As their first biography is published ahead of a huge tour and DVD release, Duran Duran’s biographer Steve Malins charts the lavishly bumpy life of the Notorious Wild Boys…
When Duran Duran had withered down to only Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes in the late ’90s, they looked like an anachronistic, painful flashback to another – and not necessarily fondly remembered – era of arty, Pierrot clowns and Dallas shoulder pads.
Strange to report then that in 2005 the reunited ‘Fab Five’ have played to around two million fans around the globe and that they’ve just announced a second night at Earl’s Court, London in December.
Not only that but the likes of cutting edge indie popstars such as The Killers, White Rose Movement, The Dandy Warhols and The Bravery are all heavily indebted to the Duran sound and style – in particular the band’s under-rated self-titled debut album which has become as relevant to 2005 as Gang Of Four‘s post-punk opus Entertainment!. Even Franz Ferdinand claim they like to hype themselves up with a pre-gig tape containing one of those early tracks, Girls On Film, because it makes them “feel glamorous”.
Duran Duran’s problem is that for many people they’re a very difficult band to love and a much easier one to hate. Back in the day their pouting, self-conscious posing in ludicrous ruffled shirts or the playboy imagery of yachts and supermodels were all laced with a Premier League sense of self-worth and confidence that came over as snobby, elitist and patronising to anyone outside their own ‘clique’. Although 250,000 people went to see the arena tour of the UK in 2004 after the band had been recognised with ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Awards by MTV, Q and the Brits, the sight of them lined-up together and finally vindicated seemed to reinforce their in-built smugness and left millions of other observers cold.
“Nick Rhodes is an absolute hero of mine.” – Brandon Flowers of The Killers bigs up Duran Duran’s synth guru…
Yet Duran Duran deserve to be savoured in all their escapist and oddly moving glory. In a world awash with artistic mediocrity and mini-celebrity, they’ve not only strung together an impressive sequence of instantly memorable pop singles and experimented with fashion, video and analogue synthesizers, they’ve also lived out their fantasies on a scale that is pure comic-book.
Take, for instance, Nick Rhodes’s pink lip gloss and flamingos at his colour co-ordinated Savoy wedding; their tax exile adventures in the south of France where they lived in their own mansion and behaved like an aristocratic Rolling Stones on only their third album; Le Bon’s sea-sick adventures on Drum. Compared to the PR-d, sterile lavishness of Posh & Becks, Duran’s stories of supermodels, cocaine, 300 wine bills and sinking yachts have all the pop star bravura of a T.Rex lyric (“I’ve got a Rolls Royce/ because it’s good for my voice”) and in the best tradition of all great rock’n’roll acts, they blew it all. By the mid 1990s Nick Rhodes actually owed his bank over a million pounds.
As a stark contrast to the humdrum nature of most chart acts these days, Duran Duran is also a fascinating combination of egos and bizarre dynamics between the band members. After all this is a set-up that includes a Geordie ‘livewire’ guitarist and AC/DC fan (Andy Taylor) alongside an art-loving, nouveau riche 21st Century Gatsby (Nick Rhodes). As for their albums, they have always been ambitious and never scared to push beyond their limitations, from New Romantic foppery and Nile Rogers-produced funk to the weird and largely unheard avant-pop of the ’90s.
“Incredible – they smoked everybody.” – The Dandy Warhols front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor on Duran Duran’s eponymous debut
The idea for Duran Duran formed in Hollywood – Birmingham, not LA – where Nick Rhodes and John Taylor (formerly known as a be-spectacled Nigel) started going out to gigs and gradually evolved their own dreams of forming a band. The second group they saw together was Roxy Music, who are the godfathers of Duran’s own fusion of music and fashion. It was a few years later, post-punk, that they hooked up with skinny local beatnik Stephen Duffy to form the first incarnation of Duran Duran. It was a very odd-ball electronic act featuring drum machine, Wasp synth, drum machine, bass and clarinet. Duffy waltzed off to play in a guitar band in 1979 and it was over a year before Simon Le Bon, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor completed the ‘classic’ line-up.
