If nothing else, this six-LP, 60-track, four-hour exposition of a-ha‘s 1985 debut album, Hunting High and Low, offers a window into the processes of the major-label recording industry of the period. “Take on Me” is one of the most enduring pop hits of the post-Beatles era. However, getting there took no less than three years, three studios, two producers, multiple recordings, three separate single releases, and two music videos. Especially to Americans who looked to MTV for music’s leading edge, a-ha seemed to come out of nowhere. But, as this “Super Deluxe Edition” chronicles, that was far from the truth.
First, though, as a matter of housekeeping, here is a window into the major-label music industry of the present: this collection has been released before. The “Super Deluxe Version” is a vinyl release of the 2015 “30th-anniversary” edition, which was itself an expansion of the 2010 “25th-anniversary” edition. Everything from the sound masters to the liner notes referencing “discs” rather than records has been transferred from the 2015 release. Though enjoying a major comeback these days, for collectors, the central selling point for vinyl remains fidelity and sound quality. Therefore, the phenomenon of releasing demos—music that is by definition unfinished and secondary—on deluxe, audiophile-grade box sets is something of a paradox, especially when one considers the price tag. Still, there is no denying the records sound good, and the 12-inch format is excellent for the 64-page book full of liner notes, lyrics, and archival photos and mementos.
As far as the music itself, two LPs worth of demos and outtakes trace a-ha’s slow progression from wet-behind-the-ears Norwegian teenagers to professional musicians. It is not an easy journey. Based on the earliest demos from 1982, it is remarkable that the band got noticed, much less signed to a major label. Several of the songs that would eventually appear on Hunting High and Low are here but in barely recognizable form. “Lesson One”, the track that would ultimately become “Take on Me”, introduces that synthesizer riff but otherwise is amateurish and, typically of this period, giddy to a fault, with Morten Harket exclaiming, “Hip, hip hurray.” Harket, multi-instrumentalist Pål Waaktar-Savoy, and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen come across as a strange synth/progressive rock hybrid.
The music is a jumble of plucky bass guitar, primitive synths, and beatbox. While that bass manages a sassy swagger on “The Sphinx” (which would later morph into “Train of Thought”), there is little in the way of melody or charisma. By the time a-ha were recording in London in 1983-84, they were cranking out more fully-formed synthpop. Some of it, such as the dizzy, euphoric “The Love Goodbye” and reflective “Nothing to It”, are smart tunes that shouldn’t have been discarded. The ten songs that did make the album all appear in demo form, some featuring different lyrics and arrangements, but still remain ultimately unconvincing.
The demos only fuel the idea a-ha were signed more on the strength of their cheekbones than the strength of their songs or talent. That makes the final version of Hunting High and Low rather remarkable. Despite the claims of the liner notes and many millions of sales, the album is not a “classic”. It is notable, endearing, and enduring for two reasons. One is the trio of singles it features. If “The Sun Always Shines on TV” isn’t as insanely catchy as “Take on Me”, it is bigger, bolder, and more substantial, a towering synthetic symphony, given gravitas by existentialist lyrics and Harket’s alternately brooding/emoting croon.
The gorgeous title track is probably the most refined presentation of a-ha’s windswept, earnest, Nordic-tinged ethos. That last bit is crucial and is the second primary reason for the album’s unique appeal. Though a-ha were London-based, an English synthpop band probably couldn’t have gotten away with a song called “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale” or a lyric like on “The Blue Sky” when Harket worries his server will “laugh at my accent and make fun of me”. Culture Club may have been fey and the Human League may have at times been silly, but there were not many if any, Norwegian synthpop bands with worldwide record deals. This lent the band a legitimately if subtly exotic aura and a certain gravitas. One didn’t need to feel fey or silly when imagining snow-capped mountains and majestic fjords while listening to a-ha. After all, that was where the music came from.
Ironically, this Nordic sense of wonder was achieved mainly by two British record producers. Tony Mansfield, who produced most of Hunting High and Low, was a veteran of the quirky, cult-favorite synthpop group New Musik. “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” were turned over to Alan Tarney, a studio pro who had written and produced “We Don’t Talk Anymore” for Cliff Richard, among other hits.
Even after the producers’ work, Hunting High and Low needed more finessing. A-ha and their original patron and co-manager, John Ratclif, remixed the Mansfield tracks. The most exciting LP of this set is the one featuring the original pre-Ratcliff mixes. With the notable exception of “The Blue Sky”, the cores of the songs are quite similar to the remixed versions. But these are tougher, rawer, sometimes quasi-industrial mixes that occasionally recall what Depeche Mode were doing at the time. It is fascinating to hear how, with a-ha’s apparent approval, the edges were smoothed and the arrangements finessed for maximum commercial appeal.
In the end, given the success of Hunting High and Low and a-ha’s gradual turn toward more adult-contemporary sounds, they probably made the right decision.