Classic album revisited: Duran Duran’s “Notorious”

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Duran Duran was one of the most successful bands to emerge from the early MTV era.  They had all the ingredients for success and were a perfect partner for the fledgling music network. Five sexy and stylish Brits who were able to distill influences like Ultravox, Japan, David Bowie and Roxy Music into ultra-commercial new wave/pop anthems that, with the help of their big-budget, glamorous videos, appealed to a massive audience worldwide.  The band’s 1981 self-titled debut album and early singles like “Planet Earth,” “Carless Memories” and “Girls on Film” generated significant buzz and some chart success in their native UK, but it was their second album, 1982’s “Rio,” that made Duran Duran worldwide superstars. “Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Save a Prayer” were all major hits, and suddenly the band was everywhere. At the peak of their success the levels of hysteria surrounding them rivaled Beatlemania.  The photogenic Simon LeBon (vocals), Nick Rhodes (Keyboards) and the three unrelated Taylors (John on bass, Andy on guitar, and Roger on drums) were on the covers of all the magazines, on nearly perpetual MTV rotation and their hits saturated the radio waves.  Duran Duran played to crowds of screaming fans around the world, and while some critics at the time dismissed them as mere cheap imitators of their influences and a case of style over substance, their early albums are now widely regarded as landmark recordings of the early 80s.  The timing was perfect for Duran Duran. They had the look, the sound, the talent, and the vehicle (via MTV, radio and magazines) to transmit their musical vision to teenage bedrooms all over the world.

Over the next couple years, Duran Duran built on their success. After the “Rio” album became a mega-smash, the band’s American label Capital Records reissued their self-titled debut in early ’83 with the addition of newly-recorded single “Is There Something I Should Know?” which became yet another monster hit. Duran Duran continued their hot streak in 1983 with third album “Seven And The Ragged Tiger,” released in November of that year.  “Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday” were both Top 10 hits, and they finally earned their first US #1 in the spring of ’84 with the third single, a Nile Rodgers remix of album track “The Reflex.”  The hits kept coming. “The Wild Boys,” the lone studio track from their live album “Arena,” hit #2 in late ’84 (thanks in part to a memorable video in which Simon LeBon is tied to a giant water-wheel).  Then in the summer of 1985 they scored another #1 single with A View to a Kill, the theme from the critically reviled but commercially successful James Bond movie starring Roger Moore, Christopher Walken and Grace Jones.  Duran Duran were seemingly unstoppable.

Then the wheels started to come off.  After the ginormously successful but exhausting 1984 world tour, the band decided to take a break as Duran Duran and ultimately split into two different side projects, both of which were generally successful (although nowhere approaching the levels of success enjoyed by the band collectively). Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor grouped as a side-project under the name Arcadia, and released the outstanding art-pop album “So Red the Rose” in November 1985.  Single “Election Day” became a Top 10 hit in America, follow-up “Goodbye is Forever” hit the Top 40, and subsequent singles “The Flame” and “The Promise” were modest hits in Europe. Meanwhile, guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist John Taylor joined with former Chic drummer Tony Thompson and vocalist Robert Palmer to form The Power Station, with an edgy but more commercial heavy pop-rock sound. They scored two major hits over the summer of ’85 with “Some Like it Hot” and their cover of the T. Rex classic “Get it On (Bang a Gong)”.  

When the time came to reconvene in 1986 with producer Nile Rodgers to record the new Duran Duran album, problems and conflict fractured the band.  Roger Taylor was sick and tired of the music business altogether, and quit.  Guitarist Andy Taylor, dreams of solo stardom swimming in his head, also left after participating in some of the early sessions for the new album (he would manage only one Top 40 hit as a solo artist:  “Take it Easy”, from the film American Anthem, hit #24 in 1986).  The band continued recording as a trio, Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, with former Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and producer (and former guitarist for Chic) Nile Rodgers helping on guitar, and drums handled by prolific session musician and former Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone.  The band had worked with Nile Rodgers before – he did the single mix for “The Reflex” which gave them their first #1, and he also produced their “Wild Boys” single.  This new combination of talent produced an album that was markedly different than what Duran Duran fans had come to expect, but was a superb collection that still sounds fantastic all these years later:  “Notorious.”  

