Sunday, January 2, 2011

Duran Duran Is Great.

When I was in tenth grade, my favorite band was Duran Duran.

This, of course, got me an inordinate amount of stick from my classmates, who were ankle-deep in 'Halen and Def Lep (or Hendrix and the Doors for the stoners). Duran Duran were, as everybody "knew," a girls' band. If a boy listened to Duran Duran, their sexuality was suddenly in free-play -- after all, the only possible reason you'd ever want to listen to Duran was because they were good lookin' blokes. There was certainly no musical merit to 'em -- I remember when Guitar magazine did a super-sarcastic piece on Taylors Andy and John. Their lack of musicality was common knowledge. So clearly -- clearly -- my fandom just meant I was a "fag."

The lavender-frosted lipstick and eyeliner I occasionally wore 'cause of Nick Rhodes probably didn't help with that impression either. Somehow it got them chicks. It got me shut into a locker. That can probably be put down to growing up in the London club scene vs. growing up in Crystal, MN.

At any rate, it's 30 years on and I'm still a Duran Duran fan. And despite the fact that we've had thirty years to analyze, re-analyze, retro-chic and RE-retro-chic, ironic-i-fy and de-ironic-i-fy the band, I still get an inordinate amount of stick for liking them.

This, my friends, is not fair.

People's opinions about Duran, if they're negative, are almost always steeped in ancient, outdated pre-suppositions. They're just a pre-fab video band. Or they only had one good record. Or they were just disposable, barely-musical teen idols like David Cassidy. Or they represent a particularly virulent and awful brand of Thatcherism. All of which are the same arguments that were leveled at them in 1984, and ignores the fact that the band has been producing music this entire time. And lots of it has been quite good. And much of it has been very, very good.

They're also completely false. Let's examine them one by one, shall we?

1. They're just a pre-fab video band. Okay, what do you mean just? Duran Duran were one of the first bands to take full advantage of the medium of video to take their music into a visual realm, and if you ask me, that's actually pretty impressive. At the time, of course, MTV looked like nothing less than the death of REAL ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC. Video killed the radio star, dontcha know. Except it didn't -- what killed the radio star was the excesses of the 70s + failure to change with the times or find a new audience -- basically the same thing that killed every radio star that's ever been killed. I think the eventual video successes of just about everybody worth their salt proved that pretty bands like Duran didn't kill anybody. But people are still sore about that.

Duran Duran, though, understood that videos were just an artistic extension of the music -- or could be, if done right. And theirs always were -- take a look at the fascinating and frequently gorgeous videos for all the songs on spin-off band Arcadia's "So Red The Rose" album. Now look at the video for Journey's "Separate Ways." It's clear that more than just "pretty-boy-ness" is happening here -- Duran worked with fantastic and visionary directors and created a complex and gorgeous visual language that was way ahead of its time. That's not a bad thing. That's awesome.

2. They only had one good record. That's not true, but if you're a casual music listener, or even a deep music fan with only one ear on pop music, you might be forgiven for thinking that. The album is, of course, "Rio," the album that broke them in America. It is a fantastic record, and deserves its place among the classics of that decade. But it wasn't their first good record -- the self-titled debut is great too. And it was by no means their last -- despite following it up with the lackluster "Seven and the Ragged Tiger," their career continued for two more decades, and they've got a bunch of records -- "So Red The Rose," "Notorious," "Big Thing," the 2nd self-titled album aka "The Wedding Album," "Medazzaland," "Astronaut" and now "All You Need Is Now" -- that fully stand up to "Rio."

It's just that you probably didn't hear them, because apart from their brief early-90s comeback hit "Ordinary World," they sort of stopped having massive culture-defining hits.

But since when is commercial viability a gague for what's good and what isn't? It sure isn't for any of the other bands you probably like. It wasn't for Duran's ancestors like the Velvet Underground, David Bowie or Roxy Music -- some of those bands' best records weren't their hit albums, necessarily, if they had any hits to begin with. In other words, your unfamiliarity with the band's canon is not a good reason to dismiss it.

3. They were disposable, barely musical teen idols like David Cassidy. First of all, I'd love to argue for the musical viability of David Cassidy with you sometime, 'cause I can, and I'll defend just about ALL the teen idols that have ever been, including the newest ones. But secondly, it's just not true -- they were by no means "barely musical" in the first place. Ask any bassist worth their salt and they'll tell you that John Taylor, to grab a band member at random, is a phenomenal bass player. He understands the principles of funk and disco, and his "walking octave" style has become EXTREMELY influential in this recent wave of neo-80s dance music. But it's not just John -- did you know Nick was one of the first guys to use a computer to sequence his keyboard sounds? And he wasn't even musically trained -- he was making that shit up as he went along, and his Apple-powered keyboard rig might well have been the very first of its kind.

And don't even get me started on Simon LeBon's "adenoidal yelps," as I've heard them described -- first off, he's not the first overly-mannered crooner out there (see also: Scott Walker, David Bowie et al) and secondly, he hasn't "adenoidally yelped" in years. His voice is smooth, strong and powerful, and sounds better today than it ever has.

