"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
and the machine is bleeding to death
"
-
a-ha: Take on Me


When Godspeed You Black Emperor wrote the words that open this essay, they were probably thinking about capitalism, or the military-industrial complex, or western society, or something along those lines. But they could equally have written those words about one of the most intriguing works of art to emerge from the 1980s; the music video for "Take on Me", a pop song by the Norwegian pop group a-ha. If a-ha could be encapsulated with two words those words would be grandiose and nonsensical.

Their name is spelled with a small a, followed by a dash, and then a little h, and finally a little a. Sometimes the little a at the beginning was in italics, but that did not appear to be a consistent policy, merely an element of the design of their first release campaign. a-ha are admired by Chris Martin, who sings with the British pop group Coldplay and who is famous as I write this. For a time, a-ha was admired by a large section of the British pop music audience, particularly by the female demographic, and although the band's share of this market is much less than what it was, a-ha is nonetheless still active as a functioning pop group, rather than a nostalgia act or an unfortunate "Paul Waaktaar's The Original a-ha II"-style zombie band.

"On we sail with crashing oar / our only goal the western shore"

It is hard to describe a-ha to someone who was not alive at the time. A-ha was a contemporary European synthesiser pop band, but with just enough restraint and taste so as not to be a europop band. Britain tends to view European pop music with a mixture of disdain and the kind of affection one might have for a puppy, or a dog which can bark the word "sausages". It is amusing that these Europeans use our English language to produce popular music, but it is all wrong; the music is child-like, the lyrics are either nonsensical in a bad way or, at best, distinctly off, whilst the clothes and fashions are garish and tasteless.

There is a sense, in Britain, that the Europeans do not take pop music seriously. Perhaps because Europe has actual, real-life intellectuals and philosophers, a genuine high-brow culture, the Europeans do not feel the need to invest their popular art with much meaning. What do they do, these Europeans, for entertainment? Do they have their own television and radio programmes? What must it be like, listening to pop music in a language other than English? When they play British and American pop music on the radio in France, is there a running commentary in French?

Of the European nations, only Germany has produced bands which have been unassailably the height of trendy cool in Britain; and then only in certain limited fields, specifically spacey freak-out psychedelic metal ("Krautrock") and austere electronic dance music. By and large, however, German pop music is not played on British radio, not even "Schnappi, das Klein Krokodil", which plays eternally in the radio of my mind. On a musical level Norway is mildly famous for its church-burning death metal groups, but it is hard to think of the country as distinct from Sweden, which is the europop capital of the world. There are many trendy and popular things from the continent, ranging from red wine to fast cars and Monica Bellucci, but there is very little trendy pop music from Europe. Perhaps the field is too nuanced. A fast car is a fast car all over the world; you do not have to be familiar with Italian culture to appreciate a fast car. You do not have to be French to enjoy wine, because all people become drunk all over the world. You do not have to be Spanish to enjoy bullfighting, because everyone, deep down, wants to dominate and destroy something which is stronger than them. But pop music surfs on tiny eddies in popular culture; so much of its appeal lies in encapsulating immediate, transient fashion, in illustrating the churning broil of passing fads, and in reflecting a society that is more than the sum of its written works. What did the Americans think of Ian Dury?

a-ha was a credible mid-80s synthpop outfit, set apart from a dozen others by their otherworldly musical sense. Their songs were written with the use of electronic synthesiser keyboards, and thus they were free to use sounds and frequencies which had never before been created by human hand. The group was also distinguished by the lead vocals of man-hunk Morten Harket. His voice could wobble like that of Bryan Ferry, and it could also soar like an eagle. A-ha lived in London for a time, and spoke English quite well. They were useless in interviews, but no more useless than Duran Duran. Their lyrics didn't make much sense, but again the same could be said of Duran Duran. There are different kinds of nonsense; deliberate nonsense and unintentional nonsense. A lot of european pop music that is written in the English language is unintentionally nonsensical, whereas the lyrics of a-ha seemed to be intentionally opaque.

