A-ha! It must be Popular time.

a-ha, “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.”, 25 January 1986

This song represents an end of sorts to the first part of my Popular journey, because a-ha were the last great shared moment of my brother’s and my exploration of pop music. From about 1980 through to 1985 we had exchanged musical ideas and influences, but in 1984-85 I developed obsessions of my own, and once I went to university our musical paths diverged almost completely. A-ha was our last hurrah: my brother bought their first two albums, I taped them off him, and both of us reckoned that these guys had the goods.

“Take On Me” was their number one in Australia, but I’m glad we’re not talking about the obvious hit here. It seemed to become a millstone for the band, the “Creep” that they never overcame by releasing their own The Bends. And I mean that to be ambiguous, because they too released a second album that left their first in the shade. Scoundrel Days was a 1980s pop masterpiece, full of momentous synth-pop songs fused subtly with rock, and its impact was greater than it first seemed; but more on that in a moment.

Hunting High and Low, their first album, was in hindsight a less-satisfying draft, although it also had some great songs: the title track, “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale”, and of course the first two singles. But its more straightforward synth-pop moments lost those songs’ distinctive charm, playing down Morten Harket’s epic vocals for something cosier and cuter, reinforcing the pretty-boy image he later found so constraining.

And what a pretty boy he was, and what a handsome man he still is; even the straightest, Aussiest teenage male could recognise that. Harket’s looks went beyond cause for jealousy or scorn to cause for wonder that here was such an amazing natural specimen. Would we have thought the same if he were American, or British? We certainly wouldn’t have if he were Australian. Here was one way that a-ha’s Norwegian heritage made them stand out.

Harket’s vocals were another, and they were rarely used to better effect than on this, my favourite track from their debut. “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” was a blueprint for Scoundrel Days, a much stronger showcase for their epic synth-rock fusion than “Take on Me”. I’ve been re-listening to both albums in their entirety, and besides their obvious “80s-ness”, what’s striking is how skilfully those dated sounds are worked into their overall texture, rarely outstaying their welcome. “The Sun Always Shines” is a good example; this is no simple pop song, but a complex, growing creature; not quite their “Paranoid Android”, but getting there.

The lyrics also show a Scandinavian complexity in their use of phrases that native English speakers would never have chosen—although certain other bands had shown that was no barrier to pop greatness. The verses of “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” capture the inward Nordic gaze beautifully, full of worry and gloom and fretfulness, and then contrast it with the joyous chorus and that title phrase. How much less striking this would be if they’d called it “Touch Me” or “Hold Me” (paging Samantha Fox and the Thompson Twins...).

Its most wistful aspect isn’t in the lyrics, though, but in the knowledge that it didn’t lead to world domination for a-ha. Yes, there were Bond themes and other lesser hits ahead, and there were break-ups and comebacks and now a final retirement looming; but a-ha should have been bigger. Much bigger. Their nine albums should be familiar to more than just a dedicated fanbase; and I say that as someone who owns only three. I kept meaning to explore further, but never quite overcame the illogical sense that if they were worthwhile I’d have heard more of them. Maybe this revisiting will give me the necessary nudge. It at least prompted me to check out their swansong, Foot of the Mountain, which I would recommend to anyone who loves the first two albums, and which in turn made me reflect on where a-ha fits in the bigger scheme of things.

In the early 2000s everyone was commenting on the Radiohead “clones”, the Coldplays and Muses and Keanes, and just as it was obvious that Radiohead was only one of Muse’s influences (a healthy dose of Queen being another), it was clear that many of Coldplay’s and Keane’s roots lay elsewhere. Chris Martin has since revealed himself to be a big a-ha fan, and if the Keane connection wasn’t obvious before, Foot of the Mountain certainly makes it so; the album it most closely resembles is Under the Iron Sea, which also happens to be the one that sold me on Keane. So a big part of the UK’s musical landscape of the 2000s owes a debt to a-ha; and not only the UK: in Norway, their influence can be heard in the work of Röyksopp and Erlend Øye (Kings of Convenience/Whitest Boy Alive). A-ha’s “retro” album feels like a reclamation of territory that was rightfully theirs, not that it will ever sell as much as Coldplay do on a bad day.

When Foot of the Mountain came out it was met with exasperating coverage from some of the UK press (though to be fair, not all), which continued through their retirement announcement (what’s your game, Grauniad?), and even though my own exposure to their music isn’t much more than those journalists’, I feel the need to proclaim how excellent they were, and to wonder if we missed sight of other equally grand vistas along the way, hidden by these early peaks. A-ha looked to most people like Mt Fuji, but maybe they were the Himalayas. Whether it was the synths, the good looks, or even their band name, we let ourselves be distracted by their surfaces and dismiss a band that was so much more than a one- or two-hit wonder.

I’d find it hard to pick between “Manhattan Skyline” and “Weight of the Wind” for best a-ha song ever, but this is right up there with them, and it’s a credit to U.K. pop buyers that you made it your number one. “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” is a song I could listen to endlessly, and very definitely a personal 10.

(I went back and forth about whether to give “West End Girls” a 10 when I knew that this would be getting one; the clincher was that “West End Girls” is a very occasional listen for me nowadays, with more nostalgic overtones, but I still listen to this fairly often after all these years.)

Billy Ocean, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”, 8 February 1986

I always interpreted that title as “when the going gets tough, the tough piss off”, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t what was meant. It always gave this an unintended air of novelty song for me, rather than action-movie theme song. The “get started” reading is more American, although Ocean had lived in the UK most of his life, so you’d expect him to favour the other. I suppose he was just along for the Hollywood ride.

As average as it gets, with a point knocked off for silly mid-’80s features: 4.

Six weeks of this at the top of the Australian charts, starting on 10 March 1986. When the going gets tough, the tough listen to their brother’s a-ha albums.

12 November 2009 · Music