Music Business

Retro Tape Deck Review: Top Gun Soundtrack

In 2020, I made the absurd decision to spend a ridiculous amount of money refurbishing the stock cassette tape player in my 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, rather than invest the same sum installing a more modern audio system. I wanted to preserve my analog memories of enjoying music in my old school truck—no playlists, no song skipping, just listening to albums via an imperfect medium all the way through like I did out of necessity in my teenage years. These tape deck reviews reflect that specific listening experience as I revisit albums on their original terms.

My parents have always loved music, and I don’t mean one specific genre, either. Thanks to their omnivorous habits, as a child I was exposed to a fairly wide musical landscape. Although there were some styles that might have been overrepresented, growing up I can recall my mother and father listening to a broad spectrum of sounds that ranged from ’40s big band to 80s country to 70s hard rock to straight-ahead modern pop. Regardless of whether we were at home, camping, or commuting, there was always an audio source cranked up nearby, usually a fairly solid mix of radio, cassettes, and CDs (with my family being early adopters of the then-new digital technology).

Cover of Top Gun Soundtrack cassette

One of my strongest memories from childhood is sitting in the back of my dad’s pickup while the soundtrack to ‘Top Gun ‘blasted out of GMC’s tiny, but effective door speakers. On heavy rotation around when I was roughly 7 or 8 years old, the soundtrack became a pop culture touchstone for me at a time when I was only barely beginning to become cognizant of the larger world of entertainment around me.

Over the years I’ve remained fond of many of the songs featured on what is truly an eclectic mix of music, but having the chance to revisit this soundtrack on cassette, in the original running order, has been like popping a time machine into my dash each and every time.

The Moroder/Faltermeyer Axis of Awesome

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate a number of aspects of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack that I had zero awareness of as a kid. Listening to it in 2022 has me basking in the dual influence of producer Giorgio Moroder and writer/performer Harold Faltermeyer, each of whom had an outsize influence on the biggest tracks to emerge from the record.

You no doubt recognize each of those names. In 1985, when Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer first approached him about contributing songs to their movie about Navy fighter pilots, Moroder was just beginning to slide into his status as the elder statesperson of the disco/electronic music scene. That didn’t mean he’d abandoned pop altogether, as he’d recently produced an unusual soundtrack for 1927’s Metropolis, a classic silent flick that he draped in the dulcet tones of Freddie Mercury, Billy Squier and, uh (checks notes) Loverboy. In the years leading up to that effort, he’d also coaxed ‘Call Me’ out of Blondie for ‘American Gigolo,’ as well as ‘Scarface (Push It To The Limit)’ by Paul Engemann, which gave us this indelible meme.

Side A

Overshadowing any of his previous cinematic contributions, however, is the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack’s lead-off: ‘Danger Zone,’ performed by Kenny Loggins.

It is absolutely impossible for me (or perhaps anyone else on the planet) to hear those first few bass bars and not immediately think of Maverick and Iceman screaming across the skies in F-14 fighter jets. Even today, if I encounter this song in any medium, I will listen to it all the way to the end. It still has its talons deep into me.

Loggins might not have been known as a hard-edge performer when tapped to tackle ‘Danger Zone,’ which featured music written by Moroder and lyrics from Moroder’s Ferrari mechanic (and at the time, struggling musician) Tom Whitlock, but he did have a good streak going cinematically as the singer of Caddyshack’s surprise hit ‘I’m Alright.’ Loggins wasn’t the first choice for ‘Danger Zone’—that honor went to red-hot Brian Adams, followed by fellow Canadian Corey Hart, who both turned it down—but he does an excellent job of selling the intensity of what it might be like to pilot a huge hunk of aerodynamic metal at full afterburner off the deck of an aircraft carrier. Not the most obvious of song topics for a yacht rock-adjacent performer.

The next track is another rocker with a similarly hard edge to it, at least, from a mid-80s pop perspective. ‘Mighty Wings’ is chronologically the last song heard in Top Gun as it plays over the end credits (although an instrumental version makes an earlier appearance), and while it was performed by Cheap Trick it was written by the previously-mentioned Faltermeyer (which goes a long way towards explaining why it sounds nothing like the band’s previous work, a major trend on this soundtrack).

At the time, Faltermeyer was best known to the public for ‘Axel F,’ which was the theme song to 1984’s ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’ That movie was just the most recent written score for the German-born composer, who had been working with Moroder on movie soundtracks since 1978’s ‘Midnight Express.’

On its surface, ‘Mighty Wings’ is kinda-sorta about jets again, but I’ve personally always loved epic the production on this song. The enormous drums in the chorus, the cool synth line that arrives towards the end of the same, and the soaring vocals that lead us back into the opening riff before the verse kicks back in. Another track that has just as much resonance with me today as it did the first time I heard it.

Loggins gets his second go-round on the soundtrack with the third selection, ‘Playing With The Boys,’ which he also gets a writing credit for. This is the audio backdrop for Hollywood’s most famous beach volleyball scene, and it’s a fun pop-rocker that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Oddly, the official video for the track uses zero ‘Top Gun’ footage, instead transposing the volleyball action into a men-vs.-ladies showdown in the gym. Maybe director Tony Scott’s camera gaze was a little too hot for conservative MTV at the time.

