Whatever the rock snobs thought at the time, Duran Duran were one of the great British singles bands of the 1980s.
by Jeremy Allen
1 Planet Earth
Duran Duran emerged out of the state-funded art-school free-for-all of the 1970s, though their naked ambition and subsequent years of success would coincide with those of Margaret Thatcher; it’s difficult to imagine they could have existed at any other time. They were managed by the entrepreneurial Berrow brothers, owners of the Rum Runner nightclub in Birmingham, whose conviction that the five-piece would eventually hit the big time was such that Michael Berrow mortgaged his house to finance a tour with Hazel O’Connor. Their faith would be repaid handsomely as a bidding war broke out, with EMI emerging victorious. The first signs of life came when Planet Earth was released in 1981, a gloriously catchy sci-fi adventure that owed a debt of gratitude to Japan’s Quiet Life, right down to the sequenced opening; it was the kind of homage that could have been brazened out had keyboard player Nick Rhodes not turned himself into a bleached clone of Japan’s David Sylvian. Dropping the words “new romantic” into the song earned the derision of their cooler Blitz-kid contemporaries in London, and bass player John Taylor admitted it was an “opportunistic” attempt to get their foot in the door (even if Rhodes later claimed it was sarcastic). The single peaked at No 12 in 1981, though Duran Duran were thinking bigger than a trendy club scene dominated by Spandau Ballet. They’d set their sights on the very thing they were singing about on their debut single.
2 Late Bar
These days, boybands, for want of a better word, are normally militarily slick from the off, so it is a joy to behold the amateurishness of an inchoate Duran Duran. At 6ft 2ins, Hertfordshire-born lead singer Simon Le Bon was an imposing figure, but styled in foppish collars and cuffs, he looked “more like a scrum-half who’d blundered into his mum’s washing line” according to one reviewer. What they had in spades though – aside from delectable cheekbones – were great songs, and tellingly Late Bar was tossed off as Planet Earth’s B-side, not even making the final cut of the band’s debut album. Lyrically, it deals with nothing much deeper than all-night parties in hotel rooms, but the tune is magnificent and draws you in, with Le Bon’s voice going from a deep insouciant croon to a deranged “la la la” in the chorus. It’s fair to say his vocal, and the band’s squelchy, angular attempts to emulate Chic, were works in progress, but the raw goods were all there from the beginning. And how they’d love to find a song of this quality down the back of the couch now.
3 Hungry Like the Wolf
“I want to be David Bowie or Iggy Pop,” complained Robbie Williams once upon a time, before conceding he was more Norman Wisdom than anything else. Le Bon similarly wanted to emulate Jim Morrison; the problem was, that with his sailing, he was less Doorsy, more outdoorsy. That didn’t stop him getting his teeth into some mucky scenarios, like on Hungry Like the Wolf, a straightforward simile alluding to sexual appetite, taken from the second album, Rio. If Duran Duran were essentially an electronic band with a heavy rock guitarist bolted on, then Hungry Like the Wolf was the sound of the rockier elements within the camp winning (the battle rather than the war). It even resonated with the grunge generation, with Hole releasing a cover as the B-side of Doll Parts in 1994: “This is the best song ever written that you all pretend not to know,” drawled Courtney Love at the outset of the live recording. With its exciting Raiders of the Lost Ark-style video shot on location in Sri Lanka, it was one of the songs that helped break the band in the US, via the new video channel MTV. The other was Girls on Film, a song apparently about exploitation in the fashion industry. Video directors Godley and Creme obviously didn’t get that memo, making a five-minute promo that bordered on soft pornography; it became a surprise late-night hit across the States, inadvertently convincing Middle America these makeup-wearing limeys might not be homosexual after all.
