One of the biggest bands to emerge from the early MTV era, Duran Duran was 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 expensive and glamorous videos, appealed to a massive audience worldwide. The band’s 1981 self-titled debut and early singles like “Planet Earth,” “Carless Memories” and “Girls on Film” generated significant buzz and some chart success in their native U.K., but it was their second album, Rio, released in 1982, 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, 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 screaming hordes across the globe. They had the look, the sound, the talent, and the vehicle (MTV, radio and magazines) to transmit their musical vision to teenage bedrooms all over the world.
One of the reasons Duran Duran connected so strongly is Simon LeBon’s knack for coming up with vivid soundbites that plug perfectly into big pop hooks. “Voices in your body coming through on the radio,” he drawls on “Union of the Snake.” What does it mean? What does it matter? Their sex appeal has always been undeniable. Who doesn’t swoon when LeBon, voice thick with desire, implores, “Some people call it a one night stand, but we can call it paradise!”
Perhaps that inherent sensuality and the overall feeling of excess in their videos is one reason why Duran Duran has typically been undervalued by critics. They’ve always carried the stigma of “style over substance,” aging MTV darlings forever stuck in the decadent ’80s. Certainly style and visuals have always been important (which is true for almost any artist), but it goes hand in hand with superbly crafted, exhilarating and richly melodic pop/rock. LeBon may not be the most technically gifted vocalist in the world, but his voice is perfect for Duran Duran. Nick Rhodes is arguably the musical brains behind the group, a wizard on the synthesizers and in the studio. John Taylor, Andy Taylor and Roger Taylor are all more than capable musicians. After Andy Taylor left, the guitar duties were taken up for a while by Warren Cuccurullo, a former Frank Zappa collaborator and a founding member of Missing Persons who is widely regarded as a guitar virtuoso.
Ultimately, as with any artist, it’s the music that matters. An objective and open-minded analysis of the band’s entire catalog reveals an impressive collection that matches up favorably with any commercial band of the last thirty years. Duran Duran has issued thirteen studio albums (plus So Red the Rose under the name Arcadia), and only the first three were released at the height of their frenzied, MTV-fed success The vast majority of their work came after the initial wave of madness subsided. Their thirty-year career encompasses a variety of stylistic tune-ups (although remaining within the pop realm), and multiple lineup changes. Casual listeners may be surprised to discover that Duran Duran never really left (the longest gap between new studio albums has been four years), and there is far more to discover than just a handful of their biggest ’80s hits. They’ve endured, albeit through ups and downs, while most other bands that emerged alongside them are either riding the nostalgia circuit, or have long since disbanded. Duran Duran continues to release vital new music and play to enthusiastic crowds. Their new album, produced with Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers, is due in September.
There’s no glossing over the fact that Thank You is a massive misfire. Cover albums are always a dicey proposition, and when you’re coming off a big comeback success the idea is to build on that momentum. Cover albums are rarely the right recipe for that. Thank You is haphazard at best, a diverse lineup of songs that don’t really fit together and never really feel natural in Duran Duran’s hands. In their quest for eclecticism, they venture into territory in which they’re clearly out of their element. Their covers of hip-hop anthems “911 is a Joke” and “White Lines” are good only for mockery. They plod through a non-descript version of “I Wanna Take You Higher” that feels forced and limp. The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” fits their vibe perfectly, but unfortunately their rush-job has none of the grace and beauty of the original. It’s a pale imitation that doesn’t serve any discernable purpose, but at least it’s not as bad as the rest of the album. Turning Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” into a vapid power-balled is unforgivable, as is their soulless reggae-lite take on Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives.” Hidden away amongst the dross, though, is one real gem. Their ethereal retelling of a junkie hanging on by the edge of his teeth in Lou Reed’s classic “Perfect Day” is far and away the best thing on the album. Unlike just about everything else on Thank You, they understand and inhabit “Perfect Day” with real feeling. Thank You was the wrong album at the wrong time, and at this point it’s a mostly-forgotten footnote in the band’s catalog (which is probably for the best).
History has not been kind to Liberty. Even the band has dissed it. On the one hand it features the beautiful, lush ballad “My Antarctica,” which is as good as anything they’ve done, but is also burdened with “All Along The Water,” possibly the ghastliest miscalculation in the band’s entire repertoire. Liberty was doomed from the start commercially. Duran Duran wasn’t exactly coming off a strong sales performance with Big Thing, and the weirdly chirpy lead single “Violence of Summer” had zero chance of being a hit in America. Either the title track or the upbeat “First Impression” would have been far better selections to introduce the project. The mid-tempo “Serious” is an excellent track, but lacks the strong hook needed to be a first single. Too much of Liberty is just average, and when you throw in a couple real clunkers it gets weighted down so far that not even “My Antarctica” can salvage it.
