The music of Duran Duran
It’s a shame their existence runs the risk of being labeled retro nowadays. It’s a shame yachts and models are often the dominant images associated with them. It’s almost a shame they’re so good looking.
Because Duran Duran is all about the music.
The band’s original lineup – singer Simon le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor (none of the Taylors are related) – is back together after more than 15 years apart, and the band is set to release its 11th studio album this year.
In 2003, Duran Duran completed a summer tour of Japan and a small-venue tour of the United States in the fall. They toured the UK earlier this year and might do a larger-scale U.S. tour later this year.
Twenty-three years after the release of the band’s first album, a look back through their catalog reveals a diverse, innovative and thoroughly enjoyable collection of music.
1981 – “Duran Duran”
Duran Duran’s beginnings were a case of the right musicians at the right time. Disco was breathing its last breath and punk had already wreaked its greatest havoc, but Duran’s fusing of these two genres, along with the influence of the ethereal sounds of David Bowie and synthesizer-based bands such as Kraftwerk, led to an exciting and original sound. Call it new wave, call it new romantic, call it synthpop or electroclash – such labels are an afterthought.
Roger Taylor’s pulsing drums, John Taylor’s impossibly funky bass lines, Andy Taylor’s crunchy guitar and Rhodes’ swirling, swaying synthesizer lines – all topped by le Bon’s unforgettable melodies and dark, mysterious lyrics – come together to create one of the best debut albums in rock/pop history.
The album’s two biggest singles – the punchy dance groove “Girls on Film” and the thumping, questioning “Planet Earth” – are undeniably the strongest tracks, followed by the hard-rocking “Careless Memories” and the trip-hop-like (before the term was coined) “To the Shore” (which had been left off U.S. CD pressings and replaced with the 1983 single “Is There Something I Should Know?” until the 2003 re-release of the album).
But singling out songs from this album shouldn’t overshadow the fact that it’s an exceptional work, cover to cover, and the tone of the music flows well throughout the album.
1982 – “Rio”
To follow up an album that was both commercially and creatively successful is one of the biggest challenges a young band can face, and many end up running into a wall of failure trying. That was not the case, though, with Duran Duran. Their second album – even though this listener doesn’t think it achieves the consistency of the first album – is a masterful sophomore effort, and many fans consider it the band’s best album.
The title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are dance-pop songs of the highest order; they have remained staples of the band’s live show and are probably highest in the public lexicon of all the band’s songs. Much of the album continues in the style of these two songs, with “My Own Way” being the standout rocker of the lot.
But it’s the slower songs – the absolutely beautiful “Save a Prayer” and the classical-sounding “The Chauffeur” – that are the album’s true gems. Not only does the music of both songs surpass the rest of the album, but le Bon’s lyrics also resonate most strongly on these two songs, although in different ways: The words to “Save a Prayer” were the band’s most emotional to date, while the lyrics to “The Chauffeur” are vague, mysterious and alluring.
1983 – “Seven and the Ragged Tiger”
The band’s third release begins with “The Reflex,” which is probably the best pop song of the decade. Its chorus hook is one of the catchiest in memory, and all five musicians’ parts shine bright. Then add the lyrics into the mix: Surely most of Duran’s fans at the time would have had little clue the words refer to the exclusively male … ahem … reflex.
The other singles from the album – “Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday,” both featuring addictive melodies and le Bon’s trademark mysterious lyrics – are other highlights, as well as the non-singles “Shadows on Your Side,” “Of Crime and Passion” and the haunting “The Seventh Stranger.”
1984 – “Arena”
The worldwide success of Duran’s second and third albums resulted in the band touring profusely, and this fourth album captures some of the excitement of a live Duran show. The original release features nine live songs, drawing fairly equally from the band’s first three albums, as well as the studio single “Wild Boys,” a dark, pounding techno-pop cut inspired by the William S. Burroughs book of the same title.
“Arena” is being reissued this summer with the addition of two more high-energy live songs, “Girls on Film” and “Rio.”
1985 – Miscellaneous projects
This year would be a turning point for Duran Duran. The band contributed the title song to the James Bond film “A View to a Kill,” which is still the only Bond theme song to reach No. 1. The song, musically, seems a logical follow up to “Wild Boys”: a hard-hitting but undeniably catchy pop-rocker.
After the success of their first three studio albums and a worldwide tour, the band’s members took some time apart – sort of.
