Duran Duran's come back
A boozy session with Justin Timberlake has led Duran Duran to make by far their best material in years
If there is one message that the celebrity-gossip rags love to ram home, it’s that when pop megastars start behaving in an imperious, wilful fashion, the result normally is not good news. Perhaps this accounts for the failure of Heat and co to pick up on a remarkable, impromptu event back in May that led to the recording of one of the most irresistibly catchy pop singles of the year.
On the face of it, Falling Down, released next Monday, represents another promising sign of the creative and commercial rebirth in the 21st century of Duran Duran. It is, without doubt, the strongest thing they have put out since their 1992 comeback smash, Ordinary World.
The credits, however, reveal that the music was actually written and performed by Duran in collaboration with the brightest star in the pop firmament right now: Justin Timberlake. And the truth, as the band acknowledge, is that without Timberlake’s insistent say-so, the track would never have happened.
Falling Down – which was all done and dusted in one hastily arranged, 36-hour session in Manchester, during an intermission in Timberlake’s UK spring tour – formed the last act in a drama that began when the veteran glam pop-sters met up with America’s leading R&B icon at the 2005 Brit Awards. “Justin told us his fav-ourite song when he was 14 was Duran’s Ordinary World,” the group’s singer, Simon LeBon, recalls. “He said he’d like to work with us, and we said, ‘Yeah, great.’ But knowing his and our schedules, we never dreamt anything would come of it so soon.”
The catalyst was the unexpected and still unexplained departure of Duran’s guitarist, Andy Taylor, the following year. By May 2006, the band had completed 14 tracks for a new album, provisionally titled Reportage. According to LeBon: “We didn’t feel we had nailed a lead track, and because we’re a white band that has worked well with black musicians in the past, like Nile Rodgers on Notorious, we got in touch with Timbaland.”
Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, 36, a producer often credited with doing for modern R&B what Phil Spec-tor did for Brill Building pop, instantly signed up. While they are often regarded as musical lightweights here, in the USA Duran have always commanded respect as well as popularity. A New York session was booked in September of last year. But, come the appointed day, Duran’s guitarist, Andy Taylor, didn’t turn up. The blunt message from Ibiza, where he has lived for many years, was that he was leaving the band, with immediate effect.
Worse news followed when the four remaining members learnt from Taylor’s lawyer that he would injunct any attempt on their part to release the Reportage recordings. “It’s always been quite a difficult, abrasive relationship,” LeBon says.
Making a virtue of necessity, Duran immediately proceeded to record another set of songs with no guitarist and a more rhythmically oriented sound, courtesy of a new production team headed by Nate “Danja” Hills, Timbaland’s regular assistant. It was, they all agree, a tremendous, if occasionally perplexing, learning experience. Never had they worked with producers who move so fast, and for whom producing entails generating and playing with a lot of their own ideas as well as recording and shaping others’ efforts. As the keyboardist, Nick Rhodes, says: “None of our producers this time had worked with a band before, and we’d never worked without a guitarist. Everything felt different.”
The people who felt that difference the most were the pair whose grooves were often dictated to them, or presented as a fait accompli. “We had to let go of most of our old ideas of what it means to be a band making this album,” says the bassist, John Taylor, who was obliged to sit out several tracks, or play guitar to keep himself occupied. His partner in the rhythm section, the drummer, Roger Taylor, was similarly side-lined at points. “We really had to put our egos aside to make this,” says Roger Taylor. “We’ve always been self-contained in the past. This is the first time we’ve really let in guys with their own view.”
True to his word, Timberlake, Timbaland’s most famous client, turned up for a couple of sessions, and sang on one track, Nite Runner, with LeBon. “I remember Justin coming in and saying, ‘Listen, guys, if you’re gonna make a pop record, then make a proper pop record.’ ” A year after they finished the album that never was, Reportage, Duran Duran thought they had another, more contemporary-sounding, one ready to go. Its title, Red Carpet Massacre, LeBon likes, “because it encapsulates what Duran is about: sex, violence and glamour. Too many of our other titles sound like Nice Party”. But this party was by no means over. A month after Hills had signed off the final mixes, LeBon sank a few ales with Timberlake in Birmingham at a canalside pub lock-in, following Timberlake’s National Indoor Arena show. “Back at the hotel, Justin asked to hear everything we’d recorded, and at the end he just said, ‘This is really good, but you need a song like Ordinary World to round things out, something that’s more touching and personal.’ ” A few days later, Timberlake called LeBon and ordered him and the band up to Manchester, where the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour had now touched down. Roger Taylor, who had just got back from honeymoon the night before, remembers being woken up and told: “Justin’s got a monster groove that might be the basis of the new Ordinary World, and you’ll be picked up in an hour.” Later that day, the band and their No 1 admirer convened in Elbow’s Blueprint studio.
For the next day-and-a-half, they beavered away without a break. The session ended at six in the morning when Timberlake had to leave to resume his triumphal march around the country, and four bleary-eyed middle-aged blokes drove back to London, unable to sleep for the excitement, convinced that they had pulled off a career best. “All the best songs we’ve done have happened quickly,” says John Taylor.
Timberlake has since referred to Falling Down as a “tempo ballad with a melancholy, inspired and cryptic lyric that I find very beautiful”. LeBon says the song is about another of his near-death sporting experiences: this one an 80mph motorcycle crash in a race in the early 1990s. “These were the thoughts that rushed through my mind just before I hit the ground,” LeBon says. “I’m proud of this song because these are lyrics that anyone can relate to. I realise as I’ve got older that it’s easy to be esoteric. It’s so much harder to write from the heart.”
Falling Down is out on November 12; Red Carpet Massacre on November 19
Courtesy Times UK