Nov 09

A-HA – “The Sun Always Shines On TV”

FT + Popular69 comments • 9,152 views

#564, 25th January 1986, video

“I fear the crazed and lonely looks the mirror’s sending me these days”: its showiness may be several cartwheels away from “West End Girls”‘ austerity, but the second number one of 1986 shares a little of the first’s dread and dislocation. Anxiety always sits well on handsome shoulders – the idea of the heart-throb with hidden depths has been a motivator in pop since, well, Sinatra at least: even so Morton Harket’s combination of florid woe and extreme Scandinavian prettiness is particularly enticing.

It helps that he has such an unnatural, catwalk voice – that combination of studied ESL cadences and poperatic reach means that every phrase is a pose, with that “crazed and lonely” line delivered with delicious aplomb. Unlike a lot of mid-80s pop, the singing – trying for theatre, not a cramped and nervous misunderstanding of soul – actually matches the crash and crunch and thrill of the music. After the panto gothickry of its echo-laden piano intro, “Sun”‘s grandiose clatter reminds you of Duran Duran’s confused commercial peak, only married to a stronger chorus than anything Duran managed post-’82. And speaking of 1982, this shuddering, soaring, synthetic thing is as close as we ever come to the full-blown Associates sound at number one, a gleaming bridge between the awkward sometimes genius of the new pop era and the heartbreaks of teenpop to come.



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  1. 31
    will on 6 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t think A-Ha were ‘hard done by’ in any way. They were the biggest selling pop band in the UK in 1986 – one number one and six top tens in just over a year – and unlike many of their contemporaries they’re remembered with a great deal of affection today.

    Erithian – I thought I was the only person in the world to remember Radio Active’s brilliant A-Ha pastiche! One of their best, I reckon. (Along with their parody of Dire Straits).

  2. 32
    M on 6 Nov 2009 #

    Interesting to note, of course, that this year’s “Foot of the Mountain” opened at #5 on the UK album charts, which seemed like a happy surprise to everyone.

  3. 33
    swanstep on 6 Nov 2009 #

    Wow, you guys, beginning with Tom, are freaking me out. This is a genuinely leaden, charmless song, a pallid thing. It’s worse than ‘If I was’, which itself was a 2/10 in my books (and worse than the average plodding Ultravox album track, which is what it most strongly resembles. The Associates comparison is completely absurd. Bad Popular.).

    Surely, surely this was a ‘hit’ *strictly* on the good-will coat-tails of ‘Take on me’ (itself not more than an 7 or 8 in my book). It reeks of what I think of as the ‘Enola Gay’ problem: there’s been a bona fide, in some sense surprise hit, and now the record company tries to find another single. But there isn’t one. (Needless to say, there aren’t any tracks quite this lame on OMD’s early albums.) Alarm bell rings from the vid.: frantic, lame attempt to ride the coat-tails of the bona fide hit? Check. GDP of small East European country spent on set and camera rigs trying to cover up that there’s no song there? Check. And so on.

    The ‘Please don’t ask me to defend/ The shameful lowlands/
    Of the way I’m drifting /Gloomily through time’ etc. lyrics are appalling, and attempts to defend them are certifiable in my view. I mean, Good God.

    Lastly, an appeal to consistency (even though I know that Tom disavows such things). In any even moderately sane pop universe the following ranking is correct:

    Mamma Mia > Take on me > Sun always shines

    Tom, however, gives MM 7, and SAS 8:

    2 (that’s being v. generous).

  4. 34
    Jungman Jansson on 7 Nov 2009 #

    Well, at least I’m happy in my little padded pop cell. I’d reverse your ranking without a second thought. And, if you want to bring up OMD, I’d pick “Maid of Orleans” above “Mamma Mia” any day. Seriously. Consistency is overrated anyway.

    There’s been some talk of millstones and albatrosses here lately – that’s ABBA to me. There’s just too much baggage. ABBA is the band that my (much, much older) sister likes. She who lives in a nice house in the suburbs, with two kids, a dog (well, they had one, but it died), a kitchen renovation every few years, always a gleaming new Volvo in the garage… it’s the perfect, safe, boring, Swedish middle-class dream. I’m probably simply born at just the wrong time, in just the wrong place, but I really find it hard to appreciate them. I can do it, but it takes a lot of willpower and a stark, analytical approach. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my friends (from roughly the same age group as myself) say a single good word about ABBA. It’s just not done. There is a particular event that made me reconsider them at least partially, but a certain lagomorph prevents me from saying any more about that.

