In 1985, when “Take on Me,” the New Wave hit performed by a trio of glacially beautiful Norwegians with cheekbones like Viking blades, started getting heavy radio play in my hometown of Spokane, I was a potato-shaped eleven-year-old with a cropped haircut that, on good days, could look a tiiiiiiny bit New Wave-ish, but mostly made me look like someone’s mother. I was arrogant and uncool; I was an unrepentant smartypants who cried a lot. I wore handmade clothes, sewn by my mom out of whatever fabric she had on hand, which was often brown corduroy. I never stopped telling people how smart I was.
In 1985, my parents, whom I loved and still love beyond the ability of language to describe, were alive.
In 1985, the music video for “Take on Me”—half live-action footage, half rotoscope animation, all awesome—devoured MTV. We didn’t have cable, but I still remember seeing that video dozens of times, because it was omnipresent. That video was stop-and-watch material, no matter how many times it aired. The effect of “Take on Me” is, to this day, both transportive and deceptive; whenever I hear that famous synth riff, whenever I catch a glimpse of that video, I slide back through the decades to a Bizarro-world version of 1985, in which I am sleek and sophisticated and very, very cool.
The glacially beautiful Norwegians—guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (née Pål Waaktaar), keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, and frontman Morten Harket—performed under the faintly baffling name of A-ha; if you’re feeling very special, you should write it as “a-ha.” A-ha (ahem, a-ha) formed in Norway in 1982 and moved to London to make it big. Their label initially released “Take on Me” in 1984 with a slightly different mix and with a radically different video from what would ultimately disrupt the world.
The initial “Take on Me” video featured the band performing on an empty set while a pretty lady in a leotard does a bunch of walkovers and cartwheels around them. Gymnastics had a moment in the early days of music videos; Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell” video, released in 1982, also featured a leotard-clad gymnast flipping in slo-mo all over the place. The first “Take on Me” video was good for showing the world that Morten, Magne, and Pål all had fantastic hair and noteworthy bone structure, but the song failed to catch on.
Music producer Alan Tarney stepped in and remixed the song. Compare the 1984 and 1985 versions, and it’s obvious why one sputtered and one blazed. The remixed version is cleaner, crisper, more polished, better. It pops. The 1984 version is sparkling wine; the 1985 version is Champagne.
In 1985, the remixed song reached number one on the music charts in most countries; it ended the year at number ten on Billboard‘s Hot 100 for all of 1985. The second “Take on Me” video, the one made for that remixed version, has, as of this writing, 1.4 billion views on A-ha’s official YouTube channel. That number will continue to grow for as long as the video remains online. It is as close to universally beloved as any artifact of eighties pop culture gets.
That second video was directed by Steve Barron, who directed the 1984 sentient-computer romance Electric Dreams and who shot a bunch of other iconic videos from MTV’s golden era: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” Classics, all, but none of them touch “Take on Me.”
In the video, a lovely young woman sits at a table in a diner. She’s dressed in what seems like a wide variety of billowy blush-colored garments, because women’s fashions in 1985 were all about volume: padded shoulders, layers, pleats, ruffles, flounces, peplums, flowing hems, anything that could transform your natural shape into a box or a cone. The diner is Kim’s Cafe, now known as the Savoy Cafe; the young woman is actress/model/dancer Bunty Bailey. Bailey reads a comic book and is magically pulled into a black-and-white hand-drawn world by the comic’s hero, a handsome young motorcycle racer played by frontman Morten Harket, and they quickly fall in love. They’re pursued through the comic-book world by violent wrench-wielding miscreants; Harket saves Bailey by pushing her back into the real world and then, with great effort, manages to join her. Love triumphs over the laws of the physical world.
(Bailey and Harket wound up dating for a couple of years following this video, which seems only fair; they’re a matched set of loveliness, all fluffy heads of hair and giant soft eyes. )
The scenes inside the comic realm are the work of animators Candace Reckinger and Mike Patterson, who used the rotoscope technique, in which live-action film footage is painstakingly traced frame by frame to create animation cells. Done poorly, rotoscoping can be clumsy—just look at Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings, which featured a mixture of traditional animation and some not-great rotoscoped footage in a jarring mishmash of styles. In “Take on Me,” though, the rotoscoping is done with grace and elegance.
