Terri Nunn of Berlin – Embraces Her Animal Instincts
by Jay S. Jacobs
Berlin rode the synthesized new wave to pop stardom in the early 80s. The band was formed in Santa Monica, California, in the late 70s when songwriter and producer John Crawford hooked up with former actress and model Terri Nunn to take on the just about-to-explode synth pop world.
For a few years they gained little traction – and Nunn briefly left the band in a personnel dispute, leading to their overlooked debut album Information to be recorded with a different front woman. However when Nunn returned to the fold, the group’s futuristic new wave sound, sexually frank lyrics and attractive front woman proved to be catnip to the brand new music video channel MTV. Their DIY follow-up EP Pleasure Victim stormed up the charts, spawning the alternative singles and early-MTV staples “Sex (I’m A…)” and “The Metro.”
The band’s 1984 follow-up album Love Life continued the band’s ascension, with the dance pop single “No More Words” and its distinctive Bonnie & Clyde tribute video giving Berlin its biggest hit yet. Two years later, they were approached my movie soundtrack guru Giorgio Moroder (Flashdance) to perform the love ballad for his latest film project, a little drama about Navy pilots called Top Gun. “Take My Breath Away” became Berlin’s first number one single, but it caused a bit of a rift within the band because the rest of the band wanted to perform their own music. When their next album Count Three and Pray was deemed a disappointment, the band split up. Nunn released an overlooked solo album in the 90s, but her heart was still in the band.
In the late 90s, Nunn and Crawford and other original members of Berlin reunited to record some new studio tracks and do some gigs, which were released in 2000’s album Live: Sacred and Profane. Soon after, Nunn took on a whole different band to work on their first studio album in 15 years, Voyeur, which also featured a contribution by Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan.
Nunn and Berlin have been recording and touring ever since. Their newest album is Animal, a skilled and smart modern dance album which balances the group’s new wave roots with an up-to-date EDM pulse. Animal explores all of the different moods and styles of Berlin, from the pulsing electro “Nice To Meet You” to the gorgeous heartbreak ballad “Blame In On the World” to the throbbing modern dance rock of the title track. There is even a nod to Nunn’s musical influence Grace Slick with a stomping cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love.”
A couple of weeks before the release of Animal and Berlin’s latest US tour, we caught up with Terri Nunn to discuss her band, her career and her music.
You started out as an actress – I remember seeing you years ago on an episode of Family. When did you decide to make the jump from acting to singing?
The universe, I guess it works in just amazing ways. (laughs) My original idea wasn’t to be an actor, I wanted to be a musician. But I wanted it so badly that it scared the shit out of me. To me, musicians and singers were gods. They were people that were not like me. They were special. I didn’t know if I had any shot at all at it. I was fourteen [in] Santa Monica. A friend of ours knew an agent and said, “Maybe you could do commercials or something.” She took me to this agent friend of hers, who was a commercial agent. She had me read some copy there and somehow took an interest in me and signed me.
I started doing commercials. I’m a vegan now, so it’s hilarious, my first commercial was [for] McDonald’s. (laughs again) I was a kid in the family. I was 14, but I looked 10. It was for one of their new shakes. I started doing a lot of commercials. I was like: wow, this is fun. Because if you do a national commercial, it’s like Christmas every day. There are checks in the mailbox every day, because it’s running all the time and you get the royalties. Like, wow, this is cool.
Then the commercial agent sent me out on a few TV shows. She was trying to get into theatrical work as well. I started getting into TV shows. I was like, wow, this is really cool. I was extremely lucky. Extremely lucky. Because I know how hard it is for people to get anywhere in that business. It was definitely hard. It’s a hard business. I was constantly rejected. But it wasn’t my original idea.
That said, I learned so much from doing that, from working in television. It taught me how to focus my emotions into a very short period of time. With a song, it’s even shorter. A scene can be anything; it can be two minutes, it can be 20 minutes. But a song is usually three minutes. I have to bring it and feel it and express it and communicate it in three minutes. That was such a great discipline for me, that I didn’t know I’d need, but now looking back, I really needed it. I needed to learn how to do it.
Who were some of the singers who inspired you to take up music?
Grace Slick was the first one that I can remember. Mostly men, actually, because to me, men had a lot more fun in the business than the women. Just all different kinds of men and styles. I loved Jim Morrison. David Bowie. T-Rex. David Johansen. Cat Stevens. Bryan Ferry. Then for women, Grace Slick. Ann Wilson – that was later, that was like 1975 with the beginning Heart album. Stevie Nicks. Bonnie Raitt, loved her.
Years ago I interviewed Toni Childs, who talked a bit about doing some singing for an early incarnation of Berlin before you joined.
That’s right. Yeah.
How did you hook up with the band?
She was the first singer in the band. They started looking for somebody else and answered my ad. I put an ad out at the time. We didn’t have internet, so it was a place in Hollywood that you’d put your ad in and bands that needed musicians would go in and go through the books and likewise. (laughs) Musicians would look through for bands that were looking for musicians. I put an ad in there.
At the time, John [Crawford] had already started working with Toni. She was singing with the band. But she decided she didn’t want the band, she wanted to be a solo artist. She gave them notice and they started looking for someone else. They answered my ad because I said something about wanting something unique. I wanted something different. And they were extremely different from everything that was going on. We continued to be very different.
