Record of the Month Club: All You Need is Now by Duran Duran
Special to the National Post January 10, 2011 – 7:00 pm
By Dave Bidini
The ’80s were my time and, for a while, they were great. In the beginning, nerds and neurotics were in ascension and science kids had their day: Devo, Thomas Dolby, Andy Partridge and Ian Curtis. The first album released in 1980 was Rush’s Permanent Waves, on Jan. 1, and the thoughtful, uncool, angular, yet emotional essence of its complicated sound affected the commercial appeal of a lot that followed, from Remain in Light to Crocodiles. Introverts were soon afforded the machine gun gifts of art, money, an audience and radio airplay (“Coming up next, a triple shot of The Psychedelic Furs!”). Squares ruled the Earth, Wall of Voodoo made a living, and Squeeze were the new Led Zeppelin.
The first rock ’n’ roll interview I ever did was with the prairie pop band Harlequin. After our chat, they asked if I wanted to come to their El Mocambo show in Toronto that night, but I was underage and couldn’t get in. Still, the point was moot because XTC were playing at the Music Hall (with Scotland’s Fingerprintz), and it’s where everyone was going. Although UFO and AC/DC were also in town, one of the era’s signifiers was how every story in the local music press and on commercial radio was about this strange new British band, and how their album — 1979’s Drums and Wires — was something that every kid had to hear. On Q107’s dinner-time Rock Report, Bob Mackowitz Sr. started the show by playing Making Plans for Nigel, and I remember lying on the living room carpet wearing enormous clamshell headphones thrilled that this would be the exciting new future of Big Music. A few months earlier, Captain Beefheart played Saturday Night Live and rumours emerged that Elvis Costello was being wooed by Hollywood. Whether or not you wore cool trousers no longer mattered. We were beyond all of that.
But after a while, three bands made it easy for record companies and radio programmers to fall back into their bad habits, playing music to please a greater audience who’d never quite grown comfortable with Tenpole Tudor, Romeo Void or the early songs of Robert Smith. One of those bands was Van Halen, who begat the greatest, yet least representative surviving legacies of ’80s music: hair metal.
The other was The Police, who, as they became progressively pop-oriented, opened the door for Flock of Seagulls, The Go Gos, The Stray Cats, Adam Ant, INXS and a sea of image-conscious bands who tried straightening the angles. The most notorious — and damaging — band of this set were the era’s third major culprits in the Fall of the Square: the perfumed and oversexed yachtsmen, Duran Duran, who, lo and behold, are back with a new album.
Despite the fact that, in their heyday, they were responsible for flattening New Wave into a synthetic pulp of smooth keyboard lines and gated snare hits, it’s hard to begrudge the band their hummable choruses or sense of dance floor bop. Songs like Rio and Hungry Like the Wolf stick once you hear them — on oldies’ radio, you hear them a lot — and they do the things that good pop music is supposed to do: melodies that get in and get out before the bubble gum goes stale, and major chord choruses that burst from minor progressions. After a few cocktails at your high school reunion or friend’s wedding reception or condominium’s shaker, someone calls them your generation’s Beatles, and what the hell, time has passed, you’ve softened, and you agree.
Looking in on a band you used to admire is one thing, but looking in on one that you hold accountable for the death of a movement through which your musical consciousness was opened is another. I wish that I could listen to Duran Duran’s new record, All You Need is Now, without sensing a kind of opportunistic revivalism, but bands are forced to compete in whatever era they happen to be playing. For this group, it’s a different time. Classix Nouveau have broken up. There’s no Simply Red to kick around anymore.
Even in the new times and across a new playing field, the sound of All You Need is Now is the sound of a band, well, trying. And trying hard. The title track may be one third Blur, one third Oasis and one third Gorillaz, but history shows us that it’s probably the other way around. The vibe of this record is the vibe of a band having fun while trying to reclaim what they consider theirs: squelching synth runs, Eurogroove rhythms and yelping South London vocals. Blame the Machine might have its share of pitchwheel lines and one too many “Wha-ho-hos!!” but it’s written like a mid-’80s Ramones song, infusing the record with gay dance club energy sustained over Safe (featuring the Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic) and Runaway Runaway.
Singer Simon Le Bon still partly cloys with his hands-in-blazer vocal swish — to say nothing of shamelessly hiding behind the album’s relentless Auto-Tuning — but it’s not as if he’s trying to reinvent himself Jack White or Thom Yorke. The band plays within its limits, and instead of making a great record, they’ve tried to make a great Duran Duran record.
Even though that may strike some as being like creating a more effective brand of Agent Orange, or writing a movie based on the The New Adventures of Old Christine, it’s what the band has done, and done well. If you hated the ’80s, this record doesn’t necessarily make them any better. But if you lived them and loved them, All You Need is Now is your Blood on the Tracks in a white belt and a headband. For me and you and Duran Duran, the past is passed and all we have is now. It’s a valuable lesson, proving that wisdom can sometimes come from the strangest places.
Dave Bidini’s latest book, Home and Away: In Search of Dreams at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, is published by Greystone Books ($19.95)
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