Saturday, 4 July 2009

1986 A-ha: The Sun Always Shines On TV

In many ways, although A-ha's debut single 'Take On Me' brought them overnight fame to a UK audience, the wings it grew for the band expanded to become an albatross around their collective necks.

Yes, the image of a rotoscope Morton Harket playing peek a boo behind a mirror with Bunty Bailey is an iconic eighties image to be eternally dragged out whenever nostalgia for the decade calls, but this video and the song it accompanied seemed to cement A-ha's status as just another pretty boy band to be forever more screamed at than listened to.

And this branding is unfair and misleading - there was always more to A-ha than good looks and cheekbones. From that day to this their music remains forever shot through with a chill of Scandinavian permafrost that marked them out from their contemporaries. 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is a case in point; the chorus refrain may be eminently hummable and chime like sunlight flashing off glaciers, but there's a shadow of darkness at the heart of the song:

"I reached inside myself and found

Nothing there to ease the
Pressure of my ever worrying mind.
All my powers waste away
I fear the crazed and lonely
Looks the mirror's sending me these days."

You didn't get lyrics like that from Spandau Ballet. You didn't get music like it either.

Building from a simple piano motif that suggests we're in for a low key ballad, 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' piles on the tension before exploding into a sonic wall of metallic guitar, descending gothic keyboard fills and a constant glistening hiss of percussion that conveys the impression of great speed, a sensation at odds with the wits end desperation of the lyric.

It's every bit 'pop as opera' as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' or Jim Steinman's more outre output, yet producer Alan Tarney served a pop apprenticeship through his previous work with Leo Sayer (!) and Cliff Richard (!!), and he ensures that a tight rein is kept on the bombast so that the melody is kept to the fore and accentuated rather than swamped in the maelstrom.

'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is about as grand a gesture as pop can make without heading down to the path of prog and up to its own arse. It's the song that Genesis have been trying to write since 1978 without coming close. They were always trying too hard. 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is accomplished, polished, memorable and effortless. Totally, totally effortless.

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