Morten Harket. Certain names resonate with power, the names resonate on after the man has gone. Norse names resonate doubly in Britain, a nation which has distant historical ties with northern Europe. But for the flight of an arrow into the head of King Harald, Britain might have ended up as a colony of Norway or Denmark, rather than a backwards offshoot of the twisted homosexual Normans. Gustav, Karl, Axel, Gunnar - "from the Old Norse name 'Gunnarr', which was derived from the elements gunnr ("war") and arr ("warrior")" - Brynhild, Hedvig, Ingvild, Joachim, all of these are noble names, derived mostly from war and fighting. Morten Harket was born in Kongsberg, city of kings. He remains our genetic superior, a template for future man. Women wanted to sleep with Morten Harket, and men wanted to be Morten Harket. The critics either ignored the band or ridiculed them as shallow teen-pop heartthrobs, perhaps out of jealousy.

a-ha did not affect the cool, uncaring facade of the Pet Shop Boys; instead, they seemed to have a certain class to them, the same kind of alien appeal of Bjork, from Iceland. Like the Elvish race in J. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", who came from afar to set the world to rights, and departed once their mission was over, a-ha came in 1986 to set the pop charts to rights, and in Britain they departed some time after the release of their second LP, Scoundrel Days (1986), which had an effective title track but was not as successful as their debut album, Hunting High and Low (1985). It certainly did not produce the same volume of hits, although the group's modern-day fanbase enjoy it. Scoundrel Days sounded less electronic, and the songs were noticeably less up-beat than those on Hunting High and Low, and it is interesting to speculate an alternative world in which a-ha worked with Brian Eno. The conceptual sensibility of Eno applied to the voice of Morten Harket would have been interesting to hear. The group occasionally entered the charts after 1986, notably with the theme song for the James Bond film http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093428/ The Living Daylights in 1987, but they had fallen off their skis and were sliding down a slippery slope. They continue today, and the critics are much kinder than they were.

I would not like to talk to you about "Take on Me", the group's most memorable hit single. It was released in 1984, but flopped. It was re-released in early 1985 and flopped again. A few months later the record company paid for an expensive video, and the song was suddenly a big hit. It is the only thing for which they are remembered in America. The lyrics of "Take on Me" do not really say anything at all. It seems to be a first-person narrative in which the narrator implores his companion to make an impulsive romantic decision. In this respect it resembles Abba's "Take a Chance on Me". "It's no better to be safe than sorry" sings Morten, perhaps alluding to the fact that, ultimately, we are all trapped in the belly of a horrible machine which is bleeding to death. The lyrics of The Smiths were generally comprehensible and often witty and clever, but The Smiths never placed a single higher than number ten, and then only for a week. Britain does not like its pop stars to be too clever.

Similar thoughts - of being trapped inside a beast, rather than the thoughts of Morrissey - must have been going through the minds of music video director Steve Barron and graphic designers Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, as they set out to create a pop video for "Take on Me". How does one go from "Take on me / take me on" to the rotoscoped tale of a lady who falls in love with a comic book hero who is a motorcycle racer who is menaced by crash-helmeted men with spanners in a world of wobbly sketchy pencil lines? The video's brief plot seems to owe something to Terry Gilliam's imaginative 1981 fantasy epic Time Bandits, crossed with the Ken Russell's 1980 sci-fi oddity Altered States, although the notion of a mirror world behind the page - and through the looking-glass - is ancient. The video culminates with Morten Harket's comic-book character forcing himself into real-life existence, as a physical human being, a thought which no doubt gratified the legions of lonely, middle-aged women who adored him and imagined him bursting out of the television screen.

But there is one sequence in the video which strikes me most. Our heroine is reading her comic book in a roadside cafe, and is eventually dragged into the page by the animated hand of Harket. The comic remains on the table, until it is screwed up and thrown into the bin by a grumpy-looking waitress. The first time I saw the video, I assumed that the comic was going to be thrown on a fire, and that this would have an adverse effect on the comic's universe. But the comic is merely thrown into a bin, and neither Harket nor our heroine - who are joined by two other men, one of them playing the electronic keyboard synthesiser keyboard, the other playing the guitar - appear to suffer any ill-effects. Granted, the storyline takes a turn for the worse, as our hero is immediately pursued by the aforementioned spanner-men, but this is the normal progression of a comic storyline; the hero triumphs, is pursued by angry men armed with spanners, and there is a woman, but it all turns out right in the end. If Alice had walked though the mirror, and the mirror had been broken, what would have become of Alice?

Harket is not shown to vanquish the men. There is the suggestion that he is beaten up, but Harket does not seem to exact revenge against his persecutors; it is thus useless to draw parallels with the experience of T. E. Lawrence, or Jimmy Somerville in the video for Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy". The last we see of the comic, it is lying on a desk. It is implied that Harket's love for a woman allows him to break free from the belly of his horrible machine etc, and presumably the hate-filled spanner-wielding angry men who do not know positive love, only the love of destruction and pain, these men will remain inside the comic, flat people forevermore. One wonders if Morten Harket and his heroine will live happily ever after.

