If you listen carefully at around 3.09 minutes into the fourth track and single, ‘Summer Moved On’, from the 2000 release ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ by A-ha; singer Morten Harket sustains a brilliant single vocal note, when he sings and emphasises the word ‘ask’, as repeated here, “…and there’s just one thing… left to ask” for an incredible 21 seconds (approx.); importantly, doing so in tune. This is not studio trickery as he has also repeated this live in concert. If you can sing in tune, then try this by singing at near your maximum range and you will see what I mean.
Although very successful, and not forgetting the adulation of so many of their female fans, A-ha (sometimes typeset lowercase as a-ha) on only the-surface-of-things were a typical 80’s pop group with catchy songs, great, memorable music videos and interview friendly personas. However, they are not actually a traditional pop group at all because unlike the perennial idiots (from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00’s) who are fresh meat for the recording industry grinder, A-ha have written almost all of their music and lyrics throughout their studio recordings right into their third decade with their latest 2005 album ‘Analogue’.
Further separating A-ha from other pop acts was the fact that songwriter Morten Harket can actually sing (!) and the main songwriter & guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (formerly Pal Waaktaar) and keyboardist/guitarist & songwriter Magne Furuholmen also play several musical instruments.
Musically, during the 80’s, their homeland of Norway was traditionally lampooned in the UK for scoring ‘null’ points at the Eurovision Song Contest until A-ha broke the mould with a series of high-charting and melodically catchy hit singles from their first four albums.
That initial five-year, four-album period (from 1985 to 1990) would have been a great run for any pop group with a set of successful tours, albums and singles. Indeed if less than one eighth of that initial success by A-ha could be mirrored today with any random commercial boy (or girl) band, then these latest, manufactured, Useless Idols would surely be onto their third ‘auto’ biography, a series of vapid reality TV deals and of course be freshly out of rehab…again; broke and down & out fodder for the readers of tabloid newspapers with their insatiable, voyeuristic hunger to live vicariously through these fools. A-ha did not succumb to the usual pop pit-falls because their inherently musical talents have sustained a continuing recording career with even better music as the years have passed.
Their first three albums: ‘Hunting High And Low’ (1985), ‘Scoundrel Days’ (1986), and ‘Stay On These Roads’ (1988) all had a similar structure with very catchy lead singles and extremely popular music videos. ‘Hunting High And Low’ contained their first big pop hit called ‘Take On Me’ which was hugely successful by means of its still superb music video featuring stylishly creative pencil-like graphics over live footage giving the song a dream-like, fantasy quality.
When I first heard ‘Take On Me’ I thought A-ha was just another pop one-hit wonder with a fantastic video. I was wrong. Because they released a second single, ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ which went to number one in the UK, then ‘Train Of Thought’ and the title track ‘Hunting High And Low’. It soon became clear that A-ha was different because while some of their music on this first album was pure pop; other tracks, though still tuneful, were somewhat more complex and sophisticated featuring lyrics such as:
“…I Reached inside myself
And found nothing there
To ease the pressure of
My ever worrying mind
All my powers waste away
I fear the crazed and lonely looks
The mirror's sending me these days…”
© 1986 Warner Chappell Music Ltd.
(From ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’)
Another recurring factor in the lyrics and song titles for most of their albums is the depiction of the environment, weather and elements as emotionally expressionistic metaphors, for example: ‘October’, ‘The Weight Of The Wind’ and ‘Soft Rains Of April’ (from ‘Scoundrel Days’); ‘East Of The Sun’, ‘Rolling Thunder’ and ‘(Seemingly) Nonstop July’ (from ‘East Of The Sun West Of The Moon’); ‘Summer Moved On’ and ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ (from ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’).
‘Hunting High And Low’ has a sound quality and musical style mostly of its 1985 time so it will sound somewhat dated now.
