a-ha – Take on me
But I'll be stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay
Say after me, It's no better to be safe than sorry
Take on me (take on me)
Take me on (take on me)
There are songs that, for various reasons, are bound to be successful at a particular time. Maybe they were already out, with different arrangements or videos, but then something changes and some time later they finally manage to have the success they deserve. It’s the story of “Love of the common people“, “Walk this way“, but also of another of the most famous and beloved songs of the entire 80s.
The story of “Take on me” begins, in a way, in 1977, when keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, who is 15 at the time, composes that keyboard riff that will become famous all over the world. In fact, he keeps it in his pocket waiting to play it at the right time, and this happens in 1981, when he and Pål Waaktaar form a group, The Bridges, and they record their success “Miss Eerie” (which, as you can check on youtube, contains the famous keyboard riff). Actually, it’s not a success at all, and after months of being discouraged from looking for work and contracts in England, the two guys return to homeland Norway.
It’s now 1982 when the two musicians meet a guy who will change their lives: Morten Harket, Norwegian as well, singer, a little introverted but rather creative. Distinguishing signs: extremely beautiful guy. Morten joins them, and the three set out to find a name for the new group. They are looking for some Norwegian word that is easily pronounceable for those who speak English. After two billion proposals, Morten flips through a notebook where Pål had written some of his songs, and one of them was titled “A-ha”. Seconds later, one of the most beloved bands of the entire 80s was born.
Morten, Pål and Magne agree that “Miss Eerie” should be enhanced and relaunched in some way, and rewrite some of the lyrics and melodies. That same year, 1982, a song called “Lesson One” was born. This one is also on youtube, and it’s awesome, because it’s like hearing “Take on me” without the refrain. Even this attempt does not bring the desired results, but the three guys do not give up, and in 1984, after changing producers, they relaunch the song for the third time, this time with the title “Take on me”, and insert it on their album “Hunting high and low”. But the strange thing is that not even in 1984 they are successful! The producers, however, notice a couple of seemingly uninfluential details, but that are destined to change the history of the 80s.
The original version of “Take on me” was a little too loaded with electronic effects and reverbs, and was accompanied by a rather simple video, with a-ha singing in a completely blue space, something between a dream with Morten in great evidence as main character, and a sort of rehearsal session with friends at Grandma’s house. The producers, I quote for all the veteran Tommy Slater, who had procured a-ha with the contract with A&M, the same record company as Sting, decide not only to clean up the song from echoes and reverbs, but above all to make a world-class video, fitting for the level of the song, and they call one of the best directors on the scene: Steve Barron, who had directed, just to say, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“, Human League’s “Don’t you want me“, as well as Toto’s masterpieces “Africa” and “Rosanna“.
Steve Barron makes the miracle: in April 1985, when the album had already been out for six months, the new video is ready, and it is a masterpiece. Through a technique called rotoscoping, each single frame generates a counterparty drawing of a cartoon, and eventually the video combines filmed and drawn elements together. The cartoon part is created by Michael Patterson and his wife Candace Reckinger, who will later be directors for Suzanne Vega’s video “Luka“.
The song we know with the video we love is released as a single on September 16, 1985.
The video is famous: in a bar (located in London) a girl reads comics about a good-looking guy winning a motorcycle race. In the comics, however, there is a mirror that leads to the real world, and so the guy (of course Morten Harket) and the girl start to trespass into the world of the other. Eventually she will save Morten, who will obviously appear in the flesh in the girl’s house. Beautiful scene, when the girl reappears in the trash can where the owner of the place had thrown the comics.
The girl in the video was actress Bunty Bailey, who met Harket on the set of the video and some time later became his partner. She was also a well-known face of the videos, and also participated in Billy Idol’s “To be a lover” (she was the chorus singer in the middle, dressed in white).
The video for “Take on me” was one of three components that were equally crucial to the song’s universal success, along with, of course, the song itself and also the charm of Morten Harket. It is generally considered one of the three most beautiful and characteristic videos of the 80s, along with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer“.
Thanks to this song, a-ha‘s career finally took off, allowing them to record more albums and achieve several other hits, and to hold concerts up to the third millennium. You can see how a-ha won the time challenge on the a-ha page about yesterday and today.
And don’t forget to write a-ha always in small letters, and possibly with the a letters in italic!
a-ha on Wikipedia