4 Save a Prayer
While record companies appeared to have money to burn in the 80s, they still weren’t sure how successful the video medium would be, and so the Durans were encouraged to make three promos for the price of one on their jaunt to Sri Lanka, according to Steve Malins’s Wild Boys: The Unauthorised Biography. It turned out to be a shrewd gamble, as video became a growth industry, and the band’s good looks, energy and extravagant budgets made them the poster boys for a whole new way of flogging music. Shot on a crepuscular evening and balmy afternoon, with panoramic vistas and Le Bon in rolled-up Antony Price trousers sitting pensively on the beach, it conveyed the message that being in Duran Duran was the best fun in the world, and being a fan of Duran Duran might be the second-best option. Save a Prayer was the first ballad they released as a single, featuring an immediately identifiable yet mysterious, almost arabesque, musical ululation at the outset and throughout. The song went to No 2 in the UK and Ireland, and No 1 in France. It has also become synonymous with tragedy, with Le Bon dedicating it to Marvin Gaye during the filming of their concert film Arena (An Absurd Notion) in 1984, and to his friend Michael Hutchence in 1998. The song has held up splendidly well, while Rio’s much-feted other ballad, The Chauffeur, sounds inexplicably metallic and whiney three decades on, somehow pulling off the unwanted trick of being minimal and overproduced at the same time.
5 Union of the Snake
If Rio had been the cohesive sound of an organic pop band at their collective peak, then the direction in which Duran Duran would move for their third album would cause ructions that would ultimately lead to a schism. The recording of Seven and the Ragged Tiger on the Côte d’Azur was, by all accounts, slow and, for many, painful, with Rhodes and producer Alex Sadkin wresting the music towards the fastidiously electronic, giving a bored Andy Taylor nothing to do. The first track released from the album was Union of the Snake, and if it sounds obscenely expensive and overblown, that’s because it is. And what a belter it is, too. Roger Taylor, the most underrated member of Duran Duran, brought an irrepressible groove as its foundation, with the rest of the band building a whole city of instrumentation on top. It’s an ostentatious perfume commercial of a song that could only possibly be outdone by the Election Day 12-inch, from Rhodes and Le Bon’s side project Arcadia, 18 months later. Union of the Snake features a face-melting sax solo from Andy Hamilton that recalls the most unconscionable excesses of late Roxy Music, with a lyric that some interpreted to be about wanking (Le Bon’s lyrics throughout the album made it sound like he’d been at the fortune cookies). Duran’s previous single, Is There Something I Should Know?, had entered the charts at No 1 earlier in the year – a remarkable achievement in the 80s – so peaking at No 3 with the first song from a new album would have been regarded as a relative flop then. But time has been kind: three decades on it sounds mesmeric.
6 New Moon on Monday
The follow-up to Union of the Snake is one of the great underrated Duran singles. It only reached No 9 in the charts, which must have hurt them like parents expecting great things from a child who duly fails all their exams. As fashion obsessives and purveyors of slick art rock, Duran Duran were the natural heirs to Roxy Music, and a fascination with David Bowie was par for the course for a group of guys who looked like they’d walked out of a salon modelling his every tonsorial whim of the previous 10 years. Bowie had released the album Let’s Dance six months before Seven and the Ragged Tiger arrived, and New Moon on Monday is proof that they were listening. As well as delivering a, by now customary, lacerating Le Bon chorus, the singer also quivers and croons seductively over a hypnotic beat in the verses, with some of the incidental keyboard lines lifted straight out of China Girl. The clean, crisp production of Bowie’s globe-straddling pop was presided over by an old hero of the Durans: Nile Rodgers, making a name for himself in the control booth also for Madonna and INXS. Rodgers would become a big player in the Duran Duran story.
7 The Reflex
It’s a testament to how good Duran Duran’s singles were that this list is made up of nine A-sides and one B-side. They were a “singles band” in an era when 45s ruled, and it’s fair to say these songs stuck out like glittery diamonds in otherwise adequate diadems. The track the band wanted to release first from Seven and the Ragged Tiger was The Reflex, though their label bosses weren’t convinced the insistent “why-y-y-y” of the chorus was commercial enough. Nile Rodgers – whom John and Andy Taylor had met while recording their spin-off album as the Power Station with Chic partner Bernard Edwards – was drafted in to sprinkle some of his pop magic over the track. There were now two opposing camps in Duran Duran – the electro fops and the rockers – which became apparent with contrasting albums from Arcadia and the Power Station. Roger Taylor was used on both projects, and the pressure would help precipitate his early exit. The label wasn’t overly keen on Rodgers’ Reflex remix, declaring it “too black” for radio, according to Rhodes. Rodgers brought out elements in the track that gave it a swagger and an ebullience. Duran Duran stuck to their guns, the single was released, and it became a universal smash and their biggest hit, going to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Rodgers would go on to produce their next single, Wild Boys, and their follow-up album, Notorious, though if that implies a steadying of the ship, then you couldn’t be more mistaken. HMS Duran was sailing in choppy waters and there would be men overboard.
