Deep Cuts: Duran Duran

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Duran Duran has a lot more to their musical resume than “The Reflex” and “The Wild Boys.” Indeed, if those songs were wiped off the face of the earth, I would be perfectly okay with that. There is also a considerable breadth of style on these albums as well. They weren’t just a synth-pop band. There are experiments in art rock, house music, Latin music, atmospheric pop, and funk. One thing’s for sure, they were not afraid to fail. And on more than one occasion, that’s exactly what they did. But they came back wiser every time.

The following list – a two-disc set, no less – contains my favorite Duran Duran songs, or in some cases remixes, that you may not have heard before. They’re listed in chronological order, since that’s important in understanding how the band’s sound has evolved over the years. Purists will surely take me to town for my omissions – I was never a big fan of the early B-sides like “Late Bar” and “Faster than Light” – but I stand by my choices…at least for the next five minutes, at which point I will surely want to replace five songs with five others. Enjoy.

Disc One: The Wonder Years (1981-1987)

“Sound of Thunder” – Duran Duran
What better way to start a Deep Cuts piece on Duran Duran than with a song that opens with a flanged keyboard riff similar to “Planet Earth,” the song that started it all. “Sound of Thunder,” though, isn’t nearly as sunny as “Planet Earth.” It still has a badass groove, and John shows his chops as a bassist for the first time, but the song is one of the moodiest dance songs you’re likely to find. There was talk about what it meant that the words “Earth,” “Memories” and “Thunder” appeared in bold type in the album’s artwork. The answer: absolutely nothing.

“Friends of Mine” – Duran Duran
Not the sharpest lyrics Simon’s ever written (“The water’s running cold / It’s time that you were told, I think you’re growing old”), but the chorus soars like few moments on the debut album. For years, I wondered who Georgie Davies was (Simon name-checks him in the chorus), thinking he was some fashion designer like Nick Kent, whom Adam Ant mentions in his song “Press Darlings.” It turns out he was a guy who was believed to be wrongfully imprisoned, only to go back into the slammer a year after he was freed. Georgie Davies, bad. “Friends of Mine,” good.

“Tel Aviv” – Duran Duran
Duran’s done a few instrumentals over the years – “Tiger Tiger,” “Lake Shore Driving,” Arcadia’s “Rose Arcana” – but their first is still the best. Simon can be heard throughout the track, but his vocals seem to float overhead, like an alien transmission interrupting the broadcast. This is Nick and Andy’s song, and to be honest, it’s Nick’s song, since there are keyboards everywhere, from the swirling strings to the robotic opening refrain. Andy weaves his guitar in and out, and John…is John even on this song?

“Hold Back the Rain (Remix)” – Night Versions
This mix, sadly, will require a trip to eBay. There are about five or six versions of this song, but this version, thanks to a superb mix by David Kershenbaum, makes the cut. Few Duran songs straddle the line between dance and rock better than this one, and Kershenbaum ramps up the energy even further with that driving keyboard line, the power guitar chords and pumping the drum track to 11. The chorus is one of the band’s best, with a backing vocal that’s borderline Beach Boys-esque. The mix on the two-CD import remix compilation Strange Behavior is a passable substitute for this, but if you really want to do it right, find this version.

“Lonely in Your Nightmare (David Kershenbaum mix)” – Rio
I’m a right bastard for including this one because…it’s never been issued on CD. Ever. Not one of those ‘once available, now going for $200 on eBay’ kind of things, no, no, no. (I scored a copy from Napster back in the day, and even my copy has a skip in it.) The last issue of this mix – the definitive mix – was when they reissued Rio on cassette in the US after “Hungry like the Wolf” took off on radio. The differences between this mix and the one you’ll find on the Rio CD are subtle – percussion in the chorus, a much longer outro – but in fleshing it out, they make a great song, Duran’s first real stab at a mid-tempo ballad, even better. And dig that fretless bass John’s slinging. The Rio version is sweet, but Kershenbaum’s mix is super-sweet.

