November 3, 2007
The return of Duran Duran
Duran Duran may not be the coolest band around, but they have endured. And now, many wives, kids, divorces, rows and bouffant hairdos behind them, they are back, with a little help from Justin Timberlake
Here’s a funny story: an English Eighties relic, his supermodel wife and a young American superstar are boozing in Birmingham. It is 4am on a spring morning this year, and they are drunk on “whisky and stuff”.
“And Justin Timberlake turned round to me and said” – and here Simon Le Bon, for it is he, impersonates a drunken Timberlake – “‘Shhhimon, I think we really oughta talk about doing this song together?’ I said, ‘You’re on!’ So I just made the call.” A few hours later, the Duran Duran singer and wife Yasmin – the model he spotted in a magazine 23 years ago and set about wooing – drove back to London. Le Bon had travelled to Birmingham to see Timberlake in concert, and to do a little recording with the American superstar’s support act and producer, Timbaland. A week later Le Bon drove north once more, hooking up with Timberlake while the 26-year-old multi-platinum, multi-tasking hit machine young enough to be his son was in Manchester for another gig engagement.
“And within six hours we’d written the song, the chords, the melody, and the lyrics,” says Le Bon with some smugness. “It was just filling in the rest after that. That whole session was less than 36 hours long with a big sleep in the middle of it. And then we came back to London.”
Here’s another story: have you heard the one about the desperate Eighties pop has-beens who hired young, cutting-edge musical talent to give them a much-needed reboot?
“Oi!” exclaims Roger Taylor, Duran Duran’s drummer, when this joke is put to him. “Watch it, watch it!”
“Well, it is that!” Le Bon concedes with the same blustery chutzpah he used to apply to throwing his sturdy self around the stages of the world’s arenas. He’s aware of how it looks on paper, the news that for their third – or is it fourth? – comeback album, Duran Duran have collaborated with Justin Timberlake, the boy-prince of forward-thinking pop-R&B, and Timbaland, the production sorcerer who’s crafted critically acclaimed and commercially whopping albums for Timberlake and Nelly Furtado.
“But the question is,” says Le Bon, “does it work?”
Marvellously, amusingly, yes it does. Duran Duran’s new single, Falling Down, the number Timberlake and Le Bon co-wrote over a boozy week in the north of England, is a brilliant, soaring pop song complete with backing vocals from the handsome young shaver. And the tenth Duran Duran album it precedes, Red Carpet Massacre, is a collection of super-catchy tunes that deftly marry the band’s proven way with a melody with edgy hip hop and R&B-influenced production from Timbaland. Duran Duran are back, again, with knobs on.
I first meet Duran Duran in a recording studio in a council estate in Battersea, London, where they recorded some of their new album. This is the first time they’ve talked properly about it – the second album they’ve made since the original line-up reunited in 2000, but the first since guitarist Andy Taylor walked out again last year.
It’s the day of the Princess Diana Memorial Service. Duran Duran, often described as her favourite band, were not invited.
“How did Diana’s patronage impact on us?” ponders Le Bon, a jovial man not averse occasionally to playing up to the ridiculousness surrounding the band. “With your average general public, it probably made us accessible. For a lot of other people it made us a little uncool. The royal assent [sic] is the establishment saying they like you. It’s not very rock’n’roll, is it?”
Le Bon, 49, and Rhodes, 45, are the only members who’ve stuck the course throughout Duran Duran’s near-three-decade existence, since 1981’s debut single Planet Earth kick-started a run of singles and albums that have, all in, sold some 85 million copies. An exhausted Roger Taylor left, post-Live Aid, in 1986. Andy Taylor quit soon after. A decade of peaks and troughs followed for the remaining trio. Notorious, the title track of their fourth album, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but the album fared less well. They declined slowly until ’93, when the hit single Ordinary World revitalised the band – it won an Ivor Novello award for songwriting in the UK. Then Duran Duran lost it again with 1995’s Thank You, an ill-advised collection of cover versions, including Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay and Public Enemy’s rap-rant 911 Is a Joke. A frustrated, distracted John Taylor – who had already gone through a “my cocaine and booze hell” in the early Nineties and was divorcing Amanda de Cadenet (he now lives in Los Angeles with second wife Gela Nash, co-founder of fashion label Juicy Couture) – left the following year.
By the turn of the millennium, Duran Duran were a sad and bedraggled sight. The band that cut a pastel-jacketed swath through the Eighties and early Nineties on both sides of the Atlantic were on their uppers. The rump duo of Le Bon and Rhodes split from EMI, the label to which they’d signed in 1980 after a bidding war, when the five young bucks were the exemplars of all that was shiny, new and exciting about New Romanticism. They signed a new record deal but that lasted for only one rubbish album, 2000’s aptly titled Pop Trash.
