Take On Me might be the best love song ever written. Ok, maybe not EVER, but certainly in 1985. Such a classic song will, of course, generate many a cover. I sampled 10 different versions of Take On Me, from 9 different artists. All to ask if there was a cover of Take On Me that surpasses the original.
Original – A-ha (1985)
The original version of Take On Me bathes itself in the glorious new wave sounds of the 80s. Synths are the dominant instrument, accompanied by a drum kit. No guitars can be heard on a casual listen of the song (though all three members of A-ha play guitar). A poppy tune for sure, with a beat to make your feet dance. Vocalist Morten Harket’s vocals fall shuffle back and forth between tenor and baritone, and then of course that falsetto at the end of the chorus!
That’s Take On Me, folks. A love song set to an 80s pop beat. Take on Me has a simple sound, yet it sounds so magical, one can hardly imagine anyone topping the original.
Cover – MXPX (1995)
Punk rock’s Magnified Plaid (later known as MXPX) present a second wave cover of Take On Me. This cover follows their usual, three piece punk band format. Heavy guitars, sarcastic vocals, a fast tempo, and of course, not one synthesizer.
Sarcastic sounding punk vocals or not, MXPX loved (and presumptuously still love) Take On Me. Also – and they show it through their effort. Take On Me is probably the best song on the On The Cover album (and I’m not the only one to say this).
Ultimately, MXPX’s Take On Me shows a reflection of 1995, just as the original shows a reflection of 1985.
Cover – Reel Big Fish (1999)
Ska band, Reel Big Fish, did a similar cover of Take On Me to that of MXPX’s. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering the relationship of punk to third wave ska. One notable difference, however, Reel Big Fish fleshes out and maximizes Take On Me.
Reel Big Fish utilizes standard rock instruments, including guitars and drums. Reel Big Fish also adds a horn section (this is a ska cover, after all), and a couple decent guitar solos. All in all, what we get is a version of Take On Me that, though not as simple as the original, is just as easy to dance to.
Cover – Hello India Calling (2008)
Hello India Calling slows the tempo of Take On Me down… way down. They also take the instrumentation back into the electronica realms, with synthesisers as their primary instrument. Just like the original, not a guitar to be heard.
Hello India Calling changes the melody slightly, relying heavily on minor notes, as opposed to the poppy major notes used in every version of Take On Me reviewed thus far. The results of this minor chord, slow electronica fest? Pure beauty. Truly, Hello India Calling’s Take On Me should be savored like a fine wine.
Cover – Anni B Sweet (2009)
A twee cover of Take On Me was inevitable, and that’s exactly what we get with Anni B Sweet’s cover. A sweet, slow tempo dictates this version of Take On Me, with a prominent ukulele strumming throughout the song. A few tight harmonies, a few backing acoustic guitars and light drums. The strangest thing, however: Anni B Sweet’s cover of Take On Me ignores a few lyrics, instead playing the melody on her ukulele. Yet she closes her version of Take On Me with a vocal yodeling of the instrumental bridge found in the original. So, vocals where instruments should be, and instruments where vocals should be. Yet, it works for this version.
Anni B Sweet’s Take On Me is the perfect song to listen to while stargazing with your sweetheart, or just drowning in each other’s eyes.
Cover – A.C. Newman (2009)
Recorded for the same project as Death Cab’s version of Love Song, A.C. (aka Carl) Newman’s Take On Me just might be the perfect cover. What makes it so special? To put it simply, it’s a beautiful song.
Sure, the twee version by Anni B Sweet was pretty, and Hello India Calling’s version was beautiful….but A.C. Newman’s hits your heart in a way you just can’t put your finger on.
Perhaps it’s Newman’s approach. Newman takes the middle ground on his version of Take on Me. For instruments, we have an acoustic guitar with a few synths with an occasional violin. He uses a slower tempo than the original, but not too slow. His instrumentation isn’t minimal, but it isn’t maximized either. Newman knows when to use noise, and when to embrace silence.
Essentially, A.C. Newman’s Take On Me is the best of both worlds. A beautiful love song that’s not afraid to embrace minimalism, and also go against minimalism at the same time.
Seven Handle Circus (2014)
With a banjo, mandalin, upright bass, fiddle, and an acoustic guitar, Seven Handle Circus’ version of Take On Me takes on a distinctly bluegrass sound. Even with the genre change, the eclectic instrument selection mimics the original in a way I could not predict.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Seven Handle Circus keeps the a similar tempo to the original version. Perhaps it’s the attention to detail in the vocals and harmony, but Seven Handle Circus proves that Take On Me would have made an excellent bluegrass song, just as it makes an excellent new wave song.
Cover – 8 Bit Arcade (2016)
I included the 8 Bit Arcade version for one reason, and one reason only: most of the covers abandon the 80s in Take On Me. Most covers forget that Take On Me is a new wave song, and heavily relies on uptempo synthesizers. 8 Bit Arcade not only remembers this fact, but embraces it.
Mind you, the 8 Bit Arcade version sounds like a video game, and not something you really want to listen to more than once, but it’s still interesting to have around for the sake of juxtaposition.
Unplugged – A-ha (2017)
32 years after the original release, A-ha presents a very different version of Take On Me. This version reminds me a lot of A.C. Newman – in the fact that it’s an acoustic version that really focuses on the beauty of the song. Gone are the synths, and the tempo is slowed significantly. What’s left? A ball of emotions. Beautiful emotions about a fresh love. The unplugged version of Take On Me makes will make you swoon.
Cover – Weezer (2019)
Weezer essentially did a love song to a love song with their cover of Take On Me. Weezer updates the sound of Take On Me, but they also file nods to the new wave roots. Guitars dominate this cover of take On Me, yet The synthesizer part sounds almost like a sample from the original. Rivers Cuomo certainly does not try to hide the fact that he sounds nothing like Morten Harket, and yet he nails the falsetto!
Recently, Weezer has been paying tribute to a lot of the great songs of the 1980s. Weezer paid tribute “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and most famously, they paid tribute to Toto’s “Africa.” Weezer obviously sees a need to pay tribute the songs that influenced them in their youth, but I digress.
I’m happy this cover of Take On Me exists.
Which Cover of Take On Me works, which doesn’t?
Of all the covers of Take On Me I’ve heard, it’s actually not that hard to find a favorite. The absolutely gorgeous cover of Take On Me by A.C. Newman surpases every other cover by a mile or more. However, that does not mean the other versions lack merit. Like I said, I love the Weezer cover. I also like the covers by Anni B Sweet, Hello India Calling, and even MXPX. Sure, some of the covers are a little more palatable than others, but a cover of Take on Me might be impossible to fail.
However, this is cover vs original….not cover vs cover. So does the cover of Take On Me I praise the most truly surpass the original. Well, yes. With that in mind, the A.C. Newman cover does not surpass the acoustic cover by A-ha. Mind you, I have a feeling the acoustic version was inspired, at least partly, by A.C. Newman, as both versions take a similar approach. A-ha, however, had the luxury of perfecting the concept. Besides, as much as I love A.C. Newman’s vocals, Morten Harket’s voice grips Take On Me within an inch of its life.
So, there you have it…A-ha takes on Take On Me….and wins against themselves.