“New Religion” – Rio
The back half – or Side Two, as we geezers would say – of Rio is still the band’s watershed moment, and I’m including all four songs here (the fourth one appears on disc Two). “New Religion” is a truly great band moment, where no one member overpowers the others. Nick has the atmospheric intro and icy synth lines that pop up in the verse, Andy peels off some licks here and some Nile Rodgers-style scratch guitar there, John belts out a vintage bass line (with a great twist in the break), and Simon gets his busiest vocal ever, sometimes doing three different parts at once. Anchoring it all is Roger, who gets in his licks when the time is right.

“Last Chance on the Stairway” – Rio
Holy smokes, listen to that bass line. “Rolling Stone” used to tease its readers for giving John Taylor the award for best bass player year after year (or “Best Face,” as they would call him), but pinup idol or not, the dude can play. The second and third verses have an unforgettable vocal by Simon, where he just holds one note throughout the chord sequence. The break is noteworthy too, with Nick doing a glockenspiel solo before Andy lets rip with a short but sweet guitar solo.

“The Chauffeur” – Rio
This is probably the most obvious inclusion, but a mandatory one just the same. Nick’s the star of this one, beginning with a climbing keyboard riff and syncopated percussion track while Simon’s vocal actually does the opposite in the chorus, cascading lower and lower. John does a vintage octave-jumping bass line, and Andy…does Andy do anything on this song? Maybe he’s playing the flute in the third verse (that’s right, flutes). If you were to poll a hundred random Duran Duran fans and ask for their favorite songs by the band, I would bet that “The Chauffeur” is the only song that makes everyone’s list, and rightfully so. It is one of Duran Duran’s all-time best songs, period.

“Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
This originally appeared on the import 12” single for “The Reflex” (and made its CD debut on the soundtrack for the 1994 movie “Threesome”), but it was recorded in 1983 while the band was still touring in support of Rio. This Cockney Rebel #1 smash (with that band’s singer Steve Harley singing backing vocals here) gets an extreme makeover, turning the first verse and chorus into a torch song. At that point, the song positively explodes into dance rock heaven. Listening to Andy’s blistering solo, you can practically hear him saying to himself, “You know, I’d love to form a band where I could rock out all the time. I wonder if John would be interested…”

“Secret Oktober” – The Singles Box 1981-1985
If “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” gave birth to the idea behind the Power Station, then “Secret Oktober,” the spooky B-side to Seven and the Ragged Tiger’s first single “Union of the Snake,” gave birth to Arcadia. Recorded and mixed by Simon and Nick in an all-night session, the song sports a chugging, cowbell-happy percussion track and a seductive vocal from Simon. Indeed, the harmony vocal in the verses is the lowest Simon’s ever sung on tape, venturing into Robert Palmer territory. The ornate but sparse track stands in stark contrast to its A-side, which, to borrow a phrase of my colleague Will Harris, was produced within an inch of its life.

“Shadows on Your Side” – Seven and the Ragged Tiger
Anyone who’s heard Seven and the Ragged Tiger knows that Simon yelps a lot (particularly on “(I’m Looking for) Cracks in the Pavement and “I Take the Dice”). Luckily, “Shadows on Your Side” keeps the histrionics reasonably in check, not to mention it’s one of the few moments on Seven that has any balls. A charging minor-key rocker, as it were, with an eerie, harmonica-driven outro, it’s a textbook example of how Duran Duran’s music always contained a much darker tone than most people realized.

“Harvest for the World” – The Power Station, The Power Station
Can I get a shout-out for the side projects? While banging out a cover of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” John, Andy, Robert Palmer and Tony Thompson also decided to tackle this little-heard Isley Brothers track with equal enthusiasm but considerably more reserve (i.e. no speaker-jumping edits). Andy even sings his first lead vocal, something that surely fueled his drive to go solo the following year. The most disturbing thing about the Power Station album is that the three principals that worked on the album with John and Andy – Palmer, Thompson and producer Bernard Edwards – all passed away between 1996 and 2003 at the ages of 54, 48 and 43, respectively. Tragic. God, I miss Robert Palmer.

