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Anyone of a certain age — or anyone who’s heard of MTV, period — is familiar with the iconic 1984 synthpop hit “Take on Me” by Norwegian band A-ha. More than three decades later, the song (and its possibly even more iconic music video) is so firmly sewn into the fabric of pop culture that it’s difficult to reimagine the song in any way, shape, or form.
However, that’s exactly the extraordinary feat the group managed to achieve when they played an instantly viral acoustic version of the song the this past June at Giske Harbour Hall in Norway, as part of the revived MTV Unplugged series. Stripped of its original pumping rhythm, frenetic keyboard flutters, and lead vocalist Morten Harket’s supernaturally high octave range, the revamped “Take on Me” was transformed into an unexpectedly dreamy composition — almost unrecognizable, yet eerily familiar at the same time. The raw approach to the song earned raves, and became an internet sensation.
“I think we reacted to it ourselves,” Harket tells Yahoo Music. “To do a ‘cover’ of ourselves like that was intriguing. We felt all of a sudden strongly about it in a new way. There is a really hidden spiritual aspect of the song. It’s always been there. It’s easily masked by the strong vibe; also the way it was recorded and produced. But beneath all that, it has a purer form — and at the same time that pure form is ingrained in the version you grew up with.”
The singer confesses that although A-ha has always been proud of “Take on Me,” the weight of the song’s extreme popularity — as well as director Steve Baron’s groundbreaking pencil-sketch animation video that accompanied it — was really what drowned out its true essence.
“[‘Take on Me’] did a lot of good stuff but [also] some damage for a while, because of the black-and-white perception in the media,” the singer relates. “We got sort of blown away by the response and the single-mindedness of the interpretation. We got sick of interviews and performances — for a long time, it came back to doing ‘Take on Me.’ It became a circus number, instead of music.”
Harket acknowledges also that the single may have put the rest of the band’s extensive, multi-album catalog into shadow, as well. “For a lot of fans from the early days, they probably had issues they were A-ha fans because it probably wasn’t ‘cool.’”
Harket and his bandmates didn’t have any idea that “Take on Me” would ultimately become their signature song when they first crafted it in the early ’80s. “We are proud of the original version; we felt right about it when we recorded it. It was the way to do it then. We’re not knocking any of that,” he stresses. “It was mainly the impact that it had and how it was dealt with.”
Now Harket is thrilled that their MTV Unplugged Summer Solstice session — which also features collaborations with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, Yaz’s Alison Moyet, and American folk singer Lissie — is garnering A-ha new credibility and a new audience. “I just feel the new version [of ‘Take on Me’] clearly shows the relationship between that song and everything else that we’ve done. It showed that this song belongs naturally to the rest of the songs that we’ve done. It brought the song back to us, because it was taken from us by all the noise that came with it. It kind of pushed the band out of our own frame, so for us it felt really good to see the song present itself in its naked form. And to see that this is the fabric of the piece. It wasn’t just written as a pop confection.
“It’s an interesting exercise,” he muses. “That’s why people have reacted to it.”