Duran Duran on Being Snubbed by Dylan, Riding Rutting Elephants in Sri Lanka and Wearing Pink Trousers

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From their first ever gig to reuniting and playing stadiums, it’s certainly been a colourful career for Duran Duran. Ahead of new album Paper Gods, they talk through five key moments


Artists of a certain vintage, when they have a new record to promote, will often answer questions about their past only with a certain heavy-hearted reluctance. Duran Duran, however, have long since passed that awkward stage of denial, and the evidence is all over their 14th studio album. Paper Gods comes wrapped in a collage that includes the Patrick Nagel lips from the Rio sleeve, cut-outs of a sumo wrestler, a champagne glass and a silhouette of a stripper to represent the Girls on Film video, and a tiger (albeit a non-ragged one).

Watching the dynamic between the four is fascinating. Each member has his assigned role. Keyboardist Nick Rhodes is the funny one. Drummer Roger Taylor is the quiet one. Bassist John Taylor is the thoughtful one. And Simon Le Bon? Simon Le Bon is the late one, making his entrance after the rest of the band have already got started, in the way lead singers do.

16 July 1980: The first gig with the classic line-up of Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor, Taylor and Taylor at the Rum Runner in Birmingham

Roger Taylor: To make money, we all had jobs around the Rum Runner, and that week my job was painting the entrance off Broad Street. I was the first to come into contact with Simon as he strutted down the little alleyway. He had this natural frontman arrogance.

Nick Rhodes: He looked the part. He had the now quite well-known pink leopardskin trousers on.

John Taylor: He argues with that …

NR: That’s because he has more of a propensity for beige than he used to have.

JT: He’s got a physicality, Simon. He’s tall, well-built, and we always say he’s got a noble countenance. That’s the French in him, perhaps. That pin-up thing. He felt like a leading man. He had that confidence.

NR: Also his name was Le Bon, and we were all discussing it: “That can’t be his real name, surely!” At this point, we had three Taylors.

JT: He’d had a very different experience from the rest of us. He’d been pushed into that showbiz life. He’d been in a West End production of Oliver Twist, he’d been on TV, he’d been in the choir …

NR: Also, he had a notebook full of lyrics, which we hadn’t mastered. Then he started singing, and it was like: “Oh wow, he’s got a really distinctive voice.” We didn’t know what we were looking for, vocally, but we knew we wanted someone unique.

JT: One thing I remember from this time was a conversation with George O’Dowd [Boy George] in Hawkins wine bar, and him asking: “Duran Duran? Are they still going?” We’d already been knocking around for two years, which is a long time when you’re a teenager. So there was definitely a feeling of completeness when Simon stepped in. We’d already cast the net wide to find a guitar player.

NR: When Andy [Taylor, guitarist] came down from Newcastle, we told him we had a singer, but that wasn’t specifically true. The singer was … pending.

Simon Le Bon: My girlfriend Fiona and me, we went up to Birmingham, but we split up. She got a job at the Rum Runner behind the bar. And I got a call from her. She told me there was a band looking for a singer, and I should go for it. So I did. They weren’t what I was expecting at all. I expected punk rockers, and would have gone along with that, ’cos I was post-punk myself. But I wasn’t expecting the ambition they had. I DJed the Rum Runner every Tuesday, but it was really interesting every night.

RT: Sunday was a little uncool, wasn’t it?

NR: Sunday was the townies.

JT: Spot the soccer player. But Friday and Saturday was pretty much what you’d hear on Tuesday, as well.

NR: Well, I took over! Because Tuesday became so popular, with the “new vision” music we were playing, which was all about Bowie and Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, mixed in with the Sex Pistols. I used to play Pretty Vacant next to Trans-Europe Express.

JT: Pretty Vacant was like a golden oldie at that point. It’s funny how that works …

NR: The crowd was very colourful, fun and expressive. It was like fantasy-world, really. If you made a Hollywood movie and they tried to cast it, however quirky they tried to make it, it would never touch what it really was.

RT: Everybody was looking for something after punk, because everybody went to Barbarella’s, which was a punk stronghold, but the Rum Runner was the next scene.

JT: For the poseurs.

NR: But it was much edgier in Birmingham. When we came to London we finally went to the Blitz, and we thought, “This is it?” Because it was all so manicured and nice. Birmingham was more real and less cliquey.

