The Popdose Guide to Duran Duran

There were few, if any, top-tier pop groups from the ’80s as polarizing as Duran Duran. If you were into them, you consumed their every word, thought and movement as if God himself was speaking through them. If you weren’t into them, you loathed them with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns, dismissing their accomplishments with a wave of the hand and a back-handed remark about big-haired pretty boys. Come on, look at this picture.

Gorgeous, aren’t they? And to make matters worse, your girlfriend was saving her virginity not for you, but for John Taylor. Bastards.

Somewhere between these two camps is the truth: Duran Duran are often brilliant, and other times very bad, sometimes in the span of a few minutes. They were far better musicians than most rockers would care to admit, but Simon Le Bon has also thrown down some of the most boneheaded lyrics ever put to tape. Time, however, has been rather kind to the band; several contemporary bands cite them as an influence, and most of their early videos still look great today. With a new record on iTunes and soon to hit the shelves, the Mark Ronson-produced All You Need Is Now, it’s time for Duran Duran to get their Popdose close-up. Smile for the camera, boys.

Duran Duran (1981)
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You could make a solid argument that the band’s debut remains their best record. Cascading synthesizers, crunchy guitars, bass lines that Bernard Edwards would kill for, and adventurous songwriting that explored darker territory than the singles might let on. And speaking of the singles, there isn’t an album in the band’s catalog that possesses the 1-2-3 knockout punch of “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” and “Careless Memories.” Take a look at those songs on Side II (ah, sides), though, and you’ll see a different beast altogether. “Sound of Thunder” is a bizarro “Planet Earth,” propelled by a similar flanged synthesizer loop but awash in minor chords. “Night Boat” could serve as the background music to a zombie film, and “Friends of Mine” is downright odd, like the Clash covering “Heart of Glass,” or Blondie covering “The Magnificent Seven.” (To the surprise of no one, Nick Rhodes would write a song for Debbie Harry many years later. In the business, they call this a tease.) Finishing with the icy cool instrumental “Tel Aviv,” Duran Duran showed a depth and versatility that none of the band’s New Romantic peers could come close to replicating.

Best non-album track: Fans still adore the B-sides from this era – which includes a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” – but we have to go with the original version of “Tel Aviv,” a Roxy Music-style freakout that finally surfaced on last year’s reissue and bears no resemblance to the song of the same name on the album.

Rio (1982)
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Sticking with producer Colin Thurston, Duran reaches for the sky – and the Americans – with Rio, and in the process creates one of the definitive albums of the era. Sunnier than its predecessor, Rio is simply one of those right-place-right-time moments. Those songs, with those exotic videos to promote them (“Save a Prayer” remains the band’s finest clip), sent the band into the stratosphere, but let’s make something clear; Capitol was extremely smart to commision David Kershenbaum to remix Rio‘s entire first side and release those mixes as the “album versions.” Armed with a sound that would work both on rock radio and in the clubs, the Kershenbaum mixes were huge in pushing the band over the top in Middle America. Of course, none of us knew this at the time; it wasn’t until the late ’80s, when the album was released on CD for the first time, that many Duran fans discovered just how different Kershenbaum’s mixes were to the originals, and how he improved every single one. Many of his versions ultimately appeared on various compilations, but it wasn’t until last year that his mix of “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” one of the band’s best unsung songs, appeared on CD. Finally.

Side II of Rio is similar to Side II of Duran Duran in that the band explores more atmospheric territory. “New Religion” features some nifty dueling vocals by Le Bon, “Last Chance on the Stairway” has a marimba solo and one of the busiest bass lines John Taylor has ever played, but “The Chauffeur” is the album’s crown jewel, with its hypnotic keyboard riff and drum machine intro. Ask any fan of the band to name their five favorite Duran songs, and “The Chauffeur” will be on every list.

Best non-album track: This made its debut on the import 12″ single to “The Reflex,” but it was recorded on the Rio tour, so it’s going here: the band’s fantastic cover of Steve Harley’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).” I never understood why they decided to fade out a live track, though.

Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983)
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And here’s where things start to go wrong. Colin Thurston gets bumped from the producer’s chair in favor of the up-and-coming Alex Sadkin, and the band begins the subtle but significant transformation from rock band with pop tendencies to pop band with rock tendencies. Andy Taylor’s power chords are nowhere to be found, while Simon developed this unfortunate habit of yelping his vocals (check “I Take the Dice,” if you dare). The band also brought in percussionists and backing singers – and “Rio” saxophonist Andy Hamilton returns to play on three songs – and all of that is okay; the problem with Seven and the Ragged Tiger isn’t the production (though it’s far from ideal), or the singers (though they’re not necessary), or the percussion (see: singers). The problem is that the songs just don’t measure up to the first two albums.