‘Lead Me On’ by Teena Marie follows-up with a bog-standard piece of Moroder pop that doesn’t leave a strong impression either way. This is especially true compared against the song that closes out Side A of ‘Top Gun.’

Also penned by Moroder and Whitlock, ‘Take My Breath Away,’ as performed by Berlin, is the highest-charting single from the soundtrack (‘Danger Zone’ made it to number 2). This is a ballad that has aged extremely well, despite bearing the full weight of its era’s synth-drenched infatuation. It’s also a song I thought little about until I hit my 30s—somehow it made no impression on my during the hundreds of pickup truck listening parties—when suddenly I couldn’t get enough of it. For years, this was my wake-up alarm when traveling. It’s hard to think of a better way to set the tone of a sexy day, 80s-style.

Watching the movie now, what stands out to me is how many times Scott went back to the well with this song, as the opening riff crops up again and again whenever there’s even the threat of a spark between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. At a certain point, the motif becomes almost comical.

Again, Berlin wasn’t the first choice for this song, which isn’t surprising given that Moroder’s music, while a perfect match for lead singer Terri Nunn’s voice, had little to do with the rest of the band’s catalogue. The Motels were the intended recipients, and although they recorded a demo version the film’s producers weren’t pleased with the effort. In an alternate universe somewhere, Maverick and Charlie are forever making out to a slightly less-sultry version of this all-time classic.

Side B

The first two tracks on the second side of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack do an excellent job of dating the entire record. ‘Hot Summer Nights’ is a perfectly acceptable offering from the Miami Sound Machine, but strip away the Latin percussion working overtime and it could just as easily have been recorded by the next artist on the docket: Loverboy, returning for another round with Moroder on film. Their contribution, ‘Heaven In Your Eyes,’ is the kind of generic, over-the-top ballad that sucks the air out of the room, unless the oxygen in question is occupying your high school gym and everyone’s chastely dancing on the hardwood floor.

(Incidentally, Loverboy’s key-player Doug Johnson refused to appear in the video for ‘Heaven In Your Eyes,’ stating that the movie glorified war. This is the exact reason fellow Canadian Bryan Adams gave when turning down ‘Danger Zone.’)

Side B isn’t nearly as solid as the first half of the soundtrack. ‘Through The Fire’ is essentially Moroder and Whitlock repeating themselves, using Larry Greene as a mouthpiece to sing over a rehash of ‘Danger Zone,’ followed by ‘Destination Unknown’ where Marietta Waters turns in her best Debbie Gibson impression in a tale of love and uncertainty. Neither song is bad, but I’d never choose to listen to them were they not on an analog cassette mere moments before the Top Gun soundtrack’s secret weapon.

As a kid, I remember being very confused by the title ‘Top Gun Anthem.’ My only experience with anthems at that tender age was the national anthem, which we were forced to sing in school every morning before class until I reached grade 5 or 6. I still have no understanding as to why that was a requirement in the Quebec education system.

Naturally, applying this context to the ‘Top Gun Anthem’ was no help whatsoever, but it’s not surprising that I enjoyed the song anyway, given that I would spend the next 10 years or so of my life listening to just as many movie scores as I would rock and pop albums. ‘Anthem,’ written by Faltermeyer, was an innovative way to introduce a general-purpose, pop-friendly instrumental theme that could be used not just as a tension-building backbone for the ‘Top Gun’ opening aircraft carrier set-piece, but also as a release at the end of the film when Maverick comes to terms with the loss of his best friend and tosses Goose’s dog tags into the sea.

Incidentally, it wasn’t until researching this piece that I learned the lead guitar on ‘Top Gun Anthem’ is played by none other than Steve Stevens. Most famous as Billy Idol’s sideman throughout his blistering 1980s run of hits, Stevens got to know Faltermeyer when the latter was playing keyboards for Idol’s ‘Whiplash Smile’ record. The track was originally intended for ‘Fletch,’ a Chevy Chase comedy that probably didn’t need this level of drama or shredding, but Idol, after hearing the pair work on the song in between sessions, convinced him to use it for Top Gun instead (a movie none of the trio had even seen any footage of at that time).

Moroder Magic

I still love the first side of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack. It’s a masterfully-produced document of its time that somehow transcends the years, and my own memories. Nostalgia most likely plays a part in why I’m attached to this particular collection of songs, but given that I came to love ‘Take My Breath Away’ as an adult, and that my own later forays into electronic music caused me to develop a love and respect for Moroder, I feel that it’s the songs themselves that are still earning their keep to my ear.

Spine of Top Gun Soundtrack Cassette

I wish Side B was nearly as strong. I also wish that ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers, used in perhaps the second-most famous musical moment in the movie (with Anthony Edwards playing ‘Great Balls of Fire’ unquestionably the first), was on the record, too. I understand why it was left out, as Moroder and co. were trying to sell a cohesive set of period-correct tracks, not an oldies compilation. It did make it onto the expanded editions of the soundtrack that were released in 1999 and 2006, respectively.  Maybe if Judas Priest hadn’t said no to having ‘Reckless’ included in the movie (a decision they came to regret) I’d enjoy B a little bit more (and have been introduced to Priest a full 15 years before I actually became a fan).

As an representative of the tail-end of the 80s obsession with synth-based scores and soundtracks, it’s a museum-grade artifact. As a conduit back to youthful summers spent in the company of my family, it’s an album that has found a near-permanent spot in my Jeep rotation.

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