Waxing Nostalgic: The Final Dot – Duran Duran

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Hello. My name is X, and I’m a Duran Duran fan. I was one in the Eighties. I am still one today. There is nothing hipsterish about this claim. I am not misappropriating anything. It is not ironic or tongue in cheek. I have danced on the valentine. I have lit my torch and waved it for the New Moon on Monday. I have reached up for the sunrise, met El Presidenté and had my last chance on the stairway.

Oh, it started small enough.

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I was intrigued enough by the video for “Planet Earth” to go buy a copy of their first album. Excuse me. Cassette. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and was drawn to the darker songs like “(Waiting for) The Night Boat” and “Sound of Thunder.”

When Rio came out in 1982, it became a monster smash hit, and deservedly so. It may be the first classic album the Eighties churned out. I could count on MTV to play “Hungry like the Wolf” every afternoon between 3:45 and 4:15. Even at the age of 12 I knew there was a marked difference between the first album and Rio. It was cleaner. Crazier. More strange sounds incorporated into the music, which made it distinctive. Even though some of the songs bordered on nonsense (I still don’t know precisely what Simon LeBon’s “new religion” was), they were all solid. There’s a surprising bit of real musicianship on that record. People who think of Duran Duran as simply a synth-pop or dance band have never paid attention to John Taylor’s intricate bass lines or the fevered drumming of Roger Taylor. That’s one hell of a rhythm section for a “pretty boy” band.

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It must have been the summer of 1983, now that I track it back. My friend, Todd Elliott, had obtained something, something that he said I just had to see. So I stayed the night at his place. This was a fairly regular occurrence. When his folks went to bed, we went into the living room and commandeered the television. We kept the volume low, of course, so we didn’t wake anyone up.

Todd, being a little older than I, had been able to rent a copy of the Duran Duran video album. It was one of the first video compilations, groundbreaking in the sense that they filmed clips for songs that were not released as singles. There was a video for “(Waiting for) The Night Boat” chock full of zombies. It was great, fan service of the best kind, videos for deep album cuts. But if you were a male, even if you were a fan, you knew you were only watching Duran Duran videos for one reason.

Boobs.

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Their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was a quick left turn into lunacy. Leading off with one of their most famous songs, the absolute jibber-jabber that is “The Reflex,” a majority of the album is filled with sharp, harsh sounds, blats and honks, notes that refuse to stay still or on key. It’s the musical equivalent of a panic attack. Keyboardist Nick Rhodes seems to be taking out some personal issues through the music, while Simon LeBon sings blank verse madness about lizard mixtures and cracks in the pavement. It’s the soundtrack of a band under pressure, ready to crack, and they did, before their next album was recorded.

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We watched in terror and wonder as ice cubes were rubbed on female nipples during the “Girls on Film” clip. People did this? Is this something I will be expected to do? Was this really part of the glamorous yet brutal world of supermodeling? Was “supermodeling” actually a word?

When “The Chauffeur” came on, I was pleased because not only was that one of my favorite songs, but I had heard rumors. Rumors of some hot weirdness. And sure enough, there was an awesome car. A couple of women putting on what seemed to me to be overly complicated underwear. So many hooks and clasps! The women meet in a parking garage and engage in some foreign dance. They placed their palms together and pushed each other’s arms back and forth while swaying slightly. Was this sexual, somehow? It just seemed a little silly. The third woman, the topless one doing her best Isadora Duncan, was sexy in a way I could more readily understand. She made up for the botched patty-cake the other two were doing.

Todd and I didn’t discuss afterwards. I think he may have said, “Nice.” I’m sure I nodded in agreement, because it was nice. It was better than nice.

It was a milestone.

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It’s fair to call Notorious the last great Duran Duran album of the Eighties. The band had splintered, leaving only three of the original members. Drummer Roger Taylor told the entire music business to bugger off, while guitarist Andy Taylor branched out into other areas of musical exploration.

