Fashion and music blow a heady bellow when you are young. As you age, you shape your cultural ship by tying down those items deemed essential and ruthlessly cutting adrift the ballast of past embarrassments. Some of my worst burgundy-clad tweenage excesses came about through my time aboard Duran Duran’s impossible yacht. But things change fast when you’re a teenager. I didn’t join the ‘Union of the Snake’ and by 14 or so they didn’t even look vaguely ‘wild’ to me. They were always there though, part of my peripheral vision. There was the Bond thing and the odd notorious return but I had put away childish things and boy band stock fell heavily in the ’90s.
Then on a wet Thursday in East London, through a completely random collision of social media, location and luck, I found myself in a beautifully restored theatre about the size of a postage stamp: Wilton Music Hall. My crinkled old bedroom poster had come to life and I was about to watch Duran Duran play their most intimate gig in 35 years.
Organised as part of the Back to the Bars campaign (which puts big bands back into tiny venues for one night only), tickets were sold as part of a phone-based raffle (winners had their names drawn after making a donation to War Child). The result was a mix of the hardcore fan family and relative chancers like myself. It felt like being the random guest at a really brilliant wedding reception, one where the band promised to play ’80s hits until everyone was singing.
There was a definite relish for playing a show this size, and Simon Le Bon remarked that he knew a lot of first names in the audience – ‘Alison’ in the front row had apparently been shouting things at him for 30 years. The lack of intro music was greeted with relaxed good humour and that set the tone for a refreshing reappraisal of my boyhood heroes.
John Taylor’s bass gave energy and groove to every track. The sparkling purple drum kit of Roger Taylor provided all the snappy bite required in such a tight space. Nick Rhodes stood almost motionless at the back like one of Kraftwerk’s more glamourous relations. His synth work provided space and texture to the music with some timeless arpeggios locking down ‘Careless Memory’ and ‘Girls On Film’ in particular. Dom Brown (the replacement for Andy Taylor who quit the band in 2006) slotted into place with understated ease but looked disconcertingly like Prince Harry ‘rocking out’. Despite both being in the band and looking like royalty, Brown was asked for his ticket by overenthusiastic door staff when he arrived. ‘I’m in the band’ he said politely, perhaps not for the first time.
This was a crowd-pleasing greatest hits show; even the mid-’90s funk I had previously shunned sounded serious and powerful in this intimate venue. What I’d forgotten was that unlike the boy bands that followed, Duran Duran were an actual band. They have done their 10,000 hours and respect is due. Classic songs like ‘Rio’, ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’, ‘Save A Prayer’ and countless more were delivered with style and aplomb.
Near the end, an otherwise jovial Simon Le Bon reminded us that the concert was in aid of War Child and that no child has ever been anything other than caught up in a war. In that brief moment of sobriety the band delivered an emotional rendition of ‘Ordinary World’, which confirmed to me that I must raid their back catalogue before my cynicism returns.
I can’t pretend there weren’t moments when the sheen of nostalgia wore a little thin. Their cover of ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’, whilst tremendous fun for the band, took all that I love about rap and hip-hop and flushed it down the toilet like a dope dealer caught up in an unexpected drug bust. Despite this it retained a sliver of authenticity by replacing the flow and groove of the original with blue-eyed guitar riffs and the kind of overconfident stand-up-and-rant-at-you energy that perfectly encapsulates why people shouldn’t do cocaine.
Later that night I ended up looking back on old photographs of my 1983 attempt at a wedge haircut – I did grimace and cringe a little but I was also reminded that it was a very real thing that happened. Duran Duran weren’t just some Svengali’s plaything, they were five lads from Birmingham who had seen the future.
I await their new LP with the renewed interest of a thirteen-year-old boy in an ill-fitting granddad shirt.
Eamon Murtagh (@eops)
Special thanks to Jon M Howells and @O2music for their random act of kindness in giving me a ticket. Donate to War Child here: http://www.warchild.org.uk/donate