    (Don’t pay too much attention to this, as it’s mostly drunken ramblings.)

  5. 35
    anto on 7 Nov 2009 #

    Good review!
    I never picked up on the resemblance to the Associates before, but yes even the lyric has that balance of strangeness and drama.
    Just glancing at the number ones for 1986 they seem a lot fresher than some of the stale efforts from 85.
    One can sense at this point that the pop scene was re-arranging itself mid-decade with the first number ones by Pete Waterman, Madonna, Whitney Houston, PSB and A-HA.
    The mention of Duran Duran is pertinent. “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is how Duran Duran sound in their wildest dreams. The splendour of Mortens voice and the accomplished A-HA sound must hade made Le Bon and co suddenly seem very passe.

  6. 36
    thefatgit on 8 Nov 2009 #

    Checked out a couple of cover versions today.

    Atrocity – Black Metal/Operatic Metal band from Norway. The guy sings almost monotone through this, and the girl trills and trills. I can’t think of a more profound vocal mismatch. Other than that, it’s your usual hairswirling, rockstrutting fare.

    Milk Inc. – Belgian Trancepop outfit. Somehow all the emotion and power of the original is replaced by banality with a four on the floor beat. In the throes of chemically induced euphoria, this has to be up there with the worst buzzkillers you could possibly find.

    Despite all this, both versions are incredibly faithful to the original, like a xerox running out of toner.

  7. 37
    crag on 8 Nov 2009 #

    theres a rather fun cover out there of Take On Me by The Samurai Seven that they performed on Peel in the early 00s thats worth hunting down- good stuff in a vaguely Ash-stylee
    As for SASOTV i always prefered it to take on me which, although a brilliant pop tune, was a little too weedy-sounding for my tastes. SASOTV meanwhile packs quite a punch and the Associates reference is the most spot-on “Of course how did never notice that!” moment Tom has conjured up since his “Do They Know its Christmas/Atmosphere” comparison a while back.
    Suprised no one has mentioned the obvious melodic similarities between this and a certain #1 from 2000 by a group set to go ballistic within a year of SASOTV hitting the top…

  8. 38
    Matthew K on 8 Nov 2009 #

    So slight. What did I miss?

  9. 39
    Tom on 8 Nov 2009 #

    Love Swanstep’s evisceration of this, even though obviously I don’t agree with it.

    #37 well since it got to #1 we can talk about it then – lord knows there’s not a lot else to say about that song :)

  10. 40
    Rory on 8 Nov 2009 #

    Swanstep @33 – that’s exactly why I wrote my comment before seeing anyone else’s, because I feared a whole thread of 2’s!

    I first heard this song as an album track, so the idea of it being a “follow-up single” as such never really occurred to me.

  11. 41
    Izzy on 8 Nov 2009 #

    #37: ha! The moment I saw your comment it was obvious which song you were talking about – even though I haven’t checked the year or anything, I’ll be amazed if it’s not the same one I’m thinking of.

    I’d never noticed the similarity before, but I think Tom is right and it indicates a certain emptiness to both tracks. With a-ha I’m willing to fill in the gaps, but with the other I put it down to having nothing left to say. I think the video might have a lot to do with it – darkness lends itself to that sort of dramatic tension much more than does light.

  12. 42
    LondonLee on 8 Nov 2009 #

    This is another one like ‘West End Girls’ that could have come from earlier in the decade – rather Duran Durannie as Tom said. Is that a sign that the great British public weren’t quite ready to let New Pop go?

    The piano sound at the start is very Scandinavian to me, ABBA used it a lot. It’s sort of chilly and echoey while also sounding like an old pub joanna.

