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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. 31
    Andrew on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #24 re: #23 yes this is disheartening to see e.g. also at #10 – are nostalgic twenty-something women’s opinions irrelevant? Okay, we’re considering why and how things are popular so the fact that a fanbase is small is pertinent (and a1’s ‘Take on Me’ looks more like a fanbase hit than a massive crossover) but there does seem to be a recurrent element of dismissiveness to young women.

    I thought a1 were pretty good; certainly more spunky and lively than Westlife, less obnoxious and tiresome than latter-day 5ive and closer to the pop shore than end-of-the-pier 911.

    Their early singles ‘Be the First to Believe’ and ‘Summertime of Our Lives’ wonderfully embody my memories of Smash Hits circa summer 1999 (I was 12 at the time, and probably one of the few people I knew still buying Smash Hits) – dayglo, carefree sun-drenched pop, not hugely inventive or ambitious, but certainly as enjoyable as the best of Steps and S Club 7.

    ‘Ready or Not’, meanwhile, is one of the best examples of Fauxtown: http://www.popjustice.com/briefing/right-then-lets-test-out-this-spotify-play-button-thing/86717/

    Early ballads ‘Like a Rose’ and ‘Everytime’ and the r&b-ish ‘No More’ were pap, however.

    Their cover of ‘Take on Me’ is a nifty and likeable update with a more bombastic production than the a-ha original, and 15 years certainly wasn’t too soon to revisit a classic in 2000. Nowadays I think the Spotify generation have less need for hits of yesteryear to be covered in order for them to discover the songs – the originals are there at listeners’ disposal, and there is less stigma in listening to ‘old music’.

    The bunny and ‘Caught in the Middle’ were, as JLucas indicates upthread, a1’s best work.

    As with many of the bands on The Big Reunion, the fact that they’d been quietly getting on with a resumed career for five years already by 2014, to some chart success in Norway and plenty of student-type PAs in the UK, was deliberately overlooked (presumably for narrative purposes).

    ‘Interestingly’ (not that interestingly), both a1 and a-ha are stylised with a lower-case ‘a’ (yep, really not interesting, sorry).

  2. 32
    Phil on 30 Apr 2015 #

    Jane Suck was Jane Solanas – wow! Another name on my list of rock writers who might drive me mad but would always be worth reading (it’s a short list, and I guess it’s just got one shorter).

    As for this record, it is just awful. Apart from the falsetto, the singing is actually better than the original (and not just because it’s autotuned) – at that early stage at least, Morten wasn’t much good at the whole hitting-notes-and-holding-them side of singing (he’s multi-tracked on the demo). But it’s much less expressive. Revisiting the original, I actually choked up midway through the first verse – I don’t know what – I’m to say, I’ll say it anyway… Amazing video too, of course.

    Any cover version refers back to the original – why cover a song otherwise? – and when the result lacks precisely what was best about the original, I think it deserves to be judged on those grounds. In this case they’ve taken the words, the tune & most of the arrangement, taken out anything spikey or difficult (the tempo shift on the chorus, which they use in the last verse instead), and then duplicated the whole thing with higher production values.

    Awful. 1. 2 for the sheer daftness of the video (it’s the Trontrix!), revised back down to 1 for whoever heard the words ‘flight simulator’ and didn’t bother to find out what one is.

  3. 33
    weej on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #31 – Absolutely agree that this exists as a thing, don’t agree at all that it’s a description of *my* motivations though, and a bit annoyed that I’m being taken as an example of something I completely disagree with.

  4. 34
    Andrew on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #33 not my intention; apologies!

  5. 35
    lmm on 30 Apr 2015 #

    I think Under The Bridge makes a better pub quiz surprise.

    As someone young enough to have avoided the original (which sounds thin and very eighties in comparison) this is fine. Not great, but serviceable; I put A1 in the 5ive category of cheap and cheerful.

  6. 36
    mapman132 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    I suspect with straight-up cover versions (as opposed to PSB-style “do something different” covers), there’s an inherent bias – with myself included – toward assuming the original is better than the cover. Interesting, if impractical, experiment: Get a statistically significant number of listeners who have never heard of “Take On Me”. Have them listen to a-ha and A1 back to back. Ask which they prefer (assuming they don’t hate both). Would a-ha win? Maybe, maybe not.

  7. 37
    pink champale on 30 Apr 2015 #

    @36. Illustrating this effect, I was reading an old ‘which decade’ recently where someone (I think possibly Swanstep) wonders why everyone is so keen on Adamski’s lame remake of Seal’s superior Trevor Horn original…

  8. 38
    Tom on 30 Apr 2015 #

    It would be an interesting experiment! Though the effect is more pronounced on tracks with ‘different’ cover versions – a good example is “Heartbeats”: for people who got to know the Knife version, the Jose Gonzales one sounds wrong, and vice versa. In my experience, obviously – I’m sure some commenters will disagree…

  9. 39
    Andrew on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #38 Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ and the Flying Pickets cover is a good one too.

  10. 40
    JLucas on 30 Apr 2015 #

    I’m just going to put this out there. I prefer the Louise version of Average White Band’s Let’s Go Round Again. Cast your stones.

  11. 41
    Mostro on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #31 (Andrew); Think you’re reading more into my post (#10) than was said, or conflating it with the other comment you disagreed with.

