Take On Me
April 7th, 2012
Todd plays "Take On Me" on his piano.
A-HA - TAKE ON ME
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Hi there. You know, I get a lot of requests to review older music, but I never seem to get the chance. But one thing I do like to do when I'm not [clips of "Drive By"...] bitching about Train or [...and "Turn Up the Music"] trolling Chris Brown, is to study one-hit wonders. Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone does. [Promo from VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s] VH1 releases another list every week, something like The Top 100 Awesomely Bad One Hit Wonders of the 90s. But what bothers me is they don't go in deep enough. [Clips of "Tubthumping," "Afternoon Delight," "I'm Too Sexy," "Rock Me Amadeus"] This band formed, they had a hit, they didn't have another, they broke up, and that's all you ever hear.
I wanna know more.
Todd (VO): I wanna know why they didn't have a second hit. I wanna know if they're really one-hit wonders, because a lot of the time, they're not. I want to know all about these mysterious strangers who briefly touched down and then disappeared into the ether.
Todd: But I'm gonna need a really good one to kick off this project with. [Picks up a list, looks through and finds...] A-ha!
- Video for "Take On Me"
Todd (VO): Our first act comes all the way from [Map of Northern Europe featuring...] Oslo, Norway. Now, when I think Norwegian bands, generally I'm thinking of the kind of music that never charts even one song.
- Clip of Dimmu Borgir
Todd (VO): And for obvious reasons. But during the height of the MTV Era, three young men hit it back and became music video stars for one brief, shining moment. Those men were [pictures of...] lead singer Morten Harket, keyboardist [struggles to pronounce...] Pål Waaktaar, and guitarist [again...] Magne Furuholmen. They were the band known as a-ha. Let's check them out.
The big hit
Todd: Now obviously, you know their big hit, "Take On Me." If you don't, I'm gonna reach through the screen and smack you.
Todd (VO): What with the hip retroness of everything 80s, you know this song and its utterly classic video, and I refuse to believe otherwise. The very least, you've seen [clip of...] the literal video, you kids with your YouTubes and skinny jeans and...ugh.
Todd: So, okay, before we look at their career as a whole, let's take a quick look at "Take On Me," one of the greatest music videos of all time.
- Video for "Take On Me," but...
Todd (VO): Wait a minute, what the hell is this?! Where's the sketch-pad drawings? Where's the pretty girl?
Todd: [looks at notes] Ah, okay. See, this is the original version of "Take On Me" from 1984.
- Morten: Take on me...
Todd (VO): Now, I'd always heard that "Take On Me" didn't get big until they'd made their one really good video, which...I never understood. [clip of "Too Shy" by...] Kajagoogoo made it big around the same time, and they didn't have a good video. Or a good song, for that matter; all they had was stupid hair. Watching this now, I think I do see the problem. The original video is boring and rightly forgotten, but also, this early version...needs work. [Main keyboard riff with...] I definitely can't say that I like this arrangement as much. I mean, I'm not a synth nerd by any means, but the Japanese, plucked-strings tone that he picked there is definitely wrong.
Okay, well, this version did well in Norway, but...
Todd: ...took them absolutely nowhere in the rest of the world. They were gonna need some help to push them over the edge. Meet the person that would help them do that.
- Clip of MTV interview with Steve Barron
- Steve Barron: Very first video I can remember seeing that was...
Todd (VO): This man is music video visionary Steve Barron. [Clips of Michael Jackson - "Billie Jean," Dire Straits - "Money for Nothing," and Toto - "Africa"] A daring visual stylist who made some of the best videos of the 80s, and also a couple of the worst.
- Clip of Madonna - "Burning Up"
- Madonna: Closing the door
Todd (VO): You have to understand that the music video was a pretty unsophisticated art form at this point, and some of his videos have not aged all that well. But [clip of Thomas Dolby - "She Blinded Me with Science"] he was very creative and he was willing to experiment in lots of different ways, and in the process, he created some truly indelible images that defined a decade. [Teaser of...] He also directed the first Ninja Turtles movie and managed to not turn them into aliens! But I digress.