  13. 43
    AndyPandy on 8 Nov 2009 #

    Think this is a far better track than ‘Take On Me’ but for some reason producers used to like to sample the IMO inferior track – one in particular Yolk’s ‘BishBosh’ was actually played quite a bit around 1992 – unfortunately it seemed to ruin quite a tough little track

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 8 Nov 2009 #

    talking of sampling a-ha, recently discovered Lifelike’s ‘Adventure’ which discofies the aforementioned ‘Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale’ with aplomb: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DimokKPyeH0

  15. 45
    swanstep on 9 Nov 2009 #

    @Tom, Rory. Thanks for indulging my outburst. Clearly I’m a true outlier on this song… To me ‘Sun always shines..’ is a first cousin to a boat-load of somewhat irritating stuff from the time, ranging from the utterly lumpen/change-the-radio-station-now-I-mean-it (Cutting Crew’s I just died in your arms tonight) to the ok-but-this-is-no-#1 (Icehouse’s No promises). There’s *something* charming in the vicinity: Fiat Lux’s vaguely gothy Secrets may be it. In any case, I don’t think *any* of this stuff was what Billy Mackenzie had in mind… but maybe I’m just not hearing this tune in the right way somehow. I confess, even a-ha’s song title sets my teeth on edge (it triggers nonsense, U-vox ‘look at the sound of the voice’ alarm-bells), but, hell, maybe it wouldn’t bug me if it was, say Polly Harvey or Nick Cave or some other haughty, hottie, weirdo singing it. I dunno…

  16. 46
    Rory on 9 Nov 2009 #

    It can’t last, because surely the long-term average will dip down, but right now this is in equal second place with “West End Girls” on the Populist reader top 100, with a 9 average (below long-time champ “I Feel Love” on 9.38). I would never have guessed. Even I wouldn’t rank it above “Dancing Queen” and “Wuthering Heights”! The surprising effects of the groupmind…

    Swanstep, I’m just waiting for my own 2-versus-everyone-else’s-9 moment – I’m sure it will come. I felt a bit out-of-step with a few of the 1984-85 hits, and there are stranger days ahead.

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I’m in agreement with the general pattern of A-Ha enthusiasm along with almost everyone else here – but I must report that i really disliked this at the time. Which is odd, because it’s so evidently the sort of thing that I ought to like.

    The thing which really grated at the time was what I heard as a hackneyed metaphor for delusion of the sun always shining on TV, combined with the song’s epic length. I think that I was hoping for something with the effervescence of ‘Take On Me’ again. It’s taken the education of learning what A-Ha were about through their subsequent records for me to appreciate this, though even now it’s only about my eighth favourite of their hits.

    For me, the greatest moment is ‘Stay On These Roads’ – the last really big hit in 1988; “The cold has a voice. It talks to me” – a wholly stright-faced song about mortality. The old man is dying of the cold. A voice, which may be either the cold or the remembered loved other implores him to stay alive, to keep hope, before it “trails off again”. It’s a lot closer to the Ibsen of Brand and John Gabriel Borkman than Five Star or Curiosity Killed the Cat.

  18. 48
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: A-Ha thrice performed ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ on Top Of The Pops;

    January 2 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Levia 42, Bronski Beat and Sophia George. John Peel and Janice Long were the hosts.

    January 16 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Fine Young Cannibals, Cherelle & Alexander O’Neal and Mister Mister. Mike Read and Dixie Peach were the hosts.

    January 23 1986. Also in the studio that week were; The Alarm and nana Mouskouri. Paul Jordan (who?) and Mike Smith were the hosts.

  19. 49
    Conrad on 9 Nov 2009 #

    It is a bit Ultravox in places. Quite like the counterpoint riff that comes in after the chorus and before the next verse gets going, but the overall feel is so BIG and STADIUM that I can’t really relate to this at all.

    The vocals are if anything are too good, almost quasi-operatic, but not in a weird Billy MacKenzie way. They don’t work as pop vocals for me.

    Edit – on second listen the way he sings “Touch Me” is too fey to work with the stadium rock/pop backing. Normally I don’t have a problem with fey but it needs a lighter touch on the production.

    A 5, because it’s well put together and has some good ideas.

    On the subject of why A-Ha weren’t bigger (although as somebody pointed out, they had a pretty good 12 months or so), isn’t A-Ha an awful choice for a band name? Perhaps that affected their chances of any long term credibility.

