By Jo-Ann Greene
“The curtains opened and there was this sea of screaming girls. It completely threw me off my balance,” a still shell-shocked John Taylor recalls. The Duran Duran bassist fumbles for words, “I had no idea … I mean, I felt … I don’t know, it was like somebody pulling the rug out from under you.”
2009 is the 25th anniversary of Duran Duran’s leap from stardom to godhood.
Building on the solid foundation of three hit albums — Duran Duran, Rio, and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, the group embarked on a phenomenally successful world tour in 1983, recorded live for the following year’s Arena album, bookended by their chart-topping “The Reflex” and the inspired “The Wild Boys” singles, cementing their status as the most exciting and innovative band on the planet.
In hindsight, Duran’s progression to international superstardom seemed inexorable, but back then the group was totally unprepared for the tsunami that swept over them, although the portents now appear obvious. For example, Taylor was describing not the response to their Arena extravaganza, but the opening night of the U.K. tour supporting their debut album. In which case, what was it like the first time they mounted a stadium stage?
“Deafening,” keyboardist Nick Rhodes replies in all seriousness. “It was funny because I’ve seen lots of footage of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, all these things that happened in the ’60s, where kids were just going crazy. I thought it was because rock music was so new then, and it was a much more naive generation. I thought that would never happen again; it hadn’t for many years in England. So when it happened with us, we were shocked, incredibly surprised; it was the last thing we ever thought would happen, particularly because we thought the content of our songs was hardly something that was going to appeal to a teen audience.”
So just how had a band that had started its career playing in what Rhodes wryly describes as “nightclubs with old girls with feathers in their hair,” transform into a world-wide phenomena?
Formed in 1978 by Rhodes, Taylor, vocalist Stephen Duffy, and clarinetist Simon Colley, Duran Duran originally followed the trajectory of many young groups, undergoing a series of lineup changes and constant gigging. So constant, in fact, that Taylor recalls mentioning in a pub that he played in the band and was met with the withering rejoinder, “Duran Duran, are you guys still going?” They had yet to sign a record deal.
They had, however, gone into the studio and recorded a few demos, but the group was still evolving. Drummer Roger Taylor arrived early on, as did their managers, Birmingham club owners the Berrow brothers, with guitarist Andy Taylor brought on board in late 1979. The revolving-door lineup finally shut the following spring with the enlistment of singer Simon LeBon.
Behind the scenes
Initially following in punk rock’s DIY footsteps, Duran Duran readied their debut single, “Planet Earth,” for independent release on their projected own label Tritech.
Taylor believes that 1,000 or so 45s may even have been pressed, although he’s never seen any, for the Berrows decided to hang on for a major-label deal instead. LeBon was unveiled onstage with the group July 5, 1980, with their first interview appearing in the press soon after.
Serendipity — John saw a feature on Spandau Ballet in the national music paper Sounds, called the journalist, Betty Page, and convinced her that Duran Duran were of a similar new-romantic ilk.
With interest slowly growing, the Berrows raised a few thousand pounds and bought Duran Duran the opening slot on Hazel O’Connor’s fall U.K. tour, which doubled as a band showcase. As enthusiastic crowds began building around them, a bidding war ensued, with EMI the eventual winner. In January 1981, “Planet Earth” was released and spun straight to #12 in the British charts; that June their eponymous debut soared even higher, landing at #3. Duran Duran were on their way.
“We had all the bases covered,” Taylor explains. “We had innovative technology, we had rock ’n’ roll chops, we had charm and charisma.”
Of course, they also had superb songs. “Those were a byproduct of those other things,” the bassist modestly acknowledges. “It was all kind of natural; we were coming from a great heritage. It wasn’t like you were inventing the wheel; we were just trying to take our place in the scheme of things.”
Yet behind the scenes, much scheming was under way to assure the band’s eventual placement in the scheme of things. Both John and guitarist Andy Taylor credit, and decry, EMI’s head of promotions Rob Warr for their ensuing success. Andy describes how the marketing department worked.
“What they do is sit there and look for the hook of where they can position an act, and as soon as they realized, the Berrows were right into it,’ says Taylor. “What happened was when the Japanese got a hold of the [band’s] photo, they saw the potential for the Japanese market. They really picked up on John, because he looked f**king great when he was a kid, and the little Japanese girls went for it straight away.”
John invariably enjoyed every minute of it. “They’re photographing me!” he exclaims, the excitement of the time yet to fade. “I’m in the center pages! I was like, ‘Sure I’ll do it. You want me to do it with a model, sure.’ I jumped, and I became the teen press face.”
But there was a dark side to the maneuvering, as Andy relates.
“So the cynical marketing side said, ‘Let’s go straight downstairs to the Smash Hits market,’ and before you know where you are, you’ve encouraged it without knowing it,” says Taylor. “They know what they’re doing, and it was all based on the reaction in Japan. We didn’t know that; we didn’t realize the capability and the cynicism of the machine around us.”