Le Bon and Rhodes had limped on with a series of session players/hired hands, notably Warren Cuccurullo, the lively American guitarist who went on to be a porn star and famously marketed a model cast from his genitalia, the “Rock Rod”.
“What surprised me,” reflects Le Bon with a smirk, “is that he thought everybody else would be as interested in his penis as he was. It’s not a dildo that he sells, it’s a facsimile of his own erect penis made either in high quality plastic or chocolate.”
Dignity and coolness, then, were not concepts one would associate with Duran Duran, a band approaching their silver jubilee. They were hardly a going concern. A life of reality TV show appearances and Eighties nostalgia package tours beckoned. (Coming to a Butlins in Minehead this November, the Hear And Now Tour, featuring ABC, Howard Jones, T’Pau, Nick Heyward, Paul Young, Johnny Hates Jazz and Curiosity Killed The Cat. Yowsa.)
Some time in 2000, while sitting in a restaurant following a performance in Los Angeles, Rhodes and Le Bon discussed the idea of reuniting the original line-up. Some animosity had grown up in the intervening years – Andy Taylor, for example, had done a newspaper story saying, “This is why I’m glad I’m out of Duran Duran,” explains Le Bon, “and it was quite personal at times.
“But a lot of water had gone under the bridge. We all really had grown to love and respect where we’d been at, and realised that it was something special.”The Taylors were duly contacted.
“I had a very settled life at that point,” remembers Roger Taylor, 47, the affable, unshowy, archetypal drummer. “I had kids – well, I’ve still got kids obviously – and I was dabbling with music a little bit. And I think I realised at that moment that it was going to be all or nothing, being in Duran. It takes over your life completely. And you have to just put your hands up and go, ‘I’m here, take me.’”
The famous five were back together. After the new-old Duran Duran announced a comeback show at London’s 2,000-capacity Forum, 200,000 people reportedly applied for tickets. Robbie Williams invited the band to support him in Australia and New Zealand. A run of UK arena shows sold out. The reunited pop troupers obviously were encouraged, but still they couldn’t get a record deal.
“When we all signed up for the reunion, I think we thought it was going to be a lot easier – ‘OK, if I agree to do this I’m going to get a fat cheque,’” says John Taylor, also 47, with his transatlantic twang, tattoos and punkishly dishevelled clobber, the most rock’n’roll Durannie. “It was gonna be that easy,” he continues. “And it wasn’t.”
After writing and recording dozens of new songs, Duran Duran eventually landed a new record deal with Epic. Astronaut was released in 2004. The single (Reach up for the) Sunrise hit number five in the UK, the band’s highest UK chart-placing since their James Bond theme A View to a Kill had gone to number two 20 years previously.
Then the wheels came off, again. First their new label rejected the follow-up album. The band wanted to call it Reportage, “and the whole album was a lot more political,” says Rhodes. “We were surrounded by media at the time where you couldn’t get away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” One song was called Criminals in the Capitals. The high-living hedonists who’d been Hungry Like the Wolf (a song about being on the hunt for women) and liked Girls on Film were now dissing Bush and Blair.
Their new label told them to forget all that – at a meeting in New York in May 2006, these late fortysomething multi-millionaire fathers and husbands were told to go away and start again. Duran Duran agreed to reconvene in a New York studio in September last year. But Andy Taylor didn’t turn up.
“We knew he was unhappy with this, with that,” says Le Bon. “For whatever reason, he would rather act irrevocably than get involved in any debate with us as to how we should continue.”
“We all appreciate there’s a degree of compromise, right?” says John. “Anybody who’s got a job, who’s part of some corporation or whatever, you make the choice – it’s a balance between, ‘OK I’m getting this much out of it and today, it’s worth it.’ And for the four of us, it’s very much worth it,” he beams, slapping his hands together. “And for him it really wasn't. It’s like a marriage breaks up and people go, ‘How did that happen? That was out of nowhere!’ Then you start thinking, ‘Well, actually, it was so f****** obvious!’”
A few weeks after our first meeting, I have lunch with Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes in a favoured haunt of theirs, a family-run Italian restaurant in Chelsea, near where they and Roger Taylor live. “Mr Simon!” beams the maître d’. There is some confusion over what to order. “You can tell we’re getting ready for a show,” says Le Bon (Duran Duran are launching Red Carpet Massacre with a suitably grandiose ten consecutive, semi-theatrical shows on Broadway). “We try to outdo each other with the smallness of our meals.”
I ask the keepers of the Duran flame if they’re on speaking terms with Andy Taylor now.
