This week, the Norwegian band A-ha will play their first ever dates in New Zealand. Though it’s been more than three decades since the release of their timeless debut single ‘Take on Me’, sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday, writes Catherine McGregor.
It’s a Saturday evening in the spring of 1985 and I’m sitting cross legged in front of the Sony Trinitron, close enough to change the channel without getting up. The clock has just struck 6pm, and my absolute favourite show ever ever ever is about to start. Ready to Roll counts down the top 20 songs in New Zealand that week – rankings that I obsess over with all the intensity of a Victorian actuary – then segues into full clips of the big hits and new chart entries. I love Ready to Roll, even when I hate the songs it plays.
And I hate a lot of them – 1985 is not a good year to be a preteen pop fan. Power ballads rule the airwaves and the charts are dominated by artists who are either pushing middle-age or acting like it. That week the top 20 plays host to Dire Straits, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and David Bowie; the turgid “Power of Love” is a huge smash for Jennifer Rush, just 25.
But then, suddenly, there’s “Take on Me”, a giddy three-minute-45-second rush of youthfulness and joy. It starts with a drumbeat, and then bass, and then that instantly memorable synth line kicks in. I’d say it’s a synth riff, but the word sounds all wrong. In 1985, riffs are the new sound of the Reagan era, played on electric guitars by rich guys with permed hair and pained expressions. The debut single for a trio of young Norwegians named A-ha, “Take on Me” sounds like a throwback, an early-80s synthpop single released just a few years too late. Its cousins are songs like The Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and Yazoo’s “Don’t Go” – vestiges of that brief but glorious interregnum between the 70s and 80s reigns of bass, drums and electric guitar.
None of which I realise when I first hear “Take on Me”, of course. All I know is it’s a great song for singing along to, and one that I’ll be taping off 4XO, Dunedin’s commercial radio station, at the earliest opportunity. But what I’m really enthralled by is the music video, a zippy comic-book romance told through rotoscoping, an animation technique that combines live action with pen and ink to produce a quasi-realistic look. It’s a cool effect, especially for 1985, and if you haven’t seen “Take on Me” in a while I encourage you to join the more than one billion people who have watched this video since it was uploaded 10 years ago.
Back then, though, it’s not the innovative animation techniques that hold my attention. No, it’s Morten Harket, the lead singer with a singing range as high as his perfectly sculpted cheekbones (“I thought, how can somebody who looks like a film star sound like Roy Orbison? This is unbelievable,” a music exec will later say of the first time he heard Harket sing). He’s so beautiful it’s physically difficult to look at him; when I inevitably Blu-tack an A-ha poster to my bedroom wall, I’ll decide that my favourite member isn’t Harket, nor the equally model-like keyboardist Mags Furuholmen, but Pål Waaktaar, the band’s main songwriter and the least aggressively handsome of the three.
When the less joyful follow-up single “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is released, I like it, too, though not as much as “Take on Me”. Before summer is over, my brief love affair with A-ha is at an end. I have new bands to obsess over, and only so much space on my bedroom wall.
It’s a Saturday evening sometime in the mid 90s and I’m in a bar on the main street of Christchurch. Every week I meet my friends here to drink and cheer as one of our group sings melancholy cover versions for the assembled crowd. We all work in record stores – they in a much cooler one than me – and we all listen to the same kind of music: soaring choruses, string sections, minor keys. We like songs about lonely hearts and broken people; that a song has a “tinge of sadness” is the highest compliment we can pay.
Now our musician friend is singing a yearning lyric I haven’t heard in years: “Oh c’mon, please now, talk to me/Tell me things I could find helpful.” It’s “I’ve Been Losing You” from A-ha’s second album Scoundrel Days, and hearing it stripped down to just acoustic guitar and voice, one thing becomes clear: this song is goddamn incredible.
At home, I delve further into A-ha’s back catalogue. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of the songs haven’t aged well, but at their best they stand alongside the greatest pop music of the late 80s. A-ha almost sound like their musical contemporaries, but not quite. They’re set apart by their Europeanness; by their weakness for dramatic flourishes that risk tipping over into histrionics; by Harket’s incredible octave-skipping voice. Besides “I’ve Been Losing You”, I fall hard for the ridiculously operatic “Manhattan Skyline”, the propulsive “The Blood That Moves the Body” and most of all, for the stunning “Stay on These Roads”.
The title track of A-ha’s third album, “Stay on These Roads” should have been a massive hit; failing that, it should have played beneath the end credits of that year’s biggest, most bittersweet romantic drama. For the full “Stay on These Roads” experience, I recommend driving somewhere solitary and windswept, preferably in the rain, and playing it at full, window-rattling blast. You could hardly feel more Nordic.
I’ve kept checking in with A-ha over the decades. After a long hiatus in the 90s, they released their comeback Minor Earth, Major Sky in 2000, followed by a new album every few years since. All of them are full of surprisingly solid pop-rock songs, with little of the melodrama of their late 80s pomp. This year A-ha will mark 38 years together as a band, and tomorrow they begin a short run of dates in New Zealand, their first ever appearances here.
As much as I love A-ha, and as good as they’ll be live, I probably won’t go to the show. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and I prefer to take my dose alone, headphones on, remembering a time when I was young and pop music meant everything in the world to me.
A-ha play in the Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, on March 5 and Villa Maria Winery, Auckland, on March 7. More info here.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.