Career Killers: “Take My Breath Away,” by Berlin

With Top Gun: Maverick flying up to the top of the box office charts, I figured it was worth looking at the first movie — specifically, the iconic song that everyone associates with it (besides “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Danger Zone” of course).

As we’ve established, sometimes blockbuster hits can tear a band apart. For instance, a smash album featuring several massive singles wasn’t enough to keep the The Police from succumbing to years of public and private in-fighting. The Verve imploded right after releasing its best and most popular album, 1997’s Urban Hymns. “Mr. Roboto” gave Styx one of its biggest hit singles, but the song (and resulting concept album) tore the band apart to the point that when members reunited years later (sans the guy who wrote the song and most of the album in question), they refused to play it in concert for years.

In a similar vein, “Take My Breath Away” was a smash hit, topping the singles charts in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1986 (beating other iconic songs like “Somewhere Out There” and “Glory of Love“). And it led to the breakup of the band credited with recording it: Berlin.

Berlin has had a bit of a convoluted history, featuring numerous personnel and lineup changes that persist to this day. In 1976, a post-punk/New Wave band called The Toys formed in Orange County, California featuring John Crawford on bass, Chris Velasco on guitar, Dan Van Patten on drums and Tyson Cobb on vocals. Heavily influenced by Kraftwerk and David Bowie’s German period, the band changed its name to the more German-sounding “Berlin.” Cobb soon left, to be replaced by future solo star Toni Childs. Aspiring actress Terri Nunn (you can see her audition for Star Wars: A New Hope on YouTube) soon replaced Childs as frontwoman and the band started making a wave on the club scene.

They got a record deal, but then Nunn left to pursue acting. The band hired Virginia Maccolino as her replacement and went into the studio to record its 1980 debut album, Information. The album failed to make much of an impact — something band manager Perry Watts-Russell attributed to the fact that labels had first gotten interested in Berlin when Nunn was lead singer, but then lost interest after she left the band. Berlin, more or less, went on hiatus as Crawford and others started focusing on other projects.

That is until Nunn decided to give it another go as lead singer of Berlin. With Nunn’s beautiful voice and sex appeal (her face prominently adorns most of the band’s album and singles covers) and Crawford’s songwriting, Berlin soon garnered a following, distinguishing itself with its sexually provocative performances and attitude (in the Pleasure Victim liner notes, Nunn was credited with “vocals” and “bj’s” — I assume they weren’t referring to banjos).

While Berlin never reached the same heights as other female-fronted mixed gender groups from the 1980s, like Blondie, The Pretenders, Eurythmics, and Heart, it did experience some chart success. The band’s second album (and first with Nunn), 1982’s Pleasure Victim, was certified platinum by the RIAA, and its follow-up album, 1984’s Love Life, went gold. The band’s 1984 single, “No More Words,” hit #23 on the Billboard singles chart and was paired with a memorable, cinematic-style video in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde. This band, especially Nunn, was made for the MTV era, and it only seemed like a matter of time before they exploded.

Things changed for both the better and worse during sessions for the band’s 1986 album, Count Three and Pray. The band was already starting to fracture, and as they entered the studio that year, Berlin was down to three members: Nunn, Crawford and drummer Rob Brill. In fact, Nunn said in a 2004 episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited that this album was the point for her where the band stopped being fun.

During their album sessions, the band was offered “Take My Breath Away.” Giorgio Moroder had written several songs for Top Gun, most notably “Danger Zone,” which was given to Kenny Loggins to sing. Movie co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted a slow, sensual song for the love scene between the film’s stars, Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, and Moroder and writing partner, mechanic-turned lyricist Tom Whitlock, came up with “Take My Breath Away.” After rejecting a version demoed by The Motels, Moroder, who had produced “No More Words,” asked Berlin to record the song.

Nunn felt like the vocals in the demo were very stilted and choppy and figured out that drawing out the syllables and having one line flow into the next would give the song a more romantic quality. Additionally, her acting experience came through for her, as she was able to add an air of aching desperation to the song that took it to the next level. “In acting, I’d learned a lot about channelling emotion. I was alone. I’d been so busy with the band I’d not had a relationship for four years. So I sang it from a feeling of sadness and longing, and maybe that’s what resonated,” she said to The Guardian.

