Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Why I Love Duran Duran
I first encountered Duran Duran at this cute girl's house when I was in 8th grade. My friend Karsten (this dude who was really into the A-Team and army crap) invited me and my friend Adam along to her place, and if I recall correctly, she had kind of a crush on me (or most likely on Adam, everybody had a crush on Adam). Most importantly, though, she had MTV. Neither Adam nor I had cable television and of course we'd heard about MTV but neither of us had ever seen it. I remember "Rio" being on, and thinking holy shit, this is so cool and sophisticated and awesome. I don't remember the girl's name, even, but I sure as hell remember "Rio."
I became an actual fan in 10th grade, though. This girl named Laurie was in our class, and she was from California, which was totally exotic. She had a cute valley-girl accent, and I was madly in love with her. She dressed exotically and professed her love of men with makeup. Also, she was obsessed with Duran Duran. I hung out with her constantly, despite the fact that she showed no actual interest in me, and as a result started wearing makeup (duh! I mean, c'mon, there was a girl at stake) and listening to Duran Duran. I went with her to the Record Shop in City Center mall to get the Arcadia album the day it was released.
Laurie fell by the wayside but my affection for Duran did not. I listened to "Seven And The Ragged Tiger" and "Arena" and Arcadia's "So Red The Rose" over and over again while I played "Ultima III" on my Commodore 64, and memorized every song. I argued passionately with my friend Neil who liked Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton that John Taylor was too a good bass player. I dressed like Nick Rhodes and got my ass kicked for being a fag. I was in a subculture that wasn't even present in suburban Minnesota -- "new romantic" meant you gave a girl flowers before you got her drunk on Southern Comfort and fucked her in the back of your Honda Civic.
And unlike most fickle music fans, I kept with 'em. I was already into goth music when "Notorious" came out but that didn't stop me from playing the cassette bald. I was getting nasty with a chick named Karla with a white-dyed crew cut who was into Ministry when "Big Thing" was released, and still I listened to it over and over in my dorm room. "Liberty" -- well, we'll skip that album for a moment, but at the height of shoegaze music, I still bought the "Wedding Album" and memorized it, too. Hell, I bought "Medazzaland" and I'm not sure anybody bought frickin' "Medazzaland."
For the love of god, you're saying, WHY?
My love for the band isn't just based on liking chicks or my nostalgia for early MTV, believe me. Duran Duran are -- believe it or not -- artists. Sure, they're mighty pretty artists and they looked good on television, but they are artists nonetheless. Like the other new romantic bands of the early 80s (Japan, Talk Talk, Spandau Ballet) they were attempting to meld the stylish nihilism of David Bowie with the danceability of Roxy Music and Chic, while coming to grips with the commerical/non-commercial possibilities of the synthesizer as well as the video medium. They just did it better than everybody else, and looked fucking great doing it, so they got played on the radio.
But so what? So did the Beatles, not to compare the two, but commercial viability isn't necessarily a gague of a group's artistic reach, positive or negative. If you go back and listen to the songs they did get hits with in the 80s -- "Rio," say, or "New Moon On Monday" -- and listen without predjudice, you find some exceptionally strange songs. LeBon's lyrics are dense and imagistic, not unlike Jon Anderson from Yes. And the music is synth-driven but oozes with style, not at all unlike "Scary Monsters"-era Bowie, and that's his weirdest phase -- listen to something like "The Chauffeur" off of "Rio" if you want something that's equally bizarre. They were pushing the envelope, they were just doing it in a way that people liked.
Oh, and it's sexy. Every song they ever did is deliciously, moistly sexy. If you wanna get lucky, put on Duran Duran. Seriously. "Notorious" maybe. Its just as sexy as "Avalon" by Roxy Music, and you will get some, if your moves are right.
This is all by way of saying that I've been relistening to their new album "Red Carpet Massacre" thanks to Superbadfriend, who posted the other day about feeling guilty over initially being turned off by the seemingly gratutious/pop-grab Timbaland/Timberlake presence and dismissing the record as being very not Duran Duran-ish. Which is essentially true -- it bears almost no resemblance, sonically, to the band on "Rio." That said: the band on "Notorious" and "Big Thing" and "Medazzaland" doesn't either, and that's because Duran Duran have always been about taking What's Going On Radio-Wise and filtering it through their British Stylish Sensibility and making awesome club-hits out of it.
It sure ain't a perfect record (their last, "Astronaut," almost was, though -- if you didn't get it, do) but it has a lot to love on second, third and fourth listens. Its chock-a-block with Timbaland's beat-boxy stuff and odd production tricks and it almost sounds like the band ain't there, but if you look closely, they sure as hell are. There's no question that's Nick adding synth stabs and washes, and John Taylor's plucky bass pops up all over the thing, it could be nobody else. And once you get used to the modernist sound, the songs start jumping out at you. "The Valley"'s rumbling bass and pulsing synths roil into a nice boil, while "Nite Runner" brings even more sexy back than Timberlake's capable of on his own. I even dig the nasty "Skin Dive," despite Timbaland's weird Cartmanesque "wicky-scratch" asides. I might like "Dirty Great Monster" best, though, it comes damn close to soul with a propulsive saxophone line.
I always stick up for the band against its detractors, occasionally coming to verbal blows -- and I think they're worth it, because I'm not sure there's a band in the history of pop music that's as divisively loved/loathed by their fans/enemies. And the ones who do love 'em frequently love 'em for the wrong reasons -- either as a pin-up group they loved as teenagers or as nostalgia, like Flock of Seagulls or something, who evoke a particular time/place. But Duran aren't boxed in as easily as that -- they keep growing, changing, scaring people, alienating others, and to me, that's a sure sign of real artists.