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‘Take On Me’ Is a Love Song That Never Dies

It took several false starts for a-ha to fine-tune its biggest hit. But thanks to its optimistic outlook and iconic video, the 1980s smash refuses to grow old

There are some things you should know first. For one thing, the band spells its name in all lowercase letters. Second, their biggest song is “Take On Me,” not “Take Me On.” Also, they had other songs on the radio — maybe not in the U.S, but elsewhere, it’s a pretty big planet after all — so it’s not technically accurate to call them one-hit wonders. And yet for most Americans, a-ha’s legacy begins and ends with the 228 seconds that comprise the first track off their first album. 

And maybe even more than the song, there’s the video. It used this cool charcoal-drawing animation style. The plot had something to do with the lead singer and his love interest being trapped in different dimensions — one in the live-action realm, the other in a comic book — who try to be together. The video for “Take On Me” was so innovative that, ironically, it only made a-ha seem even more of a one-hit wonder. I mean, they couldn’t be that great of a band if their biggest song was largely memorable because somebody put a lot of time and trouble into the accompanying clip, right? All that work, and a-ha never followed it up with anything equally epochal. Whoever a-ha even was — were they British? Nordic? — they were never heard from again.

That’s not remotely true, of course, and in fact they’re back, although they’ve been putting out albums steadily over the last several decades. But this past Friday saw the release of a-ha: The Movie, a documentary co-directed by Thomas Robsahm, one of the producers of the Oscar-nominated The Worst Person in the World. The film, which I haven’t seen yet, is a years-long exploration of the Norwegian trio, featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses of singer Morten Harket, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy. “Ever since I saw Let It Be about the Beatles when I was 10, I’ve always wanted to make a film about a band making a record,” Robsahm said recently. “I almost got a project like that started in the early 1990s, but it didn’t happen. After seeing Some Kind of Monster about Metallica, I started thinking about it again.” Loving a-ha since he was a kid, Robsahm convinced the group to let him film them, leading to a movie where the trio experiences nearly as many ups and downs in front of the camera as that legendary metal band did. 

When they formed in the early 1980s, moving to London to make their names, a-ha loved classic-rock acts like Led Zeppelin. “None of us listened to pop music growing up,” Harket said. “We would not have listened to a-ha ourselves if we were on the street, because of the image of the band.” He’s alluding, in part, to the fact that he was a dreamboat, part of a London scene in sway to New Wave and the New Romantic movement. But although Harket enjoyed the vibe, and the attention he received for his looks, he also felt slightly removed from it all. “I was hugely confident that I would be part of my own scene, quite honestly,” he said in 2016. “I knew this was the quiet period before everything would happen, so I was enjoying it, being both anonymous and looked at by everybody — I was heavily made up to have fun, being photographed incessantly by paparazzi on the street because people thought I was some sort of celebrity even though they couldn’t quite figure out who. That was very amusing to me.”

Early on, the group had the building blocks for their biggest hit, that incredible keyboard riff that sounded sprightly and catchy. Furuholmen derived it from another classic-rock band they dug, the Doors. “Ray Manzarek was hugely influential; he brought classical music into pop,” Furuholmen recalled in 2010. “Manzarek’s almost mathematical but very melodic, structured way of playing the keyboard was a huge influence in how I approached my instrument. And I think a lot of the strength of a-ha comes from absorbing things like that and adding our own Scandinavian flavor to it.”

Furuholmen wrote that keyboard line when he was 15, long before he’d meet his future frontman. He and Waaktaar-Savoy had been part of another band, Bridges, when they were introduced to Harket, who wanted to see if these guys had the goods as musicians. In response, Furuholmen played him the riff on a piano in Waaktaar-Savoy’s parents’ basement. “I knew then, ‘That’s it,’” Harket said in a 2019 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the song that’s gonna make it happen.” 

