Synth-pop sound comes full circle

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Synth-pop sound comes full circle
Duran Duran, it's like you never left. Now Gwen Stefani, The Killers and The Faint are playing your tune too.
By Ricardo Baca
Denver Post Pop Music Critic

Sunday, March 13, 2005 -

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' synths throughout the Duran Duran catalog were mysterious and bold and 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' keys brought those '80s-era Patrick Nagel paintings to life. So it makes sense that Duran Duran, which plays Magness Arena on Wednesday, is back together after multiple breakups.

Their revival is timely: The New Romantic/synth-pop/new wave movement the band spearheaded has come full circle, with mainstream artists such as Gwen Stefani releasing chart-topping electro records that just scream "Rio" and "Girls on Film."

"I've always believed that the '80s, particularly the early '80s, were an extraordinary time for music," Rhodes said via telephone recently. "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 a while 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. Sure, 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 constant inventiveness of The Faint prove that Duran Duran's footprint is bigger today than it ever was in the '80s.

"They weren't afraid to just have the organ, drums and bass," said Alice Gilbert, an indie pop aficionado and DJ at the Hi-Dive's red-hot '80s dance party on Wednesdays. "Plus, Duran Duran's first album, which was really good and amazing, came out in '81. All these other bands were either '84 or '85."

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 ODing on West Coast rap, specifically the G-funk stylings of Dr. Dre, but the answer to his band's dilemma 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 told The Denver Post 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 his muse, Nick Rhodes.

"He's truly just (expletive) amazing," Taylor said. "His fingerprints are still all over the place."

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."

Most of the music thrown down at DJ Sara T.'s monthly Danceotron parties has at least some connection to synth-pop and its predecessors. After all, the synth is a natural dancefloor filler.

"It's all about creating sounds that aren't heard in an organic sense, these crazy sounds and frequencies," said Sara T., who will next mount Danceotron on April 9 at the Hi-Dive. "With synths, you're able to create something that's truly unique, a sound that nobody's ever heard before, and that's what Nick gave to the band."

As Sara T. is quick to point out, style and fashion are as important to synth-pop - no matter the era - as the music itself. And the style-concious Duran Duran came along at the perfect time to take advantage of the early '80s' 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 20-25 percent sales leads in the markets that carried MTV. Suddenly an empire was born. Duran Duran, already all over radio in the U.S., U.K., 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 - not to mention the current interest in all things synth and electro - 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," said Rhodes, echoing the oft-shared sentiment that it's more TV than it is MTV. "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 wasn't really driven by advertising or sponsorship. 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 - including a worldwide brand that's worth billions of dollars - but I don't think they care so much about music anymore."

Courtesy Denver Post