Electronic drums. A naval deck and the first hint of early morning sun. Synths, and the murmur of an F14. Then lift-off - cue Danger Zone.
Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun Anthem is so synonymous with the film from which it takes its name that it’s hard to imagine it being used anywhere else, but it turns out that it almost ended up in a very different kind of movie.
Speaking to the Red Bull Music Academy in 2014, the acclaimed German synth-pop supremo admitted that the Anthem’s iconic melody - recently resurrected in the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick - was originally intended for a dream sequence in 1985 neo-noir comedy Fletch, in which the eponymous hero, played by Chevy Chase, imagines that he’s starring for the LA Lakers basketball team.
However, the story goes that, while Faltermeyer was working on the theme, it was overheard by Billy Idol, who was recording in the studio next door. “That’s great - you should use it for Top Gun,” Idol exclaimed.
“I thought about it more and more and the more I thought the more I knew ‘this is the theme for Top Gun’,” Faltermeyer recalled, confirming that “Billy Idol was somehow the initiator of that theme for Top Gun”.
There’s another Idol connection to Top Gun Anthem, of course, as it was Steve Stevens - the Brit rocker’s longtime collaborator - who played the preening guitar line. Word has it that Stevens recorded the entire part on one track with no overdubs.
Faltermeyer told Red Bull Music Academy that he had “no briefing” ahead of composing Top Gun Anthem, other than being told to imagine that the pilots “are like rock ‘n’ rollers in the sky”.
“It was the rare situation where I composed the theme before the movie was shot," he confirmed.
The Anthem first came to light when the composer was having dinner with Top Gun producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who asked to hear it. Faltermeyer explained that it wasn’t recorded yet, but Simpson and Bruckheimer were insistent, so they headed back to Faltermeyer’s studio - with Tom Cruise in tow - so that he could play it to them on the piano.
After getting the thumbs-up, Faltermeyer was asked to put a demo together, which he did that very night.
“It took me four or five hours to get a first draft of the demo together,” he says. “I came up with the TR-808 sounds at the beginning with the delay and that turned out to be the intro because they liked it. We tailored it and put more stuff on it”
The bells of FM
It’s believed that the final recording of Top Gun Anthem actually features the LinnDrum rather than the 808, but what about the foreboding bell sound that also plays a key role?
That, it turns out, is little more than a Yamaha DX7 preset - or rather a preset from the TX816, Yamaha’s monster FM rack module that could house up to eight 16-voice TF1 module cards.
“Very early on, I found that the only beauty of a DX7 is when you have two DX7s,” Faltermeyer told Red Bull Music Academy. “Then the TX816 came along, which had eight DX7s in it. This was a heavenly instrument because you could slightly change parameters on each voice. You could daisy chain them. I had two of those, so the low bell sounds in Top Gun, for example, are 16 DX7s. That’s actually a stock sound. It’s a tubular bell, just slightly detuned and tweaked. We had this extreme, fat low C. That’s how the Top Gun anthem starts.”
Faltermeyer says that he regrets not having the time to work on more songs for the original Top Gun soundtrack, but his major other contribution, Memories - another instrumental piece that’s used in the aftermath of (SPOILER ALERT) Goose’s death - has also stood the test of time, often being played at the Arlington military cemetery in the US during funerals.
Whether the Top Gun Anthem will be used in its original form on the Maverick soundtrack remains to be seen - the orchestral trailer version has various harmonic differences and doesn’t have the same emotional clout, in our view - but its legacy is already assured. Just as the original film led to a 500% increase in the recruitment rate to the US Navy, its synth-fuelled theme inspired a new generation to start making electronic music - and to play topless beach volleyball.