Thursday, October 08, 2015

A Song's Story #7: Take On Me


Thirty years ago an iconic music video began airing on MTV and other music video stations. Oh, we didn't know back then that it was about to live on in infinity quite yet, but it's now 2015 and A-ha's "Take On Me" has truly stood the test of time -- it's even been parodied on Family Guy and Volkswagen did their own take on it for a commercial spot a year or two ago. Back in the '80s, most music videos -- if they were done right -- were like short films that told a story, and "Take On Me" should definitely be on any list of the best music videos ever made. It was clever, cute, fascinating, and backed by a good song with a bit of an interesting history, too. 

Most American music fans may not realize that the Norwegian trio A-ha (made up of keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, guitarist Pal Waaktaar-Savoy, and lead vocalist Morten Harket) is still very much active, recording music, and performing. They just released a new studio album after a five year hiatus (Cast in Steel) and are getting ready to kick off a European and South American tour this month. "Take On Me" may have been the band's biggest and only American hit, but their popularity continued in Europe and the group has sold 80 million records worldwide. The three men formed the band in 1982 in Norway and moved to London that year to launch their music careers.


"Take On Me" was originally written, more or less, in 1981 by Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy. At that time they were part of a band called Bridges and hadn't met Harket yet, and "Take On Me" was actually being called "The Juicy Fruit Song." After Bridges disbanded and Harket left his own band, Souldier Blue -- joining Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy -- A-ha decided to rework "The Juicy Fruit Song." It then became known as "Lesson One" and while it sounds very familiar to the final version that became "Take On Me", the lyrics and structure aren't quite there yet as you can hear from the second video below...and when Harket tries to hit that high note, ouch! We'll cut him some slack, though, as the final "Take On Me" has an ascending falsetto that he did nail...making it one of toughest karaoke songs to tackle. (Don't attempt it, folks, unless you actually are a pretty good singer or you could do some serious damage to innocent eardrums.) 

Here's the very early version of "Take On Me" (or "The Juicy Fruit Song") which had a definite rock sound, and then "Lesson One" which it morphed into, accompanied by Furuholmen's keyboard work, who has cited Ray Manzarek of The Doors as a huge influence for his role in "Take On Me."





According to Furuholmen, the song received yet another title change, this one being "All's Well That Ends Well and Moves With The Sun." ("A very catchy, short title," Furuholmen told Rolling Stone in a 2010 interview.)

After finally settling on "Take On Me" and being signed to Warner Bros. Records, the band released the song as a UK single in 1984 -- where it quickly bombed on the music charts. It was rerecorded and rereleased again -- where it failed yet again. They also had a music video to accompany the song:



The U.S. branch of Warner Brothers still believed in the group, and felt the song was hit-worthy. That's where the story of the infamous music video we know and love comes in. 

The Irish-born director Steve Barron was hired to direct the second video (Barron also worked on Michael Jackson's video to "Billie Jean" and is also best known for directing the profound Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.)

I think the reason the video is so endearing to '80s music fans is because the visual effects in it are old school and were accomplished without a computer. (Well, and some of us girls at the time briefly fantasized about being pulled by Harket's drawn hand into that same animated world -- sans bad guys chasing us with a monkey wrench, of course.) For the longest time I thought the animation was credited to the work of one comic artist, but the sequences were actually achieved using rotoscoping, a technique that is a hundred years old. With rotoscoping, live-action footage gets painstakingly traced over frame by frame to create an animated version of it. For "Take On Me", over 3,000 frames were traced over in pencil by several artists and took over four months to complete. To this day we don't know who these artists were that worked on creating the video, but kudos to them! 

The cute girl who starred in the video as the singer's love interest is an English actress, dancer, and model named Bunty Bailey. She actually dated Harket for a while after making the music video and also appeared in the group's video for "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." which was a minor follow-up hit for the band in the U.S. (At the beginning of "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.", Harket says goodbye to Bailey and returns to his animated form and world.) 

Bailey appeared on a British show a few years ago called Big Fat Quiz of the '80s and looks...exactly the same. She's as lovely as ever and hasn't aged at all! 



As for "Take On Me", the U.S. video catapulted it to the top of the charts. It was also released in the UK for a third time, which turned out to be the charm: it peaked at number two on the UK singles charts, thwarted by Jennifer Rush's "The Power of Love" in the number one spot. It finally made the band a smash and they went on to rack up music awards. The music video won six trophies at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards. 

There seems to be a lesson in the story behind "Take On Me" about the power of perseverance and believing in one's self and talent. Ironically, part of the reason the group then faltered in the U.S. is because they refused to be pigeon-holed as teen idols with songs similar to "Take On Me." They decided to stick to focusing on what they wanted to produce, which has worked very well for them in other parts of the world. 

And now for old time's sake, here's that infamous music video. Go on, you know you want to watch it again. 

4 comments:

  1. And don't forget "Literal Take On Me". https://youtu.be/8HE9OQ4FnkQ

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  2. Whenever I think of the early MTV days, this video comes to mind as one of those that defined the video magnetism of MTV. I absolutely binged on music videos by keeping the television on instead of the radio. Watching a performer was so much more fun!

    Thanks for the memories, Pam!

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  3. That original "Blue" version of 1984 is really great. Just as good as the subsequent one. Love the echoey (vocaded?) voice.


    But let the whole thing be a lesson, sometimes corporate interference actually makes things better.

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  4. The wonderful EMP Museum in Seattle has the original artwork from the video. The exhibit is about the development of music video...like everything else in the museum, it is excellent!

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