By then the sound had switched from experimental pop to a mix of Chic and Japan – the latter’s Life In Tokyo collaboration with Giorgio Moroder was a key inspiration. Duran’s self-titled debut arrived in 1981 and is described by The Dandy Warhols’s Courtney Taylor-Taylor as “incredible – they smoked everybody”. The Killers’s frontman (and synthesizer player) Brandon Flowers is another fan, especially of the album’s electronic sound: “Nick Rhodes is an absolute hero of mine – their records still sound fresh, which is no mean feat as far as synths are concerned.”
Although it sold over a million worldwide, commercially and culturally (until recently) it was dwarfed by the follow-up Rio, which came out a year later. Love it or loathe it, Rio is one of those decade-defining albums, from its Patrick Nagel artwork through to songs such as the title-track and Hungry Like The Wolf. As for their promo videos, directed by Australian Russell Mulcahy, those lurid, pretty-boy-travelogues set in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean broke open the global pop market via MTV but killed any lingering credibility. It’s only recently that gloss has been peeled away to reveal that the riff-heavy Hungry Like The Wolf and the melancholy Save A Prayer are on-the-money pop classics. In fact Moby now describes Save A Prayer as “a perfect hybrid of electronic, conventional and pop elements”.
“A perfect hybrid of electronic, conventional and pop elements.” – Moby on Save A Prayer
What followed was mind-warping fan hysteria wherever they went, imprisoning them in lavish hotels where they regularly ran up bills of 30,000 – 40,000 each over a weekend, or played more dangerous games with cocaine behind the smoked-glass of long black limousines and the untouchable chic of private aeroplanes. The personalities within the band became caricatures with Andy Taylor hiding his reddened eyes behind ever-present shades and spending all his money on guitars while Nick Rhodes held an exhibition of his own Polaroid photos – essentially a series of abstract images created by twiddling knobs on American TV sets.
Their third album, the dreadfully titled Seven And The Ragged Tiger, is a manic document of a band living at the edge of their nerves and was effectively rescued from the dumper by Nile Rogers’ genius mix of The Reflex, a UK Number 1 in 1984. Yet even in this decision they deserve credit as they dug their heels in and insisted it was released after their record company tried to shelve it for making the band sound “too black”. Duran Duran also broke their own budgets on the Mad Max extravaganza Wild Boys and ‘lived the dream’ by recording a James Bond theme, A View To A Kill, which topped the American chart in 1985.
It was sitting pretty at Number 1 in the US when they turned in their disastrous performance at Live Aid. Not only did Simon Le Bon hit a bum note on the Bond single but the band had been split in half by then, with both sides clearly defined by the two ‘side-projects’ – The Power Station (a rock-funk hybrid involving John and Andy Taylor) and Arcadia (European ambient pop starring Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes). Only the unassuming Roger Taylor took part in both projects. When the drummer left in 1985, he was swiftly followed by Andy Taylor and, by 1986’s Notorious, Duran Duran had not only been stripped back to three but their worldwide sales had slumped from five million to just over a million.
“Recent album Astronaut reveals a backs-to-the-wall fighting spirit.”
They didn’t recover until 1991’s The Wedding Album, which yielded one of their best songs, Ordinary World and for a moment it looked as if their new line-up featuring body-building guitar supremo Warren Cuccurullo was set to rival the ‘Fab Five’ for success.
However, their Thank You covers album was suicidally misconceived in 1995 and although they staggered on with two surprisingly adventurous albums, Medazzaland (1997) and Pop Trash (2000) the writing was on the wall. By this time only Rhodes and Le Bon remained as John Taylor had jumped ship to LA where he blasted out Iggy Pop covers with Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols in Neurotic Boy Outsiders and later took on bit parts in movies, including the Hollywood turkey, Flintstones 2.
Cut to 2005 and the band have successfully wiped away those memories though even a cursory listen to their recent album Astronaut reveals a backs-to-the-wall fighting spirit which is genuine. Somehow these glamour boys have proved they’ve got an eye-of-the-tiger grit about them and as for their self-belief and sense of ambition it’s much more laudable when you know they’ve suffered a bit. Against all expectations they’ve pulled it off and become one of the world’s biggest live bands again – or as they declare in a line that was written for air-punching, arena-sized melodramatics: “Wild boys never lose it, wild boys always sh-sh-iiiii-ne.”