Todd: I don't think it's hyperbole to call "Take On Me" the best video of all time.
Todd (VO): It tells the romantic tale of a comic book character who sucks a woman into his sketch world, and then they get attacked by bad guys and have to escape, and then he beats himself into a wall to turn three-dimensional. It is the most touching love story of our generation. And it's...it's astonishing how much you care about the romance between a woman who has no dialogue and a guy who is literally a two-dimensional sketch. Although we do find out a little. This chick is cute and shy, but she's also apparently pretty hip, as she reads these black-and-white, no-dialogue comic books. I always wondered what was going on in that thing; I think it's like a Scandinavian Speed Racer type of deal.
Todd: But it all works. Perfectly.
Todd (VO): The animation is great, it tugs at your heartstrings, and somehow it hasn't aged a second, especially compared with [clip of Starship - "We Built This City"] whatever else was coming out in '85. I felt more for this couple than I did for the ones in [poster of...] The English Patient, that's for damn sure.
But the video isn't the only reason why "Take On Me" has endured throughout the decades. In some of the lyrics, you can really see that English is not this man's first language.
- Morten: So needless to say
- I'm odds and ends
Todd (VO): But you know what? There's poetry in that. I'm not even sure he understood what "take on me" means, or that it's wrong grammatically, but it sounds great, doesn't it?
- Morten: Take on me
Todd (VO): A lot of the early MTV acts were derided as talentless pretty boys trading off their looks rather than their music, but Harket proves he has the pipes here, as anyone who has humiliated themselves trying to sing this at karaoke has likely proven.
- Morten: ...or two...
Todd (VO): For something so 80s, "Take On Me"—both the song and the video—is timeless and unbearably romantic.
Todd: So where did it all go wrong?
The second-biggest hit
Todd: a-ha's second-biggest hit is actually their first-biggest hit in some countries. It's called "The Sun Always Shines on TV," and it actually outdid "Take On Me" in the UK and in Ireland, and did just about as well in most of Europe.
- Video for "The Sun Always Shines on TV"
Todd (VO): This made it to #20 in this country, which makes them not a one-hit wonder, depending on how you define "hit." But people usually define a one-hit wonder by hindsight, and a-ha made just one lasting impression in people's minds and this wasn't it.
Todd: Why is that?
Todd (VO): You'd think it would work. "The Sun Always Shines on TV" once again finds them working with Steve Barron, which they would do continuously for the rest of their careers, which makes perfect sense to me—he basically made them.
- a-ha: Touch me
- How can it be
- Believe me
- The sun always shines on T.V
Todd: I think listening to this song has really helped me to articulate what a-ha did so well. Like "Take On Me," they're just aching with emotions.
Todd (VO): Now it doesn't have the soaring high notes of "Take On Me" or the awesome breakdown, but it's big and Gothic and almost as good. The clearest point of comparison for a-ha is obviously [clips of "Rio" by...] Duran Duran. But Duran Duran were all about looking cool and being sexy. [...and "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" by...] And there was Wham!, of course, but they were just...silly.
Todd: But a-ha were romantics. Possibly [cover of NME Originals with...] New Romantics, I'll have to check on that.
- a-ha: Touch me
Todd (VO): See, a-ha wanted you, they needed you, they wanted to touch your soul, they had so many deep feelings that they needed to share with you. And you know what? [Clip of "Hungry Like the Wolf"] Personally, I never saw the big deal about Duran Duran looks-wise. But this Morten Harket, he is a dreamboat. His eyes, they look straight into your heart.
Todd: So why'd this song fail so badly at the charts? Why is this not as fondly remembered as "Take On Me"? Well...it could be that Harket's grasp at English had seriously started to fail him.
Todd (VO): "Take On Me," even with the ESL stuff, is quite touching.
- Morten: It's no better to be safe than sorry
Todd: "The Sun Always Shine on TV," though, is...hard to interpret.
