In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.
Kenny Loggins- “Danger Zone”
PEAK: #2 on July 26, 1986
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”
The opening to Top Gun, 1986’s highest-grossing film, plays as one big warmup. We see fighter jets getting ready for takeoff. After a long buildup with the main synth-driven theme by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens playing over, one of those jets finally takes off from the aircraft carrier. It’s at that moment when the music transitions from background noise to big loud power chords and a pulsating synth beat blasting throughout the rest of the scene before we get into the main action. In the context of the scene, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” the song that plays, acts as one hell of a warmup to get you all prepared for the movie you’re about to see.
For the film’s producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, it was important that a song like “Danger Zone” played over the opening scene. The duo had already found great success in their merging of music and movies with their productions of Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, both massive box office hits that spun off equally massive pop chart hits from their soundtracks that tapped into the flashy MTV aesthetic dominating ‘80s pop music. For Top Gun, it would be no different.
Bruckheimer and Simpson recruited the great pop producing innovator Giorgio Moroder, who worked on the Flashdance soundtrack, to come up with a song that would go best with the sight of fighter jets taking off after many other song options didn’t satisfy them. With the performance of one of the biggest soundtrack singers of the ‘80s, Moroder came up with a song so memorable that it’s become forever associated with the movie in people’s minds that it’s now being used again in the newly released sequel Top Gun: Maverick.
Helping Moroder with writing “Danger Zone” and other songs on the Top Gun soundtrack was a lyricist named Tom Whitlock. The two of them had gotten together a few years earlier thanks to pure circumstance. Whitlock had moved to Los Angeles from his Missouri hometown in the early-‘80s to find work as a songwriter and musician when one day he met Moroder outside of a studio where he helped Moroder fix the brakes on his Ferrari. That encounter led to Whitlock working under the guidance of Moroder where when Moroder’s other writers weren’t available for Top Gun, he picked Whitlock to help write songs for the soundtrack. In Whitlock’s lyrics, “Danger Zone” is all about how awesome it is to live on the edge using the film’s setting of fighter jets as its main allusion for this message.
Columbia Records, the label releasing the Top Gun soundtrack, would only let their own artists perform “Danger Zone” and they went to a lot of big artists of the time on their roster who all turned it down. The artists who reportedly rejected “Danger Zone” include Toto, REO Speedwagon, Bryan Adams, Starship, and Corey Hart who all rejected it for differing reasons. Toto had contract issues, REO Speedwagon’s lead singer Kevin Cronin couldn’t hit the high notes, Corey Hart didn’t like singing songs written by others, and Starship and Bryan Adams didn’t like the jingoistic theme of the movie.
With those artists out of contention, Columbia brought “Danger Zone” to Kenny Loggins who was already writing another song for Top Gun “Playing With The Boys” which plays during the famous volleyball scene and would eventually peak at #60. Even with his other song, Loggins was happy to sing “Danger Zone” as he wanted something more hard-edged than what he was used to. As profiled in a recent Vulture article, Whitlock brought the demo to Loggins who then added his touches with new lyrics and chord structures though didn’t get songwriting credit for it. With the soundtrack deadline approaching, Loggins recorded “Danger Zone” in a quick fashion with Moroder present before session players filled out the rest of the song. Along with producing, Moroder also plays synthesizer, synth bass, a sequencer, and the drum machine while Whitlock plays another synthesizer. Session pro Dann Huff plays lead guitar and the hugely omnipresent saxophone pro Tom Scott plays the frantic solo that pops up at the end.
When people think of Giorgio Moroder, it’s usually regarding his work with Donna Summer and pioneering the use of electronic productions in pop music rather than making rock music. “Call Me,” the smash 1980 #1 hit he produced for Blondie from Bruckheimer’s film American Gigolo proved Moroder can be just as great in making rock songs alongside disco and electronic music and it’s no different on “Danger Zone.” “Danger Zone” is pure shiny state-of-the-art ‘80s synth-rock with lots of echo and clean sound in the music that fits with the sleek style of Top Gun. The power chords sound like an engine being revved up. That along with the fluttering synth notes, the guitar and sax solos, and the loud gated drum machine create an awesome combination that makes for great headbanging and in the context of Top Gun gets you hugely pumped for the movie. It does its job.
