Sunday, January 25, 2009

Excavating Below Layers of '80s Cheese

Long before becoming a reality show on VH-1, the '80s were a decade.

Today (January 25, 2009), MTV's schedule is literally 24 hours of reality shows. But in the '80s, the "M" meant something; it was a decade filled with great (and not-so-great) music, beamed nonstop into American households over MTV.

Back in 1985, a friend of mine working at a radio station played me the song "Take on Me" by Norwegian band a-Ha. It bored me right away and seemed hopelessly mired in '80s cheese: blippy keyboard bleats, bouncy synth drums, vaguely nonsensical lyrics, absurdly high vocals that tried to reach escape velocity and go up into space. I thought it was instantly forgettable and told him so. No, my friend said, you don't understand; you need to see the video.

He was right: an attractive girl (with bad '80s hair) hangs out in a restaurant that advertises "cold milk" in the window until she's literally pulled into a magical wonderland where cute animated (actually pencil-rotoscoped) rock stars are chased by bad guys with wrenches (driving motorcycles with sidecars). And then the cute lead singer guy bangs on the walls of the cartoon until his love for the girl transcends space and time and he's transported from cartoon-world to the real world. I guess.

It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's cool -- cool enough be nominated for 8 video music awards and win 6. Cool enough that it's impossible to hear the song now and not think about the video. And cool enough to be parodied years later on Family Guy (link for Gmail subscribers):

But if you take out all the electronics? What's the real essence of this song when you strip out the video?What would an archeological team find if they could excavate deep down past all the '80s cheese? It turns out you need Runar Eff, a musician from Iceland (who spent 10 years playing hockey on Iceland's national team) to answer those questions. No "cold milk" sign, no bad '80s hair, and no animated alternate reality -- just a surprisingly emotional song (link for Gmail subscribers):


Anonymous said...

Great stuff.
one of the best covers i have heard

Mike said...

David McComb, the Triffids songwriter was always fond of this song. So someone knew what lay beneath.

Alex said...

Mike, I'm sorry to say I missed out on the Triffids back in the day. (But I like what I've heard on the net.)