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Favorite songs: a-ha | Take on Me

The story behind a two-time flop turned into a world mega-hit.

“A great pop song is a wonderful thing, and 'Take on Me' is one of the truly great pop songs”. (Richard Hughes – Keane)

“This is it, this is the key to the world”. (Morten Harket)

There is something in 'Take on Me' that, across generations, gets people. The combination of its fast, 169 beats per minute, tempo, the lyrics’ plea for love, the spiraling vocals and the fantastic half-tempo drums before the chorus climax makes it a perfect pop song.

The song starts with a false 4 on the floor beat intro, with a double bass drum breaking the pattern on the last bar and a very low but constant double paced low synth tom on the background pushing the rhythm. This intro goes just short of 20 seconds, but builds the tension by not delivering the song intentions, making the listener wonder whats is coming, then a single chord strumming, a bass line and, all of a sudden, the riff breaks in, and we are hooked.

That’s it, huge success, world domination! But…no, not yet.

'Take on Me' inception goes back to a Pal and Mags teenage band, The Bridges. According to the keyboard player, they were about 15 years old when they composed the central riff of what would become the song, they felt they had something there but the guitarist, Pål Waaktaar was reluctant, “oh, that’s so cheesy, that’s so poppy, we can’t use it”, but Magne Furuholmen, on the other hand, thought “really? It sounds quite catchy to me” and hold to the riff. They played around with the idea and, in an attempt to offset the “cheesiness” of the song, they made it into a punk song. Around this time the song was often referenced among them as the “juice fruit song” because it reminded them of “good-life with Coca-Cola” kind of songs from advertisements, and they thought, “that’s not us, we’re like dark Norwigiang troubled souls. We can’t do that”.

The first song that Morten Harket heard Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar play was an early version of 'Take on Me', at that time the song was still called 'Miss Eerie'. Morten said to them “that’s a universal hit riff, we have to do something with that”. It was later revealed that the singer was pivotal to the use of the riff, threatening to quit the band if they did not use it.

The trio moved to London and began contacting record companies and publishing houses. After a few meetings with various A&R personnel, they signed with the publishing house Lionheart. Things didn’t work as they expected and they returned to Norway to earn some money. When they returned to London, they left Lionheart and, intending to re-record five songs for a new demo, chose the studio of musician and producer John Ratcliff. Ratcliff introduced them to manager Terry Slater. With the proper encouragement, the band managed to complete the songs, including 'Take On Me'.

Slater managed to introduce the band to Andrew Wickham a VP for Warner Brothers Records in California stationed in London. After auditioning three songs, 'Dot the I', 'Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale' and 'Take on Me'. Wickham was impressed by Harket singing, stating “How can somebody who looks like a film star sound like Roy Orbison?”, so he signs the band.

That’s it, huge success, world domination!, not really.

In the words of Harket, Wickham “Find us, signs us, but we are a signed act to American Warner Brothers, and then we are left to be developed and looked after by WEA in Uk".

The band was taken to Tony Mansfield, who was skilled in the use of the Fairlight CMI and used it extensively throughout the 1980s for production and pre-production, but this electronic, synthpop approach didn’t work for the song. The building tension intro that was in the demos was scraped, the song started directly on the riff. According to Pål, in the attempt to fit the song into the Fairlight, they had to discard a lot of the stuff they had in the demo, the final result was, at best, subpar.

The first release, supported by, according to Furuholmen “the worst video imaginable”, was not successful, the second release was not successful, there was a third haphazard attempt of a release and, according to the keyboard player they were becoming desperate, because they knew they “lost 'Take on Me' as a hit song” and, as a new act with no success, there was “no way that we had the power at the time to go back to the record company and say ‘Can we have more money? Can we try a few more days in the studio?’”

So, that’s it? No huge success? No world domination?

Furuholmen says that “Andrew Wickham is probably the most important factor to the song been as it is today”, he believed in the band, he believed in the song and, discussing with manager Terry Slater, he decided to bring Alan Tarney to produce a new recording of the song.

Unlike Tony Mansfield, who tried to fit the song into the production method, Alan Tarney decided to be true to the demo version. According to Tarney, the original version that a-ha made by themselves was what the record company loved, was what Terry Slater loved, so his job was to produce a version that resembled the original version. Beefing up the riff with layers of synths he got the song to sound to its fullest a delivered a potential hit.

And then Jeff Ayeroff enters the picture:

The demonized Tony Mansfield’s version is really subpar, and striped the song of many of its defining elements, but its production would fit perfectly in an unimaginative plain-vanilla pop song aimed for mainstream radios. The first video, on the other hand, is cringe worthing and definitely helped in pushing away the audience. You may watch, but its at your own risk.

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