In comparison to the music, Kenny Loggins’ delivery is a bit of a letdown. His light rasp manages to convey the song’s feeling of thrilling excitement and danger but his voice to me doesn’t hit as strong as you’d expect. Loggins delivers the song as a professional so it’s not a bad experience but there isn’t much of a personality you get from him. Loggins says his singing on “Danger Zone” was heavily inspired by Tina Turner and I don’t hear it much. Honestly, that revelation makes me think about how better the song would have been as a Tina Turner song. There’s no doubt she would’ve brought more raw power and energy than Kenny Loggins who merely just does a good job.
Even the music video for “Danger Zone” is a letdown. Top Gun director Tony Scott (no relation to Tom) does the typical routine of music videos for soundtrack songs where the video is just clips of the movie combined with clips of the artist performing. Amid footage of Top Gun, we have Scott filming Kenny Loggins in a dimly lit bedroom where he’s either laying on the bed or standing by the window sometimes wearing sunglasses. The video on its own is fine but considering the movie, I wish it would have gotten a bigger production and action sequence. A big missed opportunity here.
By 1986, recruiting Kenny Loggins to record a song for a movie soundtrack was a routine business move. He’d started making soundtrack hits in 1980 with “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack but hit his chart peak in 1984 when his classic title theme from Footloose became a big #1 hit cementing his status as the go-to guy to sing on movie soundtracks with “Danger Zone” being his second biggest hit after “Footloose.” After “Danger Zone,” Loggins continued his soundtrack gig but only landed one more Top 10 hit in 1988 with “Nobody’s Fool,” the hit from the Caddyshack sequel Caddyshack II, and it peaked at #8. (It’s a 5.) In the decades since Loggins continued releasing albums up to 2009, still performs a lot with the rise of the yacht rock term giving him a greater profile, makes appearances on TV shows, and is just about to release a memoir. By all accounts, Loggins seems like a genuinely nice guy who continues to like the songs that have become the soundtrack to so many classic movies.
Released as a single along with the soundtrack and the movie in May 1986, “Danger Zone,” like the movie, became a big hit rising up the Hot 100 til its peak at the end of July in the runner up spot right when Top Gun was still in the Top 10 grossing movies. Despite all the success, Loggins had never meant the film’s star Tom Cruise until 30 years later in 2016 when they were on Jimmy Kimmel together. While at the show, Loggins, knowing Tom Cruise was going to do a Top Gun sequel, asked if “Danger Zone” was going to be used again. As Loggins tells it in the Vulture article, Cruise responded, “It wouldn’t be Top Gun without “Danger Zone.””
I agree with Cruise. “Danger Zone” and Top Gun are at this point so inseparable from each other that it only makes sense that the song is used again in the new Top Gun: Maverick movie. The song may sound pure-‘80s but even today it still conjures up a great amount of fun and excitement that it’ll get you hyped once again to want to see Tom Cruise flying around in a fighter jet. I know it has gotten me hyped for the new movie.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Neil Patrick Harris donning his best Maverick costume while “Danger Zone” plays on a 2005 How I Met Your Mother episode:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Danger Zone” soundtracking a car chase scene in 2008’s Sex Drive:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2008’s Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay where Harold and Kumar are held hostage on a plane while the pilot ignores them by listening to “Danger Zone” on his headphones all while Harold and Kumar plan their escape:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Danger Zone” playing in 2009’s 17 Again as Zac Efron talks about his plan to go back to high school:
(Zac Efron’s highest-charting single, the 2006 High School Musical track “Breaking Free” with Vanessa Hudgens, peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I haven’t watched the FX animated series Archer but “Danger Zone” is apparently brought up a lot in the show including this scene from a 2014 episode where the show does its best recreation of the “Danger Zone” music video: