Headed to town for a show Tuesday night at City Winery, I spoke with Berlin’s Terri Nunn about her new, EDM influenced album Animal, Berlin’s role at the forefront of American, electronic music in the late seventies, what can happen when a band places a song on one of the most successful soundtracks of all time and the legacy of “Take My Breath Away”…
Formed in the late seventies, Berlin predated English acts like New Order more frequently cited as an influence on today’s EDM music by taking the sounds of European acts like Kraftwerk and Ultravox, making them their own and stepping to the forefront of American electronic music, one of the first in that genre to add the unabashed sex appeal that continues to set it apart today.
Linked very directly to a look, sound and specific moment in time as the key component to one of the most successful soundtracks in music history (Top Gun), Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” was the type of breakthrough mega-hit capable of turning frontwoman Terri Nunn into an international star… while destroying her band at the same time.
Often pigeonholed by that incredible track, Nunn has re-formed Berlin (sans original partner John Crawford), collaborating with rock/electronic artist Derek Cannavo (formerly Elegy) on the new album Animal which returns her to her more electronic roots.
Headed to town for a Berlin show Tuesday night at City Winery, I spoke with Terri Nunn about the new album, how her Saturday night radio show on KCSN in Los Angeles helped to refuel her love of electronic music and just how Berlin’s involvement with the Top Gun soundtrack came to pass…
Q. Let’s start with your radio show – because your new album Animal nods directly in the direction of EDM and I’ve heard you say that hosting that show was kind of your initial foray into that world of music. How did that show come about?
Terri Nunn: Right out of the blue to be honest with you. I was so fortunate that a friend of mine was listening to the station because it started with a new format. It was in 2011 that KCSN got a new program director and they started doing some real indie stuff. Anyway, my friend was listening to it and the DJ, who’s also the Program Director, was on the radio and he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Terri Nunn had a show here?” And she called me and said, “This guy said this!” And I said, “Ah, you’re crazy. There’s no way.” And she said, “Well, you should look into it. You’ve always wanted to be a DJ…”
So one of my people called him and said, “Were you serious?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m serious!” So I went down to meet with him and he gave me a show: A two hour show where I could program anything I wanted every Saturday night. Literally anything I wanted. The only things he didn’t want on the station were two things: hard rock (like heavy metal) and rap. Other than that, I was free to do anything. I gravitated to electronic music and that’s kind of what he wanted from me because obviously that is my background.
But I also played classic music. I play nineties alternative, old stuff – just kind of all over the place. Because people that listen to me also like not only electronic music but they like classic rock too. They grew up in the eighties or nineties, so all of that. It was really fun.
Q. I know artists hate being asked the influences question but I love asking it when I think there’s going to be an answer people don’t expect. You’ve covered Marilyn Manson, I’ve seen you reference jazz… What are some influences that people might be surprised by?
TN: Well, I started really falling in love with the early seventies glam rock. That’s what really grabbed me. I loved Roxy Music, Bowie, T-Rex, New York Dolls. And then it got even better with Television and Talking Heads and Blondie. I mean, there was just this whole thing going on in the seventies that really caught my interest. It was just so exciting to me.
And now, I love… I’ve always loved “guy music.” So real, like, “balls to the wall” music like Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains. I love music that’s just really heavy [where] there isn’t an ounce of girl in it. I just really enjoy music like that.
And electronic music was taken in that direction so that it was both: Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, that kind of stuff. I love that stuff. Marilyn Manson is another one. Because it’s electronic, which I love, but it’s also heavy. I love that kind of stuff.
Q. EDM is obviously kind of the flavor of the month right now – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it just in the way that everyone seems to be trying their hand at it – kind of like how you had unexpected bands like the Stones or The Kinks or KISS dabbling with disco, now you’ve got crooners like Aloe Blacc and people like Paris Hilton putting out EDM tracks. What is it about EDM that you connected so personally with?
