It’s difficult to believe that once upon a time – before The Hills, The Valleys or any of The others – the M in MTV stood firmly for Music. Some may also find it difficult to remember Duran Duran as a band who firmly made music, focussing instead on the videos that made them Music Television’s sweethearts, with Simon Le Bon pretending to be Indiana Jones, James Bond or drowning, half-submerged while strapped to a windmill. (How much of that was pretend is part of the band’s own legend.)
Such was the impact of these videos that true recognition for their music wouldn’t be shown until over two decades after they formed, when the original line up of Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor, Taylor & Taylor reunited to lifetime achievement awards from every angle, and an obviously influential echo from new bands, namely The Killers.
Their self-titled debut successfully blended dance grooves and electronic beats with rock riffs, most notably on single ‘Girls On Film’. Album tracks reflected a darker side to the band, with a focus on Simon Le Bon’s poetic lyrics, particularly on ‘Nightboat’ and ‘Sound Of Thunder’, which became atmospheric pieces a million miles away from the bare feet and pastel suits on board Rio. Although their second LP did steer the band towards a more mainstream sound, its flipside holds the gems.
From the organ intro of ‘New Religion’ through to its vocal-on-vocal bridge, it allows each instrumentalist to showcase their skills. With the closing tracks the band showed two sides to their personality they had so far kept from the hoards of screaming teens: Ballad territory with the lustfully hypnotic, yet charming ‘Save A Prayer’, and a pure, minimal synth masterpiece in ‘The Chauffeur’.
Despite the record sales falling, and the hits being more miss, the fact that there were fewer fans to please – and with only 3/5s of the original line-up remaining – meant that the rules that made them them could be rewritten. 1986’s Notorious – a funk influenced album with Nile Rodgers on production duties – showed a more mature approach to songwriting (particularly on Prince-y second single ‘Skin Trade’), and a lack of radio friendly anthems (whether intentional or not), something even more apparent in its follow-up (Big Thing), where drug-fuelled dance tracks (‘All She Wants Is’) were placed between streams of consciousness (the Picasso influenced ‘Palomino’).
While 1990’s Liberty was disappointing (…Wrong Direction), there were still signs of a band fighting for the power they once had, while moving with the times. ‘My Antarctica’ – a crisp, piano lead ballad with the beating heart of their earlier work – stands out as the single that never was, and perhaps could have brought their unprecedented comeback forward three years before ‘Ordinary World’ did the trick.
Duran Duran (1993, more commonly known as The Wedding Album) returned the band to the upper reaches of the charts. Recorded in Warren Cucurrulo’s (an official member from 1990 – 2000) London home studio, this was where his meticulous technique shone. ‘Ordinary World’ became an anthem a million miles away from the future-disco of their earlier tracks, and sold the band to millions of listeners who never thought they’d sing-along with Simon Le Bon on the radio, however for various reasons (a panned covers album, co-founder John Taylor leaving and signing a deal with the devil, via Disney) the renewed interest was not to last.
When the original line-up reunited in the new millennium, unofficial leader Rhodes made it clear that there must be new music. Astronaut (2004), their highest charting album since last time they were all together, was a modern take on their earlier work, returning DD to the pop/pop/rock that made up their Greatest collection. Lead-singles ‘(Reach Up For The) Sunrise’ and ‘What Happens Tomorrow’ were Radio 2 friendly tracks, while the title track, ‘Nice’ and ‘One Of Those Days’, with assistance from co-producers Dallas Austin and Don Gilmour, allowed the band’s natural instincts to return in a different time. Sort of like Jurassic Park, with hairspray.
Their pattern of comeback-followed-by-questionable-decision continued with Red Carpet Massacre, featuring collaborations with Timbaland and long-time supporter Justin Timberlake. While moments were flawless (opener ‘The Valley’ and the trio of closing tracks) an entire album was perhaps an overambitious move.
Mark Ronson (who once took a photo of John Taylor to the hairdressers as a child) brought the band back, aiming to make the follow-up to Rio that never was. With vintage synthesizers dusted off, and Ronson’s eye for detail focussed, All You Need Is Now, as the title suggests, is a celebration of their past, and the unprecedented ‘80s revival, made by a band unafraid to sound like their original selves.
Another comeback of sorts, then, including a controversial slot during a Hyde Park Olympics concert, followed by the upcoming release of Paper Gods, with Ronson returning alongside Nile Rodgers and Kanye collaborator Mr Hudson. Hip-Hop again? They’re nothing if not stubborn, but as shown with the title track, Hudson’s pop hat is on, and Duran have never sound more relevant. Perhaps, to balance things out, that long rumoured follow-up to 95’s cover album, Thank You, will follow.