'I'm glad that we were wild boys, first time round'
Twenty years ago, Simon Le Bon nearly drowned during the Fastnet Race; this summer, he's interrupting a tour to take part again. He talks to Cassandra Jardine
Taking off his sunglasses to make eye contact, Simon Le Bon is reliving the time, 20 years ago, when he thought he was about to die. In 1985, at the height of Duran Duran's fame, the knickerbocker-and-cummerbund-wearing heartthrob bought a yacht, Drum, and entered it for the notoriously challenging Fastnet Yacht Race.
Six years earlier, the 608-mile race, from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet lighthouse on the southern tip of Ireland, had claimed 15 lives. When Drum's keel fell off, it looked as if Le Bon could be its next victim.
"I was asleep in my bunk when the boat turned upside down," he says. "Another member of the crew fell on top of me and so did a sail. One man was so buried in heavy sails that he was screaming and drowning."
Battery acid was leaking, poisoning the little remaining air in the boat. Tentacles of rope were blocking the exit. But a lifeboat was on its way and, in the nick of time, Le Bon and his crew were guided out of the hold, through the icy water.
Then came the funny bit. "My long johns got caught in a stanchion. Even though I was desperate to get to the surface to breathe, I knew I had to go down again to take them off. I emerged wearing only my underpants." Pause for reverent laughter.
Yet, here he is, back on the Drum again, looking every inch the mature pop star in a black suit that shows off his long legs, shades, Chelsea boots and artfully streaked hair. He is having a blissful time telling his story to the reporters who have come to hear him announce another adventure.
There are even a few Durannies clustered in the cold by the Clyde in Glasgow to hear their idol mark the 20th anniversary of his near-death experience by declaring that, this August, he is having another bash at the Fastnet with the same boat (now owned by motoring tycoon Sir Arnold Clark) and the same crew.
He exudes bullish confidence, but the last time I interviewed Le Bon, seven years ago, he was talking just as big, yet his demeanour was gloomy. "It was a really rough time for me," he says, when we sit down for a chat on the boat. His record company had ditched him. He was wondering whether to study oceanography or try to become an actor. Anxiety about money made him nervy about keeping a taxi waiting.
At the time, Duran Duran's early Eighties heyday was already in the distant past. All that hedonism - promos showing the band cavorting in the Caribbean with beautiful girls and cocktails - looked as out of style as shoulder pads.
And the critics had turned on Le Bon: his lyrics were described as "BTec-level", his vocal range as that "of a tea towel" and, others pointed out, he had never been able to dance. When I added to his misery by suggesting that his career doldrums might be causing friction between him and his successful supermodel wife, Yasmin, he tells me now: "I was really p---ed off."
Remarkable though it is to have such total recall of slights past, Le Bon, now 46, isn't bearing rancour, for his life is going better now than he could ever have hoped. To the surprise of former scoffers, Duran Duran have made an amazing comeback in the past four years.
Their new album, Astronaut, entered the charts at number three last year. They have recently won three lifetime achievement awards (at the Brits and from MTV and Q magazine) and their tours are near sell-outs. "People used to think we were a flash in the pan," he notes. "Now even the serious papers are saying we're the next Rolling Stones."
Wearing smart suits, following sensible diets and slapping on face creams to keep their skin looking good, they are performing better than ever. Gradually they have progressed from modest 2,000-seat venues to the 30,000-ticket gig later this month at the St Andrews football stadium in Birmingham, close to where they first performed when Le Bon - a leopardskin-trousered drama student from Pinner - joined the band in 1981.
I wonder whether the announcement of his second go at the Fastnet could be motivated more by a desire to publicise that show than to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
"That's a bit far-fetched," he claims, unruffled.
Le Bon isn't easily put down. When he had his near catastrophe on Drum, he admits that he was terrified of the water, but he wasn't going to let it beat him. As soon as he was rescued, he sent the boat for a refit, took a sailing holiday with Yasmin (then his girlfriend) to overcome his fear and announced that he would compete in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race later that year.
"I had lost my nerve. I found it hard to sleep on the boat. I had my feet crushed up against the end of the bunk," he admits. "But the captain helped me get over it. He said something along the lines of 'England expects' and by the time I had finished the Whitbread, I was pretty fit." They completed the race - and came in third.
Something of that same determination not to be beaten lay behind his decision to re-form Duran Duran a few years ago. It was either that or enter pop has-beendom once and for all and Le Bon doesn't enjoy obscurity. He believes he has something to say, that "there is always a kernel of honesty and truth" in good songs. "Writing is my strength," he says, "and I've got my career back."
Success second time round, however, has meant considerably more work and less play than in the Eighties, when Duran Duran went in for all the usual excesses that beguile young, quick-rich men away from home and surrounded by groupies.
"I'm really glad we were wild first time round," Le Bon says. "We wanted to be wild. I really lived the experience but, this time, we've found that you can do it without living the life. We couldn't last long if we did. Drugs f--- you, physically. Groupies and wild behaviour either screw your marriage up or screw you up psychologically. It also messes with the show. If you're going to play a great show the next night, you can't stay up until six in the morning trying to pull some bird and drinking as much vodka as you can.
"Now, when we come off stage, we maybe have a couple of glasses of wine and something to eat. We all read. Then someone says, 'I'll have an early night,' and we all follow suit. We couldn't manage if we didn't because the music business is so much more work these days: there is so much more publicity, so many shows."
Being on the road is more relentless than it was 20 years ago when the real money came from record sales - Duran Duran's 13 number one hits sold 80 million. Now, with music downloaded from the internet, the real money comes from live performances.
"In the Eighties, we would have been happy playing three shows a week. Now we play five. If you are going to earn properly from it, you have to do it economically, and that means not giving everybody four days off a week. We would even lug our own equipment around if we thought we could do it and still perform."
He copes by keeping the tours short - two months rather than 18 - because he wants to see his family. During the wilderness years, he had plenty of time to get to know his three daughters, Amber, Saffron and Tallulah (aged 15, 13 and 10), and he used to take them by train to school from their home in Putney, south London.
"It's hard for me," he says. "The kids can quite happily carry on getting the train to school. Yasmin misses me, but she's got a life: she doesn't just sit around waiting for me to come home; she works. I'm the one who's missing the kids growing up, but then I'm the one who wants to get up on stage and entertain people.
"But the guys are great. We help get each other through it. If someone is feeling down or the morale starts to drop, there are always at least three other guys who can say, 'Come on, man, this is really great, we are very lucky to be here and doing this.' We are all aware that it could go wrong tomorrow."
Nevertheless, he is interrupting his tour to take part in the Fastnet. His main anxiety, however, is not death, if Drum should overturn once again, but the disaster of the boat going too slowly. "If that happens, I'll have to get off. I do have certain commitments," he is delighted to report.
Courtesy Telegraph UK