“Keep Me in the Dark” – Arcadia, So Red the Rose
If “New Moon on Monday” was Nick and Simon’s mash note to Roxy Music, “Keep Me in the Dark” was their marriage proposal. Think Avalon produced by Trevor Horn, a smoove groove that, like Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was produced within an inch of its life. In fact, upon further inspection, “Keep Me in the Dark” and “New Moon” share more than just a love for Roxy. The chord progressions in the verses for each are almost identical, to the point where “Keep Me” is like “New Moon” with the capo moved up a couple frets. Simon has since dismissed So Red the Rose as the most pompous album of the ‘80s, but I think that’s false modesty. There’s some damned fine stuff here, and this is a great place to start.

“Hold Me” – Notorious
Notorious is actually a dark little record, which makes sense given the turmoil the band was experiencing. Take the three singles out of the mix (“Notorious,” the sublime “Skin Trade,” and “Meet El Presidente”), and you have a lot of down-tempo, minor-key stuff. Hell, even “Hold Me” is minor-key, but once that kick-snare-kick-snare-kick-snare drops, it’s off to the races. The chorus, much like the verses to “Last Chance on the Stairway,” has one of those one-note-is-better-than-six melodies that will stick in the craw.

“We Need You” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
This B-side to “Skin Trade,” according to the brilliant, brilliant people at Wikipedia, was recorded by Simon, Nick and John as they were waiting for Andy to show up for recording one day. That would certainly explain the subtle, Beatlesque guitar play, which was as far removed from Andy’s Power Station-ish solo on Notorious track “American Science” as you can get. The melody is a damn fine one, even if the lyric “I refuse to take you down, or shake you down” hit the shelves a month or so after an up and coming singer named Gregory Abbott released a smash R&B single called “Shake You Down.” Coincidence, or winking tribute? Only Simon knows for sure.

“Meet El Beat” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
Notable Moment in Music History, Part One. This dub mix to “Meet El Presidente,” the third single from Notorious, is technically ineligible, but I’m including it because it provides a fascinating case study on what remixing a song used to mean, as opposed to what it means today (rat-tat-tat-taaaaaaaaaaaaat-boom). Back in the mid-‘80s, the prominent remixers were trying to make something that was both interesting to dance to at a club and interesting to listen to at home. The pioneers of the edit-happy side of the remix genre – Arthur Baker, John Robie, the Latin Racsals – got a hold of some sequencers and cut the living daylights out of songs, turning kick drums into machine gun fire. But none of those guys, save Baker, could hold a candle to “Oh Oh” Omar Santana, who took Mark Berry’s Latin-flavored mixes of “Meet El Presidente” and basically vaporized them. Upon hearing this mix, I would go on to buy anything that had Santana’s name in the credits…much to the dismay of every woman I dated back then.

Disc Two: “Who do you love, when you come undone?”

Let’s be honest: things got very sketchy for Duran Duran from this point on. Their albums took on a “Star Trek”-type pattern of good-bad. Big Thing: good. Liberty: bad. The Wedding Album: good. Thank You: very, very bad. You get the idea. Having said that, there is something to love on all of these albums, and the singles contained some gems as well.

“I Believe/All I Need to Know (Medley)” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
Released as the B-side to “All She Wants Is,” it’s unclear if the song is indeed a medley of two incomplete songs as the title suggests (if any Durannies out there know the story behind this song, I’m all ears), but you could make a convincing argument that that is the case. At the same time, the song flows quite well, not shifting jarringly from verse to chorus like, say, “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground. Simon gets to break out his harmonica for the first time in a while, and there’s something in the chorus that, for whatever reason, makes me think of the Zombies; “She’s Not There.” At least, that’s what the voices in my head tell me.

“Land” – Big Thing
There’s something disarmingly simple about the sweeping ballad “Land” that’s hard to resist. It’s like a mirror image of “The Seventh Stranger,” the jittery, over-the-top ballad that closes Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Less is definitely more here, with the verse and bridge sporting a total of five chords, and the instrumentation, not to mention Simon’s vocal, is downright minimalist. Nick’s keyboards wash over the verses like waves, and the acoustic guitar solo was a first for the onetime New Romantics. “Land” is really like no other song in the band’s catalog.

