Duran Duran: The old romantics

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Duran Duran: The old romantics

Twenty years ago, Duran Duran bestrode the globe. Now, with sell-out shows and appearances on Top of the Pops, they're being feted again
By Robert Sandall

17 September 2004

In a pop world full of ageing Peter Pans with expensive habits to service, ex-wives to maintain and children to educate, attempted comebacks are common, perhaps necessary. None of that applies to the remarkable resurgence of Duran Duran. They suffered a slump in the public's affections - in 1982, the newlywed Princess Diana said they were her favourite band; 20 years later they couldn't even get a record contract - but "Durandemonium" is on its way back.

Their new single "Sunrise" is climbing the airplay chart ahead of its release early next month. After that comes a new album, Astronaut, the first to feature all five original members since Seven and the Ragged Tiger way back in 1984. For most of the 20 years since, it has been a long, gentle slide downhill for a group who fetched up in the 21st century playing small clubs with only two of their original line-up, the vocalist Simon Le Bon and the keyboard player Nick Rhodes, still in place. They seemed hopelessly out of time, marooned in the brash-flash era of the early 1980s.

Four years on, they look set to reclaim their place as the most enduringly successful pop act Britain has produced over the past 25 years. The signs are plain to see and hard to argue with. Having collected three lifetime achievement awards in the past 12 months - courtesy of the Brits, MTV and Q magazine - and played to the largest audiences of their career here in 2003 (200,000 tickets sold), Duran Duran are, by some yardsticks, more of a happening proposition now than they were in their heyday.

America's A-list pop celebs have been giving them strong support. Justin Timberlake confessed his undying love for the band while handing them their Brit award in February. The rapper Snoop Dogg confided to Le Bon recently that he was a great admirer of their more funky leanings. The queen of indie-rock, Gwen Stefani, is another admirer.

Indeed, Duran Duran have never been so highly rated by their peers. British club DJs who used to turn their noses up at bouncy - some said cheesy - anthems such as "Rio" and "Girls On Film" now feature them in thumping house remixes. "Sunrise" is the theme tune to the television makeover show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Two of the hottest new bands, Scissor Sisters and Goldfrapp, cheerfully cited Duran Duran as a major influence - and duly landed support slots on their recent UK tour.

Once, the idea that this band of Brummies in make-up with a thing about glam rock could ever influence anybody who wasn't a hormonally deranged teenager would have been greeted with disbelief. From the point in 1981 when Duran Duran released their first single, "Planet Earth", until 1986, when two of the band's three unrelated Taylors (Roger and Andy) departed, they were hugely successful all over the world - but they didn't seem to want to be taken seriously.

After the anger and gloom of the punk era and the politically righteous Two Tone movement, along came five pretty boys who wrote and sang bumptiously catchy songs that seemed preoccupied with sex, travel and impenetrable sci-fi fantasies. It was rock with no obvious message, no social conscience and a disconcertingly large clothing budget.

Girls loved them to distraction; boys weren't so sure. When they first appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1985, Duran Duran were described as the Fab Five. Yes, a nod to The Beatles, but also a clear suggestion that this lot were a throwback to the pre-rock era, when groups were met by screaming hordes at airports and chased out of hotels.

Even when they did innovative things, like making the first-ever extended video for "Girls On Film", they did it in a way that outraged the moralistic rock establishment: back in 1981, filming your band larking about with loads of naked girls was seen as neither funny nor clever.

And after five hectic, fun-packed, hit-laden years, they appeared to have run their course. When they gave their final performance at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in 1985, Duran Duran had already split into two camps. John and Andy Taylor, hankering after the respect of the grown-up rock audience, were playing with Robert Palmer in Power Station. Le Bon and Rhodes were operating as Arcadia, when Rhodes wasn't producing pop neophytes Kajagoogoo, and Le Bon wasn't conducting a complicated love life, mainly but not exclusively centred on the model Yasmin Parvaneh. The drummer, Roger Taylor, had simply had enough. Through the rest of the 1980s and the 1990s, a reconstituted Duran Duran hung in there, still able to turn out the odd hit, such as "Ordinary World" in 1992. But the power was no longer with them. As their album sales fell away after Medazzaland in 1997, and yet another member left, it was hard to discern whether Duran Duran were still a going concern.

