Duran Duran interview
They’ve almost drowned, been threatened with arrest and fallen victim to their own success. But the ‘yacht rock’ pioneers’ jet-setting days are far from over, finds Craig McLean.
Duran Duran were on the run. The ‘prettiest boys in rock’ may have been Princess Diana’s favourite group and chart-busting, girl-friendly titans all over the world. But sometime in the mid-Eighties, the Los Angeles Police Department – weapons at the ready for the five pastel-jacketed English New Romantics – were out to get them.
‘The Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard in LA had this swimming pool on the roof,’ remembers Simon Le Bon. ‘And [then-guitarist] Andy [Taylor] found a bucket. There were people sitting in an open-air restaurant 12 floors below. And he was just pouring the water on their heads. And they called the police!
‘I got a telephone call: “You’ve got 15 minutes to pack your bags.” “I can’t do it.” “Yes you can, do it.” I went downstairs and there were six or seven LAPD officers there with their riot sticks out. And Trevor, our tour manger, walked into the hotel lobby, put his briefcase down and went [broad Brummie accent]: “Arrest me!”’
The singer, the only southerner among the five-piece band who came together in Birmingham in 1980, beams. ‘Very funny. Then we moved to a little motel up the road where we had loads of fun,’ he says, positively licking his lips at the memory.
Exactly 30 years after the release of their first hit single, Planet Earth (Number 12, February 1981), and some 85 million record sales later, the one-time ‘biggest band in the world’ are evidently still enjoying themselves. Their latest album has been produced by Mark Ronson, the hipper-than-hip DJ and artist who helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Not that All You Need Is Now isn’t vintage Duran Duran, bristling, as it does, with catchy, synth-based pop-funk. It’s also underlined the group’s enduring popularity: both the title track and lead single went straight to No 1 on iTunes when a nine-track version was released on the digital download site over Christmas. (A 14- track physical version follows next month.)
Ronson, it turns out, was a fan all along. ‘I was in love with the sound of Nick Rhodes and his keyboard, ’cause it was the sound of my youth,’ says the London-born, New York-raised 35-year-old.
Le Bon actually met Ronson when he was a youth. A 10-year-old in fact. The singer was wandering around SoHo in New York and Ronson’s mother, a well-connected English socialite, approached him, introducing herself, her new husband, Mick Jones of rock band Foreigner, and her hyperactively excited young son, Mark. ‘He’s a bit of a fan,’ she whispered to Le Bon, ‘can he have an autograph?’
Twenty years later, the young fan found himself sharing a bill in Paris with Le Bon, Nick Rhodes (keyboards), John Taylor (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums). Soon, talk of recording ‘one or two songs’ together became a fully fledged collaboration.
Their last album, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, boasted the skills of another red-hot producer, American R&B/hip-hop mogul Timbaland. But as we chat in a café in Shoreditch, east London, the band say it went too far.
‘Timbaland was more about grooves,’ reflects Roger Taylor, a young-looking 50-year-old with a still-evident Brummie accent.
‘We’ve never been afraid of going with something new,’ adds the dapperly dressed Nick Rhodes, 48. ‘But these dance producers work at such a manic pace – let’s get the track this afternoon, the lyric by the evening, the vocals recorded by 4am, done.’
Duran Duran are unique among their Eighties contemporaries in that they’ve kept chugging along, albeit with a temporary split or reconfigured line-up here and there. They have, accordingly, developed their own way of doing things. ‘We’ll look at a word, or even a syllable, for a week,’ Rhodes admits.
For this, their thirteenth album, Le Bon sweated the lyric-writing a little more than usual. Normally the 52 year-old works on the words by himself. This time his bandmates lent a hand. But ‘Charlie’, as Duran Duran call their singer (his middle name, and a relic of the days when there were a few Simons working for them), wasn’t entirely comfortable.
