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Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

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#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. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Apr 2015 #

    The original is my pop lodestar – unwillingness to commit to any worldview that would require renouncing it has steered me well over the last 30 years.

    This is largely alright – the blitteration of the attempt at the high note at 2:03 is a decent tactic, letting whoever it is at 3:00 have a crack is … not so much.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 29 Apr 2015 #

    In before dinner time.

  3. 3
    Muck on 29 Apr 2015 #

    Oh man, this video has everything! Tron and Matrix references, weird futuristic bondage trousers and an extra incongruously wearing a sex pistols t shirt!

    I was certain “Caught in the Middle” was going to be a future bunny but apparently it only got to number two. This seems to be a fairly common thread from the last few years of reading this blog though…

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 29 Apr 2015 #

    as someone familiar with the original, this is the aural (and with the video, the visual) equivalent of a designer knockoff – Chan3l No S – superficial similarities to the original but nothing like the original fragrance, just an underwhelming generic perfume.
    I associate A1 with a former, rather awkward, pupil of mine who was a huge fan. This might have been socially acceptable if she had been 11 or 12 but as she was 17/18 she was treated with derision by her peers who had learned to be enthusiastic about more credible rock or dance acts – at least in public.

  5. 5
    thefatgit on 29 Apr 2015 #

    Reel Big Fish. (4)

  6. 6
    Izzy on 29 Apr 2015 #

    4: ha! I vividly remember my wife telling me about this record on one of our earliest dates. Thankfully, it caught me right on the cusp of realising that all my years of learned credible rock-talk amounted to not a great deal, and that in the real world A1 were more significant than just about any of them.

    For that, and the fifteen splendid years since: (11)

  7. 7
    JLucas on 29 Apr 2015 #

    I have a soft spot for A1. They were very much on the B-list as far as pop bands go, but their jaunty Scandi-produced pop tunes were a welcome antidote from Westlife’s bland balladry. This was a bit of a desperation move, and a rather cheap way to promote themselves (briefly) to the big leagues in time for the launch of their second album (the first having been modestly successful but no blockbuster). I can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to play it now with the original still so much a part of pop culture. Still, it’s less dreadful than 5ive’s take on We Will Rock You, and they did have a bona fide Norwegian in the group which I presume is what gave their management the idea.

    Their next bunny and Caught In The Middle are where they peak for me. Both really excellent pop songs.

  8. 8
    flahr on 29 Apr 2015 #

    “VIRUS LOCATOR
    LOCATING VIRUS”

    I also note that 2:10 – 20 of the video appears to have been shot on a Microsoft Lumia (topical now, yes, but…).

    The song? What’s the point, though? None of them look as good as Horten Market and perhaps just as importantly none of them sing as good as him either. Tempted to give low marks for pointlessness. “B-b-but it WASN’T pointless, they didn’t have access to the original back in ye olde days, they couldn’t just use YouTube like you can, you entitled swine!” Yeah but I’m living (and marking) in the moment, maaaaan [3]

  9. 9
    Auntie Beryl on 29 Apr 2015 #

    C. (5)

  10. 10
    Mostro on 29 Apr 2015 #

    This is actually a pretty generic cover. If you ignore superficialities like the more of-that-time keyboard sound and the r-n’-b-lite end to the chorus, it’s not drastically different to the original arrangement.

    The thing that bugged me most about this version at the time- and which still does- is the part where they *did* mess with the original song itself, i.e. cutting out the first few bars of the middle eight. Minor, but cheap and nasty, and it never fails to jar.

    That aside, this is too “meh” to hate. Probably helps that the original was never my favourite A-Ha single- bit too bright and synthpoppy- and has been overplayed since.

    “The Sun Always Shines on TV”, OTOH, was fantastic- by far my favourite from the parent album (and possibly my favourite by them full stop). A-Ha may have only ever had a single UK #1, but if that had to be the case, who can argue that the more deserving song didn’t win?

    Meanwhile, A1 may have got “Take On Me” to the top when A-Ha didn’t, but nostalgic mid-twentysomething women aside, I suspect this is an “oh yeah, I vaguely remember that” cover for most people.

  11. 11
    chelovek na lune on 29 Apr 2015 #

    Fails the basic rule of cover versions: do it better or do it differently, or ideally both.

    Once upon a time this might have been categorised – overoptimistically – as “music for pleasure”. A Poundstretchers knockoff would be more accurate. An entirely pointless record, although the fact that is basically a poor quality carbon copy of the original means that some of the songs’s better qualities remain intact, but really: why bother? 2

  12. 12
    Alan on 29 Apr 2015 #

    Try to distance yourself from the over-worn context of the original you can hear in your mind with the original original. Here’s the first earlier stab at it as mixed/produced by Tony “New Musik” Mansfield that was released in Norway
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZhrZqWaOwA

  13. 13
    Regina on 29 Apr 2015 #

    There’s only been one decent a-ha cover version:
    http://youtu.be/tlLi3zbSEMU
    You don’t get any more mid-90s than this and there’s something touchingly gauche and charming about their vocals and pronunciation. And they’re adorable too, which helps.
    As for A1, their cover of no importance didn’t trouble the charts or the general consciousness for too long if I remember correctly.

