Berlin's Terri Nunn on Working With Sisters of Mercy and Her B-52's Fandom

On Sunday, June 14, KOOL 105.1 hosted its annual KOOL Concert. This year, the featured artists were stars of '80s new-wave pop, including Tears for Fears, the B-52's and Berlin. Sometimes a nostalgia-oriented lineup can be fluffed up with one-hit wonders, but not this show. Each of these bands has a respectable catalogue and were sound pioneers in their own right. Tears for Fears took soul and seamlessly mixed it with synth pop, producing some of the most popular songs of the late part of synth pop's first wave. The B-52's wrote some of the strangest, catchiest songs of all time, and helped put Athens, Georgia, on the musical map before anyone had heard much of R.E.M. Berlin was one of the first synth-pop bands in the history of the genre, working in Los Angeles during a time when its music was out of step with the dominant forms of the underground.

“People were like, 'What the fuck is that?' recalls Berlin singer Terri Nunn. “What was happening at the time was skinny ties and power pop and punk. We were neither one, and it took a while. It would have taken a while anyway, as we had to get better as musicians anyway, but it was especially hard because people didn't really know what we were about. I remember we opened for Iggy Pop, and that was a time when people thought it was cool to spit on you, [getting that] from England. I was petrified getting in front of the audience, because it was a punk audience. Iggy was cool, and he liked us, and he was good to put us on as an opener, but his audience wasn't so good with that. He was punk, but he was very progressive for that time, and at least he got it. We were paired more with power pop. We were paired with Oingo Boingo, the Go-Gos, Plimsouls and the Motels. I remember we played with the Police because they were just starting but had way more of a buzz than anyone else, and they put us on as openers.”

Nunn left Berlin briefly in the late '70s but returned in 1980 after bassist and songwriter John Crawford approached her about recording some demos. Those demos became the Pleasure Victim E,P and Berlin was one of the first two acts signed to legendary independent label Enigma. (The other was Mötley Crüe.) When lead single “Sex I'm A...” was picked up for airplay by KROQ, Berlin quickly became a nationally known band, with Nunn's vibrantly emotional vocals a centerpiece of its sound.

Berlin's biggest hit came along in 1986, when the band recorded the Giorgio Moroder-Tom Whitlock-penned “Take My Breath Away” for the soundtrack of the film Top Gun. But tensions within the band resulted in a 1987 split following what was then its final album, Count Three and Pray. Nunn moved on to a solo career and had an unlikely pairing with one of the most popular dark post-punk bands of the '80s, Sisters of Mercy. She had heard “This Corrosion” on the radio one day and called the station to find out who was playing it. She eventually contacted Andrew Eldritch, who invited her to come work with him on some music in Germany. She took along a song that had essentially been rejected by her label for her solo debut album.

“What became 'Under the Gun' was originally called 'Living for Love.' I loved the song, and I wanted to put it on my solo album, but my label people didn't get it at all. I played it for Andrew, and he got it immediately. He said, 'I really like this. Could we do it?' I said, 'Yeah! Fuck, yeah!' He took it and wrote the rap over it, over the chorus. He took it and added that rant at the end — which is incredibly amazing — and put it on his Best Of.”

Berlin reunited briefly for the VH1 program Bands Reunited in 2004, but Nunn has since kept Berlin together without the original lineup and has embraced newer electronic music including EDM, which informed the sound of the 2013 album Animal.

For the current tour, Nunn is excited to be performing on the same stage with bands of which she is a fan, particularly the B-52's.

“I remember the first time I saw them,” she enthuses. “It was on Saturday Night Live. This red-haired girl with a beehive started singing the beginning of 'Planet Claire.' I was absolutely riveted to the screen. I couldn't believe what I was watching. It was the best thing I had seen in ever. I have to tell you, B-52's are one of the best bands ever in the history of the world. B-52's and Devo — they win, because they are so unique. I love unique. I love bands that don't sound like anyone else. They last forever. They never age, because nobody ever sounded like them to begin with. And they're just the fucking coolest fucking band. I just love those guys. Any time I get to play with them is a great day for me.”

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.