Duran Duran’s John Taylor: “I was driven to my knees!”
Duran Duran's John Taylor and Tears for Fears' Curt Smith talk rock excess, growing up and Taylor's new memoir
By Curt Smith
I’ve bumped into the Duran boys quite a few times over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve managed to spend more than five minutes with any of them. In a weird twist of fate, I’ve gotten to know John Taylor, Duran Duran’s bassist and one of its founding members, in recent years, since my wife, Frances Pennington, took a job as the head of marketing with Juicy Couture, a company started by John’s wife, Gela Nash (together with Pamela Skaist).
Although Duran Duran and Tears for Fears come from different musical backgrounds — Tears for Fears, which I founded with Roland Orzabal, were from the shoe-gazer school, and Duran Duran were from the celebration school — I can honestly say that these men are some of the nicest and most genuine people I’ve met, which is such a rarity in the cutthroat entertainment industry. Still, when I was asked to interview John about his memoir, “In the Pleasure Groove” (Dutton), I was admittedly a little skeptical, as I thought it may turn out to be a grandiose tome about how big Duran Duran were.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover what a heartwarming story was in these pages, of John’s upbringing, his rise to fame, and his eventual finding of himself as an individual in sobriety. We got together last Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, and we reminisced about what you might expect: the rare, intense experience of creating music and recording and touring with our respective bands in the early ’80s — and at times behaving badly. But we also discovered how much else we shared growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in England — John, in the middle-class Birmingham suburb of Hollywood; me, in a working-class section of Bath — and evolving into our lives as husbands and fathers and hardworking artists.
There are so many parallels between what we did: going to the Ritz in New York or the Sugar Shack in Munich. We did all of those things. And I learned three new things about you in the first chapter. One: single child, which I never knew. Roman Catholic, the other one. And, John is not your first name. When I found out it was “Nigel,” the first thing that came to mind, which you mention later on, is, “I’m only making plans for Nigel.” Your upbringing was kind of, I would say, middle-class, right?
It’s funny because it’s such a buzz phrase here, isn’t it? When did America become obsessed with the middle class? I feel like, in Britain, we were obsessed with the middle class in the ’70s. I remember saying to my dad, “We’re middle-class, right, Dad?” He didn’t have a working-class accent, but he said, “If I stop working, we won’t eat.” Obviously I felt like I gravitated toward the middle class. It was aspirational. I feel like it’s a bit of a fantasy, really.
Middle-class is one of those things, saying, “We’re not poor, and we’re certainly not rich.”
I think it also has something to do with, perhaps, being wealthier than your ancestors. My mother’s family was a large family. They always lived in a fairly solid house, shall we say? Her father had an important job, relatively speaking. My father’s mother — my dad’s dad died when he was about 5 — and she was sort of scrambling as a single parent, really for the rest of her life. I don’t like really identifying with any class. You’re in a constant state of flux. Middle-class is a limbo. You can’t win. There’s no pride in being middle-class. Working-class, you know who you are. Aristocracy, you know who you are
When you were in junior school, primary school — and it was a Catholic school — you never felt comfortable being the one in front. You didn’t want to come first in anything.
I wasn’t comfortable with attention, really. I don’t know why. My parents were both really low-key. Very shy. Neither of them liked the spotlight. They were not the kind of parents that would start singing. I don’t think I ever heard either of them tell a joke.
And then your cousin Eddie started to, as you say, “corrupt you” a little bit with music.
He brought it all into focus for me, really. It existed in an ephemeral sense, on the TV and the radio, but he made it a living thing that — he was the connecting rod between. He would go to see these artists when they were actually performing in the city. He was a music man. He was always going to concerts, so he brought that idea to me. He was into the albums. It was just another world. Each time, just taking it to another level of appreciation. I often feel we — I don’t know about you guys, but we’re spoonfeeders. My generation of parents. We’re like, “You’re going to have piano lessons and ballet lessons.” The overachieving, we have our kids doing everything, especially in this town.
I am the opposite.