For the song Girl Panic, Ronson told Le Bon ‘sexy lyrics’ were required. As he describes the events in the band’s south London studio, Le Bon slips into an impersonation of permanently mascaraed, blonde-highlighted man-about-town Rhodes, contriving to make him sound like Frankie Howerd. ‘Oommwah, I think that’s my territory, Charlie, being the only single member in the band, divorced.’
Le Bon duly took the studio recording home and played it to his wife, former model Yasmin. ‘Darling, listen to what they’ve made me do,’ he recounts, making himself sound like a huffy prima donna.
‘Well, I think you’re stupid,’ she replied. ‘I think you should sing Nick’s lyrics more. Because they’re a lot better than yours.’ Is his wife of 25 years generally a good sounding board for his band’s music? ‘She was until she said that!’
Le Bon, of course, met his supermodel wife at a time when the band were known for their outré fashion – Le Bon wore purple leopard skin leggings to his May 1980 audition to join the band – and their singer was a bit of an adrenalin junkie. In 1985, he almost drowned twice. Once during the making of the Mad Max-style video for The Wild Boys: the giant wheel to which he was strapped got stuck, him upside down, his head under water. And once when his yacht, Drum, capsized off Falmouth during the Fastnet race. The dramatic footage made the Nine O’Clock News.
‘Everything that can work to help you survive is working,’ Le Bon remembers of being trapped under Drum’s hull for 40 minutes. ‘But I still love boats. I’m a happy sailor.’ And the Wild Boys incident? ‘If I’d have passed out from being upside down. If there weren’t two safety divers in the water. If everybody had gone off on an extended tea break, maybe, just maybe, it would have been dangerous. People invent these stories to try and make things seem more interesting.’
Then again, you don’t have to try too hard to make Duran Duran’s Eighties high jinks seem more interesting. The moment they released Planet Earth they were an instant success.
‘Stupid things happened like Nick and Andy never got to learn to drive,’ says Roger Taylor. ‘’Cause that normal formative period in our lives just never happened. Nick joined the band when he was 17 and he hasn’t stopped for 30 years.’
Rhodes remembers their first UK tour, supporting post-punk star Hazel O’Connor. ‘We started getting encores – as the support act. Then the screaming started. It was so loud that literally, for the first tour in America, we could hardly hear what we were playing on stage.’ In fact, he notes proudly, Duran Duran are in the Guinness Book of World Records in Australia, ‘for the loudest pre-show concert noise’.
The crowd noise now, he notes drily, ‘is slightly different – it’s a slightly lower pitch. It’s all those guys in the audience. But funnily enough, I think our audience is still extraordinarily excitable. We’ve remained lucky like that.’
John Taylor, lean, rangy and rock-haired, found some aspects of the scrutiny hard. ‘I mean, it wasn’t like the attention that somebody running for parliament gets. It was being Smash Hits’ Best Looking Guy of the Year!’
Girls would camp outside his mews house in London and rifle through his bins. Still, he must have enjoyed it? ‘We were in an ego bubble. Not only was one up one’s own a---, there was a team of people around you that handed you the shovel every morning! You were expected to be up your own a---.’
He admits that his rock’n’roll behaviour got out of control. ‘We were in Germany, we got into a fight. I put my hand through a window, stitches in the hand, tour cancelled. I was sat down by the rest of the band – “Can’t let this happen again, John”.’
However, the band had to fulfil contractual agreements to play shows in Portugal. They hired a stand-in bassist. ‘That was a big awakening for me. Really scary, that I could be replaced like that.’
By the time of the release of the second album, Rio, in 1982, the cash was rolling in but the wheels were falling off. ‘We were running around the planet at a speed that was inevitably going to start chipping away,’ Rhodes says. ‘Some people were living on a drug diet.’
Their accountants ordered these working-class kids – still living with their parents, or in tiny flats in their early twenties – to leave the country for the good of their tax health. They had just had their first number one, with Is There Something I Should Know? ‘So not only have you never had time to set up home, you’re sent away from your families for a year,’ frowns Roger Taylor. ‘And you can’t come back to the country for more than 90 days. Which was great financially, but pretty destabilising.’
