Duran's musical footprint endures
By RICARDO BACA
Examining the 25-year history of synth-pop and new wave is almost like reading Duran Duran's musical biography.
The subgenres and the band grew famous through indulgence and excess set against the soundtrack of analog synthesizers and drum machines.
Nick Rhodes' synthesizers throughout the Duran Duran catalog were poppy and foreign and, most important, a new force in the world of popular music, which had not quite been conquered by Gary Numan, Human League or Kraftwerk.
Rhodes' keyboards brought those '80s-era Patrick Nagel paintings to life. So it makes sense that Duran Duran is back together after multiple breakups.
"I've always believed that the '80s, particularly the early '80s, were an extraordinary time for music," Rhodes said in a phone interview. "We almost knew it then, but it was just that the '60s and '70s were so amazing for music that we were unsure.
"In a way, it's taken people awhile to put things in perspective. The '80s were all about experimenting. Then the '90s were just really safe."
Duran Duran, with help from New Order, Depeche Mode and a few others, laid the groundwork for much of popular music that was deviating from the classic sounds of the electric guitar. Dead or Alive, a-ha and Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed in their immediate footsteps. But later came Blur, the Dandy Warhols, Radiohead and countless other bands that formed in the '90s and still make relevant music.
In fact, the newfound mainstream success of The Killers and the inventiveness of The Faint prove that Duran Duran's footprint is bigger today than it ever was in the '80s.
Fresh off the smashing release of its 2000 record "Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia," the Dandy Warhols were looking to change their drugged-out indie-rock aesthetic. Lead singer Courtney Taylor was overdosing on West Coast rap, but the answer came while watching VH1 Classic.
"When we heard the song 'Planet Earth' by Duran Duran, that's when I realized that there were no Bowies, no Roxy Musics, no Duran Durans, no Japans - all of that elegant, graceful, beautiful, sophisticated-chic attitude is gone from music right now," Taylor said in 2003. "Everybody is too busy doing either garage rock or electroclash."
The result was the neo-new wave of "Welcome to the Monkey House," a tightly crafted record co-produced by Taylor and Nick Rhodes.
"He's truly just (expletive) amazing," Taylor said. "His fingerprints are still all over the place."
'Really the future of rock 'n' roll'
Rhodes' love affair with synthesizers started when he was a child, but he reached an epiphany in 1978.
"I finally realized when I was 16 that, wow, this thing really is the future of rock 'n' roll," Rhodes said. "This thing can do stuff that nothing else can do, and having one yourself and making things happen with sequences and later with sampling is amazing."
Many fans of new wave and synth-pop look at indie troubadours The Faint as a modern update on Duran Duran's fast, young and sexy approach to furious keyboard-fronted music. Todd Baechle's affected vocals are stunning, and they're outdone only by Jacob Thiele's keyboards.
"I remember hearing 'Hungry Like the Wolf' for the first time, and I remember that feeling very risque," said The Faint's bassist, Joel Peterson. "I don't think there was any direct influence in our heads with The Faint, but Duran Duran was definitely a band that was in our collective conscious of music history.
"It was something that was huge when we were growing up, and we were aware of it - just as we were aware of Motley Crue and Van Halen - but since then, I've probably gone back and listened to more of that stuff than when we were kids, and although I'm not even interested in playing that style, I still feel like they nailed it."
Style and fashion are as important to synth-pop as the music. And the style-conscious Duran Duran came along at the perfect time to take advantage of the early 1980s expanding promotional avenues.
"I remember somebody coming up to us and saying, 'Hey, guess what - we're going to a place called MTV today,' " Rhodes said. " 'What's that?' we asked. 'Oh, music television, and they're going to play music 24 hours a day.' We said, 'Great, and why didn't anybody do that before?' It was very convenient and a great format."
The band noticed 20% to 25% sales gains in the markets that carried MTV. Duran Duran, already all over radio in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Asia, was one of the early bands to latch onto the MTV train with sexy, controversial videos that are memorable and iconic of the network's early days.
Although Duran Duran is reliving its roots with this reunion of all five original members, MTV is a far cry from what it once was.
"When I watch it, I'm greatly dismayed at the lack of music on it," Rhodes said. "It was so exciting when it first started, in that it was so daring and maverick, and they would play stuff that nobody at radio would dare play. . . . It was driven by people who loved music and understood it, and they were doing something new.
"Now, it's become a big, old clunky corporation that has some amazing things going for it . . . but I don't think they care so much about music anymore."
To remember the last time Duran Duran's original line-up - Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and the three unrelated Taylors, Andy, Roger and John - played Milwaukee, you have to go back. Way back.
Try July 11, 1982, at the long-gone Palms.
If you were a fan back then, you could think about all the life events that you've experienced in the 20-plus years since that gig.
Or you could just crank classics like "Girls on Film" and realize the tunes are just as cool now as they were back in the days when all your clothes had big shoulder pads and Michael Jackson was just a mega-pop star.
The band's latest album is last year's "Astronaut."
- Gemma Tarlach
Courtesy Denver Post