8 A View to a Kill
Writing a James Bond theme isn’t as easy as it looks, as Madonna proved with Die Another Day in 2002 – though to be fair she had Mirwais to write with, whereas Duran Duran had John Barry. Barry and the Durans apparently hated each other, though they managed to sit at the piano together long enough to achieve a Golden Globe for best original song and take a 007 theme to the top of the US charts for the first and only time. It stands as a triumph over adversity, like so much of what Duran Duran did in the mid-80s, and A View to a Kill joins a select bunch of truly great Bond songs. It had all come about when a drunken John Taylor had approached Bond film producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked him when he was going to get “someone decent” to record the theme song. Taylor’s manifesto from the start had been to attain “cars, girls and money”, so recording a Bond theme was in keeping. Roger Taylor walked out not long after the single came out, in an amicable departure. Andy Taylor soon followed, though his parting would be far more acrimonious.
9 Skin Trade
The seven were three by 1986 – the Berrow brothers had been dispensed with, too – and the ragged tiger looked more like a cringing cat to outsiders. With backs to the wall, the band set about making a more mature funk record with Nile Rodgers. Rodgers has said the sessions were a bit of a blur, but the coke bloat hadn’t set in yet musically. Their fourth album, Notorious, is bursting with ideas, with the title track a stunning riposte to naysayers who assumed Duran Duran were now finished. Even better is Skin Trade, a track with a title taken from the unfinished Dylan Thomas novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, that John Taylor was reading at the time. It’s a slinky, self-assured four-minute funk groove with a comely falsetto in the verses, marrying Prince with a lyric about prostituting oneself, literally and figuratively. Expectations had been lowered, but nobody had prepared for it to peak at No 22 in the UK charts and barely scrape into the Billboard top 50, a catastrophe for a band who had dominated the charts in the previous five years. Duran Duran were growing up and so were their audience, but they weren’t growing up together, they were growing apart, and the latter were moving on.
10 Come Undone
As the 80s became the 90s, Duran Duran weren’t only skint, they were artistically bankrupt, too. The Decade compilation album scored well, but either side of that came studio albums Big Thing and Liberty, whose names were both cases of wishful thinking more than anything else. With the band on the ropes and devoid of ideas, their replacement guitarist Warren Cuccurullo took it upon himself to provide some much-needed direction. Then, in 1993, things clicked back into place. Suddenly, for a while at least, it was as if a renascent Duran Duran had never been in the wilderness. First came Ordinary World, one of Le Bon’s most wistful and cohesive lyrics, performed confidently over what is essentially a well-produced power ballad. It stormed up the charts everywhere, and the following year Le Bon even found himself singing it alongside Luciano Pavarotti at a benefit concert for the War Child charity. Ordinary World proved to be no fluke, with follow-up Come Undone pushing its way to No 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Come Undone is Ordinary World’s cooler, brooding, nonchalant younger brother, armed with a flanger pedal and an irresistible rhythm track. It’s also unusual in that the backing vocals by Tessa Niles almost make it a duet, with the two voices creating a sultry, yearning intensity. This musical petite mort almost proved to be a career climax as well. Duran Duran have seen plenty of lows since: their reasonably decent 1997 album Medazzaland performed so badly in the US that the record company decided not to release it in Europe. And highs, too: 2004’s full reformation with the definitive lineup briefly incited Duraniemania all over again. Shorn of Andy Taylor once again, the four have stepped back into the studio with an on-form Mark Ronson and their old comrade Nile Rodgers on hand to help out. It would be nice for all concerned if they could perform one more earth-shaking resuscitation.
Courtesy The Guardian