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The Secret History of a-ha's Smash "Take on Me"

Band tells the tale behind its biggest hit as farewell tour winds down

May 14, 2010 3:11 PM ET

Despite having one of the hardest-to-sing choruses in pop history — a fact easily confirmed by a trip to any karaoke bar — a-ha's "Take on Me" is one of the most beloved singles of the Eighties. But the band's new wave shimmer will quiet for good this month, when the Norwegian act wraps its farewell tour.

"To me it still sounds fresh on the radio," keyboardist Magne Furuholmen tells Rolling Stone, revealing that "Take on Me" was born from inauspicious beginnings. "It started out being called 'Lesson One,' then we renamed the song 'All's Well That Ends Well and Moves With the Sun.' A very catchy, short title."

The first take of the song was actually inspired by the Doors. "Ray Manzarek was hugely influential; he brought classical music into pop," Furuholmen says. "Manzarek's almost mathematical but very melodic, structured way of playing the keyboard was a huge influence in how I approached my instrument. And I think a lot of the strength of a-ha comes from absorbing things like that and adding our own Scandinavian flavor to it." The other major ingredient was singer Morten Harket's distinct vocals. "We started thinking, 'How can we showcase this incredible voice?' So we were kind of doing this spiraling thing up, and Morten came up with an inflection of the melody that turned it much more interesting," Furuholmen says.

After signing to Warner Bros. in London and recording the first real version of "Take on Me," a-ha deemed the track sub par and the single quickly bombed. The group fought hard for another crack in the studio, and recruited producer Alan Tarney to rerecord the song. The second version faltered again, but the label's U.S. arm had faith in the tune and invested in a cutting-edge second video — a video that would become one of the most iconic clips of the era. (Watch the original video here.)

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