Duran as in Durable
With 'Astronaut,' the '80s Band Recharges
By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page C01
They screamed and giggled and patted their chests in oh-my swoons: as if those posters of Duran Duran still brightened their bedroom walls, as if their dreams of marrying Simon or Nick or Roger or Andy or John (especially you, John) had never been broken, as if they weren't now in their thirties and the Fab Five weren't in their forties and life hadn't gotten so complicated since "Hungry Like the Wolf" first hit the airwaves.
The five original members of Duran Duran -- the definitive '80s band, the too-cool dandies of the MTV revolution -- are back together for the first time in two decades, and that, apparently, is something to shout about. Five hundred fans were lucky enough to score passes to the band's album signing at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square this month. But more, many more than 500 showed up to sneak a peek at the pop princes and to try to put a dent in the space-time continuum.
Tickets went on sale at 9 on the morning of the appearance; they were gone just a few minutes later. A line snaked around a city block and through the store, giddy women dressed to thrill in tight skirts and shirts, plus a few awkward men (sigh: still awkward after all these years) clutching fan magazines.
Even television crews and photographers pushed and shoved for a sweet spot in front of a table on the store's basement floor where the British quintet would sign copies of its reliably slick new disc, "Astronaut," the first studio album recorded all-together-now since 1983's "Seven and the Ragged Tiger."
"This is bigger than the Beatles," one photog said after catching an elbow in the gut.
Well, not quite. But still, who expected this rabid turnout for a band that did its best work in the Reagan years? Whose youthful beauty was just as important as its danceable pop? Who, at the very height of fame, gradually disbanded into various fragments because of squabbling and ego-tripping and major fame overload?
Well, maybe Louis and Maria Montalvo expected this. The 33-year-old New Yorkers met in Mexico 12 years ago and courted over Duran Duran. Out of loyalty, they were here at 6 a.m. to get passes for the 6 p.m. event.
"I'll be nervous when I meet them," said Louis, clutching a copy of the 1984 live album "Arena."
"I'm already nervous," said Maria, clutching the couple's sleeping 3-year-old daughter, Arcadia, who was named after a Duran Duran offshoot featuring Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor.
("Better than calling your kid Power Station, I suppose," Andy Taylor will laugh the next day, referring to the band he and John Taylor formed with Robert Palmer in '85, when Duran Duran claimed it was just taking "a break.")
Behind a black curtain, in a VIP area, the band was incredibly calm and still incredibly gorgeous (if a tad thicker, wrinklier). Tall, roguish lead singer LeBon, 45, crunched on crudites. Keyboardist Rhodes, 42, was getting an extra ring of eyeliner around his fantastic peepers. Rugged drummer Roger Taylor, 44, and smart-aleck guitarist Andy Taylor, 43 -- the only members whose hair wasn't unfailingly frosted -- were having a laugh. And bassist John Taylor, 44, was being told how devastatingly hot he was. (As any Duran fan will gladly tell you, none of the Taylors are related.)
"Nah, it's not the looks that's important," John replied with a smirk. "It's what's inside."
Exactly: The looks were crucial and the gaudy videos (bored beautiful men, voracious supernatural women, lots of weird wrestling) were key, but the music has always been rather pretty, too: catchy blasts of club-approved glam-pop and new wave that, unlike much of the music from the '80s, still sounds remarkably current. The hits just keep on coming: "Rio," "Girls on Film," "Is There Something I Should Know?," "The Reflex." All style, ditch the substance, 40 million albums sold.
The new album's first single, the sublime "(Reach Up for the) Sunrise," sounds like a cheery update of the band's 1985 Bond-theme hit "A View to a Kill," and it was "Sunrise" that was playing when the band finally made its entrance. As they glided down an escalator, getting closer and closer to the mayhem, the musicians looked like well-worn wax-museum versions of their former selves. That is, until serious faces and rigid poses -- always in album-cover mode, these guys -- finally gave way to tiny waves and big smiles.
And that's when the Durannies really started screaming -- screaming for as long and loud as it took to turn back time.
Sitting in a posh artists' lounge some 50 floors up in the Sony Building the next day -- the label just signed them to a four-album deal -- the men of Duran Duran, who have 12 children between them, are giving parenting tips.
"Get a nanny," says Andy Taylor. "If you can reduce the sleep stress, that's the killer."
"Give 'em something to rebel against," says LeBon. "Sometimes, no matter how nice you might be, you're going to be the one they want to rebel against. You have to be the bad guy."
"It's important to dance with your daughter to Kool & the Gang records," says John Taylor.
"Send daughters to all-girls schools and boys to mixed schools," says Rhodes with a definitive nod.