- Morten: Please don't ask me to defend
- The shameful lowlands of the
- Way I'm drifting gloomily through time
- Oh oh oh
Todd: You sure? 'Cause I was definitely going to ask you to defend the shameful lowlands of the way you're drifting gloomily through time.
Todd (VO): That was the #1 question on my mind. Or at the very least, to defend the shameful weirdness of the way you're drifting confusedly through your thesaurus.
Todd: But for me, it's not that. I personally am putting the blame squarely on the video.
Todd (VO): Not because of the weird creepy heads facing everywhere—I mean, that's definitely a bunch of pointless weirdness, but that was everywhere in the 80s.
Todd: No, I blame the opening scenes.
Todd (VO): 'Cause you know the couple in "Take On Me"? They didn't make it! Nope, he reverts back into pencil sketches and runs off. It even comes with a "The End." That's it.
Todd: A nice "screw you" to everyone who cared about those two people!
Todd (VO): He pounded on the walls to make the black-and-whiteness go away. Why couldn't he do it again?! I wanted them to make it.
I guess it makes sense that where "Take On Me" was hopeful and inviting, "The Sun Always Shines on TV" would be aching and unhappy, but...[fighting back tears] no.
Todd: No, it...it's not fair. It's just not fair.
Todd (VO): The sun always shines on TV...unless that TV is showing this music video, I guess. Thanks a lot, Steve Barron!
Did they have any other noteworthy songs?
Todd: Uh, yeah, a ton of them. Let me make this clear. These alleged one-hit wonders were enormously successful.
- Live performance of "Take On Me"
Todd (VO): They were big in Europe throughout the 80s and humungous in Norway for a good 25 years, they're the most successful Norwegian act of all time, and they sold 36 million albums. Saleswise, that makes them one of the biggest Scandinavian acts of all time, roughly around as big as Ace of Base. Other career highlights for a-ha include when they played to a sell-out crowd at Rock in Rio in 1991. But if you know anything about this band besides "Take On Me"...
Todd: ...it's probably their theme to a James Bond movie.
- Video for "The Living Daylights"
Todd (VO): They may not have had any more American hits, but they still had enough clout in Europe that they were chosen to perform the theme to the 1987 film, The Living Daylights. Haven't seen that one? Yeah, there's a reason—the Bond is [pictures of...] Timothy Dalton, the bad guy is Joe Don Baker. I've seen it, and trust me, you can go ahead and skip that one.
- a-ha: In the living daylights
Todd (VO): The song is okay, I guess. a-ha's sweeping bigness makes them a good choice for a James Bond theme, but all I hear in this is a grim reminder that the 80s were really, really [picture from Octopussy: Bond (Roger Moore) dressed as a clown] not good for 007.
Todd: Personally, if I had to pick out one other song that I really do think people should listen to, I'd tell you that they actually do [clip of the original...] a really awesome cover of the Everly Brothers' "Crying in the Rain."
- Everly Brothers: I'm gonna wear a smile and walk in the sun
- I may be a fool
- [Cut to a-ha video for same]
- a-ha: ...but till then darling you'll
- Never see me complain
- I'll do my crying in the rain
Todd: So, verdict?
Did they deserve better?
Todd: Hell, yeah, they did.
- Montage of a-ha videos, ending with "Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)"
Todd (VO): Hell, we let the Thompson Twins have a bunch of hits, why should a-ha have been any different? I wouldn't say they should've been one of the biggest names ever or anything, but they were probably too good and too successful in their home country to be dismissed as just one-hitters. They were not, in fact, gone in a day or two. They toured right up to about 2010 before retiring, and they released one more goodbye video, again with Steve Barron, where they turned into animated butterflies and flew away. Aw.
Todd: Farewell, a-ha. May you forever hit those high notes.
Closing tag song: Reel Big Fish - "Take On Me"
"Take On Me" is owned by Rhino Entertainment
This video is owned by me