Wednesday, 7 December 2011

We're talking away. I don't know what I'm to say. I'll say it anyway. Today's another day to find you.

Quick Hit

“Take on Me” by A-ha (1985)

O.K. so I draw my inspiration this week from a chat a work where the question was raised: “What was that really cool video that transitions between cartoon and real life in the early ‘80’s?”  The answer of course is A-ha’s period piece called “Take on Me”. The reason I call it a ‘period piece’ is because it sounds so typically ‘80’s. The weird thing with this one is that when I went to look it up, I discovered I don’t have a digital copy of it; I only have it on good ‘ol fashioned vinyl. Go figure? I remember I got it one Saturday down at Hot Wax records in Kensington. Huh. Just as well; sounds great still.

 A-ha is I think the most successful band to come out of Norway. It formed in Oslo in 1982, with vocalist Morten Harkel, Magne Furuhulem (keyboard) and guitarist Pal Waaktaar. My experience with Norwegians is very limited, and based mostly on my maternal grandmother – they live forever and they are tough, no-nonsense kind of people. I digress.......

The new wave movement was well under way by the mid-1980’s. The use of synthesizers was long established with the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, the Moody Blues, and other so-called ‘progressive rock’ bands in the seventies. So what was so different about this? Why was it so catchy?    

The band quickly realized that to be successful they would have to leave Norway. They ventured to London to the studio of one John Ratcliff, mostly selected because he had a “Space Invaders” video game in his studio. The inaugural album by A-ha , “Hunting High and Low” resulted in a Grammy award and having one of the best selling albums in 1986; singles “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” drove its success.

The needle of the turntable first drops on “Take on Me”. The syncopated drum beat starts up and relentlessly pulls us along with it.  The vocals, very much in the ‘80’s style of higher male voices; at times soaring yet effeminate ( in strong contrast to what ‘70’s arena bands sounded like – raw and tough), smooth with almost a purposeful absence of emotion: stand-offish, yet cool. The somewhat repetitive synthesiser is signature ‘80’s also – not so much background music, but brought right up in the mix to the front.  It is the fusion of all of these elements that A-ha blends to achieve what is as close as you are going to get to the perfect ‘period piece’. The 80’s was more about a fun statement of dress and style – slick shadows of the colourful 60’s that it borrowed from (without all the demonstrations and war) Repetitive beats in much of the music was conducive to dancing – not meant to be deep; meant to be fun! Nothing to prove like the harsh punk message; only a game, a playful lark.

A-ha became the first Norwegian band to ever have a number one hit in the U.S. with “Take On Me”. With MTV flying high, the video was produced with what is called “rotoscoping” with pencil sketch mixed with live action. The video’s theme could have been inspired by Terry Gilliam film “Brazil”, but also the popular 1980’s “Altered States” – a weird movie about sensory deprivation and experiments with psychedelic drugs like LSD – probably also in turn inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”. It is one of the most endearing and enduring videos of all time.

Rock and roll is a vicious game as Myles Goodwyn (of the Canadian band April Wine) once sang, and such was the case for A-ha. Their second album “Scoundrel Days” was not the resounding success of their first album. This time they only sold some 6 million copies. The synth-pop sound was at the end of its life-cycle and starting its death-spiral descent into dusty music chart oblivion.

With their third album “Stay on These Roads”, A-ha went on a 72-stop world tour but still sold about 4 million copies. By the end of the eighties and into the nineties they still enjoyed success in countries like Brazil but was fading fast, A-ha put out “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and finally floundering with “Memorial Beach” in 1993.

Chris Martin of Coldplay credits A-ha as having a major impact on him. A-ha were not creative geniuses but they perfected an art form. Their work is still remembered fondly and often - 80 million albums later. Stor gode!

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