Remember When: Steve Stevens and Harold Faltermeyer Won a Grammy for the ‘Top Gun’ Theme … and Billy Idol Helped Make It Happen

It was 1985, and Billy Idol and Steve Stevens had started working on his Idol’s third full-length album Whiplash Smile. Composer and keyboard player Harold Faltermeyer was invited to do some session work. Faltermeyer had scored a major hit the previous year with “Axel F,” the instrumental theme to the movie Beverly Hills Cop, which made it to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was working on music for the Chevy Chase comedy Fletch, and he had also been offered the chance to do the theme to Top Gun.

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In a 2014 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Faltermeyer said he was given little direction when initially composing the Top Gun theme for a good reason. “It was the rare situation where I composed the theme before the movie was shot,” he said. All he was told was the fighter pilots in the movie “are like rock ‘n’ rollers in the sky.”

“There’s Your ‘Top Gun’ Theme!”

Stevens recalled in a 2023 interview with Guitar Player that Idol had something to do with his collaboration with Faltermeyer taking wing. After their recording sessions, the composer was working on a piece of music the guitarist thought was for Fletch. “And Billy [Idol] said, ‘There’s your ‘Top Gun’ theme!” Stevens recalled. “It was right under Harold’s nose.” Faltermeyer confirmed the Rebel Yell rocker was the instigator, telling him and Stevens that they should work on it.

Faltermeyer also told Red Bull Academy that he brought up his theme while having dinner with Top Gun producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. They were eager to hear it, so they brought star Tom Cruise with them to hear the composer play it on piano. Then they gave it the green light for a demo which took him four or five hours to assemble using his collection of synths. Presumably this happened before Stevens recorded his part.

“Harold asked me to play guitar on it,” Stevens said. “We switched over the multitrack after the Idol session. It was about nine o’clock at night, and I think the whole thing took us a couple of hours to do because I was all ready. My gear was set up. So it was just a matter of playing that incredible melody of Harold’s. There’s nobody who does that like Harold Faltermeyer.”

Idol and Stevens had dealt with spontaneous studio situations before. While recording Rebel Yell in Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, the dynamic duo pilfered drummer Thommy Price from his Warrior sessions with Scandal, which worked out very well.

The “Top Gun Anthem” featured Stevens’ majestic and magnificent soloing, and the dramatic video, shot in an airplane hangar, saw both musicians spotlit and backlit to dramatic effect. The guitarist even got to wail away atop the wing of a plane. There were also some tracking shots moving around Faltermeyer playing a grand piano.

Oddly enough, the first time the theme was used during the opening-credit sequence of Top Gun, a subdued, synth-driven version with no piano or guitar was played. This was for dramatic effect as that instrumental intro gave way to the guitar-charged Kenny Loggins anthem “Danger Zone.” The full version appeared near the end of the film, which many Top Gun fans remember well. Faltermeyer also composed other music for the film.

Soaring at the Grammys

While the “Top Gun Anthem” did not have the same sales or airplay as “Axel F,” it still got the attention of the Recording Academy. In 1987, it won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, (Orchestra, Group or Soloist), beating out Stanley Clarke, David Foster, Genesis, and Doc Severinsen (of The Tonight Show Band). It was also nominated for Best Instrumental Composition. It is Stevens’ one Grammy win, and the second for Faltermeyer, who previously won for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special with Beverly Hills Cop.

The same year he won a Grammy, Stevens soloed on Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and it went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also went No. 1 in Belgium and Top 10 in 9 other countries, and he played it live with Jackson at Madison Square Garden in February 1988.  Stevens and Idol would part ways for many years as the guitarist did his first solo album (Atomic Playboys) in 1989 and worked with others like Vince Neil, Robert Palmer, and Tony Levin and Terry Bozzio. The two albums with that latter duo included Black Light Syndrome (1997) which is a fantastic instrumental collaboration. Of course, Stevens and Idol reunited for the 2005 album Devil’s Playground and have been recording and touring again ever since.

Faltermeyer continued to be in demand throughout the end of the ‘80s, composing the scores for Fatal Beauty, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Running Man, Fletch Lives, and Tango & Cash. He also did production work for Donna Summer, Jennifer Rush, and Pet Shop Boys. The “Top Gun Anthem” was resurrected for the 2022 sequel Top Gun: Maverick, but it was an orchestrally infused version generated to perhaps not sound like an ‘80s composition. Faltermeyer co-composed much of that soundtrack with Hans Zimmer and others.

“Top Gun Anthem” was a big deal for both Faltermeyer and Stevens. The guitarist clearly has fond memories of it as he has played it live solo and during a Billy Idol show in recent years. And with the emergence of Top Gun: Maverick, the song regained traction on streaming. Some fans even learned for the first time that Stevens is the one who played the epic guitar solos.

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Photo by Ethan Miller/WireImage

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