Remember Top Gun’s Take My Breath Away in 1986? Interview with Berlin’s John Crawford

Top Gun: Maverick, 2022 film poster

Top Gun: Maverick, 2022 film poster

After the sequel of the 1986 blockbuster film starring Tom Cruise was released in 2022 as Top Gun: Maverick and became one the most-watched movie globally that year, there has never been a better time to remember how cool the 1980s synth-pop music scene was and give a fresh listen to Oscar and Golden Globe-winning Top Gun theme song Take My Breath Away performed by American new wave band Berlin.

Top Gun, 1986 film poster

Top Gun, 1986 film poster

The immensely successful track that topped charts everywhere and made the enchanting vocals of Berlin’s lead singer Terri Nunn world-famous was written by US songwriter Tom Whitlock and three-time Academy Award-winning Italian composer and producer Giorgio Moroder, who is also the man behind The Neverending Story’s theme song by Limahl.

The best-known lineup of Berlin as they performed tunes like The Metro in 1982, No More Words in 1984 and Take My Breath Away in 1986 before the group disbanded in 1987 to reform a decade later, consisted of singer Terri Nunn, keyboardist David Diamond, guitarist Ric Olsen, keyboardist Matt Reid, drummer Rod Learned and guitarist, vocalist and band founder John Crawford who is in today for an interview about a film and a song that made history.

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John, how do you feel when you watch Top Gun?

Top Gun's soundtrack

Top Gun’s soundtrack

I’ll probably be a little careful with what I say here because I know some little intimate details about that movie that other people don’t know. For example, I’ll just say this and it’s probably well known by now, but I was told all along that Tom Cruise and the girl character, Kelly Ann McGillis, didn’t really like each other. So it was really funny for me to watch the love scenes and think that, to me, they were not really happy doing this – but that was only kind of funny enough. But yes, I have the same impression of that movie that I’ve always had, which it’s just a funny movie to watch because of the excitement of the plane stuff and flying around and that was really cool. I never thought it was a great movie, but I enjoyed the look of it, whoever did it, I thought that was fantastic. So, I enjoy watching Top Gun.

How did it feel when Take My Breath Away won big both at the Academy Awards and at the Golden Globes in 1986? What do you remember from that time? And what are your feelings about the song?

That’s a really complicated question. So, we were working with Giorgio Moroder on our music, in and out of a studio – and at that same time, he had been hired by Columbia Records to do the entire soundtrack for the Top Gun movie, so he was working on Take My Breath Away. He then asked Terri [Nunn] to come in and sing the demo of it, so, basically, Take My Breath Away had nothing to do with Berlin at all. I never heard it until it was on our record, I never heard the song until I went to the premiere of the movie. So what happened was that when Terri was done singing the demo, Giorgio just loved what she did and was planning on hiring a more famous singer at the time to redo it. He just wanted Terri to sing the demo at first, but they ended up using her voice eventually, and the Top Gun song was eventually featuring Terri’s voice. Then the conflict started because our record company wanted the song to be on Berlin’s album since it was going to be in this huge movie. But none of us had ever heard it. None of us had anything to do with it. I didn’t play on it. Nobody played on it. No one wrote it. It was written by Giorgio and his guy, a kind of gopher guy that used to take Giorgio’s car to get it washed, wrote the lyrics… so, well, that was… fascinating too, haha.

What else?

John Crawford of Berlin in the 1980s - © to the owners

John Crawford of Berlin in the 1980s – © to the owners

Anyway, here’s the personal part too: the whole reason we were working with Giorgio Moroder in the first place is that nobody at Geffen, our record label, thought that we had a hit song on that album when it was finished and that always made me feel lousy – like that was my fault, that I’m not good enough of a songwriter and they were trying to hire other writers to write with me and all sorts of stuff were going on. I was really lost at that time. 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 that time with comments like “Oh, that song sucks” and that sort of things, in defensiveness of my feelings like “Oh my gosh, this guy accomplished something I spent years trying to do and I could never do”. So it was a really difficult time for me and I didn’t handle it very well, and so the memories of that whole time for me are of me being kind of immature and not handling it very well. So, I have no good memories of it, except that, we got to tour Europe with the English synth-pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which was fun. We got to see some beautiful places and meet those guys and hang out with a fantastic band, and that was really a great blessing because that song became number one all over the world. But personally, I handled it really, really poorly and immaturely.

