Missing Persons v. Berlin
Issue # 7
By Rich Wilhelm
May 3, 2000

I want to mention right off the bat that, for the second time since last September, I’ve been quoted in a cool place. First, an article I wrote on the Shaggs for Cool and Strange Music was quoted in the September issue of New Yorker magazine. Rumor has it that Tom Cruise has optioned the New Yorker article for his movie production company, but who knows?

Now, my response to a survey question on the fate of Mary Surratt can be seen in Farber’s Weekly, a weekly e-journal devoted to Civil War history and reenactments. I had heard of this website when its publisher, David Potts, appeared on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Since I’ve always been interested in the Civil War, I checked out Farber’s Weekly and discovered the reader’s survey asking about Mrs. Surratt, who was found guilty of being a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth and became the first woman executed by the U.S. Federal Government. The conviction and execution of Mrs. Surratt have been the subject of debate ever since. You can find out my byte-sized opinion of this historical travesty by visiting Farber’s Weekly at http://www.farbersweekly.com/. At some point maybe I’ll write a column on the adventures Donna and I had exploring the world of Mary Surratt, but the truth of the matter is that Donna has already written the definitive version, so maybe I’ll just publish her story here, although that sounds like the plot of a Lucy episode (“Oh puhleeezee Ricky, let me be on your website.” “OK, Lucy, as long as you write a story about me.”).

This week I invite you to consider the following topic: “Missing Persons v. Berlin--Which ‘80s synthpop band would crush the other like a grape?”

Now, I know that some of you don’t care about ‘80s synthpop bands (while some of you may care passionately about them), so to make this esoteric topic a bit more fun, I’ll introduce you to my friend Matt, a guy who can bring a little excitement to any esoteric topic.

Matt and I have known each other since he was 18 and I was 21. We met when I was his orientation group leader at Temple University the summer before he started college. He impressed me right away simply by being the most interesting and most awake of all the freshmen in his group, and by his Anthony Michael Hall-ness, which he has long since outgrown. When he got a job as an orientation group leader the following year, we became fast friends and have remained friends ever since.

Our friendship is, in part, based on having long, intense conversations on often obscure pop culture topics, sometimes while under the influence of beer, but usually not under the influence of anything but our own just-slightly-off-center minds. Fortunately, Donna and Matt’s wife, Sue, are very good-natured about these conversations.

I also feel the need to mention at this juncture that Matt and I have been having these conversations since long before Quentin Tarantino’s characters or the guys in High Fidelity (great book and movie, by the way) have been having them. The difference between Matt and me and the Tarantino/High Fidelity guys is that we seem to have a handle on our personal lives and no bloodshed follows our conversations. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two longstanding “Matt and Rich” topics aside from “Missing Persons v. Berlin” that would make fine additions to this website collection of columns. I would tell you what they are, but then you wouldn’t be surprised when they show up, now would you?

Anyway, lest you think the friendship that Matt and I have shared since 1986 is built on nothing more than a shaky foundation of pop culture ephemera (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), let me tell you that Matt and I have had one of the coolest bonding experiences two guys can share: his and Sue’s beautiful daughter, Madelyn, was born on October 17, 1997 (our fifth wedding anniversary!!) just 22 days before our son Jimmy was born on November 9th.

So now that you know the depth is there, let’s talk about the topic at hand, which is, of course, “Missing Persons v. Berlin--Which ‘80s synthpop band would crush the other like a grape?” Matt and I were looking for something to talk about one day recently and since I had just been listening to a Missing Persons album the weekend before and had been thinking of the similarities and differences between them and Berlin, I suggested “Missing Persons v. Berlin.” He immediately sensed a synchronicity here (synchronicity often plays a part in our discussions) since he had just seen a documentary on Berlin and had begun to make mental comparisons between them and Missing Persons.

Now, for the uninitiated, Missing Persons and Berlin were both bands that emerged from the early ‘80s “new wave” scene in Los Angeles. I was 17 back in 1982, when Missing Persons released their seminal album Spring Session M (a clever anagram of the band’s name) and Berlin released Pleasure Victim (not a clever anagram of the band’s name). Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was looking for a New Blondie. Blondie was, in my opinion, the greatest new wave pop band of all, but by 1982, Blondie was a band in decline. It seemed to me that both Missing Persons and Berlin could carry the Blondie torch, since, like Blondie, each was a new wavey pop band with a sexy and smart female lead singer.

