Berlin’s Terri Nunn on Strings Attached and reuniting
New Wave band Berlin has gone through multiple incarnations during its four-decade tenure, seeing members–including lead singer Terri Nunn–come and go over the years. After Nunn rejoined the band in 1980, the underground success of Berlin’s second single led to their debut EP, Pleasure Victim, which spawned the national hit “Sex (I’m A…)” in 1982, followed by “The Metro” the following year. The band’s music would go on to be iconic, thanks to the massive success of the Giorgio Moroder written and produced song, “Take My Breath Away,” featured on the soundtrack to the 1986 action film, Top Gun. That song would go on to win both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song and has come to the band’s defining cut.
The band would break up in 1987, and while Nunn would reform the band–sans any other original members–in the late ’90s, it wasn’t until an episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited in 2004 that the group’s founding players would get together. However, just last year, fellow founding members John Crawford (bass and synthesizer) and David Diamond (synthesizer and guitar) reunited with Nunn once again for the band’s Transcendence album.
Now, Berlin–with Crawford, Diamond, and Nunn–release Strings Attached, a re-imagining of many of the band’s best-known songs with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. That album is out this Friday from August Day, and it was a real joy to hop on the phone with Nunn to discuss the band’s catalog, the new album, and performing once again with Crawford and Diamond.
The Pitch: How did you come to work with August Day to put out this album?
Terri Nunn: They approached us to do this. Once I looked at what they had done prior, I was an immediate “yes,” because I’ve sung a few times with orchestras in different situations. Oh my god: the first time I did it, I cried. I’d never heard my songs this way before. It was so huge and beautiful and beyond my imagination that I took any opportunity that was offered to have that chance again–to just play with orchestras around the country. I got the call from [John Bryan] at August Day to actually record an entire album of my music with this orchestra and it’s like, “Wow, okay, yes. Let me think about it: yes!”
The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra is really quite well-known for working on these projects for August Day. They’ve worked with the likes of Cutting Crew, Flock Of Seagulls, Rick Springfield, and Wang Chung, so it seems like they have a really unique ability to interpret this music. What was it like, helping translate some of these classic songs of yours into orchestral versions–how closely did you work with them?
Not at all. I don’t know orchestral music. I don’t know how to write it, how to think about it–I can listen to it and say, “Yes, that sounds great to me” or “No, that’s not quite getting the feel of the song for me,” but I don’t really know how to directly work with them. They did a great job.
The only song, when they played it for me, that was like, “Whoa, I’m not sure about this one: let’s try a different approach,” was with “Sex (I’m A…),” because that’s a sexy song. It’s got to have a vibe to it and their take on it was so pretty. This ain’t pretty, you know? This is “let’s get laid,” so let’s try some different ideas with it–and they did and what they came up with was great.
This album covers your entire career as Berlin. It has early tracks and it even has a track off of last year’s Transcendence. Am I correct in noticing that the first track, “Take Your Turn,” is a brand new song?
It’s actually not a song of ours. They assigned that orchestral piece that they pretty much wrote to intro the album. They called it “Take Your Turn” and like you, I was like, “Wait a minute–we don’t have a song called ‘Take Your Turn,’” and so I listened to it and was like, “Oh, okay–this is the overture to the album.” They wrote it and they named it.
I feel that, occasionally, Berlin gets reduced down to “Take My Breath Away,” but that’s not the only soundtrack song that you’ve had and some of those soundtrack songs have been ignored by people who aren’t hardcore fans. Folks tend to forget you had songs in Just One of the Guys and in Spaceballs. Those songs have really never been released outside of those soundtracks. Why hasn’t there ever been a Berlin b-sides album?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. We haven’t really thought about it, I guess, because we’re still making new music. I don’t know. We just haven’t gone there. Maybe you make that when you don’t feel like making new music: you want to just repackage or go through your files and see what you have from the past.
The b-side album is a bunch of songs that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another and there’s a reason for that, usually–they’re not quite there for whatever reason. It’s never inspired me to go, “Oh, let’s do a b-sides album,” because it’s putting out stuff that I probably shouldn’t have put out ever. That’s my take on it.
That has me wondering: were “Heartstrings” for Spaceballs or “Jealous” for Just One of the Guys b-sides or were those songs that you wrote for those films?
You’re half right. At the time, we were working on other albums because we were in that treadmill: the machine of “Make an album, go on tour, make an album, go on tour,” so we constantly were working on songs. In those days, record labels who put together soundtrack albums wanted original songs. They didn’t want them used for anything else. They wanted those songs so that their album would sell—and that makes sense.