There are some nice moments, though. “New Moon on Monday” is one of the band’s finest singles (and a criminally underrated one at that), “Shadows on Your Side” re-examines some of those darker textures that dominated their debut, and “Tiger Tiger” is a moody “Chauffeur”-style instrumental. The album’s biggest flaws, ironically, are two of its singles. “Union of the Snake” is cute, but it’s no one’s favorite song, and “The Reflex” is one of the most formless songs the band’s ever written, with only Nile Rodgers’ stutter-happy remix sending it to the top. Overall, it’s an awfully brittle album from a band capable of doing so much damage.

Best non-album track: “Secret Oktober,” which Nick and Simon wrote and recorded in a single night.

By the time the band finished the Ragged Tiger tour, Duran Duran were one of the biggest bands in the world, but trouble was on the horizon. Andy grew frustrated with the band’s poppier direction. Nick, meanwhile, wanted to take things even further, turning Duran into a full-fledged art band. The compromise: side projects. Let the guitarists do their rock thing, let the rest do their art thing. Get it out of their system, and resume in the new year. Cool? Um…

The Power Station: The Power Station (1985)
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Having just worked with Nile Rodgers on the “Wild Boys” single, John and Andy complete the Chic trifecta by recruiting bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson to make an album that more closely resembled the boys’ original idea of Duran Duran: Chic meets the Sex Pistols. Originally conceived as an open format featuring several lead singers, John and Andy had so much fun with Robert Palmer that they stuck with him for the entire album. Armed with two killer singles, “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong),” The Power Station was a huge hit out of the box, but outside of the singles, the album is pretty flimsy. “Go to Zero” is a bit of a non-starter (though it has a wicked solo from Andy at the fade-out) and “Murderess” is more bluster than substance. Their cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Harvest for the World” was nice, though (Note: this is coming from someone who has yet to hear the original version), and even features Andy’s first lead vocal. Third single “Communication” wasn’t too shabby, either. Of all the Duran-related albums from the era, however, this is the one to which time has been the harshest.

So what were the remaining three-fifths of Duran doing while John and Andy were getting their ya ya’s out?

Arcadia: So Red the Rose (1985)
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They were making art with a capital A, that’s what they were doing. Armed with a stellar lineup of guest musicians (David Gilmour, Sting, Grace Jones, Andy Mackay, David Van Tieghem), Simon, Nick and Roger confused a lot of people at first. Fretless bass? Seven-minute songs? Spanish guitar? What the hell is this? Short answer: a fascinating and occasionally brilliant record. They knew to write a couple of radio-friendly songs (“Election Day,” “Goodbye Is Forever”), but all bets were off from there. “Keep Me in the Dark” is a love letter to Avalon, and “Missing” is a soundtrack without the film. “The Promise” is the album’s real reason for being, in that there is no way that it would have made the cut on a Duran record. Simon branches out here vocally, sticking to his lower range and even breaking out the falsetto for the chorus. And then there’s “El Diablo” – yes, it’s true: “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody took her name from this song – which has a part that might be the most honest and vulnerable thing anyone in the band has ever written. In the bridge, as a Spanish guitar dances around him, Simon asks, “Oh, El Diablo, won’t you sell me back my soul?” It sparked some controversy at the time, as the album’s artwork was awash with suggestions that dark forces were at work (a pair of red legs with a tail standing behind the band, shadows manipulated to look like horns on their heads), and third single “The Flame” had some questionable lines as well (“Inside are smoky halls, a circle is drawn and voices call / To raise some magic wind in my world”). Seems kind of silly now, though, since Simon was probably just begging to regain some normalcy to his hectic life.

In the end, the Power Station may have won the chart battle, but Arcadia won the war – So Red the Rose has held up far better than The Power Station. Did you notice that only one of them was included in EMI’s big reissue campaign last year?

Best non-album track: The only other song Arcadia recorded was “Say the Word,” which was rightfully left off the album. Everything else they released was remix, remix, remix. My favorite of the bunch was this dub mix of “The Flame,” nicknamed “Flame Game (Yo Homeboy Mix),” on which Nile Rodgers releases the hounds on the drum track.

