If you grew up in the 80’s, as I did, then you remember this song being IMPOSSIBLE to escape. “Take On Me” from Norway’s a-ha was EVERYWHERE. If it wasn’t being played on the radio, then the video was guaranteed to be playing on MTV. It’s one of those songs that just IS. The band went on to sell over 55 million records in total, worldwide, holds a Guinness World Record for their Brazilian show that attracted 198,000 fans (for comparisons sake, Guns & Roses’ attendance was a “mere” 60,000 in the same city), and penned one of the greatest Bond Themes of all time, 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” If you don’t recall that one, well…I have attached it for your listening pleasure. A-ha has had an enviable career and is still going to this day.
A-ha began their career in their native Norway but quickly de-camped to London to try and make a real go of it. They moved there without a name, until singer Morten Harket saw the title of a song called “a-ha” in one of the other bloke’s lyric books. By all accounts it was a bloody awful song, but a great band name. They went with it, wanting to have something that would be easy to say in any language. That’s f’ing BRILLIANT!
The members of the band are as follows:
Pal Waaktaar – drum machine/guitar/vocals
Magne Furuholmen – synth bass/keys/vocals
Morten Harket – vocals
The song itself started as a completely different tune, called “The Juicy Fruit Song,” that MF and PW had written in their previous band, Bridges. MH had heard that take and was convinced that there was something to it. The first version recorded by a-ha was named “Lesson One,” which didn’t quite do it, so the track was re-arranged, re-performed, and re-recorded a total of three times before becoming the smash hit that we now know it as. The final version, with production from Alan Tarney, was the third iteration and was released with the ground-breaking, Steve Barron directed, video that I have also attached. If you haven’t seen THAT then I don’t know where you have been. The technique of “roto-scoping” had never been seen in any prior music video, and it went on to win 6 MTV Video Music Awards, doubling Michal Jackson’s take for “Thriller.” No mean feat. Between that and the following years “Sledgehammer,” from Peter Gabriel, no other artists have received more awards for a music video.
TO THE TRACK!
We begin with one of the most recognizable drum loops of all time. The minute it fires up, you know EXACTLY what it is. One of the things that I love about this drum-machine part is that it has been well thought out. There are subtle uses of an open hi-hat sound to build the tension in the choruses, and there’s a 1/2 time feel in the post-choruses, right before the big note. The little clicks and pops, weird glitch sounds, the bass-drum dropping out, and drum fills all give it a “live” feel that was pioneered by bands such as New Order. This wasn’t just one loop repeated for 4 minutes; there is clearly a lot of thought happening behind the choices, exactly the way a drummer would’ve approached it. Cymbal hits and a quick, snatched, open hi-hat sound randomly occurring mean that it never becomes mundane and is driving the song the same way that an organic drum part would have. Well done Pal!
Magne’s (“Mags” to his friends) unleashes the robots on the bass-line. I’d love to know what synth this is. There was rampant use of Oberheims at this time and it’s quite possible that is what is employed here. It’s fantastic, sits perfectly in the mix, and proceeds to dance along with counter-melodies, little runs, and the 4X4 feel of the choruses. Paired with the syncopation of the drum track, it is a beautiful example of the “tetris-ing” of tracks, as I like to call it. James Jamerson would be proud.
The main synth track is everything: Lush analogue pads; a lead that is INDELIBLE, once heard you can never forget it; the weird, and absolutely cheesey, bouncing bit that wraps around the “flute” track; the bells!?! Come on. This is Synth Pop of the finest caliber. And this song has a BRIDGE! And a phenomenal one at that. We are taken to a new place with this strange, panning, clicking, key sound, and then, with a “SWOOSH!”, back to the chorus, a final verse, and then the last chorus, with some of the most haunting, and impossible, vocals in the genre. The closest you were going to get to this would be Jimmy Somerville from Bronski Beat, another personal fav.
And now…one of my favorite little secrets that I have discovered in doing this segment. Pal Wakaktaar’s acoustic guitar part is a revelation! Swishing through the choruses, melding in with the drum track to become an, almost, additional hat track, except in key. This is true masterful arrangement. The stop/go’s in the last chorus ramp up the drama and feel in support of Morten’s vocals. Brilliant. But, there’s also the Andy Summers-esque palm mutes in the conclusion of the bridge. So simple. So effective. And when you pull them out of the mix, they really are missing. The job they are doing, as is often the case with “ear candy” tracks like that, are “felt” more than “heard.” As I said before, a masterful arrangement. Kudos, lads.
The vocals. What can one say? I remember the first time I heard it, my mind was scrambled. There was just NO way. I had heard high-voiced singers prior, of course, Jon Anderson of Yes, Rush’s Geddy Lee, and the prior-mentioned Somerville. But, none of them had done this! Harket holds the World Record for the longest note held in a live show. During a performance of “Summer Moved On” he belted a ridiculously high note for a total of 20.2 seconds. Go ahead, try it. In fact, try to sing along to the song. You probably can’t. Not many can. The entire thing is so EASY for him. You can hear it in the track. It’s performance, no struggle, just a bloke singing. The background voices are so dope! I love the whole thing. The a capella version of this is one that I just love to sit and listen to. Even the weird little scats, and his laugh, at the start. His little pulse-breaths, in between the lyrics, are just endearing and ad a level of humanity to a song that could have, quite easily, just been an anemic, sterile, piece of synth-pop piffle. This isn’t. It’s a legit SONG, with careful construction and brilliant choices being made throughout. With different instrumentation, it could easily be a Stax/Volt jam from back in the day. That’s real song writing for you. And one of the reasons that it has stood the test of time. Which it has.
The Radio Show Audio:
The band is still going and recently went viral with an acoustic version of the song filmed live for an MTV show. I have also attached that. This version is so much more poignant than you ever imagined it to be, and that’s the mark of a well written song. A-ha is a real band, of this you should have no doubt. Hunting High And Low is one of my favorite albums of the time, and I wore my tape down to transparency listening to it. In fact, I am going to go crank “Blue Sky” right now! Maybe you should do the same.
It’s impossible to be in a bad mood when listening to this song. It’s also a guaranteed floor-filler at any high school reunion. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Until next time,
The Award Winning Music Video:
The Bond Theme:
The Live Performance:
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This is one of the best song interpretations I’ve read in a while. Most reviewers gloss over important details, but you peel this onion to help people TRULY understand what goes into crafting a great song. With the exception of some happy accidents, a great song is the result of reworking rearranging, replaying parts until what you hear back feels right. It is this approach that yielded this great song. Thanks for the analysis.