the brief “Operattack,” which consisted manipulated vocal samples of Jones and McShane into a near psychotic stew of overdubs and shifting pitches. Then it was time for the second appearance of the song. Called “Slave To The Rhythm” her but crucially, it’s not the hit single version yet. It’s moving on from the first version we heard, with similar slamming beats, with the hints of Go-Go were beginning to creep in. But the chorus was a minor key variation that made this another harsher, variant on the classic song yet to come in the program.
“The Crossing” was an ambient construction of digital crickets and gentle percussion with the occasional vocal sample to add zest. The last mood piece was “Don’t Cry… It’s Only The Rhythm.” An unusual, binaurally mixed minimal dub of the rhythm track with the Lipson Service Guitar cruising in over the fingersnaps for a touch of Gilmour.
Confusingly, the finale track, “Ladies And Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones,” was actually the track that the hit single had been edited from. You or I would know this as “Slave To The Rhythm” but for the predilections of Paul Morley. Which has amusingly resulted in many compilations sourcing track number five [since that was the title on the box] to source the hit “Slave To The Rhythm,” only to have a song very unlike the familiar hit manifest instead.
In any case, the song was a sumptuous, digital layer cake, stacked impressively high on a nascently trendy a Go-Go beat foundation. Actually played by flesh + blood musicians from the band Wash Them Go-Go. The Synclavier was mostly used here as sonic glue to hold the cast of thousands together as the large cast of players were orchestrated under the “The Strictly Unreasonable Zang Tuum Tumb Big Beat Colossus” moniker.
Lush washes of synth were given a living, breathing drum and percussion track played by steely eyed, flat bodied professionals. A reasonably large string and brass orchestra under the aegis of Mr. Horn; doing what he did best. It’s the kind of music that probably isn’t being made as I type these words in this fallen modern world. Through it all, Ms. Jones lilts and coaxes us forward to the song’s climax, which managed to insert a middle eight drop where Ms. Jones took the last word in her own story. The rousing climax of “and now, ladies and gentlemen, herrrrrrrres Grace!” always manages to send a tingle through the spine as the two Pauls concluded their interviews with the star.
I was lucky that I managed to get a CD of this in 2006 through the period where I was leaning heavily on LaLa; the late, lamented CD trading site. At the time, the CD was OOP and out of my budget, but LaLa prevailed and I got a copy for the going rate of a dollar and something I wanted to trade out. I previously had the US LP [confusingly on the EMI/Manhattan imprint – this CD dated two years later was on Island; her old label] of this title but that was traded out in the Great Vinyl Purge of 1985. And I never managed to find a used CD of the title for a long time.
Being a full scale, ZTT production, of course it’s good. But it’s nowhere near the caliber of the three Island albums that preceded it. For years I thought of it as the last good album Grace Jone had made. I was not convinced at the time by “Inside Story” or “Bulletproof Heart.” But the appearance of “Hurricane” in 2008 gave us one more classic Grace Jones album to join the second Island trilogy. Leaving this very chic and sleek 80s confection being the outlier to nowhere in the Grace Jones discography. Which makes sense as it’s more about the last gasp of the ZTT house sound right before it peaked with the first Propaganda album. In two years, the label would become irrelevant to my ears, but on “Slave To The Rhythm” Trevor Horn’s ZTT engine was still firing on all cylinders.
Anyone old enough probably remembers first hearing Norway’s top band a-ha. It was on one of my “dead-of-night” MTV aircheck videotapes where I first saw the video that changed everything for the band. But it didn’t stay in graveyard rotation for long. In record time the rotoscoped Steve Baron directed music video for “Take On Me” quite rightly zoomed to the highest standard of rotation on the channel that was still all about music videos in 1985.
In America, at least, it was one of two Top 40 singles the band would have. In other territories, the band have become established superstars with 50 million albums sold worldwide and with concerts playing to six figure audiences in Rio De Janiero. Their calling card single was released three times in differing sessions/mixes/videos. WEA A+R agent Alan Wickham should be credited for the faith that made a two year campaign to turn “Take On Me” into the monster hit that was always lurking in the song. He could not believe that a guy who looked like a “film star could sing like Roy Orbison.” Ultimately the band re-recorded the track with Alan Tarney and the innovative video was greenlit and the song lit up like flash paper.
All of a sudden, the hottest band on the radio and TV was Norwegian! This was not your typical turn of affairs by any stretch of the imagination. While the video was flypaper for eyeballs, the song wasn’t bad. It was a synth-laden Europop tune enlivened by, yes, great singing from Morton Harket with a falsetto that could rise for miles. By 1985, the sell-by-date for Synthpop was already receding in the distance slightly but the band managed to get a last couple of licks in before Live Aid changed everything.
I bought the first a-ha album on CD in early 1986 and remember waiting the six months for manufacturing to catch up with demand. The band’s second album had no such wait, and I bought the CD the week of release. But not before I saw a-ha in Orlando at the Bob Carr PAC a month earlier on their world tour. The band performed most of the debut album and half of the nifty “Scoundrel Days” follow up release. I later bought “Stay On These Roads,” their third album in 1988 and that was it for my a-ha album collection. It has been at least 20 years since I have played any a-ha, and last weekend when shopping for groceries, I plucked “Hunting High + Low” to be my soundtrack. How does it hold up?
a-ha: Hunting High + Low – US – CD 
Take On Me
Train Of Thought
Hunting High And Low
The Blue Sky
Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale
The Sun Always Shines On T.V.
