In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
a-ha – “Take On Me”
America is tough, man. You can be king shit on the entire rest of the planet, and the American public simply will not care one bit. Consider the case of a-ha, the Norwegian synthpop trio who had massive global success with their very first single. In the rest of the world, that single opened doors. On the strength of that one single, a-ha took off and became legends — towering stars big enough to fill stadiums across Europe and South America. In the US, though, a-ha are one-hit wonders — mostly known today for a catchy keyboard riff and for a cute music video. It’s some video, though.
It took a huge institutional push to get a-ha to the point where America would give them the time of day. The version of “Take On Me” that hit #1 on the Hot 100 was not the group’s first take on the track. “Take On Me” had to be rewritten, retooled, and remixed, and then it had to have a wildly expensive and creative music video. It took a lot of work — first from a-ha themselves, and then from the people who looked at a-ha and saw money.
As a song, “Take On Me” actually preceded the existence of a-ha. In the late ’70s, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen, two kids from the Oslo suburbs, started a band called Bridges. Since no Norwegian band had ever made any real noise outside Norway, Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen moved to London and recorded some demos. It didn’t work. Bridges released one indie album in 1980 and then broke up. But one of their songs, a skittery post-punk track with the terrible-pun title “Miss Eerie,” had a central melody that would eventually become something.
When Bridges broke up, Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen returned to Norway, and they soon got together with an ultra-handsome young singer named Morten Harket. (When Harket was born, the #1 single in the US was the Browns’ “The Three Bells.”) Harket heard “Miss Eerie” and thought it sounded like an ad jingle. Harket, Waaktaar-Savoy, and Furuholmen got together to became a-ha, and they quickly started work on a new version of “Miss Eerie,” first calling it “Lesson One” and then changing it to “Take On Me.” A-ha kept the London dream alive, returning to the city a couple of times and recording demos, and they finally got themselves a record deal with Warner Bros.
The first version of “Take On Me” came out in October of 1984. The band put it together with Tony Mansfield, the producer who’d been recording their demos. It’s got a bare-bones video, one that just shows the members of the group looking sweaty and playing on an all-blue soundstage. Maybe it’s just because of how well I know the later version, but that first take on “Take On Me” feels dinky and tinny and wrong. That 1984 single did well enough to reach #3 in Norway, but it bricked in the UK, and it never even came out in the US. Still, Warner Bros. execs started to notice that there was something there. Some of those execs also noticed that Morten Harket was ridiculously good-looking.
Warner paid for a-ha to record a cleaner, sleeker version of “Take On Me” with Alan Tarney, a producer who’d worked with Cliff Richard. Then the label also gave Steve Barron, the big music-video director of the era, a huge budget to make a second “Take On Me” video. At that point, Barron was a kingmaker; he’d had huge success in directing videos like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” (Later, Barron would direct the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which rules.) Barron had an idea for an image — a hand reaching up out of a comic book — and he set about making it happen.
Barron had seen Commuter, an animated short that the husband-and-wife team Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger had made as a student film. (Patterson would later create an animated character that will eventually appear in this column.) For Commuter, Patterson and Reckinger used rotoscoping, a painstaking animation style in which illustrators trace over frames of live-action film. Barron put the two of them on retainer, and they made “Take On Me” together.
“Take On Me” is a charming bit of goony pop surrealism. A girl reads a comic book about motorcycle racers, catches the eye of one of the characters, and then notices that character winking at her. His hand reaches up and pulls her into the book, and she enters a sort of wonderland where the members of a-ha switch back and forth between pencil-sketch drawing and flesh-and-blood. There are complications involving crumpled paper and angry rival motorcycle gangs, but they finally end up together in the real world — a full silent-movie romantic narrative arc that doesn’t require one single word of spoken dialogue.
The “Take On Me” video really is a marvel. Barron takes full advantage of a whole new visual language, letting his characters pop in and out of animation just for fun. And there’s also a sweetness at the center of the story and a genuine chemistry between the two leads. Morten Harket would go on to date the “Take On Me” actress Bunty Bailey for a couple of years, and she’d star in the group’s next video. In the oral history I Want My MTV, Barron says, “When we started shooting, I told him I wanted him to take her hand and lead her into the comic world. And by about take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut.” I love that! Last year, Harket and Bailey reunited in a very cute making-of video.
