After the runaway success of Rio, the record label wanted more product on the shelves pronto. The band recorded a stand-alone single “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which in America was appended to a re-release of their debut album despite the fact that it had little in common stylistically. The single became a major international smash, further intensifying expectations for the next studio album. What they delivered, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was graced with strong enough singles to keep the band’s commercial success humming along, but dig a little deeper and the album comes up thin. Seven and the Ragged Tiger relies more on keyboards and an aura of danger and mystery, and deemphasizes the churning guitar lines of Rio. The lead single, “Union of the Snake,” with its sly, serpentine melody and enigmatic lyrics, became an enormous hit. “New Moon on Monday” (despite its embarrassing video) was another score, and the Nile Rodgers’ remix of “The Reflex,” the album’s third single, became the first of the band’s two #1 hits in America (the other being their 1985 James Bond theme “A View to a Kill”). The rest of the album is more uneven. “Of Crime and Passion” and “Shadows On Your Side” are closer to the Rio vibe but lack the strong hooks. Better is “The Seventh Stranger” — with its air of brooding mystery, swaying keyboard, and richly melodic chorus, it could easily have been the fourth single. But they hardly had time for one. Only four months after The Reflex hit stores, they were on to the Nile Rodgers-produced single “The Wild Boys,” the only studio track from the live album Arena. Ultimately, Seven and the Ragged Tiger accomplished a few things for Duran Duran: it kept their mainstream success engine roaring along (becoming the band’s first and only #1 album in their native U.K.), it showed that they were not going to be content to repeat the Rio formula endlessly, and it pointed to the stylistic direction of both the daring art-pop So Red the Rose, and the lithely soulful Notorious, two albums that didn’t sell as many copies, but were better artistically.
Duran Duran’s follow-up to Notorious was the sonically diverse Big Thing, released in the fall of ’88. It was preceded by lead single “I Don’t Want Your Love,” a razor-sharp slice of dance pop that jolted all the way to #4 in the U.S. The follow-up is the sex-drenched electronica “All She Wants Is,” an undeniably brilliant song which proved too challenging for radio to swallow. As with Notorious, the band’s provocative choice of a second single hindered the album’s commercial momentum. Far better would have been the original version of the sizzling “Drug (It’s Just a State of Mind)” (an inferior remix was included on the album by the band at the last minute, a decision they grew to regret; it was replaced with the far superior original version on the 2009 reissue). Third single, the haunting synth-laden “Do You Believe in Shame?,” was dedicated to a trio of deceased friends (including producer Alex Sadkin, who worked with the band on Seven and the Ragged Tiger and So Red the Rose, and had died the prior year in a car accident). Although a beautiful and poignant song, “Do You Believe in Shame?” was too far outside the mainstream for radio to embrace. Better might have been the lovey ballad “Too Late Marlene,” or the heavily rhythmic title song. Easily one of the best songs of the period, “I Believe/All I Need to Know,” was inexplicably left off the album and consigned to b-side status. Side Two of Big Thing becomes more experimental, and there are some excellent moments. But ultimately, Big Things feels like a missed opportunity — it’s just inches from greatness. That said, there is still plenty to admire about the album, and in retrospect Big Thing is one of the band’s boldest and most fascinating releases – and about as far from Rio stylistically as you can get.
The band’s 1981 debut has all the elements that would bloom fully on their global smash follow-up, Rio, but in much rawer form. The grooves are there, the stylish blend of Japan and Roxy Music with a hint of Bowie’s edginess, but they hadn’t quite come into their own as songwriters. There are a handful of classics, though – their debut single “Planet Earth” is a brooding dance floor anthem, and “Girls on Film” was a prelude to their glamorous days as MTV’s conquering heroes. Arguably the strongest track is the second single, the urgent, breathlessly exciting “Careless Memories,” which builds to a frantic conclusion. A couple of the album tracks, like “Anyone Out There” and “Night Boat,” have become Duran Duran standards, but several of the songs feel not quite fully baked. Still, Duran Duran is a smokin’ hot debut, and an impressive foundation that they’d build upon for bigger and better things to come very shortly. Listening to it now, it sounds a bit dated and a little quaint, but there is a swagger that’s undeniable. All of these elements would be amped to eleven for their second album, which would change all of their lives, as well as the music industry in general.