John and Andy Taylor joined Chic drummer Tony Thompson and singer Robert Palmer to form The Power Station, a band grounded more in American rock than synthpop. The band’s self-titled album, which produced the hits “Some Like It Hot” and “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” – the latter a T Rex cover – is a solid but less-than-enthralling release. The album’s gems are the non-singles “Harvest for the World” and “Still in Your Heart.”
On the other end of the musical spectrum, le Bon, Rhodes and Roger Taylor formed the Europop outfit Arcadia. Their album, “So Red the Rose,” sounds like a more artsy, experimental Duran Duran (with le Bon on lead vocals, it’s impossible to deny the association). The album is eclectic, drawing on a number of different styles of music and fusing them into a cohesive, moody playlist. Adding depth to the variety of styles throughout the album is a strong supporting cast of guest musicians, including David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Sting and Grace Jones. Standout songs are “Goodbye is Forever,” “The Promise” and “Lady Ice.”
1986 – “Notorious”
The plan had been for the members of Duran Duran to use their side projects as a way to experience something musically different – and then to come back together refreshed and ready to make music together again.
That didn’t happen.
Duran Duran reconvened to play Live Aid in 1985, which turned out to be the original lineup’s last concert together until 2003. Andy Taylor left the band to pursue a solo career, playing music more in the style of Power Station than Duran, and a burned-out Roger Taylor left the music world altogether, taking up a more peaceful life of farming and family.
The result was a pared-down version of Duran Duran, with le Bon, Rhodes and John Taylor carrying on together. The new lineup’s first album, “Notorious,” was a departure from the band’s new-wave sound of the first half of the decade.
One hates to use a phrase like “white funk” because it holds the connotation that an album fitting that description must be bad, but “Notorious” transcends banal descriptions and is a great collection of music. Produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, who also produced the single-remix of “The Reflex” as well as “Wild Boys,” the album delves into the band’s funkier side.
The title track, “Skin Trade,” “American Science” and “So Misled” are among the funkiest songs in Duran’s catalogue and throw just enough jazz into Duran’s pop sound to work brilliantly. The more straight-ahead power-pop tracks “Vertigo (Do the Demolition)” and “Proposition” are standouts as well.
While most of the album is a mixture of pop and funk, the album’s two slower songs, “Matter of Feeling” and “Winter Marches On,” are a stark departure. “Winter Marches On” is as solemn and bleak as its title suggests, and “Matter of Feeling” remains one of the band’s most beautiful ballads.
The “Notorious” album and tour also marked what would become a significant move for the band: the addition of Warren Cuccurullo. The Brooklyn-born guitarist, who had previously been in Missing Persons and played with Frank Zappa, came on board as a studio and touring guitarist, but not a full band member yet.
1988 – “Big Thing”
Duran Duran has always been about change, and the band’s fifth studio album was no exception. The band left behind the funk-pop of “Notorious” and turned instead to electronic music.
The “Big Thing” album can almost be divided in half. Four songs – the title track, “I Don’t Want Your Love,” “All She Wants Is” and “Drug (It’s Just a State of Mind) – are ventures into electronic dance music. Four others – “Too Late Marlene,” “Palomino,” “Land” and “Do You Believe in Shame?” – are mellow, moody, ethereal songs that show a more emotional side of the band.
The best songs from those two dimensions are the dark, neo-disco “All She Wants Is” and the smooth, flowing “Land.”
The album closes with two songs that don’t quite fit into either of those categories but which provide possibly the best ending to any Duran album: The haunting, politically-charged ballad “Edge of America” segues into the rhythmic instrumental rock of “Lake Shore Driving,” which prominently features Cuccurullo’s wailing guitar.
1990 – “Liberty”
At the end of the ’80s, the band released the singles compilation “Decade,” and the three full members of the band made the decision to expand back to a five-piece. Guitarist Cuccurullo and drummer Sterling Campbell became full-fledged members, bringing them into the fold for writing Duran’s music in addition to playing it.
The band released “Liberty,” an admirable but slightly uneven pop album. The musical climate at the turn of the decade was one of disarray, with many artists trying to figure out where they fit into the musical spectrum – and this seemed to affect Duran.
None of the songs is bad, but the album – which leapfrogs through various musical styles – lacks the cohesive feel that the band’s best albums achieve.
The album definitely has its standouts: the upbeat “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over),” the mellow pop songs “Liberty” and “Serious,” the rocker “First Impression” and the winding, beautiful “My Antarctica,” the album’s true gem.
