The sound of digital culture

MUSIC / Three teenagers living in small-town 1970s Norway go on to become one of the 80s top-selling acts, and music pioneers in the process.

There is one short part of this film, not more than a few frames, played without its initial sound. It shows the notorious moment when Jimmy Hendrix plays the guitar with his teeth. The clip is placed where the band members remember their early musical influences. But with the clips of The Doors, Uriah Heep, and Freddy Mercury…we hear their music, only Hendrix is silent and covered by the voiceover explaining that «certain bands can amaze you, but you can’t copy them». It’s not about copying, of course. This detail represents the essence of a-ha’s success; that is, they literally «silenced the guitar» when, at their beginnings, the two founding members, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen, decided that the latter will start playing the synthesiser instead. In doing so, they created a band that became one of the electronic music pioneers. Later in the film, they talk about how surprised they were when in early 2000, suddenly every journalist seemed to be a fan of a-ha. But this is not so unexpected if one considers how the band provided the soundtrack to teenage life during the late 1980s. Introducing the synthesiser into popular music paved the way for today’s digital cultures.

a-ha, The Movie, a film by Thomas Robsahm, Aslaug Holm

Art and the machine

The band’s enormous popularity obscured their pioneering role, but the film brings up some of the most obvious remains of the atmosphere in those early years. For example that John Barry, the composer of the music for The Living Daylights, a James Bond film from 1987 for which a-ha wrote and performed the theme song, called them «Hitler Youth». The band explains that Barry was angry because they refused to accept his changes to their music. But it is probably not a coincidence that the alternative music group from Slovenia, Laibach, who was already making electronic music at that time, encountered similar reactions. The press called them «goose-stepping Hitler Youth». Members of both bands were fit, blond-haired and fair-skinned young men – but the comments express the overall aversion towards digital technologies at that time and the prevailing belief that the art created by the machines (video camera in place of a brush, synthesiser in place of «organic» instruments such as guitars) was no art at all, and that the very attempt itself was de-humanising.

The band’s enormous popularity obscured their pioneering role…

Pioneers of the electronic music

We learn in the film that the band members were into the music from early childhood, Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy play several instruments, and Morten Harket deliberately cultivated his voice since he was five. The film chronicles their persistence and hard work. For example, it documents into detail their work on the song Take On Me that started when they were still in their hometown. But people who heard their music in London already noticed that it was particular – different from the punk era and «normal rock’n’roll or pop music». At that time, Tony Mansfield already had experience with one of the early synth-pop bands and produced Hunting High and Low, the band’s first album. Band members described Mansfield as «a genius with computers,» which was not that common at that time. First personal computers such as Sinclair 1000 and Commodore 64 were already available, using compact cassettes for data storage, and computer software itself had a sound. But it was a very strange sound, and not many people knew about PCs at that time. New electronic instruments were used in experimental and avant-guard music by bands such as Kraftwerk, and electronic dance music with styles such as Chicago house began growing into the eighties club scene that later expanded into the rave culture of the nineties. Labels such as Mute Records and bands such as Depeche Mode already made synth-pop a known musical genre, but they too were mostly known to electronic music lovers. With a-ha, the synth-pop conquered the world. As one member describes their experience in California, their music was «coming from one transistor radio to another, …no matter what channel you went to, it would be there».

a-ha, The Movie, a film by Thomas Robsahm, Aslaug Holm
a-ha, The Movie, a film by Thomas Robsahm, Aslaug Holm

Digital animation

Promoting their first album, a-ha also introduced a new approach to the production of moving images. The video for Take on Me, directed by Steve Barron, became the third most viewed video of all time, after Thriller (by Michael Jackson) and Sledgehammer (by Peter Gabriel). It applied a digital animation technique that combined, in a single frame, the real-life characters and animated figures. The documentary rightfully points out that this was an extremely costly technique. It was also very innovative and only later taken up by expensive Hollywood productions, for example, in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, directed by Roger Zemeckis. The documentary also applies a similar technique in which animation is used to cover the narrative parts of the film.

Promoting their first album, a-ha also introduced a new approach to the production of moving images.

A million-dollar question

It is interesting that today, even if digital technologies are invisibly woven into the everyday life of all people, the fear still exists that we may be made redundant by machines, sometimes in the form of hope that digital technologies might substitute human work or creativity. The history of a-ha is proof that the reality is far from that. The question about what makes a song, a film, TV series, or any other media contents successful by their audience is by now without an answer. The documentary shows that there are no recipes and no shortcuts – it is mostly a result of hard work. They had this fantastic idea about using the synthesiser in place of a guitar, but it was the band’s members who made the music and managed to keep making it successfully for over 30 years.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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