Ah… I love covering the classics in this series. The song I will be covering today is one of the definitive love songs of the 80s – and, depending on who you ask, perhaps of all time. It won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song – and deservedly so, in my opinion. It’s a lovely piece of sonic art, and definitely one of the best things to come out of the godforsaken decade that was the 1980s.
Okay, I’m probably hyping this one up a bit too much… but there is a whole lot to love here! But let’s state the obvious connotation right now: yes, it was arranged especially for the soundtrack to the film Top Gun, the second from the film after Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” (which only reached #2). Despite the shrouds of airplay it’s received through the years, there are still many who directly connect this song with the silhouetted love scene it narrates, which remains one of the film’s many iconic moments. What few probably know, though, is that while this song was never intentionally written for the film, after producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson listened to a demo, they decided to add the song to the film (as well as the scene in its entirety, which was never in the original script) in order to create a heightened sense of intimacy between Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise. While Top Gun is quite a mixed bag as a whole, it very well could have been a whole different type of movie without this soft ballad to tone things down.
A good fraction of this praise would probably be more astutely aimed toward the main man behind the scenes – that being Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who wrote and produced “Take My Breath Away” (as well as “Danger Zone”!). Before this, though, he had made a name for himself as a producer of a string of hits for Donna Summer during the disco era and, later, for scoring and producing original songs for movies. Some prominent examples of the latter include David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” (for Cat People), Phil Oakey’s “Together in Electric Dreams” (for Electric Dreams), and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” (for Flashdance) – the last of these winning Moroder his first Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Original Song. Needless to say, this guy is a bit of a legend.
But while the sonic elements of “Take My Breath Away” are not unlike the qualities that we’ve come to recognize as the Moroder sound (heavy synth chords, reverberating drums, lyrics about subjective, internal urges), what becomes more impressive is what he can bring out of a band like Berlin. And to understand what I mean by that, one can simply take a listen to some of Berlin’s earlier charting singles – namely “The Metro”, “Sex (I’m A…)”, and “Masquerade” from their 1982 album Pleasure Victim . These three singles are definitely playing off the uptempo rhythms and tinny-sounding synths that made up the many of the New Wave/hi-NRG crossover hits that were becoming pretty popular in this time. Even looking at it further than face value, though, these are pure synthpop trash, none more evident with this than the US Dance hit “Sex (I’m A…)”, which features lead vocalist Terri Nunn performing sexual moans over a pulsing rhythm that mirrors Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”… which, yes, was produced by Giorgio Moroder.
A major change can be heard in a single from a couple years later, “No More Words”, which comes from their follow-up album Love Life. Both lyrically and instrumentally, there is a noticed sense of maturity – “trashy” is far from the first word that comes to mind with Nunn’s soaring vocals accompanied by layered keyboard and guitar riffs. Which brings us to the song in question today: “Take My Breath Away”, Berlin’s most developed song to date. The central element with this track is that lovely five-note riff that introduces the song, repeats itself every four bars in the verses, and soon announces itself as the central melody in that lovely chorus. The timbre of this keyboard sound is as rich and deep as the riff in the aforementioned “I Feel Love” (definitely my favorite sound of the disco era), but slowed down more than a couple degrees to lovely, atmospheric results. And the layered sound returns here, with the song further elevated by the heartbeat-like drum patterns, soft and subtle guitars, and, of course, Nunn’s impassioned vocal delivery. The point of this tangent is just to emphasize how amazing it was that Moroder was able to craft such a brilliant, lovely wall of sound out of a band that had rarely proved themselves as at all exceptional prior.
Calling this a perfect soft ballad would probably be giving this song more credit than it probably deserves – but I still haven’t gotten sick of it yet. Sure, the lyrics are filled to the brim with a slew of Moroderisms that make little sense at the forefront (“Watching every moment in this foolish lover’s game / On this endless ocean, finally lovers know no shame”). Yet at the same time, once that chorus comes in – really just a dreamy repetition of the title with some backup synths – it all seems to work out. “Take my breath away” is vague enough to be an indicator for pretty much any wild gesture in the throws of romance, and it certainly feels universal enough to be an effective communicator of the deepest, most inexplicable emotions that come with the situation. My favorite part of the song is definitely the bridge after the second chorus (“Through the hourglass I saw you; in time you slipped away”), which is probably the definitive signpost for when the song truly gets bombastic and melodramatic. From that point onward, the feeling of listening to this track is akin to floating on a light, fluffy cloud to the heavens.
Besides all the instrumentation and production work from the hard-working hands of Moroder, Nunn’s delivery here is probably what impresses me most of all. Her performances on all those fun, upbeat dance songs were, admittedly, not the best, but only because the material never challenged her to depict anything beyond what the middling synthpop called for. Here, though, she is asked to portray a multi-facted range of emotion (including an upward key change in the final verse!) and she does so magnificently. I love how she hits all of her notes with gusto, yet also manages to avoid oversinging – especially crucial in the outro, where she cleverly switches to a soft falsetto as a comedown to the overwhelming emotion of everything else that came before.
More than anything else, though, “Take My Breath Away” is historically relevant for merging two dominant, yet separate kinds of the most popular music on the charts in 1986: ballads and synthpop. R&B and pop ballads were pretty big throughout the 80s, but the medium seemed to especially find its peak in 1986. Moreover, while synthpop and New Wave were more of an early 80s trend, the masses tended to prefer the more uptempo dance tracks (echoes of the dead disco era, it seems), eventually outspreading into a variety of subgenres like hi-NRG and freestyle. With this song, the best of both worlds were combined: the lovers of love songs were fulfilled, as were the listeners looking for sumptuous, synthetic sounds only fulfilled by electronic keyboards. Although this song only made the top spot for a week, the legacy it left in its wake is unmistakable. If nothing else, it’s romantic as hell, which I think is all anyone could truly ask for in a great pop ballad.