Duran didn’t tour in support of the album, a first for the band, and Campbell ended up leaving the group. After the release of “Liberty,” the remaining four members focused on writing more music for the next record. Cuccurullo said upon the release of “Liberty” that, while the band thought the album was good, they knew they could do better. He was right.
1993 – “Duran Duran” (aka “The Wedding Album”)
This writer is not a big fan of advertising, marketing and commercialism in general. But every now and then, an advertising slogan will really hit home. Such was the case with a series of ads promoting Duran Duran’s 1993 album. “Styles change, style doesn’t,” the ads said, and one would be hard-pressed to find another catchy line that sums up Duran Duran – and the album – so well.
Though the album is officially self-titled, its cover art – a collage of photographs from the band members’ parents’ weddings – led to it being dubbed “The Wedding Album.”
After the slump of “Liberty,” the band was back in finer form than they’d been in for years. “The Wedding Album” was an artistic and commercial rejuvenation for the band, scoring them huge hits with the ballad “Ordinary World” and the mid-tempo, ultra-melodic “Come Undone.”
Those two singles speak for themselves; both are great songs and were deserving of the airplay and popularity they achieved. But the entire album is a treasure trove of great music. Like “Liberty,” it features a number of musical styles, but the band managed to create something more cohesive this time.
Standout tracks, in addition to the aforementioned singles, are “Too Much Information,” a work of techno-rock genius that disparages the media-saturated modern world; “Love Voodoo,” a trip-hop groove about temptation and manipulation; “None of the Above,” another techno-rocker that features funky guitar and some of the best vocal harmonies in the band’s career; and “Sin of the City,” a mixture of funk, hip-hop, techno and rock that ends with a dirty – in the best sense of the word – instrumental jam.
Clocking in at over an hour, Duran’s longest release to date, “The Wedding Album” is truly an epic collection of music and demands multiple listens to fully take in the variety of styles and subtlety of craft.
1995 – “Thank You”
After the revitalization Duran underwent with the success of “The Wedding Album” and its accompanying world tour, the band wanted to have a relatively fast turnaround time for their next record and decided to release an album of covers.
It was the wrong move to make.
Not only did recording take longer than expected, but the album met with the worst criticism the band had ever faced, particularly for taking on the material of soul and hip-hop artists.
That’s not to say the album is terrible, but it’s proof that Duran Duran’s original material is better than the sum of its influences.
The band’s covers of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke” are solid, entertaining and far less cheesy than one would imagine. But the band showed its true strength in covering more melodic, ethereal songs: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship.”
Also noteworthy is “Drive By,” a sort of self-cover. The song is a reworking of the Duran classic “The Chauffeur,” but in place of the verses and choruses is a strange spoken-word passage by le Bon that tells the story of a dream. This passage is spoken over equally mysterious music, and it segues into the true “cover” part of the song, an instrumental rideout straight from “The Chauffeur.”
“Thank You” was a low point for the band, commercially and artistically, but they would more than redeem themselves musically in the ensuing years.
1996-97 – Solo albums and side projects
The members of Duran Duran completed various solo and side projects in the mid-’90s that are worth noting.
In early 1996, John Taylor released his first solo album, “Feelings are Good and Other Lies.” The album was clearly an attempt to do something musically different from Duran Duran, as well as to have an outlet to express his feelings about a tough time in his life.
The result was a raw, uninhibited rock album, complete with raging guitars and emotions. Taylor’s voice is edgy – but without relying on screaming – and it fits the lyrical content and tone of the album perfectly. Standout songs are “Girl Raw,” “Always Wrong,” “Down Again,” “Feelings are Good” and the heart-wrenching “Losing You.”
In addition to his solo debut, Taylor hooked up with former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and two former members of Guns ’n Roses – drummer Matt Sorum, and bassist Duff McKagan, who contributed guitar to this project – to form Neurotic Outsiders, a neo-punk outfit with a more casual approach to music than the members’ main bands.
Neurotic Outsiders got its start playing gigs for fun at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, and in 1996 the band released a self-titled album, which featured remakes of Taylor’s solo songs “Feelings are Good” and “Always Wrong” (the vocals on this version are even more angst-filled and powerful), as well as original songs and a Clash cover, “Janie Jones.” The Neurotic Outsiders album’s high points are when the band lets go and just has fun: “Nasty Ho,” “Jerk” and “Angelina” are witty, sarcastic rants set to catchy punk rock, and it works wonderfully.
