Oh, yeah – I didin’t much care for synth-pop.
No, I did not. Not much at all.
Part of it was that synthesizer-based pop tended to sound like an electronics class experiment:
OK, so that’s the artsy, German, “now is ze time on Schprockets when ve dance!” strain of the form.
But let’s be frank; even synth-pop that emphasized the “pop” largely sounded like it’d traded in what passed for “souls” for circuit boards.
Now, of course there was synth-pop that sounded like it was written and performed by humans, that used all the cool electronic beeps and squawks as vehicles for the sorts of emotional stimuli that music, left alone and in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, actually elicits a human response.
But it was all largely academic, because I just didn’t care that much. While the late seventies and early eighties were the heyday of synth pop, they were also the glory days of a lot of genres that I unabashedly liked: Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes were ushering in the air of the guitar hero with panache; post-punks like Big Country, the Alarm and U2 were showing the world that a couple of guitars, a bass and drums and a singer with some balls could still rip the roof off of any room in the place. Prince and a lot of his compatriots and imitators put rock and pop and funk and electronics into a big blender and hit “puree”, with glorious results.
And so it came to pass that I didn’t listen to Berlin a whole lot. Oh, I heard them, of course; you couldn’t escape “Take My Breath Away”, when Top Gun was the biggest movie in the world. They had a few other songs that mostly came and went in my consciousness, mostly in college or working one bar or another back in the day.
And I’m not exactly sure what it was that caused me to listen again. But it occurred to me – unlike the vast, vast, va-ha-ha-haaast majority of synthesizer pop, Berlin at its best had that immutable, utterly subjective quality that makes music migrate from my frontal lobe, where I appreciate music on an intellectual, techical, logical level, as a musician (or, more often, don’t appreciate it, to be perfectly honest) and migrate back to a deeper level; to my hypothalamus, or medulla, or heart, or liver for all I know; the part of me that says “this music has soul“.
And at their best, they did:
I’ve seen a few synth-pop bands over the years – I mean, I was in the Minneapolis music scene in the eighties, right? And the thing most of them had in common was that they’d bury their noses in their electronics, and treat the act of creating music – the most evocative of art forms – like they were playing a video game. Being tied to a keyboard, generally, implies being more or less stationary (Jerry Lee Lewis notwithstanding) and, at least in a sense, hiding behind an instrument; it’s a very different stance than playing the guitar.
And in terms of performing music live? Most synth-pop bands were hapless, stiff, dismal. On the other hand, at the height of their game, Berlin could take synth-pop and make it sizzle live:
Most of it had to do with the lead singer, Terri Nunn, who had a knack for throwing in little asides into her performances that filled what could have been dry, soulless electronic beeping and squawking with blood and flesh and passion; she was no Levi Stubbs, but her knack for the loaded interjection filled the same role in Berlin’s very different medium as Stubbs’ did for the Four Seasons. A better comparison, perhaps? Terri Nunn and Chrissy Hynde could do each other’s stuff at Karaoke night and have one of those “OMG, we sound just alike!” moments, and the comparison is about a lot more than just vocal timbre.
And it took me – kid you not – 33 years to discover it.
Because I was just too damn cool for it.
Speaking of too damn cool – it was exactly that, discovering (in this 2003-vintage VH1 epi of “Bands Reunited” – that Berlin grew up to be…
…pretty much a bunch of workadaddy, hugamommy schlubs like the rest of us:
Well, most of them did. Not Terri Nunn.