It wasn’t a complete reinvention – Simon LeBon’s familiar vocals… the big melodic hooks… the new wave synths…   all were still there. But this time they went for a more sexy and sophisticated vibe, a soulful and funkier sound with horns featured prominently on many of the tracks.   It was a gamble, no doubt, to put out an album so markedly different from Duran Duran’s trademark sound, especially since it had been 3 years since their last studio album (an eternity in the attention-span deficient age of MTV, when fads came and went with astonishing rapidity), and the band were for the first time presenting themselves as a trio.  They could have gone the easy route and tried to recreate “Hungry Like the World” and “Rio.”  It was a brave move, and the results ultimately proved well worth the risk.  Make no mistake, the album came nowhere close to the sales figures of their previous albums, and is widely considered a major commercial failure.  But the album stands up nearly 3 decades after its release as the band’s most underrated – a smokin’ hot collection of pop songs that merge Duran Duran’s trademark hooks and sense of melody with a sexy and soulful dance vibe.  Daring and adventurous, but still accessible and commercial.

ddnotorioussingle.jpgThe project actually got off to a promising start.  The first single was the title-song, “Notorious.”  The electrifying dance-rock track – with its famous “No-No-Notorious” hook – was a worldwide smash, climbing all the way to #2 in America.  It has a strong melody, a sleek and funky guitar riff and one of the band’s grooviest bass lines.  Nile Rodgers was one of the most respected hit-makers in the business, and his production work sounds fresh and crisp.  The black and white video (featuring model Christy Turlington) was played heavily on MTV, and from all appearances it seemed Duran Duran was back in a big way.

Then the album’s fortunes turned.  There are any number of strong, commercial tracks the band could have chosen as the second single.  The song they ended up going with – “Skin Trade” – is undeniably brilliant, but it had zero chance of being a major hit in America (and indeed it stumbled to a peak of #39, by far the band’s worst showing since they first broke big in the US with “Hungry Like the Wolf”). 

skintrade.pngThe track did only slightly better internationally. “Skin Trade” was simply too different and overtly sexual to gain any traction at radio. A shame. With Simon LeBon singing in a Prince-like falsetto, a slithery keyboard riff and a rapid-fire horn arrangement performed by The Borneo Horns, the song is stylish, sexy and has an aura of danger and darkness to it.  It’s gorgeously-produced, and arguably the finest moment on the album, but it was so different than anything Duran Duran had previously offered that it’s hardly a surprise in retrospect that its release as the album’s second single completely derailed the project.  The strongest track is not necessarily the best choice for a single. 

By the time the third single was released, it was too late – the album’s commercial momentum had tanked. And once again, they chose the wrong track.  Released in the spring of 1987, “Meet El Presidente” was given a fresh coat of paint with a single remix that added some additional percussion and a female backing vocal part, but it was a futile effort.  Although the remix added some spice to the track, “Meet El Presidente” peaked at a disappointing #70 on the US singles charts.  meetelpresidente.jpgIt’s a catchy song, and imminently danceable, but again there were better options on the album to send to radio. After this failure, the promotion for the “Notorious” album was essentially over.  Remixes had been commissioned for both “American Science” and “Vertigo (Do the Demolition)” for possible single releases, but both were shelved in the wake of the failure of “Skin Trade” and “Meet El Presidente.”

The sad thing about the commercial disappointment of the “Notorious” project is that while it is a stylistic change for the band that may have been hard for some fans to absorb, the album is remarkably strong and commercial throughout. The title song was a huge hit, so it wasn’t simply a matter of the new sound alienating fans.  It was a classic case of choosing the wrong singles, and a perfect example of how these decisions can make or break a project.  To be fair, these are not easy decisions to make, and often times there are conflicting opinions between the artist and the record label – and hindsight is 20/20.  The band were justifiably proud of “Skin Trade” as a recording, but the driving rocker “Hold Me” – with its big drum beat, hard rocking guitar, and stadium-rock chorus that is the closest thing to the “classic” Duran Duran sound on the album – was the obvious choice for second single.  It likely would have done much better at radio than “Skin Trade” and might have followed “Notorious” into the Top 10. 

In fact, almost every track on the album was single-worthy.  The slinky funk-pop “American Science,” with its prominent horn riff, has a sexy, swaying vibe that radio might have embraced.  It sounds like something right off “Seven and the Ragged Tiger,” and Simon’s double-tracked vocal during the pre-chorus (“such a lonely place….”) is simply sublime.  “American Science” sounds particularly fresh, and is a tribute to Nile Rodgers’ ability as a producer.  Much of his 80s work sounds less dated that almost any of his contemporaries, and “American Science” is a perfect example of this.

