Band in orbit again

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Band in orbit again
Duran Duran returns with ‘Astronaut’ CD and newfound respect of ’80s-style practitioners
By TIMOTHY FINN The Kansas City Star

When a band is as feverishly in vogue and overexposed as Duran Duran was 20 years ago, its destiny is usually ordained: a fall from grace, a few sad attempts to remain relevant, then several waning years as a heritage act at inglorious places like state fairs or floating casinos. But every now and then, fate defies gravity.

For a while in the mid-1980s Duran Duran was a colossus.

“At the first Live Aid, we were the biggest band in the world that week,” said bassist John Taylor (one of three unrelated Taylors in the band). “We were No. 1 in the world, but in America lots of people were just getting us in terms of mass marketing.”

His recollections are a little off. By the summer of 1985, the so-called Fab Five had already had a few Top 40 hits in America, starting with “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Is There Something I Should Know” and “Union of the Snake” in 1983 and “The Wild Boys” and “The Reflex” in 1984. By July 1985, when they performed at Live Aid in Philadelphia, Duran Duran was one of the biggest bands in the world, including in America. Besides John Taylor, the band then included Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor.

“Then we broke up,” Taylor said.

The band didn’t completely break up, but that original version would not perform together again for nearly 25 years. By then music critics and commentators had analyzed and debated the band’s music versus its success, and the verdicts were inconclusive.

As Phillip Dodd wrote in The Book of Rock in 2001: “There has always been a merry dispute about whether the group were a stiff, talentless quintet flattered by great videos or an act whose songwriting transcended the frills and frippery of New Romanticism.”

Some of the negative criticism had as much to do with the band’s dolled-up looks and fashions as it did with its music, which either made you dance in reverie or recoil in repugnance, depending on your tolerance for androgynous frills and disco-pop frippery.

By the time the mid-1990s rolled around, however, the surviving version of the band had released one too many hideous albums (like the all-cover album “Thank You”), so the entire Duran Duran franchise had pretty much been consigned to the same irrelevance bin as many of their one-hit contemporaries (Spandau Ballet, Human League, Haircut 100) and one band it directly spawned (Kajagoogoo). In the era of grunge, Duran Duran was as last year as Lionel Richie and parachute pants.

So how did it get from such a typical fate (irrelevance) to where it is now — a successful international touring act with a recent album that’s getting some begrudging critical respect? According to Taylor, it’s all about the passage of time and the survival of truth.

“I agree that the decade of the ’80s did get widely dismissed,” he said, “but they tend to. Each new decade has to assert itself; each new generation has to assert itself. The artists say, ‘We’re what’s happening; everything before us was (junk). People have since looked at the ’80s with a fresh perspective and are able to see how much great stuff there really was.”

Duran Duran’s break — or epiphany, as Taylor describes it — came during a tour of Japan, where the band had scheduled a few shows to break the monotony of writing songs for an album and planning a new album.

“It was just supposed to be a series of one-off shows,” he said. “It turned into this religious experience. People from all over the world were flying in. If there were ever a crisis of confidence about whether this is something we should do, this made us feel like we were doing the right thing. We needed people to say yes, and we got great press on all those shows.”

The reaction of press and fans wasn’t freak and out of nowhere. Revisionism is all about perspective, about what has happened between then and now, and two things happened between 1995 and 2004: Pop, especially teen pop, went fake and synthesized; then today’s bands started exploring the 1980s in earnest and discovering the decade’s many hidden charms.

“In a lot of the press we got, the word ‘authentic’ was used,” Taylor said. “We had to laugh at that. They never said that about us before.

“But the ’90s were so producer-driven. All the attention shifted to production-driven artists. It seemed like the industry was controlling everything. I know it wasn’t; the underground never went away. But it seemed like everything was so Christina and Britney. Now people say this is the real thing: Guys play their own instruments and write their own songs.”

Concurrently bands like the Strokes, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and then the Killers and the Bravery started putting out records that sounded like bands from the very era that produced Duran Duran — music that sacrifices lyrical content for melody, mood and stripped-down vigor.

“Look at the ’90s Seattle grunge thing,” Taylor said. “It got so wrung out. It started with something amazing — Kurt Cobain — and ended up so nauseating. I hope I never hear another detuned guitar-rock anthem about ‘poor me the disenfranchised American.’

“Now you’ve got this generation of kids with guitars and drums who want to make music together. The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand, I think, have been the two strongest forces in new music over the past 10 years. Between the two of them — and the Strokes and the Killers — there has been this wave of new bands that love that kind of energy, so it’s about more than the singers and the producers. It’s about three, four or five guys who want to play like a band.”

Which is where Duran Duran fits in these days, without getting chided for its fashions or its lyrical facility. “Astronaut,” the album the band was putting together when it bolted for that mind-blowing tour of Japan, generated reviews from fans that ran the gamut from “It doesn’t suck like I thought it would” to “This is their best album in ages.”

Some critics felt the same way: “Mostly unembarrassing and at times shockingly vital,” said Entertainment Weekly. Most, however, (especially the British press) felt no more generous than the Los Angeles Times writer: “At a time when newer acts, from fringe to mainstream, are moving the band’s old ideas forward, Duran Duran needs to do more than just mix in the blips and bleeps of contemporary dance music to prove it has something to contribute.”

Regardless, fans are gobbling up tickets to see the reunited version of a band that hadn’t worked together since MTV was playing videos all day. According to Taylor, the time away from each other and their banishment to irrelevance makes the payoff that much sweeter and worth all the work it took to pull it off.

“If ever a band just needs to shut up and play, it’s this one,” he said. “When we got together again we thought it’d be an easy ride. We’d all been in the indie hinterlands, and none of us had been real successful away from the others. We thought getting back together would be so easy: We’d get a record deal easy, the record would sell out of the box like no one’s business, and we’d sell out every concert. But we had to work to get a deal and everything else.

“I think the last time we were in Kansas City was 1983; we opened for Blondie. But once we decided to get back together, it took us four years to get back to Kansas City. The first year, every month it seemed someone would say, ‘(bleep) this; I’m outta here.’ The second year, we heard it once every couple of months. The third year, no one was saying it. It took awhile to become a team again — to go from the idea of being a team to actually being one.

“It’s not like it was 20 years ago. The six weeks we did in Europe had their ups and downs. We’d play to 27,000 in Birmingham and 18,000 in Rome and then hit a market where interest was next to zero and we’d play for 800 people.

“But I’m an old-fashioned entertainer. I spent most of the past 10 years on my ass. I like treading the boards. I’m just happy to be playing night after night.”

Especially when you’ve been so familiar with the alternative.



Duran Duran performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Midland Theatre, 1228 Main St. Tickets cost $59.50. A review of the show will run in the July 28 Preview.