The original "Take on Me" was recorded in 1984, and took three releases to chart in the United Kingdom, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart in November 1985. In the United States, the song was the only ever A-ha song to reach the top position of the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1985, due in no small part to the wide exposure of its memorable and cutting-edge music video on MTV, directed by Steve Barron. The video features the band in a pencil-sketch animation method called rotoscoping, combined with live action. The video won six awards, and was nominated for two others at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.The music video's directors received inspiration for the video from watching,"Orpheus," a foreign film to be the first to use special effects.
Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen began their music careers playing in a band called Bridges, together with Viggo Bondi and Øystein Jevanord. In 1981 the band produced Fakkeltog (Torch-light parade), an LP for which all of the music was composed by the group themselves, most of it being written by Waaktaar. Soon after, Bridges disbanded. Waaktaar and Furuholmen relocated to London to try their hand in the music industry there, but after six months of disappointment they returned to Norway.
The duo then decided to try to get Morten Harket to join them as lead singer. At the time, Harket was singing in a band called Souldier Blue, but he felt that his band was stagnating, and decided to join Waaktaar and Furuholmen. They stayed together for six months, writing some songs and working on demo tapes, including "Lesson One," the song that eventually became "Take on Me." In January 1983 the trio returned to London in search of a recording contract.
The band moved into an apartment in London and began calling on record companies and publishing houses. After a few meetings with various A&R personnel, the band signed with a publishing house called Lionheart. A-ha then returned to Norway to earn some money. When they returned to London, they left Lionheart out of frustration. They decided to record new demos, and chose the studio of musician and producer John Ratcliff, intending to re-record five songs. The band signed with Ratcliff, who in return introduced them to his manager, Terry Slater. With this encouragement, the band managed to complete some songs, including "Take on Me." After a few meetings, Slater signed them with Warner Bros. Records.
The band met with producer Tony Mansfield, an expert in the use of the Fairlight CMI, who mixed the demos with electronic instrumentation. The sound was not what A-ha had hoped to achieve, and the album was remixed again. The band rushed to release "Take on Me" as a single in the United Kingdom but the single flopped. After this, Warner Brothers' main office in the United States decided to invest in the band, and gave them the opportunity to re-record the song. Terry Slater convinced Alan Tarney to produce the new version. The song was soon completed and re-released in the United Kingdom, but the record label's office in London gave them little support, and the single flopped for the second time.
In the United States, Warner Brothers put the group on high priority, and made the move to invest significant money in a revolutionary video for "Take on Me" using the audio version produced by Tarney. The single was released in the United States a month after the music video, and immediately appeared in the Billboard Hot 100.
Magne played the main melody on a Roland Juno-60 "MIDI'd up" to a Yamaha DX7. The drum machine used on the second and third releases (rotoscoped video version) was a Linn LinnDrum - Paul overdubbed real cymbals and hi-hat using this drum machine. Morten sang "Take on Me" using a Neumann U47 microphone as well as a Neve microphone pre-amp and Neve equaliser.
Allmusic journalist Tim DiGravina described "Take on Me" as being "a new wave classic laced with rushing keyboards, made emotionally resonant thanks to Morten Harket's touching vocal delicacy."
As the chorus progresses, Harket's voice hits ever higher notes, reaching a falsetto and hitting the song's highest note (E5) at the end. There is a temporary change of markings in the drum pattern in the chorus, where for two bars the drums play in half time, returning to the same rhythm as before for the climax of the vocal line. A mix of drums, acoustic guitars and electronic instrumentation serves as the song's backing track.
Lead singer Morten Harket and actress Bunty Bailey in a scene from the music video, which features them in a pencil-sketch animation / live-action combination called rotoscoping.
The first release of "Take on Me" in 1984 includes a completely different recording, and was featured in the first video, which shows the band singing with a blue background. The second video was directed by Steve Barron, and filmed at Kim's Café and on a sound stage in London, in 1985. The video used a pencil-sketch animation / live-action combination called rotoscoping, in which the live-action footage is traced-over frame by frame to give the characters realistic movements. Approximately 3,000 frames were rotoscoped, which took 16 weeks to complete.
The video's main theme is a romantic fantasy narrative. It begins with a montage of pencil drawings in a comic book style representing motorcycle sidecar racing, in which the hero, played by Morten Harket, is pursued by two opponents, one of whom is played by English actor Philip Jackson. It then cuts to a scene in a cafe, in which a young woman, played by Bunty Bailey (Harket's girlfriend at the time), is seen drinking coffee and reading the comic book in a coffee shop. As the girl reads, the waitress brings her the bill. The comic's hero, after winning the race, seemingly winks at the girl from the page. His pencil-drawn hand reaches out of the comic book, inviting the girl into it. Once inside, she too appears in the pencil-drawn form, as he sings to her and introduces her to his black-and-white world which features a sort of looking-glass portal where people and objects look real on one side and pencil-drawn on the other.