“Uh, through various other parties!” says Rhodes, mouth twitching, eyebrow jiggling. He projects an air of urbanity and is the band member who seems happiest moving in Rock Aristocracy circles. He still wears make-up.
Andy is writing a book about his times in Duran Duran, apparently to be called Wild Boy. Presumably he’ll have promised his publisher that he’ll lift the lid on all sorts of high-Eighties salaciousness. What are their thoughts on Andy’s book?
“Yeah? um, I’m quite interested,” says Le Bon. “I’ll read it probably! Am I concerned? No.”
“Say what the hell he likes. An interesting title I think,” Rhodes muses. “He’s taken a long time thinking about that one.”
The remaining four-fifths of Duran Duran can afford to joke. One senses that this palpably close band of brothers are bitter about, and hurt by, Andy’s quitting after their “all for one and one for all” moment in 2001. Nonetheless, for the band/brand, it’s onwards, ever onwards: they say that their guitarist leaving was the best thing that could have happened. As well as ditching the socially aware songs, they could also ditch what John calls the “rock” sound they’d been lumbering towards and were free to cast around for a producer who would move them forward. They lit upon innovative hip-hop craftsman Timbaland and soon his young friend Timberlake was in on the project too. Which begs the question: how much did these wheezing Eighties warhorses have to pay to secure the services of the most in-demand hit factories on the planet? Not much, it seems.
“Justin Timberlake presented us with an Outstanding Contribution award at the  Brits, but we’d met him previously at the MTV Awards in New York, when we got a Lifetime Achievement Award,” says John Taylor. “We expressed mutual respect.” Timberlake told them that, when he was 13, the 1993 hits Ordinary World and Come Undone were “his two favourite songs in the world”.
Among America’s younger hipsters, it seems, Duran Duran have never suffered from a giant credibility crisis.
“Absolutely! But if we wanted to work with, say, Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Chiefs or Bloc Party, or those kind of guys, they would do the same thing,” Le Bon claims. “Because they don’t have any negative associations with Duran Duran either.”
“I like to think we’ve come to a place with the great British public of a sort of mutual acceptance,” says John Taylor in the Battersea studio. “You ride that wave – when all that love is laid on you and you’re on the covers of all these magazines, and for every girl fan you’ve got half-a-dozen blokes going, ‘Oh those f****** w****** again?’ That’s the love/hate nature of fame.”
In a rehearsal studio tucked under a railway bridge in Putney, South London, Duran Duran have a lot to do. Their Broadway engagement is looming. Rhodes tells me that because they didn’t play a lot of the new songs in the studio – Red Carpet Massacre is, in a mostly thrilling way, a record big on computerised throbs, beats and squelches – they have to learn how to play them live.
They run through the songs: album opening track The Valley, with a techno pound that should please fans of both Planet Earth and of this year’s hottest new band, Mercury-winners Klaxons; the irresistible burble and grind of Skin Diver, with guest-rap from Timbaland; Box Full o’ Honey, one for those who still hanker after a bit of Save a Prayer balladry.
Rhodes stands in the corner of the small, dark, stuffy room, jabbing at his keyboards with the mild concentration of someone stirring a risotto. Roger thumps away behind a huge drum kit. A young session guitarist plays with gung-ho enthusiasm. John peels out funky bass lines, head tilted back, eyes closed, grimacing. Le Bon works a handkerchief into his nose, spits into a plastic cup, and lets loose that distinctive whine-cum-roar.
They sound great. Duran Duran’s longevity and currency is not just down to the fact that these four veterans are all still blessed with full heads of hair. They’re grafters, Eighties clubbers turned entrepreneurs who know what makes their band tick. And for whom brute pragmatism will beat pride hands down any time.
“The key to survival is being open to the script being written for you,” says John Taylor. “And knowing that, at the end of the day, the thing that is ours is this entity, this brand, that we created and we still own that nobody can take away from us. There’s not many companies that are like that. Generally people sell the brand on. But we still own it.”
It’s about knowing who and what you are: you’re Duran Duran, one of the great British pop groups. You are, in a good way, a laugh.
“Funnily enough,” remarks Nick Rhodes, “I saw [U2 guitarist] Edge the other night. And he said, ‘How’s your record going?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s great – we made a real heavy record, then we scrapped it and thought, “Nah, it’s far too heavy for us, we need to make something a little more frivolous.”’ And Edge said, ‘Yeah, but frivolous is so hard, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Not for us, ha ha!’”
“Yeah, yeah,” nods Simon Le Bon vigorously. “Really.”
Duran Duran’s single Falling Down is released on Monday. The album Red Carpet Massacre is released on November 19, on RCA
Photo Craig McLean
Courtesy The Times, London