Berlin – Pleasure Victim
The most irritating thing about Pride Month every summer is the people terrified of being mistaken for boring heterosexuals. They get all compulsive about making some bold social media statement without realizing they’re echoing a Margaret Cho joke from way back when she was funny: “Turns out I’m just a slut – where’s my parade?”
Things were different in 1983. That’s when Berlin launched from indie Enigma to major-label Geffen with Pleasure Victim – featuring Terri Nunn fronting songwriter John Crawford’s instantly-dated vision of bringing the new-wave porn of Café Flesh to Top 40 radio. “Sex (I’m A…)” was the splashy debut boldly working the same territory as some national commercials for Kraft Foods.
In fact, the empty eroticism of the whispered “ssssex” launching the album nearly derailed the catchy pop tune. The burbling backing track, however, managed to nicely work up Nunn’s laundry list of roleplaying dueling with Crawford’s monotone muttering of “I’m a man.” But, weirdly enough, Nunn wasn’t allowed to proudly claim being bisexual. She had to interrupt a perfectly intriguing set of fantasies by making a question of, “Am I bi?”
As it turns out, Crawford even had to add a little laugh afterwards – which is probably the biggest discovery to be found amidst Rubellan Records’ new remastering of Pleasure Victim. Pleasure Victim is probably the last top-selling New Wave release to get a proper reissue. The original 7-track EP had no business not being a proper album – especially since the record could’ve easily handled having some filler.
“Sex” wasn’t the only memorable hit. Crawford somehow also managed to conjure up classics with “The Metro” and “Masquerade,” while Nunn bravely summoned enough personality to liberate the melodies from keyboard beats pre-programmed in the factory. All of that helped to give Pleasure Victim some real personality, with a trashy vibe comfortable with being contrived and suburban.
The sound was visionary, too. Berlin was pretty much writing soundtrack music to all the erotic thrillers about to litter the shelves of video stores. Pleasure Victim wasn’t for aesthete Ultravox fans. This was music for lowlifes chopping up NoDoz for the gals at Weekends because their dealer was out of town.
This reissue further reminds how the band offered up more than a trilogy of New Wave classics. The soaring synths of the title track bravely veer into prog-rock, and “Torture” unlocked the chill lounge about a decade too soon. “Tell Me Why” deserves to be revisited as another of Crawford’s triumphs over generic beats, as Nunn once again revs up what could have been a mess.
Those same classic pop vocals turn “World of Smiles” into an actual song, with Crawford’s monotone drone again used to great effect. It’s weird that nobody’s swiped the coyly tasteless lyric of “I’ve got to swallow your pride.” Rubellan hasn’t unearthed any lost tracks, but this reissue adds original 45 and extended remixes of “Sex” and “Tell Me Why,” plus an extended take on “The Metro.”
As noted, all of this is sounding new and improved. Label maven Scott Davies’ remastering has salvaged a lot of neglected new-wave classics. You can clearly hear Crawford’s chuckle added to every version of “Sex” here. The line really must have sparked a lot of internal debate. Interestingly, Nunn has kept posing the line as a question when performing in concert nowadays.
Nobody’s laughing nowadays, though. That could be considered oppressive. It’s hard to remember if Nunn was playing things safe back in late ’84 – probably because I was high off the fumes from the mousse-winged Sock Market manager I’d taken to see Berlin open for the Thompson Twins at the Fox Theatre.
By then, the band was lurching into the mainstream with the fairly sterile Love Life (also recently reissued by Rubellan). “No More Words” was fun as pioneering high-NRG, but things were already mired in the somber schlock which would lead to Berlin backing the hot hetero chemistry between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. Crawford was smart enough to try to rock out with a failed third album – but Berlin was clearly headed for the nostalgia circuit by then. The show at the Fox was still a good time. My dealer was in town.