In this day and age of streams and single track downloads, it’s easy to ignore track 1 on an album, and go straight to the seven “singles” that have already been released, as well as other tracks that just have a lovely name. (In all honesty I am a sucker for a good song title). However, the great vinyl revival has done two things (for those listening to it and not just framing it of course): 1. Make people appreciate the quality of the sound, and 2. Make people appreciate not just the art work, but the art that is the entire album.
Back in the day, it was the only way to listen without risking skipping your vinyl, wearing our your cassette or… Well, you could do it with a CD but let’s not get pedantic. Here, on Side One Track One, we celebrate an artist’s opening tracks, and this time it’s the turn of a-ha. Let us know what you think @movetotrashuk #s1t1
1. Take On Me (Hunting High And Low, 1985)
Just like We Will Rock You or Be My Baby (but also nothing like them), the drum beat that introduced a world of fans to Take On Me, and a Scandinavian trio with high hair and higher cheekbones, is instantly recognisable. This version, which reached number 1 in the US (but not the UK – one of those rare occasions where the Yanks get it before we do), wasn’t the first version of the song to be released, but it’s arcade like-synth loops and higher than their cheekbones falsettos has ensured its status as one of the most recognisable pop songs, not only of the 80s, but of all time. Your dad’ll dance to it at the disco, your Nan’ll sing along to it with Ken Bruce, your dog’ll howl away when it’s the only one who can hear the higher than humans-can-hear notes.
Choice lyrics: ‘Today’s another day to find you’
2. Scoundrel Days (Scoundrel Days, 1986)
There was nothing difficult about the band’s second album, however the band were quick to assert an added maturity compared to the boys’ adventure tales of their debut. Scoundrel Days (the album) saw Pal Waakter – now known as Paul Waakter-Savoy – turn his guitars up (not quite to 11, but perhaps to 5.5), Mags – now known as Magne F – make his keyboards more atmospheric, and Morten Harket – still very much know as Morten Harket – add a little grit and angst to his vocal. Perhaps, then, these were the boys’ rebellion, gothic teen, I-hate-you-mom years. Scoundrel Days (the song) is an epic introduction to this chapter, with vocal notes held for just as long, but a different take on ‘em.
Choice lyrics: ‘We believe through the lies and the hating that love goes free’
3. Stay On These Roads (Stay On These Roads, 1988)
Opening an album with a bit of a power ballad – a brave move for a band more often known for their upbeat antics. It’s the equivalent of Westlife’s comeback opening with some death metal. (Don’t panic – Westlife aren’t coming back. Yet.) It wasn’t the first time the band had slowed things down a little (Hunting High And Low remains their audience sing-a-long a la Angels during live shows) but as with Scoundrel Days, the sound continued maturing like a fine Norwegian wine (do they make wine?). Stay On These Roads is the only track to be credited to all three songwriters, and sounds something like the sort of slower moment that The Killers would come up with (The Way It Was, Shot At The Night…).
Choice lyrics: ‘Stay on these roads, we shall meet, I know so stay on, my love’
4. Crying In The Rain (East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, 1990)
Lovely bit of cliché storm sound effects to open up a song about rain, but that aside, this cover of The Everly Brothers’ 1962 track is equally respectful of the original, and relevant when compared to a-ha’s own back catalogue, and where they were at the time. (According to this album cover they were in the mountains, looking like a New Kid On The Block, a Traveling Wilbury and Joe Cocker.) In fact, it’s more atmospheric than the original (written by Howard Greenfield and Carole King), which has that standard sort of 60s love song tone you’d hear over a break up scene in Heartbeat (ask your Gran). There’s a live, acoustic version from the Ending On A High Note album (great pun) that’s pretty impressive too.
Choice lyrics: ‘Someday when my crying’s done I’m going to wear a smile and walk in the sun’
5. Dark Is The Night For All (Memorial Beach, 1993)
By 1993, the bands transition from shiny pop to gloomy pop/rock was complete. Memorial Beach remains their most downbeat collection to date, however it was also their lowest chart position, with lead single Dark Is The Night For All peaking at #19. As with today’s charts – sponsored by Ed Sheeran – they didn’t really mean anything then either, other than lower positions meaning a higher quality of work. But that’s a whole can of locusts that doesn’t need to be opened here. Dark Is The Night (I’ve always felt that would have made a better title) builds from subtle organ notes to a thumping, Americana-lead beat. Around this time the band had just broken a record for biggest paid attendance for their Rock In Rio show, but it was ignored by the press and downplayed, a bit like one of Corbyn’s rallies.
