After a-Ha moved from Oslo to London in early 1983, one of the first songs they demo’d at John Ratcliff’s Rendezvous Studio in Sydenham was called Lesson One – a distinct improvement on its previous titles The Juicy Fruit Song and (Mags Furuholmen told Rolling Stone in 2010, though I can’t find any other evidence for it so he may have been joking, as he does) All’s Well That Ends Well And Moves With The Sun. Structurally it would change over time, but the intro motif, as famous as the spiralling chorus, exists in the earliest demos and is a tribute to a-Ha’s improbable (on the face of it) love of Ray Manzarek’s sinuous keyboard lines.*
Furuholmen: ‘Manzarek’s almost mathematical but very melodic, structured way of playing the keyboard was a huge influence in how I approached my instrument.’ (Manzarek himself cited Bach and Miles Davis as influences, which figures.)
The next time you listen to Take On Me, listen to Light My Fire immediately afterwards. It’s quite freaky – the ghost of an echo of a ghost.
a-Ha had ended up at Rendezvous almost by accident, allegedly booking it because it had a Space Invaders machine. But Ratcliff proved a generous patron when the band were at a low ebb, paying for them to make additional demos of the songs he thought were strongest and renting them a flat at 221 Dartmouth Road, about 200 metres from the studio. Furuholmen and his bandmates Pal Waaktaar and Morten Harket would make the daily journey from flat to ‘work’ by jumping across the roofs of the neighbouring houses and entering Rendezvous through a rear window.
Ratcliff played the demos to Terry Slater, then head of A&R at EMI. Slater was impressed but asked them to work up three additional songs while he was away in the US. By the time he returned a-Ha had, with Ratcliff’s help, completed detailed demos of Lesson One (now rechristened Take On Me), Train Of Thought and Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale. You can hear the Ratcliff-produced demo for Take On Me here:
In the end, Slater left his EMI job to manage a-Ha jointly with Ratcliff. Their first task, having signed with Andy Wickham at Warner Brothers, was to help the band choose a producer for their debut album. They briefly considered Colin Thurston (Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo), but it was self-evidently wise to put some sonic distance between themselves and their seeming rivals. Slater asked his friend Alan Tarney, but Tarney declined on the grounds that he didn’t like working with bands: he had just had an unhappy experience producing The Lotus Eaters’ flop follow-up to The First Picture Of You, You Don’t Need Someone New.
Warner Brothers had a left-field but intriguing suggestion: Tony Mansfield, whose band New Musik had split the previous year and who had gone on to produce Captain Sensible’s two big hits, Happy Talk and Glad It’s All Over.
Strongly influenced by Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, New Musik were a sort of electro Buggles who had had a Top 20 hit with the XTC-like Straight Lines before adopting the more experimental approach that would lead to Mansfield being hailed as a godfather of techno/post-rock. Their hypnotic final single, Warp, has held up pretty well:
Like Trevor Horn, who would pick up the New Musik baton with his own Art of Noise, Mansfield was a tech boffin; one of the few producers of the era who felt really at home with those expensive new studio toys the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier and knew how to combine analogue and digital sounds to create music that was otherworldly and self-consciously synthetic but also warm; although his short-cut to warmth was sometimes a rather forced wackiness – hence the fit with Captain Sensible. (Warp, as you’ll have heard, self-destructs at the end in a manner designed to make listeners think their stereos were malfunctioning.)
Asked merely to polish a-Ha’s demos, which everyone agreed were great, Mansfield couldn’t resist a thorough overhaul, shunting Harket’s vocals back in the mix, larding the instrumental break with Fairlight effects and replacing the Roland Juno 60-derived sound that Waaktaar and Furuholmen had come up with for the intro with a plinky-plonk Fairlight ‘teardrop’ noise.
Waaktaar: ‘Mansfield didn’t want to hear the demos at all. He only wanted to programme [the Fairlight]. We thought that we had to be open to new ideas, something we regretted once we heard the results. We were very much involved in the album too, but the recordings were based on his principle that everything had to go through his Fairlight… The first version of Take On Me was terrible. It sounded like a robot was playing.’
The Mansfield sessions took place at Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios, a former boathouse next to Twickenham Bridge. Townshend’s publishing company was on the floor above, and Waaktaar remembers the Who guitarist ‘[coming] down each day to tell us how boring it was cutting a record, and how much he hated it’.