Recent developments have taken everybody by surprise, not least the group. Three years ago, having not performed together since Live Aid, the five founders decided to re-form. Nobody needed the money: the royalty cheques from their hits were enough to keep everybody holed up in large houses in Los Angeles, London and Ibiza. But the departed Taylors were getting bored. John's Hollywood acting career hadn't taken off. Andy tried business, but was usually to be found sunning himself by the Med. Fifteen years of retirement and time with the family proved enough for Roger.

Leading the charge, though, was the ebullient Simon Le Bon, the singer, and at this point one half, with Nick Rhodes, of what felt like a failing operation. "I felt like I was lying in a bath with all the water running out," Le Bon says, sitting cross-legged on a bed in the Metropolitan Hotel in London. "I knew if we carried on as we were, we'd be playing holiday camps in a couple of years." Rhodes, the smart sarky one, agrees: "You know you're in trouble when you start out with a band with three Taylors and you lose all of them. Oscar Wilde would not have been impressed."

After a meeting in early 2001 at the Hollywood home of the last Taylor to quit, the guitarist John, they agreed to re-convene in a rented house near St-Tropez to write songs. "Fortunately, nobody turned up with a sitar or a bunch of John Coltrane albums," John recalls.

Which didn't mean all ran smoothly. "At every step of the way, it was like, 'How much do you love this?' I think we would all have liked to say, 'Fuck you, I don't need any of you,' but we know that not one of us is a genius, like Prince. Together, though, we can still be a vital force."

All the songs on Astronaut were written the way they wrote their early hits: with the five of them in a room, arguing fiercely over every riff and chorus. The main axis of disagreement is fronted at one end by Andy - he who wears dark glasses indoors and wants to rock - and at the other by Nick Rhodes, a more whimsical type who describes himself as "on the arts and fashion council". But the results of their tussling, compiled and recorded over a three-year period, are compelling. Anybody with even a passing interest in Duran Duran's work should find this swaggering collection of pop-funk singalongs hard to ignore.

Ignore it, though, was precisely what the record companies who heard it first did. Having sold about 70 million singles and albums, Duran Duran felt like returning heroes and assumed that another contract would be a formality. It wasn't. In 2002, the music industry was in meltdown; five fortysomethings with a lot of history, blond highlights and other hair issues were viewed as old news, despite the new songs. "Every time we sidled up to a record label, the chief executives would get fired, or the company would be cannibalised by a bigger company," Rhodes remembers.

Undeterred, they decided to hit the road and headed off to play a series of concerts in one of their old heartlands, Japan. The demand for tickets was huge; what had been conceived as a month-long testing of the water turned into a year's world tour that included America. Last summer it ended up in Britain, where Duran Duran played 17 arena shows, their biggest-ever UK tour.

In the face of such public support, the boss of Sony Music US, Donny Einer, decided that the band weren't a bunch of Eighties hasbeens after all, and signed them to a worldwide contract. "It's the kind of deal people can lose their jobs over," John says. He won't talk numbers.

The band member who thinks the biggest thoughts, Nick Rhodes, believes Duran Duran's re-emergence signals a shift in the way we view the period from 1980 to 1985, when videos featuring the band messing around in yachts and frolicking with bikini-clad girls were all over our screens. "Every band needs to reflect its times, and I think we probably did that almost too well. For years, the general view was that the early Eighties was all about Thatcherism, greed and excess, but it was an incredibly exciting time."