That cynicism was bared to the world when Warr blandly stated to the press, “Duran Duran are great; they’re like plasticene. We can do anything with them.”
“It got me so annoyed,” a still-incensed John spits out. “But, you know what? In a sense, for a band to happen like we happened, there has to be a letting go; there can be no agendas other than the management’s. Everyone in the band wanted to be a star, so that was all you had to do — shut up and play your guitar, right? And management wanted to be stars, too, and make money, the record company wanted to make money — so, shut up and do your job. And everybody just did it. It was a remarkable thing. It was a very smooth machine, and it had to be.”
It was also a machine willing to take chances on any new opportunities that came their way, although some of the cogs were a little less willing than others.
And never more so than when they grasped hold of the new video medium. Their first, “Planet Earth,” was merely meant as a time-saver — the single and debut full-length LP were huge hits in Australia, and the video made the perfect stand-in for a now very busy band.
Over the next year, Duran Duran toured the U.S. clubs in support of the album, recorded Rio, returned to the States, toured Australia and the Far East, and filmed several more videos. The latter was an experience “equal parts fun and absolute nightmare,” according to John, while Andy got drunk and hid. Le Bon and Rhodes were far keener, as both began to understand the potential the videos had to offer.
Even so, neither gives MTV the credit that legend would extend the station for breaking the band in the States. For starters the chronology doesn’t support that theory at all. Duran Duran had already embarked on their third U.S. outing, this time supporting Blondie, when they and the Berrows walked into the MTV offices in NYC. It was no more than a few rooms staffed with maybe 16 people, as Rhodes recalls; at the time, the station was only available in three markets and had yet to broadcast in the Big Apple.
“It was a very new idea,” Rhodes explains, “and we thought it was great, because in England you could only get your video played once if you were lucky. So we started building this relationship with them, and obviously, it worked for them, because they liked the things we were doing. They liked the ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ video, and the ‘Save A Prayer’ video that we shot in Sri Lanka on a shoestring budget, it cost I think 35,000 pounds for three videos. We had these things, and we were very proud of them, and MTV was playing them and getting great reaction in those markets.”
But the momentum was really building through the clubs and radio. In the MTV markets the videos and airplay combined to further push up interest.
“MTV became a lot more helpful in the following year,” Rhodes concludes, “when it grew all over the country. Because it was new, everyone was more obsessed with it and thought it was really exciting.”
‘Team of commandos’
The excitement around Duran Duran was already growing exponentially.
Rio consolidated their success in the rest of the world, while the States still remained elusive, as Rhodes relates.
“We’d come home from the [U.S.] tour, and thought to ourselves, ‘Well, we’ve done some tours, we’ve had a good reaction, perhaps we’ll break America on the third album,’” says Rhodes. “That’s where we left it. We thought Rio was over there, and suddenly, it was going up the charts, and that led us to make the next album and do the big arena tour in ’83.”
And it was at this point that the smooth machine revved into top gear. “There was a lot of creative management going on at that time,” John recalls. “It’s hard to imagine the energy that was going into making it all work. I’m startled myself if I think about it, because we were always on red alert; we were like a team of commandos. I don’t know how to explain. When you’ve got five people, and everyone has got incredible energy, you can cover many bases. That was the great thing about The Beatles, but there’s not many bands that can do that; you can cover a lot of ground.”
John’s description of Duran Duran as a team of commandos was reflected in the title of their third album, 1983’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger; the seven, of course, being the band and the Berrows. While its predecessor had swiftly soared to #2 in the U.K. and dawdled on its way to the U.S. Top 15, Tiger snarled immediately into the British top slot and U.S. Top 10. “New Moon On Monday” shone forth in the new year, a worldwide hit that reached the Top 10 both at home and in the U.S., but it was the guarded threat of “The Reflex” that finally gave the band their first Stateside #1. Duran Duran had finally conquered the planet.
Their world tour began in Australia, November ’83 and hit U.S. stadiums in early ’84, with the shows filmed by Russell Mulcahy for the “Arena” movie and the “Sing Blue Silver” documentary. The outing was already winding down when the Arena album landed on the shelves later that fall. The sheer excitement of the day imbues that set, as the band exuberantly offer up songs from Seven and revisit earlier hits, with the pacing of the show reflecting the expertise developed by Rhodes as Rumrunner’s star DJ in their early days back in Birmingham.
The taster for the album, “Wild Boys,” was, in some ways, the band’s apotheosis and nadir.The song captured the band at their most innovative, as did the video, which almost cost LeBon his life, when he was trapped underwater during filming, tied to a malfunctioning windmill.
The primal aspects of both the music and video encapsulated the frenzy of the time and a charmed life that no group could continue for long. The following year Duran began splintering under the pressure. The band would continue, as would the hits, but an entire era had drawn to a close.
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