rev up your engine

How Top Gun’s Famous Volleyball Scene Led Kenny Loggins to the ‘Danger Zone’

Photo: Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For all its F-14s and snappy one-liners, Top Gun wouldn’t be remembered as one of the quintessential ’80s blockbusters if it weren’t for the music. With the Oscar-winning power ballad “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’s hard-charging rocker “Danger Zone,” the soundtrack topped the charts for weeks, going on to sell over 9 million copies and becoming one of the most successful movie albums of all time.

But with all due respect to New Wave band Berlin, nothing fits the attitude and aesthetics of Tony Scott’s 1986 film quite like Loggins’s classic. From the song’s menacing opening lines — “Revvin’ up your engine / Listen to her howlin’ roar” — to its timeless chorus, “Danger Zone” proved to be the perfect complement to the film’s daredevil feats and fighter-jet glamour shots.

With the long-delayed and much-hyped sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, finally hitting theaters, Vulture caught up with Loggins to get the full story of how the song came to be. While it’s impossible to imagine anybody but the king of ’80s soundtracks belting it out, as it so happens, Loggins wasn’t even among the top five choices to sing it. Here, the 74-year-old singer — who’s set for a busy summer with an upcoming tour starting June 7 and his autobiography, Still Alright, dropping a week later — tells us all about how he made the single his own, its inextricable link to war, and finally meeting Tom Cruise, who knows just how important “Danger Zone” is to the Top Gun legacy.

Getting into the zone.

By 1986, Loggins was one of the — if not the — most sought after rock stars when it came to recording hit songs for movies. He’d already contributed “I Believe in Love” to the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born, a gig that led to him writing and performing “I’m Alright” for comedy classic Caddyshack. Loggins would’ve had a song on the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced Flashdance soundtrack, too, until he fell off a stage and broke three ribs before he was set to record it. Luckily, he was able to heal in time to work with screenwriter Dean Pitchford on 1984’s Footloose, resulting in the chart-topping title track as well as the lesser hit “I’m Free (Heaven Helps the Man).” “It definitely was a breakthrough time,” Loggins says of the early ’80s. “That was the beginning of a merging between rock and roll and movies.”

With that track record, it was only natural that Loggins and co-producer Peter Wolf would get an invite from Bruckheimer’s office to attend a screening of an early cut of Top Gun to see about adding songs to the film. But Loggins soon found out they’d have competition for the gig when, by his estimate, 20 or so other songwriters showed up at the theater, all looking for an opportunity to write music for the Scott-directed film.

“I could tell immediately that this was more of a cattle call than a strictly private thing,” Loggins says, though he can’t remember who else was there other than four or five guys from an R&B group. “So we watched it, and we could tell when the opening scenes came on — the aircraft-carrier scenes — that everybody was salivating: Oh my God. This is where most of these people are going to write for. But when the volleyball scene came on, Peter and I went, ‘Yeah, that one. No one’s gonna write for that scene. Let’s make that happen.’ I knew that the main thing was to get in on the album, get a strong cut somewhere where they wouldn’t have a lot of choices.”

Highway to Moroder.

With the volleyballs bouncing in their minds, Loggins and Wolf wrote “Playing With the Boys” and submitted it to disco hitmaker Giorgio Moroder, who was overseeing the soundtrack. That song found a little success, peaking at No. 60 on the singles chart. According to Loggins’s memoir, it became something of a hit in gay nightclubs. (It was also recently featured in an episode of Cobra Kai, sung by William Zabka’s drunken Johnny Lawrence.)

While Loggins was recording “Boys,” Moroder and songwriter Tom Whitlock were hard at work rounding out the rest of the film’s music. They started working together a few years earlier when Whitlock, an aspiring lyricist, helped fix the brakes on Moroder’s Ferrari before becoming his assistant. Moroder, who’d worked on films such as Scarface and Flashdance in addition to his many hits with Donna Summer and other disco stars, soon got asked by Bruckheimer to write some singles for Top Gun.

“The producers and the Music Supervisor (Michael Dilbeck) came to the studio with over 300 songs to audition against various scenes,” Whitlock said, according to a 2018 interview with him by Rediscover the ’80s. “There was a Sony TV in the studio and they would run footage and play bits of songs against various scenes. Nothing seemed to be working very well so … Jerry asked Giorgio to write something. Giorgio came up with the track that became ‘Danger Zone.’” He continued, “I wrote the lyrics and Joe Pizzulo sang the demo and they flew it against those opening scenes and it worked. In retrospect, I may have been a bit too clever (or obvious) with all of the allusions but it was fun nevertheless.” (Moroder, in a 2020 interview with The Guardian, simply said, “The imagery was perfect.”)

With the demo in hand and the movie studio’s deadline to finalize the soundtrack looming, Moroder, Whitlock, & Co. began scrambling for a vocalist. “Up to that point, they thought they had a different act,” Loggins says. “I think it was either Toto or Mickey Thomas and Jefferson Starship. I met Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon a year ago, and he told me that they asked him if he was available, but he said the notes were too high.”  