He reels off an impressive list of the creative types who thronged New York when he and the band used to hang out in Manhattan: artists such as Keith Haring (who once painted the set while they appeared live on MTV), fashion designers, and musicians from Madonna and Laurie Anderson to the early pioneers of hip hop. "People were more open then to extravagant, flamboyant ideas."

Le Bon, whose exploits aboard ocean-going yachts nearly cost him his life in 1986 when one capsized during a race, feels that the Eighties were a more adventurous, spirited time than the decade that followed. "To an extent, the 1980s was all about the party, whereas the 1990s was all about the hangover. I remember a journalist saying to me once, 'You don't have to feel guilty about it. It wasn't your fault.'"

Rhodes also contests the notion that Duran Duran are less interested in beavering away to achieve success than in enjoying its trappings. "We do have a great lifestyle, but we work all the time. We've been writing, recording and touring solidly for three years, and the damn record isn't even out yet. There is this perception that we're always taking off on holiday. I blame the boat for that, largely."

Ah yes, the boat. It played a leading role in the memorable video for "Rio", filmed off the coast of Antigua in 1982 while the band were holidaying there. ("In those days, we couldn't bear to be apart, even on our holidays," Rhodes says.)

Coming hot on the heels of a video showing them disporting themselves in Sri Lanka, and the infamous one for "Girls On Film" that was banned for being too sexually explicit, it is hardly surprising that the world began to think of Duran Duran as jetsetting playboys with a nice sideline in hits. Contributing the theme song to the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill - the only Bond theme ever to make No 1 - didn't dispel the notion that these guys inhabited another, more glamorous world. Nobody can precisely date the point at which ogling the celebrity lifestyle came to dominate the public's interest in planet pop, but one thing is sure: Duran Duran were there at the beginning.

The key to their success lay in their timing which, then and now, has been impeccable. Accidentally so, perhaps, but impeccable all the same. Duran Duran's arrival on the scene in 1981, having taken their name from a character in the 1968 fantasy movie Barbarella, coincided with the advent of MTV. They were one of the first bands to embrace the video at a time when MTV was a tiny operation, desperate for content. "In those days, they didn't have anything and they needed our stuff," says Rhodes, recalling how the band's records sold better in the cities where MTV had a presence.

The fact that British acts achieved their highest profile in America in 1985, when one in three of all records sold in the US originated here, was in no small part due to the emergence of Duran Duran and a generation of men in strange costumes and lots of make-up - Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and others - who leapt straight from Britain's burgeoning club scene on to music television.

Today, after a decade in which they were eclipsed first by the Britpop bands and then by a blitz of manufactured wannabes and winners of TV talent shows, Duran Duran's time has come again. The teenage girls who flocked around them in the Eighties and are now drifting into sensible middle age and motherhood can relive the days when Duran epitomised romantic irresponsibility, bouffant hair and many other aspects of an enjoyably misspent youth.

These days, the children down the front at Duran Duran's shows are often their own, there to enjoy the spectacle - or something. The 18-year-old Tatiana Rhodes, her father Nick says, "probably likes to see who comes to see us more than she likes to see us". Tatiana was particularly impressed to stand next to Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love and the singer from the band Korn when Duran Duran last played in Los Angeles.

Rhodes says he thinks his daughter is curious to check out his band, the same the way he was at her age to investigate The Beatles and the Stones. Then again, he says: "All of our children like to bring their friends and hang about backstage."

The point is that - for Tatiana and her friends, and a generation too young to remember the explosive impact of a rock band from Birmingham who went about their business like uppity popstars with unlimited expense accounts - Duran Duran feel as much like the leaders of now as the heroes of then. Nobody expects rock stars to dress down and act poor, the way they did before Duran Duran emerged in the teeth of economic recession in 1981. "Those early years were incredible," Le Bon says. "Nothing came close. And I wanted it back. We all did."

'Astronaut' is out on Epic on 4 October

Courtesy the Independent Newspaper, London. www.independent.co.uk