by David Gans
RECORD Magazine - September 1984, pp. 14-16.
"I LIKE THIS GUY -- HE'S GOING TO try to nail us," says John Crawford mirthlessly to his bandmate. This gratuitous piece of gamesmanship is clearly intended to elicit a reaction from an interviewer who's more amused than outraged by what Crawford is saying -- a fact that has eluded Crawford completely.
Crawford is the founder of Berlin, and the conversation leading up to his ploy has been about the consistency of subject matter on that band's first two albums. "All the songs are relationship-oriented," says Crawford, adding that the second LP, Love Life, reflects a more "positive, or at least objective, non-emotional viewpoint" than the first.
The first two tracks on Love Life contain (respectively) the lines "a line of boys, an all-night part in my porno love" and "take me home and tear my clothes off." And strangely enough, it is more positive -- well, less negative -- than Berlin's first. But if John Crawford thinks he's about to be nailed, why does he like the idea? And if he's having a good time, why isn't he smiling?
Berlin is one of the new and highly visible wave of bands coming out in this video-inspired Age of Visuals, one with a style that might be called Techno-Slut. Berlin, Missing Persons and their Bimbo Rock brethren offer dance-oriented, synth-laden tunes, but they depend more on the visual appeal of thdr very flashy front ladies than on musical inventiveness or heart.
Berlin and Missing Persons are currently the most visible of these video-validated bands, and the most often compared. Both acts cut demos that were turned down more times than a bachelor with a cold sore, but proceeded to release do-it-yourself EPs and build a following on their home turf. That brought a procession of major label offers -- the bigs don't let first impressions get in the way of making a buck -- and ere long the rejected tapes were waxed anew. And both Berlin and Missing Persons are now being hyped to the max in all the available media.
Berlin's Personnel are Southern California suburban kids whose talents have more to do with titillation than with musical innovation, as evidenced by their most controversial -- and therefore most famous -- song, "Sex (I'm a . . . )." Keyboardist David Diamond says Berlin is a "dinosaur" synth band, which is to say they don't have any computerized, synchronized gear. On the other hand, Missing Persons are fusion veterans who've turned to crass brass and a flashy frontlady because there isn't much of a market for sophisticated sounds that don't include vocals. They've designed their own instruments and stage, and vocalist Dale Bozzio creates her work clothes "out of coconuts, records, cassettes -- anything that's workable." And it's no coincidence that both Bozzio and Berlin's Terri Nunn came to the music business after having worked in movies and/or TV.
Nunn worked in television as a teenager, usually playing troubled types such as hookers, drug casualties or criminals. But she always wanted to be a backup singer, she admits during a brief interview prior to Berlin's show at the University of California at San Diego. "Acting is not the excitement for me that even backup singing was." Nunn uses her theatrical skills on stage with Berlin, acting out the lascivious scenarios of the songs. The naughty bits have been toned down for the current tour, but the last time out Berlin's show included an act of simulated fellatio -- and Nunn is credited on the first Berlin album, Pleasure Victim, with "Vocals, BJs." Although a disclaimer was etched in the runout groove of Side Two ("Bad Jokes, You Fool"), part of Berlin's early image was built on the possibility that principal songwriter John Crawford was putting more than just words in Nunn's mouth.
Between its graphic lyrics and the slurps and groans over the fadeout, "Sex" seems to glorify its subject matter unhealthily. Asked to comment, the coy Nunn offers the standard Not Responsible Ploy: "I have no way of gauging what will go on in people's minds when I write a song." Then she uses the Turnaround Ploy: "Do you have any idea what will go through people's minds when they read one of your articles?" I invoke the famous Apples and Oranges Retort, noting that my job is to inform and interpret while hers is much less clearly defined. I concede that a song should mean different things to different people, "but you must have known that 'Sex' would raise a few eyebrows."
"Do you think any sane artist would write a song like that for Top 40 radio?" she retorts. No, but a smart operator could get reams of publicity and underground airplay from a banned record. Imagine the stickers: As NOT Seen on MTV! Nunn pronounces herself weary of the subject and invites another topic. With uncanny timing, a record company operative tells Nunn it's time for her to eat and informs me that Crawford and Diamond are waiting outside in the crew bus.
Of all the people whose fantasies are being realized on Berlin's Low Life tour, the least unsavory visions probably belong to Diamond, the chipper 20-year-old synthesist. "Let's let Johnny tell you the story of how the band got its name," he says puckishly. "It's his favorite question. He's so philosophical, he'll think of something colorful to say."
Crawford appears to have been born without a sense of humor. He is soooo tired of answering questions and defending his oeuvre. In a tone heavy with ennui, he runs down the Berlin story one more time:
Crawford chose the name in 1977 as "a reaction against what was going on in L.A. at the time. It was the early days of the Knack, the Pop, the this, the that -- all those twangy guitars and smiley boys and happy love songs --it was driving me nuts." How could a young suburban sourpuss practice his scowling with all that upbeat music around?
He wanted his band's name to have an international flavor to reflect his distaste for the L.A. scene. The sound of the word Berlin was "very powerful and, to a kid who'd never even been out of California, Berlin conjured up all sorts of decadent, kinky visions that may or may not have been rooted in reality but. . . were nice and dark and different from the rest of the L.A. bands."
Sex has been part of Crawford's musical consciousness since he took up the guitar while recuperating from a broken leg sustained when he was a high school sophomore in Orange County, California. Bedridden much of the time, he obviously found inspiration close at hand. Though he wasn't getting laid, the foundations for Berlin were. With the ascendance of Blondie's Europop and Prince's crotch rock, the precedents were set for Crawford's answer to happy love songs.
Crawford insists rather irritably that his songs are an attempt to ease the pressure on young people to grow up too soon. "A girl who's 14 is going to watch Dynasty and see the most beautiful girls acting out those roles. She's going to think, 'I don't look like that -- I'm not a relevant human being.'" And there's also a lot of confusion about casual sex: "It would be nice for people to be comfortable about things they're feeling rather than believing that possessiveness is wrong and jealousy is wrong and sex is wrong." It's just a guess, mind you, but this is apparently Crawford's way of explaining lines like "Drink your fill from my fountain of love, wet your lips."
Diamond gamely adds that preaching to teenagers is ineffective and that dramatizing the options is a better way to get the idea across. "It's a very rebellious age. If you say to a 15-year-old kid, 'You can't do what you see on TV or what you hear in that song,' he's going to say, 'Maybe it's wrong for you, but maybe it's not wrong for me.'" Ah, yes -- the Noble Intentions Rationale.
Despite their purported cautionary intent, Berlin's gimmick virtually romanticizes "decadence" and thereby publishes the blueprints for disaster. And the band may be too generous in assessing its young audience's perceptiveness. I wandered out to the men's room during Berlin's set, and there I discovered that Joe College, whom John Crawford sees as being so attuned to subtlety and open to moral dialogue, is still stuffing paper towels in the sinks and running the water to try and flood the place.
If Berlin's songs define the world in terms of sex, with Missing Persons it's the Cult of the Self. Their new album, Rhyme and Reason, sounds like a collection of self-motivation mantras, only not as interesting. Their current bio begins with the pompous phrase, "The evolution of pop music" and rambles on for several paragraphs of condescending bafflegab that might just as well have come from the pen of that famous comic strip philosopher-manque, Zippy the Pinhead.
The three principal Missing Personoids have their pleasant demeanors turned up to full beam when they enter the Capitol Records conference room. I know it's them; some people just look like show folk. And I can safely say that no one, anywhere, ever, is going to walk into a room and ask, "Which one is Dale Bozzio?"
Like my encounter with Berlin, the Missing Persons interview is like a visit to Ploys R Us. Dale has a handful of t-shirts, all for me (last year's model, alas), a copy of the new LP, and an 8x10 glossy of herself. In silver ink, she signs the photo and the album ("Your'e [sic] sweet," she writes), and passes the LP to drummer Terry Bozzio. He signs it "thanks" and passes it to guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, who adds his "thanx" and presents it to me. I suppose I am expected to be putty in their hands from now on.
