Friday, February 25, 2011

Guest Blogger: Q Tukka boots, Barbarella and Bond with Matt Rudd

Keeping the theme of 80s icons bobbing along - guest blogger Matt Rudd, brings us a glorious run down on New Rom/royal faves - Duran Duran. By day Matt can be found parked up at the Does That Make Sense blog, however of a sunday evening he plays nowt but 80s hits and highlights for Q Radio...So why-I-I-I don't I cut short my shambly ramblings and hand over to Matt..

For a period of three or so years in the 1980s, Duran Duran could justifiably label themselves the biggest band on the planet. They were rescued from faddish New Romantic cultishness and thrown into the world's mainstream through a combination of handsomeness, colour and a sense for the zeitgeist.

It's 30 years this month since the self-titled debut album was released and quickly the smoulder and headbands was to become pop superstardom and a second British Invasion. The big appreciation of what was going on around them took them to the United States of America quite early in their careers, thanks to a Godley & Creme directed video for an otherwise standard pop single Girls On Film that essentially
went for soft porn and mild fetish and even those outraged by the video - including the newly-influential MTV, who banned it - had to conclude they stood out from the crowd.

Detractors say that they were lucky to emerge just as videos were starting to form a major part in a band's evolution towards success, but they still had to make the videos and still had to get them noticed. As much a factor in the seediness of the Girls On Film video was MTV's decision to cut an alternative version, meaning that the song was still played and the story of the original video was still newsworthy.

The video art was something Duran Duran pulled off time and again, but it was fortunate that in Simon Le Bon, they had a charismatic frontman with a knack of being able to write lyrics that if not exactly a threat to Coleridge, still inspired a desire for interpretation. Add to that the obvious go-getting behind a keyboard of
Nick Rhodes, who seemed to master new synthesiser ranges before anyone else, and the obvious good looks of the three Taylors, and you had a band that could do no wrong.

Musically, they developed after that debut album, with Rhodes becoming as much of an arranger as a writer. Save A Prayer, from their huge second album Rio, finds us a terrific contradiction via some of Le Bon's least viable lyrics with some of Rhodes' best discovery of bankable sounds. The warble within the intro was, in 1982 and with computers still very much for show, a hard to one to discover and pull off, but they
managed it. And though they didn't need an excuse to go to Sri Lanka, they had one anyway now.

Afterwards came the title track and one of the biggest definitive images of Duran Duran's videomaking. The yacht, the wildly coloured suits - and yes, they actually looked like smart popstars, ditching the futuristic nonsense after one album because they decided it was vile - and Le Bon perched on the bow mouthing stuff about a cherry ice cream smile, birthdays and pretty views. It remains the best received Duran Duran song on a dancefloor.

The final hurdle to overcome was to get to No.1 in the charts. For all their headlines and domination, the first two albums produced no chart-toppers in the UK, with Save A Prayer coming closest. Indeed, Rio had only just made the Top 10 - something that surprises people to this day - and it took a filler single, made to maintain the name while the band hid away recording the third album and planning a major global tour, to get their wish. Is There Something I Should Know didn't just reach No.1, it went straight in at the top, which was something only fans of Slade and the Jam were used to celebrating at the time. There was something sharper about the pop sound, again led by Rhodes' desire to have riffs and hooks on the keyboard instead of on guitar, but for once Andy Taylor - easily the least memorable member - was allocated a strong guitar track after the repetitive vocal intro and this remained a motif of the band for the next 12 months. Cannily, they grafted the song on to the issue of the 1981 debut album in the USA and this helped sales substantially, but it has still only ever appeared on collections and compilations in Britain. Rhodes, meanwhile, celebrated his second chart-topper in the UK of 1983, having produced the melancholia that underscored Limahl's sunny vocals on Kajagoogoo's Too Shy.

Seven And The Ragged Tiger, with a cover photo shot in Australia and some fiercely focussed in-house production, emerged later in 1983 with lead single Union Of The Snake entering the charts in the Top 3. This album was not greatly received. It was claimed the band were getting tired and not making enough progress. New Moon On Monday, a fans favourite but not publicly endorsed, again was only just a Top 10 hit and it took an astute remix job from Nile Rodgers, complete with famous acapella opening, on lead track The Reflex to salvage something, taking it to No.1 in the spring of 1984. Listening to the album version of that song now, having known the single version all this time, is very hard.