I first got excited about Missing Persons because of their song, “Words” (“What are words for/when no one listens anymore?”). I liked the sound of the song and the lyrics but I mostly just liked the way lead singer Dale Bozzio pronounced the word “blue” (“bloo”). So I bought Spring Session M and thought it was a cool album.

Meanwhile, Berlin was scoring big, in more ways than one, with their soft-porn ditty, “Sex (I’m a…)” from the Pleasure Victim album, which I did not run out and buy. However, I’m sure I thought the song was fun in a “gee, I hope my parents don’t catch me listening to this” kind of way. Later, Berlin hit paydirt with their big puffy ballad “You Take My Breath Away” from the movie Top Gun. My father, a noted music critic in his own right, once said of the movie Top Gun, “Great movie. Great songs. Especially that ‘You Blow Me Away’ song.” And my dad should know, since he accurately predicted the commercial success of both Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” Anyway, ever since then, I’ve always wished “You Blow Me Away” was the title of the “Take My Breath Away.”

Sadly, the cliché about all good things coming to an end was true for both Berlin and Missing Persons. By the end of the 80’s, both bands disappeared, though I believe each has hopped on the 80’s nostalgia gravy train from time to time. As recently as last year, in fact, some version of Berlin released a live album.

So Matt and I discussed the Missing Persons/Berlin situation and came to some basic conclusions. Matt felt that while Missing Persons was probably the stronger band, Berlin had the best single with their haunting “The Metro.” We also decided that Berlin’s lead singer, Terri Nunn, was both a better singer and better looking than Missing Person Dale Bozzio, who was most well known at the time for her wardrobe, which consisted of various and sundry leather goods and strategically placed cling wrap.

In order to further research the question of whether Missing Persons or Berlin was more awesome, I taped their “classic” albums back-to-back to listen to in the car during the trip from Donna’s workplace to mine and vice versa. I did not subject my dear wife to this research, since the subject is not one that is dear to her heart. My preliminary listening has lead me to these conclusions:

Spring Session M, the Missing Persons album is great! Sure, it’s got that freeze-dried 80’s feel to it, but despite that (or maybe, because of it?), it remains a fun and energetic blast of electropop music. The songs are catchy and feature a cool combination of synthesizers and electric guitars (kind of like the Cars, if the guys singing the Cars songs were inhaling helium). Dale Bozzio is definitely taking a cue from Blondie’s Deborah Harry here, but she’s got her own hiccupping style of vocalizing that must have influenced Gwen Stefani, the lead singer for the 90’s version of Missing Persons, No Doubt. The lyrics have a goofy, sociological edge and I still laugh when I hear Bozzio sing, “I think I’ll dye my hair bloo.” In addition to all this, their song, “Walking In L.A.” absolutely rocks my socks off! It’s basically a song about how “nobody walks in L.A.” and I wish I’d had it on tape the day my California friends Kevin and Tracy lent me their car to drive around Los Angeles.

Pleasure Victim, Berlin’s opus, is much more obviously an homage to Blondie/Deborah Harry than Missing Persons is, but it’s not half as fun. This is not to say it’s not good. It’s just not fun. Take “Sex (I’m a…)” for example. This song features Terri Nunn and one of the guys in the band singing a “lusty” duet. Over a thumping disco/rock beat Nunn lists all the things she “is” when she’s with her man (“I’m a geisha,” being one of the many roles she takes on) while the guy just endlessly and tunelessly intones “I’m a man.” At the end they both moan and groan a lot and the song fades out so they can be alone.

“Sex (I’m a…)” seemed very taboo, and therefore exciting, when I was 17. Now it just seems dumb. It’s not even that I’m offended by “Sex (I’m a…),” I just think it’s unfathomably dumb. Plus, what’s up with the guy? Is “I’m a man” really the best he can do? By the middle of the song I just want to scream at him, “C’mon guy, get a sex life! Be a ‘bad cop’ or a ‘naughty florist.’ Don’t you get it??? Your girlfriend is role-playing. Be something, otherwise Ms. Nunn is going to get bored and kick your unimaginative self to the curb.”

Anyway, there are a few great songs on Pleasure Victim, most notably “Masquerade” and “The Metro,” but toward the end of the album, I found myself switching over to Missing Persons to hear “Walking In L.A.” again.

My conclusion: Missing Persons could crush Berlin like a grape.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)

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