  14. 14
    Andrew on 29 Apr 2015 #

    #13 oh this is great. There is something a bit Felix ‘Don’t You Want Me’ about that big-room riff isn’t there?

  15. 15
    Regina on 29 Apr 2015 #

    #14 Dead right – there’s more than a bit of Felix so what’s not too love!
    A1 were a decidedly rum bunch.
    Smash Hits were always trying to push Ben as some kind of heart-throb what with his curtains and all but there was always something slightly bovine about him. Whereas Christian had both the curtains and the cheekbones.

  16. 16
    Phil on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Hang on, that’s it – the last time I saw Jane Suck[‘s name in print] it was the very end of 1977, everyone was wondering what would come next now that punk was so obviously dead (ha!), and she was championing an artistic movement called “New Musik” – which as far as anyone could tell consisted entirely of Kraftwerk and Space (the French band). According to Wikipedia the band New Musik first formed in 1977, so maybe that was what was going on – they/she stoking up the wave that she/they could ride. Didn’t work out, clearly. Mind you, Tony Mansfield seems to have done all right – wonder what became of Jane?

  17. 17
    Phil on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #15 – curtains?

  18. 18
    AMZ1981 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Quite a bit to discuss here.

    Firstly this was the last of the record breaking run of twelve one week wonders. The top spot now stabilises with a couple of two week runners before the 2000 madness begins again so it may be worth taking stock and noting that of the twelve acts involved; only Black Legend can be dismissed as one hit wonders (Spiller were never heard from again but their featured vocalist was) and only the Corrs and Sophie Ellis Bexter were scoring their only number one.

    A1 were slightly lucky to make the top as they sneaked in with a low sale. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them because like 911 before them they made a little go a long way. Their first brace of hits were so tinny and pathetic to be almost embarrassing and yet they seemed to move a little up the pop league table each time. And yet Take On Me seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with pop music at the time although it’s debatable as to how much of it was actually their fault.

    I’ve got no problem with boy bands or anybody else doing cover versions. Not everybody can be a songwriter and for every million selling classic a thousand equally good songs have fallen under the radar. And yet A1 (okay, and their puppetmasters), needing a cover version, went for something obvious in order to score an easy hit. Given that it didn’t come close to the original and nobody for one minute suggested it did, one wonders whether A1 could have scored a number one single with anything. Maybe, maybe not. If they’d gone a bit more leftfield and covered (plucking a completely random example from the hat) Maps And Legends by REM would we be discussing it here? I honestly don’t know. The fact is that I’ve always detested obvious cover versions as much as I’ve hated film adaptations of best selling novels made for the purpose of a cheap buck. It’s the lowest common denominator of the arts in my opinion.

  19. 19
    AMZ1981 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #17 Curtains was a type of hairstyle where the hair was combed in a centre parting and flopped down across the face like curtains. That was how my hair looked in 2000.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 30 Apr 2015 #

    This one’s new to me (as is A1). Urgh, redundant cover will never be played again by me! As for a score, well, I tend to ask myself things like what tracks I’d rather have written or performed at the time, and which I’m indifferent between being imaginatively deleted from pop-history, and which I have marked preferences for on that front. The latter way of thinking in particular automatically pushes highly redundant covers near the bottom of the pile, and makes giving this track the same score as ‘Brass in Pocket’ or ‘Message in A Bottle’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or ‘All You Need Is Love’ or ‘Something In The Air’ as Tom does seem certifiable. So be it:
    1 (possibly a 2 if in a very good mood)

  21. 21
    mapman132 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Hmm, weren’t A1 named after the London-Edinburgh road, or am I just trying to project my geographic interests on everything again?

    I’ve made my aversion toward pointless covers known before, and despite some minor synth updates, that’s pretty much what this is. Since they’re being so obvious about it, they should’ve done a more direct remake of the video too: girl in Starbucks gets pulled into CGI-world through her laptop screen. In 2015, she’d instead get pulled into a Youtube video via her smartphone.

    Scary thought I just had: we are now as far away from 2000 as 2000 was from 1985! Time for pointless remake of an NSync song?

  22. 22
    Jonathan on 30 Apr 2015 #

    It seemed like this was a favorite for pop-punk bands to cover at the time (both Reel Big Fish and MxPx did versions), and I’m probably imagining the existence of a few more due to memories of misattributed Napster files. (Did Me First and the Gimme Gimmes ever do it?) So though no quality of this was particularly notable, I think I just shrugged it off as another version of what seemed to be a modern standard.

  23. 23
    weej on 30 Apr 2015 #

    A1 always seemed like the most generic-by-design boyband around, from their name to their composition of “cute one” “buff one” “other one” and their halfhearted claim to write their own songs, and it’s no surprise that they peaked with a pointless cover of an 80s pop song. For me this is the ultimate example of d-grade cultural detritus sneaking to the top in this torrent of one-week wonders. Presumably there are people out there to whom the existence of A1 is important in some way, but it’s harder than ever to work out how and why.

