Berlin’s Terri Nunn Talks About Star Wars, Sex, Ghosts, And Her Band’s Greatest Videos
Terri Nunn loves to talk, write, and sing about sex. Good thing for her that the music video-viewing public were ready, resulting in her band Berlin’s ascension on the tube and in the charts in the 1980s. Berlin’s layered synth-pop spoke of desire, betrayal, and riding trains in the most sensual way. The band’s singles include “The Metro”, “Sex (I’m A…)”, “No More Words”, as well as their number one hit and Academy Award-winning prom anthem “Take My Breath Away” from the megahit film Top Gun. From sultry come-ons to smoldering slow-burns, Terri’s vocal imprint gave music lovers another female face on the front lines of the video revolution. Terri spoke to THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC VIDEO about her teenage acting career resurfacing on YouTube, Berlin’s amazing videos, the band’s upcoming new album, and how her own sexuality informed the songs and videos.
Because the internet is so crazy, I just saw your Star Wars audition on YouTube.
[Terri laughs hysterically] It blew my mind, clearly, because I had not seen it. Watching it is hilarious, I look twelve, Harrison Ford looks like he’s fifteen. And he’s exactly like I remember him, totally not into it, arms crossed, “whatever”, saying these lines and I’m trying to be so into it.
He’s notoriously grouchy, and it looks like he’s been that way his whole life.
He was so grouchy when we did that. I mean, he was a young actor then too, and I found out later from George Lucas something that’s now common knowledge, the fact that Harrison was working on his kitchen, doing cabinets, and George asked him to help do the audition readings.
I was looking at a few other parts of your acting days. You were in the disco film Thank God Its Friday.
It was a terrible film, but I was so excited because it was my first movie of any kind. Mainly, we were shooting at night, six o’clock at night we’d start and finish somewhere around six in the morning. Because it’s a disco film, much of it was shot outside, and it takes place over an evening. We did that for a week.
I remember the show “Time Express” with Vincent Price that you did! It was a creepy version of Fantasy Island, as I recall.
Yes it was! (laughs) God, I’d forgotten about that show. Yeah, it was so exciting to meet Vincent Price! He was so hugely famous, and getting to spend time with him and talk to him was great. Such a nice guy. So gay, and I had no idea, right? It just never occurred to me because nothing like that occurs to you when you’re a kid, but the sweetest, nicest, greatest guy. That show was so out there.
So let’s talk Berlin videos. On “The Metro”, you’ve said on that shoot that you were so tired from the long hours, you were in tears by the time those tears were called for in the video!
Yeah, I was. I was crying. I was so over it. I was just over my whole life by then.
Part of what is interesting about “The Metro” is how cinematic and surreal it is, and it spotlights you as an actress. What do you recall from shooting “The Metro” and “Sex (I’m A)”?
I recall how amazing the sets were. The walls were so interesting. I just love the look of that video, what they did to make it so cinematic. The sets were awesome. What I remember about “Sex”, she’s the last person you see in the video is my mother. She walks by John and myself and we pretend to be in love. We’re groping each other, and this woman walks by who is my mother, so I remember that.
I remember everybody in the party scene being our friends. Boyfriends, girlfriends and friends all dressed up. The food scene was funny because we were trying to be sensual eating the fruit and stuff, close-ups of things being eaten and drunk. What’s funny about that is that that was what got us rejected from MTV, not because of the song lyrics or John groping some naked mannequin, they didn’t like the food scene. They said, “we can’t have oysters being eaten like that. We can’t have someone licking that.” (laugh)
So we had to edit the whole thing down so it’s just a couple of shots of things being eaten, so that got trashed.
Sex and sexuality has been a throughline in much of your work with Berlin. Why is that?
We were twenty! What else do you think about? (laugh) It was all we wanted, it was all we needed. It was all we wanted to talk about. It was all we were going for, it was all we were trying to get. The guys are all trying to get laid. The hormones are raging, so that’s what we wrote about.
The irony is that, as you have said in past interviews, you yourself had about a four year span of celibacy during those years.
Wow, you’re good. Yes, four years or so. Yet another reason I was writing about sex, because I wasn’t having any! (laugh) Except with myself, and that gets really old.
