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…and now. “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.
* Boxed Set Of God