The lady in the video is called Bunty Bailey, i.e. the actress playing the woman is called Bunty Bailey, i.e. that is her real name, or at least the name under which she plies her trade. According to the Internet Movie Database, her passion for dancing began when she was six, and she was romantically involved with Morten Harket but left him for Billy Idol, surely a poor decision. Bunty Bailey sounds such an unlikely name that it must be real.

a-ha, the band, still exists. Rather like David Bowie's character at the end of "The Man Who Fell to Earth", they still have money. Harket is still good-looking. The group's records attract grudgingly favourable reviews in the UK, but few sales; they retain more dignity than their contemporaries, and benefit from remaining distant, out of the eyes of the newspapers. The group's new releases will always be overshadowed by its back catalogue, but it is better to have a glorious past than no past at all.

Places you might like to visit
http://tinyurl.com/7658a - The lyrics, and a shot from the video (scroll down);
http://tinyurl.com/cr5k4 - Bunty is available for hire;
http://tinyurl.com/bok3a - Rotten.com's directory of dictators.

You can be born more than once per life.

In the 80's I traversed 2-D cartoon landscapes. Faced poorly drawn monsters. Flailed at fourth dimensional cinderblock dorm room walls in vain attempts at escape. Lived the quest of the disembodied soul to become flesh.

There was a Ken Russell movie called Altered States that I adored and paid to see five times. In the film's climax, a young William Hurt has come face to face with the genesis of the soul itself, and having encountered the infinite force of creation and survived, struggles to descend to three-dimensional earth from the astral plane.

And we know he will fail until true love opens the door to rebirth.

That movie enabled me to articulate in human language the nearly unfathomable philosophy I'd been living with most of my years. The universal property we have labeled "love" is the enabler for all construction. The ignition of stars. The formation of stellar systems. The hanging catenaries of suspension bridges. Photosynthesis. The natural fit of the diadem upon the head of the anointed. A perfect couplet. Birth and the soul-shaped light in her eyes when she says, "Yes."

Some of us go through a time where we're sure we're somewhat less than completely incarnate. When I first saw the video for Take On Me, I was in that state. Played synthesizers in a failing rock band. Wrote stories nobody read. Made grades in college I hoped would make me money that I prayed would make me real.

It took about 20 seconds to figure out the keyboards to the song, and about five for the rest of the band to say, "We're not fucking playing that." So that was it. Silly, senseless pop song.

The MTV video was a rotoscoped idea and rotoscoped was how I felt. Imprisoned by my own imperfect imagination. Dodging amateurishly scribbled id monsters who lumbered from place to place, destroying my ramparts with pink Eberhard-Faber eraser claws, devouring my archers, guzzling my rocket fuel, reminding me daily of my overall unattractiveness to a well-formed universe.

Musical Harkett pounds his way into existence to his true love in a scene identical to protoplasmic celluloid William Hurt morphing to human. Both "H" boys have real high-res women saviors. I figured salvation was being able to reach out from the written page and touch the first interested being who happened by.

I thought all I had to do was to bring someone into my chaotically constructed world and the whole thing would resolve to clarity. Because like Altered States Eddy or a-ha Harket, I was doomed to rotoscoped birds and dream villians until someone cared to be brave enough to forgo her own accurate definition to rescue me.

Doesn't everyone deserve to be saved?

It didn't happen that way. It doesn't in the song or the movie or the video, either, only I couldn't understand it then. You see it differenly when you've got the distance of a few decades. Perspective. From these heights you wonder how you got stuck at all.

One day, a perfectly painted hand came through a wall. Leonardo's enigmatic virgin. A limb constructed by a mind who knew you have to put in dabs of blue when painting a yellow cornfield. And she couldn't carry a tune into open space. She swam like one who'd just given up her flukes. She was as crazy as I was most of the time.

She said, "Yes. Yes I will."

But nothing is so simple to be how it looks.

"I'm not coming in there," she said in the theater darkness the sixth time we saw Altered States. The twentieth time we witnessed the a-ha video she told me, "You have to come out of there."

Don't know why I hadn't figured it out before. Why it seemed so hard to crash through the half-materialized sheetrock prison. Now realizing that until her, I never wanted to.

I remember when I finally got out. Standing there, covered in dust, muscles still spasming from the exertion. Spitting out tiny Pacific islands.

She said, "I knew it," when I took my first breath of real air. She brushed the cometary fragments from my hair. The solidifying magma from my ELP tour shirt. The carbonized tyrannosaur bones from my eyelashes. "I knew it."

Then, she gave me the first kiss I ever felt.

When the last note faded we got married.

Over the years I've asked her what she thought she knew. She always answers with the same smile and I go back to what I was doing.

Learning new songs.

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