The Pleasure Victim EP was originally released on the old Enigma label, but when it was picked up by Geffen it exploded with the hits “Sex” and “The Metro.” How surreal was it when suddenly the band were all over the radio and MTV?
It was beyond any dreams that I’d ever had. Yeah. Everything was coming so fast. I mean, it seemed fast at the time. When I first started working with John, it was 1979. We split up, or I left; I had a problem with somebody else in the band, who was also funding it. I left in ’80. We were just slogging around in the clubs. We were trying to get something going on. We started building a following, but we didn’t get [any record contracts]. (laughs) It was literally the week I left that they got an offer from a German label to do the first album. I was gone. They scrambled around and found another singer [Virginia Macolino] and did it. It was called Information. That was the first one. It didn’t go anywhere at the time.
After that album, John called me, because the whole band kind of imploded and fell apart. He called me and he said, “I’ve got these songs. I think you and I could really do something together.” I love John. I’ve never had a problem with John. I hadn’t found anything else. I was floundering around. So it was a great call. We started working on the demos. Instead of flogging at the clubs again, we worked to find somebody who might want to give us some money to make the demos [into] an album.
What happened was, it was Enigma. They didn’t give us money to make the album, they put [the demos] out. They thought that it was done. The demos became the album. It was fantastic for everybody, because the whole album was maybe $3,000. Everything, including the artwork. All of it. (laughs) And it went platinum. Like, wow!
I think it’s kind of a nice thing that Pleasure Victim has actually aged so well compared to many new wave albums at the time. People realize how good such songs as “The Metro,” “Masquerade” and “Tell Me Why” were. Does the fact that the EP is looked back at so fondly feel like a justification of all the hard work you did?
Yes, but it also feels like a gift. We work… I can just speak for myself… I’ve worked just as hard on every album that I’ve done. I’ve done, what? Eleven or twelve now. There’s no way to know which ones are going to hold together as an album. Or will stand the test of time. Or won’t. I do my best. Some spark the interest of the public. Some don’t. Some are bigger. Some are smaller. They all have their gifts. But that one seems to be one that… it’s just one of those albums that holds together really well. I think it’s probably the best one as an album that I’ve ever done. Except for Animal. (laughs) And we don’t know what Animal is going to do, or how it’s going to stand the test of time, or not. So I look at it as a gift as well as a justification. That, wow, it’s just kind of got a life of its own.
Berlin hit just as MTV was taking off, and you had a look that played well for the channel – videos like “The Metro” and “No More Words” became classics. What was it like back in those days when video was just exploding and you could do whatever you wanted? Like “No More Words” had the Bonnie and Clyde video. Also, do you feel your background as an actress helped you make more memorable videos than some of your contemporaries?
Yeah, it helped me to be comfortable in front of a camera. That’s where music was going. That really helped us, because a lot of people don’t like doing camera stuff. That helped a lot. It was a struggle to get people to believe in video. At the time that Geffen came into the picture, one of the reasons we signed with Geffen was because they did believe in video. David Geffen knew that this was something that was going to stick around.
Amazingly enough, a lot of the other labels, they wouldn’t even give us a budget. In their offers to Berlin, they were like: “No, video, no. Not going to happen. It’s a passing thing. MTV, people will get tired of it.” We were like: no, this is really cool. (laughs) So Geffen won on that strength. They didn’t offer the most money. But they offered the most time commitment and they offered belief in stuff that we wanted to do. One of them was video.
The MTV thing, I don’t know what it’s like now, but you actually couldn’t do everything that you wanted. Because they were the only game in town, they told us what we could do. They would literally like… we would submit a video and they would be, “Ehh, we don’t like this scene. Either take that scene out or we’re not playing it.” We were slaves to MTV. Everybody was. Because they decided what would be played and what wouldn’t.
I remember the first Bonnie and Clyde that we submitted to them, there was some shooting and they said, “We can’t do that. You can’t have in the same shot a gun shooting and a person falling down. So you just have to fix it.” (laughs again) So we kept going back and forth. And then the “Sex” video, oh, my God! They were even upset about the food scene. There’s a food scene where people are sensually eating food and they were like, “You can’t do that. I’m sorry, no. That shot of that guy, the way he’s licking the… No, we can’t do that.”
Just the fact that you were an attractive woman as the leader of a band, and back then there were not all that many women leading groups, I remember at the time some of the snarky rock press would mix Berlin and your contemporaries Missing Persons together derogatorily. Were you surprised by the way you were being promoted and received back then?
I was surprised by the viciousness of it, sometimes, yeah. John and I, we were 20, so pretty much most of our music was about sex or love or finding either one. Or both. I was pretty blunt and outspoken in the songs that I wrote about sex. So was John. I think that surprised a lot of people. We said a lot of stuff that hadn’t been said before. People were like: What? They just thought, well, clearly if you’re talking like that, you’re a bimbo. Or you’re a sexual deviant. Or you’re a slut. Or you’re a nymphomaniac. Or something. So, yeah, that surprised me. That because I was that outspoken, the way I talked about it, that they took that stand about it.