Extraordinary World

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Extraordinary World

22 October, 2007

By Christopher Barrett

In 2008 it will be 30 years since Birmingham students John Taylor and Nick Rhodes assembled the foundations that would lead to the international phenomenon Duran Duran. Music Week looks back at the band’s extraordinary career with its founders, friends and business associates

Fervent modernists, imbued with punk’s experimental spirit and a desire to fuse the passion of rock with the dancefloor-filling groove of the burgeoning disco scene, when John Taylor and Nick Rhodes first started rehearsing it set in motion a chain of events that would see them become one of the most recognisable bands on the planet while selling a staggering 70m records.

But as Rhodes recalls at the outset, Duran Duran’s early sound was far from the carefully-honed fusion of dance and rock that would make them international stars.

“I don’t think you could say it was verging on commercial. It was avant-garde, pure art school,” explains Rhodes.

With John Taylor on guitar, Stephen Duffy playing bass and singing, their friend Simon Colley doubling up on bass and clarinet while Rhodes skipped between a rhythm unit, synthesisers and a reel-to-reel tape machine, on which he played pre-recorded samples, an embryonic Duran Duran took to the stage at Birmingham Polytechnic for their first gig. But the band would soon be looking for more unusual venues to better complement their style-conscious musical vision.

“We have always strived to be apart from the mainstream, that’s the punk ethic,” says Taylor. “We didn’t want to play the same old venues. There was a very tried and tested old pub and club live network in Birmingham and we didn’t want to play any of those places.

“The Rum Runner was a place that was launching a glam futurist night; they were pasting posters around the city, so we asked them if they were interested in having any live music.”

It proved to be a very significant day in the band’s career, leading to meetings with not only their first managers, Paul and Michael Berrow, but also singer Simon Le Bon.

“They were phenomenal,” says Taylor of the Berrows. “They had great yin and yang; Paul was very creative and impractical while Michael was very practical.”

In the late Seventies the Berrows’ father, who owned a number of clubs around Birmingham, bequeathed the Rum Runner to his sons. Looking for inspiration, the brothers went on a fact-finding trip to New York, visited Studio 54, and came back revitalised with a mission to bring the excitement of the Manhattan dance scene to Birmingham Broad Street.

“When we brought in our demo, Paul took us down to the club and turned on the sound system which was as big as most band’s PA systems are today, and played our demo,” recalls Taylor. “He immediately got into the sound of the kick drum and started playing other 12-inch records.”

Duran Duran became the first live band to perform at the club and were immediately offered a residency and rehearsal space. “Paul was very ambitious, like Nick and I, and our fantasies kind of met,” says Taylor.

Another, early, conscious step by the band to stand out from the crowd, was the adoption of the moniker Duran Duran, which was inspired by a character in Roger Vadim’s cult sci-fi movie Barberella, starring Jane Fonda.

“It was late 1977 and every band and his dog were called The Clash, The Stranglers, The This, The That,” explains Taylor. “There was a screening on the BBC, it was a Monday evening and I remember thinking that’s a cool name for a band. It was just the sound of it, it was so different. But later, I mean you become your name after a while, the Barberella aesthetic was as important to Duran Duran as a rolling stone is to Mick Jagger.”

Following the arrival of Roger Taylor on drums, John Taylor switched to bass. “I used to play fumbling lead guitar; experimental is a polite way of putting it,” he laughs.

But the search for a guitarist and lead singer that would complement the band’s aesthetic and ambition was still on.

“We were looking for a guitarist and singer at the same time so when a guitarist came in we told them the singer was sick and when a singer came in we told them the guitarist was sick,” laughs Taylor. “We figured no one would believe a keyboard player, drummer and bassist, none of whom were particularly virtuoso, would really know what they were doing.”

Guitarist Andy Taylor answered an advertisement in Melody Maker and in the early summer of 1979 one of Simon Le Bon’s ex-girlfriends, who happened to work behind the bar at the Rum Runner, recommended him to the band.

“When Simon arrived, he looked the part and said his name was Le Bon and we half didn’t believe him because that was the kind of thing we all wanted to change our names to,” recalls Rhodes. “When we heard him sing we thought he had a very distinctive voice so we had a look at his lyric book and it all seemed pretentious enough, we said OK, come along tomorrow and we’ll jam and see how it goes.”

The following day the musicians gelled to such an extent that the session produced a song called Sound Of Thunder, which would later appear on their eponymous debut album.”

In 1980, one of the first people to hear and be impressed by the resulting demo tape was a young and ambitious London-based concert promoter Rob Hallet – now the senior vice president of AEG Live – who would go on to book their UK gigs for many years.

“Having a Duran Duran demo land on my desk changed my life forever,” enthuses Hallet. “They had been sending me tapes for a while. I had a John Cooper Clarke and Pauline Murray double bill at The Lyceum – so I said how about you come and open up. I turned up, saw them play, thought they were great, hung out with them backstage and have been friends with them ever since.

