Thirty-five years ago, the Norwegian pop group A-ha topped the charts with their catchy synth-pop gem. Despite having one of the hardest-to-sing choruses in pop music history, listeners found themselves singing along as though powerless to the seduction of the tune. Not only that – the clip itself revolutionized music videos. Guitarist and songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy looked back on working with the famed music-video director Steve Barron and when they watched the song soar to No. 1.
The music video passed the one billion mark (billion!) on YouTube, but “Take on Me” wasn’t a smash right out of the gate, though. The band released a less shiny version in 1984. Then, they redid the tune after it turned out to be a commercial flop. Despite releasing a revised version in 1985, Waaktaar-Savoy said, “It took, like, four months to reach number one in America. And it felt like years.” In the end, “Take on Me” is one of the most beloved singles of the 80s.
As Waaktaar-Savoy explained, every week, the song would go up a spot, then up three spots. It would pick up and then slow down. The whole thing was a process. But it proved to be worth it. “To me, it still sounds fresh on the radio,” keyboardist Magne Furuholmen told Rolling Stone. He revealed that “Take on Me” came from discouraging beginnings.
The track started out being called ‘Lesson One,’ and then they renamed it ‘All’s Well That Ends Well and Moves With the Sun.’ He joked around, saying, “A very catchy, short title.” The song became a pop-culture touchstone, but apparently, A-ha couldn’t care less. Waaktaar-Savoy admitted that these days, he rarely sees the music video, which scored six MTV Moonmen in 1986, by the way.
The Often-Spoofed Music Video
Waaktaar-Savoy said how most of the time, he sees a commercial or someone is spoofing the music video. And he’s right – there are the send-ups featured on Family Guy, or the Volkswagen commercial, among others. The music video ended up taking months to make – way longer than most. The group teamed up with director Steve Barron.
Barron had done Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” so they knew the man was going to produce something interesting. They created a short-form piece that mixed live-action with something called rotoscoping illustration, which was never before used in a music video. As Waaktaar-Savoy put it, “It was a dream to work with talent like that,” referring to working with Barron.
A Wild Idea
Normally, music videos would take a week to shoot in a hangar. But for this one, they spent a whole day that was designated to making the comic magazine. Then there were an additional four months of doing hand-made drawings. It was very thorough. And thorough might just be an understatement. In fact, the illustrator, Mike Patterson, came up with over 3,000 sketches for the final product.
Funnily enough, there was a point in time where it seemed like nobody, from any generation, would ever get to see the clip for “Take on Me.” In fact, the music video almost didn’t get made at all. It all started with Steve Barron’s wild idea to cast the A-ha’s Norwegian heartthrobs as comic-book moto-racers.
Pop’s Second British Invasion
Even if the iconic “Take on Me” music video from 35 years ago didn’t make an impression, the British director’s place in the MTV archives would still have been secure. Long before the music video premiered in May of 1985, Barron’s clip for the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” is what ushered in pop’s Second British Invasion.
Barron’s ground-breaking “Billie Jean” clip had broken the color barrier at MTV. It was one of the first-ever videos by a black artist to air on the then-largely-rock-based network. And let’s not forget Barron’s work on another animated video, Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” which was arguably as ground-breaking as “Take on Me.”
But “Take on Me,” turned A-ha into overnight sensations. Not only that, but it also catapulted Barron’s career to even newer heights. After the clip, he moved on to major feature films. Have you seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Coneheads? Yeah, Barron directed those movies. “I knew we were on to something very good,” Barron told Yahoo Entertainment.
As soon as they finished shooting and cutting it together, as the animation was coming in, he knew he had his hands on something worthwhile. But nothing could have prepared him for getting so much attention over the years that followed. “You always wonder how long your work is going to stay around, how many generations might get to see it,” Barron said.
Upgraded, Restored, and Record-Breaking
The video, which was recently restored and upgraded with new technology to 4K resolution, just passed the 1 billion mark on views on YouTube. That makes it YouTube’s second-most-viewed video from the ‘80s (coming in right after Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”). It’s also the fifth-most-streamed track of the 20th Century. Pretty impressive, right?
Just to give you some perspective, only three other 20th Century videos passed YouTube’s 1 billion mark. Those clips are Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Let me remind you that Barron’s epic animated clip was the second video for the song. In 1984, the original single came out, which was accompanied by a basic, performance-based video, shot against a boring blue backdrop.
