Terri Nunn of Berlin – Embraces Her Animal Instincts
Updated: May 19
Terri Nunn of Berlin
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 It 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.
Berlin went from "Sex" to "Take My Breath Away" in just four years. As much as I love that song, I’m not sure it’s exactly representative of the band’s music. Were you surprised by the direction that [songwriter and producer] Giorgio Moroder took you all for the band’s biggest hit yet?
We loved him. We thought he was it. And he was. He was amazing. So, for me, we already had a rift going on that end, but for me Giorgio Moroder could have farted and I would done it. I just loved [what he wrote]. Like John, I loved what John wrote. That was one of the reasons that I could write lyrics and melodies to him and sing the ones that he wrote. I just loved it. I loved working with him. Same with Giorgio. When he brought that in, I just thought it was great. I love romantic music.
John, on the other hand, he liked it. He couldn’t deny that he liked it. But he didn’t like that he had not written it. He felt in his 23-year-old life that it wasn’t okay to do somebody else’s songs in a band. You had to do your own stuff only. That caused a lot of problems between us. And it caused a lot of problems with the label because they wanted to do it. This was attached to a movie (Top Gun) coming out from Paramount with Tom Cruise, who was huge at that point. He’s starring in it. And now John doesn’t want to do it? They were just up in arms with him. So it just became a problem within the band and with the label. They said, "Well, you’re doing it." (laughs) "You’ve got to do it."
One of my favorite Berlin singles was on the follow-up album to that hit, Count Three & Pray, but "Like Flames" never quite took off like your previous singles. Looking back, I think it may have been a little more rock-oriented and kind of shocked the fans who just knew Berlin for the Top Gun ballad. Were you disappointed that the single and album never reached the audience they deserved?
Yeah, and I blame myself a lot for the second point that you brought up, which is the rock direction of the album. I wanted to try that. John wanted to keep it more of what it was. So did the label. I think my pushing for new frontiers for Berlin went too far. I look at a band like Depeche Mode, who have also pushed the envelope with their albums, but they’ve always kept the basic sound that they know their fans like.
Now with my years of experience making music, I understand that. I wish that I had given John more of what he wanted in the production of that album, because I think it did alienate people. They were like: "Well, what’s Berlin now?" We didn’t sound much like we had in the previous two albums. The other problem was that the label was mad at us, rightly so, because we went to Europe and we recorded the songs. It was so bad with this guy in England that we trashed the whole thing. I think we kept one song, "You Don’t Know," that he had done. We started all over with Bob Ezrin, who did Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.
Sure. He also did Alice Cooper...
So we had to do the whole thing over. By the time the album was done, we were $300,000 in debt to the label. They were just pissed. (laughs) There wasn’t a lot of [promotion]. They just wanted out. They wanted to get rid of us. It was tough.
Was that why the break-up happened?
I know in the early 90s, you released your solo album, Moment of Truth. After working in a band situation for so long, what was it like to call the shots?
That was probably the worst experience of an album that I’ve ever had. Again, a lot of that was my doing. (laughs) Because once I was released from Berlin, I was like: I want to try everything! I want to do dance. I want to do rap. I want to do country. I want to do pop. I want to do rock. I want to do weird alternative stuff. I mean that album was everything. And it was so everything, it was a mess. It was just like: well, what is this girl? (laughs again) What does she want to do? That deal further alienated people.
Plus I didn’t have the band around me to tell me, "Hey, this is a mess. We need to focus on something that people can just grab onto and relate to." It was just me. And hired guns. I learned that was also a pitfall because nobody cared as much as I did. They were paid either way. I learned that having people that were partners, there is a real asset to that. The fighting is good. Arguing can be good because people care.
You reformed Berlin in 1999 – I actually was at one of your gigs at Rhino’s Retrofest in Santa Monica and met you backstage there. One thing I like about the reformed band is you play to all your strengths. On your new album Animal, the title track shows the rockier side of Berlin, the new wave side shows up in stuff like "Don’t Make Me Regret It" and you even have the pretty ballads like "It’s the Way" and "Blame It On the World." Were you looking to play with styles on the album – but keeping it in check unlike the solo album – or is it just how everything came out?
Yeah. I think Animal as an album is a lot more focused than either Count Three and Pray or the solo album...
Oh yes, definitely...
If I were to put it in any category, it’s mainly EDM. It’s mainly electronic dance music. That’s what I really am into right now. I just love where electronic music has gone. In that direction, I’m probably listening to more artists than anywhere else. Plus, because I hear how people are using both early sounds and sounds like Skrillex, [that] I’ve never heard before. They’re kind of melding it all together. I knew there was a place for Berlin within this style, because all the sounds are still being used that we started with.
I noticed in Animal the lyrics tended to still be pretty sexually charged. We are all getting a little older. Is that sort of a hallmark of the band’s style?
Well, it’s who I am. (laughs hard) I don’t know if it’s right.
You worked with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins on your Voyeur comeback album back in 2002. Over the years you’ve worked with lots of other artists people wouldn’t necessarily guess, Gilby Clarke [of Guns’N’Roses], Charlotte Caffey [of The Go-Go’s], even Ted Nugent. What do you look for in a collaborator?