    The reference to “mid-twentysomething women” was because they would have been the closest fit to the typical boy band following target audience (i.e. tween/early-teen girl) when this came out fifteen years ago. It was an implicit acknowledgement that if you were an A1 follower in that group at the time- or were simply too young to remember the original- this may well have legitimate personal value for you as part of growing up and associated memories.

    (If we were talking about (say) a song by Kiss, the demographic in question would be mainly fortysomething American males, but the same principle would apply.)

    Nostalgia is legitimate, and fine up to a point- we’ve all been there, and I appreciate that personal associations are very significant with pop music for most people- but it doesn’t necessarily say that much about the song itself, or whether this is a great cover or not.

    My original point was that- beyond understandable nostalgia I’d expect from people who were the right age at the right time for it- A1’s version doesn’t appear to have been as well-remembered or as culturally significant as the original, for the reasons I gave in my original post.

  12. 42
    thefatgit on 30 Apr 2015 #

    If we’re talking intergenerational conflicts, then there’s a bunny in the not too distant future that also qualifies; think early 80’s imperial phase solo artist vs…well you probably know already.

  13. 43
    JoeWiz on 30 Apr 2015 #

    I don’t think there’s a single person who, while stood in the queue at Millets on a Saturday afternoon, would hear the original A-Ha version and think to themselves ‘Wish this was the a1 version…’

  14. 44
    Andrew on 1 May 2015 #

    #41 apologies.

    #43 I bet there are at least some a1 fans who would!

  15. 46
    swanstep on 1 May 2015 #

    @37, Pink Champale. Yes, that was me who had to have it pointed out that the Seal/Trevor Horn version of ‘Killer’ was quite a bit later. I guess I don’t find the Horn recording highly redundant in that case though; indeed it strikes me as standing to the Adamski version much more as the hit version of ‘Take on Me’ does to the Norway-only version linked @11 (but I know that less slick Adamski original has its partisans).
    @24, Andrew Farrell. I just wanted to explain (since I was going to be giving an especially low score, wildly diverging from Tom’s) how I tend to think of and arrive at my own scores: reflecting the fact that (like a lot of people here) I was in bands for a few years, wrote a couple of (bad!) singles, etc., I tend to score from the perspective of how much would I like to have written/performed this rather than as a pure listener/consumer. The further idea is to articulate that writer perspective by asking of each pair of tracks which I’d rather see deleted from pop-history (I should prefer to have written/performed the track I’d prefer not to see deleted from pop-history if one had to be.). If I give two tracks the same score then I’m indifferent between which should be deleted if it came to that. And so on.

    Thinking some more about the A1’s cover, I guess I find their drums and synths just as thin and hollow and deadened as A-Ha’s, only without the fizzy charm of the original (A-Ha lets you really feel the high bpm of the song whereas somehow A1 manages to lose that). So this isn’t a case like Joan Jett doing the Arrows’ ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ or Bauhaus doing ‘Ziggy Stardust’ where the original record is supercharged (by adding monster drums, more metal guitars, and lots more bottom-end generally). Tom asks ‘Why not give new 12-year olds a chance for memories of their own?’ but I just can’t hear anything here that a 12-year old would prefer.

    A better case perhaps: the Labelle cover bunny coming up next year in Popular-time. I fricking hated that on principle at the time, but reflecting now, I have to admit that it translates the Labelle original into a bunch of then current styles and voices in a way that I accept probably a teen in 2001 would take as irresistably supercharging the original (much as Joan Jett and Bauhaus worked on me).

  16. 47
    Jonathan on 1 May 2015 #

    @46 Oh wow, yeah, the Labelle bunny was def revelatory to me as an 18 year old in 2001. I’ve come round to the original, but I still probably prefer the updated version. (Then again, I also prefer the Neptunes remix of “Sympathy for the Devil” to the original.) And, hells, just to push back against the canonization of A-Ha: contra what many people older than myself are saying here, I don’t hear anything special about “Take On Me”; it’s synth-pop of a variety that was done much better by many of its contemporaries. The A1 version is probably inferior, but I don’t hear anything wondrous in the ’85 take that was lost in the ’00 version.

  17. 48
    Steve Mannion on 1 May 2015 #

    For me as I think with many the original is so interlinked with its video, more than any other 80s hit I can think of certainly (in the innovative visual effect stakes ‘Billie Jean’ comes close, ‘Money For Nothing’ too perhaps). The video’s an obvious 10 in itself but I always did prefer TSASOTV the song as I probably said on that post’s comments. Similarly I prefer A1’s follow-up to this, but by a far greater margin.

  18. 49
    Ed on 1 May 2015 #

    @47 The Neptunes SFTD is awesome! Thanks for alerting me to its existence.

    They should have got Godard to do a sequel to One Plus One, with Pharell at the controls.

  19. 50
    Ed on 1 May 2015 #

    @36 The most shocking example of that for me recently was hearing the King Harvest version of Dancing In the Moonlight for the first time. The Toploader version I find excruciatingly annoying, but the (sort of) original is utterly charming.

    Another example, like TOM, where modern production techniques can crush all the spirit and joy out of a song.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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’.

  23. 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

  24. 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!

  25. 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?

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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)

  29. 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.

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