The evolution of “Take On Me” is chronicled in the documentary, but it can also be traced online, whether through hearing the deluxe edition of a-ha’s debut, Hunting High and Low, or searching around YouTube for demos and early video treatments of the song. At one point named “Lesson One,” at one point christened “All’s Well That Ends Well and Moves With the Sun,” “Take On Me” went through some lyrical changes, transitioning from a buck-up anthem into what would become the anxious love song everyone knows today. Remarkably, that L.A. Times piece also includes a fascinating tidbit, which is that the song’s booming “Take on me” chorus was dreamed up by Waaktaar-Savoy in a nod to Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” which is more commonly known as “that music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.” (Once you know that, the dun-dun-dunnnn of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” does sound so much like the rising progression of the a-ha hit.)

“Take On Me” is the story of a guy speaking to his true love. But there seems to be an obstacle between them — apparently, they don’t have much time left together — but the singer wants to make the moments they have last.

We’re talking away 
I don’t know what I’m to say 
I’ll say it anyway 
Today’s another day to find you 
Shying away 
I’ll be coming for your love, okay?

Proclaiming that “I’ll be gone in a day or two,” and declaring, “You’re all the things I’ve got to remember / You’re shying away / I’ll be coming for you anyway,” Harket sings with such sweetness and vulnerability that he never seems like a creep. In fact, Harket always insisted listeners foolishly overlooked an emotional depth buried within “Take On Me.” “There is a really hidden spiritual aspect of the song,” he said in 2017. “It’s always been there. It’s easily masked by the strong vibe; also the way it was recorded and produced. But beneath all that, it has a purer form — and at the same time that pure form is ingrained in the version you grew up with.” 

The original version of “Take On Me” came out in 1984, accompanied by the above video, a pretty straightforward performance clip in which the band members are complemented by some slow-motion dancers/gymnasts. But neither the song nor the video sparked much enthusiasm. In the terrific MTV oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Furuholmen admitted that the original video “was a horrendous piece of work. At that point, people were losing a bit of faith in us.” The band redid the song, convinced it could be a hit, and their label decided to give a-ha another chance, tapping Steve Barron, a filmmaker who had directed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video who would later go on to helm Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to come up with a new clip for “Take On Me.”

“I’d been obsessed with animation from an early age — I loved all the Disney films — and I decided to do frame-by-frame animation for ‘Take On Me,’” Barron says in I Want My MTV. He was given £100,000, “an unheard of amount, especially for an unknown act,” to execute his vision. The video’s concept hit him out of nowhere. “I was in a hotel in New York, working on a Toto video, and I had an image flash through my mind of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book,” Barron recalled. “I literally got a little tingle.”

This was an age in which music videos had grown out of their infancy, starting to become little art projects. Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” (also directed by Barron) came out the same year as “Take On Me,” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” would arrive the following year. Barron was given four months to work on “Take On Me,” collaborating with husband-and-wife animation directors Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger to come up with the clip’s visual strategy. “We were very influenced by Japanese graphic novels, Marvel and DC comic books from the 1970s,” Patterson said earlier this month. “We wanted the video to have energy.” 

Of course, though, this was back before computer animation, which meant the process was arduous. “Mike drew all the animation in ‘Take On Me’ himself,” Reckinger recalled. “I had to hand-cut over 900 paper cel windows for the drawings. Our hands nearly fell off!”

The video featured a young woman (actress/model Bunty Bailey) in the real world who’s in a cafe reading a comic book about a race-car driver. So taken by this beautiful man in the drawings, she’s shocked when he seems to make eye contact with her, eventually sticking his hand out of the page and inviting her into his 2D world. She accepts, meeting Harket, who we see as both a drawing and a live-action figure. Soon, they’re being pursued through this animated world by some goons, until eventually she returns to the real world, where she’s reunited with the animated driver, who turns into a real-live man.

The video proved to be a star-making turn for Harket, allowing the world to feast their eyes on this photogenic heartthrob. A few years ago, Barron pondered what had made the singer such a captivating actor. “The thing about Morten was he had, absolutely, a strong, striking, handsome look — but inside, he was kind of a less experienced, slightly more naive character,” the director said. “It didn’t feel like he’d really lived his years yet. I think he was about 21 … I don’t think he’d had a real girlfriend before then. And he certainly hadn’t been on a set, being filmed and being asked to pretend [to be in love]. This was a new thing for him. I think the thing that actors realize quite soon is that you get very close with people on set. Especially with your [co-star] on a film of any sort — you’re told to have this bond, and the lines can blur between what you’re pretending to do and what you’re actually feeling.”

