a-ha – Nothing is Keeping You Here
I’ve been really quite lucky over the years in that most of my favourite bands have stuck around, regardless of the ebb and flow of their popularity. Of my top four – Saint Etienne, Swing Out Sister, Pet Shop Boys and a-ha, only the latter have ever bothered to officially split up for any length of time. In fact a-ha have now broken up and reformed twice – having finally adjusted to to a world where they really really weren’t coming back, they only went and announced another reunion last year.
It’s always fun to talk about a-ha because for so long they were one of those bands that were hugely influential without anyone actually daring to admit it. It all comes down to ridiculous notions of rock authenticity – as if standing in front of a keyboard is somehow less musicianly than wielding a guitar. So you get a world where U2 – one of the most commercially driven and precision-marketed bands of all time – were seen to represent “proper” music, whereas a-ha were dismissed as a boy-band. I don’t imagine U2 enjoyed their tag any more than a-ha did theirs, but in terms of the kind of music both made, they’re very closely related. In fact a-ha went through a bit of a U2 phase around the time of Memorial Beach (notably on Dark is the Night) and of course U2 had a bit of an a-ha moment on Beautiful Day, so it’s all gloriously muddled.
Re-appraisal eventually comes to all (unless you’re Five Star), so by the time Coldplay‘s Chris Martin was announcing his love for Morten, Magne and Pål, expressing admiration for a-ha was no longer uncool. And then Keane happened and it might as well have been 1985 all over again. By 2006, keyboard driven, highly melodic pop with soaring male vocals was suddenly all the rage – and it’s probably no coincidence that early the same year a-ha found themselves in the UK top ten for the first time since 1988 with Analogue (All I Want). It was a long overdue achievement – their two albums after the original split, Minor Earth, Major Sky and Lifelines having been almost totally ignored here despite being by far their best work.
Having spent more than twenty years gradually moving away from their synth-pop beginnings, 2009’s Foot of the Mountain saw them back where it all started (ooh, hence the title! Literally just realised that) for what promised to be but of course wasn’t, their final album. Obviously this got me very excited indeed, so much so that the first single (and title track) ended up being a tiny bit disappointing. But all that evaporated when I heard the album opener, The Bandstand, which was a thunderously electronic big blob of bassy Europop which possesses one of the most thrilled end bits ever, assuming you get you get your thrills from gigantically ominous sequencer lines. Had this been 1986 it would probably have been a shoo-in for a single release, but as it was 2009 it obviously wasn’t.
Foot of the Mountain surprised everyone by becoming a-ha’s first top ten album in the UK for 21 years, but unlike its predecessor Analogue it didn’t manage a hit single, the title track having peaked at no.66. While the rest of Europe plumped for Shadowside as the follow-up, it appears that someone at the UK record company had a proper think about things and decided that Nothing is Keeping You Here probably stood a better chance, and especially so if it was reswizzed* to sound a tiny bit more contemporary, i.e.) a bit more like Keane, which is of course short-hand for a bit more a-ha-ish.
On the album, Nothing is Keeping You Here sort of passed me by, but when I heard the remix on the Ken Bruce show on Radio 2 one morning I was astounded at its transformation. The addition of a new piano refrain changes everything – previously the song was led by the guitar line, but now the two weave in and out of each other and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Of course half the joy of most a-ha records is to be found in waiting for Morten to do the thing, and the remix makes that wait even more exquisite. When he goes up – from 1:40 in this version, peaking a full minute later – it’s genuinely spine-tingling and every bit as effective as it was in 1985. I can think of very few pop stars whose voices haven’t changed at least a bit over three decades – Neil Tennant springs to mind, but then he was wise enough never to display too much range in the first place – but how is it possible that Morten Harket can still do this? His honey and lemon bills must be astronomical.
For the last line Morten returns to ground level, and there’s a deliciously final low piano note bringing things to a decisive end, by which point I hope you’re thinking “why, this is one of the greatest a-ha singles of all time!” It really is.
Nothing is Keeping You Here ended up not getting a sniff of chart action, but I’m thrilled that record company types went out of their way to make something so bloody lovely in an era when doing absolutely nothing was perfectly acceptable. Well done, everyone.
*Quite a bit of reswizzing went on – the video version, which is the one that got played on the radio, bears no resemblance to the not very good ‘UK Radio Edit’ that’s on Spotify. But you can get this version (called the ‘Single Remix’) on 25: The Very Best of a-ha.
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I have long envisioned an a-ha tv special where this starts up and then Morten says “ladies and gentlemen…Robyn” and we all die of excitement.