Dale is the manager of Missing Persons as well as being the band's vocalist, and she manages this conversation, too, seeing to it that it never strays far from Topic A. Terry is allowed to describe the electronic drums he's designing, but when talk turns to drums in general Dale abruptly interjects, "And Warren designed his guitar, along with a few of his associates."
It's not that Dale is bored by tech talk, though. "I'm interested in everything that makes Missing Persons work," she asserts. "The bottom line is the music: the guitar licks, the drum licks, the melodies, the lyrics, what the music is about. Literally, the Iyrics are realistic; they're in black and white, and the music is texturally in color. Living color."
"Techno-color," jokes Cuccurullo.
Terry Bozzio and Warren Cuccurullo are alumni of Frank Zappa's bands and other high-technique outfits, veteran fusion players now working well below their skills level and adopting trendy grooming habits for money. "We wanted to not use all the technique we had to speak in terms that would be above the man on the street's comprehension," says Terry pleasantly.
They retained Dale, a woman of undeniable visual appeal and dubious vocal gifts, to front the band. She designs her own stage garb and often takes a minimalist approach to costuming -- but she is unamused at the suggestion that she's exploiting her physical charms. "I would never downplay any sexual attribute that is God-given," she concedes, while noting that her costumes reveal no more than a bikini would. It seems senseless to point out that few rock stars of either sex wear bikinis to work.
Suddenly cracks appear in Terry's carefully applied mask of pleasantness. "People play up the sexual aspect because they don't look any deeper," he says. "They don't give a shit what's going on in our minds. And I can't blame them, because I don't give a damn about them or anybody else . . ." He smiles, regaining his composure. "We're not selling sex."
"It doesn't hurt to be beautiful," quoth Dale. "Beauty is freedom." Four legs good, two legs bad. Love is hate.
Missing Persons can play rings around Berlin, but that's not enough. Dale's vocals sound like Betty Boop on acid at an est lecture; as coy as she plays it offstage, 97-pound meek thing Terri Nunn is a strong performer when the lights go down. She will outlast Berlin's juvenile concupiscence and make a career for herself.
Both bands are allowing themselves to be marketed in ways not conducive to creative longevity, but Berlin is already working away from the sleazy image they started with. Missing Persons has been a calculation from the git-go, a support group for people with large musical vocabularies and nothing to say. This may be their last crack at commercial success on their own terms; it's a shame that their cynical assessment of market conditions is proving accurate.
Terri Nunn says, and quite convincingly, "It's not the accumulation of money that interests me; there are so many ways to do that that you might as well do what you like." Dale Bozzio, on the other hand, sums up her commitment to her art thusly: "I wouldn't devote my life to anything Unless it could pay my bills."
And 'twas ever thus.
The following letter to the editor , and my reply, appeared in the 12/84 issue of Record:
BIMBO SOME MORE
While generally not in the habit of defending the band I manage against such blatantly misguided and ill-conceived journalistic criticism, I feel I cannot let David Gans' vitriolic piece on Berlin pass without comment.
Point number one. Gans came into the interview clearly intent upon a hatchet job. John Crawford, adept at dealing with far heavier weights than Gans, recognized this and in tones of gently mocking irony made plain his scorn for the man's attempt. Unfortunately it was Gans' own sense of humor that proved lacking.
Second, the surest sign of an underdeveloped, second-rate journalistic talent is the resortment to unsubstantiated, puerile name-calling. Rock writers like Gans should not be surprised when their profession is held in such low esteem by those they write about. To sink momentarily to his level, the term Dumbo Hack more accurately captures the essence of Gans' talent than his epithet for Berlin's music.
Third, why is it that David Byrne can perform a song like "Psycho Killer" without being taken for a homicidal maniac, whereas when Terri Nunn sings "Sex" or "Touch" she is reviled as some kind of perverted sex fiend? If Gans actually took the time to comprehend Berlin's lyrics, he might realize that the negativity he perceives is embedded firmly in his own head and not in the songs. Berlin's songs cover various aspects of love and sex all the way from one-night stands to lifelong commitments. They say, in effect, there is no black or white. Pure sex for sex's sake can be both exhilarating and hollow; longterm relationships can be both rewarding and destructive. If the song "Sex" seems to Gans to "glorify its subject matter unhealthily," then one can only presume that his own concupiscence is not sufficiently expansive to encompass the fiery sexual antics depicted in the lyrics.