“I think they are one of the most underrated live acts on the planet; they have always been great live from when they played the Marquee and Lyceum to baseball stadiums in Japan. They rock!”

During 1980 Duran Duran worked the live circuit tirelessly, building a strong reputation at record labels along the way – not least during their support slot on the Hazel O’Conner tour. A frenzied label bidding war ensued of which EMI proved the victor. They were sent straight into the studio with Colin Thurston.

Taylor remains impressed by the team at EMI and fondly recalls his time with the label. “The old EMI building in Manchester Square was so hands-on. We knew everyone in that building, we made a lot of friends. The coordination between domestic and international was phenomenal. When I think Terry Berg was running international at the time, I honestly think we were very lucky to arrive there. They were at the top of their game churning out so many albums by the likes of Queen, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush; it was just a very finely-tuned coordinated scenario.”

The result of the band’s time with producer Colin Thurston saw the release of their first single, Planet Earth, which reached number 12 on the UK singles chart in February 1981. It was to be an astonishing year for the band.

The single went to number one in Australia, thanks largely to tireless support from the face of Australian music TV programming Molly Meldrum and his show Countdown.

“That gave us the sense the world could be ours,” says Taylor. “It also forced them to make a video to promote the single.

“We did it with Russell Mulcahy, who was a phenomenal talent ablaze in London at that time,” remembers Taylor. “It opened up enormous potential for us.”

The band’s debut album, Duran Duran, followed, peaking at number three in the UK albums chart in June 1981, and going on to sell 2.5m copies before the year was out.

MTV was yet to begin broadcasting but Berrow could already see the potential of video and was eager for the band to commit to celluloid. Videos would soon become an integral weapon in the band’s promotional armory.

“Paul saw what video was doing across the Rock America network of clubs in the US, spearheaded by The Ritz in Manhattan,” says Taylor. “They had video screens above the dance floors.”

Noting that the videos used in the clubs did not coincide with the music played and that the door policy was 21s and over, Berrow and the band set about making an impact with a long-form “semi-pornographic” video for the third single Girls On Film. Directed by Godley and Creme, the video for the single’s dance mix would go on to be banned from both MTV and the BBC.

“We had this song about exploitation and it seemed like the ideal oportunity to do something; a longer X-rated version of the song,” says Rhodes. “It was really done for those clubs, where it did go down very well, but it also seemed to go down very well with a very large part of the male population worldwide,” he laughs.

Despite being embraced by teenagers all over the world, Duran Duran maintained adult-oriented lyrical themes and a blend of dance beats and glam-rock that had more in common with influences such as Roxy Music and David Bowie than many of their peers in the burgeoning New Romantic movement of the time.

Rhodes and Taylor were, and remain, hugely passionate about the way the band are presented.

“We had already taken care of the sound, it was a matter of what we could do visually,” says Rhodes. “So we worked with fashion photographers instead of rock photographers, got artists in to design the sleeves and hired the best graphic designers to create the best street posters. We loved all that stuff, video was really just a gift, we knew exactly what to do with it and almost became part-time actors. For Simon it was easy, because he was a drama student. For us it was a bit more of a stretch because we just wanted to look cool and be in a band.”

A support slot with Blondie throughout the US paved the way for an enthusiastic reception for their second album Rio in North America. Rio would go multi-platinum worldwide and spawn three UK Top 10 hits with Hungry Like The Wolf, Save A Prayer and Rio, all of which featured incredibly exotic videos shot in Sri Lanka and Antigua by Mulcahy.

But Rhodes recalls that the shoots were not as luxurious as the final result appeared. “It was a real struggle – the ones shot in Sri Lanka were made for less than J.Lo’s hair and make-up budget would be now. It really was a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but we had a laugh doing them.”

With the band re-inventing the pop promo as an art form, Taylor did become a little jaded by the media’s obsession with Duran Duran’s video ouput. “We took our art very seriously, crafted our songs very carefully and took great pride in the pacing of our live sets, but certainly after Rio came out all they wanted to talk about was the videos.”

In 1983 the band’s rocketing popularity went supernova with the standalone single Is There Something I Should Know? entering the UK singles chart at number one and grabbing the number four slot in the US.

The Reflex – the first single from their new, third album, Seven And The Ragged Tiger – followed, taking the top spot in the UK chart. It also provided the band with their first US number one. Having heard Nile Rodger’s mix of INXS’ Original Sin while partying at Molly Meldrum’s house in Australia, the band had called on the Chic man to create a new version of The Reflex for the single release.

“It was one of those songs that we knew there was something in there but we just hadn’t been able to get to the essence of it,” explains Rhodes. “It was the first time we had done a remix and that was a very important decision.”

The following year would prove another busy one for the band, with them not only performing at Live Aid but also enjoying a US number one hit with the Bond theme A View To A Kill.

