Interview: Duran Duran Bassist John Taylor Talks About The Band's Biggest Hits
When people look at the pop culture of the ‘80s and the early ‘80s, Duran Duran looms just as large as John Hughes films and neon clothing. Thirty years ago, the band from Birmingham, England, had had MTV on lock with their smash hit “Hungry Like The Wolf.” The band still plays to packed houses around the world, and just released a new live DVD Diamond In the Mind, which dropped last week.
”We went through a phase where we wanted to distance ourselves from the history,” said Duran Duran bassist John Taylor when we caught up with him for an interview. “It also felt like history wanted to distance ourselves from our history. But it sort feels like the way the culture is today. It’s like everything is happening all at once. And that seems to kind of benefit us, but at the same time, we constantly have to do things. We just can’t all go to bed for a year and expect the name to stay in the public eye. We have to keep doing things to activate it.”
On that note, we asked him to talk about Duran Duran's legacy and break down the stories behind some of their signature hits. “It’s kind of like… you are sort of curating your history, your legacy, you know?" Yes we do.
Interview by Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo)
“Girls On Film” (1981)
Album: Duran Duran
John Taylor: “‘Girls On Film’ was one of the first songs we ever wrote. I suppose it went through a lot of different… when the band was getting started we had three singers over a 12-month period. And every time we would bring a new singer we would say, ‘Well, we got this riff. “Girls on film,” you know?’ But, like, you can do whatever you like with the rest of the song. Make sure you sing this when you get to the chorus. And we re-wrote it every time. Even when Simon joined, he re-wrote it. Then we rearranged it. It was just one of those things where we knew he had this chorus hook that was strong. I mean, it was dumb. It was one of those phrases—people have written books about them. And they called books after it. How many times has Vogue used it for a headline? We did somewhat of a seditious video for it which got us a lot of notoriety. We were getting a lot of play in the American clubs in the early ’80s. A lot of them had big video screens [and we thought] ‘if we make a sort of dance version of the track like an extended dance mix...’ We did kind of a sleazy, slightly porno video. It was kind of contrived. I think our manager saw the opportunity. I think it’s really useful for an artist to have someone working with them that can see the picture. I mean, I could never manage myself. We had a good manager who could see the opportunity. And we were like, ‘Why not?’”
“Planet Earth” (1981)
Album: Duran Duran
John Taylor: “‘Planet Earth’ for me, I call it funky punk. I was really a punk rocker. Then I discovered disco. When I discovered disco, I didn’t want to be a guitar player in a punk band. I wanted to be a postman in a funk band. But, I was a punk and I never was going to be able to play like Chic. So ‘Planet Earth’ for me, as a bass player, was an expression of sort of my punky aspiration to be danceable to have that disco thing going on. Everybody layered on top of that and everybody expressed themselves. The guitar player did his thing and Nick did his thing and Simon did his thing. You couldn’t want for a better day for a single then a song that goes, ‘This is planet Earth.’ It’s a fanfare. It’s like, ‘Planet Earth, meet Duran Duran. Duran Duran, meet planet Earth.’ It’s one of those, ‘all are welcome’ [songs].”
“Hungry Like the Wolf” (1982)
John Taylor: “‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ was a very easy song to write. That whole album—we didn’t have to try too hard. We didn’t have to try at all, actually. There’s a time, when you are lucky enough, when your talent will sort of intersect perfectly with what’s going on. You are just perfectly poised to sort of express the moment. We were definitely in that place on Rio. We were there for the first couple of albums. And everything we did was right. That was an expression of who we all were. You had five kids that were all grown up and incredibly passionate about music. We came together with a great focus and that album was a perfect expression of what we all wanted Duran Duran to be. It was very much a group expression but everybody else was expressing themselves quite individually as well.There’s a lot of energy on that record.”
“[That song came about] on a Saturday afternoon. We were demoing some songs in EMI’s demo studio. We had some time in there. I think Nick [Rhodes] kind of had a [keyboard] sequence in line and Andy [Taylor] had a [guitar] riff and [lead singer] Simon [Le Bon] had a phrase. And I came in and I started playing bass. [Drummer] Roger [Taylor] came in. The song was written in an afternoon. And what’s the song lyrically about? I don’t really know. What do you think its about? Simon likes animal metaphors. I think it was kind of like… To me, it was like wanting to have sex with someone.