In a way, it was good, because nobody ever made me do anything to do with music or the arts. I had to want it. I know so many kids that go to college, and they’re really going to study the subjects that their parents want them to study. And I had to say, I plotted this course solo. I figured it out so that by the time I got a guitar in my hands, I knew. It wasn’t because anybody else wanted me to do it. Even though my parents were both subliminally, subconsciously, I knew they would be with me on it. I knew they were fond of music. It wasn’t like I was rebelling.
Was that a lot to do with going to see live music?
Yeah, but I also talked about the connectedness that you find. I wanted to relate that because so many of our fans are going to read it and see what it meant to me to be a Roxy Music fan. And how many friends I made by becoming a Roxy Music fan. Because we’re that, we are that to people.
And it is a recurring theme in the book, that whole sense of family or extended family.
Within the band.
Within the band, within your personal life. I mean, even when you met [your second wife] Gela and got families joined together, and it’s a new five-piece. There’s always a recurring theme of you wanting to be part of a greater whole.
That’s a tricky one. I think when you’re — I don’t want to generalize about any children — but I go backwards and forwards. I can be very happy in my own company for considerable lengths of time.
But back then could you? Because, I got the sense that back then you couldn’t.
I guess being an only child you really appreciate the sanctuary that you have. You can go out. You can mix. I would never hang out at my house, I always went to friends’ houses where I could just be the favored other. The best friend. I could hang out until I chose to go home.
You always chose to go home. And that went on for quite a long time. Further than I would think it would have gone on. So going back to secondary school, secondary modern — for me, it was called a comprehensive school by then, I believe. Then you started taking time off school. You decided it really wasn’t for you, or at least you weren’t learning enough there. You said the city was your school.
I just went with my instincts. I think my parents were kind of in denial.
That they didn’t know?
It’s a whole other victory when you can pull the wool over your parents’ eyes. It’s like, “Really? Are they that stupid?”
Or did they just not want to know.
We don’t know. But, I think then I started taking advantage of that. Really pulling the whole apart. And then I realized that I could get out, I could pull off this fantastic trick of just going into the city. I had friends that were working in the city, a bit older than me, and then — just attracted to the music. It was always the music.
Going into Virgin Records?
Or seeing some band playing at the town hall, when you go and hang out. Just trying to get close to the magic.
You meet Nick [Rhodes] around that time period —
The first concert I went to, I went to with Nick. He’s two years younger than me, so he’s a year younger than you. But he was pretty advanced. He had already been to concerts. He had a little bit more dough than me. He had a record collection, nice hi-fi. His parents both worked, they both had small businesses. So it was a little bit more fluid. Not that that’s really got anything to do with this, but he had an aesthetic already.
He had the look.
He was thinking about it. Maybe he thought about what he would put on on the weekend.
Do you think he got you more into fashion or the look at that point in time?
It was tremendously validating when you find somebody and go, “Oh, yeah. You want to do that, too.” He’s probably a bit more mature than me, actually. And probably always was. Nick’s more of a radical than me. He’s a rebel. I’ve seen him.
He’s not shy about it, either. Supremely confident.
Which I didn’t have, although I never really caught that until I left the band. It wasn’t until I left the band and went back and thought, “Whoa!”
Your relationship with Nick is far more complicated than it is with Simon [Le Bon]. Or any other member of the band. But you’re very close. You started Duran Duran together. You’ve been doing it together the longest, so it seems a far more complicated relationship than the other relationships you’ve had.
It’s probably the most complicated relationship that I have —
In your life. OK, welcome to my world. So yours and Nick’s relationship is pretty much like mine and Roland [Orzabal]’s. So you guys decide you’re going to have a band, and get an acoustic guitar. Break strings. Throw it in the closet.
As you do.
And then, “Anarchy in the U.K.” comes out.
Right. It’s painfully cliché but it’s true. I literally thought, “Where is that?” Because I’d gotten the guitar, but there was no follow-through. It sounds so dumb, but I never thought, “I think I got a set of those tuning pipes with the guitar.”
You don’t hear it. There were no digital tuners.
I was just like, “No.” I lost patience with it.
The music you were listening to was far more complicated pre–the Sex Pistols. You talked about the Who and Genesis and those kinds of people. So, to try and — from nothing — play that, is impossible.
