By Craig McLean
14 NOVEMBER 2015 • 6:00AM
In the bowels of New York’s Madison Square Garden, 57-year-old Simon Le Bon, resplendent in tight white jeans and fitted black leather jacket, is grinding his crotch into the thigh of John Taylor. The bass player, 55, is leaning back, pouting furiously as he plays his instrument with vigorous intent.
Behind them Nick Rhodes, 53, is doing what he’s been doing for well over three decades: standing at his keyboards, picking out melodies and zooming synthesizer riffs with an air of urbane impassivity.
To his right, 55-year-old drummer Roger Taylor, barricaded behind an impressive kit, is keeping the beat with rocksteady conviction.
This is Duran Duran at play, performing their 1982 hit Hungry Like the Wolf, giving their all to a room packed with fans. Those fans – middle-aged women, their daughters, a fair contingent of twentysomethings, and not a few men – are screaming, singing along and scurrying towards the stage for selfies with the performers.
The atmosphere is one of giddy, communal letting-down of hair. ‘It is actually great being able to look out and see an audience having an amazing time,’ Rhodes will say later. ‘I feel grateful that we’re not one of those bands that just wrote a lot of really miserable, depressing songs. ’Cause that would make looking at the audience not nearly as much fun.’
‘It’s such a big kick,’ Le Bon agrees. ‘People come to our concerts to have a good time. To get a lot of partying out of their system. We have that effect.’
In early September Duran Duran released Paper Gods, a record shepherded into existence by a production team that included Mark Ronson and Chic’s Nile Rodgers. The band marked the appearance of their 14th album with a festival headline show at Bestival on the Isle of Wight.
This month they embark on a UK arena tour. Fifty million album sales, 17 Top-20 hits and 37 years after forming in Birmingham, Duran Duran are still very much hard at work – and very much a going concern. But how, and why? I went in search of some answers.
It is the first week of June, and Duran Duran are holed up in the shadowy opulence of the basement of Blakes hotel in Kensington, west London. Divorced father-of-one Nick Rhodes, a man with an impressive, decades-straddling commitment to the wearing of what is commonly described as ‘panstick’, is the thoughtful curator of Duran Duran’s legacy. Over a strong coffee he is describing how the band alighted on their musical partners for the hugely enjoyable Paper Gods.
‘Collaborating with people is a very modern thing,’ he begins. As well as Ronson and Rodgers, Paper Gods features actress/singer Lindsey Lohan and hip American future-soul star Janelle Monáe. ‘Look at your pop and urban artists – look how many guests there are on everything they do,’ he continues.
‘And because we like to try to keep our sound contemporary, but still keep our integrity, collaborations are easy opportunities to do something really different that does sound modern, but can work with our stuff.’
Nile Rodgers first worked with the band when he remixed 1984’s The Reflex, an American No 1 that catalysed their MTV-era, arena-sized mega-stardom in the US. Mark Ronson, the Grammy-winning producer of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, and the artist behind this year’s global smash Uptown Funk, previously produced All You Need Is Now (2010).
A lifelong Duran Duran fan, Ronson thinks that last album ‘seemed like a return to form but didn’t necessarily set the pop charts alight. So it probably gave them a taste of “we can really have this if we want it – but how do we go that extra length?” ’
They went that extra length by working long and hard on Paper Gods, mostly in their recording studio in a far-from-plush neighbourhood in south London. For the three members who still live in London, this was no huge stretch. But John Taylor has been resident mainly in Los Angeles for the past two decades, so he was obliged to relocate all over again.
As if on cue Taylor sweeps into the room. He compliments Rhodes – ‘Nice hair, man’ – and plonks himself heavily down. The ex-husband of TV presenter Amanda de Cadenet (with whom he has a 23-year-old daughter), he also has two stepchildren with his second wife, Gela Nash, co-founder of the fashion label Juicy Couture. Tall and lean, he is a fizzing picture of long-standing teetotal energy (he entered rehab for drink and drugs in 1994).
He has barely started talking up Paper Gods when there’s another hubbub. Le Bon – rangy, broad and with not a little swagger – rolls up. ‘Hey, Charlie!’ Taylor beams, using Le Bon’s in-band nickname.
The pair promptly have an intense debate about the bonus tracks that will accompany the digital version of Paper Gods. Le Bon (the father of three adult daughters with his wife of 30 years, model Yasmin Le Bon) updates him.
