The secret history of a-ha's iconic video 'Take on Me'
Thirty years ago this month, the Norwegian pop group topped the charts with their irresistible synth-pop gem — and revolutionized music videos. In honor of a-ha’s anniversary, guitarist and songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy looks back on working with famed music-video director Steve Barron and watching the song go to No. 1.
“Take on Me” wasn’t a smash out of the gate.
The band released a less slick version in 1984 but redid the tune after it proved to be a commercial flop. And despite releasing a revised rendition in 1985, Waaktaar-Savoy says, “it took, like, four months to reach number one in America. And it felt like years. Every week it would go up a spot, up three spots…. It would pick up, then slow down. [It] was a whole process.”
The music video took months to make.
The group teamed up with director Steve Barron, who helmed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” for a short-form piece that mixed live action with rotoscoping illustration—never before used in a music video. “It was a dream to work with talent like that,” Waaktaar-Savoy says of Barron. “Normally, videos took a week of shooting in a hangar. But for this, we did a whole day that was only to make the comic magazine. Then four months spent doing hand-drawn drawings. It was very thorough stuff.” That might be an understatement: Illustrator Mike Patterson came up with more than 3,000 sketches for the final clip.
“Take on Me” is a pop culture touchstone—and a-ha couldn’t care less.
Waaktaar-Savoy admits that these days he rarely sees the video, which scored six MTV Moonmen in 1986. “Most of the time, you see a commercial and someone is spoofing it,” he says of send-ups featured on Family Guy, in a Volkswagen commercial, and more. “I didn’t even know it was the 30th anniversary of the song!”
The female star of the clip was more than a video vixen.
Actress Bunty Bailey, who played singer Morten Harket’s love interest, went on to star in the band’s follow-up video, “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” and had a real-life romance with Harket.
The band is still taking on the world.
Despite a farewell tour in 2010, a-ha released a 2015 album, Cast in Steel, and are touring next year. “If we love it, then we will do more,” Waaktaar-Savoy says. “It’s nice to feel that we can take any turn we want.”