It is now 1986, and Roger has left the band, claiming it’s not about the music anymore. Soon after, Andy also bails as the group reunites with Nile Rodgers for their fourth album. Good thing they know a few session musicians…

Notorious (1986)
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Growing up is hard to do, especially in the public eye. The band knew what their image was – since they had worked so hard on its creation – and were finally starting to see the drawbacks of what they had become. Notorious took an aggressive step to shatter that image, or at the very least reconfigure it, to mixed success. The lead single and title track was a massive hit, but the follow-up, the slinky “Skin Trade,” barely cracked the Top 40. Which is too bad, because it’s another one of the band’s all-time best songs. The horn section features prominently throughout the album, appearing on all three singles (“‘Meet El Presidente'” was the third, and the band’s first to miss the Top 40 since “Hungry Like the Wolf” broke them open), the syncopated “So Misled,” the polite rocker “Proposition,” and “American Science,” the album’s second track and a more appropriate table-setter than its namesake. “Hold Me” is about as rocking as the album gets, and in fairness it’s more aggressive than anything on Seven and the Ragged Tiger, but still awfully mannered.

Best non-album cut: The Beatle-y “We Need You” is the only B-side from the sessions. Did want to give a shout-out, though to the label’s decision to send a couple album tracks around and collect some crazy-ass remixes of them, and compiling them all in one batshit-crazy megamix called “Notoriousaurus Rex.” This version includes a snippet of a mix to “Proposition” that just makes me giddy with all its Omar Santana-style edits. Is there a full-length version of this
Proposition” mix out there? I’ve never found one, but it has to be out there somewhere…right?

Big Thing (1988)
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Shep Pettibone to the rescue! His remix of lead single “I Don’t Want Your Love” saved this album’s ass. Have you heard the album version? It’s pure minimalism, which makes sense considering they were trying to create their own version of “Warm Leatherette,” but it would have been crushed by program directors as is. Shep’s version, on the other hand, has lots of low end, extra keyboard tracks, and the decision to drop the bass line an octave was huge. No way “All She Wants Is” – another minimalist track – comes within sniffing distance of the Hot 100 without Shep’s mix of “I Don’t Want Your Love” leading the way.

As for the rest of the album, it’s subdued like its predecessor, but Big Thing has more atmosphere, as if the band finally gave their songs the chance to breathe. It also contains a moment of outright plagiarism (“Do You Believe in Shame?,” which steals wholesale from CCR’s “Suzie Q”), and for the first time in the band’s history, the ballads rule the roost. “Too Late Marlene” features Nick playing one of those old-fashioned piano thingies, while the spirit of Notorious track “Winter Marches On” lives in “Palomino.” The standout moment here, though, is “Land,” a remarkably simple song awash in a sonic ambience that the band had never attempted before. The album is rounded out with a clumsy instrumental, a couple of silly interlude bits, and a hamfisted title track, but like most things Duran, it is not without its good points.

Best non-album track: No question, “I Believe/All I Need to Know,” which is better than a good half of the songs that wound up making the album.

As the decade came to a close, the band released the obligatory hits compilation, fittingly called Decade. Tucked away at the end of the album was a nifty little megamix called “Burning the Ground,” which is one of the first mash-ups ever created. Amazing how many of these songs fit together without having to change keys. They even did a more house-oriented version for the clubs called “Decadance.” Get up, get down.

Liberty (1990)
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I wrote about this one for Popdose Flashback last year. You can read about it here, but here’s the review in two words: hash oil.

Duran Duran – Serious
Duran Duran – My Antarctica

Duran Duran a.k.a. The Wedding Album (1993)
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Call it a comeback. Left for dead after Liberty, the band, now a foursome after the departure of drummer Sterling Campbell, gets their swerve back on in a big, big way thanks to the emerging presence of Warren Cuccurullo as the band’s new musical director, if you will. “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” were the band’s best 1-2 punch since “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” and the rest of the album was easily their most consistent output in ages. Third single “Too Much Information” didn’t miss the Top 40 by much, though we’re guessing that one received significantly less airplay than the first two singles thanks to its opening line “Destroyed by MTV / I’d hate to bite the hand that feeds me.” Who knows, maybe that was the point.

Simon wasn’t finished bashing his loved ones, either. “Drowning Man” takes a big swing at America, though they did put it to an awfully catchy beat. The mid-tempo number takes the prize again though, as “Breath After Breath,” a duet with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, is drop-dead gorgeous. The Wedding Album also featured a cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale,” which would serve as an ominous sign of things to come.

Thank You (1995)
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The jokes just wrote themselves, didn’t they? Most critics responded with “No, thank you,” and in their defense, this is a pretty miserable album, with wretched artwork to boot. Duran had been doing covers since the very beginning, and their version of “White Lines” was going over like gangbusters when they toured in support of The Wedding Album, so why not strike while the iron was newly hot with a covers album? All right, fine, but nearly everything about the execution of Thank You missed the mark. “Watching the Detectives” as dub reggae? “Lay Lady Lay” as “Come Undone”? “911 Is a Joke”? “911 Is a Joke”? All of them brought to you by Bad Idea Jeans. They did get out of the Doors’ “Crystal Ship” relatively unscathed, though. And Lou Reed loved their version of “Perfect Day,” so they have that going for them.