  20. 50
    Conrad on 9 Nov 2009 #

    “…“Sun”’s grandiose clatter reminds you of Duran Duran’s confused commercial peak, only married to a stronger chorus than anything Duran managed post-’82.”

    Not “Ordinary World” Tom, – not by a long chalk

  21. 51
    Pete on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Yes, lest you forget the emotional power of Ordinary World.

    8 for me and much concurring with what is above. I have both this and Take On Me on vinyl single and this I think I have come to prefer. However the song has a much more resonant meaning for me.

    In the summer of 1989 a friend and I ended up on Capital Radio, doing Gharam Dene’s “Wall Game” This was a complex lunchtime quiz show where four contestants would be wittled down to one who could then win a prize of the order of a CD player or stereo. This was a special half term kids version, but the questions weren’t exactly dumbed down. More importantly along the line Jakki Brambles (who was the producer on the show at the time) got out of me my admiration for Belinda Carlisle’s cheekbones. I digress.

    Anyway in the final round I had to answer three questions out of five about 1986 correctly (it being the “year” round). The music question was on A-Ha, as they had played Hunting High And Low. And it was simple, name another A-Ha hit from 1986.

    So I said The Sun Always Shines On TV, confident that it was number one in early 1986. Wrong – they said. This threw me because
    a) I knew I was right
    b) I had to get three out of the next four right.

    I did manage to get the three, but as ever this burned in my soul, as clearly Capital Radio had just looked in the Guinness book of hit singles and seen that The Sun Always Shines On TV was released on the 28 December 1985, and thusly a 1985 hit.

    I started listening to Radio One soon after.

  22. 52
    Tom on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Apologies to “Ordinary World”, whose chorus is indeed a pearler.

    (I really like some post-82 Duran – as my generous marks for them suggested – but almost never for the choruses – they were good at, er, vibe I guess.)

  23. 53
    Izzy on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I could never get into ‘Ordinary World’ – ‘Come Undone’, on the other hand… I think this reflects nothing so much as a natural affinity for minor chords.

    Duran Duran had a fine indian summer around that period. For most people that came to a shuddering halt with that covers album they did, but I really liked about half the tunes on there, acoustic ’911 Is A Joke’ included. I fear digging it out again, lest reality spoil that little bit of contrarianism.

  24. 54
    Alan on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I really liked Ordinary World at the time, but I’ve head it recently a couple of times on the radio/telly and was struck by how it goes on and how plodding it seems as a result. i cannot square this realisation with my love for darren hayes’ stuff :-/

  25. 55
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Ordinary World was written after Le Bon suffered the traumatic experience of going to the supermarket and nobody recognising him, IIRC.

  26. 56
    pink champale on 9 Nov 2009 #

    this is a brilliant thing for a pop song to be about of course.

    as it happens, i often see paul young doing his shopping – notably un-mobbed – in barnet waitrose, his masterpiece no doubt brewing.

  27. 57
    Pete on 9 Nov 2009 #

    The irony of Ordinary World being about a pop star no longer being a pop star being the song which then made Duran Duran popstars all over again was terrific.

  28. 58
    ottersteve on 9 Nov 2009 #

    An 8 for this?

    It’s not a patch on “Take on me”. To my ears this sounds like a B-side track. Something hastily put together when A-ha realised they were suddenly famous and needed to keep the momentum rolling – as so many groups have done in the past. The sad thing is that this time the wrong record made it to No.1 – Part of the post Xmas “what single shall we buy?” syndrome that so often happens. That would apply if the brilliant PSB’s hadn’t got there first.

    A 4 from me.

  29. 59
    swanstep on 9 Nov 2009 #

    @53 Izzy. I’m with you on ‘Come Undone’. A seriously beautiful song – more graceful than I’d have ever thought was in the cards for DD. Great drum sounds, great guitars, and esp. great backing vocal hook from Tessa Niles. (She’d been the female voice on ABC’s Lexicon of love e.g., on ‘Datestamped’, and it was *great* to really hear her cut through again. Subtlely, sonically connecting the Duranies back to their pomp…this was a production master-stroke.)