Crawford, who was used to being the band’s primary creative force, wasn’t happy about the band recording someone else’s song. According to him, none of the other band members performed on the song, as it had already been mostly complete when Nunn added her vocals. “‘Take My Breath Away’ had nothing to do with Berlin at all,” Crawford told The-Shortlisted. “I never heard the song until it was on our record. I never heard the song until I went to the premiere of the movie.”

Nunn, on the other hand, liked the song. “‘Take My Breath Away’ came along and that was another reason to fight,” Nunn told news.com.au. “John was like ‘That’s not our song, we have our own songs.’ I said ‘Who cares? It’s Giorgio Moroder, if he farts, I’ll sing it. I love that guy.’ We fought about that, then we fought about the fact we had to play it in concerts, John didn’t like that either. We were just fighting to fight.”

Years later, Crawford admitted that the song’s success had made him feel insecure about his own writing.

I was failing and all of a sudden, here came a song that became number one in the world, This really hurt me and kind of damaged my ego quite a bit, and I reacted very poorly at the time with comments like “Oh that song sucks,” and that sort of thing, in defensiveness of my feelings like “Oh my Gosh, this guy accomplished something I spent years trying to do and I could never do it.”

Crawford interview, The-Shortlisted

He also probably didn’t want to admit that the song was, by far, the best thing on the album. When Berlin recorded Count Three and Pray, the band was, admittedly adrift and didn’t really know where to go. “I wanted to try new things and John didn’t,” Nunn said on Bands Reunited. “We couldn’t agree. We were partners for 13 years and, all of a sudden, we couldn’t see eye-to-eye.” Some songs on Count Three and Pray have a harder, more rock-oriented feel (particularly “Trash,” featuring Ted Nugent, and “Pink and Velvet,” which has a long Pink Floyd-esque solo from none other than David Gilmour himself). However, much of the album just sounds like stuff that other bands have done better. For instance, “Will I Ever Understand You” and “Heartstrings” sound like Duran Duran knock-offs, while, third single “You Don’t Know” is like a slower version of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.”

Even worse for the band, despite the worldwide success of “Take My Breath Away,” Count Three and Pray flopped, failing to match the sales of its two predecessors. Lingering tensions in the band only worsened, and Berlin was at its breaking point. “We were just tired,” Nunn said to news.com.au. “We were mad at each other because we’d seen each other for 24 hours a day for the previous six years. Looking back all we needed was a break but we were kids and the record label just wants you to work so they can get their money as long as the gravy train lasts.”

By 1987, the year after its biggest hit topped the charts around the world, Berlin was no more. After some legal wrangling, Nunn ended up buying the rights to the name “Berlin,” something she said led to a long period of estrangement between her and Crawford. She put together a touring lineup of the band and did the nostalgia circuit, doing various 80s package tours as well as opening for the Go-Go’s in 1999, INXS in 2011, and the B-52’s in 2019, among others. A lineup that included Crawford, Nunn and keyboard player David Diamond got back together and performed on a 2004 episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited. Diamond and Crawford returned for good in 2019, and the band released Transcendance. In 2020, the band released Strings Attached, re-recording several of their greatest hits, including “Take My Breath Away,” while backed by a symphony orchestra.

In January 2021, Nunn got some unwanted headlines for performing a solo set at a New Year’s Eve party at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort that also featured Vanilla Ice, Taylor Dayne, and Mike Love’s Beach Boys. She ultimately apologized, and Diamond even took to Twitter to emphasize that it wasn’t a Berlin gig.

Ultimately, that controversy passed, and once the new Top Gun hit the theaters, Nunn and Berlin garned a new set of headlines mainly related to their biggest hit. “We are not doing any more music for that movie [Top Gun: Maverick],” Nunn told The Mercury News. “They were talking about putting [“Take My Breath Away”] in like a scene and having Tom Cruise go, ‘Hey, I really like that song.’ [Laughs] So, we’ll see if that happens.”

It didn’t happen. As director Joseph Kosinski explained, “Take My Breath Away” is indelibly linked to Cruise and McGillis, and he felt they needed a new song to reflect Maverick’s relationship with his new love interest, Penny (Jennifer Connelly).

Then again, it’s probably for the best for Berlin that its most famous song didn’t make it into the new Top Gun. Maybe it would have reopened some old wounds.

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

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