The First Video Went Nowhere
That first video went nowhere. Well, it did get to No. 3 on Norway’s pop chart, if you want to be fair to the Norwegians. But despite the initial flop, Warner executive Jeff Ayeroff believed in A-ha. And so he went back to the drawing board, quite literally, too. This time, he recruited Barron, who was up for the task.
Barron explained how it was very rare in the ‘80s, “and probably very rare now” to give a band a second chance. When “Take on Me” first came out, radio stations weren’t responsive, and TV stations didn’t make any moves. But Jeff Ayeroff said, “Wait a minute. These guys are amazing-looking; they have an unusual sound; they feel really commercial. They just need to be presented in the right way.”
They Needed Something Spectacular
And so it was amazing for the record company to give it another go considering that many companies didn’t embrace videos the way Jeff did. That’s when Ayeroff came to Barron and said, “Look, we tried this release. Nothing’s happened. You’ve always wanted to do animation.” He told Barron: “We need something spectacular.”
Barron’s response? “Give us four months, and we’ll do it – if you can wait that long.” Ayeroff told him that he would wait as long as he needed. Just as long as it was fully complete… and spectacular. Barron came up with the idea to render the video with Rotoscoping. It was a very old animation technique based on live-action, where you trace out the outlines frame by frame.
A Technique From the 1920s
Rotoscoping was used more in the 1920s, and it hadn’t really been seen very much ever since. Basically, it was an outdated and old-fashioned technique. But Barron saw something special about it. There were parts of animation films that had been made that way, where you can feel the reality behind the drawing.
With time, Barron’s animators, Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, spent 16 very long weeks “rotoscoping” 3,000 individual frames for the “Take on Me” video. Patterson and Reckinger, for those who might be curious, later brought MC Skat Kat to life with Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video.
But first things first, before any cool animation could be done, they needed a concept – a good one.
Comic Books and Cafeterias
Barron said how before the animation part, they needed a good concept. He wanted to come up with a concept that justified the animation. “I was a real stickler at the time for having a motivation for what you were doing – as opposed to just doing it for show or for fashion.” Barron was inspired by both the comic books and cafeterias of his childhood.
“I spent a lot of my youth in ‘cafes,’ getting egg and chips; I lived in cafeterias, they were my home,” Barron recalled. He came up with the music video’s speed-racer plot, and he decided to film the live-action sequences at Kim’s Café and on a soundstage in London.
Then he had to link the live-action and the animation…
The Link Between Live Action and Animation
Once he had the concept and the animators’ hands ready to get to work, Barron had the task of finding the moment between live-action and animation. “I remember it distinctly, because I was going to a hotel in New York and playing the track over and over, and suddenly it came into my head.” He pictured it: an animated hand reaching out from inside the comic book and into the real world.
That vision became the pivotal “Take on Me” scene, which eventually elicited gasps from MTV viewers at home. It was something that people just didn’t see before. On that moment of seeing the vision, Barron said, “You know that feeling you get, those tingles and those goosebumps? Well, I got that tingly feeling.”
Credit to the Cast
Barron continued, saying how that tingly feeling is something he would “get occasionally when a good idea comes along. I just knew that if I could weave a story around that, we could be on to something really special.” And it wasn’t just his attention to detail or his animators’ painstaking animation that made the clip so special.
We should also give credit to the cast. Barron chose to use film people, as opposed to models. He explained how he wanted to get real actors. Even the man who plays the bad guy – who’s only seen in animation – is a real actor. His name is Philip Jackson, by the way, and he’s been in a bunch of British films (Give My Regards to Broad Street is one of them).
The Video’s Vixen
The female star of the music video was more than a video vixen, though. Actress Bunty Bailey played the part of singer Morten Harket’s love interest. Not only did her “really genuine character” become an atypical video girl of the 80s, but she also became Harket’s real-life girlfriend for nearly a year. The two met on the set of the music video, and Bunty even starred in the band’s follow-up video, “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”
Barron said how he saw Morten as having a “strong, striking, handsome look, but inside, he was kind of a less experienced, slightly more naive character.” Morten, who was about 21 at the time, didn’t have a “real girlfriend before then,” according to Barron’s recollection. And he definitely was never on a set, being filmed and pretending to be in love.
It was all very new for the young singer, who learned that you could get very close with people on set. Especially if you and your co-star are told to have this bond, the lines can blur between what you’re trying to portray and what you’re actually feeling. In their case, the bond they created on camera seeped into their real lives. Even if it didn’t last more than a year or so.