Why, then, did they decide to relegate “The Needle and the Damage Done” to B-side status? It boggles the mind, frankly, as it’s arguably the best track recorded from the period. I’m also strangely fonder of the more Duran-like version of “Thank You” that appeared on the soundtrack to With Honors than the Zepp-ish version that made the album. But truth be told, I haven’t listened to this album since 1995.

Medazzaland (1997)
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The only Duran record from the Capitol years that’s out of print. It’s also their most underrated album.

This time John was on the outs with the band and left in the middle of recording. Warren and Nick had assumed control of production, and in 1997, what the hell was an ’80s band to do? Answer: get weird. And Medazzaland is one weird record, like a bionic Big Thing. Nick gets his first vocal (spoken word, of course) on the title track, the band pull a damn good Oasis impression on “Who Do You Think You Are?,” and the instrumentation gets, if not quite industrial or aggro, pretty dirty for a Duran record on “Be My Icon.” You get the sense that this was the first album that they made without a thought of how the public would perceive it. They liked it, they knew their fans would like it, so the hell with everybody else. Most of those who heard it, though, were pleasantly surprised. Also, like Thank You, this album received no help whatsoever from its artwork.

You wonder if it would have gotten off to a better start if they had released a different first single. “Electric Barbarella” had the “Planet Earth” sound going, but the lyrics are just awful, plus using “Barbarella” in the title reeked of desperation. Still, it nearly cracked the Top 50, so what do I know.

The two most interesting songs here are the ones that are (allegedly) about John: the oddly timed “Buried in the Sand” (“Can’t say that I was surprised when you broke the ties / They were hanging by a thread”) and the beautiful but dark “Midnight Sun” (“There are times when I look at you differently, like I’ve never seen you before / Funny after all we’ve done, you could be someone I don’t know at all”). Another gem was “Michael, You Have a Lot to Answer For,” the song Simon wrote about his buddy Michael Hutchence, who would be found dead weeks after the album’s release. Needless to say, Medazzaland is an album about loss and transition, and those very things make it one of their most heartfelt albums.

Pop Trash (2000)
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You would think that they would have learned their lesson about album titles after Thank You. Fool.

In the early ’90s, there was a saying about Hollywood Records, Duran Duran’s new home: if it’s from the sphinx, it stinks. But here’s the God’s honest truth about Pop Trash: it’s actually not that far from being a decent album. A couple of the songs are pleasant enough (“Someone Else Not Me,” “Starting to Remember,” “The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever”), but can’t stand up to the band’s best work. Other songs fall somewhere between inoffensive and nondescript (“Lava Lamp,” “Playing with Uranium,” “Mars Meets Venus”), and that’s the album’s biggest problem – most of it doesn’t elicit much of an emotional response, pro or con. It’s just…there. It’s not like them to be so ordinary.

Yet even here, there are a couple songs that rise above the din. “Pop Trash Movie,” the aforementioned song that Nick wrote for the recently reunited Blondie, is one of them, with a melancholy descending vocal melody. The other is “Lady Xanax,” which is begging for a sex scene to score. Kind of weird, considering Cuccurullo’s appearances in some porn mags at the time.

Astronaut (2004)
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The Fab Five are back together again! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

At least that’s what the pre-album show I attended in Chicago sounded like.

There are some interesting bits on Warren Cuccurullo’s Wikipedia page about his departure from the band. It says that he was asked to leave so the original five could reunite, and Warren agreed, pending a financial agreement that would net him a piece of the pie. Then he was asked not to attend one of their shows (even though the band wanted him there), and it’s gone south since. Whatever the circumstances for Cuccurullo’s departure, it should be noted that without his guidance, it’s unlikely that the band makes it through the ’90s intact, and all Duran fans owe him a debt of gratitude. Now, back to the program.

For a group of guys who hadn’t recorded a song together since “A View to a Kill,” Astronaut is pretty damn good. Don Gilmore seems an odd choice as producer, since he made his bones with Linkin Park, but it’s definitely cleaner than the band’s previous two albums, if still a bit busy. Overall, the album sounds like a mix of the band’s other albums. The contrite “What Happens Tomorrow” fits in with the Wedding Album material, “Bedroom Toys” has the signature Nile Rodgers scratch guitar that dominated “Notorious” (though the song itself is kind of embarrassing), and “Want You More” has a Seven and the Ragged Tiger busyness to it. And while the lead single “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise” and “What Happens Tomorrow” were excellent choices for singles, Epic is absolutely nuts for not pushing “Nice” with everything they had. “Nice” is like all of Rio wrapped up in one tidy, three-and-a-half-minute song. And hot damn, is it nice to hear Andy’s power chords again.