‘So there’s the main three, and then there’s extra extra bonus tracks?’ Taylor asks, puzzled. He expresses mild frustration at such marketing hoopla. Duran Duran spent two years making Paper Gods, ‘and then somebody says, “Now, we just need a little bit at the end…” We don’t want three tacked-on – what would we have called it back in the day? – B-sides,’ he says with evident distaste.
This constant attention to detail highlights one key motif of their story: Duran Duran is no nostalgia trip, a bunch of Luddite 1980s survivors harking after the good old days when they sold millions of (physical) copies of albums like their self-titled debut (1981), Rio (1982) and Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983). Nor are they hopping on the cash-in carousel that is the reunion circuit.
Yes, there has been considerable line-up back-and-forth. Roger Taylor and original guitarist Andy Taylor both left in the wake of the band’s appearance at the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid (1985), burnt out by the success and the excess that attended one of the most lusted-after phenomena of the high 1980s. Chart-topping pretty-boy princes in the UK, Duran Duran were gods in the US, where they spearheaded the decade’s British invasion of pop-video-enhanced bands.
A decade later, John Taylor also quit, even more fried. In last year’s autobiography In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran, the bass player lifted the lid on years of sex, drugs and yacht-going debauchery.
Only Le Bon and Rhodes doggedly kept the faith, plugging on with replacement musicians. Then in 2000, all three Taylors (they are not related) rejoined. In 2006 Andy Taylor and Duran Duran parted ways again.
The resolidified foursome have remained intact now for four albums and 15 years. They see themselves as back for good, and as a modern, progressive band. And they are prepared to put in the legwork to underpin their relevance and vitality.
So, July finds the foursome back on the promotion trail. One rainy afternoon in Marylebone I watch Rhodes being interviewed over an expensive Italian lunch, for a food magazine. Later on he tells me he doesn’t mind singing for his supper.
The album represents the first fruits of Duran Duran’s new deal with Warner Bros, whose ambition, he notes, matches his own. ‘We could have released the record ourselves – we actually did the last one more independently,’ he says of All You Need Is Now. ‘But I didn’t like the way it turned out. I missed having the international level of the label’s involvement.’
Two weeks later, at the end of August, another Italian restaurant, this time in Kensington. Now Duran Duran are talking to the world’s press. The encounters, both in person and on the phone, come thick and fast. ‘That was quick,’ says a relieved Roger Taylor, hanging up on an American radio DJ. ‘They only want a sound bite,’ he shrugs. Always considered the band’s quiet one, he has three older children with his ex-wife, and a four-year-old son with his second wife, Gisella Bernales.
John Taylor, having spoken to stations in Des Moines and Boston, reinforces the drummer’s point. ‘It’s like being in an election campaign. You’re effectively saying, “And can we count on your support for radio play?” ’ A correspondent for a handful of Australian newspapers is here in the flesh.
He explains that the country embraced the band before even the UK, giving them their first Top-10 hit with debut single Planet Earth (1981). But the last time Duran Duran toured Australia they were reduced to being a support act, to Robbie Williams. He predicts, though, that Paper Gods will see them back on top.
Two weeks later, at Bestival, Duran Duran are just that, headlining the first night. They have flown to the Isle of Wight by helicopter, and are accompanied by various family members. Before the band take the stage, Bestival co-founder Ben Turner explains that he has been trying to book the band for five years.
This seems surprising given the event’s target demographic (early- to mid-20s) and its musical preferences (cutting-edge electronic dance music, mainly). Turner replies that the band are unfairly overlooked in the history of the development of electronic music, dubbing them ‘legendary, iconic pioneers’. Plus, ‘They’ve always managed to make themselves relevant to contemporary music.’
Onstage a couple of hours later Le Bon, clearly buoyed by the enthusiastic response to the hit-packed set, yells to the crowd, ‘This is the most important gig of our career!’ Later I ask him why he said that. He says that Bestival is known as a key talent-spotting arena for agents for other, bigger festivals. ‘So the performance there was going to affect the next year for us, I thought.’
Post-gig, the atmosphere outside the band’s dressing-room Portakabins is excitable. A sweating Le Bon is mobbed by his daughters and their friends. Still, I wonder if the girls are ever mortified by the old man’s prancing about?
‘Well, actually they were nearly in tears, they loved it so much,’ he says. ‘Saffron, my middle one, she’s the most critical – she’s studying music at London College of Music. She said, “Daddy, that’s the best show I’ve ever seen Duran Duran perform.” ’
Four weeks later Duran Duran are in New York, the last stop on a short American tour. The day before they perform at Madison Square Garden they visit the midtown Manhattan offices of SiriusXM, a satellite radio station whose various channels have some 30 million subscribers in the US. The foursome spend a couple of hours at the station, splitting into pairs to guest on different shows.
