Arriving at the dawn of MTV in the early 1980s, no one symbolized the New Romantic and music video revolutions like Duran Duran. They were the British masters of style, from their well-coiffed hair and colorful glam to their funk-laced pop-rock that cross-pollinated genres into a dynamic brew.
Singer Simon LeBon, guitarist Andy Taylor, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor, and drummer Roger Taylor offered a combination of music and image that was tailor made for MTV, a pioneering cable TV network that they readily embraced and helped launch their career which flourished throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s.
Months after their sophomore album Rio was released in May 1982, Duran Duran became an international sensation and generated a frenzy of adoration.
Three of the album’s sexy videos were filmed in Sri Lanka with future Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, while the video for the title track was later shot in Antigua, adding an air of exoticism to the group. If they had emerged today, Duran Duran would likely have been pegged as a boy band despite the fact that they are accomplished musicians. Their long-term vitality has solidified that fact.
Thirty-nine years into their career, Duran Duran still thrive and their music remains just as vibrant.
Four of the original members remain; guitarist Andy Taylor departed again after their classic line-up reunion album Astronaut in 2004 and its subsequent tour, and he has since been replaced by Dom Brown. (Taylor also contributed to the unreleased Reportage in 2006.) The group’s recent release Paper Gods, which included collaborations with Kiesza, Mr Hudson, John Frusciante, Janelle Monae, and Lindsey Lohan, became their first top 10 album in 22 years. The subsequent tour has lasted eight legs and will encompass nearly 100 dates with the group having headlined amphitheaters and arenas here and abroad.
Co-founding member Nick Rhodes spoke with the Observer at length recently about the band’s early days, the success and influence of Rio, how it played into some of their recent work, and offered a glimpse into his future personal projects.
While they know Duran Duran became a big thing through MTV, many people don’t realize that it took several months for Rio to really break in America.
When we first went over to America with the debut album it was 1981, and we did pretty well in small clubs and certainly on the West and East Coast. In New York and L.A., there was some real excitement about this new wave of British artists that were coming over, which obviously included other people like Depeche Mode and Billy Idol. So it was exciting but we couldn’t really break through at radio much.
There were just a few stations…Funnily enough, I just did a film about one of them called Dare To Be Different, a documentary about WLIR who were based in Long Island, and of course in L.A. there was KROQ. These stations were really the first ones to spring up and start playing alternative rock music at the time, but it wasn’t until the Rio album when we came back to America and toured on our own.
We went from one side of America to the other and back again, and then we supported Blondie who had The Hunter album out at the time. That was a real breakthrough for us because we were supporting one of our favorite bands and playing these huge arenas, which we had never done before, and we were getting encores. We had started to chip a little bit further away, but as we left America we thought maybe on the third album we’d get America. Then we got news that “Hungry Like The Wolf” was breaking and starting to chart, so that was kind of amazing.
David Kershenbaum did some extended Rio dance remixes for the Carnival EP, and subsequent remixes ended up on the American reissue of the album in November 1982 that helped break the band through to American radio. Was it surreal to have the original album mixes, the Carnival mixes, and the American remixes all floating out there at the same time?
It was actually more than that because I had done different versions in the studio with [the late producer] Colin Thurston when we mixed it in the first place. There was always variance because [back] then you didn’t mix into a computer. You literally had all hands on the desk.
I think “Hungry Like The Wolf” was done at about two in the morning with four people reaching over. I was in control of the scream at the end and the string synth because I wanted them to raise it up in the last chorus. Colin was taking care of all the vocals, which he had grouped on the desk. It was a very, very different process.
Then we decided to remix for America because we were advised that American radio had a very different sound than European radio. We also used to mix for [BBC] Radio 1 in mono. It sounds somewhat archaic now, but even when America had been in glorious stereo for many years Radio 1 was still broadcasting in mono. Certainly a lot of people were listening in mono because they had simple old radios with one speaker in them.
We used to always check our mixes because we would obviously do them in stereo, but we always used to check them very thoroughly in mono on this little speaker called an Auratone. It was a terrible speaker really, and if your track sounded great on that you knew you’d got it right.
When we remixed for America with David Kershenbaum, we very much wanted to see if we could make the songs work for American radio. It isn’t hugely different—the arrangements are identical, it’s just that the sound is nuanced more. The drums are probably a little brighter, the vocals are probably a little louder, the synths are probably little spikier, and the guitars are a little edgier. We really wanted to be on American radio like any artist does. That’s how you break through in America—radio, radio, and radio.
