A-ha

25 years on: a-ha – Take On Me

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of, in my view, one of the finest pop songs ever recorded: “Take On Me” by a-ha. It could be argued that the release of “Take On Me” marked a turning point for pop, which had spent the preceding years mooching around in New Romantic guise when it wasn’t posturing in Soft Rock or shuffling around with the Goths. To some extent following OMD’s lead, a-ha pretty much defined synthpop in this breathtaking song, although it took them three attempts to do it. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The song first began to take shape as early as 1982, when a-ha barely existed, the trio shacked up in a cabin in their native Norway, putting together a series of demos. Back then it was called “Lesson One”, and while the band used obviously cheap and cheerful synths and drum machines, the basic elements of the final song were already firmly in place, most notably the recurring synth riff as well as much of the main melody. Structurally though, it’s all over the place, sounding like three different songs awkwardly stitched together, not one of them possessing a chorus to speak of. It therefore comes across as rather odd, excruciatingly so when Morten Harket inexplicably lets loose a bizarre, horrifying whoop a little way in (0:41 – a moment he’d probably like to forget).

A year later, now calling themselves a-ha, the group spent several months recording demos in London, at a small studio called Rendezvous. It was here that “Take On Me” properly took its final form, bearing little resemblance to the miserable demo from 1982; all the basic elements—lyrics, structure, melody and harmonies—are the same at this stage as in the final version. Nonetheless, it’s clearly still a work in progress; Harket’s singing is still too waivering for its own good, despite the remarkable demonstration of his vocal range, as heard in the chorus, no less than two-and-a-half octaves. The impressive chorus goes some way to contrast with the verses, but there’s still a dynamic flatness that stops the song being terribly inviting, something the all-too-plain instrumental simply can’t solve on its own. Read more

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Mix Tape #16 : Vox Masculus (In Memoriam Ian Curtis)

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Thirty years ago, Ian Curtis, lead singer and prime mover of Joy Division throughout its short-lived existence, took his own life. i can’t and won’t claim to have known anything about this at the time (being a mere six years old, my own musical journey had barely begun, let alone made it as far as the emerging post-punk scene), and i continued to know nothing of Joy Division until around 1982, when the combination of buying the 12″ vinyl of “Blue Monday” (on a whim; i liked the artwork) and my growing fondness for the more gothic end of the growing indie scene made me conscious of Joy Division’s significance. Undoubtedly worthy albums, Unknown Pleasures and the posthumous Closer only begin to hint at where the band might have gone next; whether it would have led down the same path as that taken by New Order is impossible to guess. The death of a celebrity interests people for all the wrong reasons; what matters is that Curtis was a fascinating creative individual, whose talents as a singer and a lyricist had only just begun to reach fruition. It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, to dedicate this new mix tape—focussing on male vocalists—to Ian Curtis’ memory. Read more

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