Cuccurullo released his first solo album – “Th@nks 2 Fr@nk,” the title being a tribute to his mentor, the late Frank Zappa – in 1996. The instrumental album is an exquisite showcase of Cuccurullo’s talent as a guitarist, composer and improviser, and it features some A-list guest musicians: bassists Nick Beggs and Pino Palladino, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.
Cuccurullo is a virtuoso guitarist, to be sure, but he tends to bypass the typical flashiness of other guitarists of his caliber such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. The standout songs from “Th@nks 2 Fr@nk” are “The Canarsie Daiquiri,” “Jam Man Jam,” “The Spider” and “Tardinha.”
Cuccurullo went on to release other solo albums: an ambient-guitar trilogy – “Machine Language,” “The Blue” and “Trance Formed” – as well as a mostly live rock album, “Roadrage.” He is expected to release a new solo album later this year.
Rhodes and Cuccurullo also conceived TV Mania, which was to be a three-album project consisting of electronic music with samples of dialogue from TV laid on top. The project was completed but has never been released, other than a couple of songs from it being made available as mp3 downloads on Cuccurullo’s site. But Duran Duran fans got a taste of the project on the band’s 1997 tour, as the TV Mania song “What’s in the Future?” was used as the final pre-show song before the band took the stage each night.
In January 1997, another major change occurred in the Duran Duran camp: John Taylor left the band. He would go on to release a number of solo albums and EPs before reuniting with the band in 2001.
1997 – “Medazzaland”
After the flop of “Thank You” and the departure of John Taylor, Duran Duran could have disbanded or faded into obscurity.
Instead, they released their best album ever.
“Medazzaland” is the band’s most experimental album – and their most artistically ambitious. The album probes the dark, strange, sometimes dreamlike side of life, and the title is appropriate: It was inspired by a trip le Bon took to an oral surgeon, who administered an anesthetic called Midazolam, which left the singer loopy-headed after the surgery. Cuccurullo, noticing the state le Bon was in and misunderstanding the name of the drug, accidentally coined what would become the title.
From the beginning, it’s obvious “Medazzaland” was a shift for Duran. The title track, which opens the album, is an electronic instrumental with haunting, distorted spoken-word passages by Rhodes that sound like clips from an old science-fiction film and which tie into the song/album title.
Next is “Big Bang Generation,” an upbeat, spacey electro-rock song that marries dance beats with Cuccurullo’s rock guitar.
“Electric Barbarella” is a neo-disco track that features Rhodes’ swirling synth sounds, hook melodies throughout the song and a noise-guitar solo by Cuccurullo that sticks a middle finger in the face of convention. Lyrically, the song is both a look at the choices presented by the evolution of technology (it’s about a female robot that can do anything a woman can) and a tribute to the band’s origins (the name Duran Duran was taken from the Jane Fonda sci-fi parody film “Barbarella”).
“Out of My Mind,” which also appeared on the soundtrack to the film “The Saint,” is an ethereal, haunting, minor-key song that le Bon has said is the third in a trilogy about the loss of a close friend (the first two are “Do You Believe in Shame?” and “Ordinary World”).
“Who Do You Think You Are?” – one of the most melodic songs on the album – features a slow rock drum beat and crunchy, droning guitar, with le Bon’s vocals soaring through lush melodies and emotional lyrics. “Silva Halo” is something of an interlude, as it clocks in below 2:30 and doesn’t adhere to typical song structure. Cuccurullo’s echoing guitar and Rhodes’ synthesizer noises provide a dark background for le Bon’s trippy vocals.
“Be My Icon,” one of the best songs, looks into the mind of someone obsessed with a celebrity, all set to electronic blips and biting distorted guitar. “Buried in the Sand,” with lyrics referring to John Taylor’s departure from the band, is another standout. It’s built on the foundation of an Eastern-sounding electronic drum beat in the atypical 6/4 time signature and features some of Rhodes’ all-time best synth work.
Next are the album’s two truly beautiful songs: “Michael You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For” and “Midnight Sun.”
“Michael,” a song written for INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence – almost prophetically, it pre-dated Hutchence’s death, which is thought to have been a suicide – is built around a beautiful but melancholy guitar arpeggio and is overlaid with lush keyboards and some of le Bon’s sweetest melodies ever.
“Midnight Sun” is possibly the band’s best song ever. Its trip-hop drum beat and smooth keyboard textures lay the perfect foundation for le Bon’s gorgeous melodies and gripping lyrics about commitment to and perspective on a relationship that’s been through trying times – probably le Bon’s best lyrics as well.
