In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a stripped-down, keyboard-driven brand of energetic, danceable rock began making its mark on radio and music charts. The arrival of MTV in 1981 helped introduce the sounds and styles of “new wave” artists to teenagers and young adults across America. Not coincidently, quite a few of the newer bands in heavy rotation on the then 24-hour-a-day video channel were fronted by attractive female singers. Blondie with Debbie Harry, Missing Persons with Dale Bozzio, the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox, and Berlin with Terri Nunn are some of the bands that saw their stars rise due as much to MTV video exposure as to radio airplay.
Those days may be long gone, but they are not forgotten by millions of music fans. All of the aforementioned vocalists remain active to this day, either as solo artists, or still fronting modern incarnations of their original bands. Many are named as inspirations by today's top artists, who sometimes acknowledge their influence in a sample, a hook, or the choice of instrumentation.
“When my radio show came along in January 2012, I was forced to listen to a lot of current electronic music, because I had two hours of content that I had to program every week,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “So I really started to listen to what was going on, and I absolutely went crazy and fell in love with EDM – artists like Skrillex and Avicii and Calvin Harris and Robyn. It was just great stuff – powerful and unlike anything I've ever heard. But I was also hearing sounds in their music that Berlin started with, so I realized that Berlin has a place in this.”
Nunn was so inspired that late last year she recorded and released “Animal,” Berlin's first original studio album since 2002. Touring in support of the album, Berlin will perform at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live Monday, July 14 (the original May 1 date was postponed due to a power outage). Tickets for the 8 PM all-ages show are $16 to $35 and are available at worldcafelive.com.
Those coming to the World Café Live show should plan to get there early. Last week Nunn announced on YouTube that the first fifty fans in attendance will receive a wrist band that will allow them to dance with her on stage at one point in the show.
Berlin was formed in the late 70s by bassist and songwriter John Crawford. In addition to Nunn on lead vocals, band members included David Diamond on keyboards, Ric Olsen on guitar, Matt Reid on keyboards and Rod Learned on drums. The group was originally signed to the independent label Enigma Records, which released the seven-song EP, “Pleasure Victim” in 1982. The success of the controversial first single, "Sex (I'm A...)" lead to Berlin’s signing to Geffen Records, which re-released “Pleasure Victim” worldwide in 1983.
Berlin recorded two additional albums for Geffen – “Love Life” in 1984 and “Count Three and Pray” in 1986. The band's hits and best-known songs include “The Metro,” “Masquerade,” “No More Words,” “Now It's My Turn,” "For All Tomorrow's Lies,” “You Don't Know,” and the band's biggest hit, “Take My Breath Away.”
Ironically, the mega success of “Take My Breath Away” created tension within the group over what musical direction the band would take, and eventually led to its demise. The song was offered to the band by producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder had produced the hit “No More Words” for the band’s “Love Life” album, and was looking for an artist to record his song “Take My Breath Away” for the “Top Gun” film soundtrack. Moroder had already recorded a version of the song with Martha Davis of The Motels on lead vocals, but he wasn't satisfied with the result.
With Nunn, Moroder knew he had found the right vocalist for the song. “Take My Breath Away” not only reached number one on the charts, it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song in 1986.
Nunn viewed the song’s success as an opportunity to expand the band's popularity, but Crawford and others resented the fact that the song had been written outside the band, and did not want Berlin relying on outside writers. In hindsight, Nunn says there were several reasons the original band split in 1987.
“John never liked the live experience,” Nunn says. “He was a studio guy. He liked writing songs and twiddling knobs in a studio. I don't like that. In fact, I hate it. I think studios are just airless, windowless man-caves that I try to get out of as quickly as possible.
“For me, the excitement and the reason I do it is the live show,” she adds. “I just love concerts in every way. I love being an audience member; I love being on stage. I just like the live concert experience. It's a connection with people that I can't get anywhere else. It's like a drug to me. It's better than any drug I've ever had. John never wanted to go on the road. He did it because he had to.”
After several years away from performing, Nunn formed a new version of Berlin in 1998. Today the band includes drummer Chris Olivas, guitarist Carlton Bost, and keyboardist Dave Schulz.
Nunn says that when she connected with modern electronic dance music through her radio show, she was inspired and had a clear idea of the type of album she wanted to make.
“Up until then, I was making music with different people, but there was no cohesive theme or sound,” she said. “I need something to hang the hat of the album on. I've always been that way. With ‘Pleasure Victim,’ John and I had made a lot of songs over the two years that we had been working together. We had tried all different kinds of songs. But when the song ‘The Metro’ was done, we said, ‘That's what we want Berlin to sound like. We want everything that we’re going to create for this album to sound like that.’
“That's what I needed for this album.”
Nunn says her aim was to create a modern album for fans of EDM that long-time Berlin fans could also relate to and embrace.
“That was the goal,” she says, “because I love Berlin. I love what we established. I love what was created in the sound that we put together. I love the mechanistic – almost cold – sound of the music matched with my voice. My voice is extremely emotional; it always has been. Putting those two together created something that was new, something that hadn't been done before. I wanted more of that, but I also wanted to include the exciting beats and the feeling that's going on right now in dance music.”
To realize her vision, Nunn collaborated with several established as well as up-and-coming songwriters and producers. The first person she worked with was John King (aka King Gizmo), one-half of the Grammy Award-winning production duo, the Dust Brothers, with whom she wrote the song “Break the Chains.” She was then introduced to Derek Cannavo, a songwriter and producer known for his work with the southern California-based electronic rock trio Elogy. The first song they wrote together was the title track, “Animal.”
“I didn't know where things were going to go in terms of collaboration, even though I loved his music,” Nunn says. “But after we wrote ‘Animal,’ I told him that I was going to chain him to my desk until the album was finished. He was as excited as I was, and we created six more songs together.”
The resulting album manages to affirm Berlin’s place in modern music while acknowledging the band’s past. Energetic tracks like “With the Lights On,” “Nice to Meet You” and the title cut offer modern, up-to-date variations on Berlin’s classic sound. It’s not hyperbole to say that Nunn’s voice sounds better than ever. She quit smoking twenty years ago and says that since then, her range has nearly doubled.
The last song recorded for “Animal,” was the ballad “It’s the Way.” With its lush, soaring melody, it harkens back to the sound and vibe of “Take My Breath Away.”
“I thought we were done with the album, but my manager Andy Lurie said, ‘I think we need another ballad.’ I didn't think we would be able to find another collaborator, because Derek had moved on to a project in Nashville. But Andy called me about a week later and said that he met a songwriter named Bryan Todd who had some great ideas. He sent me three songs, and there was one that made me say, ‘You know, I think I could do something with this.’ Literally 10 days later we had finished ‘It’s the Way.’”
Berlin has tour dates scheduled into November.
“I'm re-inspired by this album,” Nunn says. “The creation of it and sharing it has reinvigorated me and given me energy to do a lot more, and to go to a lot more places than I have in the past few years.”