The Story of... 'Take on Me' by A-Ha

17 September 2020, 10:10

A-Ha - Take on Me video
A-Ha - Take on Me video. Picture: Warner Bros

By Tom Eames

A-Ha burst onto the music scene in 1985 with their incredibly catchy tune 'Take on Me', and it's still one of the greatest pop songs ever made.

But what inspired the song and who made its iconic partly-animated video?

Here's all the facts behind the classic song...

  1. Who wrote 'Take on Me'?

    A-ha in 1984
    A-ha in 1984. Picture: Getty

    'Take on Me' was written by A-Ha members Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar.

    The song first existed from Waaktaar's and Furuholmen's previous band Bridges.

    One of the tracks they rehearsed at this time was called 'Miss Eerie', which was initially titled 'Panorama'. It featured several elements of what would later become 'Take On Me', including the main synth riff, which Furuholmen created when he was 15.

    The band felt the riff was too poppy for their band, and so the first version of the song had a "punky" sound.

    However, Bridges soon disbanded. Waaktaar and Furuholmen relocated to London, and then returned to Norway after six months of disappointment.

    They were later joined by singer Morten Harket and began working on demos, including a new version of 'Miss Eerie', which was renamed 'Lesson One' before it finally became 'Take On Me'.

    The song was intended as a way to unveil Harket's impressive vocal range, which led to his vocals "doing this spiraling thing", according to the band.

  2. The first version was a flop

    After singing to Warner Bros in the UK, the Norwegian band met with producer Tony Mansfield, who mixed their demos - including 'Take on Me' with electronic instrumentation rather than their usual instruments.

    This sound was not what the band had hoped to achieve, and the album was remixed again.

    The band soon released 'Take On Me' as a single in the UK, but the single only charted at 137 in late 1984.

    Warner Bros in the USA then decided to invest in the group, and gave them the chance to re-record the song.

  3. It then flopped a second time

    Former Warner Brothers UK executive Andrew Wickham said in 2020: "I got a call from Terry Slater... I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Morten Harket sing. I thought, how can somebody who looks like a film star sound like Roy Orbison? I thought, this is unbelievable."

    Wickham signed A-ha to Warner Brothers America, after learning of their previous attempts to make 'Take On Me' a hit.

    He approved large investments in the band, and on Slater's recommendation, producer Alan Tarney was brought in to refine the song.

    The new recording had a much cleaner and soaring sound, and a coda section instead of the earlier quick fade-out.

    It was re-released in the UK, but the record label's office in London gave very little support, and the single flopped for a second time.

  4. Its video finally made it a hit

    Wickham didn't give up, and Steve Barron was brought in to direct a revolutionary rotoscoping animation music video, taking six months to complete, using professional artists Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger.

    It soon became a worldwide hit thanks to the video and its heavy use on MTV, reaching number one in the USA and number two in the UK.

  5. How was the video made?

    The video was filmed in 1985 at Kim's Café (now named Savoy Café), which is on the corner of Wandsworth Road and Pensbury Place in London, and on a sound stage in London.

    The video used a pencil-sketch animation and live-action mix called rotoscoping, in which the live-action footage is traced over frame by frame to give the characters realistic movements.

    Around 3,000 frames were rotoscoped, taking 16 weeks to complete. The idea of the video was suggested by Warner Bros executive Jeff Ayeroff.

    The fantasy video follows a comic book narrative with motorcycle sidecar racing, in which the hero (Morten Harket) is chased by two opponents, one of whom is played by actor Philip Jackson.

    Meanwhile at a cafe, a young woman, played by Bunty Bailey (Harket's girlfriend at the time), is reading the comic book. As the woman reads along, the waitress brings her coffee and the bill.

    After winning the race, Harket winks at the woman from the page. His pencil-drawn hand then reaches out of the book, inviting the woman inside. She then appears as a pencil drawing, as the action unfolds.

    The video won six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, and is widely known as one of the greatest music videos of all time.

  6. Who has covered it?

    Ska punk band Reel Big Fish covered the song in 1998 for the film BASEketball.

    Boyband A1 did one better than A-Ha by taking their note-for-note cover to number one in the UK in 2000.

    More recently, it appeared in a scene from video game The Last of Us Part II, when the character Ellie, played by Ashley Johnson, sings an acoustic version.