TN: It’s so exciting! For me, music – to really get me going – has to have a sexual connotation to it. It just has to be sensual and sexual and move me in a physical way that’s like that. And EDM is the first [genre] that I’ve heard in a long time – since the nineties [with] Nine Inch Nails and Manson – that’s really effected me that way.
And the reason I love it is because I hear elements that Berlin started with in this music as well as sounds that I’ve never heard before. Skrillex is doing stuff that’s just completely off the map. I’ve never heard of some of this stuff before. And I love when someone is that unique! So [EDM is] both – it’s a combination of like Berlin sounds that they’re still using and new sounds that are completely fresh.
It’s just passionate. It’s sexy! It’s hot! And I love that it’s a visual medium too. That’s what Berlin’s shows are as well. I really like a show. And it’s been a long time – until EDM came in and DJ’s needed a show because they’re just standing there. They can’t really move around because they’ve got to stay behind the equipment. So they needed a show and that’s what kids are getting. And that’s what people want. And it’s exciting! They’re getting dancers, video content, lights – just ridiculous lights. It’s a show.
Q. The new Berlin album Animal has a distinct EDM feel but there’s still the rock elements and synth-pop sounds that made your band unique in the late seventies and mid eighties. Berlin was a few years ahead of British bands like New Order that are more frequently referenced as a big influence on EDM, right? Was Berlin kind of at the forefront of that more electronic sound especially in terms of American bands at the time?
TN: Definitely, yeah. In America. The band formed in ’77 and I joined in ’79.
There were two bands that influenced us that [Berlin bandmate] John [Crawford] turned me onto when I met him: Kraftwerk in Germany and Ultravox in England. They were going at that point. And he just thought this was amazing. And there was nothing like that in the States yet.
So [John] and I went in that direction. We didn’t have a lot of money. We were kids. But we could afford… Like the whole first [Berlin] album is a TR-808 drum machine. And that is so loved now. The new single that Trent Reznor put out – Nine Inch Nails’ “Everything” – starts with a TR-808 drum machine sound. And we’re so far past that! But people love it. They love those sounds. It’s in our DNA now!
Q. You worked with Derek Cannavo on the new album – what kind of an effect did working with someone younger like Derek have on Animal?
TN: He was just so dialed into that sound. When I did the radio show and I realized, “Ok – I think Berlin can have a place here because we’re not that different than what’s going on here.” So finding somebody who was dialed into that and could present me with music that was that and that I could write words to wasn’t the easiest but Derek is just so excited by what’s going on with that.
And Elegy is the band he’s from. They were big in the nineties and that was like a nineties alternative sound. But he feels like me. Even though he’s young, he feels like I do: that this is so exciting right now. So he really moved in that direction. And when I met him and heard the first song… The first music I heard of his became the [Berlin] song “With the Lights On.” That was the music I heard. I was like, “Who is this guy? I’ve got to meet him. Now!”
Q. Let’s talk about “Take My Breath Away” Giorgio Moroder wrote it. Was it written specifically for Berlin or with your vocals in mind? I heard that The Motels were actually originally considered for it… How did you end up with it?
TN: No. Not at all. No. We were in the right place at the right time. Seriously. [Giorgio] was working with us anyway at the time on “No More Words” for the second album. We could only afford him for that. So we were there in his studio in north Hollywood recording that song and I guess that’s when Paramount approached him to do the entire soundtrack for Top Gun.
So they tried a couple of other singers – and we were nothing at the time. We had no hits. We were an underground, indie band. “Metro” had had airplay. “Sex (I’m a)” had had airplay. But we had not had a Top 20 hit yet. So we were far from the first choice for the song.
And one of them that did try out was Martha Davis [of The Motels]. She put that on one of her compilation albums. She put her demo for “Take My Breath Away” on one of the compilation albums. And she and I sang it at some charity benefit together.
But yeah, he tried out two or three singers before coming to us. And I think [Giorgio] was just like, “Well… They’re here. Why don’t we try her?” (Laughs) So he brought [the song] in and said, “What do you think?” And John hated it. I loved it. So we did it!