How do you feel when you hear one of your songs playing on the radio?

Well, still great. Still good. It still plays into me always feeling like I’m not good enough, so that comes out a little bit. But I think the greatest moment, one of the happiest moments as a musician in my life was in the 1980s as I was driving down Ventura Boulevard in the [San Fernardo] Valley in California and I pulled up to a stop sign and I just happened to roll down my window next to me and this girl was in a convertible little Volkswagen Rabbit car and she was just blasting one of my songs and singing it, and I was kind of like “Should I tell her who I am?” But I didn’t, and that still was a really happy moment to see someone just having the simple pleasure of enjoying one of my songs and singing it at the top of their lungs.

Which one of your own songs are you most attached to?

Berlin 1980s album cover

Berlin 1980s album cover

My favourite song that I have written is a song from our 1986 Berlin album Count Three & Pray which is called Hideaway. It’s a funny story. We were in Oxford, England, recording this album at Richard Branson’s studios [the British billionaire who founded Virgin] and we were just messing around with this thing, so we made a little demo of a song, and somehow we just captured some magic with that. I don’t know how, I cannot tell you why but it sounded like hell. I don’t know what happened with that song but we could never replicate that magic. We tried to make it sound better, we hired musicians to try to help us do it again. And so it sounds like crap, it’s a little cheap piece of crap demo but that’s all we had and we all loved it, and we wanted it to be there on the album. And that’s my favourite one. It just has this purity to it because it’s magic. And in contrast, I also have a least favourite song on that album: then again, by the time we were recording that Berlin album in 1986, I was totally lost, I had no idea what to do. Music was changing, Guns N’ Roses was the most popular band in America, record company people were telling me this, producers were telling me that and so I tried to copy the Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s sort of thing. And I did a song on that album called Sex Me, Talk Me and what we ended up doing was hiring the key people that had worked for Frankie Goes to Hollywood: the producer, the string section, the guitar player – we hired everybody. And literally, that song ended up costing about $250,000 on its own. And it totally sucks. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done, while that Hideaway song probably cost just some 300 bucks probably, and it’s my favourite song I’ve ever done. So, those two things, I guess they sit together next to each other on the record too and the contrast just sort of fascinates me.

Where did the band name Berlin come from?

You know, Andy [McCluskey] of the English band OMD, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, once told us “You know, it’s really funny that you guys chose that name. Because it’s not cool in Europe or in England to call yourself Berlin, when it’s probably cool in America”. And I thought to myself that that makes total sense to me now, but I had never thought of that in the past, which may explain why we don’t have a lot of access in Europe. A gentleman named Chris Ruiz-Velasco, who is a very talented guy and was one of the original members of Berlin, had someone in his family who was German, and he used to tell us all the time that his relative was some sort of royalty, like a duke. He was fascinated with the country, and his favourite part of any discussion we had about Germany was the pre-war art period that was going on in Berlin in the years before the Second World War, probably in the 1930s. And so one day we were talking about this sitting around in his apartment, and so we said “What about just Berlin as a band name?” That made total sense! That was a long time ago, I guess that was probably in 1976, maybe 1977. Me, Chris and the other two guys did Berlin probably three to four years before we had any sort of success. We were playing in the typical club scene in Los Angeles and not having much success for a long time… we didn’t have money and were struggling to have gas in our apartments… you know, we had that sort of period, just like most bands.

Why did you change your identity when you founded the band The Big F with Rob Brill in 1988?

Oh, you know about that?! How did you even find out about that?! You’ve really done your homework! Well, basically there was this fear we had that people were going to question the motives and authenticity of our music if they knew that we had come from the Take My Breath Away world and the synth-pop world of No More Words. And we wanted to be judged just on the music, that whole period of time we just wanted people to judge our music. It’s hard to explain. It was basically flipping off the music industry, so we decided that we didn’t want anyone to know who we were. We didn’t tell anybody. That’s funny that you brought this up… thank you!