“Burning the Ground” – Decade
Technically ineligible since it was released as a single, but since it didn’t chart in the US and the video aired about three times on MTV, I’m counting it. This is actually a very clever mash-up of Duran’s biggest singles, putting the “Rio” bass line to the “Wild Boys” drum track, and throwing in the cameras from “Girls on Film” with some lyrics from “Planet Earth” and “The Reflex” to flesh it out. Listen closely, and you’ll hear every song on Decade but “Skin Trade” (they saved the trumpet solo in that song for the house mix B-side, “Decadance”). Look for the video on YouTube as well. As impressive as this is musically, you should see what they did for the video.

“Read My Lips” – Liberty
Forget what I said about Seven and the Ragged Tiger and So Red the Rose: Liberty is, bar none, the most overproduced album in Duran Duran’s history. The band brought in Chris Kimsey, the renowned producer of the Stones and Marillion, and he repaid the band by smothering them with overdubs. Listen to the snare drum hits in the intro: each drum hit has a different pitch. What’s up with that?! Warren’s guitar solo consists of a different solo in each channel, and they don’t always work in harmony. The bridge has about 20 different keyboard riffs going on at once. The production here is so far over the top that it’s on another planet. And at its core is a song that isn’t too far removed from something like “My Own Way.” I wonder what Colin Thurston would have done with this song…

“My Antarctica” – Liberty
The polar opposite of “Read My Lips.” The drum track is a tasteful snare, the primary keyboard work is on piano. Possibly a descendant of Big Thing track “Too Late Marlene”? No matter; after having every single production trick shoved down our throats on Liberty’s first five songs (and doesn’t include “Read My Lips,” which comes two tracks later), this simple ballad is a welcome change of pace.

“Yo Bad Azizi” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
Notable Moment in Music History, Part Deux. Do you want to know how lost Duran Duran was in 1990? Listen to this B-side to Liberty’s second single “Serious,” which is really a vaguely disguised, modern-day update to a classic Duran hit single. (Put “as a nuclear war” after the song’s title, and see if that connects the dots.) You get the sense that the band was lacking both material and direction, so they retooled an old song as a way of asserting their relevance to an audience that was more interested in the New Kids on the Block than the Fab Five. The track is fun, sure, but also a sign that the songwriting well was nearly dry. Andy surely had a fit when he heard the band letting Warren cut loose on a song that Andy was probably dying to shred the first time around.

“Save a Prayer (Thunder in Our Hearts Mix)” – Retro: Active, Vol. 3 – Rare and Remixed
This will be one of the hardest songs on this list to find, but it’ll be worth every second you spend hunting it down and every penny you spend to get it because it’s the best, remix, ever. Monster props to Paul MacDonald, one of my old DJ buddies in college, for bringing this mix to my attention upon its release in 1992. Imagine someone taking “Save a Prayer,” an already moving song, stripping it of the drums and bass, and replacing those with a tasteful drum program and…an orchestra. Oh, and there’s also a vocal snippet from Kate Bush’s “Hello Earth.” This is majestic stuff, and once you hear it, the album version will never sound the same again.

“Drowning Man” – Duran Duran 2 (a.k.a. The Wedding Album)
The band’s first stab at doing a house track, Liberty’s “All Along the Water,” was a dreadful mess, but they fare much better here, with this wrist-slap of America (“He’ll grab a hold of anyone he can / Gun in his pocket and a heart of ham / Uncle Sam”). Nick uses sampling very effectively here, taking a grunt from Simon and turning it into a percussive sound, and making a chain-gang chorus out of the word “Na.” And is it just me, or is that “oooh-oooh” sound in the intro stolen from Jesus Jones’ “Real Real Real”?

“Breath after Breath” – Duran Duran 2 (a.k.a. The Wedding Album)
Stunning. Still one of my favorite Duran songs to date, this duet with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento was a radical departure into Latin music for the band (unless you count Mark Berry’s remixes of “Meet El Presidente”), and it came, conveniently enough, at a time when there were no expectations of how Duran Duran should sound. They had finally outlasted the whole new wave/romantic thing, and that clearly liberated them. This was also the first real guest performance on a Duran track, and the band was smart enough to know not to upstage Nascimento and his sweet, sweet tenor.