Plus, they're great songwriters. I'm not sure I can defend Simon as a lyricist -- he's always interesting but occasionally quite silly -- but the lyrics aren't even important in music like this, which is far more concerned with creating a mood and a dance beat, a situation for you to be able to move around in. They've got great melodies and ENORMOUS hooks, and they're far more experimental than they're given credit for. Listen to side two of "Big Thing" if you don't believe me -- it's the slightly-more-accessible version of something like Talk Talk's "Laughing Stock" or David Sylvian's "Gone To Earth" -- it never sacrifices great songwriting or structure like those albums do, but still creates THAT KIND of ominous, sumptuous, earthy mood. And then you flip the record over and side one's full of killer dance music.

4. They represent a particularly virulent brand of Thatcherism. I dunno, dude, I'm from America. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. I don't know them personally, but from what I've read I'd have a hard time believing someone as forward thinking and just all-around kind as Nick Rhodes, for example, would be a Thatcherite. To me, it's like Springsteen representing Reaganism -- the fact that his music was around in the era when Reagan was around is no reason for any kind of connection between the two, seeing as their philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. Just 'cause Duran were on when Thatcher was in power -- and just 'cause they were played in dance clubs filled with cocaine-sloppy, self-absorbed Thatcherites is no reason to equate the two. They're musicians. They can't help when they came around, or who likes them, or who danced to 'em, any more than Springsteen can control fist-pumping jingoists liking "Born In The USA." If Duran actually voted for Thatcher, I guess that's their business.

I'm pretty sure that my highly enlightened readers don't need the "their music is for fags" impression refuted, right? We can just let that one pass as pure and simple homophobia, and none of your impressions of Duran are based on that, right?

So okay, your presuppositions are wrong, what next?

Well, if you haven't heard anything beyond "Rio," you need to. Let me give you a quick run-down of what you need to get:

Arcadia, So Red The Rose. The thinking-fan's Duran album of choice. While Taylors John and Andy were off with Robert Palmer making "Some Like It Hot," Taylor Roger, Simon and Nick produced this gorgeous, underappreciated, forward-thinking gem. Not a commercial album by any means -- the hit "Election Day" still sounds as weird today as it did back then -- it is never less than beautiful. Even a Sting cameo in "The Promise" can't sink it -- he sounds great, and soaring.

Notorious. The very minute a lot of early, casual fans dropped out, this is a mature, lavish, very slick and very credible funk album, and sounds less dated and "of its era" than any of their albums. Produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, this album is a horn-powered tour-de-force of great songwriting and phenomenal performance.

Big Thing. Remember how "I Don't Want Your Love" sounded like pre-jungle club-rock six, seven years before anybody'd ever heard those terms? Probably not, since it wasn't a huge hit, but this album's highlights -- especially the aforementioned and rather arty side two -- prove the band were still a viable creative force with one eye on the future of electronic music.

The Wedding Album. The first wave of 80s nostalg came just at the start of the grunge era (Courtney Love was a Durannie, remember!) and "Ordinary World" was a deserved, massive ballad hit -- the rest of the record was great, too, expanding on the slick funk-rock of "Notorious" and adding in some arch hip-hop beats that oddly sound not the least bit dated.

Medazzaland. The group squandered their newfound success on an album of covers called "Thank You" that's far less awful than its reputation suggests, but people dropped off the nostalgia train in droves. Undaunted even by the ship-jumping of John Taylor, the group made this rather odd, chilly, electronic-powered record -- "Electric Barbarella" was a minor club hit, but the rest of the album was too arty for club-goers and too strange for E-gobbling club kids enamored of the Chemical Brothers. It is, nonetheless, a minor classic of the era and one of their most overlooked albums.

Astronaut. A late-period reunion of the "original five" lineup, it manages to suggest the sound of the early albums without aping them, and manages to sound credibly forward-thinking besides. Great songwriting and a couple of club-pumpers the likes of which we'd not heard from the band in 10 years.

All You Need Is Now. Possibly their second-best record, delievered a mere thirty years after "Rio." Produced by Mark Ronson, a man clearly and rightfully obsessed with Nick Rhodes' 80s analog keyboard sounds (see: his own excellent "Record Collection" LP). He reminded the band how cool they were back when they were (and perhaps how influential they'd become in the last few years), this record delivers ample hints of their 80s sounds in the form of retro keyboards and slashing guitars. But far from a sad attempt to snatch past glories, the songwriting is remarkably tight and well-considered, and the band channels their experimental side into concise dancefloor classics that sound not the least bit contrived. One of the only "rediscover-old-sound" records that actually works.

I'm ready for a full-on critical reassessment of Duran. It's time. I'm sick of having to defend my love for them at this stage of the game -- they've more than proven themselves if anybody's paying attention, and you're only missing out on some very interesting, near-classic LPs if you stop at the one album, their latest album among 'em. I'm sincerely hoping that when Jake Rudh does a Duran night at Transmission in a month-ish, he lays some of the lesser-heard classics on y'all, opens your mind, and shows off the ample strengths of a band that deserves more love and more critical consideration than they've yet received. I still love 'em as strongly after thirty years, and that counts for something. Join me, won't you?

(Editor's note: if you've not yet heard Mark Ronson's "Record Collection," and think the guy's just a rich club-kid dilettante with no actual musical ideas, you need to give it a listen. For one thing: it sounds great. For another: he took just exactly the right stuff from the 80s synth stuff he obviously loves. For yet another, he begins Simon LeBon's critical rehabilitation on the title track, and teases us that yet another one -- Culture Club -- is yet to come. And then there's "Bang Bang Bang," which is probably my favorite song of last year. Go. Listen.)