Barron remembers a part when they were doing these different takes, and there was one scene where Morten took Bunty by the hand. They did five or six takes, but by the fourth time, instead of taking her hand and then letting it go when they yelled, “Cut!” he just carried on holding it.
A Real and Sweet Moment
By take 5, Barron noticed that they were still holding hands, even when they weren’t filming. “It was a real moment, very sweet and innocent.” He described how it’s moments like these that you strive for in film: relationships and connections. “When they happen organically, it’s a plus.” Bunty Baily, for those who want to know, is a former English model, dancer, and actress.
She started out as a dancer in the early 80s in the dance group Hot Gossip. But she became known as the girl in A-ha’s singles. She was later listed by Fox News as one of The Hottest ’80s Video Vixens. Not a bad list to be a part if I may say so myself.
A Pre-Rotoscope Version is Out There… Somewhere
A pre-Rotoscope version of the “Take on Me” video exists. But Barron claims that he can’t find it. But he does know that somewhere, there’s a live-action version of it all the way through, with his scribbled notes on it, with pencil marks all over it. Maybe one day it will show up. Speaking of time, Barron says, “Take on Me” could really “come from almost any time; it could be a period piece, or it could be made now.”
But the 1980s happened to be a wildly creative time when up-and-coming directors didn’t have to follow formulas or direct rules. According to Barron, it was a journey into the unknown. There was no open book on what to do or even on what could be done. Those 80s video directors were basically free spirits running wild in unchartered territory.
The Doors with Some Scandinavian Flavor
So we know a bit about the music video, but what about the birth of the song itself? Keyboardist Magne Furuholmen told Rolling Stone that the first take of the song was actually inspired by The Doors. “Ray Manzarek was hugely influential; he brought classical music into pop.” He revealed that Manzarek’s mathematical but melodic way of playing the keyboard was a huge influence on how he approached his playing.
Furuholmen believes that a lot of the strength of A-ha came from absorbing things like that while also adding their own “Scandinavian flavor to it.” Another major ingredient was Morten Harket’s distinct vocals. The band thought of how they can showcase his incredible voice. Then Morten came up with a nuance of the melody that made much more interesting.
Eight MTV Video Music Awards
Furuholmen admitted that he has no doubt that the video made the song a hit. “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.”
At the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, the song and the clip took home six trophies and essentially put A-ha on the fast track to fame in America. The song’s follow-up single, “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” seemed like it was going to be a hit in the States. But it only peaked at Number 20 on the Hot 100. It did, however, earn two MTV Video Music Awards.
Three Headstrong Norwegians
Unfortunately for A-ha, it also marked the last time the band ever charted a Top 20 single in the US, But in Europe, they had a run of Top 10 hits in the decades that followed. Looking back at it all, Furuholmen blames their reluctance to play the American pop star game for their only partial success here. “We were three headstrong Norwegians,” as he says.
The way they saw it at the time, they didn’t want to record another “Take on Me.” They were doing their own thing. “We never expected to become teenage idols, so for us, it was like, ‘Let’s move on.’” But the record company told them that it was a successful formula, and anything they did to break that “was seen as a disease.”
The Most Successful Group From Norway
As A-ha vanished from the American landscape, back in Europe, the band scored a long run of both critical and commercial success. And yes, the band is still making music. Although they never repeated their “Take on Me” success in America, “they still have die-hard American fans. Regardless, and to this day, the band is the most successful global pop music from Norway.
A-ha has become a legacy of their own. Their songs, whether in original form or a cover version, have been included as background music in episodes of popular series, such as Baywatch, Melrose Place, South Park, Smallville, Cougar Town, Private Practice, The Leftovers, The Simpsons, and Family Guy.
MTV Unplugged and Hunting High and Low
The band has made a number of comebacks. And in December 2016, A-ha told the world that they would go on a European acoustic tour in 2018. They also announced that they were going to produce an album and a film from a series of performances. Then in 2017, they recorded an MTV Unplugged special on a remote Norwegian island called Giske.
By October 2019, A-ha started their latest tour in Dublin called “Hunting High and Low.” They decided to play, among other songs, their debut album – all of it. The tour was meant to stretch out until the end of 2020, but due to the Coronavirus, concerts in Japan and Singapore were canceled.