Meanwhile, back in the restaurant, the waitress returns to find that the girl is not there. Believing that the girl has left without paying the bill, she angrily crumples and throws the girl's comic book into a bin. This makes Harket's two opposing racers reappear, armed with a large pipe wrench and apparently aggressive. The racers smash the looking glass with the pipe wrench, evidently trapping the girl in the comic book. Harket punches one of the thugs and retreats with the girl into a maze of paper. Arriving at a dead end, he tears a hole in the paper wall so that the girl can escape as the menacing opposing racers close in on him. The girl, now back in the real world and found lying beside the bin to the surprise of restaurant guests and staff, grabs the comic from the bin and runs home, where she attempts to smooth out the creases to learn what happens next.
The next panel shows Harket lying seemingly lifeless, and the girl begins to cry. But he wakes up and tries to break out of his comic-book frames. At the same time, his image appears in the girl's hallway, seemingly torn between real and comic form, hurling himself repeatedly left-and-right against the walls as he attempts to shatter his two-dimensional barrier. (This scene is largely patterned after a climactic scene in the 1980 film Altered States). He escapes from the comic book by becoming human and stands up. Smiling, the girl runs towards him and he embraces her. The video story is effectively concluded in the intro sequence of its successor, "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.".
"Take on Me" was originally released in 1984, and was mixed by Tony Mansfield, but failed to make an impact in the United Kingdom. The group re-recorded the song with the help of producer Alan Tarney, releasing the new version in late 1984: this release peaked at number three in Norway but failed to reach audiences abroad.
In the United States, Warner Bros. invested in the revolutionary second video for "Take on Me," which used Tarney's version of the song. The new video was released to dance clubs and television a month before the record was available in stores or played on the radio. Wide exposure on MTV made the song quickly soar to the top position of the Billboard Hot 100 on 19 October 1985. It remained on the chart for twenty-three weeks, and ended up at the tenth position of the 1985 year-end chart.
In Norway, A-ha's native country, "Take on Me" reentered the VG-lista singles chart, reaching a new peak of number one, a year after it was first released. The single was largely successful elsewhere, reaching the top of the Eurochart Hot 100 for nine weeks, topping the singles charts in 36 countries, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, and reaching the top three in France and Ireland. The success of "Take on Me" lies also in its sales, as the single would go on to sell over 7 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.
In August 2000, British-Norwegian boy band A1 released a cover of "Take on Me" for their second studio album The A List. Despite being panned by music critics, who called it a "lame cover version", and a "note for note copy" that seems like "a re-release of the original"; it was commercially successful, topping the charts in the United Kingdom and Norway,
The cover's music video was directed by Stuart Gosling. It features A1 entering the computer world by putting on virtual reality glasses after finding out about a deadly computer virus. After flying for a distance, they find the virus and destroy it, saving the world. The video was inspired by the 1982 science fiction filmTron.
In 2010, South Korean pop singer Seo In-guk covered and released the song on 22 November of that year as a single. The verses of the song were re-written into Korean while the chorus kept the original English lyrics. The song was re-titled as "Take".
American duo Letters Lost released a version of the song on its album You Are My Biggest Fan.
In 2011, accordion players of the Kum Song School of Music of Pyongyang, North Korea performed a cover for Morten Traavik, a Norwegian cultural event organizer. Traavik's video of the first performance was a YouTube hit in February 2012, and the quintet subsequently performed at a cultural festival in Kirkenes, Norway, a few days after the YouTube video gained widespread attention.
In 2012, Mexican musical group OV7 included the cover of Take on Me titled "Prisioneros." It was the second single of the bands Forever 7 album.
Dustin McLean's literal version cover of "Take on Me" was the first-known example of the "literal music video" meme.
In the Family Guy episode Breaking Out is Hard to Do, Chris gets dragged into the music video while in the grocery store. When he escapes the video, Lois asks where he's been, to which Chris replies in a panicked tone, "I don't know!".
It is heard in a 2013 TV commercial for Volkswagen. The video was recreated, with a Volkswagen Passat NMS inserted as one of the cars. The video cuts to a man in an office drawing the photos for the animation while singing the falsetto note (E5) out of tune (referencing the song's difficulty) as everyone in the room stares at him. He then walks outside to his Volkswagen Passat, with the narrator stating that the car's offer of "no-charge scheduled maintenance" makes people "feel carefree".