It's a tad strange hearing the most notorious party stars and supermodel magnets of the 1980s spout heartfelt wisdom about child-rearing. But the pop stars are comfortable with their maturity these days -- empowered by it, even -- and they know that their fans are cool with it, too.
"Our audience seems to be much more passionate than most people's fans," says Rhodes, immaculately pressed in a black suit with white shirt and white tie. "I think they relate to us individually, as well as to our music. . . . There's something about the fragility that we had."
"It's just the chemistry between the five of us," says John Taylor, leaning back in his chair and exuding a natural classic vibe. "When we get together, we make music, we have a good time, and for the most part it works. We've all done this in different configurations, but this" -- he motions to his four reunited mates -- "is what brings the house down. This is what makes 'em just can't contain themselves."
The musicians insist they've remained cordial for the past 20-plus years -- LeBon and Rhodes have essentially kept the band alive since the divorce, albeit with spotty success. But it wasn't until 2001 that all the members decided that it was time to give the original lineup another try.
"We all came back at the same time," says the quiet Roger Taylor, who was the first to leave the band in '85 so he could cool his frazzled nerves and spend time with his family. "I was ready for this. No one had to drag me back screaming."
In fabulous Duran Duran style, they headed to St. Tropez in southern France to write, jam and find out if they could still create the "brand," as John Taylor calls the band's style. Accommodations weren't a problem: There was a friend with a yacht, another friend with a mansion. "I had a golden blow dryer in my room," says John Taylor.
"We could have done the album in a hut in Siberia. But we didn't want to suffer for our art," says LeBon. "I mean, we are Duran Duran."
"Astronaut" took more than two years to make, and it wasn't always easy. ("We're a tough room," Rhodes says.) But with the help of such diverse producers as R&B master Dallas Austin (TLC) and rap-metal master Don Gilmore (Linkin Park), the album is a raver's dream, complete with lush imagery ("Taste the Summer") and plenty of sex talk ("Bedroom Toys"). It manages to sound exactly like Duran Duran without being a stuck-in-the-'80s retread.
"It's got real depth to it," says LeBon. "We're not just fluff. We're fluff and we're depth."
"We've always been a contemporary band," Rhodes adds. "This wasn't a push for us to do. We actually got in and started playing together and it just sounded like us now. . . . We're a democracy that works. Somehow we all manage to persuade each other in the end."
No less an authority than Mark Goodman, one of the first MTV VJs (you know: big hair, looked a little like Sweathog Juan Epstein) and now the host of three Sirius Satellite Radio shows, says "Astronaut" "is one of the best records they've ever done. . . . They realized that the whole is better than the individual parts. . . . In the '80s, there was a real focus on the visual aspect of the band. Today, their music stands on its own."
Of course, the blokes don't take themselves too seriously. They know their mission.
Says Andy Taylor: "I remember doing ["Sunrise"] with Don, and he says he wants a beat like that" -- he pounds out a slow heavy beat on the table -- "and I said, 'You don't understand. You have to be able to dance to a Duran Duran tune. Big chords, propulsive beats.' "
"We like to lift people's spirits, our own included," Rhodes says. "We are absolute optimists, even in the face of what we've all experienced the last few years. You've got to look beyond it, see your way out, or it's all doom and gloom."
You can call the band cheerleaders all you want, just don't call them an " '80s band." They've had just about enough of that. "The last photograph of this band was taken in 1985," says John Taylor. "So there's a reason why the image of this band is linked to the '80s. People watched us grow through the decade. But this now is changing all that. Now all of a sudden it's like a genie out of the bottle."
"I like to think of us like the Mini Cooper," says Roger Taylor. "Everyone used to think that was a classic '60s car. But it was only when it was kind of reinvented a bit, everyone started to think it was a classic timeless car."
"Astronaut" debuted at No. 3 on the U.K. album charts and No. 17 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The band will embark on a world tour in February, which, if it's anything like last year's quickie tour, will be sold out all over. And yes, they'll even make some videos, although they acknowledge that getting back on the now-hip-hop-centric MTV will be tough. "I guess we'd have to do a reality show," says Rhodes with a roll of his eyes.
Still, the musicians say this is the most exciting time of their careers, especially because skeptics who once wrote them off as vainglorious pretty boys have come around and are finally focusing on the music.
"When we started, Duran Duran was quite unpopular with a lot of the music critics," Rhodes says. "They didn't like change. They wanted to cling to Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen, whatever they'd grown up with. It's taken a long time for that to be put into perspective. . . . Jean Cocteau's quote is the best one: First they ban you, then they put you in a museum."
Rhodes smiles at his colleagues: "We're like five sages, aren't we?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company