Although formally conceived as a mix of the Sex Pistols and Chic, Birmingham’s Duran Duran was in fact launched as another pretty-boy-new-romantic-haircut-clothes-synth-pop- dance ensemble and became an unimaginably popular teen sensation, drawing young fans into the world of techno-dance music. Taking cues (sound and image) from early Roxy Music and using simple electronics to flavor the lush but powerful rock sound, Duran Duran crossbred pop craft with a strong visual consciousness (using videos as a major strategic tool) to create records that are at once high-sheen disco and semi-inventive rock, even if that’s not how the band and their followers view it.
Duran Duran introduced the dance attack in a remarkable sonic setting produced by Colin Thurston. Tracks like “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film” and “Is There Anyone Out There” meld the basic attributes of ’70s disco — preeminent beat, repetition and studio gimmickry — to a variant on post-Ultravox rock to create something that was, at the time, fairly original. The elongated strains of synthesizer and syncopated tempos cover a multitude of creative shortcomings, but it’s still an extraordinary album filled with now-classic songs.
Rio fulfills the band’s potential and its pinnacle, displaying stronger songwriting and far more intricate arrangements. The music’s clearly danceable, but brilliantly listenable as well. Singer Simon Le Bon handles tantalizing melodies and obtuse lyrics with confidence (if not profound ability), while honestly proficient musicianship by the other four defines each song’s character differently. There isn’t anything less than good, and “Rio,” “Last Chance on the Stairway” and “New Religion” are startling in their melodic excellence. Thanks to a remix that features prominent female moaning (and an exotic video), “Hungry Like the Wolf” caught American radio programmers’ attention, and lofted the band high into the charts, where they long remained a well-appointed fixture.
Quick to recognize Duran’s essential role as a dance band with rising commercial appeal, the group’s US label released a package of four remixes (“Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” “Hold Back the Rain” and “My Own Way”) as Carnival.
Parting ways with producer Thurston, Duran attempted to expand their musical horizons beyond the lush ambience of Rio and developed a herky-jerky rhythmic style aimed at creating catchy singles in a variety of modes. Unfortunately, this led to Seven and the Ragged Tiger, a sorry collection of half-baked melodies, meaningless lyrics (their earlier work, while not poetry, at least sounded clever) and over-active studio foolishness. Basically, the songs ain’t no damn good. And even a passable item like “The Reflex” gets twisted with exaggerated, comical vocals; “Union of the Snake” sounds only half-written. The only truly noteworthy song, “New Moon on Monday,” actually sounds like an outtake from Rio. Still, the album proved extremely successful among the audience who cheered the video monitors, not the band, during the tour that followed it.
Arena, the audio documentary of a mammoth coast-to-coast American trek, features surprisingly good playing (but extremely bad singing) on nine hits; additionally, the package includes a studio cut, “The Wild Boys,” produced by Nile Rodgers, which resembles a possible theme song for Lord of the Flies. This album is irrelevant to anyone over the age of fifteen.
Duran Duran spent the next two years split into two camps. Taylor and Taylor (Andy and John) formed Power Station, while Simon, Nick and Roger stuck together, dubbing their sub-group Arcadia. Not surprisingly, with the artistic troublemakers out of the picture, Arcadia’s So Red the Rose (produced by the late Alex Sadkin and featuring guest spots by Sting, Herbie Hancock, David Van Tieghem, David Gilmour, Andy Mackay and others) is virtually an old-fashioned Duran Duran album. Not an especially good one, mind, but it does sound a lot more like Rio than Seven and the Ragged Tiger does.
Power Station (whose name would be “Kraftwerk” in German) the guitar/bass axis of Duran Duran with ex-Chic drummer Tony Thompson and singer Robert Palmer. (Plus Bernard Edwards as producer.) On paper, a promising idea — especially in light of the Durannies’ funk pretensions and Simon Le Bon’s vocal inadequacies — but, on vinyl, a miserable, boring explosion of overbearing drums pounding (you thought the drums were mixed high on Let’s Dance?) through tuneless, formless “songs.” While the slickly functional dance-funk is just minor on the softer numbers, the ultimate realization of the concept, “Some Like It Hot,” offers a numbingly industrial take on electro-funk made truly execrable by Palmer’s contemptible singing. But that’s nothing compared to the excruciating jam/destruction of Marc Bolan’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” matching an appalling lack of originality with utter disdain for (and desecration of) the song’s melody, tempo and boppy charm. Incidentally, when Power Station, a band that initially swore it would not tour hit the road, broke that promise, Palmer didn’t go along. For reasons that were never entirely clear, he was replaced by Michael Des Barres, adding another chapter to his Chequered Past.