However, after a little acclimatisation, even this first comparatively cruder effort still stands up with some of the song lyrics and Morten Harket’s vocal ability; which remains to this day a thing of beauty, as he sings elegantly in English but with a finely-hued Scandinavian tint rather than a completely ‘American’ accent.
He also has the range to go from delicate vulnerability to soaring powerhouse crescendos – a quality that most modern male pop singers can’t or wont to do.
The second album, ‘Scoundrel Days’ was released in 1986 and right from the start, on the title track, A-ha was sounding darker…
“…Lift my head up from uneasy pillows
Put my feet on the floor
Cut my wrist on a bad thought…
…For want of an option
I run the wind 'round
I dream pictures of houses burning
Never knowing nothing else to do
With death comes the morning
Unannounced and new…”
Magne Furuholmen / Paul Waaktaar-Savoy
© 1986 Warner Chappell Music Ltd.
‘Scoundrel Days’ now featured more of a band sound with nicer bass lines and heavier, three-dimensional drums replacing some of the muted electronic ones previously; this is clearly evident on the single ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ which has an out-of-the-ordinary set of percussive and rhythmical compositions throughout. The songs now started to feel cinematic and narrative-driven in scope with atmospheric sounds opening and ending some tracks. Cinematic themes continued on their third album ‘Stay On These Roads’ with the elegant and swooping title track as well as the Bond theme ‘The Living Daylights’ which was composed with John Barry.
Released in 1988, ‘Stay On These Roads’ continued the themes of coalescing darker, serious pieces such as ‘There’s Never A Forever Thing’ with pure pop like ‘Touchy’.
The overall production on ‘Stay On These Roads’ though slicker and more sophisticated in parts than its two predecessors was somewhat colder and clinical in comparison, especially with the omission of the superb ‘big drums’ from ‘Scoundrel Days’.
Things changed manifestly for the better on the 1990 release, ‘East Of The Sun West Of The Moon’ with the outstanding cover version and single ‘Crying In The Rain’ (which opened and closed moodily with driving rain and rolling thunder).
The whole album embraced a deeper, higher resolution sound using some beautifully recorded drums, piano and guitar. Here a new level of musicianship joined the always superb songwriting and singing as A-ha embraced a cohesive acoustic with greater confidence as they also fully exploited their inherently melancholic lyrics and vocal expression into a unified piece of music.
In 1993 they released ‘Memorial Beach’ which is reportedly their least commercially successful album…and my personal favourite. It embodies a higher resolution expression of melancholic power, elegance and melody. The album sounds vast and expansive replete with a sombre depth; combining completely, the cinematic, narrative-driven feel of earlier works with the full-tilt timbral rawness of rock guitars and highly textured piano, drum and electronic sounds.
Every track works by forming a seamless musical whole which is almost completely shrouded in a bottomless emotional pitch-black. ‘Memorial Beach’ isn’t oppressively downbeat as a result though, as it remains an endearingly tuneful and accessible A-ha record throughout. This is a wonderful album that also teems with detail and texture, and still remains satisfying on every level.
The sound quality is ripe and full where the production can easily overwhelm a non-musical hi-fi system by sounding ‘over-produced’ or even ‘compressed’! And as such, ‘Memorial Beach’ will be utterly wasted on weak hi-fi systems or components (at any price) that cannot achieve vocal & instrumental phrasing via outstanding tempos with excellent melody, harmony and rhythm.
From 1994 all three members pursued independent musical and artistic projects, some of which remain active, and then they reconvened and released three consecutive new A-ha albums; ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’ (2000), ‘Lifelines’ (2002) and ‘Analogue’ (2005) which have found them as ever confident and versatile, where they have mixed classic pop styles and longing melancholia with finely-honed melodies. I like these new albums very much as they emphasise the enthusiastic ability of all three members to continually push, improve and expand their songwriting and musical craft without becoming jaded.
These albums have also been successful which has enabled the band to do successive world tours in support. Whilst most pop acts would have crashed and burned after the first album, A-ha are actually getting even better and have grown up with their audience without changing their identity.