Lifeline of the Sublime A-ha – Part 1

a-ha classic logoThree letters, three words, three numbers: A-ha, Take On Me, 007. This may well be the extent of most people’s awareness of the Norwegian pop-rock trio who first emerged back in 1985. Their global debut hit and US number 1, ‘Take On Me’, with its memorable synth hook, Morten Harket’s soaring vocals, and a then-cutting edge promo clip which ranks with Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ as a defining video of the MTV revolution, has rightly proved an enduring pop staple. Meanwhile, ‘The Living Daylights’, their Nordic noir title song for Timothy Dalton’s first outing as James Bond, regularly appears at the higher end of perennial ‘Best Bond Songs’ lists. Yet beyond these early career-defining peaks, A-ha have gone on to produce a body of work rich in melody and harmonic sophistication, with thoughtful, often wry lyrics which put many higher profile songwriting acts to shame. Their assured command of synth-pop and alternative, guitar-driven rock has earned them an unshowy longevity, cited by and influencing indie soft-rockers and contemporary EDM acts alike.

I must declare an interest here. Scoundrel Days, the band’s second album, was the first music I ever purchased, on cassette, aged 8 in 1986. I still remember listening to the menacing opening sequencer pattern of its powerfully impassioned title track – a tale of some lone soul making his dash for freedom from a totalitarian regime – on the large furry headphones of my cheap Walkman (for younger readers; this was a kind of prototype MP3 player, without the shuffle function). Then on to the shifting gears, the discord and remorse, of ‘The Swing of Things’ – still a fan favourite today – which displayed their outsider’s ear for the English vernacular.  A-ha had already gained my youthful attention, if not my pocket money, by way of the hit singles from their debut album, Hunting High and Low. It must have been the still-superb lead single from Scoundrel Days, ‘I’ve Been Losing You’, which swayed me – that imploring chorus and its water splash-like exclamation: “Come on, please now – ahhh! – talk to me, tell me…”

Everyone remembers, or knows ‘Take On Me’, and probably its operatic follow-up ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ – which unlike its predecessor made the number 1 spot in the UK while being their only other major US hit. But the following two singles were arguably the more remarkable. ‘Hunting High and Low’ is a beautiful ballad of wistful Nordic melancholy whose inventive and evocative key changes earmarked chief songwriter Pal Waaktaar-Savoy as a gifted writer in the Lennon-McCartney vein. And ‘Train of Thought’ is truly superb, a Kafkaesque tale of an alienated urban commuter experiencing some kind of surreal epiphany (“And his mind, once full of reason, now there’s more than meets the eye”).  Its extended US 12” version is a model of elongated sparse, thumping electro which rates with New Order’s classic club mixes of the time. As such songs suggested – and though I and other young fans were too young consciously to appreciate – A-ha were in reality inquisitive, existentially-inclined philosophers-cum-songwriters, masquerading – for now – as pop poster boys clad in distressed denim with their good looks and almost unfeasible cheekbones. Indeed the third album, 1988’s Stay on These Roads, continued with this sleight of hand. The title track was the big ballad hit, and ‘Touchy’ perhaps their most pure-pop (if tongue-in-cheek) moment, allowing for more expansive and ambitious album tracks such as ‘Hurry Home’ and ‘Out of Blue Comes Green’.

However, 1990 brought a concerted break with their pop aspect; East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon eschewed the sequenced arrangements and light pop hooks for a more acoustic, live band sound. A corresponding change in image from clean cut popsters to hirsute, bandana-sporting troubadours perhaps alienated some young fans, while bemusing observers – among whom I then classed myself, my attentions having temporarily turned elsewhere in the intervening few years. But in retrospect it marks their emergence as purveyors of mature, classic songcraft, often infused with a kind of intangible, melancholic gravitas surely born of a distinctly Scandinavian sensibility. The album’s hit single ‘Crying in the Rain’ announced this departure; a reworking of the Everly Brothers’ hit, it conveyed their newfound rootsiness while updating the song to a grand but not grandiose arena ballad, and again exhibiting Harket’s vocal gifts (he harmonises with himself, thus playing both Everlys).  Other stand out tracks include the mid-tempo, saxophone-led  ‘I Call Your Name’, a tale of post-marital ennui (“Those pronouncements held such weight, I guess they made us hesitate”), and the plaintive ‘Early Morning’, whose baroque harpsichord figures are a nod to The Doors, a formative influence. A-ha had by now peaked commercially in the UK, and both songs failed there as follow-up singles, but in Europe their appeal remained strong. Meanwhile in South America they confounded the entertainment world by drawing the then-largest live crowd on record for their appearance at the Rock in Rio festival in 1991, easily beating the attendance for other big draws such as Prince. The Kremlin-style airbrushing of this from coverage of the event suggested the media could not countenance the evolving appeal of a perceived teen pop act, and it reportedly led to much despondency in the A-ha camp.

This disconnect between public perception and artistic direction perhaps spoiled the chances of 1993’s Memorial Beach, whose relative commercial failure, along with souring inter-band relations, paved the way for A-ha’s first disbandment. Another rewarding musical departure which reflected the band’s enthusiasm for all things Americana, it revealed a grittier, more guitar-driven sound which took in elements of R&B and funk. Its darker tone, both musically and lyrically, compared well with a similar turn by Depeche Mode and drew comparisons with U2 in their contemporaneous Achtung Baby phase. The slow-building, incantatory ‘Dark Is the Night’ was a strong, affirming lead-off single (“Oh don’t you feel so small, dark is the night for all”) which did return them to the UK top 20 and to Top of the Pops – and indeed brought this now adolescent listener back into the fray. Memorial Beach again contains much superlative songwriting, including another, this time rockier, epic of alienation, ‘Cold As Stone’ (“The mirror sees you, so alone”), the almost unbearably unsettling, ominous ‘Locusts’, and the title track, a heartbreaking paean to a doomed relationship (“We never found a place to hide, some peace of mind, God knows we tried”). Were it the work of an act to whom critical wisdom was more attentive,  Memorial Beach would have surely been recognised as a very strong work. In the event, as if mirroring the air of disquiet in its songs, A-ha would somewhat acrimoniously wind down, for now, in 1994 – just as their art was chiming with the life experiences of those of us who, as youngsters, had started out with them.