That was the breakthrough that the Sex Pistols presented. There was just this avalanche of young music. The less you knew, the more equipped you were to take part in it. That was the gateway. And then, once I started: Playing music with someone is very intimate, isn’t it? And for it to be good, for me, there has to be real trust. Because I’m not a virtuoso, but I’m a very feeling kind of musician. If I’m there, I’m very present. And that, to me, is like having to stand in the spotlight and recite Shakespeare. It terrifies me a little bit. So I found that once I started playing, just hitting things with other people in unison, how much I liked that.
Being part of a group is important to you. The support. I get it. There are certain drummers that I play with and think, “This is a joy. He plays exactly how I play.” For you, you needed that camaraderie, it seems. And you had very different versions of the band initially. With Stephen Duffy and different people. And you sort of got the group together, but couldn’t find a lead guy. Then Simon came along. He was the frontman you were looking for.
We were desperate. We’d auditioned so many, been through so many. He looked the part. He spoke the part. He’s a smart cookie.
Simon knows how to disarm people.
He can be one of the most charming people. He’s also a poet. He really is. And maybe less now than he was then, but he was the real thing. He had poetic ideas that he’d committed to paper. And he was not afraid to find one and start to sing. My God, how hard is it to find people like that today? We know how hard it is to write lyrics. There’s no comparison. Any old fool can come up with a cool groove and a groovy progression these days. It’s the easiest thing under the sun. But coming up with a lyric that’s a little bit different, and conveys some kind of sense of something in an unusual way — I have a lot of respect for that because I can’t do that. You know what was beautiful about it? We didn’t look sideways for years, from the moment he stepped in. From the moment he started singing, everybody knew what their role was. And I think it really wasn’t until around the “Rio” remixes, trying to break America, required second guessing a little bit. You had to start playing the game a little bit. They want you to do a remix, but why? It’s perfect. And then the third album, which is like, “Fuck, now we’ve got to build on that?” And that was a really, really difficult album.
He disarmed me completely the first time I met him.
In a good way?
In a good way. Couldn’t be more charming. I’ll share this story with you, because I never have. I think I must have done some interview with Melody Maker or something. You know how British press loves to pit bands against bands? And they said, “What do you think of this band and this band.” And they got to Duran Duran, and I’m like, “I don’t really listen to pop music that much” — even though we were making pop music — “but I do love ‘Save a Prayer.’” And Simon came up to me at some charity event and said, “I’m Simon. I just want to tell you I love your music. I know you don’t appreciate ours that much, apart from ‘Save a Prayer,’ but I love you.” And that just had to disarm someone in a second. And this is before “Ordinary World,” which is my other favorite track. But I was so impressed with him the first time I met him, like, “What a nice guy.”
If we couldn’t appreciate those that don’t appreciate us, we’d have nobody left to appreciate.
That changed my opinion about a lot of things. Also, I wasn’t being derogatory. I was just saying, “I don’t really listen to that, but I do like that track.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever been through this, but we get beaten up quite a lot. We took quite a beating over the years. And, like the difficult third album, which I don’t think I’ve listened to in about 20 years, it was just remastered for premium vinyl. This was about a year ago. I actually played it. It was like popping out a vintage bottle of wine. I gave myself an hour. Put it on the turntable and listened to it start to finish and was like, “Pfft. Well, of course.” I was kind of knocked out. I went into the studio the next day. Roger [Taylor] and Simon were both there, and I said, “I listened to ‘Seven and the Ragged Tiger’ yesterday” and they were both like, “Really? What was it like?” That’s how we are.
Once we finish an album we rarely listen to it. You’ve spent so long making it.
And every bar you just hear some argument you’ve had. How many millions of decisions are made in the course of making an album?
The earlier albums are kind of easier ones. Our first one wasn’t.
Easier to make?
Easier in the sense that you kind of have a purpose, so you’re very sure of yourself. Our first record, we were very sure of ourselves. We fought tooth and nail, but we were together fighting tooth and nail for what we wanted. And then as business kind of takes over once you become successful, more people become involved. More people have a vested interest in you. You are earning money for a lot more people than just yourselves, so they’re going to put their two cents in.