The urban legend around “Danger Zone” is a bit more complex. Toto supposedly had to turn it down because of contract issues, while Corey Hart reportedly said no because he wanted to write his own songs. It’s also been alleged that Bryan Adams declined to sing it because of the movie’s association with war, which is the confirmed reason Thomas and Starship withdrew from consideration. To this day, Loggins doesn’t know why they ultimately decided to go with him for it — he just got a call from his rep at Columbia Records, who said they needed someone to sing on an up-tempo, Moroder-penned rock song for the movie. Coincidentally, he was looking to add a tune like that to his live set, and he signed on without hearing anything else about it. “So I got to sing that, luckily, probably, out of a grab bag of a bunch of different artists,” he says.

Straight-ahead rock and roll.

Within a day of agreeing to the gig, Whitlock brought a demo of “Danger Zone” to Loggins, who made his own tweaks, composing a new melody for the bridge, mixing up the chord progressions on the chorus, and, according to Whitlock, adding some lyrics such as “You’ll never say hello to you.” “He moved some stuff around and had a few ideas,” Whitlock recalled. “He’s masterful in how he uses his voice and extremely adept at recording.”

Still, given that Loggins didn’t write the majority of the song, he had to get in a different headspace to emotionally deliver Whitlock’s high-octane words. “If I write it myself, I’m usually much more connected to the lyrics. With somebody else’s song, you have to act it,” he says. “I was listening to a lot of Tina Turner back then, and so I just kind of went into character for that. Especially the chorus, the way I pronounced ‘danger zone’ was very Tina. She has that southern accent that kind of reminded me of the English accent. They gave me a lot of headroom there. I just went with my gut.”

With only Loggins and Moroder in the studio, the recording session was all business. “He needed it by the next day to dub it into the movie, so we really only had that night,” Loggins says. “We recorded for about three hours. He was very pleased with what was going down, so he didn’t have a lot of comments. It wasn’t that difficult because it’s straight-ahead rock and roll. ”

At that point, Loggins didn’t know what he was in store for with either the song or the movie, but he had some inkling it was going to be big. “All we knew was that they were investing deeply in it,” he says. “Tom Cruise had not yet become Tom Cruise, so this was going to be a breakout movie for him. They were putting a lot of money behind it.”

Despite Loggins’s contributions to Top Gun, he wouldn’t meet Tom Cruise in person until 30 years after the film’s release.

Cleared for takeoff.

With the quick deadline, Loggins had to wait a while to hear the finished version of the song. “After I recorded it, I didn’t really hear it until I saw it in the movie,” he says. “I was just super-pleased that it was the opening song. I’d forgotten that.” He says it was “the same with ‘Footloose’ and ‘I’m Alright’. That’s a good slot to be in.”

The movie’s success and the single’s accompanying Scott-directed video, which featured film clips interspersed with footage of Loggins singing in a bedroom, drove “Danger Zone” up the charts. It never hit No. 1 but stayed in the top ten for six weeks, peaking at No. 2 behind Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” Still, Loggins is happy with the chart performance of the single, his second-best-selling song after “Footloose.” “It’s always an exciting moment when your song is reaching up to No. 1,” he says. “It’s like watching a college basketball game, waiting to see if it’s going to cross over that line.”

“Danger Zone” naturally became a staple of Loggins’s live sets, usually appearing in the encore slot. But by the ’90s, he stopped playing it altogether — not out of boredom but because of its association with the war in Iraq.

“CNN started using it as the background for dropping bombs on Baghdad. I didn’t ever think that I would be scoring a war, and it was a turnoff for me,” he says. “I thought it was bogus what was happening, and I didn’t want to be associated with it. So I pulled it out of the show. Then I decided, since it was such a good song, I made a video of extreme sports, and we used that footage as the background in concert. That worked pretty good because, to me, the song was really about living on the edge, doing the things that push the adrenaline and create excitement. That’s how I wanted the song to be interpreted.”

“Danger Zone” also got a boost from constant references on the animated spy show Archer with the title character’s catchphrase “Call Kenny Loggins because you’re in the danger zone.” “The fact that Archer used it so much as a running joke helped bring the song back into popularity,” Loggins says. “I started getting a lot of requests for it. I actually did an episode of Archer and got to be a bad guy, which was really fun.”

Funny enough, it wasn’t until 2016 that Loggins got to talk to Top Gun’s leading man. “I didn’t meet Tom back then. I didn’t meet him until we did Kimmel together” in 2016, he says. “That evening, I said, ‘I know you’re going to do the new one. Is ‘Danger Zone’ a part of the new Top Gun? And he said, ‘It wouldn’t be Top Gun without ‘Danger Zone.’ He stuck with that.”

Now Loggins is ready for another surge in the popularity of “Danger Zone” with the release of Top Gun: Maverick. “I think it’s going to be a huge hit,” he says of the sequel. “It is amazing that it’s over 30 years since the first one. It feels like it was ten or 12 years ago, and then doing interviews at the premiere, they’re saying it’s 36 years. I had no awareness of how long it’s been. To have it still stick around as such an iconic film and still matter, it’s incredibly lucky.”

How Kenny Loggins Nearly Missed the ‘Danger Zone’