The Number Ones

September 13, 1986

The Number Ones: Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The characters in Top Gun, the highest-grossing movie of 1986, aren’t really characters. They’re classic American archetypes — steely, sweaty blank spaces who work mostly as vehicles for the audience’s fantasy projection. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made Top Gun with the cooperation of the US Navy. They struck a deal: Simpson and Bruckheimer got to use the Navy’s ships, planes, and bases for almost no money, and the Navy got full script approval. Top Gun is a sensationalistic blast of a movie, but it’s also pure propaganda — the most elaborate military-recruitment film ever made. The movie did its job, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and causing a huge uptick in military recruitment. In its sheer spectacle, there was no room for the movie’s characters to become characters. Archetypes is all they ever could be.

As classic American archetypes, the characters of Top Gun listen to classic American music. They use a full-bar singalong of “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as an extremely strange pickup tactic. They bang out “Great Balls Of Fire” on their base’s barroom piano. They soulfully brood over “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.”

But since these classic American archetypes are operating bajillion-dollar space-age military machines, the sound of Top Gun could never be classic American music. Instead, Simpson and Bruckheimer cranked up the dizzy, coked-out MTV aesthetic that had worked out so well for them on hits like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop to new extremes. The sound of Top Gun is sleek and dreamlike and expensive — a musical complement to the fetishized image of fighter-jet wings shimmering through jetstream. In order to achieve this sound, Simpson and Bruckheimer were smart enough to bring in motherfucking Giorgio Moroder, one of the greatest futurists that pop music has ever known. The biggest hit from the Top Gun soundtrack is Moroder’s cybernetic version of one of pop’s oldest clichés — the grand, hoary movie love ballad. Moroder’s version sounds nothing like any other grand, hoary movie love ballad that I can name. That’s a good thing.

By the time he made “Take My Breath Away,” Moroder had been working in movies for nearly a decade, and he’d effectively left behind the Euro-disco sound that he’d revolutionized with his old collaborator Donna Summer. Moroder had won two Oscars, and he’d co-written and produced #1 hits for two different Bruckheimer-produced films: Blondie’s “Call Me,” from American Gigolo, and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” from Flashdance. Moroder had also produced the Scarface soundtrack, re-scored the silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, and worked with David Bowie on “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire).” He’d recorded an album with the Human League frontman Philip Oakey. He’d made “The NeverEnding Story,” the theme song from the film of the same title, with the Kajagoogoo leader Limahl, and I will love that song for as long as I draw breath on this planet. (“The NeverEnding Story” peaked at #17.) The man was doing well for himself.

The Los Angeles synthpop group Berlin, singer Terri Nunn in particular, were huge admirers of Moroder. Berlin had formed in 1978, when synthpop was still an extremely fringe concern in America. They loved European electronic groups like Kraftwerk; Nunn later told The Guardian, “The band name was our attempt to make people think we were German.” Nunn, a Los Angeles teenager, joined Berlin in 1979, after they’d already been through a couple of singers. (The #1 single in America on the week of Nunn’s birth was Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three.”) Nunn was a part-time actress who’d auditioned for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars when she was 15. Her audition, with Harrison Ford, is still online. It’s pretty funny! She would not have been a very good Princess Leia!

Nunn actually left Berlin in 1979 to try to get her acting career going, and the band recorded their debut album, 1980’s Information, with a different singer. The album went nowhere, and Nunn’s acting career didn’t quite take off either, even though she played parts in a few TV movies and in the widely-panned disco comedy Thank God It’s Friday. Nunn rejoined Berlin later in 1980, thinking it would just be a for-fun hobby thing, but their singles picked up steam locally, and Geffen signed Berlin in 1983. Berlin’s album Pleasure Victim — first released independently in 1982, then re-released on Geffen the next year — is a total gold-plated synthpop classic. It’s got no filler, and every song sounds like a hit. A couple of Berlin’s Pleasure Victim singles were minor hits, making the lower reaches of the Hot 100. “The Metro,” an icily perfect song originally released in 1981, reached #58, while the knowingly provocative “Sex (I’m A…)” peaked at #62. The album eventually went platinum.

Masquerade earned Berlin enough juice to work with Giorgio Moroder, though they only had enough of a budget to get him for one song. Moroder co-produced “No More Words,” the lead single from Berlin’s 1984 album Love Life. In the video, the band basically restaged Bonnie & Clyde, which is a pretty funny thing for a synthpop group to do. “No More Words” peaked at #23, becoming Berlin’s biggest hit yet, but none of the other tracks from Love Life did much business.