Choice lyrics: ‘It’s time we moved out west, this town will be the best. And when the evenings fall, dark is the night for all’
6. Minor Earth Major Sky (Minor Earth Major Sky, 2000)
Seven years after their last record, a-ha returned, and so too did their synthesisers. Space elements ran through Minor Earth Major Sky (…see what they did there), while even the ballads seem lighter and somehow a little sunnier. The title track starts with an almost trance like break down, before Morten’s iconic vocals come in, marking the band’s well overdue return with a sound not unlike William Orbit’s takeover of the time. Almost as if their seven years away had made their creativity hit the refresh button, the music video was hugely creative, and saw the band as astronauts on the moon, walking through living rooms of the 70s. As you do.
Choice lyrics: ‘I can’t see me in this empty space, it’s so hard to leave a trace’
7. Lifelines (Lifelines, 2002)
The Lifelines album was a mixed bag of styles – from Beatles-like ballads (White Canvas) to disco-tinged bangers (You Wanted More). The opener is the former – a stunning Magne penned ballad, produced by Steven Hague (New Order, Blur) and Martin Landquist (…a-ha), and what’s particularly appealing about this one is the backing vocals during the chorus, where Mags’ echoed words shine. The band’s songwriting is generally a 50/40/10 split of Paul, Magne and Morten’s efforts respectively, and as with this one, Magne’s are often atmospheric, sweeping ballads (see also Manhattan Skyline and Cosy Prisons).
Choice lyrics: ‘One shot of a clear blue sky, one look – I see no reason why you can’t’
8. Celice (Analogue, 2005)
A number one hit in Belarus, but also a top ten in countries you’ve probably heard of including Belgium, Ukraine and Russia, Celice is the best of both a-ha’s: The upbeat synth (here sounding a little grainier) and the analogue instrumentation (hence the album’s title, perhaps…). In more recent years, bands including Coldplay and Keane have cited a-ha as influences on their own sound, and while it’s easy to scoff at those comments, imagining Tom Chaplin with a mullet, squealing in a hand-drawn video, this track could have fitted into any mix CD you “burned” with either of those acts’ songs from the time.
Choice lyrics: ‘Open up your eyes – make me want you’
9. The Bandstand (Foot Of The Mountain, 2009)
For Foot Of The Mountain, the synthesizers were back in a big way. After years of what felt like the band shunning their foundations, the opening notes of The Bandstand introduced fans to the band’s most electronic collection since their debut. While the bandstand in the middle of the park is usually taken over with either buskers or drunk kids (or drunk kid buskers), The Bandstand is a euphoric reminder of how these three can give cold, robotic sounds real emotion. Referred to by many reviewers as a distant cousin to Take On Me (we don’t have any original ideas anymore), this return to form, which charted higher than any a-ha album for over two decades, was swiftly followed by the announcement that the band were parting ways. Of course it was.
Choice lyrics: ‘Now tell me the story, give me the time – when you stop looking then you will find’
10. Cast In Steel (Cast In Steel, 2015)
After the Ending On A High Note tour put a very firm full stop on a-ha’s career, it was deleted swifter than a drunk Snapchat story, following their second half-decade break, with news of a return to Rock In Rio, as well as an album and tour. Apparently it’s only for two years (as much as I love this band I can’t understand why they can’t just take breaks and get back together without updating their status more than a stay-at-home Mum on Facebook. Two social media jokes in one paragraph, I don’t have any original ideas anymore…). This album almost perfectly collected the sounds from their previous nine LPs, merging brooding ballads, hints of synths and sky high vocals for a Greatest Bits Of Your Other Hits collection, kicking off with the title-track – mature, light and comforting. Like diet Cathedral City.
Choice lyrics: ‘One hundred percent to be true, to be right, to be real – set in stone and cast in steel. Made a pact, eye to eye – cross your heart and hope to die’