What achievements are you most proud of?

John Crawford of Berlin - © to the owners

John Crawford of Berlin today – © to the owners

When it comes to my proudest moment in music, that is probably the fact that I got signed to record labels twice. I got Berlin signed to Geffen and The Big F signed to Elektra without them knowing we were in Berlin, so we basically did totally our music. And there was no way back even when we finally decided to tell the record company that we used to be in Berlin and they were mad because they had the same fear that we had for people to find out that we used to be in the band of Take My Breath Away, while all of a sudden we were trying to fit in with [heavy metal, grunge, hard rock] bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains that wouldn’t go over so well. So that’s probably the reason why we did the name changes and that’s probably my proudest moment. Also, this is kind of strange, but probably another thing I’m most proud of is how close I am to the people who are now in Berlin, the two original members that I work with today. David Diamond is, first of all, one of the biggest geniuses I’ve ever met, and, second of all, he’s just the nicest guy, he’s my best friend in the world. And Terri [Nunn] and I are now very, very close, and then the rest of the guys that are kind of filling in the band now are just the sweetest people. Again, it’s like a miracle that I have gone back to this group of people, they’ve become my family, and that feels great. Musically wise, as far as what I have done, I feel like it’s one of the hardest things about being a musician and a songwriter, is that my whole life I have been comparing myself to other things, and feeling like in no way in hell am I even close to the stuff that I think is brilliant. Like if I think about Ultravox and the song called Slow Motion, which Robin [Simon] actually co-wrote on their third album [Systems of Romance, 1978], if I listen to that I go like: “Why can’t I do that?” Or even if it sounds silly, a song like Across The Universe by The Beatles, I think is beyond genius: I listen to it and it kind of makes me feel awful, like “Why am I even trying to do anything like this?” Or you know, Life On Mars by David Bowie is the same – just like “How did he do that?!” Or even Numb by Linkin Park or Dancing Queen by ABBA, and just so much incredible music that when I compare mine to this kind of music it just makes me kind of cower, and so I aspire to maybe be able to do something as good as those songs someday. I also recognise the genius in everything Prince did, in what U2 did; there’s just such magic somehow in that music and I can’t tell it because I’m so close to mine and I feel like I’ve never even gotten close to that. So when I look at my music I’m proud of it, but it kind of haunts me a little too just in a personal way.

What do you think of the current state of music?

The music industry, to me, is now completely fear-based. They’re always looking at things with fear in their hearts of what won’t work, rather than enthusiasm about what might happen by taking a chance. It’s almost like the way the movie industry releases 75 different Spider-Man movies before they release something that might be a little bit risky. Now, this is just a general answer, it’s not from listening to things because I can’t hear it all, but I believe that technology has now allowed everybody to go and make music and be creative, and the doors have just opened so wide to so many people now who can just go and get a little computer programme and be expressive and say the things that they want to say and create music that makes them feel something. Everybody can make music today and I think it’s wonderful, and even if I don’t have the opportunity to listen to all that obviously, I do recognise the ability of a 12-year-old to sit down and just open up the programme on his computer and make music and then post it somewhere and put it up where people can hear it and just feel proud of doing that. So, I love that part of it. It’s not just limited anymore to bands getting large amounts of record company money so that they can’t record anything unless the record company gives them $200,000 or $500,000 to do it. I don’t even know if director companies spend money on touring anymore. Back in the 1980s, the heart of breaking or promoting a band was to send them out in the world, and that cost the record company money. They had to give us transportation, hotel rooms and whatever it was that we needed, and for a 2-month tour I would probably guess that would be in the range of $100,000, but I don’t know if they do that anymore because, again, the industry is fear-based. So I think touring probably doesn’t come until the record company recognises a level of success that warrants spending the money because it’ll make them more money. Back in the day, bands would be sent on tours as a part of the risk: let’s send them out to play live and see if they can generate a following by going out and doing shows. But sometimes that failed, so in their eyes, they just spent another $100,000 that didn’t generate any sales of the music they were trying to make money off of. Actually, I’m not totally comfortable with how the record companies had to adjust to this because of the financial strain and because people are just streaming things and not buying records anymore. So they’re playing it so very safe because they can’t afford to fail anymore. There is less risk-taking, less chance-taking, less creativity and fewer bands like David Bowie’s or U2. At the time, bands were coming along and each record was an attempt to try to evolve themselves, and that’s the bravest thing in the world to do. It really is.