Like the Rolling Stones before them in their Exile On Main Street period, Duran Duran first decamped to the south of France, then to Montserrat. They were supposed to be making what would become their ‘dislocated’ third album, Seven And The Ragged Tiger.
Roger Taylor remembers that ‘we were all just going stir crazy. We were supposed to be there for months, it was bonkers. And John came in one day and said: “I’ve had enough of this, it’s driving me f---ing nuts.” It was literally like being marooned on an island. We had all the success and all the trappings had started to come in, and we were stuck on Montserrat – and there was nothing there!
‘So John said: “l’ve heard that Australia is really happening at moment, let’s go to Sydney.”’ Roger Taylor shrugs. ‘Such was the speed and ridiculousness of our existence.’
The United States fell particularly hard for the band. The Police were a lap ahead, but only Culture Club came close to Duran Duran in capturing the hearts and minds of US youth. But the heavy touring schedule took its toll.
‘I started getting a dodgy voice from the amount of singing I was doing,’ Le Bon recalls. Anyone who saw the recent documentary on Live Aid will know what he’s talking about – Duran Duran’s part in the Philadelphia concert was infamously blighted by the Le Bon yelp.
‘We started to hit our limitations,’ he concedes now. ‘Of course, when you’re getting offstage and hitting a nightclub and literally filling yourself with booze and whatever else you could lay your hands on, and staying up ’til seven, the show suffered.’
With their make-up, flyaway hair and fancy clobber, they might have looked effeminate, but Duran Duran were enthusiastically heterosexual. Of their tax year away, Le Bon says: ‘We really enjoyed the south of France. Montserrat was a bit pot-ridden, a bit too much dope-smoking there. Australia was just,’ Le Bon searches for le mot juste, ‘a shag-fest. No, really! It was chocka!’ Was all that ‘fun’ good for the muse? ‘Not really,’ he beams.
The leader of these teen heart-throbs-turned-synth-pop warhorses is amused by the contrast between their former hedonism and the kind of television shows they’re being asked to appear on these days: ‘Like Loose Women. Like The Alan Titchmarsh Show,’ he intones, ‘like – wait for it – Strictly Come F---ing Dancing.’
Rather than appearing on the likes of Strictly, the cheerful, candid and remarkably functional middle-aged men of Duran Duran will spend most of the next two years touring the world, something all four are looking forward to. ‘When you’re at home and you’re sitting with the wife going around your feet with the Hoover, you wanna get back out there again,’ says Roger Taylor.
‘And we live in the lap of luxury on tour – five-star hotels, our own private jet if we’re touring in America. There’s something about that constant momentum that’s quite addictive.’
Le Bon, meanwhile, admits: ‘I do get a little bit difficult to be with when I’ve been in the house for too long. I get itchy feet and I get grumpy.’
Of course they will have appearances to maintain – Le Bon is busy getting fit in preparation for being in the public eye again. He gave up motorbike racing after a bad spill, but he’s been doing martial arts for 10 years. ‘Wing Chun – it’s not a sport, it’s a defence system. Hong Kong dirty fighting, complete with eye gouging and nose biting.’
Yasmin has become an aficionado, too. ‘She’s so competitive. You know the scenes in the Pink Panther films? “Not now, Kato!” That’s what it’s like in our house!’
He adds cheerfully: ‘She did knock me out. We were in the park and we decided to have a little spar. And she did this move she’d been taught – she reached behind me and did a kind of reverse karate chop, with her knuckles, on the back of my head. Knocked me out in the middle of the park! Not for long, but I saw stars. Domestic violence, man.’
Is ‘Charlie’ up to his gigging weight? Not yet, he admits, patting his tummy. ‘I’ve tightened up a little since the summer. But I've got a way to go – it’s not so much gigging weight as fitting-into-these-trousers weight.’ And what is the trouser theme for this latest Duran Duran comeback tour? ‘Well, not great big bellies, that’s for sure!’ Le Bon shoots back.
‘It just doesn’t look right, you know?’
Courtesy the London Telegraph Sunday SEVEN Magazine