The song and the video capture the fragmented strangeness of the eighties, that quality I’ve been chasing to define for decades, the oddness that infused those early days of MTV. “Take on Me” exists in the hyper-stylized eighties landscape of Patrick Nagel paintings, of Miami Vice, of Tron, of Max Headroom. The lyrics to “Take on Me” are simple, but, to an American ear, slightly strange and overly formal: I don’t know what I’m to say. Today’s another day to find you. “Take on Me” is about melancholy beauty juxtaposed with extreme glamour, a dip in a cold Norwegian lake at sunrise after a night spent drinking electric blue cocktails at a discotheque in Oslo.
Harket, Waaktaar-Savoy, and Furuholmen are still together, recording and performing. They’ve made ten studio albums, eight of which reached number one on the Norwegian charts. A persistent sentiment lingers in the US that A-ha was a one-hit wonder, that “Take on Me” represents the sum total of their body of work. Never mind that A-ha had multiple hit albums and hit songs across Europe; A-ha had songs apart from “Take on Me” that received radio play and charted in the United States, with “The Sun Always Shines on TV” (#20) and “Cry Wolf” (#50). A-ha wrote and performed a Bond theme, for crying out loud, for 1987’s The Living Daylights.
The video for “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is a direct sequel to “Take on Me,” transforming “Take on Me”’s romantic optimism into bitter tragedy: At the start of “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” Bailey and Harket’s characters experience momentary bliss in the real world, and then Harket is sucked back into the comic book, presumably for eternity, leaving Bailey bereft. Because Americans by and large don’t know much about A-ha, I got into an argument on this very subject with some random dude at a bar in New York a small handful of years ago: “Take on Me” came on over the sound system, his girlfriend and I started gushing about the video, I mentioned the existence of the sequel, and he jumped into our conversation to angrily insist that I must be talking about some kind of fan-made project, because the “Take on Me” video has never, ever had a sequel. I am not the kind of person who gets into arguments at bars, to put it mildly, and this experience—having my calm factual knowledge flat-out refuted by some dude who didn’t know a blasted thing about the subject matter but was nonetheless absolutely certain he was more qualified to weigh in on it than me—was a unique one to me at the time. Then I started a YouTube series devoted to analyses of Miami Vice episodes, and I quickly became accustomed to angry dudes yelling at me about how I am wrong, wrong, wrong.
A fun fact about “Take on Me”: It is a bitch to sing. Many have tried, but those not named Morten are doomed to fail. It spans two and a half octaves, beginning on earth and ending somewhere in the clouds; Harket starts in his chest and ends in an angelic falsetto, and he makes it seem effortless, like he could sing it while competing in a marathon and still nail every note.
Despite the degree of difficulty, singers love to mess around with “Take on Me.” Perennially popular seem to be slowed-down, breathy, baby-talk interpretations, which invariably drop the chorus down an octave instead of going for the glory of that celestial high note; this approach is akin to playing a video game on the novice setting and expecting applause when you clear the first level. In one of the more successful efforts, Reel Big Fish came out with a lively ska-infused version in 1998. Weezer released a straightforward cover in 2019, complete with a partially rotoscoped homage video, and hey, Rivers Cuomo nails the high note, which is really all I ask. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the version chirped out by the young stars of the 2020 remake of the 1983 teen classic Valley Girl: low energy, nasal, auto-tuned within an inch of its life, and instead of that high note, the singers simply opted to hit… some other note entirely. A recent SNL sketch about karaoke uses “Take on Me” as a punchline: Bowen Yang starts out filled with bravado, then crashes and burns on the climb to the top. Some of the best SNL sketches are the ones that strike a common chord: We have all listened to singers crash and burn on “Take on Me.”
Here in 2022, when everything in the world seems ruined or on the brink of ruin, “Take on Me” is still transportive. That synth riff, bubbly yet somehow wistful, always whisks me back to that better version of 1985 that only exists in my head. A-ha released a series of short documentaries in 2019 examining the birth of that song and that video; in it, Harket refers to that riff as “the key to the world.” He means, of course, that it unlocked the doors that led A-ha to fame and acclaim, but there could be a broader truth to it. I would very much like the key to the world, and I think Harket might be onto something about finding it in that song.