Back in full voice
December 04, 2011 12:00AM
After a vocal scare that could have spelled the end of the band, Duran Duran is heading back to Australia, as JAMES WIGNEY reports
SIX months ago, Duran Duran was staring into the abyss.
After 30 years together in various incarnations, 85 million albums sold and a litany of hits including Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf, Wild Boys and Ordinary World, it looked like the end could be nigh.
During a tour on the back of the band's most recent album, All You Need Is Now, which had attracted some of its best reviews in years, lead singer Simon Le Bon went for a note he'd normally hit with ease in a show in Cannes.
The note wasn't there.
When he got off stage it turned out he had lost seven notes from the top of his range and the doctors initially couldn't tell him when he would recover, forcing the band to cancel several dates over the European summer and plunging its very existence into doubt.
Thankfully after consultations with a voice therapist, who worked on his posture and technique, Le Bon was able to reconvene with his band mates Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor a few months later to re-embark on the world tour that will bring the band to Australia next March.
Speaking exclusively to Play directly after the band's triumphant comeback gig in Brighton last Wednesday, bass player John Taylor reflects that band members all contemplated the worst.
"Obviously it wasn't as scary for us as it was for him but we all had a good look into the abyss and wondered what life would be like without Simon or if the band couldn't go on," he says.
"We got to consider those questions over the summer and that is quite humbling.
"So we came back together with a renewed sense of love and concern for each other.
"I think the way we handled it - we stuck it out and when we came back together to start working again at the end of the summer there was a really terrific sense of camaraderie - and I think that has affected the way we are playing.
"I think we are playing better now than at the beginning of the year.
"Sometimes these things have an uncanny way of being advantageous."
Taylor is audibly excited about the prospect of returning to Australia for an arena tour and for good reason.
Some of the band's defining moments happened Down Under.
Thanks in part to Molly Meldrum doing us all a favour on Countdown in the early '80s, Duran Duran had its first No.1 single here with its now 30-year-old debut Planet Earth.
The clip for the song was directed by Melbourne filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, who would go on to mastermind the flamboyant and groundbreaking videos for Rio, The Wild Boys and Reflex among others.
"The first time we came to Australia to the Hordern Pavilion, those were the biggest shows we had played at that time," Taylor says. "We had more fun than should be allowed. Then we went back and made (third album) Seven and the Ragged Tiger at 301 Studios in Castlereagh St and I feel like we almost got kicked out after that."
On reflection, their stay on these shores also could just have easily have been the band's downfall.
Having been told to leave the UK for tax purposes, and after a brief stay in Montserrat, the then hard-partying quintet (guitarist Andy Taylor is no longer with the band) decamped to Sydney to make the follow-up to the smash hit album Rio, an experience Le Bon recently described as a "shag-fest".
"I will add to that - I will say it was a shag-fest on acid," John Taylor concurs, saying the only thing that kept them from unravelling completely in the blizzard of drugs and women was the fact that they had a tour to complete.
"The thing about tours is that you can't get too messed up because you have to make the stage," he says.
"After we finished Seven and the Ragged Tiger and made the video for Union of the Snake and just as we were all about to implode, we went back out on the road.
"Even though you can play up on the road, you can't afford to get too messed up because you have to make that stage. We were saved by the tour really."
The news of Duran Duran's latest tour comes hard on the heels of recent visits by Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet fame and Go West, some of the band's biggest rivals from the early and mid 1980s.
But where they were playing to small suburban pubs, Duran Duran will be aiming to fill arenas.
It is a band still in demand for the biggest festivals such as America's Coachella, which Duran Duran played this earlier year alongside Kanye West and Kings of Leon.
Part of the band's longevity is the fact that, despite going through many line-ups centred on Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran never really split.
And when they reunited with their original line-up to great fanfare 10 years ago, the intention was always to record new music, as opposed to just touring as a nostalgia act.
They duly delivered Astronaut in 2004, Red Carpet Massacre in 2007 and All You Need Is Now late last year.
"We have a lot of drive in our band and we keep believing our best years are ahead of us," Taylor says.
"We have worked very hard not to get dragged back into the past, which is quite difficult when you have the past we have and we invest heavily in this moment right now. We are all very proud of our most recent album and that's probably the key to the lifeblood of this band - we keep writing new material and put out albums every couple of years.
"It doesn't matter how many members of the audience are coming to hear the old material, the fact is we get to play the old material with a lot more energy because we have four or five new songs."
Ironically, the latest album was in fact a visit to the past, courtesy of red-hot producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen), who grew up with the band's music and even asked for Le Bon's autograph as a 10-year-old.
After the muddled, hip-hop-influenced Red Carpet Massacre, with its Timbaland production and Timberlake contributions, he wanted Duran Duran to go back to its '80s heyday and had the band use the same instruments and gear they used for their first two albums.
"His fantasy was to somehow make an alternative sequel to Rio," Taylor says.
"What was interesting about it was that he had us think in terms of the first two albums and he wanted us to play the instruments and the amplification and the keyboards we were using on the first two albums.
"Certain kinds of songs we wrote subsequently, like Ordinary World, which you would call a power ballad in contemporary parlance, he didn't want.
"He didn't want a song that acknowledged that hip-hop existed. It was an early '80s purity that he wanted.
"After having done an album with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, where we really took the sound of the band and made it unrecognisable, it was nice to have that retro approach for this album.
"If we hadn't had Red Carpet Massacre before it, I think we would have been a lot more sceptical and less game."
It also seemed fitting to return to their sometimes raunchy videos, but this time with a twist.
In the clip to the latest single, Girl Panic!, the band is portrayed as hedonist divas by 1980s supermodels Naomi Campbell (as Le Bon), Eva Herzigova (Rhodes), Helena Christensen (Roger Taylor) and Cindy Crawford (John Taylor).
"The two most difficult things were getting everyone into London on the same day and getting the money," says Taylor of the nine-and-a-half-minute mini-movie, which has attracted more than four million views on YouTube. "It's not like when we were making Wild Boys and the record label was just giving us blank cheques to make this hugely decadent big production video.
"They were very sweet and all fantastic but Naomi would get the Oscar - she had to learn the words and really sell the song.
"She is fantastic and proved what a superstar she is to everybody on the day."
There is no need to lock up your daughter (or mothers and wives for that matter) on the band's next trip to Australia - life on the road is a much more sedate affair nowadays for the family men.
"None of us are really big drinkers, we are drug free, none of us even smoke any more - we take out lives too seriously," Taylor says.
"We are coming down to Australia and it's our responsibility to make these shows the best they can possibly be.
"We may not get another crack at it and I want people to come out of these shows thinking 'wow, they are better than ever'.
"And for that to happen, at the very least you have to get a good night's sleep the night before and take it seriously.
"We had a good run at the party thing in our early 20s, but nobody is yearning for it any more, I can tell you that."
Duran Duran, Rod Laver Arena, March 21. Book it: 132 849 (from December 15).
Courtesy Herald Sun Australia