The latter half of 1984 restored the reputation for much-debated video ideas within the band, during which time the newly-bankable Morrissey had declared that they could be directed by "a drunken goat". Nonetheless, he was a fan, as proved by his decision to award 1984 standalone release Wild Boys the Single Of The Fortnight tag when reviewing the new issues in Smash Hits ("fiery vocals and mountainous drums\'85. but please boys, don't make a video"). They did make a video, and some video it was too, with Le Bon still dousing down rumours that he was close to drowning several times. The single was issued with six different sleeves - five featuring each single band member, and one with the whole group on - but even collectors couldn't quite get it to No.1.

There almost wasn't a Duran Duran in 1985 as Le Bon found himself trapped in the hull of his yacht Drum, underwater and with oxygen running out, during the Fastnet race at Cornwall. Rescued and recovered, the band accidentally found themselves chosen to write the theme song for the next Bond movie (courtesy of John Taylor drunkenly heckling a producer about the standard of previous songs) and took themselves to Paris to parody espionage activity for the video, with Godley & Creme back in tow.

A View To A Kill remains the highest-charting Bond theme in the UK and the only one to reach the top in the States. It's also a moment that millions of Duran Duran fans try to box off and isolate in their minds as soon the big split would occur. The quintet did Live Aid - the Philadelphia leg, with Le Bon's humiliating bum note
moment - and then imploded.

And so we got Arcadia and Power Station. For all the puffing up that the members of each project attempted in publicity, neither were as good as Duran Duran and nobody really wanted to know - and they knew it. Arcadia, courtesy of having Rhodes and Le Bon, sounded more Duran-like (albeit staggeringly over-pretentious) just by dint of keeping the electronic experimentation going, whereas Power Station - two of the Taylors alongside Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson - were just a messy, muddy funk disaster that only served (in the negative) to allow Andy Taylor to drive his axeman's ego; and (in the positive) to revive Palmer's solo career. Their version of Get It On is one of the most disrespectful, most rank covers ever made.

Bridges were built with John Taylor but the other two left the band, not to return for 20 years, and only the telegenic, introspective drummer Roger Taylor did so with blessing. Notorious was the next release and contains some of the material Le Bon remains most proud of, but the honeymoon - already close to its natural end - had been brought to an abrupt halt. The title track, in which Nick Rhodes takes a funk riff from a guitar and plays it with keys instead, was a smart single but the demise was obvious via the placing outside of the Top 20 of follow-up Skin Trade, despite Le Bon's continuing endorsement and a video that received nominations for the effects used and, naturally for a song about the glamour industry, featured a woman who was easy on the eye.

From 1986 onwards, Duran Duran ceased to matter, and only when nostalgia accompanied a surprisingly approachable comeback single in Ordinary World in 1993 did the sneery disdain for any band synonymous with the bad old 1980s come to a halt. Ordinary World was, after all, a tremendous pop song, catered to the adult market that had grown up with the band while still being melodious and catchy enough to get on pop A-lists and it deservedly pierced the Top 10 - only the second time the band had managed that since Notorious seven years before. The follow-up, Come Undone, was a brilliantly uncommercial coal-fired song, combining gloom and echo in production with Le Bon in menacing mode.

In recent times, Duran Duran have been happy to play the ageing daddy of pop. They acquired so much goodwill in their heyday just through a pop star's expected lifestyle, aided by good songs and videos that captured a mood, and unlike many of their contemporaries who are forced on to nostalgia tours, they can still make proper records in swish surroundings and be taken seriously in doing so - hence the recruitment of a starstruck Mark Ronson to produce the current release, All You Need Is Now. All except Rhodes are now in their fifties and still gleeful at what they achieved, what they got away with and what shifts in musical and visual arts they inspired.

And, whatever magazines tell you about big rivalries and comparable album sales, they were always miles better than Spandau Ballet.


Simon said...

I was a big Pop kid at the time so I loved Duran Duran; fantastic pop singles. But then it was at the peak of what I consider to be the best period for singles (77-83.

I also loved Spandau, but they were local lads (two went to my school), and the soulboy influences were much stronger, and now I'm older with more of my life to look back on I realise that particular thing has been my thing more than any other.

Mondo said...

