When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week A.C. Newman takes on a-ha’s “Take on Me.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
When a-ha’s Morton Harket sang “I’ll be coming for your love, OK?” in “Take On Me,” he not only presaged the award-winning video treatment that was to follow, but the band’s aggressive belief that the song was destined to be a hit. Indeed, it took two recordings, two videos and three separate releases over the course of 1984 and 1985 until “Take On Me” finally claimed its rightful spot at the top of the U.S. charts and at number two in the U.K.
Arguably, it was the Steve Barron-directed video that put a-ha over the top. By mid-’80s standards, the process of rotoscoping—or, pencil-sketching over the lines of a live-action sequence—was incredibly innovative, and it was just that process that allowed Barron to elevate the themes in “Take On Me” to filmic proportions. Packed into the song’s brief run time are chase sequences, lover’s dalliances and mixed-use live shots of a-ha founders Pal Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen performing, not to mention a disturbing Altered States-inspired ending. This might seem pedestrian now, but the treatment was truly groundbreaking for its era, giving the song an edginess that wasn’t lost on the MTV set. Released a full month before the third (and most successful) version of the song was available to the public, the video ignited imaginations, causing listeners to reconsider the now infamous synthpop single.
For good reason. With or without the video, “Take On Me” is textbook pop music brilliance, written by the eager Norwegians in their disheveled London flat with little assistance from producers Tony Mansfield or Alan Tarney. Its hook is undeniable and its instrumentation pulsates with enviable new-wave addictiveness, capable of making a trip to the grocery or the club just as exhilarating. And at its heart is the simple familiarity of a love song, Harket beckoning a nameless companion to “take [him] on.” Sure, it’s easy to parody a song (and an era) this over-played, but when the joke’s over, we’re nonetheless left with a comprehensive wonder.
I think Carl “A.C.” Newman understood this, which is why his cover isn’t kitschy. Instead, he slowed it down and toyed with its dynamics, displacing the synth heaviness of the original with orchestral flourishes, acoustic guitar, Rhodes piano and ghostly female vocals. Smartly, he did so without derailing the song’s obvious pop classification, not making “Take On Me” overly serious simply to paint it in a different light. Newman transmits the lyrics as if he means them, to be sure, but the cover is born more of a tasteful reverence than a self-involved, too-literate retreat.
Cast your vote wisely.