Your recording of “No More Words” was a great collaboration with Giorgio Moroder. How did the Bonnie & Clyde characters and setting of the video happen?
I wanted to do it because the first kiss I ever got was inspired by Bonnie & Clyde. I had a boyfriend, and at the time I was eight, and he was nine. We went to see the movie together. We came back to my place, and he said he wanted to have intercourse with me, so I went to my mom. Michael was outside by the pool, and I went inside. We were in an apartment building at the time. She was dusting, and I remember she had her back to me. I said to her, “Michael wants to have intercourse with me, can I do that?” And she didn’t turn around – she told me later that she nearly flipped out – and she said, “no, honey, I think it would be better when you are older. When you are older you can, but not now.” So I ran out to Michael and said, “Okay, so we can’t do that, what else are we doing?” We went across the street to a park, and we went away, far from everybody. There’s a scene in Bonnie & Clyde when they were in the tall grass, he was holding her, and they did the kiss. To me, that was just the hottest thing ever, so I wanted to create that. So we did. He kissed me laying down in the grass, and I loved it. It was awesome. When the video came along, many years later, some concepts were being thrown around, and I thought it would be great to do a Bonnie & Clyde video to any song. I just wanted to be Bonnie. It’s my favorite clip that we ever did. They did such a fantastic job with that video. I still look at it and go, wow, that’s a great video.
Did MTV have any problem with all the guns in the video?
They did. They rejected the first cut, they didn’t like all the guns and the people shot. They said, “you can have shots, you can even have people fall, but you can’t have the gun and the person falling in the same shot.” So we had to do that. (laugh) It didn’t matter, they were the only people playing videos, so we had to do anything they said.
Jerry Casale from Devo said they had a similar problem about hot dogs and doughnuts in one of their videos.
How funny that you mention Jerry because he’s a good friend, and I just hired him! He just put together an intro video for our live show, which was a huge montage of Berlin videos, clips, and weird shit because he’s weird and I love him and his visual style. That’s why I hired him. It’s about a two-minute video that starts our show. I saw him recently and I saw his intro video for Devo, and I was like, fuck me, I have to have something like that for Berlin. I asked him and he said he’d love to do it. He did it quickly, and it has that signature strangeness. He’s the one behind Devo’s visual strangeness, and always has been.
Did you know him from the old days?
Yes, Jerry designed a show for us. We had this big show we put together once we’d made it and we had a little money. We were doing a show in L.A. at the Universal Amphitheater, which is now the Gibson Amphitheater. He designed the lights and sets for that show, and to this day, it’s the best show we’ve ever done as far as design is concerned. Since then we’ve been friends. He is an absolute visual genius. And I’m a huge fan of Devo. Great band and great music.
He said if VH1 ever really looked at “Whip It”, there’s five or six really offensive things going on there.
That’s what I love about him. He’s so offensive. Have you ever been to his house? He has stuff on his walls that’s like, oh wow. (laugh) Wow, and in his house, he can do whatever he wants. That guy is a true icon.
Let’s talk about “Take My Breath Away”, which became your biggest success. When it came time to shoot this video with Marcelo Anciano, you shot in that airplane graveyard. He remembers that the wind was uncontrollable.
He also said that the huge lights they used at night drew snakes out of the desert and onto the set. Do you recall that?
No! That’s so cool, I wish I’d known about that, but they probably didn’t tell me because they wanted me to keep working. That might have freaked me out. That’s what I’m guessing.
He recalled that the band was so young too.
Yes, we were so fucking young. I do remember the wind because there is one shot where my hair is whipping around. I’m not sure if he got the idea from the wind or what, but he told me that he wanted to shoot it in slow motion, which made it work. We’re shooting and I can’t even see anything, the wind’s blowing so hard that it looks like that ad where the guy’s in the chair and the speaker is blowing his hair back? That’s how I was during that shoot. He sped up the music and I sang to the sped up music, so he’d slow it down in the edit. That really worked.
I get the impression that because of Top Gunand we’re in an airplane graveyard, maybe you are supposed to be ghosts. The song also has a slightly melancholic tone to it, as you have said before, so that all adds up to a really atmospheric video. How do you think about that song now, since it’s been 25 years since it hit?