“There’s an originality. There’s a expression to the expression. Having spent so many years subsequently trying to achieve that level of inspiration, all I can say is that when you have it, it’s just like the universe being aligned. You can’t really explain it. It’s just about energies being in harmony and everybody being inspired. So everybody is playing the best that they can play and everybody’s drawing on what they know to do—something that is the best that they can do. And Simon was drawing on his interests in poetry or the singers and lyricists that he liked and that was the phrase that came out. I don’t think he plotted it out. I don’t think it’s considered an intellectual thing. We were looking to write hooks, but you know, hooks need some kind of substance.
John Taylor: “We are working on the move. We are touring. We got this lick. We got this bass line. We got some chords. We just know it’s got something. That one we had to bang away for a while. Kind of like ‘Girls On Film,’ it was like a chord progression that we had and we kept changing the arrangements. But I think what’s really great about ‘Rio’ is it’s really kind of an very ambitious arrangement. When I listen to a lot of contemporary pop or even if we want to call it progressive pop, I think ‘Rio’ has got a really powerful arrangement. It’s a long track, it shifts gears a number of times. There aren’t any time signature changes or anything but it’s a journey, that song.
“We had a lot of confidence when we were working on that album. And then I mentioned the video, the songs themselves, if they hadn’t been made into videos, who know? But then we made a video for ‘Rio’ on a boat in Antigua and then it becomes an icon. You can’t predict this shit, man. We all went out to Antigua to take a vacation. We were in between tours. We just finished up the tour of America. We went down to Antigua for a vacation, and we were just about to the leave, and the manager calls us up and says, ‘Don’t go anywhere. I am coming down with film crew. We are going to make a video down there.’ OK. ‘We are going to do it on a boat. We are going to do it on a yacht.’ I think Simon was the only band member who has been on a yacht at that point. It was a vision. The filmmaker, Russell Mulcahy, he had real vision. The [whole idea of the] landmark music video is really just getting started. It was so much to do. You could do anything.”
“Union of the Snake” (1983)
Album: Seven And The Ragged Tiger
John Taylor: “That song wasn’t entirely successful for me. It didn’t quite make it that one for me. You know, we were expecting a number one. But you get a number three and you’re like, Shit! We are on our way down. Not everything hits. I don’t know—we could talk in a couple years and I could tell you that it’s my favorite song of that era, but at the moment it’s not. We play ‘The Reflex’ every night. We are really digging it. I think that song works on many levels. It’s a great arrangement. It’s got an terrific groove and it’s got a really interesting lyric. ‘Union Of The Snake’ to me doesn’t have the same buzz to it. It’s personal. Everybody has a different take on it.
“The Reflex” (1984)
Album: Seven And The Ragged Tiger
John Taylor: “It was a difficult album. The third album was difficult because we stressed having to pace ourselves. We had a lot of hits. The vultures were circling. They are expecting you to lose it. We changed our producer for the third album. We started that album in France and we couldn’t get our groove on. From there, we went to the West Indies to a studio. I lived in Montserrat. Actually, that track—it was my birthday. It was June. That’s when we came up with the groove. It was that song. I mean typically we write from sort of the tempo up. We liked to jam. We sort of came up with a groove that we liked. Simon, he’s just in there man. He’s just wailing away just like everybody else is. Just trying to find a few words that he likes. That he likes the melody. That he likes the phrasing. And you know, he had a very distinct style as a lyricist in the early 80s. He was quite unusual.
“We were talking about ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’—what was ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ about? Well, I really don’t know. I just assume that it was about meeting girls. And ‘The Reflex,’ that’s even darker, really, as a subject. It immediately asks the question to the listener I think in a way that is interesting. When you hear that song you think, ‘What’s that about?’ It sort of draws you in. It doesn’t give away much of itself. Maybe that’s a sort of early ‘80s kind of style. Lyrics were quite oblique in that day. I think Simon was a real pioneer of that kind. It’s quite a paranoid song, actually.”
“Wild Boys” (1984)
John Taylor: “‘Wild Boys’ was the first time we wrote a song with a visual project in mind. Our director, Russell Mulcahy, he made all of the videos—‘Planet Earth’ and ‘The Reflex,’ and ‘Hungry Like The Wolf.’ He was going to make a film off of William Burroughs’ book, The Wild Boys. So we said, ‘Great. We want to write the theme song.’ So Russell went to do production on the film and we went to the studio with Nile Rodgers and we wrote the song. And then the deal fell through for the film. We decided to take all of the work, all of the design, and the planning. Costumes and the set and just put it into a seriously over-the-top video.”
John Taylor: “We have to thank “Nile Rodgers” for that. I think we have to thank Prince because Prince was into the minor sevens and Nile was giving us a tutorial on basic funk guitar. Out of that, that song was born. And yeah, that’s been a huge song for us.”
