The Two Sides of A-ha
I remember the first time I paid any real attention to Aha. It was at my friend Col’s house. I’d dropped round to neck a few beers before a night out on the town and he was being DJ — all vinyl back in those days of course. Aha, to my mind, was just another pop group. They were all over UK radio and the charts, and they had that (Take On Me) video…and a largely swooning female audience. Lucky them but did I care? Not much. But once Col put on side one of what was Aha’s then current album, Scoundrel Days — and dropped the needle onto track 4, October, that was that. The cars speeding by in the rain, those chiming bells, the heart-beat, the howling dogs, and those footsteps. All giving way to a pop song so very evocative of being: “down in the city at night, as the cold wind blows”…etc. etc. When a teenager from a grim northern English town heard that, and the possibilities of the world opened up, well, things might never be the same again.
Thirty years on, it is October I still play to test any newly purchased speaker or headphones. I want to be able to hear it all: the cars speeding by in the rain etc. And Scoundrel Days remains one of my favourite albums — played several times a year without fail. The towering title track, the utterly brilliant The Swing Of Things, and the big single of the time, I’ve Been Losing You — three of my all-time favourite pop songs start off the same album! And then you think it can’t get any better, in comes October, followed by the Manhattan Skyline — one of the most epic singles of the 80s. I recounted some of the above ‘discovery story’ to Morten himself a few years back — at least I think I did. You can’t be sure what comes spluttering out of your mouth when you come face to face with one of your idols.
Aha are revered across the music business these days, quite rightly. No aspiring music artist would dare dismiss their genius and originality. The band took the long road to pop credibility. Being part of the 80s nostalgia scene would never have crossed the minds of Morten, Pål and Magne. Some of what captivates of their first two L.P.s (apart from the song craft and the performances) is Alan Tarney’s production. It had the characteristic poppy sheen of much of the 80s sound, but it also packed one hell of a punch. It gave the Aha sound a depth, which empowered them to get across the more cinematic aspects that captured that Scandinavian melancholy. Aha slotted in alongside the British 80s electo-pop scene of Depeche, Duran, Human League and the like, but Aha had an edge to them — a darkness that signalled the music was not from these shores.
The opening lines of Scoundrel Days demonstrate what set them apart. Morten suggests he might ‘cut my wrists on a bad thought’ (not, as one Radio 1 phone in suggested at the time, a ‘bad fart’) and ‘outside, the dark makes no noise’ (not as I heard at the time ‘the dog makes a noise’ — surely that would be a bark?). But dogs barking, as it happens, along with wolves howling, whales crying, thunder cracking and rain beating — are the sorts of elemental themes Aha records evoke time and again. These two playlists show two sides of a band that can paint pop music as landscapes — epic ones.
Out Of Blue starts with muscular, thrilling rock-pop that you would be hard pushed to find on the music scene these days. Amazingly enough, Scoundrel Days is still not my favourite Aha record. That honour goes to Memorial Beach, the band’s fourth studio album. That record brought a harder sound — almost brutal at times. It’s more a rock record than a pop album and in places would give Led Zeppelin a run for their money. Highlights? The hard-as-nails Cold As Stone, slinky funk-rock of Lie Down In Darkness. Also, the off-kilter beat and electro-rock madness of Make It Soon. The exotic mystery of Locust.
Comes Green is a different prospect altogether. The more introspective Aha — all sweeping landscapes, late nights, rough weather. It contains some noteworthy gems that even Aha fans may have paid less attention to. The cynical ballad Cosy Prisons, whose subject matter of narcissism and shallow living seems so relevant to right now. The icy ballad This Alone Is Love. Also, the woozy jazz vignette The Way We Talk — a personal favourite and a rarity with the lead vocal by Magne. A fine version of Did Anyone Approach You? with all its mystery captured better in the demo recording. With Aha’s extensive release of demos, track down the sublime Memorial beach (not in this collection only because it sits pride of place on a beach playlist reserved for summer 2020). Here instead, I include the MTV 2017 version. And then full circle we come, to Take On Me, revealed in this acoustic reworking to be a beautifully simple ballad — one that was reverse engineered 35 years ago into an electro-pop hit known to everyone on the planet. A classic to finish on, then.
The most wonderful thing about publishing a blog like The Song Sommelier is that you can create your own fantasy albums (with wonderful cover art and sleevenotes to go with!). But I’ve curated these playlists for your pleasure dear listener, not mine. Aha play host to hidden treasures and forgotten gems more than most bands. The group’s streaming catalogue includes Norwegian lake fulls of their demo recordings, some of which are so good they could be substitutes for the studio works, especially for some of the later records, which, in my view, were too carefully produced. The Breakers from Lifelines is a good example — find it on ‘Comes Green’.
As the band celebrate 35 years since their debut record Hunting High And Low, we hope you’ll find the time to enjoy two sides to a band that bring something truly unique to pop music. On the back of a triumphant orchestral re-imagining of their catalogue captured on their last live album MTV Unplugged Summer Solstice, Aha is going strong, now touring the Hunting anniversary. And pray to Odin, I hope the same too for Scoundrel Days when the time comes.