Tuesday, 17 April 2012
75 Hunting High And Low - A-ha
Purchased : 29th December 1987
Tracks : Take On Me / Train Of Thought / Hunting High And Low / The Blue Sky / Living A Boy's Adventure Tale / The Sun Always Shines On TV / And You Tell Me / Love Is Reason / Dream Myself Alive / Here I Stand And Face The Rain
This came from Littlewoods in Manchester on my customary post-Christmas shopping trip. It is actually a faulty copy as the label is for Side One on both sides but fortunately the music isn't affected by the slip-up.
The process of catching up on the albums missed during my financial embarasment now resumed with A-ha's debut , released soon after "Take On Me"s commercial breakthrough in late 1985 after two years of struggle. The songs , mainly solo compositions by Pal Waaktar were therefore well-gestated. It was recorded piecemeal in England with three credited producers , their manager ( and sometime Grange Hill actor ) John Ratcliff, New Musik's Tony Mansfield ( the lion's share of the LP ) and Alan Tarney , best known for masterminding Cliff Richard's resurgence in the late 70s / early 80s.
"Take On Me" starts things off as if the band were in a hurry to move on from a song that had to be released three times. I'm guessing I don't have to describe it in any detail as it has become their signature song thanks to that video. I think I said before that its not my favourite song. I was indifferent to it as a single ( perhaps a little resentful that it was one of the records blocking Red Box's Lean On Me from reaching number one ) viewing them as a ( much ) prettier version of Alphaville and whose chart career would be of similar longevity. I'm fonder of it now and enjoyed a bop with my wife to it in Manchester 18 months ago when it was the inevitable final encore on their farewell tour. It's just that its untypical in its reliance on blippety-blip sequencers and euphoric feel ( although the lyrics are not as optimistic as the melody would suggest ) and Tarney only really painted in primary colours.
"Train Of Thought" was an odd choice for third single. It peaked at number 8 checking their initial chart blitzkreig and they never subsequently went higher than 5 which may have been a good thing in the long run. Apparently inspired by Waaktar's recent existential reading choices it's a third person narrative about a commuter whose mind is on higher things than his daily routine. Morten Harket shows a good understanding of the subject matter by singing the lines about mundane fixtures like the crossword (shades of Madness's Cardiac Arrest ) in a low register then soaring effortlessly into a shrieking falsetto when the subject's mind starts to roam. It's a startling performance which should have made his reputation as one of pop's greatest vocalists but the mid-tempo song with its lack of a real chorus seemed to work against him.
The title track followed it in the singles chart as it does here and brings back memories of my final weeks at Leeds University when anything seemed possible . It's a marvellously constructed song building from a simple acoustic strum to a sweeping orchestral figure and beautifully sung by Harket. The lyric concerns both the hunt for the perfect girl and the despair of losing her - Harket's shriek of the last word in "she's got to go away " is terrifying.
"The Blue Sky" returns to the Europop synth template with a juddering bassline running through the song. The lyrics root the song in their pre-fame years, Waaktar confessing to homesickness and self-doubt -"I'm in this big world without you, nothing to my name" - as he sits in a cafe. It's a little on the short side seeming almost a prelude to the song that follows.
"Living A Boy's Adventure Tale " is perhaps my favourite track. Harket signals his intention to push the boat out on this one with an arresting falsetto exclamation right at the start. Waaktar's tale of loneliness in the big city becomes a tour de force with Magne Furuholmen's arrangement setting sweeping string synths and a very realistic synthetic oboe ( as there's no player credited I assume its Furuholmen on a Fairlight ) against an uncompromising beat box. Then you have the Harket vocal leaping octaves without a pause for breath to deliver a chorus that thrills the more each time it comes round ; the last minute of the song is simply celestial.
Side Two begins with their only UK number 1, "The Sun Always Shines On TV" the follow-up to "Take On Me" ( which always reminds me oddly of Alvin Stardust's Jealous Mind making the top after his much more celebrated debut hit My Coo-Ca-Choo stalled at 2 ) and the song which really ignited my interest in the band. The ironic title and breezy melody of the chorus belie the fact that it's about Waktaar's struggles with depression - "there's got to be some way to keep my troubles distant" - which made it the perfect chart-topper for an unusually harsh January in 1986. The band and Tarney pile on the grand piano , Waktaar's power chords and layers of synth to produce a Gothic epic that's not a million miles away from Ultravox at their best.
It's a big comedown then to "And You Tell Me" a short twee piece of chamber-pop that sounds like one of those Martin Gore-sung ballads on Depeche Mode albums ( Any Second Now from the first LP is the one that comes to mind ) . By far the weakest track its brevity is a blessing.
The lightweight "Love Is Reason" ( which was released as a single in some countries ) is a Waktaar/ Furuholmen composition and the track closest in feel to "Take On Me" with its Europop bounce and bubblegum lyrics. Harket's heartfelt vocal makes it classier than the song really deserves.
"Dream Myself Alive " is much edgier as befits another song about anxiety -"there's something dark against the light" . New Order-ish restless synths buzz around Harket's vocal while the strange chatter in the middle eight and fade-out underlines a kinship with Dark Side Of The Moon.
That just leaves "Here I Stand And Face The Rain" a needy man's plea for companionship with another breathtaking vocal performance by Harket. It's a well-constructed song beginning with a bit of plainchant ( possibly a little joke at Harket's earlier leanings towards the priesthood ) before a limpid acoustic guitar accompanies the singer's effortless swoops up and down the scales. After a brief pastoral interlude the song jerks into life with a staccato synth riff on the first verse leading to the stately chorus suffused with the melancholia for which their part of the world is famed. The last minute or so has Harket wordlessly soaring above the melody line like some great bird flying high over the fjords.
I used to think "Scoundrel Days" had the edge over this one but now I think I lean the other way. It's an excellent debut and once again it's a great shame that their image prevented many serious music fans from hearing it.