In 1985, at the time of their Live Aid performance and their #1 James Bond theme “A View to a Kill,” Duran Duran had essentially ceased to function. They split into competing side projects — the more commercially successful Power Station and Arcadia, whose album So Red The Rose is by far the better of the two. So why include Arcadia but not Power Station in a ranking of Duran Duran albums? It’s not an arbitrary decision. The majority of the Power Station project included non-Duran Duran members: John and Andy Taylor were joined by vocalist Robert Palmer, and the ultra-tight rhythm section from Chic, Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards. By contrast, Arcadia consisted only of members of Duran Duran: Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor. Like Seven and the Ragged Tiger before it, So Red the Rose was produced by Alex Sadkin. The Power Station’s sound had little to do with Duran Duran, whereas the romantic art-pop of So Red the Rose is the logical stylistic bridge between Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Notorious. It fits perfectly in the sequence, and is a Duran Duran album in all but name. Most importantly, it’s loaded with great tunes. “Election Day” is the electrifying first single, elegant and mysterious with a suitably wicked vamp by Grace Jones. LeBon’s vocals and imagery fits right into anything he’s done with Duran Duran. While “Election Day” soared into the U.S. Top 10, its follow-up, the tensely dramatic “Goodbye is Forever,” was only a minor hit. Subsequent singles didn’t do as well, but their failure to perform on the charts can’t be blamed on their quality: “The Flame” is as strong a melodic slice of new wave as any single Duran Duran had ever released, and “The Promise” has a soaring, majestic grandeur. Had So Red the Rose been released under the Duran Duran moniker, it’s hard to imagine it not having multiple hits. It’s time So Red the Rose gets placed into the context it deserves within the Duran Duran timeline and not dismissed as a throwaway side project. Arcadia was effectively Duran Duran at the time of its recording. Notorious is a 3-piece Duran Duran lineup, why not So Red the Rose? They just swapped out a Taylor, after all.
Rio is the album that generally comes to mind when one thinks of Duran Duran. Here is where it all came together: the fusion of Roxy Music’s glamour, Japan’s new wave experimentalism and Bowie’s edginess, married to irresistible melodies, was a perfect storm that elevated Duran Duran to superstardom. Lead single “Hungry Like the Wolf” became a powerhouse on radio and MTV. Duran Duran threaded the needle perfectly. It’s sexy, has a towering chorus, and a dangerous edge that wasn’t too risqué as to scare off radio programmers. The video, featuring Simon LeBon wading through a jungle, was the perfect exotic touch. The exhilarating title track, with its arresting imagery of a beautiful woman compared to the gleaming river cutting through a desert landscape, has the kind of melodic hook that can still get a room singing along at the top of their lungs thirty-three years later. The lush romanticism of “Save a Prayer” still weaves a beguiling spell, building to a dramatic climax. It’s the prototypical Duran Duran ballad. The dark and shadowy “The Chauffeur” is a perfect finale that leaves the listener wanting more. While the high points of Rio are exceedingly high, the other half of the album is rather ordinary by comparison. “My Own Way” was actually a stand-alone single that followed their debut album; it was re-recorded for Rio, but they couldn’t really salvage a song that is catchy but largely forgettable. “Hold Back the Rain” is better, but it’s basically a slightly faster tempo version of “My Own Way” with different lyrics. “Last Chance on the Stairway” shares the same stylistic territory but adds a bit more intrigue. “New Religion” is more ambitious thematically, but it’s plodding and doesn’t have much of a hook. Then there’s the undeniable fact that a lot of the electronic drum parts throughout the album sound horribly dated and jump out of the mix like a sore thumb. Rio is assured of its rightful place in history as one of the cornerstone albums of ‘80s pop, but there are a few later Duran Duran albums that eclipse it in terms of artistic success.
After the Liberty fiasco, Duran Duran was badly in need of some good fortune. It was a different world than a decade earlier, at the height of Duranamania. Many bands to emerge from the new wave era and the early days of MTV were either struggling to maintain their relevance or had given up altogether. Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September 1991, was the giant asteroid that violently laid waste to the dinosaurs of the ’80s. Suddenly the music industry had been taken over by a viscerally raw and tortured brand of alternative rock that was the polar opposite of the cocaine-fueled excess, glam and glitz that Duran Duran and its contemporaries rode to fame. Duran Duran was still limping along, wounded, and another massive flop might have finished them. Just when they desperately needed a break, they unleashed a single that thrust them back into relevancy. “Ordinary World,” a beautifully dreamy acoustic ballad with a soaring chorus, reconnected the world to the power of Duran Duran at its best. It rocketed to #3 on the U.S. pop chart, their highest placement since “Notorious” six years earlier. Duran Duran (their second self-titled release, it’s commonly referred to as The Wedding Album in reference to the pictures of the band members’ parents on the cover) was a rousing success, yielding a second major international smash in the sensual “Come Undone,” a sly, sexy pop drama that’s as strong as anything they’ve done. The hard-rocking “Too Much Information,” a prescient reflection on the emerging information age, became a hit as well. While they floundered through most of Liberty in search of an identify, The Wedding Album finds the band full of confidence. It’s an album overflowing with great tunes, including “None of the Above,” “Love Voodoo” and a velvety take on “Femme Fatale.” The Wedding Album was a jolt of electricity that brought the band, thought by many to be washed up, back to life and reminded everyone how good they can be.
