On October 19, 1985, Norwegian band A-ha hit No. 1 with "Take on Me," a bloopy synth-pop song with a dangerously memorable keyboard line. Twenty-five years later, as the band prepares for its final concerts (A-ha is calling it quits after a trio of Oslo shows in early December) the song has caught on with a new generation, thanks largely to the enduring appeal of its quirky, half-animated music video in which a young woman reading a comic book joins the handsome protagonist in its newsprint pages for a brief adventure.
The famous video, however, like the version of the song we're familiar with today, was actually a second take. The band originally cut a less-electro rendition that was inspired by the Doors. "Ray Manzarek was hugely influential; he brought classical music into pop," keyboardist Magne Furuholmen told . "Manzarek's almost mathematical but very melodic, structured way of playing the keyboard was a huge influence in how I approached my instrument." However, the first cut of the song and its video (see below) were a flop.
A-ha band members convinced their label to let them return to the studio with producer Alan Tarney (Squeeze, Cliff Richard) to give it a second try. When they emerged with a brighter, poppier take of "Take on Me," Warner Bros. wanted to find a way to promote the band - "These young good-looking guys from Norway with a good pop song," the video's director, Steve Barron, recalls for the BBC - and handed Barron a generous budget and creative control. Barron had previously worked on Madonna's "Burning Up" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" videos, and his credits include a handful more of the '80s most indelible hits - the Human League's "Don't You Want Me," Toto's "Africa," and Culture Club's "It's a Miracle" - along with another iconic animated clip, for Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing."
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According to the BBC, the label connected Barron with animator Mike Patterson on the strength of a five-minute short that Patterson had made in school (watch a clip here). "Commuter" depicted a businessman navigating taxis and trains in a flickering, black-and-white, comic-book style that Patterson achieved via rotoscoping: painstakingly drawing over live-action footage, frame by frame. He performed the same feat for "Take on Me," sketching 3,000 pictures over the course of 16 weeks. The final video - a love story crammed into 3 minutes and 45 seconds - became a mainstay on then 4-year-old MTV, and picked up six trophies at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.
"I have no doubt that the video made the song a hit," Furuholmen told Rolling Stone. "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 cartoonish clip inspired Dustin McLean to make a "literal version" of the video in 2008, in which he sang lyrics describing the video's action in a surprisingly convincing approximation of frontman Morten Harket's vocals ("Close up eyes/hand comes out/sketchy arm/grab the hand!"). Furuholmen admitted to Rolling Stone that he thought the reimagined short was "fantastic": "The lyrics make so much more sense than the one we have!"
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