Duran Duran: Still the greatest pop band on the planet bar none

The legendary British pop band, Duran Duran, released their fifteen studio album, “Future Past,” in October to celebrate their 40th anniversary, making it clear they remain the greatest pop band on the planet even after four decades in the music industry.  Unlike many acts that shot to stardom in the 1980’s only to fizzle out with the rise of grunge and alternative rock (Motley Crue), or pursue new directions rooted in more traditional rock or blues (Europe), Duran Duran continues precisely where they started, pushing the envelope of popular music.  Their only goal across the years seems to be to produce songs that anyone, of any generation can dance to at a party, club, wedding, wherever, and to do it better than anyone else, with more verve and style, even as the band members themselves age into their sixties.

In a sense, time itself seems to play into their favor at this point, coming from an era where music still needed to be played on real instruments by real bands, not created almost entirely by a computer.  While Duran Duran will never be known as a jam band, they remain exciting live performers to this day, playing energetic, extended versions of their complete catalog to throngs of screaming fans. In fact, they remain the only band I’ve ever seen actually extend their setlist at the request of the audience, ending their show with an unexpected “The Reflex” after the crowd wouldn’t leave their seats. The benefits of being true musicians and songwriters are on full display in “Future Past.”  A song like “Invisible” in lesser hands could seem like it was mixed with sound loops on the old Acid program, but instead the music comes to life in the actual playing of it, the subtle fills and effortless changes that add texture simply not present without live performance.  There are synths and crazy beats, but all have the feeling of being played by real fingers, dancing across actual keyboards.

It’s almost hard to imagine now, but once upon a time Duran Duran was on the cutting edge by performing and recording their own remixes. The “night versions” that helped propel them to stardom in the United States in the early 1980’s  weren’t lifelessly assembled by some mixer in a studio.  Instead, the band would play different variations and extended versions themselves designed for clubs and similar venues, then add them to B-sides as “night versions” and other releases.  Duran Duran has long been built on their meaty, pounding bass tracks, and “Future Past” takes full advantage of John Taylor’s pulsating rhythms on which the synthesizers, guitars, and even horns are layered in.  Simon Le Bon’s vocals help hold everything together, peaking above the music, complete with their signature clever yet mainly nonsensical lyrics, as if the songs hover at the edge of real meaning:

And no one hears a word they say
Has the memory gone? Are you feeling numb?
Not a word they say
But a voiceless crowd isn’t backing down
When the air turns red
With their loaded hesitation
Can you say my name?
Has the memory gone? Are you feeling numb?
Have we all become invisible?

In a sense, they’re like the Ronnie James Dio of the New Romantic sound.  Instead of swords and sorcery, Duran Duran riffs on relationships, trading in break ups and sexual innuendo as ever, albeit with a more mature, reflective sense of perspective, a trend shared with other aging artists.  Throughout the album, there’s a sense of time passing, things lost that might not be found again, and memories you can’t quite live again in both the ballads and the more traditional pop songs.  The first verse of the title track, “Future Past,” set a tone bordering-on melancholy at times, a certain plaintive desperation creeping into Mr. Le Bon’s vocals, “Rain streams down the window, And I recall the day we ran and how, On Brownsea Island meadow, You couldn’t catch me then, you wouldn’t catch me now.”  The chorus rounds out the theme, “So don’t you cry, for what will never last, each moment created time, it’s all future past, that we are living now.”

“Anniversary,” a more synth driven pop track, echoes similar concepts, but this time focused on the career of the band itself, serving as something of a celebration of their 40 years of music and introducing a meta-feel somewhat established in their previous outing, “Paper Gods.”  “It may not seem like much, It may not seem like much at all, It may not seem like much, But it’s everything to us,” before launching into a call for a massive party, “Again, Anniversary, Celebrate, Anniversary, Again, Celebrate, Anniversary” complete with a do-do-do-de-do that harkens back to the chorus of “Hungry Like the Wolf.”  An official music video actually set at a massive party drives the point home, where the band meets younger versions of themselves at a wild, star studded gathering featuring guests in every conceivable state of attire from tuxedos and gowns to costumes and half naked.  Some of the guests themselves are almost spookily dead-on celebrity lookalikes including Madonna, Elton John, Daniel Craig, and Niki Manaj, all hamming it up.  Simon Le Bon even plays cards with the Queen of England.  Taken together, it’s provocative but not raunchy or over the top.

“Invisible” was also backed by an innovative music video, albeit in a completely different way as all of the imagery was generated entirely by Artificial Intelligence, some machine’s dream of what the song looks like.  Cutting edge videos, of course, are nothing new for Duran Duran, having revolutionized the burgeoning industry with one of their early hits, the aforementioned “Hungry Like the Wolf.”  Russell Mulcahy, who would go on to direct the cult classic Highlander, helmed the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf” after working with the band on an earlier, less high-profile effort.  Filmed on location in Sri Lanka, it was unusual at the time for its almost cinematic production values, lush shots of jungles, rivers, elephants, marketplaces and cafes, and a beautiful woman running through the forest, chased by Le Bon in safari gear.  It has since been criticized for promoting colonialism and objectifying women, but at the time the video captured the imagination of the executives at MTV, playing four times per day on the young channel, and helping to push the song to the number 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in March of 1983.  The video would go on to win the first Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1984.  As Rolling Stone noted, “The band was a natural for music television.  They may be the first rock group to ride in on a video wave.” 