“That trip was fucking amazing. It’s not Goldfinger but the experience of working with the Bond teams and John Barry was insane,” enthuses Taylor. “It wasn’t an easy song to make – you’ve got John Barry and Nick Rhodes, two of the strongest headed keyboard players in music. But how can you go wrong with that kind of talent?”

With Rolling Stone hailing them as “The Fab Five”, Princess Diana declaring Duran Duran to be her favourite band and the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring counted among their burgeoning group of friends, Duran Duran had become a worldwide phenomenon – but the strain would soon begin to show.

Reflecting on that remarkable rise to fame Taylor says, “It certainly takes you off on such a ride you are just about holding on. Be careful what you pray for,” he laughs. “But I wouldn’t change a bit of it. It did become increasingly challenging though, especially after the third album.”

Having finished Seven And The Ragged Tiger in Australia, Taylor recalls sitting around a table waiting for news from London on where the first single, Union Of The Snake, would enter the charts. “It was number three and we were tremendously disappointed. When you are setting those kind of standards it’s very challenging.”

“We were very ambitious,” agrees Rhodes. “Anything that anyone would throw at us we would try and do. Whether it was TV shows or playing three countries in one day, we weren’t afraid of working non-stop. So for the first five years we really didn’t stop. We did it in grand style.”

“We were moving very, very quickly,” concurs Taylor. “My experience about fame is in almost every case it is the artists that slow it down, you almost sabotage yourself. Because you just can’t keep going. A couple of the band got married, we decided to do divergent projects, you just couldn’t stay on that crazy mill.”

For the first time turning down EMI’s request for another album, Le Bon, Rhodes and Roger Taylor formed Arcadia and the other two Taylors formed Power Station with Robert Palmer and Chic’s Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards. Later in 1985 Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor announced their intention to leave Duran Duran.

Frank Zappa’s guitarist Warren Cuccurullo was drafted in on guitar and the resulting collaboration with Nile Rogers led to the funk-fuelled album Notorious, with the title track proving a hit in the winter of 1986. Big Thing followed in 1998 and in 1990 the Top 5 album Decade celebrated a hits-packed 10 years of chart dominance.

Despite the Nineties seeing the band ease off in terms of chart success, Duran Duran continued to make albums and maintain their beguiling use of new technology.

Their sixth studio album, Liberty, was followed by the more successful Wedding Album, which featured photos of the band’s parents’ wedding days on its sleeve and generated hit singles Ordinary World and Come Undone, the former receiving an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting.

A covers album, Thank You, followed before John Taylor left the band in 1996. The remaining band members continued and recorded the albums Medazzaland and Pop Trash, but in June 2001 the original five members of the band reunited and began working on their first album together in almost 18 years.

In 2002 the band began writing songs together in the south of France for what would become the 2m-selling Astronaut album, but it would be two years before the record would be available due to ongoing negotiations with labels.

“When I first started working with them they didn’t have a record deal, they had done the rounds of a lot of labels and had been somewhat jilted at the altar a couple of times due to problems at the labels,” says the band’s current manager Wendy Laister. “They didn’t want to do any live shows until they had a deal because they didn’t want it to be about nostalgia, they wanted it to be about the future and new material. But I felt we needed to show that there was an army of Duran Duran fans around the world just waiting to be re-ignited and make the labels come to us rather than the other way around.”

The demand for tickets to the resulting 2004 UK arena tour was nothing short of astounding, according to Live Nation vice president of music Andy Copping. “They sold out unbelievably quickly, we put two dates at Wembley Arena on sale and they sold out at the drop of a hat. It was just add, add, add until we got to five.”

“We ended up doing 17 arenas around the UK and every one sold out. It was the biggest UK tour, they had ever done,” says Laister.

“We thought it was going to be strong, but didn’t realise how strong,” says Copping. “I saw them in the mid-Eighties and they were a great band live back then. Seeing them almost 20 years later, they really can still deliver – they are a great live band with great songs.”

Taylor says that the energy and desire to prove to each other that they still had ‘it’ was key to the performances. “We played a one-off at The Forum and that was probably the best show we have ever played in England,” he enthuses. “Thank God for the British audience, because it was putting a tour on sale and selling out so quickly that let the labels know that they could be in business with us.”

According to Laister, the band ended up with a bidding war on their hands, with two labels locking horns, before Astronaut was finally released via Epic in late 2004 and went on to sell more than 2m albums.

The “Fab Five” were back at the top of their game, something that their business manager of 6 years, David Ravden, believes is set to continue.

“Their continued success doesn’t surprise me because they are very aware of their uniqueness and they understand that Duran Duran is bigger than any individual member.

“They have always been interested in other areas like fashion, design and art and always had a very strong sense of their own identity. They are unique and, as far as I’m concerned, if they continue together for another 20 years I won’t be surprised.”

Courtesy Music Week UK