It’s quite difficult to keep that spark going, isn’t it. The creative marriage, isn’t it? I took a sidestep with that album with Robert Palmer, which kind of gave them permission to do their side of things. And then when we came back there was three of us instead of five. Then we had that siege mentality, which actually gave us a fervor. Which, actually, was a good thing. It’s quite difficult, isn’t it? Well, you haven’t done it. When did you and Roland last write a song together?
You put out an album in 2005?
2004, I think it was. And that was us getting back together. Everyone who interviewed us when we did that album asked us, “Why?” And we said, “Unfinished business.” Which is exactly the same phrase you used when you reformed and did stuff. I don’t want to skate over that period, to be honest, and that’s up to you whether you want to discuss it. You obviously do because it’s in the book, but that kind of mania that comes with all that success: getting involved in too much drinking, too much drugs and all that kind of stuff. And the spiral it sends you into. To me, you seemed like a workaholic, and, to a certain extent, you still are. Do you remember all those things? Obviously, in the book, they seem like very clear memories.
They are surprisingly clear, actually. When we first met.
At a house party, I think. Robert Palmer was there, too. Wetherby Gardens, that kind of area, Kensington. I’m sure it was that neck of the woods.
I never delved into that much when I was—
I never delved into it that much when I was younger.
Not that much. Because I would go back to Bath.
But we connected, didn’t we? When we first met. We never became hangout chums, but we connected. I felt a connection.
Back then when you were with Amanda, at the restaurant on Sunset. When Frances and I walked in — you had known Frances, didn’t know we were together.
I remember some of it so clearly. I remember the first time I got a sense of an uneven playing field was when we started recording professionally, and I realized that the bass didn’t take a lot of time to get done.
You had downtime — you talk a lot about how you didn’t know what to do with your downtime.
I didn’t! I still don’t! I just call it “the off switch.” I didn’t have the off switch. And, as you say, it is a spiral. Because you start behaving in ways that you start feeling shame about.
There was the one mention of the time where you blacked out. It was in Germany after the Sugar Shack, and you woke up to the girl, who you were bonking at the time, tending to Roger. You threw a fit and broke your hand. That seemed like a poignant thing because they canceled a few dates, but then you had to do the dates in Portugal, where they had a stand-in bass player.
That was brutal. Brutal. I watched my band from the side of the stage.
Realizing you were replaceable, is what you said.
If there’s any scene in the book that I wanted to communicate to my guys how that felt, I wanted to put that in there.
That would freak me out. To have someone else replace you.
We wouldn’t do it now. Wouldn’t dream of it now.
It didn’t stop the downward spiral, it would appear.
God, getting into recovery. Going to meetings and getting on that whole recovery scene in L.A. My God, I couldn’t believe the amount of musicians. The amount of bands that were just up-and-coming bands that were in the studio recording their first album, and the singers been sent to rehab. It just became, by the 21st century, it became … it was nothing like that then. It wouldn’t have even been considered.
Look at the Rolling Stones. They’re still doing it for God’s sake. And still managing to survive. But, there was something in you. Obviously we’re skipping over a lot of Duran Duran being huge. But to me, it’s not quite as interesting a story as your personal story. Though you becoming huge was part and parcel of you going through that damn spiral. To me, the most interesting parts of the book are the beginning and the end. Because weirdly enough, for me, the middle, I kind of experienced. I know those highs: the demands put on you, which can tend to lead you into that downward spiral. You’re on tour incessantly. You’re not only on tour, it’s not just like you’re playing every night to do the morning drivetime show. Doing radio interviews. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. To me, beginning and end — all of that stuff I think is interesting reading for people other than me.
I think that’s because that’s what I really wanted to write about. I wanted to memorialize my parents, and I wanted to give testament to my recovery. But in order to write that, in order to get that published, I had to—
You had to tell the whole story. And I don’t think that people aren’t interested in the middle bit. Most people who read the book will be most interested in the middle bit.
To be fair to the ’80s, not that many people have written about it. How many memoirs have there been about the ’70s?
It was a decadent era.