SLB: As someone who came from London to Birmingham, I found it more welcoming, and less exclusive. You just had to have the right attitude, and to try. I remember when Spandau Ballet came up to play at the Botanic Gardens, we saw Boy George in the flesh for the first time, and he was dressed as a Chinese girl. It was like: “Wow, so that’s what they do down there.” There’s a difference between street fashion and costume, and the London scene was much more about costume. Fancy dress. People were going to theatrical costumiers to get their gear, whereas we were hand-making everything.

JT: Because there were no theatrical costumiers in Birmingham

SLB: Except at Birmingham University, in the drama department, where I was working!

JT: The owners of the Rum Runner – Paul and Michael Berrow, who managed us – had gone to New York to Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, and came back with a vision to bring that to Birmingham. And the look of the Rum Runner, with the mirror tiles and the neon, was a big part of that.

RT: And a set of barrels from smuggler days, hence the name Rum Runner.

JT: The punk scene made everything very localised, and you never needed to look over your shoulder at London. Yes, we’d go and see the Clash when they came around, and the Ramones, but by that point, 1978, it was almost more interesting watching local bands. Because you’d notice these incremental changes: “Oh look, they’ve bought a synthesiser.”

NR: Fashion were a very underrated band. Being in Birmingham and seeing them develop was important. And I remember going to see Dada, one of John’s early bands, and being most impressed that the keyboard player had his keyboard on an ironing board.

RT: I remember going to see Duran Duran! I was in the audience at Barbarella’s. They were supporting Fashion, but I was much more interested in what Duran were doing.

NR: That was our last gig with Stephen Duffy on vocals.

RT: And I just thought: “This is going to be the next band that breaks out of Birmingham.” Dexys had broken out, UB40 had broken out, and Duran Duran were next. And through the grapevine, I got a message to go and play with them.

NR: We were going down really well with audiences. We had this very fashion-conscious crowd. Only a few hundred people, but we’d built it up from 40 to 50. There was also a sense that we belonged to an audience. Afterwards, we would all have a drink with them and say: “Was it OK? Did it sound all right?” We were “of” that scene. We were their house band. The trouble was, we used to be known in Birmingham as the band who changed their singer every time they played a show!

JT: That was too long a name.

NR: Boom-boom. But once we’d settled in with Simon, the following really started to consolidate. We went onstage at that first gig to Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret. Bands using Nazi imagery was intended as sort of anti-establishment, wasn’t it? But I don’t think anybody really thought, as teenagers, about the implications. It was trying to shock the generation that went before, with all the McLaren-Westwood Seditionaries stuff.

JT: That’s a delicate issue. It was aimed at parents who had fought in the war, their obsession, and their involvement. The wider implication became known later on. We didn’t have that level of awareness. Going onstage to that song is something that you would never do today.

NR: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band had covered it. We’d seen them do that live.

RT: We were thinking “Berlin, Cabaret,” all that stuff, but we hadn’t really thought it through.

JT: It was a mis-step. Let’s call it what it was.

RT: It was a tough audience that night, actually, because everybody thought they were cooler than we were. Everybody had their own thing, their own look.

SLB: There was this feeling of: “All right, let’s see them make assholes of themselves. What makes them think they’re special?” But we had a corps of 20 people at the front who were crazy for us. They were our supporters, and we were their band.

NR: Playing at the Rum Runner was a touchstone, a key moment for us. Most of the songs we played ended up on the first album, and Rio was in the set but it was called Ami a Go Go at the time. And Night Boat.

JT: We were building a set that had a beginning, a middle and an end, like writing a play. And you don’t expect people to go crazy, because they don’t know the material. But nobody threw anything. So it was like: “When can we do it again?”

April 1982: Duran Duran go to Sri Lanka with director Russell Mulcahy to shoot the videos that set them up for international success – Hungry Like the Wolf and Save a Prayer

NR: We’d worked with Russell Mulcahy on Planet Earth, done in an afternoon in St John’s Wood. And afterwards we said: “Wow! That came out of that little shoot?” We’d also worked with Godley & Creme on Girls On Film, which was a good experience, but we wanted to go to Sri Lanka with Russell because he had this broad, cinematic vision.

SLB: Sri Lanka was probably Paul’s [Berrow, co-manager] idea, because he was a bit of a globetrotter, an Indiana Jones. He’d been to Peru, visited Machu Picchu …

NR: I think we got the bills, didn’t we? But Sri Lanka was unbelievably cost-effective. I know the videos look as if we spent a lot of money, but it was only 20 grand.