You have explored different terrain on your albums over the years, but you did recapture some of that Rio vibe in 2010 with All You Need Is Now, which I adore. It’s one of my favorite Duran Duran albums.
That was [producer] Mark Ronson’s request. He felt that because we never look back it might be interesting at that point to actually try to recapture and reclaim some of our roots, so he wanted to make the album that would’ve come after Rio if we were making it then. Just try to make a follow-up, if you like.
How did you get back into that mindset and how did it feel?
It was pretty easy really. He was fanatical about the gear. He wanted to use all the same things. Of course I’d use many of the same synths anyway. I don’t think I’d gotten the Jupiter-4 out for a while, which we got out for the sessions, but I always use the Jupiter-8 and the Crumer string synth is never too far way. But he wanted to use the same microphones and vocal effects with Simon, to use the same amps for John, and he insisted on recording the bass and drums to tape, which we certainly hadn’t done for a number of years. Of course, tape compression is very different than just recording it digitally into a computer. All credit to Mark—he knows his sonics.
I argue that the first half of the ‘80s is when some of the best pop and rock music was created.
Taking us out of the equation, I would agree with you entirely. When you look at the fact we had Prince, the Smiths, The Cure, so many groovy things that come over from the late ’70s [like] Siouxsie and the Banshees, and then you had all this new stuff too, whether it was Depeche Mode or Billy Idol. They were on the same track as us in America.
Then there was The Human League. Their first couple of records are actually very cold and dark. They’re fascinating.
I love Reproduction. That one particularly was an inspiration because that came out before ours, and Colin produced that one. It was one of the reasons that we got Colin Thurston. He had been the engineer of those great albums that Iggy and Bowie made together, and he produced Human League. He knew exactly what we liked.
Duran Duran and Rio are supporting characters in the new Broadway comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. Have you seen it?
[Laughs] Somebody has told me about this, but I haven’t seen it. I’m very flattered that they chose to use us for something that goes disastrously wrong.
One of the characters in the show, Trevor the sound man, is a big Duran Duran fan. He sits fully lit in a stage box throughout the show and has Duran Duran posters up. Once during each act he accidentally plays a Duran Duran song rather than the proper sound cue.
Are there any cover versions of Duran Duran that you really like?
There are a lot of cover versions for sure. I think there have been four or five tribute albums at this point, and there was one done by a string quartet that I rather liked. That was very, very different sounding. I like Courtney Love’s version of “Hungry Like The Wolf.” There have been some interesting things out there, but it’s hard to pick a single one right now because I’ll forget the ones I like the most.
“The Chauffeur” has been covered quite a lot. I always urge people to do cover versions of things that they like because it’s quite interesting as an artist taking someone else’s song and seeing what you can do with it. As I’m sure you know, we did our own covers album called Thank You. It didn’t receive some of the kindest reviews that we’ve ever had, but we feel it has held up pretty well. We play “White Lines” in the set fairly frequently, and it’s a real highlight.
Some of the songs obviously didn’t work as well as the others. You can’t win everything when you’re taking on such classic songs. I was quite pleased with the way that “Perfect Day” turned out, and Lou [Reed] was really lovely about it, which was very touching. He actually said that Simon sung it the way he would’ve liked to have sung it.
Of course, we’re massive fans of Lou’s and think that the way he sung it was perfect for that song. I was just thrilled that he actually liked it [our cover] because we were fiddling with some truly great songs.
You guys were there at the dawn of synth-pop. You created a sound that has influenced artists like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and Panic! At The Disco. And I believe you had the first zombie music video when you did “Night Boat” from your debut album back in 1981.
I’m very proud of that claim to fame. It was very funny making it, not least to see our managers hanging from trees upside down covered in plaster and nasty white goopy stuff.
I suspect “Night Boat” was an homage to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.
[Chuckles] Quite probably, yes. [Director] Russell [Mulcahy] was a big zombie fan, and I love that stuff. Cult movies is a real passion.
You actually had a couple of videos we couldn’t see over here, including the original “Girls On Film” cut featuring scantily clad ladies and sexy mud wrestling…
That got banned, but that wasn’t made to get banned. We never thought it would get played on regular TV because of the content. It was made for rock clubs in America, which we’d experienced for the first time in 1981. There were all these dance halls with a big-screen above the dance floor all playing this out-of-sync, abstract footage to go with the songs they were playing. We thought it would be great if the video could be synced to the song, and because it’s a club you could make the content a little more racy. That was the specific reason the video was made.
“The Chauffeur” from Rio also couldn’t be seen on MTV due to the nudity.