So, we would go through what we had and if we were like, “Well, our label doesn’t think this is a hit, but it’s a really good song and we just wrote it and we can give it to them for that,” that’s how we approached it.
Given that you worked for a considerable amount of time as an actress, what’s it like when Berlin’s songs are used in a film or a TV show? Is it interesting to hear these songs in a different context than they were originally written or intended?
You made me think of one that I loved! Sasha Baron Cohen licensed “Take My Breath Away” for Borat. You probably saw the movie, but he was in love with Pamela Anderson in the movie and was stalking her, so he put it over a video of her that he’s watching, enraptured. Watching my song getting played over Pamela Anderson’s body, posing and looking like she does–which is incredible–and his salivating? I think he’s brilliant. He’s just a brilliant comedian and movie maker, so it was an honor for me to be part of his movie. And then, to see it like that was awesome.
I take it you really do enjoy it when it’s used in a totally different context as opposed to the lush, lovey-dovey sort of scenes that song tends to get attached to?
I do. I love it. I’m also lucky enough that I’m asked when anyone wants to do a license. It’s not something that’s done over my head, so I can look at what the material is and decide whether or not to put my music on it. For example, Grand Theft Auto came to us for one of our songs and I had seen my son playing that game and I banned it. I don’t know if he probably played it anyway, but watching women and children being killed in this video game–when they came to me and said, “We want one of your songs,” I was like, “Well, move along. I do not support what your game’s about.” They said, “Well, you know, Ozzy Osbourne gave us a song.”
Great. Go back to him, then, because you’re not getting anything from me.
It seems to be a very nice sign of respect that they’re they’re coming to talk to you directly to get your permission.
Actually, it’s not respect. It’s the law. Originally–not knowing that this song would be as big as it is and just keep going and going for decades after we put it out–I put in the contract that I wanted approval rights because I didn’t want it in cigarette commercials and alcohol commercials. At that time, they had those on television and they had print ads and the whole thing. I didn’t want it on anything that was promoting alcohol and cigarettes, so I put it in the contract that I needed to get approval rights for any usage, so they have to honor that if they want to use it. I mean, I’m really glad because now, there’s so much more that could be detrimental to the song and to Berlin.
The band has been back together for a few years now and, as I mentioned earlier, you put out Transcendence last summer. Being back together: what’s that like for you, personally, getting to not just perform these songs–as you had done solo–but getting to play again with John Crawford and David Diamond?
I’m in total appreciation about it because I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t have any idea that we would ever play together again. There are so many variables that have to fall in place for that. John had another life: he was married. He had another business. So did David–wasn’t married, but he had another business.
I mean, what are the odds? I wasn’t looking for it because I didn’t expect it would ever come into being but, because of the tragedies that happened to both of them at the same time, it brought us together as friends. John was getting a divorce at the time and was just in hell: losing a marriage that had been going for over 20 years at that point.
They have three kids and it was dissolving and so, he called me and David just to reach out because he’s not a guy that has a lot of friends. A lot of guys are like that, you know? They have a few friends and they have family and they have their work compadres and that’s pretty much it and that’s enough, but he was even more of an isolated guy, so when this all fell apart, we were two of the only people that knew him well and knew the marriage and could maybe help.
He reached out to us and then, David’s partner–six months later had an affair and left him. They had just bought a house together and that fell apart. That was an eight-year relationship. It was tough and we just helped each other through that because I’ve been through a divorce and it’s awful. Even if it’s amicable, it’s awful, That that’s how we started to really get connected and intimate with each other, which led to musical creativity because that’s what it always used to do, and then, everything started to happen.
Back in the early 2000s when you all reconnected for the first time on that VH1 show, Bands Reunited, that was such an emotional coming back, as well–especially you and John. In that episode, the two of you like met separately, if I remember correctly?
Yeah, dude. We were crying. I was crying. I hadn’t seen him in so many years and then I missed him. I missed our relationship. So much had happened in my life and I wanted to tell him–to thank him for what we created, because it created a college education for my kids, all of this that we had built. I just wanted to thank him for all of that. All the petty stuff that we’d gone through prior didn’t matter anymore, so that show was crucial to reconnect. And we did and let bygones be bygones and moved forward together as friends from that moment.
Strings Attached is out Friday, November 27, from August Day, and can be ordered in a variety of formats–including a four-disc collector’s edition–from Berlin’s webstore.