Unspooled: Don’t monkey with my business

Before I knew how Robert Christgau felt (“As public figures and maybe as people, these imperialist wimps are the most deplorable pop stars of the postpunk if not post-Presley era”), I knew how their bass lines and gauche synthesizers felt: slimy, delicious around the edges, lacking nutritive qualities. I’ve said repeatedly that my parents didn’t pay for cable, so, like Madonna, Double Duran projected themselves solely as a radio act during the greatest Top 40 era of the last thirty years. My mother bought a vinyl copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger; only”New Moon on Monday” and “The Reflex” got any home stereo play (still haven’t heard a tune called “Tiger Tiger”). “The Reflex” was especially fun for a ten-year-old’s overstimulated imagination: a couple of tricky drum parts, comically contorted vocals, lines like “I sold the Renoir and the TV set” and, my favorite, “I’ll cross that bridge when I find it.” By the summer of 1984 my world had crossed that bridge into Duranmania. A girl named Sylvia with Molly Ringwald hair boasted Trapper Keepers with Simon and John’s faces. My friend Alcides hummed “The Wild Boys.” The following summer the first of my inexplicable crushes hit me, and the Power Station didn’t deserve it.

That was that as far as my loyalty to The Fab Five went. I have no recollection of their late eighties fall from grace – not even the fairly huge “Notorious,” a #2 hit in late 1986. I did hear “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is” on Shadoe Stevens’ American Top 40, but payola probably greased their chart success. Their 1993 “comeback” generated a lot of good will. Friends said, “Hey, they weren’t so bad after all!” When “Come Undone” followed “Ordinary World,” this rather homely incarnation of DD accomplished what Jesus Jones did in 1991 and Oasis couldn’t three years later: a British band scoring consecutive top tens. They recorded an album — desultory, charmless except for the idea of turning “Femme Fatale” into a Mr. Big song — but nobody played it much. I actually listened to Arcadia’s eponymous 1985 record (a dollar at the university bookstore) more often: the Le Bon-Roger Taylor-Nick Rhodes axis’ slower, portentous, pretentious version of a Duran recording. I can imagine them offering drinks to guests Grace Jones and Andy Mackay, but what on earth could they have said to Sting (“Yes, Gordon, we think it’s a wonderful idea for you to tour with Branford, if it’s for the rain forests”)?

I bought Notorious at the same university bookstore, the cassette gnawed on the side as if by a wolf, mouth alive with juices like wine. The Nile Rodgers production sound I knew from Let’s Dance, Like a Virgin,and Cosmic Thing had calcified into a flat, brassy din in which instruments sound like they’re rattling around in an oil drum. Still, the Le Bon swagger –  endearing or bone-chilling, take your pick — and flair for the garbled aperçu injected  energy into tracks whose grafted horn passages, soul girl wails, and elongated synth parts couldn’t compensate for the loss of crucial band members, not to mention the sonic spritz that was inseparable from the celebration of opulence and consumption (I suspect that the lyrics to “The Reflex” or “New Religion” accurately reflect the state of a mind clinging to what it can remember about high school poetry and the Herb Ritts shoot it took in evening last, sated by cocaine, sex, and hair gel). However, before you’ve had a chance to miss Andy Taylor’s fourth-rate Steve Vai imitations, Le Bon’s falsetto ably substitutes on “A Matter of Feeling.” A song called “Vertigo (Do the Demolition” [the what? Is the Demolition like the Safety Dance?] rhetorically wonders about real life in your illusion hiding behind a dark cloud of confusion but actually boasts a pretty chorus that goes down smoother as a Bond anthem than Pat Boone’s favorite song about hellfire released a year earlier (“Vertigo” is closer to a-Ha than a-Ha’s own Bond anthem, which sounded a lot like Duran’s. Confused?). The best song on Notorious is the forgotten third single, remixed for release, a rewrite of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartbreak,” vulgarized for the eighties. The second best is the chugging “Hold Me.” The rest sounds like Arcadia and the Power Station meeting once for the sake of the kids before the divorce hearing, which means it’s a classic-era Duran album in all but spirit. No one who cares about Duran after buying Rio need own this, but consistency’s your hobgoblin they are scarier ones than Notorious.

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