And You Tell Me
Love Is Reason
Dream Myself Alive
Here I Stand And Face The Rain
I’ll give this much to “Take On Me;” as played out as it is, its drum programming managed to take motorik Krautrock rhythms to the number one position on the UK Top 40. If the synth bass and digital synths paying those chirpy, lighter than air leads were less than the Ultravox target the band might have been aiming for, then the song truly delivered its Pop payload with the insouciant vocals of Harket that put his impressive range to good use. Due to the band’s Synthpop origins, I never made the leap myself, but Wickham may have nailed it with his Orbison comparisons.
The third a-ha video to make a big fuss on MTV was “Train of Thought” and I assumed that it had been given a US single release for the last 37 years, but apart from a promotional 12″ single, there appears to have been no US release for this worldwide hit! The urgent metro rhythms of the intro were suitably propulsive but the Fairlight pan pipes were a deadly synth cliché then. And this was the first of several songs on the album where Mr. Harket added ill-considered emphatic grunts that sounded odd coming from anyone except James Brown…and maybe Holly Johnson. This single didn’t have the shelf-life of others to be found here.
The title track was released as the third single in America, but I can’t recall the video troubling MTV all that much as compared to the first three on the channel. The breathy ballad started out with acoustic guitars and programmed rim hits before expanding its footprint in a grandiose manner with string patches and a sense of forced melodrama that saw Harket’s voice moving from choirboy to operatic in an overweening fashion. I can’t say I cared for either extreme on this tune.
Following the decreasing returns of the three singles top loaded on side one, the band delivered a deep cut that I completely forgot how much I loved then…andnow. “The Blue Sky” was a breathlessly urgent Synthpop ballad built effectively around a falsetto vocal hook of the title repeated as the chorus of the song. At 2:40 the brief number was an entrancing distillation of programmed synth bass and drums circling around in a tight framework to support that utterly compelling vocal hook. It always made me want to play it again immediately afterward and it still has that effect now.
After that high water mark came another. There was only a single musician credited on the album apart from the trio, but this one credit carried a lot of weight. Claire Jarvis played oboe on “Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale” and her presence suffused the stately balled with the perfect counterpoint to the dignified string patches and Harket’s poised vocals. The steady synth pulse driving this one made it a pleasure to hear from start to finish. It soon had me imagining oboe throughout the entire album, which surely would have had it competing with “Working With Fire + Steel” by China Crisis for my esteem. This was a lush one indeed.
What was side two of the album was where they wisely put the other huge hit the album had to offer in America, with the Top 20 placing of ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV.” The first minute of the song was a delicate tease as the rhythm-free intro evaporated among a crescendo of synth stabs that exploded into a pulsating monster of a song that actually did sound like something that Ultravox might have done, if they still had their mojo intact by that time.
The empathic grunts of Harket actually felt at home on this one. The sampled strings and cellos managed to further managed make the song something approaching muscularity in the a-ha oeuvre with it ctually breaking a sweat as the band broke free of their Nordic reserve for once on this often bloodless album.
The last three songs formed a strong arc in the middle of the album. After that peak of intensity “And You Tell Me” sounded like a skeletal demo with the mass of helium afterward. Having the Norway-only single “Love Is Reason” follow it with the tragic synth horn arrangement was another ill-considered gambit. Though to its credit, the track did seem to prefigure the French Synthpop classic “Voyage Voyage” by Desireless in its pacing and rhythm track. But one could say that about a lot of mid-80s Eurosynth tracks.
The closing pair of sings seeed to be outliers to the darker, richer material that would come on their next album, “Scoundrel Days.” “Dream Myself Alive” had a percolating Synthpop music bed that was pure 1984, but the vibe was further from the borderline Schlagerpop that was always lurking just below the surface of some of these songs. The dusky melodrama of “Here I Stand And Face The Rain” managed to move the needle fully in the direction of their sophomore album to end this album on a grace note of maturity.
Re-acquainting myself with this album had some of it sounding even better that I had remembered…or forgotten, as in the case of “The Blue Sky.” The middle section of the album played incredibly strong, even as it was let down by the contrast of the two, incredibly lightweight songs that had the poor fortune to follow a juggernaut like “The Sun Always Shines On TV.” In all candor, I played this to judge if it really needed to stay in the Record Cell and it has managed to pull a stay of execution.
The lightweight digital synths and Linn drums worked against my ears, and the near lack of natural instrumentation was definitely a downside to the sound here. So much so that the actual oboe really knocked me for a wallop when it figured in the mix. There are scant seasonings of guitar used here as the synths of the day carried almost all of the arrangements. I can’t shake the feeling that all of this would have sounded better if it had been recorded in 1982-1983 instead of 1984-1985. Owing to the gear used that figured in its origins.
Certain tracks here reeked of Euroschlager chaff best avoided, but one could make that claim against ABBA® as well. And like the tuneful Swedes, there are a few utter Pop classics to be had here to assuage our angst. The good thing was that according to decade old memories, the band followed up this reasonably strong first effort with the ultimately more satisfying “Scoundrel Days,” but the fact was that the band’s career was already in ebb in America and they would be saddled with the “one hit wonder” stamp. Which is a bit unfair when one considers all of the other Norwegian bands that topped the US top 40.
I see that this album was released in a 2xCD DLX RM in 2010 and a 30th anniversary BSOG* with 4xCDs + DVD in 2015! Either of these would definitely be too rich for my blood! I once owned the Japanese remix CD EPs “12 Inch Club,” “45 RPM Club,” and “Scoundrel Club,” but these were let go almost a decade ago. The once track that tempts me is the long 3:40 mix of “Blue Sky” on the 2015 ultrabox but if I have the notion, I can make a surgical iTunes purchase of that one. For now, a return bout with “Scoundrel Days” awaits.