‘We worked unbelievably hard. We were at it twenty hours a day. Once, Morten was so tired he fell asleep during the middle of laying down his vocals. He slept in the middle of his own song and fell off his chair.’
With money running out, Mansfield left the project and producer-engineer Neill King was brought in to help Waaktaar bring Take On Me, at least, up to what Slater, Ratcliff and a-Ha felt was a releasable standard.
The pair overdubbed guitars, backing vocals and more synths. But many of Mansfield’s synth parts remained on the first single issue of Take On Me (October 1984 – it reached number 137 in the UK charts), including the mixture of synthesized and live-sampled drum parts sequenced from the Synclavier. Listen to it here and marvel at how little this thin, trebly version of the song resembles the subsequent ‘definitive’ one.
(Mansfield retained the main producer credit on the Hunting High And Low album – apart from Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On TV – even if underneath was the telltale legend ‘remixed by John Ratcliff with a-Ha’. It’s fun to speculate about how much of Mansfield’s work remains on the finished record. I always think I can hear him quite strongly on the belligerent electro clatter of Dream Myself Alive.)
What happened next is that Warner Brothers in America simply refused to allow Take On Me to fail. They agreed to fund a total revamping of the single with Alan Tarney at the helm and, later, Steve Barron’s award-winning rotoscoped video depicting a-Ha as characters in a comic. Busy producing David Cassidy’s Romance album at his favourite studio, RG Jones in Wimbledon, Tarney was talked round by Slater and persuaded to take a day off to work on Take On Me.
Tarney’s intuition, once he’d heard the demos, was that a-Ha’s sound was essentially analogue and, to coin a phrase, human after all – a function not just of their preferred synths like the Roland Juno-60 and the PPG Wave but of their habit of playing them live rather than always relying on sequencers.
‘To my mind, the original version of Take On Me that the boys themselves had recorded in Sydenham with John Ratcliff was the hit version,’ Tarney told Sound on Sound in 2011, ‘and they appeared to have gone around the houses a bit with Tony Mansfield and Neill King. The Tony Mansfield version employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like a-Ha at all. So all I did was recreate the original demo… That was the one that had all the charm.’
Tarney was particularly impressed by Waaktaar’s Linn Drum programming and the way he and Furuholmen would ‘duel’ on their keyboards: ‘A lot of the stuff I needed to control came through the Juno-60 and a Yamaha DX7, but then they played the Waves together and that’s where the magic seemed to come from. It was a very atmospheric, live recording.’
The drums on the new Take On Me were a combination of sampled snare and a standard Linn snare heavily compressed to give what Tarney’s engineer Gerry Kitchingham calls a ‘slappy’ feel. The Linn’s cymbal sounds weren’t very good, so Waaktaar overdubbed real cymbals and hi-hat.
Harket’s vocals were recorded using a valve Neumann U47 mic to bring out the purity and clarity of his voice – ‘an exceptional voice,’ Tarney called it, ‘with a quite amazing range… We didn’t have to compile from many takes, but [Harket] was capable of doing so many different things that I did have to decide which was the right vocal to use. For the backing vocals, I sang with all three guys into the same mic, and all in all we spent maybe a day recording the song and then another day mixing it. Thanks to the David Cassidy project, we couldn’t afford to give it any more time.’
Warner Brothers loved the new Take On Me so much that they asked Tarney to hang around and do another single, The Sun Always Shines On TV, the fear being that as it stood the Hunting High And Low album was a bit on the short side. The relationship between Tarney and a-Ha would endure for another two albums, though by all accounts it had soured by the time they came to make 1988’s lacklustre Stay On These Roads.
One of the main differences between the Tarney version of Take On Me and the earlier ones is its intro – four bars of pitter-pattering drums, followed by a dramatic splayed chord, B minor ninth (B, D, F#, A, C#). It isn’t a pop chord – it’s a soundtrack chord: the chord that might play as a child opens the door of an innocuous-looking wardrobe she’s found in an attic; a chord full of wonder and possibility.
Waaktaar described the lyrics of Take On Me as a ‘prayer for attention’; the wonder and possibility of the song is that the emotional chaos of a transatlantic courtship – when he wrote it, Waaktaar had just started seeing Lauren Savoy, the American woman who would become his wife – will resolve into something solid and durable despite the frequency of the couple’s separations.