From their earliest days as a club band in Birmingham, England, Duran Duran had their sights set on pop stardom, planning to take over the music world with their sound, the force of their personalities, and visual appeal.  They were keenly aware that popular music became such through a unique combination of airplay in different venues, primarily radio, clubs, and the emerging MTV scene, combined with the image of the band itself.  The “night versions” addressed the club scene, and their provocative video strategy would ultimately dominate MTV.  They were aided in this by a variety of clothing designers and stylists over the years, helping to craft their notoriously pretty boy image. Before then, the group was founded 1978 by John Taylor and Nick Rhodes.  Mr. Taylor and Mr. Rhodes had been working at the Rum Runner nightclub in Birmingham as doorman and deejay respectively, before they started rehearsing and playing at the venue as the house band.  As fate would have it, the Rum Runner was ideally located for aspiring musicians with several nightclubs nearby frequented by popular punk acts like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.  Barbarella’s was one such club, ultimately providing the nascent band with its name, shortening “Dr. Durand Durand” from Milo O’Shea’s character in the sci-fi film of the same name.

Like many other bands in their early years, Duran Duran went through many different line ups  before Simon Le Bon joined as lead singer based on a tip from a waitress who’d dated him in the past. The owners of The Rum Runner itself ultimately became their first management team and by 1980, they’d recorded some demo tapes and started playing clubs in both Birmingham and London.  There, they attracted the attention of both EMI and Phonogram for the first record deal, ultimately signing with EMI largely out of some nostalgia for The Beatles.  Their self-titled debut album was released by the record label in 1981, and the first single, “Planet Earth” reached the UK’s top 20, peaking at number 12.  The third single, “Girls on Film,” ultimately went to number 5.  It was their first song backed by a controversial video featuring mud wrestling, pillow fights with topless women, and other sexual images bordering on fetishistic.  As MTV was only weeks old at the time, Duran Duran had planned the video for nightclubs and paid television, hoping it would generate chatter.  One of the directors, Kevin Godley explained, “We were very explicitly told by Duran Duran’s management to make a very sensational and erotic piece that would be for clubs, where it would get shown uncensored just to make people take notice and talk about it.”

A heavily edited version ultimately made its way to MTV as Duran Duran mounted their first world tour, including the United States, but it was their second album, Rio, that would ultimately make them a household name and turn them into pop superstars.  Featuring four UK Top Twenty Singles, including the title track, “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Save a Prayer,” and “My Own Way,” the album was so big it prompted the late Diana, Princess of Wales to proclaim that Duran Duran was her favorite band, earning them a new nickname the “Fab Five,” an homage to The Beatles “Fab Four.”  After a slow start in the US, Rio peaked at number 6 and remained on the charts for 129 weeks.  In 2003, it was listed as number 65 in the NME 100 Greatest Albums of All Time List.  “Our first gigs in the United States were crazy and culty,” Mr. Rhodes said later, “But when we came back after ‘Hungry’ was a hit, it was mayhem. It was Beatlemania. We were doing a signing of the ‘Girls on Film’ video at a store in Times Square. We couldn’t get out of the store. The cops sealed off the streets.”

Duran Duran would continue to roll off a string of chart toppers for the next several years.  “Union of the Snake,” “New Moon on Monday,” “The Reflex,” “The Wild Boys,” and “Is There Something I Should Know?” all hit the charts in short order, giving them five top twenty hits from three different albums in a single year.  They’re success continued with “A View to A Kill,” the title track from Roger Moore’s last James Bond movie, and the first Bond theme to go to number 1 on the US charts.  Alas, that also would be the last time the “Fab Five” recorded together for some time.  Drummer Roger Taylor left the band, citing exhaustion and retiring to the English countryside.  “I was burned out. I think I was just exhausted. It was a very intense five years. We didn’t stop. It was constant touring, constant writing, recording. We broke internationally, as well—instantly, pretty well. It’s a nonstop schedule, really. I had lost myself somewhere.”  Guitarist Andy Taylor signed with MCA as a solo artist and was practically forced to play on a few tracks.

Simon Lebon, Nick Rhodes, and John Taylor soldiered on without them, though not quite with the same success.  In the thirty years since, Duran Duran would reform and occasionally re-achieve the heights of pop stardom with hits like “Come Undone” and “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise,” all without ever really changing their style.  They’ve matured, they’ve aged, they’ve experimented, but ultimately they continue to focus on popular music, the sound and the image.  All told, they’ve sold some hundred million albums. Their last effort metaphorically threw down the gauntlet on the title track, “Paper Gods.”  “Oh, the paper gods in the sky of gray, All the fools in town are ruling today, Today, Bow to the paper gods in a world that is paper thin (oh, the paper gods), Fools in town are ruling now (in the sky of grey), Bleeding from paper cuts, money for headshots (all the fools in town are ruling today), Fools leading (today) Who needs it?”

“Future Past” proves that the world at large and the world of pop culture in particular still needs Duran Duran.  

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