Q. What came first, the opportunity for you to do the soundtrack or the song? How much politics came into play with that process?
TN: [The song] was already there. When they played it for me, they played it for me as it was already placed in the movie. They played me the scene – the love scene where [the song] was originally. It ended up being all over the movie but at the time [“Take My Breath Away”] was for the love scene. So they played that for me and just put the demo on it so people could see and hear what the idea was. And then we recorded it.
The only thing I fought with [Giorgio Moroder] about was… One of the things that he liked about my rendition was that I smoothed it out a lot. His original melody was kind of stilted to me. And apparently, I heard later, it was to the producers too. It sounded almost Japanese. (Sings “Take My Breath Away” in a slightly choppier manner than fans are accustomed to) It was kind of really just… I don’t know… It just wasn’t very romantic to me. So I pulled it longer and let it hang over the chords that he had placed the melody on. And by doing that – by making it longer – to me, it felt more romantic. And the producers liked that too.
But I took it even further and Giorgio didn’t like it. (Sings “Take My Breath Away” in the more traditional manner fans are accustomed to… but with extra vocalizations). I was throwing in all this frilly sh-t and he hated it. He kept bringing me back and saying, “Look – people want to sing along. They can’t sing [that]. They don’t know what that is. You have to just sing the melody. That’s it.” So we butted heads.
Of course, I capitulated to him – because he’s Giorgio Moroder! I was so in love with him and his talent. So I said, “Ok” and straightened it out. But then I literally went home to my mom and played it for her and said, “Mom, he’s ruined it. Now it’s nothing. This is not going to go anywhere. But I had to do it because he told me to. Oh well.”
It was the biggest hit we ever had. The biggest international sensation we ever had. And I learned from him that simplicity is everything and a melody that people can sing a long to is everything. So much for my opinion!
Q. So what was the immediate feeling in the band as that song, movie and soundtrack started to go stratospheric – en route to selling eleven million albums and winning an Academy Award… I mean, that song is inescapably linked very directly to a specific moment in time and remains one of the biggest soundtrack hits of all time…
TN: John hated me more and more and more as it went along. Because I wanted to do it and the record label was absolutely a “Yes” on it because they knew how big it was going to be with Tom Cruise and Paramount and the whole thing. And they were gonna push the sh-t out of it. And Berlin needed all the push that it could get.
So, yeah… The bigger it got, the madder he got. Because now he’s got to play it every single place we go no matter what: A TV show, a concert, a radio interview, everything. They all wanted to hear that song and he didn’t think that it represented Berlin. He didn’t write it. He didn’t like it. So for him, it was just a dagger in his heart every single day multiple times.
Q. And for you?
TN: I love it. I love that song. I love everything about it. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Some commercial in Iceland just licensed it for car insurance. Iceland! And I never get tired of that song.
Q. So that song hit in 1986… and Berlin broke up in 1987? Does that fate almost become unavoidable with a monstrous hit like that?
TN: Yeah. And I mean, now that I’m older, I look back and I see that nobody was wrong. John and I were just sick of each other. We had just been on top of each other – and I don’t mean in a sexual way because we were never lovers – But just literally twenty-four/seven on the road, in the studio, on the road, in the studio. We had no lives. And we were tired of each other. We couldn’t agree on what to do with the band. We didn’t have anywhere to go away from each other because there were no friends around. I mean, we never were home to have friends. He had lots of one-night-stands. I was never good at that. So I was alone.
And it’s not the record label’s fault because they just want to ride the gravy train as long as it’s riding. They want to push it and push it and push it until you fall apart. And then they walk away and say, “Well thank you so much!” And it’s business. But we didn’t know that because we were kids. And we didn’t know how to put our foot down – because we were kids. And it just kind of imploded, you know?
– Jim Ryan
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(Details on Tuesday’s Berlin show below)
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
1200 W. Randolph
Chicago, IL 60607
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Also performing: Vapornet
Click HERE to purchase tickets