Hair we go again
The Age, Australia
They said it couldn't (or shouldn't) happen, but Duran Duran are back with a new album and an ambition to be as big as their hair all over again. Guy Blackman spoke with Simon Le Bon.
For five years, Duran Duran were arguably the biggest band on the planet. From their self-titled debut in 1981 until 1986's Notorious, Duran Duran were unstoppable, clocking up four chart-topping albums and at least 12 global hit singles, and coming quintessentially to embody the elusive, chameleon spirit of the New Romantic era.
Five years is virtually a lifetime in a brutally fickle music industry, where most bands are destined to flare briefly into the spotlight, then just as quickly fade away. So when guitarist Andy Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor cited irreconcilable musical differences and suddenly quit the band in 1986, it seemed to many like the perfect opportunity to retire gracefully, undefeated.
Instead, Duran Duran chose to soldier on, struggling through the late '80s, into the '90s and beyond, shedding original members and releasing music that did nothing but disservice to the reputation they had earned during their heyday.
"Three of us didn't want the band to break up, and two wanted it to finish completely," says perennially peroxided lead singer Simon Le Bon.
"In the end, nobody got their own way."
Duran Duran hit rock bottom in 1995 when they released Thank You, an album of covers that included an extremely ill-advised take on Melle Mel and the Furious Five's rap classic White Lines.
When bassist John Taylor finally quit shortly after the Thank You debacle, Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes were all that remained of the original five piece line-up.
Le Bon traces the seeds of his own dissatisfaction back to that point. "I think when John left I got a little bit lonely, and it started to not sound like Duran Duran," he says. "The sound was very toppy - my wife was like, 'Where's the f---ing bass, Simon?' So eventually I thought, 'I need to just stop this whole thing altogether,' and I said to Nick, 'You know what mate? I'm not going to do it any more, it's not fun.'
"It was at that time that I got a message on my answer phone from John. He said, 'I've got a great new place in the Hollywood Hills, why don't you come over and sit by the pool?' I went up there and spent the afternoon with him, I told him everything that was going on in my life and my heart, and he said 'Look, this is perfect - let's get the original band back together!'"
Apparently neither Le Bon nor the rest of the band needed much convincing, because here they are in 2004, releasing Astronaut, the first album since 1983's Seven And The Ragged Tiger to involve all five original members of Duran Duran. Recorded in the south of France over the course of more than two years, with at least four different producers (producers whose previous work encompasses artists as diverse as Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Limp Bizkit) Astronaut is still unmistakably a Duran Duran record.
"We can't help sounding like what we sound like," says Le Bon. "People have always picked up on the so-called unique sound of my voice, and it is unique, but then they tend to overlook the unique sound of John's bass, the way that Roger plays the drums, the kind of sounds that Nick uses, and Andy's guitar playing. These are constants, so when you put the five of us together it's always going to sound like that."
And, of course, according to Le Bon it feels very good to be back. "We all mean a lot to each other, so it's a very warm feeling," he says. "And we have a lot more respect for each other than we did back then, because of what everybody has been through, and the fact that we've managed to pull it back together against a lot of odds in a business like this."
In their '80s prime, inflated egos and substance-abuse problems meant that relationships within the band were often strained. "We were tough on each other," Le Bon says.
"If anyone started getting out of line we'd say 'Shut up, don't be stupid'. That's what we've always been like. 'Stop acting like a baby, get on with the job.' Sometimes I think we were a little too tough on each other. We just weren't watching out for each other quite as well back then. John got that Close to a f---ing cocaine addiction and nobody really noticed."
Duran Duran were infamous in their day for their ability to party and their appetite for excess. According to Le Bon, these days it's more a matter of priorities. "Certainly the band can party like it used to, but the question is, does the band still want to party? There are times when it's a really good idea to go out and have as much fun as possible.
There are other times when you think to yourself, 'You know, I think I'll just drink a half-bottle of red wine tonight and get to bed before three o'clock because we've got a show to do tomorrow'. We've learned that the show is the best part of the evening. If you spend the rest of the evening trying to equal it you're going to fail, and you're going to f--- yourself up."
Some of Duran Duran's best parties were at the legendary nightclubs of early '80s New York, where the band were indulgently adopted as wayward British wunderkind by the art and music cognoscenti of the day. "We hung out at The Peppermint Lounge and The Danceteria with Andy Warhol, Johnny Thunders, Jellybean, Jean-Michel Basquiat," lists Le Bon.
"They were our friends, they were who we knew. In London, we were aspiring to hang out with the fashionable people, but we were from Birmingham, and we were considered a little bit provincial. But in New York, we were the hot f---ing s--t band from England! And everyone wanted to hang out with Duran Duran."
As times and fashions changed, Duran Duran resolutely maintained their original high gloss image, and often suffered for it. Certainly they languished during
the 1990s, when their androgynous sheen seemed totally at odds with the dressed-down spirit of the times.
The band's last chart success came with the single Ordinary World in 1992, from the otherwise poorly received Wedding Album, and subsequent efforts such as Thank You and 1997's Medazzaland were universally panned, leading to Duran Duran being dropped in 1998 from EMI, their record label of almost 20 years.
Le Bon consequently seems to nurse quite a grudge against the decade. "I feel sorry for the '90s, because it was never able to be anything much more than the hangover to the party that was the '80s," he says. "Everybody retreated, everybody went into the middle, everybody tried to be innocuous. In the '80s you had all these great bands like us, U2, Madonna, Depeche Mode, you've got hip-hop, acid house, rave... And what did you have in the f---ing '90s? You had grunge and Brit-pop! I would have felt ripped off if that had been my decade!"
Whether this current decade is more sympathetically attuned to Duran Duran's musical elan than the '90s is of little consequence to Le Bon. In fact, almost nothing seems to matter very much to him except Duran Duran itself. "As far I'm concerned it all revolves around us," he states, with his typical grand immodesty. "We're Duran Duran, we make music and it doesn't matter what the f---ing number on the year is."
The question of whether this present reunion is an ongoing concern, or just a one-off, meets with a similarly blunt response. "That all depends on whether anyone likes the album," Le Bon says.
"If it falls flat on its face, we'll be Duran Duran, that band from the '80s again. But if it flies like the motherf---er is designed to do, then you'll be hearing a whole lot more from us."
Astronauts is released October 11 by Sony Music.
Courtesy The Age, www.theage.com.au