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
Tony Mansfield’s production was a key for this first LP. Scoundrel Days was definitely superior. I bought the LP of the first one and bought the CD of the second one. In retrospect it was a good choice.
Mel Creighton – I was a Tony Mansfield fan but his production of the album was remixed by the band and their manager and the two biggest singles were Alan Tarney productions dropped in, so in that respect it wasn’t worth mentioning. But I’m glad you mentioned Tony in the comments! I remember a review in the music press chastising the band for sounding like Peter Gabriel on their second album, citing Gabriel age at the time was 40 …what was their excuse?
I didn’t really buy any A-ha until the early 90’s when the AV Club in the Onion gave a glowing review to East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which to this day is my favorite album by them.
Stay On These Roads is largely disposable & I can understand why you would have stopped buying them if you bought those first three in order as they came out.
Following EotSWotM was Memorial Beach which has some fine tracks and quite honestly is a higher quality album from…1993?….then most mid-80s alumni were making at that point.
From there on it’s such a grab bag for me. Some of the albums only have a track or two that click for me and others I am just amazed never received any traction here. Perhaps their label couldn’t figure out what to do with them when the new kids on the 80s block stopped being kids. There’s some dead good music in their catalog and you’re not doing yourself favors by writing them off due to their scoundrel days.
There’s also a documentary about them that came out…last year I think? This year? Not the percolating peppy Sparks sort of thing at all, I’m kind of amazed that this thing was made and released, they don’t seem to like each other very much at all. I don’t follow them that closely and the press here for them isn’t what it is is in Europe but it seems they pack more interband tension than Tears For Fears.
Tim – The first three tracks were clearly the best on “Stay On These Roads,” I can remember them in detail decades later. The rest? Pffffft. Also, by the time of album three I was tiring of Morten’s superb vocals. Give me in interesting singer over a technically excellent one any day. My by reckoning, only Billy MacKenzie could wear both hats.
a-ha is easily one of the most consistent bands who came out of the 1980s. Though their sound evolved, their songwriting has remained strong. If you like them enough to read the recent (2020, by Barry Page) book about them, “Down to the Tracks”, you’ll gain a new appreciation for their career. The book goes through their pre-history, visiting every track of every album, except for this year’s “True North.” Too many times bands get written off because they didn’t make the same album again: a-ha, their second album “Scoundrel Days”, a similar “error” to ABC’s “Beauty Stab.” ABC obviously bounced back in a bigger way than a-ha. I was fortunate enough to see a-ha this year on their brief U.S. tour, and they didn’t disappoint in the least. They played “Hunting….” in it’s entirety (not in order) as well as everything else you’d want to hear. No, they didn’t write “Take on Me” again, but they did write a ton of fantastic songs, but if you reply on radio play, you’d never know.
secretrivals – I saw a lot more continuity between “Scoundrel Days” and “Hunting High + Low” than maybe you did. Album two was a big refinement, but I felt they had outliers for the direction they would end up taking on the first album. From the sound of things, the A+R person who signed them seemed to be most convinced by Morten’s looks and voice, but it was Pal who wrote most of the material and Mags who played most of the music. I wonder if that was the seed of the horrible politics that keep this band miserable and prone to frequent breakups. OMD have opened up for a-ha on European tours and Andy McCluskey has remarked about how he’s never seen another band with such frosty relations with each other. He could not understand how and why they remained together.
It took a third purchase of Scoundrel Days for me to finally “get it.” I loved Hunting so much, but just couldn’t connect with Scoundrel. Luckily, I finally did. The book touched on the static between them, but not in great depth. Credit them for being able to maintain a high level over such a long time, despite their differences. Perhaps they each know their sum is greater….
I kind of like the band’s later stuff more, to be honest. I enjoy those early albums, sure, but I think as they grew their sound matured (naturally) and it just… worked. The slower version of “that hit single” from several years ago is not only representative of their sound, but it’s a MUCH BETTER version of the song. I encourage you to give Foot Of The Mountain a listen.
+1 on Foot of the Mountain.
For me “The Sun Always Shines On TV” remains one of the very few justifiable No.1 songs in the UK of the 80s. I have barely any interest in a-ha’s music otherwise but that song has an outstandingly brilliant arrangement.
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Duncan Watson – It’s pure Ultravox to these ears. Or rather, maybe what Ultravox should have been writing in 1985-6.
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hi mr monk,
a-ha is one of those bands, that i have been with since the start. i have had
the first album on playlists every so often and never tire of their debut.
i came in, when their 3rd attempt at ‘take on me’ finally made a huge
its interesting to see how much interest there has been in the band, and how
much activity has been going on with them lately. i have the bluray of the
documentary, and a year or so ago, there was a good book called ‘down the
tracks’ by barry page, that came with a rare 7 inch.
i think their first 5 or so albums are good, but hit and miss after that. most
of their singles are pretty decent. and i have gotten around to getting all
the early versions of ‘take on me’, and a lot of the foreign pressings and
singles you mentioned.
i’m surprised at how poor the remix for ‘take on me’ was compared to
the excellent ones for ‘sun always shines on tv’, and especially
‘train of thought’ (the dub was only only the japanese compilations).
fortunately the multitracks are out there, and there are many more
longer, and professional sounding mixes to be found.
i’m wary of all the quitting, and reuniting though. thats why i don’t
really pay attention anymore when members are around, and they
decide to resurrect the band.
hunting high and low, will always be a classic, i remember there
being a laserdisc for it, and i have several issues, vinyl, cd,
deluxe and superdeluxe boxsets of it too.
there’s a lot more to say about a-ha, but i’m glad you noted them.
negative1ne – The Laserdisc was a thing that Pioneer Artists tried out with a few titles where it was a 12″ LD with 3-4 music videos and then the full album on digital stereo… sort of like a 12″ CD with multimedia content. “Hunting High + Low” was the only one of the four [one was “Dream Academy” and another might have been a Dire Straits title] . The only a-ha LDs I ended up getting was the “Headlines + Deadlines” and “Live In South America” JPN LDs in the early 90s when I was aggressively collecting music LD titles from Japan.
So – I really thought a-ha was a one hit wonder due to their innovative music video at the time and their good looks. I only know the one song and didn’t think much of them after. Did not know they had parlayed into some sort of career.
Wow-sorry for horrible typos. I did check before posting…hmmm.
Deserat – What typos? Not that I can throw any stone around here!