NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’ve been road-tripping, baby.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
If you’re a patron of the show, you already know the answer to today’s trivia question. As far as I can tell, there’s only been one artist who has had a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. There are probably a couple who you can count if you include different band configurations, for instance Paul McCartney would qualify if you include his work with The Beatles, but there’s only one performer who has been consistently producing hit albums in every decade. Name that musician.
I’ll have that answer, and a little bit more, at the end of the show.
This time around we’re looking at “Take On Me,” the 1984 hit by A-ha, which probably got its biggest boost from the rather innovative video that got a ton of airplay on MTV, which combined live-action with pencil-sketch animation. And because we’re talking about a band from Norway, you’re hereby forewarned that I’m going to be sitting here butchering the Norwegian language in some spots.
[ONCOMING OF DAY]
A-ha started out as a band called Bridges in the late 1970s. They recorded and released their first album, called Fakkeltog, in 1978, which was released in 1980. What you’re hearing now is a track from that album, called “The Oncoming of Day.”
The delay between recording and release came because the band members were self-financing the recording and the publishing of the album. In 78 and 79 they continued touring as well, and they worked on recording another album, which they called Vakenatt. However, release of Vakenatt didn’t happen because of tensions in the band, and they finally broke up without releasing it.
Believe it or not, “Take On Me” starts here in 1978 or 79. It was was originally a Bridges song that never made it to vinyl—not even for that unreleased second album.
This is a Bridges track called “Miss Eerie”…
…It was also called “the Juicy Fruit Song” by the band members because they thought it sounded a little bit like a chewing gum commercial. Now, some say “Miss Eerie” appears on the Fakkelstog album, but I’ve heard that album and the track doesn’t appear there, under this title or the original title, which was “Panorama.” Let me tell you, it’s not bad but Fakkelstog sounds exactly what a 1970s teenage band who’d been listening to a lot of The Doors would sound like. In fact, Fakkelstog sounds a lot like The Doors with less of a Beat Poetry thing going on. I’m not sure when it was recorded, but this recording is from a bonus 45 that came with the book Down to the Tracks, a biography of the band that was published in April of 2020. You can still buy the book, of course, but you won’t get the 45, that was a limited-edition thing.
Now, the core of Bridges would be Paul Waaktar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen
And while these guys were Norwegian, they had their sights set on the English-language market, so they moved to London to make their career. After about six months of getting nowhere, they returned to Norway. It was at that point that they met up with Morten Harket, who knew them from attending the Bridges shows in the late 70s. He joined up with them and a new band was born.
In the fall of 1982 they started putting together some demos including this re-working of “Miss Eerie,” which had been re-named “Lesson One.” …
…The entire point of “Lesson One” was to show off Harket’s vocal range, and that little howling thing he does there was the genesis of the high notes in the chorus of the final version.
By January of 1983 they went back to London and started looking again for a recording contract. And part of putting together a new band for English speakers was having a name that English-speaking people could easily pronounce. Their initial focus was on Norwegian words that were easy for English speakers to say, but they kind of lucked out one day when Morten Harket spotted the phrase “A-ha” in Waaktar’s songbook. Morten said in a Rolling Stone interview that “it was a terrible song, but a great name.” And it had the side benefit of being easy to both pronounce and understand in any language, not just English.
The story goes that they chose the studio of musician and producer John Ratcliff because it had a Space Invaders machine in it. Ratcliff also later became the band’s manager. He and Terry Slater partnered up to form a management company, with Ratcliff handling technical and musical stuff, and Slater dealing with the business end and working with the people at the Warner Brothers label. Thus encouraged, the band mixed those demos with electronic instrumentation. The band didn’t like the way it sounded, so the album was remixed again.
“Take On Me” was finally in a shape where you’d actually recognize it, and the song was released in 1984. The promotional video at that time was little more than the band playing the song in front of a blue background, interspersed with shots of someone doing cartwheels, no kidding. A single was rushed out but only charted at Number 134 in the UK. So it wasn’t an awesome start for A-ha, but Warner Brothers was interested enough now to give them an opportunity to record it again, this time at the Record Plant in New York City. And believe it or not, the song flopped yet again, probably because nobody in London was giving it a lot of support. Let me amend that a little bit: it was a Top Five hit in Norway and nowhere else. Finally Andrew Wickham, the Warner Brothers executive who boosted the band in the first place, put A-ha on a high priority by applying a lateral strategy: produce a great video and then re-release the song.
[TAKE ON ME]
So here’s where we talk about that video a bit, because it’s truly one of the more creative videos out there. Let’s start with the plot. We open with a montage of comic book style pencil drawings involving motorcycle sidecar races, in which the hero, who looks suspiciously like Morten Harket, is pursued by two opponents. Next thing we know, we’re in a diner, and it turns out that the comic book is being read by a young woman sitting at a table and drinking coffee. She’s so engrossed in the book that she doesn’t notice the waitress dropping the check on the table. The hero of the comic appears to wink at the young woman and we see his pencil-drawn hand reach out from the page to pull her in.
