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

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

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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.)

"I have no doubt that the video made the song a hit," Furuholmen says. "The song has a super catchy riff, but it is a song that you have to hear a few times. And I don't think it would've been given the time of day without the enormous impact of the video." The legendary clip, directed by Steve Barron, took two months to create due to the backbreaking rotoscoping process, but it was worth the effort: At the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, "Take on Me" took home six trophies and put a-ha on the fast track to fame in the U.S.

"Take on Me" was a Number One smash in the U.S. and abroad, and its follow-up single "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." seemed primed to be a hit in the States… until it only peaked at Number 20 on the Hot 100. It also marked the last time a-ha ever charted a Top 20 single in the U.S., despite a run of Top 10 hits in Europe in the decades that followed. Looking back, Furuholmen blames a-ha's reluctance to play the pop star game in America for their limited success here. "We were three headstrong Norwegians saying, 'No we don't want to record another "Take on Me," we're doing our own thing,' " Furuholmen says. "We never expected to become teenage idols, so for us it was like, 'Let's move on.' But for the record company this was a successful formula, and anything we did to break with that was seen as a disease."

While a-ha vanished from the American pop landscape, in Europe the group scored a long run of critical and commercial success including their newest — and final — album Foot of the Mountain, which debuted at Number Five in the U.K. but didn't even enter the Billboard 200. "We had a lot more trust in our audience than the record companies did, and I think our audience has stayed with us because of our musical qualities," Furuholmen says, adding that although the band never repeated their "Take on Me" success here, "Even in America we have die-hard fans. We sold out these concert halls faster than we expected to." A-ha, who decided to call it quits after nearly 25 years with a farewell tour called Ending on a High Note, will perform their final two American concerts this weekend before returning to Europe for a trek that stretches from June to December. Their career will wrap for good with three concerts in Oslo, Norway.

Today, Furuholmen says the band's smash hit still sounds "really energetic," and admits he's also seen the viral "literal version" of the "Take on Me" video where a Harket impersonator literally narrates the action in the classic clip. "I thought it was fucking fantastic. It was amazing. I wish we'd have that video back when we made it," Furuholmen says. "The lyrics make so much more sense than the one we have."

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