A-Ha! Unplugged ‘Take on Me’ Transforms the Song

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A scene from the 1985 version, complete with pencil-sketch

It was a guilty pleasure for many in 1985 when “Take on Me” came on the radio or when the breakthrough video was shown (in heavy rotation) on MTV and it put the Norwegian group A-ha on the worldwide stage. It’s a song you’ve heard countless times but perhaps never like its 2017 reinterpretation.

The synthpop-heavy trio, formed in Oslo in 1982, were (and still are) led by lead vocalist Morten Harket, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and percussionist Pal Waaktaar-Savoy.

Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy had written an early version of “Take on Me” for a previous band they were in. When the duo were joined by Harket, the trio re-worked the song and used it to shop around for a record deal. A-ha signed with Warner Bros., recorded the song and released the single and a video in Europe in 1984.

Watch the original version of the video, based on A-ha’s original recording

Though the song failed to find an audience, the label was convinced it had a hit. They brought in producer Alan Tarney, who had had success, most notably writing and arranging Cliff Richard’s 1979 hit “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and then producing Leo Sayer’s 1980 smash “More Than I Can Say.” A-ha re-recorded “Take on Me” and the label hired video director Steve Barron who had helmed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” clip a year earlier.

Barron’s pencil-sketch concept for “Take on Me” was revolutionary at the time and earned six MTV Video Awards in 1986.

Watch the hit version, remastered in 4K resolution

Related: 13 influential early MTV videos

It’s the #2 most-viewed video from the Eighties on YouTube and on Feb. 17, 2020 it passed one billion views there. As it approached that landmark number, A-ha created a three-part series on the making-of the clip.

Watch episode one

The songs from the 20th Century with over one billion views on YouTube is a short list: “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

“Take on Me” topped the charts in numerous countries, including the U.S. on Oct. 19, 1985. With various re-releases and subsequent digital sales, the single is said to have sold over seven million copies worldwide. A follow-up single, “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #1 in the U.K. (and #20 in the U.S.).

Over the years, A-ha continued to enjoy success in Europe. The band split in 2010 only to re-form in 2015. The following year came surprising news: A-ha would do a European acoustic tour in 2018. Even more surprising: the group secretly recorded a MTV Unplugged special in June 2017. Featured in the performance is a phenomenal reinterpretation of their 1985 worldwide smash with a beautiful vocal by Harket, who turned 60 on September 14, 2019.

Watch A-ha perform “Take on Me” for MTV Unplugged

A-ha have lots of upcoming tour dates. Tickets are available here and here.

On October 17, 2018, a new version of the song, with a 50-piece symphonic orchestra, was released as part of a new collection, 80’s Symphonic, featuring David Bowie, Foreigner, the Cars, Simple Minds and Tina Turner and many others.

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  1. Billy K.
    #1 Billy K. 26 January, 2018, 12:31

    First I heard of “Unplugged” in 2017?? ..OH, I forgot that MTV didn’t go all-“reality” in Europe. Glad to see the Europeans got it right!

    It’s criminal what they did to the US version of the channel, though…..

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