Although they had a number one single in mid-’85 with the theme song for a James Bond film (“A View to a Kill”), Duran Duran was about to go through them changes. Roger left in 1986; Andy stayed long enough to play on four tracks on the next album before splitting for a solo career. That left Simon, Nick and John Taylor to carry the tattered but marketable banner, supported on Notorious by producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers (talk about realizing a career ambition), Missing Person guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and session drummer Steve Ferrone. A lack of material, a surplus of horns and the overall sterile pop/funk precision leave Duran resembling a dull, toned-down Power Station with no songs. The title track isn’t entirely horrible, but that’s not much to hang an album on. (That same year, John Taylor wrote and recorded a big-selling solo single, “I Do What I Do,” for the film 9 1/2 Weeks.)
Critics might have written the group off by that point, but somebody bought a million copies of Notorious, granting the group license to make the even worse Big Thing. Again towing Cuccurullo and Ferrone, the trio sleepwalks through an unmemorable collection of rote retreads, complete with premature middle-age-crisis sexual stupidity (from the same school as the Who’s similarly titled It’s Hard) and brief instrumental interludes. A total waste of time.
The appearance of Decade, a selective but solid singles compilation with cover by fashion designer Stephen Sprouse, underscored the group’s flagging creative momentum and raised the possibility that the not-so-wild boys might have called it quits.
No such luck. The best that can be said about Liberty (making Cuccurullo and drummer Sterling Campbell permanent members of the band) is that it doesn’t sound much like Notorious or Big Thing. Chris Kimsey’s lively, down-to-business production avoids those albums’ obvious sonic vapidity. A senseless collision of standard Duran/Power Station funk, tuneless guitar raunch (!), Motown-inflected soul pop (“Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over)” sounds like the B-52’s interpreting Joe Jackson), numbing dance grooves, Rio-style lushness and even (now here’s a great idea) found-sound audio collage, Liberty is accessibly idiotic, with lyrics that set new standards for pretensions gone out of bounds. Typical of Le Bon’s crimes against intelligence, taste and dignity: “Divine blasphemer tempting / Holy beads of jism/with the scarlet catechism…” Yeuch!
Andy Taylor’s solo career got off to a quick and weird start in mid-’86 when he scored a minor hit single with “Take It Easy,” a song for the soundtrack of American Anthem. Unlike anything else in his past work, the tune unnervingly resembles “Let Your Love Flow,” the Bellamy Brothers’ 1976 easy-listening smash.
Although Taylor’s name alone graces the cover of Thunder, ex-Pistol Steve Jones co-wrote, co-produced and played half the guitar on it. Impressionable Durannies must have plotzed upon hearing their beloved fashion plate roaring through demi-metal rock songs. Pathetic stabs at incorporating echoes of D2 and PS aside, the pair’s power chords (and even some of the solos) ring loud and true, giving the louder songs conviction, if not artistic merit.
In ’93, Duran Duran (minus Campbell) reappeared on the runway with Duran Duran (semi-officially known as The Wedding Album for its nuptial cover art, not any historical John’n’Yoko references), a pretentious topical travesty that, despite its obvious awfulness, rehabilitated the group’s commercial fortunes. Another shallow display of mindless eclecticism, the album shuttles wearily among Duran’s old dreamy swish (“Ordinary World”), faux-rap techno-slam (“Drowning Man”), soulful British dance-rock (“Come Undone”), Madonna gospel disco (“None of the Above”) and Princely funk (“UMF,” “Shelter”). At its most outrageous, Le Bon duets with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento (“Breath After Breath”), staking a thoroughly bogus claim to multi-culturalism. Likewise, the lyrics stick Duran’s nose in some unlikely places: “Sin of the City” is a surprisingly literal attack on the landlords of New York’s Happyland social club (where 87 people died in a 1990 fire), expressing enough outrage to suggest a personal stake in the tragedy. “Too Much Information,” however, takes on a more obvious issue for the video-savvy media slaves: “Destroyed by MTV / I hate to bite the hand that feeds me so much information.” The band’s rendition of “Femme Fatale” is overheated, but Lou Reed’s song is evidently indestructible.
Not content to leave it at that, Duran jumped whole hog onto the covers-album bandwagon, recording Thank You, one of the worst such endeavors released by name-brand artists during the mid-’90s vogue for such things. When not attempting to copycat classic-rock originals like the Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” the quartet (aided by every spare drummer on the planet) demonstrates its arrogant misapprehension of rap (besides Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” they take a crack at Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” a raucously rocked-up extravaganza on which the rapper redoes his own rhyme, with Grandmaster Flash scratching and other members of the Furious Five adding backing vocals). Duran Duran also makes a point of proving its lack of soul (Sly Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher,” the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”) and inadequacy for reinventing the work of real songwriters (Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”).