(The subject is explored in more depth in The Swing Of Things on Scoundrel Days: ‘Oh, but how can I sleep with your voice in my head/And an ocean between us/And room in my bed/Have I come to the point where I’m losing the grip/Or is there still time to get into the swing of things…’)
Counting down the Top 40 on a 1985 edition of Whistle Test, Andy Kershaw observed that the title Take On Me was ‘grammatically puzzling’. But as Waaktaar has explained, the effect was intentional:
When I write lyrics in English, I feel it’s an advantage to be Norwegian, because I don’t see the language as a dull, grey mass, but rather as something exciting and full of possibilities. I can pick out ordinary words or phrases and make them sound new and interesting. For example, I can write songs like Hunting High and Low or Train Of Thought, and English people will comment on their interesting or unusual titles, even though these are phrases that they themselves use all the time. Look at Take On Me. Most people have to think twice about the title before they get to like it.To me, to ‘take on’ somebody means to notice them and take time to find out what they’re really like. Take On Me almost becomes “Look! Here I am!”
The chorus spirals up to that climactic ‘I’ll be gone in a day’ – but instead of release, which we might expect, we get a sublime sadness.
This contradictory, bipolar mood is what makes a-Ha songs so captivating – and Take On Me is one of their happiest songs, ecstatically upbeat compared to the bleakness of, say, I’ve Been Losing You, The Swing of Things**, Scoundrel Days and the brilliant 2000 comeback single Summer Moved On. It’s also what makes Abba songs captivating, hence the temptation to generalise about ‘Scandinavian melancholy’, as if Norway and Sweden were culturally identical. But you know, it’s an interesting area. The Turkish novelist Orham Pamuk talks about a special kind of Turkish melancholy, hüzün – the spiritual anguish Sufis feel at not being close enough to God, but also, for him, the passive, resigned sorrow that binds Istanbul’s inhabitants together. He contrasts this collective melancholy with western European melancholy, which he sees as more individualistic.
The primacy of the individual has always been central to Scandinavian art and philosophy – think of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Munch’s The Scream, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (whose hero is advised to ‘acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community’ rather than reveal that the water in a new public baths has been contaminated by a local tannery) or Kierkegaard, whose philosophy gave us the concepts of ‘angst’ and the ‘leap of faith’.
The romantic-existentialist quality of a-Ha’s early lyrics is a reflection not just of Waaktaar’s adolescent reading – Camus, Hamsun, Dostoevsky – but of his essentially Scandinavian curiosity about the way individuals relate to the surrounding world. The phrase ‘you are the one’ – the title of a 1988 a-Ha single – comes from a section of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or in which he discusses the prophet Nathan’s attempt to get King David to understand that a parable he had told him related to him personally as well as the generalised mass of mankind.
Meanwhile, ‘love is reason’ – a song on Hunting High And Low – comes from the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Lectures on Philosophical Ethics: ‘Love is reason which wants to be soul…’
Sorry, I keep distracting myself. This is supposed to be about Take On Me. As you might have gathered, there are a-Ha songs I like more than Take On Me, and I’ll be dealing with them in due course, though probably not at such length. I think we’ve established for now that Pal Waaktaar is a clever chap who likes books about philosophy.
A final observation – Take On Me is very fast. Most available indexes put it at around 170 bpm. Bear in mind that mid-1980s Hi-NRG typically had a tempo threshold of 130-140 bpm… Take On Me is part of a subset of early-’80s songs whose speed pushes them close to being Hi-NRG even though they don’t demonstrate any other hallmarks of the genre, eg octave basslines. Another example would be Kajagoogoo’s fantastic, tantalisingly cryptic White Feathers.
My tenuous thesis on ‘gay subtexts in the songs of a-Ha’ will have to wait for another day.
* Duran Duran liked The Doors too. Simon Le Bon told Record Mirror in 1983 that Love Her Madly was his favourite song. You can hear the influence quite distinctly in several Duran songs, especially the rather good B-side of the 1988 single All She Wants Is, I Believe/All I Need To Know, and the chorus of the otherwise narcoleptic Someone Else Not Me from 2000’s awful Pop Trash album.
** The Swing Of Things has a strong whiff of Gentlemen Take Polaroids-period Japan about it. And of course that album does contain a song called Swing. I wonder if a-Ha knew it at all and if so whether it was a deliberate nod in Japan’s direction?