Simpson and Bruckheimer had contacted Moroder about writing a song for “Top Gun,” and he’d come up with the synth-rock music for “Danger Zone.” A guy named Tom Whitlock, a Missouri native who was trying to make it as a musician in Los Angeles, met Moroder at a studio and offered to fix his busted Ferrari. After Whitlock got Moroder’s car working, he mentioned that he was also a lyricist, and Moroder gave him a shot. Whitlock came up with the “Danger Zone” lyrics, and he helped Moroder make a demo of the track. Simpson and Bruckheimer loved the song, but they had some trouble finding a big-name artist to record it. Toto, Bryan Adams, REO Speedwagon, and Corey Hart all reportedly turned down offers to record “Danger Zone.” Finally, Kenny Loggins made the song, and it became the first single from the Top Gun soundtrack. (“Danger Zone” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

After accepting “Danger Zone,” Bruckheimer and Simpson told Moroder that they also needed a ballad for the movie’s big, awkward blue-lit love scene. (They’d only added that scene in reshoots, after test audiences asked for one.) Moroder again turned to Tom Whitlock, and Whitlock wrote most of the song’s lyrics while driving home from the studio. Much like “Danger Zone,” “Take My Breath Away” sounds like exactly what it is: A song written by Giorgio Moroder and a Ferrari mechanic. It’s a sleek, mechanistic piece of business that only seems glancingly concerned with actual messy human emotion. That’s what makes it effective.

At least on paper, “Take My Breath Away” does all the things that a big-movie love ballad is supposed to do. Whitlock’s lyrics are absolute romantic gibberish: “Watching every motion in my foolish lover’s game/ On this endless ocean, finally lovers know no shame.” The music is slow and stately, and there’s a late-song key change to pound all the emotions home. But rather than string-soaked grandeur, “Take My Breath Away” keeps things chilly and synthetic. It floats there with an eerie sort of stillness — pretty, but airless.

It’s instructive to compare “Take My Breath Away” to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong,” another love ballad from a blockbuster movie about a hotshot military recruit who falls in love at training camp. “Up Where We Belong” is pure early-’80s schlock, full of tinkly pianos and melodramatic strings. Cocker and Warnes sing it like they’re howling at the heavens. Moroder’s approach on “Take My Breath Away” couldn’t be more different. He pulls everything back, turning the song into a dreamily morose sigh. And in Terri Nunn, he found the right singer to deliver that sigh.

It was never a given that Berlin would get “Take My Breath Away.” Moroder sent the song to the new wave group the Motels, and they recorded a demo of it that they released decades later. But Moroder couldn’t get Simpson and Bruckheimer to sign off on the Motels’ version. (The Motels’ two highest-charting singles, 1982’s “Only The Lonely” and 1983’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” both peaked at #9. “Only The Lonely” is a 6, and “Suddenly Last Summer” is a 7.)

When Moroder had worked on Berlin’s “No More Words,” Nunn had impressed him. Simpson and Bruckheimer weren’t sold on Nunn, but Moroder convinced the producers that Berlin were about to be huge and that Nunn should sing the song. Moroder pushed Nunn to make the song simpler and more plainspoken, which was the right call. As you can see in the Bonus Beats, “Take My Breath Away” turns into hot butt if someone oversings it. But Nunn found the right note, sounding lost and alone and vulnerable. She doesn’t make any sense out of Tom Whitlock’s absurd words — nobody could — but she invests feeling into them anyway.

“Take My Breath Away” isn’t really a Berlin song. It’s a Terri Nunn/Giorgio Moroder song, the same way that “Call Me” is a Debbie Harry/Moroder song rather than a Blondie one. In the “Take My Breath Away” video, the other members of Berlin barely even make cameos. Instead, in between movie clips, we get the vaguely hilarious spectacle of Nunn, in zebra-striped two-tone hair and an oil-stained coverall, striking dramatic poses at the front of what appears to be a World War II bomber with its nose cut off, and atop a fighter jet at sunset while wind billows all around her. It’s really stupid, and I love it.

The Top Gun soundtrack, like the movie, was a huge hit, even though most of it is forgettable garbage from bands like Cheap Trick and the Miami Sound Machine. (After “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away” faded from the charts, Loverboy made it to #12 with their own garbage-ass Top Gun ballad “Heaven In Your Eyes.”) The next year, Moroder and Whitlock won the Best Original Song Oscar for “Take My Breath Away,” beating out Peter Cetera’s “Glory Of Love” and the An American Tail banger “Somewhere Out There” in the process. (“Somewhere Out There,” as performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, peaked at #2. Their version is an 8, though the version that Fievel sings in the movie would probably be a 10.) Moroder accepted his third Oscar from Bernadette Peters, and he seemed overcome. “This I really like,” he said. Later on, Moroder said that “Take My Breath Away” was his favorite song that he’d made — a crazy thing to hear from the man partially responsible for “I Feel Love.”