That’s a beauty though. The remit was to make this dark, gothic, Helmut Newton-like scene for “The Chauffeur” in a hotel and a garage, and I think the director Ian Eames did a spectacular job. I think it’s one of the things from that period that captured the moment of the other side of Duran Duran.
You also courted controversy with the “Electric Barbarella” video from Medazzaland in 1997.
I don’t really quite understand how that got so misinterpreted. It was very, very lighthearted and certainly wasn’t meant to offend anyone, but in this politically correct world now it’s quite easy to tread on the wrong stone.
Do you guys stay in touch with any of the gorgeous models who appeared in your videos?
Some of them, yeah. Absolutely. When you work with a lot of people, you lose many of them along the way, but we’ve made a lot of friends too. We still know Christy [Turlington] from the “Notorious” video very well, and of course she’s on our Notorious album cover.
A few years ago, Lady Gaga told Rolling Stone that Duran Duran was her major harmony inspiration. Would you like to work with her or any other pop singers?
I do think we could probably do something very interesting with Gaga. I’m a big fan of that first album, and I saw her with Elton John at a charity thing. It was just her with the piano, and she also performed with her band. I was quite taken by her energy and the control she has over her voice. Her piano skills are pretty damn good. She’s a really good songwriter.
There are lots of people out there that I think have made interesting records over the last few decades that would be fun to work with. It’s pinpointing them. The way those things usually happen is through someone who knows someone.
Or in the case of Janelle Monae, we wanted that kind of voice. We had somebody approach her, and fortunately she was completely into it. You’re either looking for someone specific or somebody approaches you, that’s the way those things happen.
I’m always up for collaborations, particularly after the Paper Gods album when we collaborated more than ever. I think some of them were extremely successful for us artistically, particularly John Frusciante and certainly Janelle. And working with Nile [Rodgers] and Mark again. I’m definitely up for it. If anyone has an interesting idea, you know where to find us.
I’ve been told to ask: Do you have a signature lip color?
At the time it was an Yves Saint Laurent one, but I can’t remember what number it was. There was a little pink one that seemed to work quite well.
What about these days?
Lipstick did get out of fashion pretty quick for men at that time. I grew out of that. The eye makeup is definitely still there.
Is there any eyeshadow that you like?
For anyone looking for makeup now, I think Mac is as good as you get. Mac makeup, and some of the new Tom Ford stuff is great too.
In 2013, you finally released your TV MANIA collaboration with former Duran Duran and Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo.
I’m glad I got it out.
That’s a good example of you going in a very different direction. There have been themes in Simon’s lyrics over the last 25 years that have addressed media and the effect of technology on us, including “Too Much Information,” “Second Life,” and “Blame The Machines.” But some of the groove-heavy and occasionally dissonant TV MANIA tracks, which use sound bytes and traditional vocals, have a claustrophobic feel to them. You’re playing with the idea of media saturation.
We were writing that in 1997, so it was the time that the internet was really starting to explode more. We could see what was coming with it, and Prozac was also fairly new to the market, hence the title Bored With Prozac and the Internet?
I do think that interestingly the album made observations about culture and what was going on at the time. Everybody wanted to make films, and they do now on YouTube. “Using a Hidden Camera – Eyes in the Sky”—London is the most surveilled city in the entire world, and everywhere else is catching up pretty fast.
There is another song, “Beautiful Clothes,” which uses voices from all the fashion commentators which would now be the fashion bloggers that seem to have taken over the universe. There’s a lot of stuff in there. “Euphoria” was about pills and medication that has obviously gone insane since then. There are things in there about virtual reality. It was what’s coming next, and I think we predicted it fairly well.
Do you think you and Warren will do something together again?
I love Warren to pieces, and of course I would work with him any time. It’s finding spaces to do things. I’m currently consumed with trying to finish the Bloom Twins’ first album. They’re a band that I’ve been working with over the last couple of years. They are identical female twins from the Ukraine who are remarkably talented. We had them on tour with us a little bit in the U.K. and Italy, and they’re really great modern songwriters. They’ve got a fascinating perspective for me, so I’ve had a lot of fun doing that and I’m looking forward to getting out the record later in the year.
Then John Taylor and I have been working on a musical on and off for about seven years now. We’re back in the studio in a couple of weeks time trying to bring that first draft to a conclusion so that we can set out to creating a show. We don’t have a title yet. It’s set in the art world. It’s an unusual piece that’s not like other musicals that are out there. It’s got nothing to do with Duran Duran, it’s just John and I, but I’m happy with where it is and genuinely super excited about getting it out there.
Regular Observer contributor Bryan Reesman is the author of Bon Jovi: The Story.