Medazzaland is the sound of a band adrift, trying to connect with a new generation and remain relevant, but not knowing exactly how to go about it. John Taylor was gone, so the band was down to LeBon, Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo. The core of the music was put together by Rhodes and Cuccurullo, and originally intended to be part of their side-project TV Mania. Lead single “Electric Barbarella” is pure calculated artifice. Although not nearly as bad as the dismal “Violence of Summer,” it’s clear Duran Duran was searching for an updated anthem, a “Rio” equivalent for the ‘90s, but they only come up sounding desperate. Even the jittery synth lines echo strongly of their iconic ’80s hit. “Big Bang Generation” sounds like a conscious attempt to insinuate themselves into modern musical culture, and it just ends up falling flat. They fare much better elsewhere. “Out of My Mind” is a swooning ballad, a bit of classic Duran Duran. The majestic “Midnight Sun” and “Buried in the Sand” are tantalizing examples that Duran Duran was still capable of greatness when all the dots aligned. Also superb is the wistful ballad “Michael You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For.” “Be My Icon,” an electro-rocker with a heavy beat and meaty guitar riff, is one of the more successful upbeat numbers. The pieces are there on Medazzaland, and it’s by no means a complete failure, but perhaps owing to a lack of focus it never completely gels. Medazzaland sounds like a patchwork attempt at trying different things to see what sticks.
Duran Duran had managed one comeback, over a decade earlier with The Wedding Album. Could it happen again? With all five original members back in the fold and a strong collection of new songs that manage to sound modern and still retain that signature Duran Duran sound, Astronaut was a solid, if not spectacular, return. It rocketed all the way to #3 on the U.K. album charts, their highest placement in twenty-one years. The gleaming dance-pop anthem “(Reach Up For The) Sunrise” and the edgier “What Happens Tomorrow” became substantial hits. There were a number of strong moments, including the kinetic dance track “Want You More,” the acoustic-flavored “Astronaut,” the exhilarating “Nice,” and the slick and sexy “Bedroom Toys.” Unfortunately, the album is frontloaded with the strongest material and Side Two is decidedly weaker. Still, it was another round of success for the band and an important reemergence that nobody could have predicted with the triple chart failures of Thank You, Medazzaland and Pop Trash. It seems likely that Astronaut will be their final album with the classic five-piece lineup, as Taylor left yet again in 2006 prior to the release of their next album, Red Carpet Massacre, and indications are his return is unlikely.
After the success of Astronaut, the band went back into the studio as a five-piece again and neared completion of a new album to be titled Reportage. Ultimately, feeling there were no strong singles, they decided to shelve that album, and go in a more pop direction. Guitarist Andy Taylor left acrimoniously, and the group commenced with Red Carpet Massacre as a four-piece. They ended up working with one of the hottest producers of the era, Timbaland, and Justin Timberlake guested on a couple tracks. There are conflicting interview quotes from the band about how all this came to be, and it’s easy to disown an album when it crashes and burns. Whatever the backstory, Reportage remains unreleased and Red Carpet Massacre was, well, a massacre, failing to replicate the success of Astronaut, and savaged by critics. Timbaland didn’t seem a natural fit for Duran Duran’s style and the end result is a sleek and stylish pop album with ample hooks, but on some tracks it’s hard to see where the band comes into the equation. At times it sounds like a Timbaland album with Simon LeBon guesting on vocals. Perhaps sensitivity to that line of criticism is the reason “Falling Down,” a sinuous mid-tempo track more in line with the band’s traditional sound, was selected as the lead single instead of more upbeat and commercial choices like “Nite Runner” or “Skin Divers.” “Falling Down” had little chart impact, and the record label essentially abandoned any further promotion. The lack of enthusiasm by the label and the band’s evident doubts about the album is puzzling, considering that by and large it’s pretty good. It opens with two tracks that have an urgent, energetic rock vibe: “The Valley and “Red Carpet Massacre.” Other high points include the wistful acoustic guitar and piano-based “Box Full O’ Honey,” the rapid-fire “Zoom In,” and “Cry Baby Cry,” which was sadly relegated to bonus-track status. Red Carpet Massacre is far better than its reputation and stature in the Duran Duran catalog suggests.
By the summer of 2000, Duran Duran seemed washed up. Medazzaland had tanked, and the band hadn’t scored a substantial hit in seven years. Unfortunately, Pop Trash did nothing to change the trajectory of the band’s downward spiral, becoming the lowest charting album of their career, reaching a paltry #53 in the U.K. and #135 in America. By contrast, the compilation Greatest, released by EMI two years earlier to capitalize on Duran Duran’s glory days, reached #4 in the U.K. and has sold over a million copies in the U.S. It was obvious most would rather listen to Rio for the zillionth time than give new Duran Duran material a chance. Part of the problem was a half-hearted promotional effort by the record label. For whatever reason, Pop Trash represents the very nadir of Duran Duran’s popularity, but it is far from their worst album and it doesn’t deserve to be consigned to obscurity. The lineup is the same as Medazzaland – Rhodes, LeBon and Cuccurullo, and the band handles production duties themselves. Pop Trash adds a vaguely psychedelic vibe to the band’s usual melodic rock formula. Lead single “Someone Else Not Me” is a lush ballad in the vein of “Ordinary World” that should have been a hit. “Lava Lamp” is a trippy glam-rock delight. Fizzy guitars and sonic effects course through standouts like “Playing with Uranium,” “Hallucinating Elvis” and the glam-rock finale “Last Day on Earth.” The strongest cut is arguably “Lady Xanax,” a hazy, psychoactive rock ballad. Perhaps the album’s title, even if meant glibly, didn’t help. It’s reminiscent of U2’s then-recent commercial bust Pop, and this collection is anything but “trash.” It’s a cohesive, ambitious feast for the senses, especially if you like your senses a bit on the woozy side. Fifteen years after its release, Pop Trash remains the great, lost Duran Duran album.