Indeed, Harket and Bailey’s connection was so strong that they dated for a couple years afterward. “I had no idea it would be such a huge success or that it would still be popular all these years later,” Bailey said in 2013, mentioning that after the video hit MTV, “I was recognized when I was out with Morten. But it was mainly girls wanting to chat to him.”

The “Take On Me” video ended up winning six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, although it lost out on the top prize to “Money for Nothing.” Still, the clip was and remains a really impressive piece of work. Utilizing rotoscoping, “Take On Me” revitalized a familiar premise — real-world character falls in love with a character from another realm — in the same year, ironically enough, that the movies gave us The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Mia Farrow’s despondent Depression-era housewife is wooed by Jeff Daniels’ fictional cinematic adventurer, who walks off the screen and into her life. But Barron didn’t just come up with a nifty visual concept — he underlined the song’s yearning, romantic quality. There was something storybook-cheesy about a-ha’s song — it felt like it could have been written for the soundtrack to a 1980s rom-com — and the video brought that imaginary movie to life. 

“I have no doubt that the video made the song a hit,” Furuholmen told Rolling Stone in 2010. “The song has a super catchy riff, but it is a song that you have to hear a few times. And I don’t think it would’ve been given the time of day without the enormous impact of the video.” The original “Take On Me” had gone to No. 3 in Norway, but the revamped song, bolstered by the eye-catching clip, hit No. 1 there, as well as in Australia, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. The song was a global sensation, and for a moment so was a-ha. 

“Our lives changed. We were hit by a bullet train,” Harket said last year. “You don’t wake up soon after that. It takes a long time to get your act together. We ceased being a band the instant we made it. It took a year or two before we started to really… no one had any idea what it was like to be in that turmoil. There is no time to think. You just do what you have to to get through it in a way.” 

The notion that a-ha were a one-hit wonder can be shot down easily when you consider that another single off Hunting High and Low, “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” went Top 20 in the States and won an MTV Video Music Award at the same ceremony where “Take On Me” cleaned up. But Harket, who has a tendency toward perfectionism and never being satisfied — “I feel the potential of the band has never fully been met, artistically or commercially,” he admitted in 2016 — was adamant that a-ha not be pigeonholed by their looks, Hunting High and Low’s shiny New Wave sound or the novelty of the “Take On Me” video. As a result, he was determined to change people’s impressions with the band’s follow-up, 1986’s Scoundrel Days, which didn’t do nearly as well in America, but produced several smash singles in the U.K, Norway and across Europe. Nevertheless, a-ha’s inability to produce a comparable blockbuster after “Take On Me” helped create the impression that they were just another flavor-of-the-month New Wave band of the 1980s — (great) hair today, gone tomorrow.

In 2021, Harket was asked about the group’s decision to go in a moodier, less overtly pop-y direction for Scoundrel Days. Did he have any regrets? “The first album is not the best reflection of the band,” Harket replied. “As opposed to saying it’s a development in the band, [Scoundrel Days was] more a case of the band becoming more assertive and more heavy-handed with things and too eager to avoid certain things, which is another type of prison. You shouldn’t do something to avoid something else. You should do something because you are drawn toward it and be free to explore that. As opposed to trying to not be seen as something, which is not an honest place to be. You are leaving a product behind that is neither this nor that. So, it took a while for us to become good, if ever.”

That tension between the greatness Harket sought and the mixed reviews he has of a-ha’s work apparently underscores the drama in a-ha: The Movie. But it’s also felt in the iterations of “Take On Me” that the band has explored in subsequent years. In recent concerts, it’s touching to watch Harket try to hit the high notes that are so pivotal to capturing the song’s emotional crescendos. He can still do it pretty well after all this time, but the natural imperfections in his aging voice only underline what was so poignant about “Take On Me” that young fans couldn’t have appreciated when the song first came out. As buoyant as “Take On Me” is, his romantic spirit is undercut (or, perhaps, intensified) by how little time the narrator and his true love have. Decades later, as Harket and we all age, the song’s fleeting euphoria feels more like a memory, something that’s long past desperately trying to be recalled. 