  24. 24
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #19 – I don’t think I’ve seen curtains in the wqild for the last decade or so – are they one of the rare fashion and styling choices that has never undergone a revival of any sort, banished only to the Dead Lands of Culture that is the top of professional footballers’ heads?

    #20 – might have to ask you to walk me through the “as for a score” sentence again?

    #21 – Frankly this strikes me as more likely.

    #23 “Presumably there are people out there to whom the existence of A1 is important in some way, but it’s harder than ever to work out how and why.” – a recurrent theme (which I think gets worse as time goes on) is that when the people for whom a track is important are presumed to be girls/young women, the obvious answer (ask them, and take their answers as honest) seems to drop off the list of available actions.

  25. 25
    AMZ1981 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #23 A1 deserve a bit better than to be written out of history completely. This discussion probably belongs to their next self penned bunny but they would eventually make a wild tint at credibility with a single (an almost bunny, denied by a four weeker but we’ll get to that in due course) that anticipated the sound that would return Take That to the stratosphere almost five years later. Ben Adams would have a modest solo career and they are still performing today; perhaps more than that they seem genuinely interested in making music.

    #21 and pointless cover versions of NSync songs? It is interesting that nobody is doing that and indeed the stuff in the charts in 2015 seems to be largely self penned. Is it a case that a) the market for cover versions has dried up or b) stuff from fifteen years ago isn’t worth covering?

  26. 26
    Tom on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #25 FLAHR touched on part of the answer above – there’s much less percentage in doing an identikit cover when the original is a click away. I also think that the ubiquity of covers on YouTube and reality TV shows (and as Spotify spam) have lessened their impact a bit. The stretch of Popular we’re on now is the commercial heyday of the cover.

    #20 the metric I most often use for marking these days is “how happy would I be to hear this again right now”. I don’t strictly use that, since it would place this quite far above “All You Need Is Love”, among others. But it’s the method that best lifts the weight of critical propriety, which I’m as prone to feeling as anyone. I think my relative tolerance – mark-wise – for shonky covers is a side effect of that, creating a loophole where a record can have no need to exist, or be listened to, without actually being bad.

  27. 27

    @16: I didn’t know Jane as Jane Suck in the 70s, but I did know her as Jane Solanas in the 80s at NME, where she wrote quite a lot (she’s archived under both names at Rock’s Back Pages) (which is a subscription site, tho the sub’s worth getting I think).

    I don’t know if she still writes, and if so what name she now uses. She was on my long list to track down for the conference on rockwriting that I’m running at Birkbeck in a couple of weeks. Which reminds me, I keep meaning to write an FT post abt same…

  28. 28
    Tom on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Did we ever play this at Club Popular, by the way? Pointless it may be, but I can’t imagine that mattering much at 12.30 AM on the Club P dancefloor.

  29. 29
    weej on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #24 I guess where I’m coming from is that I connect to music personally, and if I don’t then I try to stretch out my tendrils to try to imagine how I could connect. Some boybands I actively like, others are not for me, others I dislike but can at least see the appeal of (Westlife just about fit in this category.) I don’t see how not understanding this particular boyband makes me some sort of sexist – if fans of A1 or any other group / artist whose appeal I find inexplicable (RHCP, Van Morrison, UB40 and Nickleback all spring to mind) wants to come forward and explain then I would be more than happy. I rarely see any “ask them” going on for fans of any act, doesn’t mean anyone is shutting them out.

  30. 30
    Rory on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Given my heartfelt response to “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and the 10 I gave it, I expected to use this entry to wax lyrical about the original rather than the cover. But there’s not much to add other than that a-ha’s “Take on Me” and its video caught my attention at the time as it did so many others, and I still rate it highly today. I don’t even think it’s dated too badly (though of course it has dated); the original original linked by Alan @12, while fascinating to see and hear, sounds far more stuck in its 1984 moment.

    But while I agree that this cover sounds utterly redundant to 2015 ears, I like Tom’s point about giving the kids of 2000 their own version to love. I remember cover versions in the early ’80s doing the same for teenage-me: one that sticks in my mind is Forrest’s 1982 cover of “Rock the Boat” less than a decade after the original. The Hues Corporation took their song to the top in the US in 1974, which certainly put the remake in redundant territory, but they might as well have done it in 1874 for all I knew.

    So, points for keeping a great song alive. I don’t even mind the 2000 production touches, which work perfectly well with the song, though they’re less striking than Alan Tarney’s 1985 take. The video is hilariously dated, but that’s boybands for you. No, the main drawback here is the severe absence of Morten Harket, who lifted just about everything he touched to another level.

    For the greatness of the underlying song, and for the cover’s harmless production, I’ll stretch my instinctive pointless-cover/dull-vocals score of three all the way up to Tom’s 5. I may have been influenced by listening to too many “covers for kids” CDs in recent years.

    (A1’s version peaked at number 46 on the Australian charts, unlike a-ha’s chart-topping original, so you won’t find a studio band’s cover of their cover on that kids’ album. 2000 is present and correct with “Who Let the Dogs Out”, though.)

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