“UMF” – Duran Duran 2 (a.k.a. The Wedding Album)
The last time Duran Duran decided to steal a page from Prince’s book, the results were one of the best songs in the band’s catalog (“Skin Trade”), so why not try it again? Simon is clearly enjoying the white-boy funk groove the band hits, especially when it allows him to talk about his favorite subject: sex (“Ultimately, I think she’s toying with me / It’s a case of wait and see, but right now / I’m gonna keep my pants on”). How this was not released as a single or remixed for the clubs is a mystery, since it surely would have done better than “Too Much Information.”

“The Needle and the Damage Done” – The Singles Box 1986-1995
That talk you heard about Thank You, Duran’s covers album, is no joke. It really is one of the worst albums of all time, “White Lines” and “Perfect Day” notwithstanding (Lou Reed actually loves the band’s version of “Perfect Day”). So why, exactly, would they choose to bury this lovely cover of Neil Young’s ode to heroin on the single to “Perfect Day” when it was better than virtually every song on the album? Who the hell knows. The band wasn’t known for its decision-making ability at the time.

“Big Bang Generation” – Medazzaland
Released in the fall of 1997 in a musical climate ruled by ska and electronica, Medazzaland never had a prayer. And here’s the thing: it’s absolutely better than you think it is. Sort of a bionic Big Thing, the album is filled with conflict and tension, but from that tension came some very clever stuff, not to mention Nick’s only vocal performance ever on the title track. The beat-heavy “Big Bang Generation” is like Happy Mondays at the tail end of a week-long bender. John left the band during recording, and his absence is noticeable in the number of electronic bass lines throughout. But in this case, the electronics fit the aesthetic.

“Buried in the Sand” – Medazzaland
Cryptic Lyric That May or May Not Be about John Taylor #1: “I’m glad that you came along, and so the journey ends / I say goodbye to you, my very dear friend / You were buried in the sand,” Simon offers in the last verse, a possible allusion to John’s then-rampant substance abuse. Not that you’ll notice anything but that oddly cool 6/4-time groove the band’s working the first time you hear it.

“Midnight Sun” – Medazzaland
Cryptic Lyric That May or May Not Be about John Taylor #2. “There are times I look at you differently, like I’ve never seen you before / Funny, after all we’ve done, you could be someone I don’t know at all.” Nick wrote the lyrics to this one, which makes sense since he and John have been friends since childhood. The band surrounds this dark lyric with an even darker track, a lumbering drum beat that symbolizes the band’s exasperation, though Nick leaves the door open at the end with the line, “I’ll always know how to find you / ‘cause you shine like the midnight sun.” I asked John about the lyrics to this song, and he said, “Who gives a shit?” I didn’t push the subject any further.

“Pop Trash Movie” – Pop Trash
This widescreen ballad was originally written by Nick and Warren for Blondie when they were making their 1999 comeback album No Exit, but strained relationships with EMI led the boys to keep the track for themselves and their next album (which would be the first one not released by EMI). While it’s good that they kept it, since it’s one of the few bright spots on the album that is easily the lowest point in the band’s career, I would so love to hear Debbie Harry sing this song. She’d knock it out of the park.

“Nice” – Astronaut
This was finally released as a single in August 2006, nearly two years after the release of the album that spawned it, but I’m calling a moratorium on Deep Cuts single eligibility at 12 months, I mean, please. Easily the best track from the band’s last album, “Nice” recalls all of the band’s strengths from the wonder years. John’s doing one of those octave-jumping bass lines, Andy is scratchy rhythm guy one second, monster power chord guy the next, and Simon finds one of those simply irresistible melodies for the chorus. The band has said that their new album, due for release in early 2007, is a back-to-basics effort, which means we should expect more songs like “Nice.” To which I say, niiiiiiiice.


Duran Duran Deep Cuts