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mtv days

'They were on their last legs': Behind the story of how Take On Me catapulted A-Ha to success

The director of the iconic music video, Steve Barron, talks about his role in giving the band a second chance.

01 – a-ha The Movie_Photo_ Magne Furuholmen A young A-Ha

WHEN STEVE BARRON started his career in filmmaking, he wasn’t to know that he’d become one of the most important directors in music video history.

The Irish-born and London-raised director started off working on sets while in his teens, but by his 20s was in the heart of the burgeoning music video movement. The son of director Zelda Barron and actor Ron Barron, he was steeped in the world of movies. 

He started working as a camera assistant on the films Superman, A Bridge Too Far and The Duellists, working closely with directors like Richard Donner and Richard Attenborough, but by the early 80s he was making movie videos for The Jam, Human League, Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, Bryan Adams and Madonna. Anyone who knows anything about eighties pop hits will have seen his ground-breaking and iconic videos for songs like Billie Jean, Money For Nothing and Run To You.

One of his most iconic videos was the half-animated, half-live action video for A-Ha’s 1985 classic pop hit, Take On Me. The song was hugely important to the band as it was re-released with Barron’s video to accompany it, and though it had bombed first time around, the video helped make it a global hit. 

a-ha / YouTube

Now a new documentary has been made about A-Ha, and the journey of Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Magne Furulolmen and Morten Harket from young Norwegian wannabes to megastars. It also takes in the in-fighting that threatened to break them up, and how the members navigated fame through the decades. The film will be shown this weekend at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, and Steve Barron spoke to The Journal about his career and A-Ha. 

The band were “desperate for it all to happen” when Barron first encountered them. They were living in London, having moved from Norway to try and emulate their musical idols like Jimmy Hendrix and Uriah Heap, and make a go of things in the UK. Watching back the documentary sparked some memories of that time for Barron.

“They were in a pretty rough youth hostel in Bayswater,” he says.

“They had a bit of money to live on, but it was made clear in the documentary that they were on their last legs in terms of chances to make it happen. So it explained a lot.”

09 – a-ha The Movie_Photo_ Henning Kramer Dahl A-Ha in London in the early days

He felt that “they were three very talented, good looking guys who had some interesting pop records and it should happen – if you got the right visual and got it into the right places.” Barron’s video proved to be the key to pushing them to a new audience and in a bigger way.

It proved it very quickly that being presented in the right context made a big difference for giving them a context and giving them a position. Once they had that voice as it were, it quickly snowballed into them being big stars.

To be extraordinary

When it came to making the video, Barron says he wanted it to be something that you weren’t seeing in other videos, “that was extraordinary”. They were in a good position, as they had a decent budget and, crucially, had four or five months to make it. “That opened up the chances for the first time ever for any of the videos I’d done to make a proper finished piece of animation,” he says.

Luckily, Jeffrey Ayeroff from the band’s label Warner Records was behind them – largely, says Barron, alone – and he pushed getting the video done.

Ayeroff showed Barron the animation work done by artist Michael Patterson, and they got him to animate part of the video (Patterson and Candace Reckinger directed the animated parts). The animation was very similar to early rotoscope animation, says Barron. It was this that was key to making the video more than your average offering.

From there, it was just a matter of coming up with a really strong concept for why it was an animation. It all came together almost instantly. “The very first image I got in my head when I sat down to the blank page and the track was the hand reaching out of the comic book,” he says. “That was the very first image and I thought whoa – that’s a great image. That’s got to be the centre of it, so what is happening? Whose hand is this, what is the story? What are they reading? And that’s how it came together for me.”

The resulting video, which shows A-Ha frontman Morten Harket falling for a woman after she pulls him out of the aforementioned comic book, was an absolutely massive hit. It was fresh, exciting, and something totally new.

It became one of the pivotal music videos played in the early days of MTV, helping to cement that channel’s place in cultural history. As the music video became culturally important, Barron was there to make even more great works.

04 – a-ha The Movie_Photo_ Motlys A-Ha in later days

Goosebumps

At that stage in his career, Barron says he was lucky to be given pretty much a blank slate for his music video ideas (within reason). He tended to get the work done within the time allotted, which must have bought him a lot of goodwill. He found making music videos a lot more free than making commercial ads, for example. 

