Rewinding the Charts: In 1985, a-ha's 'Take On Me' Topped the Billboard Hot 100

A-ha photographed in 1985.
Tim Roney/Getty Images

A-ha photographed in 1985.

Singer Morten Harket discusses the creation and enduring appeal of the song, which is nearing 1 billion YouTube views.

Most Americans think a-ha’s story starts and ends with “Take On Me,” the light-hearted ode to taking a chance on love whose sound encapsulated the carefree ’80s. And if the trio’s only professional accolade had been topping the charts worldwide with that song, it wouldn’t be a terrible way to go down in history.

But the career of Norway’s most successful pop act spans 30-plus years, 10 studio albums, 70 million copies sold globally (per its website) and doing such prestige plays as repeat performances at the annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert. It has consistently toured, and is in fact returning to the United States for the first time in a decade to play Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, Sept. 25-27, 2020.

“Take On Me,” which 34 years ago today reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, has two signatures. The first is its riff -- that bright, uber-caffeinated motif created by keyboardist Magne Furuholmen -- that arrives after a 17-second intro. And then there’s that note that vocalist Morten Harket effortlessly strikes when he sings the words “or two.”

Putting his multi-octave range on display in the song “was kind of a gimmick, almost for fun, that we were going to let it just go through the ceiling,” recalls Harket, who says guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy got the idea as the band worked on demos. “But obviously, the notes were actually pivotal; the choice of notes and feel of the piece, the aura of it or the character of it.”

“Take On Me” routinely appears in commercials (Volkswagen, Geico) and movies -- it soundtracked a love scene in 2018’s snarktastic Deadpool 2 -- and has been covered/sampled by acts as varied as Weezer, Ninja Sex Party, Pitbull and Sara Bareilles; Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo rocked an arena of metalheads by jamming to it at an Oslo tour stop. While it has become a karaoke dare that most attempt as a self-deprecating joke, it’s also revered. Twitter slapped President Trump’s wrist in September over a re-election campaign promo seemingly inspired by the song’s famous rotoscope video that took animators Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger four months to create. (Furuholmen -- who ironically released the mournful track “This Is Now America” that month in response to Trump’s administration -- commented to Rolling Stone, “Even blind pigs can find truffles.”)

The song, which has sold 2 million copies and been streamed 628.1 million times (according to Nielsen Music), is so ubiquitous that its official video is nearing 1 billion YouTube views -- a rarity for a 20th-century track. (At press time, its views had exceeded 945 million.) To celebrate, the band is hosting a contest that will reward the fan who predicts the closest time and date of when the one billionth view will occur with a flight to Norway to see the band at Trondheim Spektrum on Feb. 7.

So with all that evidence of its popularity, it’s surprising to learn that before “Take On Me” exploded, it totally bombed.

“We had several releases of an earlier version, so the song itself was released three times, and therefore, it’s a proven flop,” says Harket. “And it’s also proven hit … It’s interesting, I think, because it’s the same song.”

He explained that when a-ha recorded 1985 debut Hunting High and Low, it didn’t think it had gotten the song quite right. After some tweaking still resulted in a failure to launch, the band fully re-recorded it with producer Alan Tarney. Coupled with the video, “it’s turned into what we know today and the reason why we’re sitting here,” Harket succinctly concludes.

He recognizes that the video was paramount in breaking “Take On Me,” which he calls “almost awkwardly a little different from what you would normally sort of hear. So for it to carry across, the video made all the difference. [However], it would never have been played as much on radio, which does not come with the video, had it not been for the song itself.”

The famous keyboard refrain is the first piece of music Harket heard when he joined a-ha. The band had met in Waaktaar-Savoy’s parents’ basement to rehearse, and “they didn’t have the song; they just had that riff,” recalls Harket. When Furuholmen played it on an old piano, Harket says he instantly knew that “that’s the song that’s going to make it.”

The barometer that proved it was finally connecting was the Billboard Hot 100: “That’s where it was recorded, so to speak, in real life. And we just watched it climb, its slow but steady surge up the charts, week by week.” Despite its capturing six 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, including viewer’s choice, the channel initially didn’t play the video due to bickering with the music industry about who should be paying whom. MTV argued “that music video is commercials, [so the music industry] should pay the stations for airing their commercials,” explains Harket. “And the record company … would say, ‘No, this is a radio station with images, so you should play [the songs] like any radio station.’”

One element contributing to the longevity of “Take On Me” is that a-ha wasn’t a record-company creation: Harket united with Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy after he saw their band Bridges perform at his college. Although Warner Bros. didn’t deliberately market them to young girls, Harket says the group was a big hit with teens “through media, because media generally were kind of targeting the same crowd … We sort of fitted [that] at that time, by the way we looked and the way we came across.”

a-ha’s catalog, from Hunting High and Low, 1986 follow-up Scoundrel Days and 2015’s Cast in Steel, displays a sophisticated musical style that’s driven by Furuholmen’s shimmering keyboards, Waaktaar-Savoy’s restrained rock guitar and Harket’s voice. As impressive as his falsetto is for “Take On Me,” Harket has as much vocal control as he does range. On “Summer Moved On,” a lost-love masterpiece from 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky, he notched a European record for the longest-held note in a pop song -- 20.2 seconds (the 2:52 mark in the video below).

“It’s a matter of air,” says Harket, laughing, when asked how he pulls it off. “It’s mainly how you set the tone. That is the key to holding it long: how you set the tone and how much air you need to produce the note.” He’s also dependent upon his ear monitors conveying the right frequencies, “because if I don’t hear that, that resonance area of the voice, then I can’t really just ride on the crest of it.”

a-ha’s current activities include a European arena tour celebrating Hunting High and Low’s 35th anniversary and the documentary a-ha The Movie, arriving in 2020. The Los Angeles dates are the first U.S. concerts the band will play since 2010’s Ending on a High Note Tour, which was meant to be a farewell run. The group’s American presence diminished since Scoundrel Days’ “Cry Wolf” reached No. 50 on the Hot 100 in 1987 because a-ha decided to remain based in Europe. Making the proper commitment to further its U.S. career would have meant uprooting from Norway, something that Harket and Furuholmen were more reluctant to do than Waaktaar-Savoy.

“It was really a difficult choice because we loved what was happening and the potential of everything. The [record] company was brilliant. We were very happy with everyone involved,” says Harket. While he feels that significant promo time needs to be invested if a-ha were to regularly tour here, the new dates underline how the group “would love” to perform in the States again. "We always felt that there’s a great rapport out there for the band between us and the American audience," Harket says.