As we stroll through the ‘B’ section of my record collection, we have hit on a little stretch that has chronology and MTV in common. The Belle Stars, Pat Benatar, and now Berlin – all within a year of each other, and I’d argue that without MTV, we wouldn’t have heard of the first or last.
Berlin’s first album is very, very much of its time — synth driven pop for the MTV age. However, it’s also really quite good. They got a huge amount of attention for what was, for the time, the highly salacious “Sex (I’m A…)” They moan a lot, whisper “sex” a lot, and deeply celebrate the patriarchy with a call and response in which the call by singer John Crawford is always “I’m a man,” and the response by singer Terri Nunn ranges from “I’m a goddess” to “I’m a bitch” to “I’m a little girl.” Honestly? A little hard to take even in 1982, when this came out. And while the cover plays up the modern/electronic/dancepop graphics, the lyric sheet features photos of singer Terri Nunn in full sex kitten mode. (And the back cover credits her with “Vocals, BJs.” Again: Ugh. Even 21-year-old me thought that was pretty adolescent and dumb.) The thing is, she and the band seemed smarter than that. “Sex (I’m A…)” was pretty brazen for the time.
And there are a couple of genuinely great songs on this short album. “Masquerade” had a romantic cynicism that seemed to fit the time and doesn’t sound dated today: “When you hear the price they paid / I’m sure you’ll come and join the masquerade.”
And “The Metro.” This song is just a masterpiece of mood. I’ve never known a song that better evoked a very specific scene. A great song then, a great song now, and one that has never really left me. (I really don’t remember the video for it, though it exists — this one always created a better video in my head.)
The other songs are fine but somewhat forgettable, and my experience of Berlin through the years was pretty much through my mix tapes from the time. Of course, they had a massive huge super mega-hit that won’t die, “You Take My Breath Away,” featured on the “Top Gun” movie soundtrack and in every dentist’s office and Home Depot. I probably shouldn’t hate it as much as I do — there’s nothing wrong with the song except that there’s also nothing great about it. But I always wonder if the millions of middle Americans who made that song a hit had ever heard “Sex (I’m A…),” or any of Berlin’s actually good songs.
In case we’re wondering if the band (or Terri Nunn) was in on the joke — the runout on the album, something that hardly anyone ever pays attention to (unless they’re trying to figure out precisely what edition of a record they have), features two different messages. On the A side, there is an inscription: “MECHANICALLY AIDED ORGASMS.” (The record is credited to M.A.O. Records, with some production by “The Maomen.”) On the B side, referring to the album’s BJs credit for Terri Nunn, the inscription reads: “BAD JOKES, YOU FOOL.”
Ahh, still. (And I didn’t ever know about the runout messages until looking the album over on Discogs, this very morning.) I bought this as a cut-out, but I think I must have picked it up pretty close to when it came out; I’m gonna guess it came from Spectrum Records, the student-run record store on the Syracuse University campus, which would have been more likely to have a small-label release (this is on Enigma; it was later also released by Mercury and Geffen).
In talking about this with my local record store coffee klatsch, I learned that I’m not the only person who also associates Berlin with Missing Persons. Rich Wilhelm dug in and compared and contrasted way back when.