❉ 40 years after ‘Planet Earth’, some highlights (and one infamous misfire) from Duran Duran’s career.
When Birmingham-based band Duran Duran released their debut single Planet Earth on 2 February 1981, they were riding the crest of the New Romantic wave that had begun to hit British pop culture a year or so earlier. Bands such as Visage and Spandau Ballet had already started having hits, as this more stylised and glamorous relation of punk established itself.
The sound of Duran Duran did not perhaps match the claim made in their publicity of “Chic meets The Sex Pistols”, but it had a commercial feel that carried the band beyond the edgy-cool of clubs such as Blitz and The Rum Runner, into mainstream chart success. Within a couple of years, they were the biggest band in the world, their unembarrassed embracing of Eighties consumerism making them the perfect act for the burgeoning MTV station.
A few years later, Duran Duran was a bitterly divided band, with members leaving and their guaranteed place at the top of the charts disappearing. It’s a familiar enough pattern for a lot of bands: super-fast dizzying highs followed by the inexorable lows that lead to the band breaking up. Yet, while many of their contemporaries have followed this path to its grim conclusion, Duran Duran have never quite disbanded and continued to produce new music, off and on, for four decades.
To mark forty years since their first release, here’s a selection of highlights from their recording career, along with an eyebrow-raising lowlight to reflect the up and down nature of their years.
SOME THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
‘Rio’ (Album, 1982)
Duran Duran’s period of worldwide chart-topping is obviously a key part of their history, and their second album is the perfect encapsulation of that phase. Surrender to the slick production and major-chord structures to be found here. Singles such as Hungry Like The Wolf and the title track are purpose-built for high chart placings, and the overall impression is that the band have been told to write a hit album, and come up with exactly that. Yet the weirder art-rock undertones of their first album are still there. This resolutely commercial album ends with the cryptic strangeness of The Chauffeur, while Last Chance On The Stairway includes the delightfully sixth-form pretentious line “Funny, its just like a scene out of Voltaire“.
‘A View To A Kill’ (Single, 1985)
The best James Bond theme not to feature Carly Simon? Absolutely! At the height of their success, Duran Duran lent their cool to an ageing franchise. The resultant slab of jagged electronica, in a space normally occupied by a big-frocked diva belting out a ballad, topped the American chart. The accompanying video is also knowingly very funny.
‘So Red The Rose’ (Arcadia album, 1985)
In 1985, Duran Duran divided into two side project bands, with John Taylor and Andy Taylor forming the rock-oriented group The Power Station, and Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor becoming Arcadia, a more esoteric project. If you don’t mind the Eighties art school feel of it, then this – the only Arcadia album – is a fine, sophisticated listen. Its often regarded by fans as the Duran Duran album that never was, and gives an early idea of what they would be like freed from the pressure to make hits for the record company. You really don’t need to worry about The Power Station.
‘Notorious’ (Album, 1986)
The big falling out that affects every band that has a fast track to huge success arrived bang on schedule for Duran Duran. They emerged from the debris in the autumn of 1986, minus two members and their teenybop audience, but now in possession of one of their best albums. Notorious benefits hugely from having Chic legend Nile Rodgers acting as producer, weaving the same sort of magic that he did for David Bowie’s Lets Dance. It’s a really solid funk album, and Skin Trade (an unfairly overlooked single) should have been huge.
‘(Reach up For The) Sunrise’ (Single, 2004)
With the original hit-making line-up of five members back together for the first time in nearly two decades, this is a mighty comeback single, random brackets in the title and all. It appeared that Duran Duran had got over the urge that had grabbed them for most of the Nineties to be an average American rock band and had rediscovered their ear for a strong melody.
‘Girl Panic!’ (Single, 2011)
This track is taken from Duran Duran’s best 21st-century album so far, the Mark Ronson-produced All You Need Is Now. It plays to all the strengths of the band musically, and the video recalls the glossiness of those of their imperial phase. Filmed on location at London’s Savoy hotel, the video is a glorious piece of Durandemonium. It’s witty, gender-bending, and simultaneously blokishly lairy and very camp. Best enjoyed in the full ten-minute version, to get all the jokes.
In forty years of releases, there are inevitably going to be a few missteps. It would be churlish to note every track that fell a little short of expectation, every collaboration that didn’t really work (Ciao, Pavarotti), or every duff note sung at a globally-broadcast charity show.
There is really only one step along the Duran Plan that should be entirely avoided. If you know their back catalogue, then, of course, you’ll already know that it’s….
‘Thank You’ (Album, 1995)
The phrase “cover versions album” never really sets the pulse-pounding with upbeat excitement, does it? This one is such an absolute doozy of an example, it’s a wonder that the genre survived afterwards.
Elvis Costello’s Watching The Detectives, Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay, and most alarmingly Public Enemy’s 911 Is A Joke are all fed through a stultifyingly bland rock filter, with jaw-droppingly unsatisfying results. There’s a case to be made for covers that are mischievously disrespectful of the original and trying something new – Kim Wilde’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On or Grace Jones’ La Vie En Rose, for example. Here though, the whole album almost seems to elevate wrong-headedness to an art form.
Forty years after Planet Earth materialised, Duran Duran have a pandemic-delayed album of new material, and a set of live dates optimistically scheduled for later in 2021. Among the big acts of the 1980s, they seem to balance a healthy relationship between the hits of their commercial peak, and the new songs. They’ve clearly had periods when the personal relationships in the band were strained to the point of break-up. Most of their contemporaries have either stopped making music or settled into trading on past glories, on the Eighties nostalgia circuit. However, in recent years, and after several personnel changes, four of the five members who took the band to fame have formed a solid team. As they swagger confidently into their sixties, Duran Duran have earned their position as the last of the New Romantics.
❉ Visit Duran Duran’s official website at http://www.duranduran.com.