The Top Gun soundtrack sold nine million copies, which probably made it a lot harder for Berlin to capitalize on their big hit. Berlin didn’t exactly make things easy for themselves. The non-Nunn members of the band were pissed off that their biggest song was one that they hadn’t written themselves. Bassist John Crawford, Berlin’s primary songwriter, didn’t even want to do “Take My Breath Away” live. The band rushed out Count Three & Pray, their next album, in October of 1986. They tried to go in more of a rock direction, working with Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin, and it proved to be a massive flop. Berlin only made it to #82 with “Like Flames,” the album’s leadoff single — a total disaster, considering that it was a follow-up to a massive hit. None of the LP’s other singles charted. In 1987, Berlin broke up.

Terri Nunn released a solo album in 1991. A few years later, she won the rights to the Berlin name from her old bandmates. She put together a new band, called it Berlin, and hit the nostalgia circuit. In 2003, as part of VH1’s Bands Reunited series, Nunn got back together with the former members of Berlin, and some of them remain in the band now. Berlin have released a few more albums since then — including, just last month, Strings Attached, a record of orchestral versions of their old songs.

Tom Whitlock kept writing lyrics for movie-soundtrack songs for a few more years, but he never had Top Gun-level success again. Whitlock and Moroder wrote songs for the 1986 gymnastics movie American Anthem and for the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling flick Over The Top. (Sammy Hagar’s “Winner Takes It All,” a Moroder/Whitlock song from Over The Top, peaked at #54.) Whitlock also wrote the English lyrics for the South Korean group Koreana’s “Hand In Hand,” the theme song that Moroder wrote for the 1988 Summer Olympics. But the demand for those soaringly vague Tom Whitlock lyrics dried up pretty quickly.

Moroder mostly faded away after the late ’80s, too. But his reputation grew, as people came to understand just what a remarkable run he had. A few years ago, Moroder reemerged, showing up on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and doing occasional club and festival gigs. At those shows, Moroder doesn’t even really DJ. He just happily tells stories about his hits while someone else DJs. I caught one of those gigs in Sweden in 2013, and it ruled so hard. It’s basically impossible to have a bad time while you’re in a crowd of people, hearing a bunch of Moroder tracks at loud volumes — especially if Moroder is right there in front of you, playing air-slap-bass. The man is an archetype and a character.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: In his 1988 debut film As Tears Go By, the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai set a long, ecstatic sequence to Sandy Lam’s Cantopop cover of “Take My Breath Away.” Here’s that scene:

(In the infinitesimally small chance that Maggie Cheung is reading this: What’s up, Maggie Cheung? Hi. I hope you’re having a great day.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 pop masterpiece Ocean’s Eleven where “Take My Breath Away” soundtracks Elliott Gould telling George Clooney and Brad Pitt about the time someone came closest to robbing a Las Vegas casino:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For a while, Jessica Simpson talked about how she considered “Take My Breath Away” to be the theme song of her short-lived marriage to Nick Lachey. Simpson released a cover of “Take My Breath Away” in 2004, and she really tried to diva the shit out of it. In the process, she lost everything that was good about the song. Here’s Simpson’s video for her version:

(Jessica Simpson’s cover of “Take My Breath Away” peaked at #20. Simpson’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “I Wanna Love You Forever,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4. As a member of 98 Degrees, Nick Lachey will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The R&B singer Lloyd heavily interpolated “Take My Breath Away” on his 2012 single “Do It Again.” Here’s the pretty-great video, which is one long extended Top Gun reference:

(As a lead artist, Lloyd’s highest-charting single is the 2006 Lil Wayne collab “You,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 6. As a guest, Lloyd’s biggest hit is the 2009 Young Money posse cut “BedRock,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: 2012 was also a big year for Southern rap stars interpolating “Take My Breath Away” on mixtape tracks. Here’s Juvenile doing it on “Take My Breath”:

And here’s Trick Daddy doing it on “They Took My Dog Away”:

(Trick Daddy’s highest-charting single, the “Crazy Train”-sampling Lil Jon/Twista collab “Let’s Go,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8. Juvenile will eventually appear in this column.)

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