There had been two Duran Duran side projects in the years between Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Notorious. Simon and Nick formed Arcadia, an art-rock synth-pop duo, while John Taylor and Andy became part of The Power Station, a band that always felt like it could have rocked a little harder than their one album allowed them to.

Notorious certainly leans more towards the Arcadia side of things, as it should, with Simon and Nick still in Duran Duran. The songs are more thoughtful, and with only two or three exceptions, slower. Talking about albums where a band “matures musically” is a horrible cliché, but it was true in this case. The remaining core of the band was growing so quickly, you could hear their bones crack.

Although not well received by fans (or critics, who never cared much for the band anyway), Notorious remains a gorgeous record, famous for its title track being used in the film “Donnie Darko.” If anyone tells you they doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion, they may also be a Duran Duran fan. And maybe a time traveler.

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Black Flag. Hüsker Dü. D.O.A.. Dead Kennedys. American hardcore when it meant something.

The Smiths. Echo and the Bunnymen. The Jesus and Mary Chain. Joy Division. It was the second British Invasion, and “alternative” music was still living up to its name.

Judas Priest. Ratt. Twisted Sister. Mötley Crüe. Iron Maiden. It was the pinnacle of hair metal, swagger and sex.

And somewhere in the middle of it all, Duran Duran.

They don’t seem to mix, do they?

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It’s a strange place to end this series, and not where I expected to wind up, but here we are. The final dot, the linchpin, the band that connects my past to my present is Duran Duran.

Being a keyboard heavy band, listening to Duran Duran helped me better comprehend the prog-rock bands of the past. They were like small, bite-sized pieces of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a beginner’s guide to King Crimson. They allowed me to work backwards at a pretty early age and understand a lot of the music I had heard in my childhood.

I learned from punk music that you could make a valid political point with a forty-five second long song. Intensity is an understatement. There’s an urgency verging on rabidity. As a rule, punks don’t like punk songs. (Also, that Green Day/Against Me! stuff you’re listening to now is not punk.) But there is beauty in a perfect pop song. I admire its purity. I learned that from Duran Duran. The structure, the arrangements, the hook, all of those elements so important in constructing a “simple little ditty,” come together perfectly in Duran Duran songs. There’s more to music than three sloppy chords and a statement.

And how is it that Duran Duran somehow seems like a lesser part of the British New Wave/New Romantic movement? Were they too popular? Not depressed enough? Should their various personnel changes have been more acrimonious? Should they have adopted a cause? By the gods, they were the shiniest damned thing in music for a while, free from the darkness of the Manchester bands. And while that darkness still resonates through parts of my being, I would rather hear about Rio, dancing on the sand, than about how she’s lost control again. Heresy? So be it.

Sure, the metal bands got laid all the time. They probably had sex while they were playing live. Tommy Lee could play the kick drum with his cock, and hooray for him. Sweaty, beer-soaked, leather sex has its place, but it’s not in the Duran Duran musical universe. Those guys looked good. If I’ve ever had a moment of sexual confusion, it probably involved John Taylor. Five young androgynous men with impeccable hair and nice clothing may not be metal, but they were banging Brazilian models on the decks of luxury yachts.

Sex was still at the heart of rock and roll, but I think I navigated those weird hormonal waters as an active youth more gracefully because of Duran Duran. I know that sounds weird. There was an element of romance to their music. They weren’t crass. They weren’t ass grabbers. They were cool, and they got what they wanted.

There were lots of worse role models to have.

All the other music I listened to spun around me like a galaxy, and it all fell within the orbit of Duran Duran. Even now, still listening to them thirty some odd years later, they’re doing some of the best work of their career. They seem to have had a hand in every musical genre I enjoy, and done superlative work in all of them. Many other bands have fallen apart and fallen silent. I, too, have had phases where I fell apart and went under for a while. I came back. Duran Duran never left.

Duran Duran is still vital. I like to think I am, too. Fads and phases have come, gone and come back again, but Duran Duran remains, a constant, like a diamond in the mind.

Sing, blue silver, indeed.

Courtesy Pop Shifter

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