It was really melancholy for me because I had no romance in my life at that time, I had no love in my life – I had no life! It was all about work and more work. So when I would sing it, I would sing it from a position of wanting a life, wanting a man, wanting someone in my life. I was pining for it, so that’s how I sang, from a position of lack of that instead of having it. People hear that, instead of something like “you take my breath away because you love me and everything’s so great.” It wasn’t that at all. It was “wow, that would be nice.”
Does it take you back to that place when you sing it now?
No, because so much has happened over the years, it became the biggest song of our career. That song has been sung from many different positions, from loss, pain, gratitude, fulfillment, from everything.
Any other moments you recall from the set of the video?
That was a different sort of shoot. The guys were not into it, especially John who was my partner in Berlin for thirteen years. He was not into it at all. He didn’t want to do the song. He didn’t want to be a part of it. To him, it was a song that came from somebody else and a sound that was somebody else [it was written by Giorgio Moroder], and he just didn’t like it. They were there [on set], but we were kind of separate, as we had become over the last couple of years. We were not understanding each other, not agreeing on what the band should be, what direction we should go, and we were drifting apart. That video, I just remember, was when John and Rob were off to themselves, doing their guy thing, and I was doing what I needed to do. And you know, when we shot it, there was a lot that wasn’t used because they cut so much of the movie into the video. [The theme and story] was much more clear from what we shot. The director put together this great cut that showed the concept, that made it much more clear that we were ghosts, that I was coming back to this graveyard, and the two guys were just supposed to be two guys oohing and ahhing over shit in the graveyard, and they see me, and they see this whole thing happening. They can’t believe it, and I disappear, and I’m over there, and that’s the way we envisioned it. Because Paramount wanted the movie in it, and rightfully so, they cut out a bunch of that, so you couldn’t really get what was going on. I’m in a flight suit, and there’s two guys, and who are they, you know? It definitely screwed up the director’s vision, which I thought was wonderful, but it didn’t play the way he originally wanted. Since they were paying for it, that’s how it went.
There’s sometimes this music video conceit that you can make something that looks cool and doesn’t make sense, and that’s fine. “We’re MTV, we’re cool and we know what’s going on, even though you don’t.”
Yeah! I think that’s great. I like it. That’s how most videos are now. There’s kind of a feeling, and in a way, that’s how “Take My Breath Away.” To this day, whenever I’ll see the song’s lyricist, Tom Whitlock, it’s become a running joke. I’ll say, “So, what do those lyrics mean?” and he’ll say, “Fuck if I know!” (laugh) He wrote the lyrics, and he doesn’t know what it’s about! It’s a bunch of sentences put together that create a feeling. Everybody gets it, but I can’t explain it. To this day, when I’m singing, I don’t know. I just know that I feel something, I know what I’m feeling, and I project it. So the thing you’re talking about still happens. “Let’s have a video with girls dancing in water, and they’ll get in a fight, and it will be really sexy and cool. We don’t know why they are there or what’s going to happen, but it’s cool and it’s just there.” In those days, I thought it should be clearer, but I was wrong. It doesn’t have to be that at all.
Is it strange to talk about “Take My Breath Away” being a number one hit over 25 years ago?
It’s strange to me that we were talking about something that happened in 1992, and that it was twenty years ago. Can you believe? That was just like last week! That’s the recent past, and it was twenty fucking years ago. It’s fucking weird, I don’t get it and I don’t like it! (laugh) It’s getting worse. It’s like a toilet paper roll, the further along you get, the faster it goes! And then it’s over! I think it should be reversed. It has taught me something, though, that because time seems to be going faster, I’d better enjoy it now, because it’s going by. If I don’t enjoy it, I’m going to miss it.
You’re working on a new Berlin album, right?
I’m working with John King of the Dust Brothers. We’re doing dance stuff together and oh God! I just love it. I’m so excited. We’ve been working together for a few months, and I’m just in awe of this guy. The electronic genius, he’s pushing me into areas that I would never even understand before. I’m so inspired by what’s coming out of this. Coming to you in summer 2012.
Check out Terri Nunn on her brand new weekly radio show on KCSN 88.5 FM Los Angeles called “Unbound with Terri Nunn” on Saturday nights beginning January 14th where she’ll be playing great classic rock and pop songs.