After delving into the melancholy, the band springs back with “So Long Suicide,” a bipolar electro-rock song with brash, loud highs and muffled lows. The album ends appropriately with the sarcastic, quirky “Undergoing Treatment,” which conjures images of life in a mental hospital and pokes fun at the band’s critics.
Be warned, this album may not grab you on your first couple listens, but repeated listening reveals it as a pop/rock/electronica masterpiece.
“Medazzaland” was not a commercial success, but then, the music isn’t really Top 40 material – and that’s not a bad thing. Musically, it was the biggest risk the band ever took. Artistically, it is still their greatest achievement.
2000 – “Pop Trash”
Duran’s 10th studio album is a mix of the band’s classic pop sound and their more recent experimentation, and while it doesn’t quite match the genius of “Medazzaland,” it’s a solid effort that includes some of the band’s best songs.
It features several ballads – the Beatles-esqe “Someone Else Not Me,” “Starting to Remember,” the Andy Warhol-inspired “Pop Trash Movie” and the soulful “The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever” – all of which are good, melodic songs.
But the genius of the album is in the rock and offbeat pop songs.
“Playing with Uranium” and “Last Day on Earth” are two of the band’s hardest-rocking songs ever and are shining examples of Cuccurullo’s brilliant contributions to Duran.
“Hallucinating Elvis” defies classification like few songs can. It’s got a hip-hop drum beat, chromatic guitar riffs, odd keyboard noises, backward voice samples, offbeat melodies and some of the most amusing lyrics in memory. Somehow, Duran managed to take all of these elements and combine them into a quirky, original pop song.
“Mars Meets Venus” is an ultra-catchy dance-pop song whose verse lyrics read like personal ads – apropos in this age of numerous online and phone dating services. The female backing vocals are a great touch in the chorus.
The true gem of the album is “Lady Xanax,” a song whose experimental sounds play like a holdover from “Medazzaland.” It’s perhaps the most dynamic song of the band’s career, fluctuating from gentle, melodic verses to thick, powerful choruses to an outright hard-rocking rideout. Again, Cuccurullo’s guitar playing – along with some of le Bon’s best vocal work – highlights this manic-depressive composition.
It bears noting that Rhodes wrote many of the lyrics on this album, proving that both he and le Bon are thoughtful and clever with words.
It’s a shame that “Pop Trash” marks the end of Cuccurullo’s contribution to Duran, as his incredible musicality brought a new dimension to the band’s songs throughout his tenure, particularly on “The Wedding Album,” “Medazzaland” and “Pop Trash.”
1981-2003 – A note about B-sides
Duran Duran has always released great albums, yet a few of their great songs didn’t even make it onto albums. The band, particularly in the early part of their career, had quite a number of songs released only as B-sides to singles.
The release of a box set in 2003, which includes CD replications of the band’s 12-inch singles from the first five years of their career, marked the first time many of those B-sides were available on CD. Some of the standout B-sides from that set are “Late Bar,” from the “Planet Earth” single (1981); “Faster Than Light” from the “Girls on Film” single (1981); “Fame,” a David Bowie cover, from the “Careless Memories” single (1981); and “Secret Oktober” from the “Union of the Snake” single (1983). The band reworked “Secret Oktober” into a trip-hop masterpiece for some of their live shows between 1997 and 2000.
Other noteworthy B-sides from the rest of the band’s career are “I Believe/All I Need to Know” from the “Do You Believe in Shame?” single (1989); “Yo Bad Azizi” from the “Serious” single (1990); a trio of songs from the “Wedding Album” era – “Falling Angel,” “Stop Dead” and “Time for Temptation”; and the band’s best B-side, the hard-rocking “Sinner or Saint” from the “Out of My Mind” single (1997).
2001-2004 – Reunion
In summer 2001, Duran Duran played its last concerts with Cuccurullo, after which the original five members reunited and began working on new music.
It’s a little disappointing that, three years later, the band hasn’t yet released a new album. But that’s supposed to happen later this year, and as always with a Duran album, it promises more than an earful of great music.
That’s not to say that the band’s new music hasn’t been heard at all. A remix of the new song “Sunrise” is featured on the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” soundtrack, and the band has played a handful of other new songs live over the past year – “What Happens Tomorrow,” “Beautiful Colours,” “Virus” and “Still Breathing.” All of these songs are promising examples of what the reunited members are creating.
Duran Duran, every album is a musical adventure, and the band has
an amazing back catalog of music that warrants revisiting – or experiencing
for the first time.
Patrick Domostroy is probably dead by now.
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