They meet Aaron Sorkin. He is also visiting the station on promotional duties, in support of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic, for which he wrote the script. ‘Big fan!’ he beams as he shakes John Taylor’s hand. Afterwards the band pile into a minivan.
As we drive towards the next engagement, an in-store signing, I ask Le Bon his views on having to sell themselves in such myriad ways. ‘I’ve got a finite amount of interest,’ he admits. ‘You’ve got to me while I’m still inspired to do it. But the thing is, we love this record. And given how much work we put into making it, we have to do everything we can to get that record into as many people’s consciousness as possible.’
We arrive at the Century 21 department store, next to the 9/11 memorial. There’s a small crowd outside, and crush barriers, and police cars. The PR from the store tells the band that they’ve closed the whole city block.
‘Great!’ beams Le Bon. ‘We love closing blocks.’ Up in the store’s offices they pose for photographs with excited top brass. If Le Bon’s interest in such chores is finite, he is making a good fist of eking it out.
‘There are things that really keep you living in the moment. Sport is one of them,’ affirms this keen sailor and motorcyclist. ‘It’s no good having your head stuck in the past or the future when you’re on the football pitch. Music is very similar, especially when you’re on stage.’
‘See, Simon likens it to football and I liken it to painting oils,’ Rhodes interjects. ‘If that stroke is in the wrong place, you could ruin a masterpiece.’These four men have been together (and also apart) long enough to be comfortable with their complementary, and conflicting, personalities.
Roger Taylor is the ‘flat bat’ who never gets too excited, ‘or too depressed’. John Taylor doesn’t like discord, ‘so I’m a bit of a jester. I like people to be happy.’ Rhodes is the aesthete, Le Bon the adrenalin junkie.
They seem easy in each other’s company, possessed of both a relaxed, time-served intimacy but also a businesslike awareness of the individual roles the four of them need to fulfil to keep the show on the road.
Still, an argumentative streak they characterise as ‘healthy’ runs through the entire band. They will form strong, differing opinions on the music, ‘but it won’t affect us personally; we won’t fall out with each other,’ says Le Bon. ‘And it makes our music stronger, better. It serves to remind you that you’re in a group. It’s not going to be all your own way. And we’ve all compromised a helluva lot.’
Presently the band are ushered by beefy security to the basement music department. They sit behind tables, heft their Sharpie pens and stare down the barrel of a meet-and-greet-and-signing with 400 ardent fans.
Eighty-five intense minutes later they are done. They have signed precious 12in singles kept safe since the 1980s, photographs from the days when their hair was as tall as it was wide, and (they are pleased to note) plenty of copies of Paper Gods.
It’s time to part. I say I might see them 10 days hence, back in London, at the annual awards ceremony held by music magazine Q. There’s talk of an award, but they seem underwhelmed at the prospect of attending, in part because they are busy the next day filming Later… With Jools Holland. ‘If Iggy Pop presents it, I’d be interested,’ notes Rhodes.
Duran Duran duly attend the ceremony in London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. They are given the Icon award, but they have to settle for 23-year-old pop star Charli XCX as presenter. No matter. They soldier on smilingly, even attending the post-ceremony drink-up in the pub.
I walk there with Roger Taylor, a middle-aged woman with pen and paper nipping at our heels. ‘She’s been following me for 35 years,’ the drummer says, not unkindly.
Back in New York, in the offices of the department store, I had asked them all: here, now, well into their fourth decade together, what does the Duran Duran brand stand for? ‘Well, we all believe in it,’ said Rhodes. ‘As much as we ever have. In fact, with this album, more.’
‘Survival!’ Le Bon shouted. ‘And I think there’s a bit of glamour attached to the band.’
Roger Taylor mentioned a fan from the signing. ‘She said, “Oh God, I came to see you when I was 12 years old, and I’m still a fan.” So there’s that sense that we’ve been part of people’s lives.’
John Taylor stood up. ‘It’s this!’ he said, hefting a 5ft placard that he has found propped against a wall. It was a leftover from some corporate presentation. To howls of laughter he read out the team-building buzzwords.
‘Respect… Communication… Teamwork… Honesty… Growth… Positivity… And,’ he concluded with a flourish, ‘Amaze!’ ‘Yeah!’ shouted Le Bon again. ‘We’re still around, and we’re still doing it, Duran Duran-style!’
Paper Gods is out now. Duran Duran’s UK tour stars on November 27
Courtesy The Telegraph