In 2017, a-ha performed an acoustic set in which they did a stripped-down version of “Take On Me.” The Unplugged strategy is pretty familiar by this point — do your big, poppy hit in a somber manner, thereby demonstrating what dignified artists you are — but the acoustic “Take On Me” legitimately brought extra pathos to the tune, making it feel like a love affair destined not to stand the test of time. 

The performance was also one of the few instances in which Harket seemed completely pleased. “I just feel the new version clearly shows the relationship between that song and everything else that we’ve done,” he said later. “It showed that this song belongs naturally to the rest of the songs that we’ve done. It brought the song back to us, because it was taken from us by all the noise that came with it. It kind of pushed the band out of our own frame, so for us it felt really good to see the song present itself in its naked form. And to see that this is the fabric of the piece. It wasn’t just written as a pop confection.”

Just as it’s a commonplace for artists to try to show off their gravitas by going unplugged, so too is it predictable to hear pop musicians decry their success, claiming that the apparatus of stardom — or the pressure put on them by others to create a slicker, more accessible sound — was never anything they wanted. And certainly Harket has suffered from some of that same thinking. (“We are proud of the original version [of ‘Take On Me’] … We’re not knocking any of that. It was mainly the impact that it had and how it was dealt with,” he has said.) 

But musicians don’t really have a say regarding what happens to their songs once the culture gets a hold of them. And yet, even though you can find “Take On Me” parodies and winkingly hokey covers, what’s striking is that the referencing tends to be pretty reverent. People just straight up love this song, whether it’s Leslie Mann’s beleaguered wife and mom from This Is 40, who doesn’t want to hear from her snobby husband when she cranks up “Take On Me” in the car… 

…or it’s Kanye West happily dancing along to a-ha at his own concert, encouraging the crowd to join him in reveling in the song’s wonderfulness. 

Here, again, by the way is another moment in which “Take On Me” becomes more tear-stained as time passes: Look how joyous young Kanye looks in this clip — and then think how dark and scary his life has become since then. That lyric “You’re all the things I’ve got to remember” is really heartbreaking if you think about — a clip like the Kanye one is something we want to hold onto so that we don’t forget who he once was.

The modern-day homages to “Take On Me” often range from peppy to tender, but the optimism of a-ha’s original always remains. The heavy synths and robotic drum-machine beat mark it clearly as a song of the mid-1980s — perfectly constructed for the dance floor or, all these years later, an office filled with aging Gen-Xers who want to hear some delightful oldies — but the soaring hopefulness in Harket’s voice pushes it somewhere else. There were lots of good-looking young men singing pretty songs that decade, but the naivety that he brought to the video is in the vocal performance, too. The guy sounds like someone who’d never had a girlfriend before, hoping against hope that the object of his affection will return his ardor. “Take On Me” is totally corny, and people still respond to it because, deep down, we’re all pretty corny. 

There’s been a lot of attention paid to “Take On Me” lately because of the release of the new documentary, which contains footage of the group rehearsing for that 2017 Unplugged show, agonizing to make sure the performance will be up to their high standards. In interviews, Harket is often quite candid about where he feels his band has come up short. Told that a-ha have sold hundreds of millions of records, he’ll merely reply, “I know the potential of what could be between Paul, Magne and myself, and there is so much greatness there that has not been met.” 

Artists are sometimes the worst judges of their own material, although too often the assessment goes in the other direction, with the musician unreasonably convinced of his own genius. But as hard as Harket is on his own band, that’s how effortless and pure “Take On Me” is. That keyboard riff is an earworm that never gets old, Harket’s voice is full of youthful enthusiasm, that chorus prompting him to go higher and higher, unafraid of what anyone will think of his unbridled declaration of love. “Take On Me” is about how fleeting a moment can be — ironic for a song that will probably outlive us all.