A-ha. My first pop love. I bought their first album from quite a sad little record store at Paraparaumu Beach. It was sad because it also sold am/fm clock radio cassette players and vacuum cleaners. In fact, I was bought an am/fm clock radio cassette player from that very shop. I thought it was incredibly cool. Instead of listening to the radio for a snatch of my favourite song I could now buy a tape and listen to just the songs I loved over and over (and over and over) again until they wore a groove in my brain. Those songs. The ones that formed your pop DNA. The ones that you formed a life-long relationship with, and that Morrissey sings about so well in Rubber Ring,
But don’t forget the songs
That made you smile
And the songs that made you cry
When you lay in awe
On the bedroom floor
And said: “Oh, smother me Mother”.
For me A-ha wrote songs like that.
Morton (sigh). He has quite a vocal range and the chorus of Take on Me shows it off well. He starts surprisingly low on “take” and reaches boy soprano heights on the final line. Although he may be considerably “assisted” on those final notes he definitely has a pleasing falsetto. And of course there’s the fact that he was incredibly handsome in a sort of smudgy, floppy-haired, dream boat way. I’m sure that Morton is responsible for a lot of confused feelings in teenage boys in the mid-1980s. It helped that Pal wrote “sensitive” lyrics for him to sing (“slowly learning that life is ok”), and that he wore tank tops and dozens of little leather wrist bands.
I used to get Smash Hits magazine every week and plaster my room with the wonderful confection of their perfect, plastic, pop star images. One day I noticed how many of these images were of beautiful boys and I became a little bit self-conscious. This was probably the beginning of the end for these pop stars on my bedroom walls and heralded the new more hirsute dawn of guitar and hard rock and manly men.
A-ha was the perfect pop band in a way, and because of this I always expected them to be fake. Their singles, and videos and look were all so good. You don’t expect anyone to be able to follow up on a single like Take On Me, but The Sun Always Shines on TV was terrific, and Hunting High and Low beautiful. The whole album was reassuringly consistent. Only one or two pieces of complete fluff (Love is Reason), but plenty of good tracks and memorable lyrics (“I used to be confused, now I just don’t know”).
There was always something a little bit extra with A-ha. I think Take On Me was the first time I thought a video for a song was interesting all by itself, and then came the most astonishing thing; when The Sun Always Shines on TV came out it linked to the previous video. Wow. It helped too that it was a cool song with a cool title, although some its lyrics were a little odd: “I reached inside myself today”. Hmm. Still, forgivable in light of the English-as-a-first-language-band the Cranberries who gave us “Put your hands inside my face.” Perhaps that singer’s tribute to her dental hygienist. Hunting High and Low pulls off the difficult trick of using a bird sound effect without making the listener laugh (or look up). Morton (sigh) sings it beautifully, shifting from soft boy love (no touching) to impassioned boy love (no touching but more intense). Even something as light as Living a Boys Adventure Tale is sweetened by an oboe, and Train of Thought has some kind of odd panpipe thing going on (but as fourth singles go it’s pretty good).
If you read A-ha’s band biography on their website (surprisingly good) you find that Pal and Mags were childhood friends who mucked around making music together when they were growing up. This kind of story was always reassuring to me when I was a boy because it was what I was doing: mucking around with my mate trying to make music. My mate was a good artist and came up with the band name (Full Moon), and the band logo (a werewolf wearing sunglasses), and I wrote our first and only song: Celtic Man. I remember nothing about this song except the title. I suspect that it was no good. The logo was good. I can still remember it. At the time I thought this is more or less what you did to be in a successful band. The bit in the band biographies after this (five years of slogging and poverty) never seemed to register.
Reading the band biography explains a lot about them. A-ha always seemed like they were a manufactured and cynically constructed product but it turns out they were actually a band, and this explains why they were better than the bands that looked like them but were actually manufactured and cynically constructed products. So it was because they were actually a band that they had decent songs on their first album, and that they could do a decent second album: Scoundrel Days. Their first single off this album – I’ve Been Losing You – is one of my favourite songs by A-ha, and I used to love (LOVE) Manhattan Skyline because it had that “rocking” guitar riff (“rocking” was defined differently in my pre Guns and Roses days) and was all moody and, you know, deep.
After Cry Wolf was released I stopped listening to A-ha, as did most of the teenage world. I suspect I was beginning on my hard rock phase and denying my inner gay non gay man. I always feel sorry for these bands when their moment is gone, but I hope they know how ardently I and a generation of fans clung to our clunky am/fm clock radios in the middle of the night hoping that A-ha’s latest single would come on, and the sheer electric thrill when it did. But such is the nature of pop music where you one day have the world before you, all the while knowing that you’ll soon be gone…
…in a day.