Particularly the first few years of the ’80s — they were a really exciting time for popular culture. Music-driven pop culture that was coming out of Britain. It was there for us. There was such a great precedent, so many precedents had been set. So many bands. It just didn’t seem unattainable. It seemed that if you were focused and you had a vibe and you wanted it, you could make it happen. There was a lot of really—like you guys. You didn’t sound like anybody else when you came along. You had entirely your own aesthetic. And you moved the goal post. You did—however far. You stood up for something that was different. You rebelled against what was established at that point. And you couldn’t have imagined doing it any other way. You created some extremely commercial work, but you didn’t have a commercial philosophy. You were really quite dark, actually.
We were the shoe-gazers back then, with a pop aesthetic.
That’s how we rolled. None of us knew we were going to be become as pop. You are the product of your—we never sat down and said, “We’re going to be like this, we’re going to be like that.” This is what happened when these five guys came together. This is the sound that they made. Simon wrote the lyrics. I wrote the bass lines. Nick wrote the keyboard parts, and that’s what came out. I’m not quite sure what my point is—the point is, it was about expression. It was individual. And it was not about trying to be like anybody else.
I like the phrase “micromances.” The fact that you couldn’t settle down with anyone. You wanted to be in relationships, but then it fucked you up — you always wanted to be perceived as single. In a weird way it’s a business decision, or that was your rationalization of it. Because if anyone got too close to you they’d find out about everything you were doing.
Listen, you were the brawn in your band, weren’t you? You weren’t the brains? You were the cute one? And he was the brains, right? And over the years, people come to believe that shit, right? And I thought I was the cute one, and that’s all I was. It’s such a relief after you’ve had that for so many years. I couldn’t hold anybody’s hand in public for a long time. I couldn’t have that. Your guys, they all sought it out and they took it. And I was the last remaining. Caught between the idea of — actually, I don’t know if I ever thought it was cool. It just felt dysfunctional.
When you actually ended up going to rehab, it seemed like you really needed to be smacked around the head with a two-by-four to actually get you there. You went on a bender — and you had Amanda and a child at home — and didn’t get back until 10 a.m.
That was my bottoming out. I came to. I booked a flight to L.A. on Friday night. I went out with [artist] Nick Egan and Michael Hutchence [of INXS]. We went to the Sunset Marquis, and I got completely fucked up.
Oh, really? That’s not in the book.
Mike went to bed way before me. And, there but for the grace of God go I.
Later, you go to a Buddakan gig with Duran, and you went through a particularly difficult night and you couldn’t find anyone. There’s no AA in Osaka, of course.
I was driven to my knees!
And there was no one you could find, and you decided to rediscover God. And you’re probably of the same belief as I am —accepting that there’s a higher power. That things happen for a reason. The power that gave you to do it on your own that one night, was that a big, big deal for you? Because it seemed like it. It was the first time where you did it on your own.
It was approaching the universe with humility and genuine authenticity. And I’ve just gotten enough conditioning. The education that I got in that 30-day program was as good as any four-year university course anywhere. It was the most mind-expanding: Leaps of faith are required every step of the way.
No judgment, that’s a big thing.
The first thing is: It wasn’t your fault. It’s like, “What do you mean? It wasn’t because I’m an idiot?”
Because you went through the self—
But we do think that. That’s a stereotype isn’t it? The guy who’s, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I still up?” I always think of the John Lennon song, “I’m So Tired”: “I’m such a stupid git.” Everybody else has gone to bed and he’s still having one more drink. Just, “What’s wrong with me?” He was a bit of the alcoholic, too. But that was tremendous. Like, “OK, put that self-judgment aside.” Like being diagnosed with diabetes or something. It’s like, “OK, actually, the reason why is because—” And you know what? Whether it’s true or not is unimportant. It’s whether you believe it or not is what’s important. That’s true of faith healing, isn’t it? Because I thought, all right, I’m going to go with this. “Fake it until you make it.” It’s one of the great recovery phases. If you want to sit there and go, “This is bullshit.” They’ll say, “You’re welcome to have your misery back.” And all that kind of thing. The timing was just perfect for me. And the fourth circle of it is, I find myself, just like my mother, dragging my own ass to church almost every day. Not to church, but to my program. Meetings in my program. And I don’t have to justify it to anybody. I don’t have to explain my concept of my higher power to anybody, which my mother never would do. I remember getting very frustrated with my mother as a teenager. “What do you mean? What is God, Mom?” And she was like, “I don’t have to explain myself.”
