credit: Jeff Gros
For fans of electronic music – and the far-reaching wave of style and pop culture that followed in the wake of the 80s – Berlin vocalist Terri Nunn is an icon. As the charismatic vocalist for a band that virtually launched electronic dance rock in the U.S., Terri earned the No. 11 spot on VH1’s list of the “100 Greatest Women in Rock.” It might come as a surprise then to hear that Terri (who inspired legions of modern female rockers) was first inspired by male role models like Robert Plant and David Bowie. “The first artists that changed my brain about what I wanted to do were men,” Terri confesses. “On stage they were really loud, powerful, sexy and irreverent. The guys seemed to have a lot more fun than any of the girls I saw.” But Terri’s perception shifted when she discovered the artistry of three very distinct women in rock: Grace Slick, Anne Wilson and Stevie Nicks. “Grace Slick was really like a guy on stage, and she showed me the role I wanted in a rock band,” Terri explains. “Anne Wilson also had an incredible vocal power and presence, because she was very influenced by Robert Plant. Stevie Nicks was femininity and mystery in the midst of the rock world, and I wanted that, too.”
Still performing and recording more than 20 years after the release of the groundbreaking debut, Pleasure Victim, Terri and Berlin are currently touring in support of 4Play, the group’s impressive 10th release. An eclectic and ambitious album, 4Play is comprised of new material along with both electronic and alternative rock covers from a first rate selection of artists – David Bowie, Depeche Mode and industrial-Goth icon Marilyn Manson, to name a few. With a mix of both studio and live recordings, 4 Play is everything you’d expect from Berlin, a band that continues to explore and perfect a sound they pioneered over two decades ago. “Although we didn’t realize it at the time,” Terri recalls, “Berlin’s early sound was the start of modern electronic music. That sound has morphed into industrial, trance and now electroclash. Bands like Interpol, Fisherspooner and Goldfrapp are actually direct descendents of what we were doing in the ‘80s.”
Inspired by Ultravox and Kraftwerk – two European bands using state-of-the-art keyboards to create sounds entirely different from those of a traditional keyboard instrument – Terri and Berlin co-founder John Crawford followed their inspiration to form a band centered on this keyboard- driven sound, but fronted by a dynamic female vocalist. “At the time we came out,” Terri offers, “labels were signing power-pop bands like the Knack, The Plimsouls and The GoGos. We thought we might have something that was different and unique, but the record labels just didn’t understand what we were doing and we were laughed at.” Berlin persevered, honing their songwriting skills until a then-fledgling record label, Enigma signed Berlin on the strength of a collection of demos. Those demos became the group’s first release, the EP Pleasure Victim. “We created the record, including the cover, for Enigma for under $3,000,” Terri admits. When Pleasure Victim sold 25,000 copies in one month, Geffen signed Berlin, purchased the recording from Enigma and re-released the record at the beginning of 1983. Pleasure Victim went on to achieve multi-platinum sales in America.
Berlin began touring and getting radio airplay as Pleasure Victim spawned three hit singles. Terri fondly recalls how the group’s first single, “The Metro,” created a groundswell buzz for Berlin. “For any band, every record is an exploration,” she offers. “There’s usually one song that will stand out, where you’ll say, ‘That’s what this album is going to be about!’ For us, that song was “The Metro.” When we wrote it, we knew that was our direction. The most amazing thing about “The Metro” is that even today it’s one of the most important songs in our catalog. It stands up to the test of time and it’s still played on radio stations everywhere I go. “The Metro” defined us and defined that period of music for many fans.”
Pleasure Victim also included the dance hit “Masquerade” and the wildly controversial single, “Sex.” Terri admits, “John and I wrote that song specifically to appeal to the alternative rock radio station, K-ROCK (KROQ) here in LA. When no other station was even touching our kind of music, K-ROCK loved anything that was different. K-ROCK made it possible for bands like us to be heard at all.”
With the release of Love Life in 1984, MTV’s burgeoning popularity generated nationwide exposure for Berlin through the memorable videos for “No More Words” and “Dancing in Berlin.” But the pivotal moment in the band’s career arrived when the romantic ballad “Take My Breath Away” – from their 1986 album, Count Three and Pray – was prominently featured in the major motion picture Top Gun. “When “Take My Breath Away” came out, our popularity exploded and we had worldwide success for the first time,” Terri remembers. “That song was number one around the world. For the first time, we had a shot at playing everywhere.”
“Take My Breath Away” won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in addition to achieving crossover success for Berlin. A world tour with Frankie Goes to Hollywood saw Berlin perform for stadium crowds throughout Europe and England. “It was amazing and huge for us because we’d never done anything that big before,” says Terri. “The bittersweet part is that while we were experiencing breakthrough success around the world, we were falling apart as a band. We didn’t even want to look at each other anymore.” When that 1987 world tour came to an end, so did Berlin.