JT: We had no sense of what video was. We were students of the game in every other respect, and knew where we wanted to play when we got to New York, knew what we wanted on the covers of our albums, knew what we wanted in our dressing-room rider, but video was a completely new thing and we just went with the flow.

SLB: We were riding a wave, weren’t we? So you stay on the wave for as long as you can.

NR: We thought we were doing it for MTV, Countdown in Australia, and maybe, if it was a big enough hit, Top of the Pops might show 30 seconds. And that was it. Then you move on to the next one, and no one would ever see it again. Nothing existed like the internet. Even with VHS, people probably wouldn’t bother recording it. As far as we were concerned, they were ephemeral, gone!

JT: But MTV were looking for big production values. Which led us to those locations.

RT: It was a mindblowing trip. I’d been abroad maybe once before that.

NR: Arriving there was surreal. I’d been listening to the Rio album on cassette all the way, thinking, “I know I’ve done something wrong …”, and I got off the plane dressed head-to-toe in leather. And it was so ridiculously hot and sweaty. So I’m looking around for the limo driver, and this Indian guy starts waving at me, “Over here!” And I’m thinking, 20 minutes to the hotel, I can get changed and it’ll all be fine. We get to the car – and it’s a flat-bed truck. I said, “How long is the journey?”, and he said, “Five hours.” Five hours! To go 60 miles. So I’m sitting there in leather and by the time we got there I was virtually hallucinating. Then on my way up to the room I walked past an elephant. That was my introduction to Sri Lanka.

SLB: We were riding the elephants for the video. One of the guys who look after them brought this female elephant into the clearing. And it did a little girly trumpet, and the male elephant Roger was sitting on went charging off to climb on the female, with Roger still on it.

RT: I think it was the mating season.

NR: It’s Roger’s claim to fame.

SLB: Did it actually make entry?

RT: I think they stopped it before it went that far.

SLB: And John got soaked by another one. It was the elephant’s party trick.

JT: That was the most fun, actually. But making videos was not my milieu, at all.

SLB: It put me right in my element, though.

NR: You like water and boats.

SLB: Well, it gave me a chance to play a role. It was a great chance to do what I’d been doing for the past 15 years, which was acting.

JT: Then Andy fell off a tree into a lagoon and got poisoned.

JT: We heard about that for a long time afterwards. That was one of Andy’s favourite resentments: “Oh, that fuckin’ island …”

NR: I don’t know, I never used to listen to him.
13 July 1985: Live Aid, JFK Stadium, Philadelphia. Despite splitting into “supergroups” Arcadia and the Power Station, Duran come together for one last show – their last with the classic lineup for nearly two decades.

Duran Duran at Live Aid, Philadelphia, 1985.

JT: Waiter! Double whisky, please, if we’re gonna get through this one.NR: It all fell apart after we’d made A View to a Kill, which was complicated and done at different periods. The label demanded another one and another one, and everyone was feeling the pressure of five years of not having time to blink. And we were pulling in different directions. Andy and John really did want things to go edgier and a little more rock, and Simon and I didn’t fancy that and were going more towards esoteric art-based stuff. And Rodge was, as always, caught in the middle.

RT: I always think of two boats going like that [makes diverging gesture], and I’ve got one leg on one and one leg on the other and I’m going: “Aaaargh!”, thinking that if I squeeze my legs I can keep it together. Like I’ve got elastic bollocks.

SLB: But I remember it was really nice to see you guys [John and Andy] at rehearsals for Live Aid. I felt a real warmth from you both and there wasn’t any animosity.

JT: I already knew the Power Station was at a dead end. So I was quite happy to be in Duran Duran for a day.

SLB: We wanted to do London! But Bob Geldof said: “We need someone big to do the American show.” Just to help get people on board.

NR: Also, we couldn’t do London because the Power Station were on tour in America, which was disappointing.

SLB: Bob made you feel you were doing something that could actually change the world.

NR: It was such an audacious thing on Bob’s part. It was so brilliant that he actually thought “I’m gonna make this happen.” You wanted to be part of it immediately. Bob’s very persuasive.

SLB: There was a great sense of wonder, and a naivete, and a willingness on everybody’s part to do whatever it took. The atmosphere backstage was amazing. But I do remember being told to shut up when we were doing line checks. Stephen Stills pulled back the curtain and shouted: “Will you guys shut the fuck up?”