I’m very happy for you, that you’ve found that. It was incredibly poignant, the amount of thankfulness you had expressed, that you were sober and completely together when your mother passed. That you could experience it.
Debts were paid, and one was entirely present. It’s such a delicate procedure, isn’t it? Losing one’s parents. I know so many people that go on to have regret because things weren’t quite the way they’d like them to have been. And it just came in time. When something as profound as that happens to you, I really feel like I was dragged from a burning building. When you’ve had a near-death experience like that. If you can’t have faith after that? You know, faith in like, “The universe is on my side. The universe wants me here. Wants me sitting here right now.” Why wouldn’t it, really? But we go through a lot of shit over the years, don’t we? I don’t know how much you’ve been down the road of guilt and self-doubt and whatever, but I’ve been down that.
Oh, God, I have a very heightened sense of self-loathing, but that comes with the territory a lot of the time. I think anyone who can do what we do for a living has a heightened sense of self-loathing. Otherwise you wouldn’t strive to be better. I’ve been through therapy and different things where I had to work out what drove me.
I don’t think it’s about being better anymore.
It’s about being happier. You did a solo tour and played to eight people in Florida or wherever it was, but you were completely content. I found that in New York, when I had left the band for a long time. Hadn’t played for years, and met this guy Charlton who now plays with us. Formed a band and went and played in clubs. Not under my name, but under a band name, and suddenly realized, “God, I love this.” Because it’s not business anymore. It’s what I’m meant to do.
It can take it out of you. It can take the joy out of it.
Business can easily kick all the fun out. The more successful you become, the more fun it gets rid of. It’s stressful. You have to earn a certain amount of money for different people. Do you ever think you want to form another band?
Part of me just wants to do nothing. When you’ve really, to get your creativity up, you kind of do need to get bored sometimes. You need to get lonely. You need to get angry.
You got to get yourself to a position where you really want to do it again.
This is the worst place to be a workaholic, in Los Angeles. I think it’s the workaholic capital of the world.
I don’t know. The whole thing about L.A. is you can easily lock yourself away. We all have places with gates. We don’t see neighbors.
I’m quite social here, though.
We’re not. Our kids are younger. It’s kind of different. We spend our time with the kids because they’re young. Our nanny works in the day, never in the evening. So, from 6, we take over. Our job is the kids. Do you have any regrets?
No. I am very, duly cliche about that. If you feel good about where you are right now, you feel good about your ass in your pants—
You have exactly the same answer as I do.
But I believe that, though.
My answer always is: Am I content where I am now? If I am, then if I hadn’t gone on that journey, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be somewhere else.
Exactly. It’s trite, but it works. I used to read a lot of biographies, and nobody that’s had a life has a perfect life. Everybody fucking makes mistakes. The only fuckers that never made a bad album were the Beatles.
But they went through hard times—
“Yellow Submarine.” Maybe in another 10 years we’ll start picking at their catalog. And we’ll go, “Yeah, but you know what, maybe ‘Beatles for Sale’ wasn’t all that.”
But I’m not talking about the music. I’m talking about life choices. Then again, my answer is still the same. Without going on that particular path, I wouldn’t be where I am. So it is what it is.
It’s a nice philosophy to have, actually. It’s kind of self-perpetuating. You have no regrets, so it leads you to believe more in where you are right now. You feel good about where you are right now.
This is where you’re supposed to be. Then the rest is the path to get here, so you can’t feel bad about it. I can’t feel bad about it.
Curt Smith is co-founder of the multi-platinum British music group Tears For Fears, and an acclaimed solo musician. In 2011 re-released his long out-of-print album Mayfield, adding a bonus version of “Trees” (feat. Janice Whaley) to the album’s original tracklist. Smith writes music for film, television and the web, most recently scoring the independent feature "Meth Head," and regularly speaks at creative, media and technology events including TEDxHollywood, TEDxSan Francisco, the Billboard Film & TV Music Conference, the USC Annenberg Online Communities program and the UCLA Gravity Summit conference. Follow him: @curtsmith and www.curtsmithofficial.com More Curt Smith.