“I had a kind of a gauge when something was a good idea because I did lots of videos. Some of them weren’t great, that’s for sure,” he laughs. “Some of them were strong, but often when I had an idea, I got kind of a tingle or goosebumps. I knew that that idea was really good. When that hand came out of that comic, it gave me tingles.”

He says he knew before he made it that the A-Ha video would be one of the best ones he’d made up to that point. “I didn’t know it would still be here 35 years later, that we’d still be talking about, and it would have 1.4 billion views – I never dreamt of that in a million years.”

The A-Ha documentary is a must watch for even the casual A-Ha fan, as it gives a look into the early origins of the band, and how they turned into huge pop stars. It also gives a frank look at what caused friction between the members, and how some of the friction persists even today. It’s fascinating to see how three young men saw themselves as music stars, and really went for what they believed in, even if they had to move to another country to do it.

Barron went to film school, but he learned on the job. “I could look at a scene and picture what the lens would do,” he says. “So that was very useful because in a way it left the other side for me to learn the storytelling side of it.”

He learned to trust his gut reaction when it came to storytelling, not just try to follow rules. “It was feeling and rhythms and heartbeats, and so on most videos I’d concentrate more on the tone of it, that final tone of the song, not necessarily what the song was about,” he explains. He’d try to find the spirit of the song and reflect that in images and atmosphere. Indeed, all those elements were more important often than the story – the story could sometimes stand in the way, he says.

Sometimes, the artists would come to him with very strong ideas, like when he worked with former art student Adam Ant. Other times, like when he made a video for Bowie’s song As The World Falls Down from Labyrinth, the brief was already there. 

14 – a-ha The Movie_Photo_ Motlys Live on stage

MTV

Barron’s videos were a key part of the MTV era, and he says that once MTV started to have reach and power, record companies also started to embrace the idea of a music video. “They had a very attentive audience of young people that were ready to watch and listen at the same time,” he says. People began to pay attention to the bands, how they behaved, how they dressed. ”People were watching it as much for the clothes as they were for the music in a way sometimes, especially in the early 80s era,” he says. “MTV changed a lot of things.”

But since those heady MTV days, the music video has had quite the ride. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it still had a huge cultural sway, But over the last two decades, as the internet has grown the role of the music video has changed. It’s not that they’re not cared about, but music video channels are no longer the only outlet people have to see visual work by their favourite musicians. It’s also possible to have a presence without needing a music video. 

“It’s very different now,” agrees Barron. “Music videos still have tremendous viewership – A-ha’s Take On Me has 1.4 billion views, which is pretty incredible. So they will get a massive audience but it doesn’t have the same status because it’s really become something that gets in a way lost in the noise. There’s so much of everything else going on.”

Indeed, it’s easy for a music video to get lost these days, compared to the 80s and 90s when a new music video was a huge deal. “In the 80s when something came out by Michael Jackson, or David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, one of those videos, it was all everybody talked about. And it was the most startling thing on TV,” says Barron. 

He says it was a “naive” time too, when they were able to push boundaries. Did it feel like that at the time? “I suppose to a degree it seems to be that when looking back at it, it was a more important time than it felt at the time,” he says. “But you definitely knew that you were breaking boundaries. You definitely knew that it was making people sit up and take notice, it was exciting.”

Barron has since moved into TV and drama, and has directed a range of movies – from Coneheads to Mike Bassett, England Manager. He’s still working hard during a long and fruitful career behind the camera. But perhaps surprisingly, he’s now got a new interest that is taking him in another direction: growing hemp to use as an eco-friendly material. 

“I’ve been on a parallel journey doing some farming of natural materials for the construction business,” he says. He was drawn to hemp because of its eco credentials, after the birth of his grandchildren. “I just felt I could do something a bit more directly that would help, or effect, or maybe repair their future a bit. And so that’s become more important.”

“But having said that, I’ve also enjoyed very much the TV that I’ve worked on. I’m lucky enough to have a kind of double life right now.”

A-Ha: The Movie, directed by  Thomas Robsahm, will screen at The Light House in Dublin tomorrow. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival website.

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