What do you consider to be ‘bravery’ in music?

Take My Breath Away by Berlin

Take My Breath Away by Berlin

I don’t think the public understands what David Bowie went through to say, “Okay, I just did this and everybody loved it, so screw you, I’m not going to do it again, I’m going to do something totally different and see how you react to that”. Just think about what someone’s ego was going through when David Bowie was The Spiders from Mars’ guy for two albums, and everyone loved it and he was selling out arenas all over the world, and then he went up on the last tour show in 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London and declared to the crowd: “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do”. And then the man walked off, changed everything, reinvented himself and came back. How great is that? He just threw away guaranteed success for the love of his art. And I think this is what people are doing now on the Internet because as we have said earlier, these kids have no money: there’s no money being invested in, it’s just them doing it because they love it. And there’s no reason for them to be afraid because no one’s going to pull money out of their hands and say “You can’t do this anymore”. And I think that’s fantastic. So, I think creativity is still there, and the lack of fear is still there, but the risk-taking today is just happening with these young people making great music on the Internet because all the risk-taking has been taken away from the music industry. And to be perfectly honest with you, I can’t think of a current band that I’m listening to. I mean, what usually happens it’s that if someone will recommend something to me to check out, I might do that, but I wouldn’t generally do that, and I think it’s partially because I’m so old!

What kind of music do you listen to, these days?

I have a Spotify list and there’s just stuff like the ones that I mentioned earlier. For example, did I mention Dancing Queen by ABBA? If ever I’m in a bad mood I’ll put on Dancing Queen and listen to that all day long… it just puts a smile on my face. And you know, Bob Dylan freaks me out, he was unbelievable, I listened to this song called Lucy. Or you know, Redemption Song by Bob Marley, that is literally stunning to me, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever listened to that brings tears to my eyes because when I hear Redemption Song sung by Bob Marley on an acoustic guitar… oh, wow. That would not happen now. Again, people are afraid to take risks, and the risks are what make the magic, always. There are people that construct great pop music and even teenage kids singing, and you’re gonna hear a great pop song now, but there’s no magic there, there are no words grabbing at your heart and bringing healing or bringing you energy or bringing you what music used to do for us that we just loved it so much that we would sit in our rooms and cry and be inspired, and it changed us. And I think that was all because of the risk, that was the people taking chances and doing something that scared the shit out of them. I don’t know if that makes sense, but whenever I’ve done something that I thought was great, it scared me, but then when the people listened to it, they would get that look on my face and be like “Yeah, you’ve got something magical there”, it was all because of the risk. Yeah.

Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to stick together like The Rolling Stones?

This is a great question. What does it take? We’re going to get into marriage, now, I think. I believed it would be like marriage vows: sickness and health, good and bad, rich and poor, commitment to those sorts of values. It is always said that a band is harder than a marriage because it’s five, four or five, six people getting together and they don’t necessarily have to like each other. The reason they initially get together isn’t “Oh, I love you”; it’s “Oh, we make music together, and you play bass and I play the guitar and you play the drums and you sing”. And within the framework of two months, you suddenly find out that the singer is a total jerk or you find out that the guitar player is a drug addict or you find out whatever you find out. So, wow, yeah – props to those guys who stick together. But with however many people there are in the band, you see people replace people sometimes – they decide one person has to be fired and one person comes in. You mentioned The Rolling Stones, I’ll mention U2: yeah, think about the changes that they all went through personally over the years, and they’re still able to be committed to each other in a way that no matter what, they’re gonna stick together.

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