After the flaccid sales of Red Carpet Massacre, nobody really knew if Duran Duran had another comeback in them. How many lives were they going to have? This is where they deserve enormous credit – they not only came back, but they did it with one of the finest albums of their career. Produced by Mark Ronson, one of the best in the business, All You Need is Now was released digitally in an abbreviated version in December 2010, and then physically with additional tracks a few months later. It’s a primer on the essence of what Duran Duran has been about for the preceding three decades, complete with strong melodies, tight musicianship, and an aura of sex and danger. All the parts are here – fierce rockers (“Blame The Machines,” “Being Followed”), edgy pop with big hooks (the title-track, “Girl Panic!,” “Other People’s Lives”), and sumptuous ballads (“Leave a Light On,” “Mediterranea,” “Before the Rain”). The stunning centerpiece of the album is the chilling six-minute epic “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” a brilliantly twisted study of obsession featuring the adventurous R&B singer Kelis in a sinuous and haunting vocal duet with LeBon. It stands alongside any of the greatest recordings of the band’s career. All You Need is Now is an artistic triumph by any measure. Mark Ronson gets the best out of the band, and the album is overflowing with first-rate material. The album launched a successful tour, was widely acclaimed by critics and fans alike, and yielded a follow-up double live album and DVD, A Diamond in the Mind. All You Need is Now didn’t exactly fly off American shelves, and many casual fans may still be unaware of this recent triumph by a band known more for songs that are now thirty years old. Not to diminish those classics, but folks need to get their heads out of the past and recognize what great work Duran Duran has been doing lately. They’ve never sounded better than they do on All You Need is Now.
Lean, funky and sexy, Notorious is Duran Duran’s creative apex. It’s a spine-tingling, slick and sophisticated collection of irresistibly melodic and soulful dance-pop. Notorious marks a rebirth for the band following their acrimonious disintegration the prior year. After the split into Arcadia and The Power Station, Duran Duran reconvened in 1986 with producer Nile Rodgers to record a new album. Alas, the personal friction that plagued them the prior two years intensified. Roger Taylor was sick of the music business, and quit altogether. Guitarist Andy Taylor, dreams of solo stardom swimming in his head, also left after participating in a few early sessions. The band continued as a trio: LeBon, Rhodes and John Taylor, with future band-member Warren Cuccurullo and producer Nile Rodgers helping on guitar, and ace session musician Steve Ferrone on drums. This new combination of talent resulted in an album markedly different than what Duran Duran fans expected. Notorious isn’t a complete reinvention, but this time they went for a soulful and funky dance vibe with horns featured prominently on many of the tracks, something that had never been a part of Duran Duran’s sound. It was a gamble, no doubt, to put out an album that strays so far from Duran Duran’s trademark sound, especially considering it had been three years since the last Duran Duran album (not counting So Red the Rose). Ultimately the results proved well worth the risk. The lead single was the catchy title track and started the project with a bang, landing all the way up at #2 on the U.S. pop chart. Unfortunately things went downhill from there. The slinky “Skin Trade,” featuring LeBon singing in his best Princely falsetto, is a brilliant slice of sexy dance-pop, but it proved to be too radical a departure for radio and MTV to accept. It peaked at #39, the lowest charting for a Duran Duran single in America since before “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and the beginning of a general decline in their overall chart success. The dynamic third single “Meet El Presidente” was given a remix in hopes of helping its sales, but it floundered completely and promotional efforts for the album by the record label essentially halted. It’s a shame, because Notorious is loaded from start to finish with killer tunes. It may have fared better had guitar-rocker “Hold Me,” the closest song on the album to the band’s more traditional sound, been released as the second single. The kinetic synth-rocker “Vertigo (Do the Demolition),” “American Science” and the gorgeous ballad “A Matter of Feeling” were all single material as well. Notorious is rarely mentioned as a landmark albums of the ’80s, but it is. The influence of Rodgers is obvious, and Ferrone, most notable as drummer for R&B/funk/disco pioneers Average White Band, is also a major contributor to the new sound. The album’s influence is evident in some of the R&B/pop material to emerge later in the ’80s, and in bands today like Daft Punk (who worked with Rodgers on Random Access Memories) and Maroon 5, whose dance-pop, rock and funk fusion often sound like they used Notorious as a template. An ultra-tight collection of first-rate material that still sounds fantastic, Notorious is an album desperately due for a reassessment among critics and the general public. Fortunately, a deluxe 2-CD edition (and a beautiful 2-LP vinyl package) was released in 2010. It’s a terrific new remaster that includes several key remixes, single versions and the b-side “We Need You.” There’s never been a better time to explore Notorious¸ a smart collection of exciting and sexy dance pop that from start to finish is the finest album of Duran Duran’s enormously impressive career.
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