  30. 60
    George Tait on 12 Nov 2009 #

    ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ shares a gene pool with The Eurythmics’s ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’, surely. 14 years later, a really BIG band would steal the melody for one of their number ones. Jeez, it’s so hard finding new things to say on here. You guys and gals really know your stuff.

    And Duran Duran? Post 1982 it may have gone a bit wonky for them but you have to admire the chutzpah of a band who thought they could cover Public Enemy and get away with it. And then there’s ‘Electric Barbarella’ with its dubious lyrics and even more dubious video. But what a cracking tune.

  31. 61
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    I remember with A-ha being alienated by their beauty, but this song made me retrospectively like all their music.

  32. 62
    Brooksie on 21 Mar 2010 #

    I always liked this. It sounds epic, but in a house of cards ‘fragile’ way. It’s clearly contrived to be emotional and over the top, but isn’t all pop an attempt to market ‘feelings’, often at the cost of honesty?

    A-ha at this point were the group gaining all the new girly fans, many of them were ex-Durannies jumping ship. You could practically feel the posters of LeBon et al being torn down from the bedroom walls as their extended absence gained these new Euro pretty-boys much needed space to advance unhindered. Spandau too were losing fans. Wham! timed their breakup just right, as they were the only remaining members of the teenybopper three to strike back in late ’85 / early ’86, and by announcing their split, they set a closing date for their fans to cling to which worked like a charm. As a result, there was no loss of face or ‘fans moving on’ for them.

    A-ha were certainly more consistent (and better IMHO) than the other ‘big’ new groups of the year – ‘Five Star’ and ‘Curiosity Killed the Cat’. Both of whom would have short survival rates and little enduring fan appeal. But saying that, A-ha never really convinced in their position as popstars the way Duran did, there was very little seductive glamour. And they were easily as patchy a singles band as Duran (they were no Wham! in this regard). So even after a strong 1-2 punch, they tapered off, never again bothering the top 3 of the charts. Their follow-ups were good, with ‘Hunting High and Low’ and ‘Cry Wolf’ as standouts, but things like ‘Train of Thought’, ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ and ‘Manhattan Skyline’ were never going to bother the top 3. Also, Duran always managed to add something new every now and then to show that they were attentive to what was going on, and at least somewhat progressive. A-ha never managed that (‘Living Daylights’, while a fine song, lacks the punch of ‘View to a Kill’ and owes more than a little to that songs ‘orchestra crash’). Their third album, while containing some good tunes (‘Stay On These Roads’) was no more advanced than their first, and by then SAW were moving many units, so A-ha’s time was done.

    Also worth pointing out; while Duran had at the very least three worthy pin-up members, it seems that A-ha really only had one – Morten. Yes, the other two were ok looking, but as a band, they really only graced the bedroom walls because of Morten, unlike Duran and Wham! where the as-good-looking-as-a-model ratio was higher.

  33. 63
    Rory on 21 Mar 2010 #

    @62, I agree that “Manhattan Skyline” was never going to bother the top 3, but it’s a fantastic song – one of their very best.

    Mags Furuholmen was only “ok looking”? Blimey, tough crowd. I’d have said a-ha’s 2:1 ratio compared very favourably to Duran’s.

    Having now caught up on a-ha’s later output, I have to question the comparison with Duran on that score too. The band sound rather bitter in interviews about their record company forcing them to keep working with their original producer and sound for that third album when they were keen to move on.

  34. 64
    DanH on 26 Jan 2013 #

    “Walk of Life” is memorable because the U.S. video is basically 4 minutes of “Sports Bloopers.” I think the U.K. video is just a band ‘performance’ of the song?

  35. 65
    Mark g on 27 Jan 2013 #

    It was half and half

  36. 66
    hectorthebat on 11 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 6

  37. 67
    Rory on 21 May 2015 #

    Disbanded no more! A new album, Cast in Steel, is promised for September.

  38. 68
    Saeed Malik on 26 Apr 2021 #

    Agree with Rory’s post (No.18), this is a certain 10 for me. I like it a lot more than Take On Me. I find the soaring nature of this song very enjoyable.

  39. 69
    Gareth Parker on 17 May 2021 #

    Dead cert, nailed-on 10/10 for me. One of my absolute favourite UK #1 singles. Just glorious, wonderful stuff in my opinion.

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