Back to Barron
In the mid-80s, Barron took a break from music videos to shoot a movie called Electric Dreams in 1984. The film flopped in America, and so he went right back to music videos. That’s when he got right back on track, making videos for A-ha and Dire Straits. His love for storytelling on the screen came back when he met Jim Henson on the set of David Bowie’s Underground in 1986.
The song is from the soundtrack of Henson’s Labyrinth. In the video, we see Bowie crooning in a dark street as Henson’s puppets peer out. As it was with the 80s, it was somehow both terrible and fantastic. Barron remembers that Bowie was “wonderfully creative and light and sweet and excited.”
Blessed with both the voice and face of an angel, Morten Harket started writing his own music at the tender age of four. It was at that age that the young star to be started learning the piano. But he lacked the discipline to practice every day, so he eventually gave it up.
Morten’s musical influences are Queen, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, and James Brown. Where did the name ‘A-ha’ come from? Well, apparently, guitarist Paul Waaktaar thought about the name when he was writing a song. A-ha was what he wanted to call that song. Morten then came across the name in Paul’s notebook and immediately thought it was the perfect name for their band.
A Unique Voice
Morten Harket is known for his unique voice, which some say has a vocal range that spans five octaves. Morten himself, however, was quoted as saying, “I’ve never counted, quite honestly.” Sylvia Patterson, from the former music magazine NME, claimed that Morten has “the greatest falsetto in the history of pop music ever.”
In 2000, Morten broke the world record for holding the longest single note in a song. Before him, the record was held by the late great Bill Withers, who held a note for 18 seconds in his song ‘Lovely Day.’ Harket passed that mark by holding a note for 20.2 seconds in the song ‘Summer Moved On.’
He’s A Norwegian Knight
In fact, for their contribution to Norwegian music, all three members of A-Ha have been appointed “Knights of the 1st Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav.” I admit that I personally don’t really know what that title even means, but it sounds prestigious, and they sure deserve it. The band also sings in their native language, by the way.
The pop star also has five kids from three different mothers. He has two boys and one girl with his now ex-wife Camilla Malmqvist Harket. The two were married for nearly ten years. He then has a daughter with ex-girlfriend Mette Undlien and another daughter with Inez Andersson.
Remastering Classic Videos
Recently, YouTube announced that, in partnership with Universal Music Group, they would be remastering classic music videos. There is a playlist of 80s music videos alone that have been restored to 4k resolution. “Take on Me” is just one of the bunch. And let’s face it, watching YouTube music videos can be a fun way to experience music and also explore a medium that defined a generation.
In the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, a great music video was what the latest internet meme means today: everyone would be talking about it. But, most of the iconic music videos in history were shot in low-quality and only later uploaded to YouTube in the same shoddy state.
1,000 Videos From All Genres
With YouTube’s new music video remastering campaign, they have been committed to painstakingly upgrading more than 1,000 videos from all kinds of genres, including rock, rap, country, pop, and other genre-defying artists. Some of the major videos that can now be seen in full 4k are No Doubt – “Don’t Speak,” Smash Mouth – “Walkin’ On The Sun,” Billy Idol – “White Wedding,” Rick James – “Super Freak.”
Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun,” Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Tom Petty – “Free Fallin’,” Meatloaf -“I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and George Strait – “Amarillo By Morning.” Uploaded every week, they will be going until the end of 2020. But since they only partnered with UMG, tons of iconic videos won’t get remastered.
The 80s Have Never Looked So Good
There are many non-UMG artists, like Michael Jackson, Prince, Oasis, Eurythmics, Foo Fighters, and more, who have yet to be marked as in need of restoring. But of the available remastered videos available, one of the better ones (at least from the 80s) is Wham!’s Last Christmas. The ‘80s have never looked so good, folks.
Christmas arrived early last year when Wham!’s iconic music video “Last Christmas” was restored in 4k. You can now see the 80s in full HD, complete with their fun hairstyles, fancy shell suits, and shoulder pads. The track originally came out in 1984, and Sony Music were the ones to remaster the original footage.
A Strange Experience
The best way to describe the video is, let’s say, strange. It’s almost like you’re watching current actors dress up in 80s outfits – the technology is that good. If you want, and you can do it with A-ha’s Take on Me, you can play it back side-by-side with the original video on YouTube just to see how incredible the difference is.
In Last Christmas, for instance, the indoor scenes and snowball fights look amazing, especially when we previously only saw blurry and fuzzy footage back in the day. Even if you’re not a fan of Wham! or the song, just seeing George Michael’s hairstyle in 4k is worth it.