Loving their music. I’m a reactor. I don’t sit and write lyrics just for fun. To me, they are nothing unless they are attached to some music. What inspires me is music. I tend to ask people whose music really turns me on to work with me. Then I can take that music and fit lyrics to that. To me, the music itself is what calls out to what it is about. I grab maybe a line, or a verse and a chorus maybe, that I played with one day and threw in a drawer. Like: Oh, that fits this! Then I’ll finish it and fit it to the music that I’m working with.
At this point, the new Berlin has released more albums than the original incarnation. How surprising is that? Have you gotten more and more comfortable with the new version?
I am, actually. Thanks for noticing that. I just realized the other day that my drummer Chris [Olivas] has been in the band longer... that’s been the longest partnership I’ve had with anybody. [Even] John. John was 13 years and now Chris is 14. He joined the band in 2000.
What do you think of the current state of the music business? The label system Berlin came up in is obviously broken, with low sales, piracy, and ridiculously small streaming royalties, but young acts do have many more outlets to get things out there. Do you think that a band like Berlin could have gotten an audience in this atmosphere?
I have no idea. I know, it’s frickin’ hard now. I’ve got a lot of friends with kids who are starting in bands and playing the club scene and getting a following, and oh my God, I hear that they have to pay to play? We didn’t have the money for that. (laughs) We didn’t make much, but we would get something. Then we would just plow it back into the band to keep building it.
But now, they don’t get anything. The clubs around LA at least are like, "Well, we’ll give you a stage. You get people in here and we’ll give you a place to showcase yourself." Whoa! How do people do it? I don’t know how. Because you’ve got to eat. You’ve got to live. We all had day jobs, and I was doing different television things here and there to keep food on my table. But, wow! It’s not easy these days.
There is a video on YouTube that shows you and Harrison Ford doing an extensive screen test for the original Star Wars in which you were up for the role of Princess Leia. What was the story behind that, and how different do you think your life would have been had you gotten the role?
Completely different. I would not have the luxury of this job. No way. It wouldn’t have happened. In those days, people didn’t transfer. People who tried to sing who were actors were looked down on. Like, nah, you’re not a singer. It was very segregated. Nowadays it happens all the time. Television is the new record label, really. It’s just the best place to get the biggest audience the quickest. But not in those days.
So, yeah, I would be an actor. I credit my mother [for helping me decide], because it was shortly after that the show called Dallas came up. The casting director had known me from something else. She brought me in and they just offered it to me. I didn’t need to audition. It was handed over like, "Okay, here. Seven year contract. This a new show. We don’t know if it will go for seven years, but you have to sign this. Do you want it?" It was the Charlene Tilton role.
I was just absolutely terrified. I was I think 17. I went home to my mother and I said "Mom, what should I do? If I do this, then there isn’t going to be any music career." She said, "Well, if you really want to try the music thing, you’re going to regret it if you don’t." And everybody dropped me. Everybody. When I went to my agent and said I’m not doing the series, he said, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" So he dropped me. He said, "You’re not serious." And I had nothing. I had nothing to lose either (laughs) because I had nothing.
But it ended up working out for you.
Exactly. A year later, I met John and everything started happening really quickly. So, yeah, it was very lucky. I’m still grateful to my mother for being the only one to believe in me, because without her, I’d probably be in a job that I didn’t like.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I’ve been afraid of people my whole life. That’s not something I really faced until a couple of years ago. Really, the song "Nice to Meet You" [on Animal] is about that. I just never said those words to myself, but when I started writing the lyric to that song, I realized that that’s what’s been going on. I used music to be a connector with people because it feels safe. Because I love music. And other people do, too. When music playing, or I’m singing, or I’m in an audience, or whatever, I feel connected with people through the conduit of music.
When it’s not there, I avoid people. Let’s say more in the past, I avoided people. I never felt comfortable at parties. I felt completely scared and didn’t know how to talk, or be social, or any of that. I don’t think people realized that. They wouldn’t think that because my job is to communicate with people. (laughs)
No, you don’t come off as shy. That is surprising. What kind of things make you nostalgic?
Music. Music, songs. The other day I was charging my electric car and we went to a place up the street and this song came on: (sings) "And the colored girls sing, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo..."
"Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed, yeah.
I was just remembering. It instantly put me where I was when that song came out. We were in a record store. I was [a little girl]. I was running the cash register. I was helping in the store. I got to play any songs I wanted. Oh my God, total nostalgia. It’s such a beautiful thing. Because music, you’re just right back where you were. Who you were, where you were. You remember everything.
"The Metro" always reminds me of being in college, so I know exactly what you mean. Overall, how would you like for people to see your career?
Hopefully, I’d like it to be as an inspiration to do what they really love to do. What they really want to do. Because I’m not special. We were in a lower-middle-class family. Lived in apartments my whole life. Had to move every two or three years. (laughs) There is no reason why I would have been successful over anybody else. It was just wanting it and sticking with it. Living through the hard times. Believing in it. Believing in myself. Surrounding myself with people who believed in me enough to keep going. Anybody can do that. So that’s what I hope – that it inspires people to do whatever it is they’re wanting to do.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 18, 2014.
Photo credit: © 2014. Courtesy of Something Music/Fontana. All rights reserved.
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