After Terri and Berlin parted ways, the singer admits she “went through a lot of searching. I’d been doing Berlin for so long it really felt like I was finally getting out of a cage. Suddenly, I was free to do anything I wanted, so I enjoyed collaborating with other people on different things for a while.” Over a period of several years, Terri worked on a variety of projects including Jane’s Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell’s movie The Gift. She also recorded the hit song “Under The Gun” with Andrew Eldrich from the Sisters of Mercy, achieved an adult contemporary chart hit with Paul Carrack for the song “Romance,” and recorded with smooth jazz keyboardist Dan Siegel. In 1991 Terri collaborated with vocalist/songwriter Karl Hyde (from British dance sensations Underworld) on material for Moment of Truth, her solo debut. Moment of Truth allowed Terri to branch out creatively and experiment with a variety of styles including rap, pop ballads and straight up rock ‘n’ roll.
While Terri Nunn pursued other creative endeavors, the music of Berlin remained in the public consciousness to the point where the vocalist was repeatedly called on to reform the group. In 1998 Terri put a band together and hit the road again as Berlin, performing the best-loved songs of band’s classic catalog. The following year, Berlin released two four-song EPs, Fall Into Heaven 1 and Fall Into Heaven 2. A live album, Sacred & Profane, followed in 2000. It was also in 2000 that Berlin’s line-up solidified with the addition of Mitchell Sigman on keyboards (who also became Terri’s songwriting partner and producer) and Chris Olivas (Professional Murder Music) on drums.
Berlin’s first full-length album of new material since 1986, entitled Voyeur, was released in 2002. Terri explains, “Voyeur had the electronic, keyboard-based sound we’re known for, while incorporating a lot of new technology, new sounds and new directions. We also infused contemporary inspiration from bands like Garbage, Sneaker Pimps and even industrial artists like Nine Inch Nails. What I can add to the mix of today’s electronic music is a message in the lyrics that I write. To me, messages in songs are still really important. Many bands have changed my life, not just for their sound but also for what they’ve said to me.” Voyeur also includes a songwriting collaboration with Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins.
Produced and engineered by Mitchell Sigman, 4Play features the live Berlin line up of Sigman on keyboards, Chris Olivas on drums and guitarist Carlton Bost (Deadsy), with Terri’s emotive, crystal-clear vocals sounding as passionate and dynamic as ever. In addition to two new Berlin tracks (the sultry, percolating beat of “Scream” and the equally provocative “Down and Dirty”) 4Play gives Terri and Berlin a forum to take on some of the most popular rock hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s, such as Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” Prince’s “Erotic City,” “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode and Marilyn Manson’s signature hit, “Dope Show.” As Terri explains, it’s a record she’s wanted to make for a long time. “These are songs from our favorite artists that we’ve enjoyed playing live over the years. This is the first time I didn’t have a record label telling me no, so I finally got to record all of these songs into one compilation.”
Terri is most excited about 4Play’s inclusion of the previously unreleased track “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield’s classic political ballad. “I originally recorded that song with producer David Kershenbaum (Tracy Chapman, Duran Duran) for The Best of Berlin,” says Terri. “It never made that record, so I’m really happy to release it now in light of what’s going on in the world. For me, September 11 was a huge wake-up call that America needs to be more self-protective as a country. Stephen Stills wrote the lyric ‘There’s something happening here’ in the ‘60s, but he really called it. The message is still very timely.”
4Play also includes a live acoustic version of “No More Words,” recorded in 2004 for VH1’s Bands Reunited – where Terri, John Crawford and David Diamond performed together as Berlin for the first time since 1987. “Doing “No More Words” was David’s last minute idea,” Terri offers. “He said, ‘We’ve never done that song acoustically and I think it would sound pretty good.’ The version did come out amazing, and everyone at the show said it was the best song we did that night. I was able to license it from VH1 and, since it’s the last song that David, John and I recorded together, I really love having that on 4Play.”
As Terri takes Berlin into
the aughts, she remains keenly aware of all that she and the band have
accomplished. “We were at the very beginning of the electronic
movement in America and that’s something I’m proud of,”
she states. “It wasn’t easy, because we didn’t know
if it was just a fad or something that would last. We were so inspired
because electronic music took rock ‘n’ roll to a new level
beyond just bass, drums, guitar and vocals to become anything
you wanted it to be. The exciting thing for me now is that
it can be anything I want it to be live. When we tour today
we have computers running on stage and video content running simultaneously
with the music. It’s fantastic,” she laughs. “The
possibilities of electronic music are endless, and I don’t mind
expanding on my own legacy in that genre. Personally, I love following
what my favorite bands are up to as they mature. It’s great to
hear what Stevie Nicks or Kate Bush are doing now. I love being able
to represent that as well.”