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Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

Popular73 comments • 3,637 views

#873, 9th September 2000

A1take A single that’s good for one thing, at least: “Which group got to No.1 with Take On Me?” is a reliably sneaky pop quiz question. Beyond that, it’s tempting to dismiss A1’s version as irrelevant. Doubly tempting if you were 12 in 1985, and the clean surge of that keyboard riff still sounded like the bright world of life and youth and adventure opening up in front of you. It’s not that a cover version is any kind of sacrilege – just that you can’t update the eternally young. But listen again and A-Ha’s original sounds stuck in its time: the synthesisers thin, the drum sound hollow and deadened. That doesn’t make it less glorious to me, it just reminds me of the work memory does in making songs great. Why not give new 12-year olds a chance for memories of their own?

That’s the logic of the pop micro-genre “Take On Me” reminds me of: not cover versions so much as reboots. Sweden specialised in them: the A-Teens, four perky kids who mixed ABBA numbers with bouncy originals. Or West End Girls, two girls tasked with bringing a teenpop gloss to the Pet Shop Boys. If “Take On Me” wasn’t by A1, you could imagine it as the launch single for A-Half, three jaunty, bright-eyed miniatures of Morton, Mags and Pal. The approach is identical: dusty 80s synths and beats swapped out for slightly clubbier, zippier 90s ones, and a match of proven songs with eye candy for tweens. It was good business, cheerful, and certainly cheap. And – for all you might sniff at it – actually quite hard to really fuck up from a musical perspective.

So yes, A1’s “Take On Me” can’t be the Proustian H-bomb of associations the original is for me – the pop memory is acutely attuned to texture and nuance, the detail of a track, which is why cheap re-recordings, Top Of The Pops Orchestra versions, and covers by “The Original Artists” can be so close and so wrong. But even so it’s still the same song, the same alchemising of a brief fling into a fairytale epic. It has much of the melodic joy, some of the enthusiasm, even a bit of the charm. But it falls down badly on the singing – A1 are anaemic gerbils against Morten Harket’s theatrical falsetto. (And in place of the romance of A-Ha’s landmark video, A1 give us an excruciating cyberpunk riff, which makes no difference to the record but you should see anyway, just because it’s funny.)

Still, their “Take On Me” is a creditable try. No shame on anyone involved. What it doesn’t do is make the case for A1 as anything other than a lower-tier boyband. There was room for a tween-appeal group alongside Westlife’s broader church, and A1 had already notched several hits, but Autumn 2000 was the peak for them. They came with two different marketing angles that didn’t really work together – they had the wholesome cheek of early Take That, and they wrote their own songs. But writing your own songs only matters if you’re good at it, and “Take On Me” was the first memorable record the band put out, even if the memories were all borrowed.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    DanusJonus on 3 May 2015 #

    I’m very glad many other people have similarly fond memories of the ringtone creation function, I didn’t expect it to strike a chord (sorry!) with people!

    I have similar memories to some of those listed above. It seemed so groundbreaking at the time to be able to compose something and then have it as your ringtone (while also subjecting other people to it as well!) I recall being able to write She Bangs the Drums with it, though it seemed difficult to get ‘rests’ into the music, meaning everything I did had a slightly frenetic quality to it. I suppose its limitations were part of the beauty though. If you wanted to start putting demi-semi quavers into it then I fear the phone may have exploded in protest anyway.

  2. 62
    Ed on 3 May 2015 #

    All the love for ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ reminds me we’ll be getting another chance to discuss it here very soon ;)

  3. 63
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

    #62 we will?

  4. 64
    Chelovek na lune on 4 May 2015 #

    #63 I should say so: you too, surely?

  5. 65
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

    #64 I’m completely lost. Did somebody sample it?

  6. 66
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

    OH. Ha! Got it.

  7. 67
    Jeremy on 4 May 2015 #

    The A1 version doesn’t sound quite as good to me these days (probably due to the already discussed fact that the internet has since allowed me to properly appreciate A-ha’s original) but at the time it sounded so thrilling and exciting I feared my bonce might explode. That “circular” synthesizer effect (not sure of the best way to describe it) running through the song is glorious and, as a full on pop tart, the modernity of that sound totally made the record.

    The video is a complete shocker but it’s possibly of interest to note that the intention of it was to demonstate cutting edge visual effects – albeit those affordable to a UK record company – as the animated version had done for A-ha in the 80s. Fun *cough* fact: this was the first time Ben “baby of the band” Adams appeared without his curtains. Yes, I know they were just glued back, BUT THESE THINGS MATTERED!!

  8. 68
    IP on 4 May 2015 #

    That *is* a spectacular video. A little bit Tron, a little bit Sonic, and a soupcon of Blockbusters (it’s the hexagons). The boys are a bunch of B minuses, though, aren’t they?

    The best moment is that delicious “things that so say, oyez oyez” at the 3 min mark. So ropey. So pop.

  9. 69
    Phil on 4 May 2015 #

    There’s definitely a bit of Blockbusters in there – and perhaps even in the original?

  10. 70
    swanstep on 5 May 2015 #

    A1’s vid. felt to me like a bargain-basement version of Backstreet’s vid for Larger Than Life. Solo Robbie at this point is playing at the right level to compete, A1 not so much.

  11. 71
    Tom on 5 May 2015 #

    The video made me think of kids’ sci-fi shows, which then made me think that Doctor Who’s 16-year hiatus was very well timed, effects wise.

  12. 72
    Steve Mannion on 5 May 2015 #

    Ha yeah I’ve thought the same since it came back. Good job Mr Grade…

  13. 73
    MUSICALITY on 24 Apr 2017 #

    Main review is great and spot on however I liked this in that it was my first listen of this song which is clearly a strong and timeless pop single.

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