They keep going. No one will stop them. Culture Club, Naked Eyes, and whatever need package tours — Double D can own Miami for a night. In 2004 I danced to “(Reach Up) For the Sunrise” at a gay club and everyone knew the words. No one blames them for the albums produced by Timberlake-Timbaland, Mark Ronson, or Mr. Hudson. Struggling for a context since parachute pants went out of style, they take defeat with a blithe shrug. Thanks, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor, and, yeah, Simon Le Bon. Al Shipley is right: “Duran Duran is one of those bands, like Motley Crue or Kiss or The Killers, where the undeniable limitations of the frontman make you wonder what the band might’ve been like with someone smarter and/or more skilled at the mic, but at the same time that goofball is essential to the band’s character as it is.”
1. Rio (1982)
What, expected Big Thing? Contrarian impulses only go so far. No doubt the band might posit others, but Rio is the one on which the Jran Jran mythos rests. As garish as a purple scarf and as pulpy as an orange, Rio fused their rather decent musicianship and a pop culture that, Thatcher and Reagan notwithstanding, had wanted escape since disco and Rupert Holmes. Nothing had change — and everything. As bands increasingly wrote songs to fit their video concepts (what’s wrong with that? Paintings inspire poets), those songs took on purplish hues and communicated in a private, perhaps incomprehensible argot that put a century’s worth of received ideas about literacy into a trash compactor.
Dooran Dooran were, of course, not immune; critics at the time accused them of being fascists! Yet for all the videos in which decent-looking white kids from London and Birmingham frolicked barefoot with crabs on yachts and Sri Lanka and shit, I can think of few dilettantes, then and now, who would write, “Funny, it’s just like a scene out of Voltaire,” sing it out of tune over a hyperactive bass line and two-finger synth washes, and wring poignancy out of the laughable scenario. “Last Chance on the Stairway” also boasts the couplet, “It could be the atmosphere sinking/Ooh, I don’t even know what you’re drinkin’ but it keeps this heaven alive.” No wonder John and Simon went on bedroom walls beside Rick Springfield and Scott Baio. Trim and confident like a sail, Rio buries the preconception of Duran as singles band, for, as much as “Hungry Like the Wolf” pants like a motherfucker, “Hold Back the Rain” and “My Own Way” wallop the canis on the snout.
2. Notorious (1986)
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 Bonnery and flair for the garbled aperçu — endearing or bone-chilling, take your pick — 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.
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 whose pretty chorus goes down smoother as a Bond theme than Pat Boone’s favorite hellfire anthem released a year earlier. The best track 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,” verse-bridge-chorus punching every number. 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 before 1984 need own this record, but if consistency’s your hobgoblin they are scarier ones than Notorious.
3. Duran Duran (1981)
There’s a sense in which the new band, coiffed and costumed on the sleeve like The Golden Girls at a beauty parlor, fears stepping over an invisible line; the eponymous debut sounds tentative. With Le Bon trying to properly sing, the band try to properly play, with the requisite tact, and it suits them like a Hawaiian shirt does Bryan Ferry. “Friend of Mine,” with Station to Station train sample, has a welcome New Romantic menace that impressed “Fade to Grey” fans. “Planet Earth” tips its hat to the movement that gave Double Dee an ideal for living, but what’s marvelous about in 2018 is how the synthesizer is pure disco mirror ball: the song does sound like Roxy Music meets Chic. Signs of Le Bon’s polysyllabic poesy flick their tongues in “Anyone Out There,” in which a precisely syncopated rhythm section adds swing to the admission, “My face in the mirror shows the break in time/A crack in the ocean which does not align.” Boom.
4. Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983)
Burnout time already. “Garish,” as I noted above, I can handle and applaud; “tacky” is another matter, and the synthesizers and guitar interjections collapse like wooden sticks, as Le Bon himself acknowledged in “(I’m Looking For) Cracks in the Pavement”: “My head is full of chopstick/I don’t like it.” It took Nile Rodgers to remix “The Reflex” into a #1 American and British single that can walk proudly down the catwalk. But it took three singles to turn Seven and the Ragged Tiger into double platinum, each better than the last, with “New Moon on Monday,” as incomprehensible as J’ran J’ran got. “Of Crime and Passion” and “Shadows on Your Side” live up to former glories. Durannies have tried to turn closer “The Seventh Stranger” into another “Save a Prayer” for years.
5. Arcadia – So Red the Rose (1985)
A disgusting album: expensive as fuck, laden with celebrities and musicians who contribute nothing but celebrity and little noticeable musicanship (Grace Jones, Sting, Andy Mackay), flatulent. But most serious adult critics called D’ran D’ran albums disgusting too. With co-producer Alex Sadkin, responsible for the damp mess called Seven and the Ragged Tiger, the trio of Le Bon-Rhodes-Taylor cobbled together a deeply weird album that went platinum on brand name alone, like a KISS solo project in 1978. The Trevor Horn-indebted Fairlight stabs in “The Flame,” the rhythm guitar hook in “Goodbye is Forever,” and “Keep Me in the Dark” honor Dooh-ran’s spirit; the costumes and hair dye worn by the principals — Purple Rain meets hotel valet — were at least two years ahead of the hair metal curve. And I haven’t even mentioned “Election Day.”
6. Duran Duran (The Wedding Album) (1993)
“Destroyed by MTV/I hate to bite the hand that feeds me so much information,” Le Bon sings on the album that brought him back to the MTV that fed him so much information. In 1993, I remember the sense of relief among a 18-to-25 subset when The Wedding Album vindicating every Tiger Beat pinup of Andy Taylor, every photo of Simon Le Bon in a baseball cap. Even the critics were nice — Musician‘s archives aren’t available online, but I read a blurb in which the writer admitted they weren’t so bad after all, which for the writer, I suspect, meant a development as epochal as Eisenhower keeping the New Deal intact. The problem with The Wedding Album, though, was that it wasn’t much better than 1990’s Liberty or 1988’s Big Thing. After all, where had Dooran Dooran gone? Between 1981 and 1990 only one album failed to contribute a top ten single. But they try, mightily, for respect: Velvets cover, Milton Nascimiento collaboration, lament about the Shame of the Cities, i.e. New York under David Dinkins. Yet “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” proved they could hone their excesses into strange middle eights — think of the airy “Papers in the roadside tell of suffering and grief” section of “Ordinary World,” which sounded like nothing else on the radio in early ’93. Give credit to Miami’s Y-100 for breaking “Ordinary World,” by the way.