There can be a tendency to dismiss the commercially successful, to disparage radio hits and bands who appeal to a wide demographic, whether by design or accident. And while this attitude can sometimes be justified—the ’80s, for instance, were riddled with manufactured artists—it can allow some tremendous musicians to slip beneath the radar of critical acclaim or be cast off as one-hit wonders. The music of Norwegian band A-ha lives in this gray area between pop fame and critical appreciation. They were certainly talented and possessed a sense of the possibilities of pop music but were unfairly lumped in with a good deal of the faceless pop bands whose careers found commercial footing in that fabricated decade.
Under their direction, they reshaped the mundane attitudes toward pop into something worthy of attention and exploration. They blended a mixture of synth pop, goth and classic pop tendencies into a mass of sounds that appealed to mainstream tastes and those looking for something that dug a bit deeper into its respective influences. Unlike many bands of the ’80s, however, they were able to maintain a fair measure of success in later years, thanks in large part to their popularity in the U.K. and in their home country. Their most recent record, “Cast in Steel,” was released in 2015 and rose to the tops of various charts across the world.
In 1982, vocalist Morten Harket, guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen came together to create A-ha and promptly debarked to London to try to make their way as professional musicians. During this time, they were trying to think of a suitable band name, initially considering Norwegian words or phrases that could be spoken in English. They eventually dropped this idea when Harket saw a song called “A-ha” in a songbook and decided that it would be the perfect name. In their search to establish themselves, they came across the studio of musician-producer John Ratcliff, whom they favored in part because he had a “Space Invaders” arcade machine in the studio.
Ratliff eventually became their manager, with Ratcliff’s manager, Terry Slater, coming on board to handle the group’s international business and act as a liaison to the Warner Brothers head office in Los Angeles. They soon began working on a song that Harket had first heard Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy play back in Norway, called “The Juicy Fruit Song.” After some extensive rewriting and recording, the song was renamed “Take On Me” and released in 1985. Anchored by soaring vocals and complex arrangements, it was not a huge success when it was first shared. With some additional production work from Alan Tarney and an eye-catching video, the song was rereleased and finally garnered some well-deserved praise.
Peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song introduced the band to the world in a flash of success and adoration. Their second single, “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” was less of a hit in the U.S. but climbed even higher on the U.K. charts than “Take On Me.” This would become the status quo for the band, as their status in the states was overshadowed by their continued successes in other parts of the world. However, when they released their debut album, “Hunting High and Low,” in 1985, the band was riding a crest that carried them well into the latter half of the decade. On its success, the band became international superstars, with the record selling 11 million copies worldwide.
But when the band shared their magnificent third record, “Stay On These Roads,” they discovered that you could appeal to the masses while still clinging to your own creative eccentricities. Released in 1988, the album finds the band combining a handful of aesthetics into a coherent and fascinating mix of synth-driven rhythms and intensely arranged sounds. It would go on to sell over 4 million copies. Production was handled by Alan Tarney and revealed just how prescient both he and the band were in their idea of the direction in which pop music was heading. The lead single is the title track and can easily be heard as the precursor to bands like M83 and Chromatics.
“Stay On These Roads” is less upbeat pop and more moody introspection. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its share of sparkling pop moments, but they are tempered by an overarching atmosphere of anxiety and catharsis. Intelligent pop music has always divided mainstream fans (in the U.S., historically), and so it is with this collection. The band wasn’t trying to play off their earlier success—they were continuing to evolve and broaden their range in terms that made sense to them as artists. Tracks such as “The Blood That Moves the Body” and “This Alone Is Love” focus on their newfound experimentalism, a treat for fans who followed their transition from being MTV/VH1 staples into the certified musical wonders they were always meant to be.
Darkly persuasive and emotionally rich, these songs speak to the band’s pop awareness, to their understanding of the rich history of the sounds with which they’d become so comfortable. They were able to break down the expectations of the genre and reshape them as they saw fit. “Stay On These Roads” isn’t just a record; it is a statement on the viability of modern pop music as it grew out of its gaudy ‘8os infancy. There is a sophistication to A-ha’s work that wasn’t often lauded and was looked over in favor of simply referencing their biggest hit. But they were never a band to conform to strict guidelines. They were using the orchestral, synth-drenched instincts that they’d always carried with them to shine a light on the innate possibilities of pop music.
Updated @ 11:15 a.m. on 11/12/17 to correct a factual error. Alan Tarney was the producer, not Paul Tarney as originally reported.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.