Now we’re inside the comic book and the woman appears in pencil form as well. He sings to her and shows her around his black-and-white universe, which includes a kind of window, where people look real on one side and like comic book characters on the other.
We come back to the diner and the waitress sees the coffee, the comic book and the unpaid check, so she grabs the comic, crumples it up and throws it in the trash. Meanwhile back in the comic world the opposing racers reappear and smash the window, trapping the woman in the comic book. The hero punches the bad guys and leads the woman down all kinds of comic hallways. They come to a dead end and he tears a hole in the paper to let her escape.
Next thing we know, the woman is back in the real world, with a bunch of diner guests and staff staring at her. She grabs the comic from the trash bin and runs home with it so she can find out what happens next. We see him lying sprawled out on the floor and the woman starts to cry. But he then wakes up and tries to break out of the comic frames. The woman turns around and sees him in the hallway of her apartment. He’s still in comic form, though, and he keeps slamming himself left-and-right against the doorframe. With each collision he briefly turns human until he finally collapses to the floor and becomes fully human, the two of them reunited in the real world.
The comic-book activity was created through a process called rotoscoping, wherein live actors are traced over, frame-by-frame to give animated characters realistic movement. If you’ve ever seen the 1978 animated version of Lord of the Rings, or the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” segment of the film Yellow Submarine, that’s rotoscoping. It took the artists four weeks to rotoscope about 3000 frames. The video was directed by Steve Barron, and was filmed both at a café and a soundstage in London. As far as the young woman, her name is Bunty Bailey, who was Morton Harket’s girlfriend at the time. It wasn’t her first video—in fact, she’d appeared in the video for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Talking Loud and Clear” the year before—and she’s done a few roles since, but this is probably the thing she’s known for best.
Warner Brothers released the video for airplay on television, including MTV of course, and for use in dance clubs, and then a month later they re-released the record. And this time it finally caught on. It moved quickly to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, reaching the Number One spot the week of October 19, 1985. It only spent one week at Number One, but it was on the chart for 27 weeks altogether, and wound up as the Number 10 song of the year. In the UK it entered the chart at Number 55 and stalled at Number Two for three weeks, held out of the top slot by “The Power of Love” by Jennifer Rush. In Norway it finally reached Number One, over a year after its first release. It also topped the Eurochart for nine weeks, and was Number One in 36 countries. And it’s worth mentioning that the video reached one BILLION views on YouTube on February 17, 2020, only the fifth video from the 20th century to hit that mark. All of this also makes A-ha the first Scandinavian act to reach a billion YouTube views. In fact, as of this recording, the video has over one billion, 82 million views.
“Take On Me” was not A-ha’s one and only successful single in the US, but it was by far their most successful.
They released a few more albums, had several more hits, provided the theme music for a James Bond movie, and have had a couple of comeback tours, which has included this acoustic cover of “Take On Me” from 2017, which wound up being used in the film Deadpool 2. Their most recent comeback tour is intended to run until the end of 2020, despite cancellations and postponements because of the coronavirus pandemic.
[REEL BIG FISH]
Has the song been covered? You bet! Here’s a bit of the version by the ska band Reel Big Fish, used in the soundtrack to the film BASEketball…
..,in the summer of 2000, a British-Norwegian boy band called A1 released their cover of the song from their second album. Except for the synth opening, it’s practically a note-for-note remake, but it did do OK on the charts, making it to Number One in the UK and in Norway. Here’s a little bit of that…
[A1] to [KYGO]
This one’s kinda neat. It’s not so much a remake as a DJ remix. This version drops the keyboard riff altogether and adds some…I think it’s marimba being played there. This version was released in 2015 as a kind of Tropical House music.
And finally there’s Weezer. Their 2019 album of covers, called The Teal Album, covered the song pretty faithfully, as did most of the tracks on that album.
This one didn’t get a lot of attention, I think because most people were concentrating on their re-make of Toto’s “Africa” instead…
…the video for this one is kind of fun, though. It’s set in the year 1985 and features Finn Wolfhard as a younger version of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, practicing this song with the rest of Finn’s band Calpurnia as his backup players. The video features some shots of Calpurnia playing as rotoscoped pencil sketch figures. And in this respect you have to give Weezer some credit. Whether you like their music or not, they do make some fun videos. The bad news, however, is that Calpurnia broke up in November of 2019.
[I CONTAIN MULTITUDES]
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the one-and-only musical act that’s had a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. Now, the answer could change in the next few months, but as of right now that artist is Bob Dylan…
…His latest album, called Rough and Rowdy Ways, debuted at Number Two on the Billboard albums chart last week, which makes him the only artist to have a charting album in every decade. Now, I guess you could count Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton if you count their work with The Beatles and Cream, in fact you could count Cher in that respect and I’m sure a couple of others. Now, the Rolling Stones were working on an album when the pandemic hit, so they stopped work and released the single “Living in a Ghost Town,” so chances are when that album is finally released, they can also be added to the list. But as of right now, Dylan stands alone. As he so often seems to do.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when your baby is doing the Hanky Panky.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.