Birmingham, England is an enormous city/metropolitan borough that, like many a patch of Earth that has a surplus of mouths breathing within its borders, has produced an impressive number creative people who have followed their passion and cultivated their skill in a desperate attempt to get the hell out of there. The list of musicians is especially noteworthy, for variety and quality in equal measure. Black Sabbath, who revolutionized so-called “heavy music” by belching up foul factory smoke; Judas Priest, whose revved-up operatics were almost as influential (and who can still lay claim to featuring the greatest frontman in the history of heavy metal); Led Zeppelin and their too-imitable BASHCRASH; the scummy seconds of Napalm Death; the ludicrous ponderings of the Moody Blues; Electric Light Orchestra’s unabashed ascension from stolid re-imaginers of George Martin as spirit-sipping studio professor to self-effacing re-imaginers of George Martin as Studio 54 DJ.
And there’s that many more.
Such as…Duran Duran.
A quintet of rouged rogues, Duran Duran are as good a candidate as any to represent “the music of the 1980s.” Their (shrewdly attained) status as pin-up phenoms attracted critical invective, and for a time they were the go-to whipping boys for professional fault-finders. Duran Duran were a boy band, most certainly, but in the way that the Beatles were two decades prior. They were not mashed together by some decrepit, decaying svengali nor were they puppets for an assembly line of songwriters. The Duran boys wrote their songs, performed those songs, controlled their own image, and drew up their own unique blueprint for world domination.
The original lineup of John Taylor, Stephen Duffy and the erstwhile Nicholas Bates (his rock god nom de plume Nick Rhodes was either inspired by a Greek island or brand of keyboard, depending on which story one chooses to believe) came together in 1978. Duffy and Rhodes bonded over Kraftwerk and the two Elvises, influences that would reverberate even after Duffy had departed within a year.
Lineup changes were inevitable, but eventually they picked up–and decided to keep–drummer Roger Taylor, who was neither the drummer for Queen or related to John Taylor in any way. Former TV Eye vocalist Andy Wickett hopped on board, and the four-song “1979 Demo” was recorded. Two of the songs–vastly worked over, vastly improved–would become classics in the band’s catalog.
Classics that, of course, would not feature Mr. Wickett.
DD were basically adopted by the Rum Runner club as they shed and grew their skin, and it was RR barmaid Fiona Kemp who recommended her boyfriend, aspiring actor/vocalist/lyricist Simon LeBon as a possible replacement behind the microphone. LeBon showed up wearing pink leopard-print trousers, hoisting a notebook of original poetry, and bearing a cool-ass name that was not a nom de plume. The scenario reeks of sordid legend.
Duran Duran crashed the shores of North America like it was their birthright. They had the tunes, the ‘tude, a highly-stylized substance and a substantive style (New Romantic frills and thrills). They were garish in all the best ways, pouty Englishmen who glammed their way into the hearts, minds and beds (and couches, and floors, and showers, and walls) of girls the world over. They were clotheshorses, certainly, and you can even read essays devoted to Nick Rhodes inadvertently inventing metrosexuality if you’re positively gagging on your ennui, but above everything else, Duran Duran mastered pop music. It was that aspect of the band that enamored me as a six-year-old girl in Western Maryland watching their canny, polished, and controversial videos flash across MTV. I was too young to comprehend the lupine carnality, nor could I appreciate the art of androgyny other than to recognize as something “different” that I just didn’t see walking around my neck of the woods, careful not to move too fast lest I have another asthma attack.
As the 80s dissolved into the next decade, my interest in the boys had waned, but their influence never would, hanging in there like the posterized kitty cat. When they made an unexpected comeback with 1993’s so-called “Wedding Album,” and the singles “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” were dominating radio, it was like revenge–for the band, whose multitude of naysayers had rejoiced at their dwindling sales and concert draws–and validation. I remember feeling immense satisfaction that a group I was so attached to and entertained by was back on top…and, best, that the music they were releasing actually deserved the success.
This new wave of Duran inspired me to revisit the music of my childhood (hey, Sonic Youth were between albums). To my pleasant surprise, so much of the inescapable, alleged “disposable pop” held up to scrutiny (even if their creators didn’t). No one’s records stood more solidly, chest out and chin up, than Duran Duran’s. I don’t mean simply the singles, although they are among the greatest pop songs of any era. I mean Duran Duran actually made great albums. Their music sold their image, rather than the other way around.
You may say I’m naive. I say, “Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo, doo doo doo, doo doo doo, doo doo.”
DD are of course still an active recording and touring unit. However, their full-length releases of the past twenty years have been mixed at best and dreadful at worst. Singles aside, even “The Wedding Album” was vastly forgettable. Thus, this discography review series is dedicated to their first five albums, all released by the band during the greatest decade known to man, the 1980s. When everything they touched turned to flaming liquid cocaine.