Holy shit. I just realized that the Wiki page for “Nice” features a quote from my initial review of the album for PopMatters back in 1994, where I said almost exactly what I just wrote above. I swear I didn’t cheat off my own test.

The album could have been better overall, but so can almost any album, and as reunion records go, Astronaut was a big step in the right direction. And when you hear Simon declare in “One of Those Days” that he’s not running away, it was easy to have good feelings about the band’s future, again.

Red Carpet Massacre (2007)
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Good feelings gone.

It didn’t have to be this way, you know. The band had finished an album, a back-to-basics affair in line with with Bloc Party and the Kaiser Chiefs called Reportage. What’s not to love about that, right? Well, apparently Simon got the brilliant idea to add one more song…with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, at which point Andy said, “Screw this” (probably not a direct quote), and left the band again. The official announcement, curiously, cited issues between Andy and the band’s management. And that may be true. I guess it all comes down to whose idea it was to recruit a couple pop kids that would surely squelch Andy’s guitar playing.

After Andy’s departure, the band decided to shelve Reportage and write a new record from scratch. Timberlake produced a song (“Ordinary World” knock-off “Falling Down”) and Timbaland produced three others. The rest was handled by a Timbaland protege, Nate “Danja” Hills. And God love him, he didn’t know the first thing about producing a rock band.

If you can get past the hideous production – the band is reduced to the role of supporting players on their own album – Red Carpet Massacre has glimmers of hope. “The Valley” is actually a decent tune, rendered almost unlistenable by those awful sounding keys and drums. “Box Full o’ Honey” is one of the rare moments where they sound like themselves rather than some authoritarian producer’s puppets (though again, the drum sounds are awful). And “Falling Down” isn’t bad, though the guitar solo at the end is atrocious. Where’s Andy when you need him? (I realize I sound like an Andy apologist, and I’m really not. But damn, were they better when he was around to even things out.) And why did they bury “Dirty Great Monster,” a nifty glam track, at the end of the album? That’s what you do best, guys; don’t treat those songs like dirty little secrets.

“Skin Divers” would have made for an awesome Scissor Sisters track, and that sums up the problem with Red Carpet Massacre better than anything – in their vain attempt to remain relevant by hiring these trendy (*cough* overrated) producers, they sacrificed their musical identity, and no small part of their dignity. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Ethel Merman making a disco record.

All You Need Is Now (2011)
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And then, like an arc-angel descending from Heaven, Mark Ronson finds time in his ultra-busy schedule to save the band from themselves. Now, here is the guy that Duran should have worked with on Red Carpet Massacre. In fact, Ronson helped out with their live set when they toured the album, and one wonders if Mark heard what Timbaland and Danja had done to them and thought, “Man, these guys need my help.” Whatever the reason, this was a pairing that needed to happen.

So does All You Need Is Now live up to the “it’s just like Rio” hyperbole? Well, really, how could it? The sound is a marked improvement over Red Carpet Massacre; the band sounds like themselves again, thank God, and they keep the energy level pretty high, higher than they have in ages. The catch is that there is no knockout hit, no “Planet Earth” or “Is There Something I Should Know?” to blow the album wide. It’s nice to see Ana Matronic here, though. Duran Duran and the Scissor Sisters; that’s a collaboration that should take place once a year.

The curious thing about All You Need Is Now is that they’ve front-loaded the album with songs that mimic the band’s glory days, but the album’s final third is the best stuff here. “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” which has a chord progression not unlike the Call’s “I Still Believe,” is one of the best songs they’ve ever done, a melancholy dance track a la “Enjoy the Silence” with seductive backing vocals by Kelis. “Runway Runaway” captures the spirit of their earlier work better than anything here, and “Before the Rain” has this descending chord progression in the middle that is just begging for expansion. Overall, All You Need Is Now is very good, but think of it as an album’s worth of songs like “Anyone Out There,” or “Faster Than Light,” or “My Own Way”; it’s B-grade Duran – again, except for “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” which is playing a completely different sport than everything else here – but on the other hand, they haven’t delivered a full album this consistent and entertaining in years, possibly decades. Well done, gents.

David Medsker on twitter
David Medsker
David Medsker used to be 'with it.' But then they changed what 'it' was. Now what he's 'with' isn't 'it,' and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to him. He is available for children's parties.