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Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

Popular72 comments • 3,212 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. 51
    Phil on 1 May 2015 #

    @47 What’s in the original? Tempo variation between the verse and the chorus, a quirky but interesting middle-eight, a wobbly but expressive voice with an astonishing falsetto. What’s in the cover? No tempo variation, a boring middle-eight, technically competent but boring voices (plus Autotune) and a lousy falsetto. Chalk, cheese.

  2. 52
    Chelovek na lune on 1 May 2015 #

    I certainly wouldn’t rate “Take On Me” as a-ha’s finest moment (the two main contenders for that being to my ears: “The Sun Always Shines On TV” and the utterly gorgeous and haunting “Stay On These Roads”). At the end of the day though (leaving aside tedious musical gimmicky touches on the a1 version), what they have, that a1 lack, is the simply stunning voice of Morten Harket – that, even on a mediocre song, will give a-ha the edge over many a pop group…it simply was never going to be a fair fight from the outset.

  3. 53
    JLucas on 2 May 2015 #

    As far as A-Ha hits, I’ve always had a huge soft spot for the lovely ‘Dark Is The Night’.

  4. 54
    Andrew on 2 May 2015 #

    #52 ‘Stay on These Roads’ and ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ are my favourites too! ‘Crying in the Rain’ is also a good one.

    Morten’s voice is fantastic. He really knows how to sell a melodrama

  5. 55
    Shiny Dave on 2 May 2015 #

    Arguably A1’s biggest contribution to popular culture was from Charles Ingram’s run on Millionaire.

    A1 were the last remaining wrong answer (after the use of the 50:50, Ingram’s last lifeline) to the £32,000 question asking for the artist responsible for the album Born To Do It. Ingram locked in on that wrong answer for several minutes before suddenly changing his mind.

    He’d go on to answer the last five questions correctly with similar swerves, several of which were later traced to the presence of coded coughs. (Though this question had a gasp from presumably-younger members of the audience. I can say from experience of being in the audience for Millionaire some years later that it is remarkably difficult to stay quiet when you know someone is going to give a wrong answer!)

    By sheer coincidence, the episode was postponed anyway (it was recorded on 10 September 2001 at a time when there was a very short gap between recording and transmission), was left unaired pending police enquiries, and then Ingram went on to be found guilty of fraud. That meant the episode only aired in the form of a documentary about said fraud.

    And that’s far more interesting than this cover!

  6. 56
    DanusJonus on 3 May 2015 #

    I feel the need to point out that this cover was the first time I heard a chart single as someone’s ringtone. As to how far back from 2000 the ringtone market started I’m not quite sure, but I think it presents a nice example of how music was starting to be consumed in a new way by 2000. I know we’re a while away from downloads being counted yet, but the fact that you could buy a newly released song and have it as a ringtone was something very turn of the century. A bunnied band who we’ll discuss in a few years would comment that ‘There’s only music, so that’s there’s new ringtones.’

    As to what it is about a song that makes a good ringtone………..erm, I have no idea, nor is that a point worth exploring?

    Incidentally, does anybody remember the phones where you could write your own ringtones?

  7. 57
    Izzy on 3 May 2015 #

    I do! I moved into a tiny place around this time, so small that my phone was the only instrument I had.

    I used to programme movie themes into it, perhaps because they tend to have easily-identifiable and constant melodies. The exercise actually taught me a bit about composition, scales and key, I suppose demonstrating the maxim about the best source for pop being kids pushing against tight limitations.

    These last two posts are actually fairly mighty pop events, though one *could* I suppose say that A1’s contributions were relatively minor. Perhaps there are others? The hanging chads being made from recycled A1 posters, something like that.

  8. 58
    Phil on 3 May 2015 #

    I ‘wrote’ the Hall of the Mountain King on my first mobile phone, accidentals and all (couldn’t manage the accelerando though). My actual ringtone was the Captain Scarlet theme, also transcribed by ear (octave jump and all). I really miss that feature – a small example of how improvements in recorded music crowd out music making.

  9. 59

    Yes, on my funny squished-looking little sega I wrote (bcz i am 1 x art-ponce) a Webernian 12-tone row of a ringtone which pals will recall with delight (aka nostalgic irritation)

  10. 60
    Shiny Dave on 3 May 2015 #

    I have fond memories of ringtone creation in the mid-2000s, in fact I think it was one of my gateways into songwriting.

    Having said that, these days my smartphone has an app on it called Chordbot which takes the “select a note and duration, then add another” principle of that Nokia feature and extends it to, you guessed it, chords. I’ve definitely had a few ideas come out of it.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 ;)

  13. 63
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

    #62 we will?

  14. 64
    Chelovek na lune on 4 May 2015 #

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

  15. 65
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

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

  16. 66
    Andrew on 4 May 2015 #

    OH. Ha! Got it.

  17. 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!!

  18. 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.

  19. 69
    Phil on 4 May 2015 #

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 72
    Steve Mannion on 5 May 2015 #

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

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