They Loved the 80's Too, With Very Good Reason

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They Loved the 80's Too, With Very Good Reason
The New York Times
October 3, 2004
By JON CARAMANICA

THERE are things you don't forget about being a rock star.
Sequestered for an interview in a private chamber at a posh
hotel in downtown Manhattan, Simon LeBon motions for an
assistant to come over. Pointing to his sparkling water, he
says, with practiced derision: "They made the ice with tap
water - I can taste the chlorine in it. Can you bring me
another?" Pause. "With no ice?" Moments later, the
offending glass is replaced. Order, if it had ever been
lost, is restored.

There days, it's all coming back to him, along with the
other members of Duran Duran, the band that once made them
the crush objects of seemingly every adolescent girl on the
planet. The group was one of the first success stories of
the MTV era, five comely British lads with penchants for
supermodel girlfriends, aggressive fashion and bombastic,
synth-happy rock that wasn't afraid of disco sensuality.
For three years, they topped American and British charts
with indelibly catchy songs - "Rio," "Hungry Like the Wolf"
and "The Reflex" - puffy with lyrical ambiguity. Their
second and third albums, "Rio" and "Seven and the Ragged
Tiger," went platinum within weeks of release and contained
their biggest hits. Then, just as quickly as the band
appeared, it dissolved. Various permutations of group
members, some recording under the original name, would
chart through the next decade, but they would never
register as highly as the original crew.

Five years ago, they emerged from semi-slumber for a pair
of warts-and-all documentaries on VH1 and the BBC that
revealed the onetime libertines' humbler sides. And now,
almost 20 years after they broke up, they have decided once
again to cast their lot with one another. The original
lineup - Mr. LeBon singing, Andy Taylor on guitar, Nick
Rhodes on keyboards, John Taylor on bass and Roger Taylor
on drums (none of the Taylors are related) - has reunited
for an album, "Astronaut," to be released later this month.

"You don't realize it when you're in your early 20's," said
Mr. Rhodes, 42, still the blond-streaked picture of fey
cool "but it happens that we really got it right the first
time around. With this lineup, it's all or nothing."

When they reconvened three years ago in a rented
house-studio in the south of France, they found themselves
free of such usual rock-star burdens as management and a
record deal. "We were all treading on eggshells," Mr.
Rhodes said. "It was so fragile. We had a few incidents
where people were thinking: 'Is it really all worth it? Do
I really want to give up my life to these four people?
Again?' "

But they eventually agreed to write and record new work.
Without a contract, the band members financed the studio
sessions themselves, hiring an engineer and, naturally, a
cameraman to document the process. As ever, music was to be
merely one part of the greater Duran Duran multimedia
experience. "You don't do all that to just hang the record
on the wall," said Andy Taylor, 43, permanently styled in
wraparound shades and tousled hair.

"We can try to appear altruistic and purely idealistic,"
Mr. LeBon, 45, agreed. "But it's great to get paid to do
music. We've got families, and earning money makes you feel
like a man."

Last year, during a lull in recording, the band decided to
revisit the stage, selling out a string of Japanese dates
in hours, and playing to celebrity-filled rooms in New York
and Los Angeles. "Up until that point," John Taylor, 44,
said, "it was really just the five of us trying to reassure
each other that this was worthwhile and not getting a lot
of feedback. The audiences were a lot more reassuring than
we expected them to be."

By February, helped along by a coincidental 1980's revival
in popular culture, the band had a host of awards: lifetime
achievement trophies from MTV and Q magazine in Britain,
and a Brit Award (the equivalent of the Grammys) for
outstanding contribution. By June, they had a four-album
deal with Sony. And they had "Astronaut," which at its high
points is as lurid and sensual as any of their best vintage
work.

Back in 1985, Roger Taylor was the first to abandon ship.
Exhausted, he retired to a farm with horses, chickens and a
new wife. "I'd been on 1,000 airplanes, but I didn't know
how to get on one as an individual," he said, still quiet
and demure. "I had to relearn life."

Andy Taylor departed soon after - he and John Taylor had a
successful side project, the Power Station - and the
decimated Duran Duran was soon a pop footnote.

"I couldn't understand why they'd wanted to go," Mr. LeBon
said. "To me, it was all going so well."

When John called Roger about getting back together in 2000,
it was Roger again who played the skeptic: "A bit late,
isn't it?" he asked.

He agreed to the reunion, but this time he came on his own
terms. With a note of shock in his voice, Mr. LeBon
recalled a particularly trying recording session: "I'd
upset Roger one day, and he came up to me and said:
'Listen, mate. I've gotta talk to you about this.' It was
the first time he'd ever done it. That was a huge surprise
to me, because he used to just hold everything inside."

Clearly everyone had changed; figuring out how was a key
part of the project. "When you spend as much time together
as we've done over the last three years, you get to know
everybody's dynamic," Mr. Rhodes said. "Who's tired and
grumpy that day. Who's suffering from anxiety because
they've been on the phone to home. You just have to try to
be patient."

Or as Roger, 44, says, "We respect each other's space a lot
more. We have better boundaries."

John quickly interjects, joking, "We use words like
'boundaries.' "

John was long regarded as the band's most outrageous
member. In a 2003 interview, Boy George recalled that
John's apartment "was the most rock 'n' roll place I had
ever seen."

But now he seems the most centered, thanks most likely to
time spent in rehab and therapy. He likens the reunited
band to "a second marriage." He continued: "There's things
you do that you just didn't do the first time. And you work
a lot harder at it. You don't want to look like a loser
again."

That humility is one of the things they don't teach you
when you're a rock star. But a decided lack of bombast is
one of the hallmarks of the new Duran Duran. They can't
afford to be cocky the way they once were; sticking
together is the only option. And as Roger Taylor confides,
"We wouldn't necessarily be hanging out together if it
weren't for the music."

They interact like the old friends they are, laughing
easily at one another's jokes and at absurd tales of past
mishaps, but they aren't quite the tightly clustered unit
they once were.

"I don't care how this thing works out, as long as we get
along," John Taylor said. "If you're making it difficult
for me to love you, then I don't want to do it."

All are fathers now, and their work schedule has evolved
along with their home lives.

"There used to be times I wouldn't go back home for months
and months and months," says Mr. LeBon, who is still
married to Yasmin, the model he first courted 20 years ago.
"The way we're doing it now - two months on, two weeks off
* is much more human."

The music has evolved, too. As with their 1993 lite-radio
hit, "Ordinary World," the songs on "Astronaut" are aimed
at audiences willing to accept a less louche sound, but the
members of Duran Duran want to be seen as more than a
throwback.

"I don't feel like a nostalgist," John Taylor said.
"Artists are always afraid that there's that youthful spurt
that happens, and for the most part, those are your best
years. Any musician will tell you that what he's doing
right here and now is the most vital, relevant thing. You
simply have to believe that, or it's not going to work."

Jon Caramanica has written about music and popular culture
for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and GQ.

Courtesy The New York Times, www.nytimes.com

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