And how about “A Matter of Feeling”?  A classic Duran Duran ballad in the vein of “Save a Prayer.”  “A Matter of Feeling” is pure beauty – Simon LeBon’s finest vocal performance on the album, a compelling melody and beautiful keyboard work by Nick Rhodes.  It’s a song that would have reconnected listeners with the new Duran Duran style while reminding them of what made them love the band in the first place.  It was evidently considered as a potential single – a promo 12” inch was released in Brazil and is now a collector’s item – but it ended up being forgotten (except for die-hard fans) as an album track. With the right video, “A Matter of Feeling” might have done quite well.

The other big wasted opportunity on the album is Side Two’s opener “Vertigo (Do the Demolition)”.  One of the edgier rock songs on the album, “Vertigo” has a great heavy keyboard riff over some of Steve Ferrone’s best drumwork.  Once again Nile Rodgers gets the most out of the band, and he does a terrific job on this track merging heavy guitar and synthesizer riffs together to really propel the song.  It’s got a strong chorus and builds with intensity thanks to an exciting rock guitar solo.  “Vertigo” is a killer track with a futuristic vibe that – with a great video – might have brought Duran Duran back into the Top 10.  It could have used some tightening – at nearly 5 minutes, a single remix would have been needed – but “Vertigo” is one of the all-time great forgotten Duran Duran songs.

“So Misled” is another gem.  A sizzling guitar riff over a heavy backbeat and multi-part vocals by Simon LeBon during the verse gives way to a great chorus that sticks in the head.  “Winter Marches On” is the one track that wouldn’t have been an option as a single – a slow, atmospheric number built on layered keyboards, it’s a change of pace that would have been at home on Arcadia’s “So Red the Rose” album.  Album closer “Proposition” is another strong rock track with a massive guitar riff and terrific chorus – a good closer, and another forgotten song that deserves a wider audience.  Had it been on “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” a few years earlier, it’s easy to imagine it being a single.

“Notorious” is an album that got a bad deal.  It’s far better than its standing in the Duran Duran catalog would make it seem.  Because it was a commercial disappointment, it’s rarely mentioned as one of the landmark albums of the 80s, but it is.  The influence of Chic veteran Nile Rodgers is obvious, and Steve Ferrone, who is most notably known as drummer for the R&B/funk/disco pioneers Average White Band, was also a major contributor to the new sound.  The album’s influence was obvious in some of the R&B/pop material that came out later in the 80s, and bands today like Daft Punk (who worked with Nile Rodgers on “Random Access Memories”) and Maroon 5, whose dance/pop, rock and funk tracks often sound as if they used the “Notorious” album as a template.  It’s a record that is due for a reassessment.  The band shines here.  The songs are catchy and accessible without being obvious grabs at the Top 40.  A classic album that is ready for a new round of fans and listeners.  Fortunately, a deluxe 2-CD edition (and a beautiful 2-LP vinyl package) was released in 2010. It’s a terrific new remaster and it includes several key remixes and single versions and the b-side “We Need You.”  The sound quality is outstanding.   

It should be noted that by 1986, Duran Duran wasn’t the only darling of the early MTV years to be struggling commercially.   Artists like Thomas Dolby, Culture Club, Men at Work, Human League (apart from their Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced smash “Human”), A Flock of Seagulls, ABC, Thompson Twins, Pat Benatar, and numerous others were all struggling to maintain the levels of their earlier success.  Radio had changed, with dance and R&B becoming more and more prominent.  But not all was doom and gloom for Duran Duran.  The band toured successfully for half a year in support of the album, and although the next album “Big Thing” would end up selling even less than “Notorious,” it did contain major hits “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is.”  After the massive failure of the “Liberty” album at the turn of the decade, in the early 90s the band would enjoy their biggest hits since their “Rio”-era heyday with “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” from “The Wedding Album.”  They still tour and record today, and their last album was the stellar “All You Need is Now,” released in late 2010.  Duran Duran is one of the few bands to emerge from the new wave era that not only are still around, still recording great material, but are not doing nostalgia tours.  They’ve built a remarkably strong catalog of work over their 3+ decades of recording and touring. If you only have their Greatest Hits and maybe “Rio,” you are missing out.  There are a number of great Duran Duran albums to discover, and “Notorious” is #1 on that list. 

Music writer for Metro Weekly. Contact at cgerard@metroweekly.com.