Fourth, if as Gans himself states, his job is to "inform and interpret," then I would suggest he not only hone his sadly lacking interpretive skills but that he also get his information right. Berlin's show has never included an act of simulated fellatio nor have any so-called "naughty bits" been toned down for the current tour.Finally, read your own writing, Mr. Gans. John Crawford didn't think you were going to nail him. He thought you were going to try to nail him, prove woefully inadequate to the task and fall flat on your, er, face.
And 'twas ever thus.
Manager for Berlin
Los Angeles. CA
David Gans replies:
Point #1: While I must confess I wasn't a great admirer of Berlin going into the assignment, I was not bent on hating them. I have emerged from many an interview with a greater understanding of the artist's motives and character and thereby gained a respect for the music; Crawford's fey and charmless attitude and Nunn's attempt to cultivate my affection got in the way of genuine communication. It was during the interview, not after, that I came to my conclusion regarding Berlin's intent.
Point #2: "Bimbo Rock" is an ironic title referring to these female vocalists' willingness to assume stereotyped female attitudes --in Nunn's case under the guidance of a man, no less -- for money. There's another word for that, but bimbo was funnier.
Point #3: David Byrne has written one song about a psycho killer and dozens of others on a great variety of themes. What proportion of John Crawford's songs are not about sex?
Point #4: I verified my account of Berlin's onstage behavior with several eyewitnesses. One fellow writer told me, "They were both fully dressed, of course. Terri got down on her knees in front of Crawford -- it was a visual evocation of fellatio, let's put it that way. "
Point #5: I don't know about "nailing" John Crawford. I figure I pegged him pretty good, though, and I also figure you guys are fuming and fulminating all the way to the bank. Just because it sells doesn't mean it's good -- or healthy -- and for every act that scores on gimmicks and sleaze there are dozens with musical substance and something to say who can't get a video in edgewise.
These two letters from colleagues:
"Just a short note to confirm that your comment
about Berlin 'simulating fellatio' onstage was information you
gleaned from me, when you and I were dsicussing the band. I was
describing to you a performance of theirs I saw at the Universal
Ampththeatre in the summer of 1983), and related an instance of 'Sex
(I'm a . . . )' where Terri Nunn got on her knees in front of John
Crawford as they sang their duet, in a visual evocation of
"I would not be surprised to learn that the band had no intention of simulating fellatio with that stage move, but I can attest as to how it appeared from the balcony.
"I have seen Berlin in concert three tiimes in all, and can't recall if that particular silhouette was struck on the other occasions. But it stands out clearly in my memory from that first night. (In fact, I would not be surprised if a description of that action appeared in reviews of that show I wrote for either Billboard or Goldmine.)
"Sorry to hear that your 'I call 'em as I see 'em' honesty is getting you into trouble." -- Ethlie Ann Vare, 10/5/1984
"I caught Berlin at Denver's Reinbow Music Hall on one of their past tours (the 'Beat Off the World' excursion, or something like that). And I saw either a simulated act of fellatio or an amazing coincidence." - G. Brown, The Denver post, 10/4/1984
And this handwritten letter:
Well David Gans,
You really wrote a beauty this time! Now what do you have to say for yourself? Remember us? We were backstage at the Berlin concert at the UCSD Gym. We were the ones who gave the group that chocolate record. Why after doing all that all the concert (the interviews and pictures) did you write an article putting down the group? We don't understand. Berlin is a very talented group and they have worked and still do work very hard to do the best they can. And we especially don't like it when you compare them to other groups (like Missing Persons) they are what they are -- BERLIN! We'd really appreciate it if you would write another article about their many good points. And, what about using all those pictures you said you couldn't send us because you were going to use them in your article?
O.K. that's enough! Just wanted to tell you how we feel and that 'you know where you can go and we'll help you dig'!
From . .
David Gans/Truth and Fun, Inc.