It took multiple tries, but a-ha finally saw their debut single "Take on Me" top the Billboard Hot 100 on Oct. 19, 1985, turning the song into all the things we've got to remember about '80s pop in one three-minute-and-forty-five-second tune.
The Norwegian trio - guitarist Pål Waaktaar and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen of local band Bridges and singer Morten Harket - came together three years before, recording demos before heading to London to break into the music business. One of their most notable tracks was a song that began life in Bridges as "The Juicyfruit Song" and was refined as "Lesson One" in the demo process.
"Pål had first played it to me in his parents’ house, down in the basement," Harket later told The Guardian. "He had a crappy old nylon-stringed guitar with hippy paintings on it and he strummed the chords with Magne playing the riff on piano. The moment I heard it, I knew it was the one that would break the whole thing open."
By the time the group signed to Warner Bros. to record their debut album Hunting High and Low, the rewritten "Take on Me" was showing promise as a possible hit. But a version cut with producer Tony Mansfield missed the mark. "Warners thought that 'Take on Me' might be the single...It was always one of the strong candidates, except for Tony Mansfield, who I think didn't really rate it," Magne recalled in the liner notes for a deluxe edition of the album. "But what happened was that we didn't really get it right with Tony, and people stopped mentioning it." Indeed, the song was released as a single and stiffed outside of Norway, allegedly selling only 300 copies in England.
Undeterred, the group recruited producer Alan Tarney to completely re-record the track, creating lusher layers of synths than the Fairlight-sequenced original with a stronger vocal from Harket to match. Of course, such a stellar re-take of the track needed a new music video to match, and Steve Barron's cutting-edge clip, which combined live action and animated rotoscoping to create an unbelievable comic book world, was just the trick. It won six trophies at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.
a-ha scored one more Top 40 hit in America with follow-up "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.," which actually out-charted "Take on Me" in the U.K., topping the charts where its predecessor only reached No. 2. Another seven Top 10s would follow in England, and the "Take on Me" video passed 1 billion views in February 2020.