“White Lines” (1995)
Album: Thank You
John Taylor: “I just always loved the song. I just thought we could do a really killer version of it. I don’t know if you know the history of that. But you know, Grandmaster Flash, they stole that bassline from Liquid Liquid. This sort of alternative New York band. I think it was Mark Rosenberg who turned me on to the original. When I heard the original, I couldn’t believe it. So that was the bassline that started for a young New York band. It kind of got lifted by Sugarhill Records. And then we took it. It’s just a great track. We toured with Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel and it was just a real high point. And radio at that time, nobody wanted to know. “You can’t do this. You can’t have rappers. What are you? Are you rock or are you rap?” The timing was so wrong for that cut, but I loved the video for that track. It’s one of those songs—and people just go crazy for it.”
Duran Duran’s Influence On Fashion And Films
John Taylor: “By the late ‘80s, everybody said we were shit. Everything that we did was shit. Personally, it was a rough time. We thought: ‘Is that it? Is it all over?’ You just keep doing it. Keep doing it. You just keep rolling it out. The inner me in England that kind of liberal music magazine as kid I just loved—they hated Duran Duran from day one. They never said one good thing about us. And then like two months ago, they said ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ was like the best song ever written. [Laughs.] It was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’It was just like this little ship, but that’s what we are learning now.”
Playing Coachella 2011
John Taylor: “That was a great show for us. I really wanted to be a part of Coachella. I just watched my kids go year after year after year. [Laughs.] That was one of those beautiful nights. The sun was just setting on the horizon and moon was above. It was a beautiful, beautiful night.”
Duran Duran’s New Songs Compared To The Old Ones
John Taylor: “I work with people sometimes and they wait for the magic to happen. They wait around until [they ask] How do you guys do it? We have a really extraordinary closeness today. We really have a great chemistry between us. Our energy. I don’t know whether we are going to sort of tap into the zeitgeist in the way that songs from that era appeared to.
“I’m 52. I think I spent my whole 30s trying to distance myself from what I did in my 20s. Thinking we got to find some new way to represent ourselves. Becoming constant with all that you’ve done and all that you are, you know, and this is moving forward. We are going to write another album. We are going to get in the studio in the new year. We are going to write another album. And you know what? Maybe, fucking, we will write another song that has a powerful impact in music. Or maybe we won’t. At least if we show up in the studio together and actually do it and there’s a good affinity with each other then we got a chance. If you don’t show up to your typewriter, there’s no chance you are ever going to write anything.”
Duran Duran’s Legacy in 2012
John Taylor: “I think it’s what keeps us touring. We spend a lot of time on the road. It’s a real commitment that you’re making when you’re a touring musician because you are away from your home and you’re away from your loved ones. You have to create this … but that feeling when you walk out on stage and you see those faces. These are people that have been following us for 30 years and they really care. We can go to Istanbul and we can go anywhere. There’s going to be thousands of people waiting to tell us how much they love us and how significant we have been to them in their lives. That’s a pretty profound gift to have been given. Whatever we put into it, and I think really we have just been pouring our own passion.
“I don’t know what makes us different from everybody else. But I know how passionate I was as a kid. And having kids now, I got kids but sort of in their late teens. I see my nephews and I see them try to focus their passion and figure out what they really want to do. I know when I was 17, I knew what I wanted to do. I really knew what I wanted to do. Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger, they knew what they wanted to do too. When you got five kids with that teenage energy, just everybody out of school and just busting to go and all focused on a career, that’s possible. If you are lucky enough to hook up with a guy that wants to manage you and put a little bit of money into you and allows you the luxury to being able to work on what you want to do... We had the passion. We made the connections. But again, I really believe in that. I tell kids the same things—focus on your passion and go for it. The world doesn’t need a bunch of people doing shit they don’t care about. I guess that’s why we’ve been awarded because we focused on that passion and we really went for it. And now people love us for staying together.”
“Now I can be entirely philosophical about it because we’ve been playing this game for a long time. But thank God—I don’t think I would want to go back to the beginning. Sometimes I miss the early years. The adventure of the early years, you know, when you’re going to America to the first time. Going to New York for the first time. California. Going to Australia or Japan for the first time and really being on your game and everybody working together and there aren’t any doubts. But perhaps saying for a guy that is happily married that has three kids who are all doing OK. I got a great life. And my buddies in Japan all have good lives too. Whenever we get in touch today, it’s good.
Courtesy Complex Magazine