I was more of a Spand's fan (but did own some Duran style Tukka boots). And like Soft Cell, the 12"ers were always worth having. The Freeze, Glow, that bass riff on Paint Me Down - and Gold was a Bond theme waiting to happen. Although they totally blew it with True and the soft-rock plod that followed.

As you say a perfect time for pop...

Matthew Rudd said...

Spandau lost it for me when, after Chant No.1, they stopped using synthesisers and started using saxophones.

lil said...

Can’t quite believe it was 30 years ago?
I don’t remember that “Girls on Film” video being so raunchy either?
(Blimey no wonder it was banned back then!)
I didn’t realise there was so much to know about Duran Duran...

Mick said...

Great article but Duran Duran better than Spandau Ballet?

Mondo said...

Fair point Matt, they did go on the soppy side around The Diamond album..

Bit cheeky isn't Lil - I think The Chauffer is sort of fruity too..

I'll be posting a couple of rare Spandau 12"ers later in the week Mick...check back to see if they're in the Vinyl Archive collection..

Piley said...

What a great piece, well done all.

Huge fan at the time, dipped a bit in the late 80's and most of the 90's, but well buzzed up again in the 2000's. Saw them when all 5 reformed, and have to say it was just an incredible show - one I think back on a lot.

Oddly, I bumped into Simon Le Bon at LegoLand back in the late 90's!!! Yes really! Photos to prove it somewhere... Do I win a prize for oddest place to spot a music sleb?!

Mick said...

I spotted Neil Tennant in Harrods once. How does that compare?

Looking forward to the Spandau 12-inchers, Mondo. Might even post a response if I can. I always thought Spandau beat Duran hands down on the singing front. 'Charismatic' as Simon Le Bon may have been he was a crap singer compared to Tony Hadley. Check his Live Aid performance.

One other point: Mrs Mick says as a teenager she prefered Spandau because DD were all such ugly bastards but obviously she does have strange taste in men.

Valentine Suicide said...

I'm going to have remain diplomatically silent on this piece.

John Medd said...

Mick - I concur: Le Bon may have been a great frontman but he couldn't carry a tune in a bag. Saw The Ballet at The Empire Pool and Hadley could have reached the back of the room without a mic. How Kemp (and the judge) could say that his vocals didn't in anyway contribute to their songs remains a complete mystery to me.

Mondo said...

I've got to confess I always thought Le Bon was a shocker of honker - probably at his worst on The Reflex - that whiny 'I-I-I-I' bit..

And Nick Rhodes could pout like a champ - but not sure how much of keys man he actually was. Plenty of synthy washes but I don't remember any Rhodes solos...

Celebs in unlikely places - didn't we do this in a previous podast Ron Wood buying milk in Benfleet?

Mick said...

I've always found Simon's wailing on Wild Boys unlistenable. Don't want to sound like I'm Duranie bashing too much because I've enjoyed a lot of their records and videos.

Incidentally, my kids think Duran Duran are miles better than Spandau Ballet. Not sure what that proves but I think it's because they are poppier and the videos are still on rotation and still look great.

Kolley Kibber said...

I nearly managed a diplomatic silence, but just COULDN'T...of course it's a hugely personal thing, but Duran Duran brought me out in boils from the word go, because they took themselves so dreadfully seriously. Spandau had moments when they hit the very heights/plumbed the very depths of pretension, of course, but they always seemed to be having a bit of a laugh at the same time ( I used to see the Kemp Brothers out and about at clubs and bars a lot, and they were nice enough blokes; Tony Hadley could be a bit of a twerp and Steve Norman was always off his head, for the record.).

Nobody (among my admittedly small and self-important gang of London-based clubbers) was at all surprised when Duran Duran morphed so quickly into Robert Palmeresque playboys, and started poncing around unimaginatively on yachts with models. It all seemed a substitute for having any interesting musical ideas, and seemed to really herald the beginning of the end of what had been a genuinely creative, if art-schoolish, time in pop music (79 - 83). And of course it also coincided with the advent of cocaine as a popular drug, a substance which in my view has done more to kill creativity than most narcotics.

And I'm 100% with Mondo on Le Bon's honking. 'The Reflex' is one song I will cross the room to turn the radio off for, and I've done so ever since the first time I heard it. 'Why-y-y-y-y-y..." *click.silence.*

But you're clearly passionate about 'em, and gawd bless ya for that. Don't take my ranting personally! I was a New Romantic, now I'm just an old one.