Beyond The Metro:
An Interview with Terri Nunn of Berlin
For fans of ‘80s electronic music – and the far-reaching wave of style and pop culture that followed in its wake – Berlin vocalist Terri Nunn is an icon. As the charismatic vocal and focal point for a band that virtually launched electronic dance rock in the US, 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 has inarguably 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. Then I discovered Stevie Nicks, who was femininity and mystery in the midst of the rock world, and I wanted that, too. As an artist and singer, I modeled my life after those three women.”
Still performing and recording more than 20 years after the release of Berlin’s groundbreaking debut, Pleasure Victim, Terri and Berlin are currently touring in support of 4 Play, the group’s most recent release. An eclectic and ambitious album, 4 Play is comprised of new material along with both classic and modern 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. Ink 19 recently spoke with Terri Nunn about her long and fascinating career. In a completely hilarious and candid interview, Terri spilled the beans about reuniting with her original Berlin cohorts John Crawford and David Diamond for VH1’s Bands Reunited, waxed nostalgic on the significant role music has played in her life and dished the dirt on what the recording session for the infamous hit single “Sex” was really like.
Back in the early ‘80s, when keyboard-driven, synth
rock was first happening Berlin was at the vanguard of everything.
What do you remember about the band’s early days and what it
was like to make it in the LA scene?
We figured that since those bands had male singers, if we had a female singer, we might have something that was different and unique even if it wasn’t as good. But because it wasn’t really happening here yet, it was hard. We were laughed at and people didn’t get it. At the time we came out, the exciting music that was being signed was by bands such as the Knack, The Plimsouls, The GoGos and The Motels. It was all skinny ties and a lot of upbeat, happy guitar stuff. The record labels just didn’t understand what we were doing. Luckily we believed in ourselves, kept going and got better as songwriters.
Finally (laughs) it got to a point where a tiny record label called Enigma – which was just starting out – took a chance on us. Their first two signings were Berlin and Motley Crue, but they took off really fast. Geffen had been our first label choice, but they turned us down right away when we asked the major labels for help. Then they came back to us when we sold 25,000 copies of Pleasure Victim in a month. Geffen bought the album from Enigma and re-released it on their label in the beginning of 1983.
Then we started touring and we just took off. I would say that in the beginning the most important song for us was our first single, “The Metro.” Every record is an exploration for a band and there is usually one song that will stand out and make you say, ‘That’s it! That’s what this album is going to be about.’ We thought there was something about that song that mattered and that we could create an entire record around the song. Pleasure Victim was actually not intended to be released as an EP; it was supposed to be a bunch of demos to get us a record deal. We created the record, including the cover, for Enigma for under $3,000 and it went multi-platinum in America. That was probably the best return ever (laughs). It was a good start. And the most amazing thing about “The Metro” is that even today it’s probably 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. It’s just one of those songs that defined us and defined that period of music, for people.
I see the video on VH1 Classic all the time. Today I actually
saw the video for “Dancing In Berlin,” which is one of
my favorite songs of yours. But I feel like I grew up with Berlin
because I was a college radio DJ when your first EP came out. Also
I remember the song “Sex” was unbelievably controversial.
Do you want to say anything about that?
They used to play that song “Teenage Enema Nurses
I took that line, “I’m a man” – which was really a slap in the face for me – and made that the chorus, the man thing; “I’m a man, I’m a man.” But, to me, that’s really boring, so I was dancing around him in the chorus “I’m this, I’m that! I’m having a great time and you’re just a man!” That was the whole point of the song, for me. John ran with it and we put it down in one day. I went into the studio and sang it with John, then I took it home to my mother and I said, ‘Mom, what do you think?’ She listened to it and she said, ‘You know, Terri, if you’re going to sing a song like this you’re really going to have to be 110 percent on this. This is not 110 percent. You guys don’t sound into it at all. You’re going to have to go back and do it again and really do it. I’ve gotta hear that you want his guy.’
“Produced by My Mom!”
(Laughs) I went into the studio and I had this herbal book with a section on aphrodisiacs. It said that if you drink apricot brandy you get really horny. I grabbed a bottle of apricot brandy, dragged it down to the studio and started drinking (laughs). I got into the studio with John and I am looped! Oh my god, I was having the best time. It was the first and last time I have ever sung [while] high – on anything. The only reason that I’m not one of those burnout rock stars that just crashes and burns is because my body can’t take it. I’m a wimp. I can’t drink more than one glass of anything [without being] completely incoherent. There is no drug that I can get onstage with and make any sense at all, so that’s never been my direction. But that song, he was laughing and…we had the best time. We finished he song and I stumbled out into the control room where the producer was and I said, (sounding drunk) ‘How was it?’ And he said, ‘it was really good!’ And then I passed out! (Laughs uproariously) so it worked and the song got the seal of approval from my mother. I mean, I had to do something. John and I were partners for thirteen years and we did all of the videos together like we were lovers…but, no. He was never my thing.
Another really important song in the band’s career
was “Take My Breath Away,” which sort of launched you
into the ionosphere. It won the Golden Globe and Academy awards in
addition to selling millions of records and crossing over. Do you
want speak about how that success changed things for the band?
You left Berlin in 1987 to go solo but didn’t release
your first solo CD until 1992. What went on in the meantime?
How is Moment of Truth different from what you did with
When did you decide to put Berlin back together?
How do you think Voyeur showed the band’s
In my younger years I didn’t have a lot of stability. We were a family that moved a lot so my records were my friends. I listened to them and their messages about love, war, friendship, loss and pain, all that. I learned a lot about life, people and myself. That’s what I wanted to keep in the music and that’s what I felt was missing from a lot of [contemporary music]. Trent Reznor has some great messages in his music.
Following that, you were voted #11 in VH1’s list of
the “100 Greatest Women in Rock.” What are your feelings
What was it like filming VH1 Bands Reunited show (filmed
in 2004 and aired in 2005) after not seeing David or John in so long?
Who is in the band now?
Why did you choose to include Buffalo Springfield’s
protest song, “For What It’s Worth”?
It’s nice to bring that song out, because so many people don’t know it and Stephen Stills is such a great songwriter. Plus as a protest song it’s still so timely.
For me, the whole 9/11 thing was a huge wake up call for America. We are a really young country in relation to the rest of the world and we’ve been really naive and gullible with our borders and our security. We trust maybe a little bit too much and that [even] was a call that we need to grow up. We need to be more protective of ourselves as a country. The lyric “There’s something happening here” really spoke to me. Stephen Stills really called it.
Since you’re in LA, do you listen to (Ex-Sex Pistol
guitarist) Steve Jones’ radio show?
Thinking of yourself as somewhat of an ‘80s icon and
a fairly powerful role model for women in rock, how do you think Berlin
impacted the music scene and what would you say were your significant
contributions to the sound of popular music at that time?