Warner Bros. pushed the “Take On Me” video even before MTV picked it up; they had it showing in movie theaters before the movie started. When MTV did pick it up, the video went crazy, but the song’s ascent up the charts was still slow and hesitant. “Take On Me” only managed to top the charts for a single week, but the video swept the VMAs. It’s a definite case of the video being bigger than the song. That clip captured a whole lot of imaginations, and it was iconic enough that the Literal Video Version went crazy viral a couple of decades later.
With that said: “Take On Me” is a great song! It took a few tries, but the version of the song that hit is clean and propulsive and full of a dizzily romantic sort of energy. The lyrics are clearly the work of people whose first language is not English, and they look utterly ridiculous on paper: “Today’s another day to find you/ Shying away/ I’ll be coming for your love, OK?” OK! But the song also has that Scandinavian melodic-math thing working for it — a melody so bright and strong and hooky that you never, ever pause to think about what those words might mean.
“Take On Me” has hooks on hooks on hooks. There’s that dinky, irresistible one-finger keyboard riff. There’s the bounce of the beat, the glimmering little synth chords that interlock throughout. There’s Morten Harket hitting crazy-in-love falsetto notes — ending the chorus by somehow emitting a series of impossible sounds, each higher than the one before. The thing just works. It’s got a shiny optimism that demands total submission. Resistance is futile.
And yet the US pop charts went on to resist everything that a-ha did post-“Take On Me.” The band’s debut album Hunting High And Low is a deeply engaging piece of pop-music efficiency, and second single “The Sun Always Shines On TV” is an absolute banger that hit #1 in the UK and did well around the world. In the US, though, “The Sun Always Shines On TV” peaked at #20.
That’s pretty much how things went for a-ha for decades. A-ha have broken up and gotten back together a few times, but they’re still hugely successful around the planet. In Norway, a-ha have eight #1 albums. In Brazil, the band broke a global attendance record in 1991, playing for nearly 200,000 fans at the Rock In Rio festival. In the UK, a-ha scored a top-10 hit as recently as 2006. But here, they couldn’t even chart with their theme to the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights. After “The Sun Always Shines On TV,” only one a-ha single even charted in the US. (1986’s “Cry Wolf” peaked at #50.)
And yet you can’t really call a-ha an ephemeral success — not when that one success has lingered the way “Take On Me” has. These days, “Take On Me” is a TikTok challenge. It won’t ever be gone.
BONUS BEATS: The ska-punk band Reel Big Fish made their “Take On Me” a live staple in the late ’90s, something I know because I went to multiple Reel Big Fish shows in high school. Face it, y’all: Reel Big Fish released their version of the song on the soundtrack of the 1998 movie BASEketball. Here’s their video for it:
(Reel Big Fish never had a single on the Hot 100, but the record company gave them lots of money, and everything was all right.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “Take On Me” that the noisy emo band Cap’n Jazz released in 1998:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The a-ha version of “Take On Me” peaked at #2 in the UK. But in 2000, a British/Norwegian boy band called A1 had a UK #1 hit with their cover of “Take On Me.” Here’s the extremely cheesy video, which starts with a making-of featurette for some reason:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the 2013 Christina Aguilera collab “Feel This Moment,” Pitbull rapped over a cheesed-out club-pop interpolation of the “Take On Me” riff. Here’s the video:
At the 2013 Billboard Music Awards, Pitbull and Christina Aguilera performed “Feel This Moment,” and a-ha’s Morten Harket made a cameo. Here is visual evidence:
(“Feel This Moment” peaked at #8. It’s a 2. Pitbull and Christina Aguilera will both end up in this column eventually.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment in the 2016 movie La La Land where Emma Stone catches jazz-dork dipshit Ryan Gosling suffering the indignity of playing a “Take On Me” cover at a pool party:
(A Flock Of Seagulls’ 1982 single “I Ran,” the other song that Gosling is humiliated to play in that scene, peaked at #8. It’s a 7. Then we see Gosling walking around with his keytar, not playing it, as Soft Cell’s 1981 version of “Tainted Love” plays. I guess at this party they keep playing ’80s music even when the ’80s cover band is taking a break? “Tainted Love” peaked at #8. It’s a 9. Eventually, “Tainted Love” will appear in this column in sampled form.)