Norwegian legends are given the in-depth treatment…
The meteoric rise of Norwegian synth-pop outfit a-ha during the mid-1980s was an event that seemed unlikely at the time, not least to the band’s founder-members. Yet, since their formation in 1982, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, Magne Furuholmen and Morten Harket have carved out a musical career that has produced an impressive series of chart-topping albums and singles.
Although they were often pigeonholed into a category that put them down as simply ‘pretty boy pop’, there were depths to a-ha’s music that cast the trio’s output in a very different light in comparison to many of their contemporaries. But their initial success was presaged by a gruelling period of penury and hard graft; a crucible that saw their distinctive sound and style gradually honed to perfection.
The Electricity Club’s own Barry Page has penned an exhaustive book which charts that 40-year musical journey, including the ambitions of pre-a-ha outfit Bridges, through to the desperate attempts by the fledgling a-ha to establish themselves in the UK and the breakthrough that the iconic ‘Take On Me’ delivered (after something of a false start).
It includes extensive commentary on the various member’s solo efforts as well as track-by-track evaluations of all of a-ha’s releases. It also covers the band’s evolution as their sound went beyond the synth foundations of their youth and through to the more mature offerings of their modern catalogue. Described by Pål Waaktaar-Savoy as “Really entertaining!”, Down To The Tracks is also published by This Day In Music Books, previously responsible for publishing the OMD book Pretending To See The Future).
Aside from showcasing each a-ha album in track by track detail, Down To The Tracks includes a comprehensive look at both the band’s pre-fame years and each of the three members’ side projects, up to and including the release of Magne Furuholmen’s 2019 solo album, White Xmas Lies.
Told from a number of different perspectives, this fresh take on the story mixes archived interviews and reviews, along with exclusive new input from a wide-ranging number of contributors, including a-ha’s Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, plus Dag and Jørun Bøgeberg, Viggo Bondi, Pål H. Christiansen, Anneli Drecker, Espen Farstad, Zoë Gnecco, Erik Hagelien, Matt Letley, Sven Lindvall, Robert Alan Morley, Tini Flaat Mykland, Martyn Phillips, Mark Saunders, Tonje Waaktaar Gamst, Harald Wiik and more.
Covering that territory makes for a lengthy read and at 400 pages, there’s practically no aspect of a-ha’s musical career that doesn’t come under the spotlight. The focus on Bridges, for example, offers a curious window on a very different band. Here, the Doors-influenced moody rock combo seem to be light years away from the electropop outfit they would later spawn. But hidden away in the young band’s compositions is the raw material that would later be turned into such classic a-ha songs as ‘I’ve Been Losing You’, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and indeed the classic ‘Take On Me’. Originally conceived as a song with the cryptic title of ‘Miss Eerie’, this embryonic version of ‘Take On Me’ was later christened by Morten Harket as ‘The Juicy Fruit Song’ (initial copies of the book also shipped with a special 7″ vinyl release of ‘Miss Eerie’).
The London years sees the band struggling to survive, with every resource directed to the recording and production of what would later become their iconic debut album Hunting High and Low. At times, this provides a harrowing read as the band had initially entered the country on a tourist visa, meaning that they couldn’t secure work to prop up their musical ventures. But at times, their misfortunes could sometimes be interpreted as a sign they were on the right track. Initially finding rejection at every turn, they were also dismissed by Decca – the label that had famously turned down The Beatles back in 1962.
The book zones in on a-ha’s extensive catalogue in forensic detail. By the time of the release of their second album Scoundrel Days in 1986, a-ha were already in the midst of a world tour. As an album, it delights in an almost cinematic narrative across a variety of compositions that balanced inventive synth-pop with Nordic melancholia. The book details, for instance, how ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ was a late addition to the album, with the band having to record on the fly while still on their global travels. “Morten sang the last lines shouting from the lift waiting to take use to Japan” recalls Waaktaar-Savoy.
There’s also the intriguing story of the band almost working with the legendary Giorgio Moroder, as well as the troubled genesis of their James Bond song ‘The Living Daylights’. Apparently, there were tensions between the band and Bond composer John Barry, as well as Waaktaar-Savoy struggling to drum up suitable lyrics without having any idea about what the film was about!
While many of their contemporaries would begin to run out of steam during their post-Smash Hits period, a-ha curiously kept evolving. Their ambitious 2000 album Minor Earth | Major Sky showcased a band embracing a more mature sound and approach, including some pointed commentary on their life in the music business care of ‘The Company Man’ (a track whose biting lyrics, Furuholmen toned down after discussion with his cohorts).
The unusual circumstances of a-ha’s premature retirement in 2009 are also covered. Although it allowed the three founder-members to broaden their solo projects, the announcement of 2015’s Cast In Steel album came a bit of a shock to the a-ha community. “You’re allowed to change your mind”, a philosophical Furuholmen commented.
The in-depth account brings the story up to the MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice period (see TEC review previously), in which a-ha demonstrated that even without the use of synths, the craftsmanship of their music can still demonstrate its strengths in an acoustic fashion. It also meant that a-ha could indulge in some surprising collaborations, bringing onboard Ian McCulloch and Alison Moyet for some guest vocal slots.
The book also ventures into the various solo offerings and side projects in detail, including Waaktaar-Savoy’s impressive work with Savoy. It also comes more or less up to date with covering Magne Furuholmen’s White Xmas Lies album (see TEC’s review previously), which arrived in the winter months of 2019, an album which sought to explore the “more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas” according to Furuholmen.
Down To The Tracks is an exhaustively researched tome that not only provides a rare insight into the process of crafting a-ha’s music, but also acts as a testimony to a band that have helped shape the direction of contemporary electronic music.
a-ha Down To The Tracks is out 9th April 2020 via This Day In Music: https://www.thisdayinmusic.com/books/a-ha-down-to-the-tracks/