NR: Mick Jagger introduced me to Bob Dylan, and I thought, “Wow, Bob Dylan!”, but he just sort of walked past. And bashed his nose on the wall.

RT: I remember being at a party with Tina Turner in Mick’s room until the early hours.

JT: The one person we didn’t see was Madonna.

NR: She was shut away behind her caravan window and didn’t come out.

JT: The Power Station played earlier. We had technical problems, and my feet didn’t touch the ground for the whole 12 minutes. You were so caught up in the frenzy of how many million people were watching. Actually it was quite steadying, because by the time Duran went on, I’d kind of settled.

SLB: I envied that. John said: “It’s quite rough out there but we’re gonna be OK.” I was so nervous, for the entire time we were onstage.

NR: I thought it went pretty well, considering. It was difficult for all acts, but we have a lot of technology, and we didn’t have in-ear monitoring, so I was almost rigid with fear. Because I couldn’t hear anything at all of the sound, and I was turning round looking at Roger to see where we were.

SLB: We can talk about the bum note [during A View to a Kill]. At the time, I was horrified by it. But now, I don’t give a fuck, to be honest. It’s a bum note. People hit them. The reason it happened is that it was in a very high key. We’d rehearsed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all day, and so my voice was shot to pieces by the Saturday. And so, “The fatal kiss is all we neeeeeeed …”

NR: It was also the first time we’d ever played View To A Kill live. It was No 1 worldwide at that time, but we hadn’t been gigging.

JT: You know, it’s funny, but that note has cast a shadow over the whole performance, which is unfair.

RT: Afterwards, there was just a sense of relief that we’d got through it and come out the other end. Because so much was made of the amount of people who were watching. A billion, or something mad like that.

SLB: It was the most people who had ever all watched one thing.

NR: More people than had ever eaten a McDonald’s burger.

JT: But even by the end of that year, we were talking about getting back together. It wasn’t: “They walked off stage at Live Aid – and the music DIED.”

NR: Within four or five months, we were making demos for Notorious. Three of us, anyway. We named them all after Hitchcock movies.

1 December 1992: The worldwide hit Ordinary World reverses years of declining fortunes. The single is widely taken as an expression of acceptance at their own fall from superstardom.

SLB: Explaining your lyrics is a mistake, because that can destroy everybody’s own interpretation. What I would say is, that’s part of it. It’s as valid an interpretation of Ordinary World as I’ve ever heard. I’m guessing we’d all thought about calling it a day. But the great thing about being in a band is that you might be having your day when you feel like quitting, but at least two other people aren’t.

JT: I actually think that when the three of us knew Roger and Andy weren’t going to be a part of it, we became very determined. I didn’t feel like there was any thought of quitting.

SLB: But there were times when I got despondent. I remember sitting there thinking: “Wow, this is the slow decline now. And it’s not going to stop.”

NR: It was a funny time, because the 80s had ended and people were ready to lock us up and throw away the key. Grunge had started to happen, and crazy dance music. But we didn’t want to jump on a rave bandwagon and certainly didn’t want to jump on a grunge bandwagon. There wasn’t a lot of space left for us. So we decided that the only voice we had was our songs, and we went away, and we wrote and wrote.

JT: We were on a very short leash at this point. We made The Wedding Album in Battersea in a terraced house that Simon bought, in Octavia Street.

SLB: Semi-detached, actually.

JT: And we put a digital recording desk in the living room. We had to dig deep, go back to basics. After having been at Air Studios, and in Montserrat …

NR: Suddenly we’re in a living room in Battersea.

RT: Ordinary World was great because all the merit was in the song. I remember Simon sent me the demos, and I thought: “Fuck, that’s the song that’s gonna do it for them.”

NR: I think that song connects with people emotionally. And if you can do that, you’re really on to something.

22 May, 2005: St Andrew’s Stadium, Birmingham. After reuniting for a successful tour and the acclaimed Astronaut album, they make a triumphant homecoming

SLB: Was the reunion the card up our sleeve, or the elephant in the room? We’d had managers who were desperate for it.

NR: Return To Rio! Bat Out Of Rio!

SLB: Escape From Rio!

NR: Almost since the day we split, we got: “When are you guys gonna get back together?” But none of us thought it was gonna happen. Roger had moved away from the business completely.

RT: But by this point I was ready. It was an alignment of the stars. I was getting back into music.

SLB: And Warren had crossed the Rubicon. He had a temper tantrum after a show in San Diego, and we had to leave the dressing room because it was so bad. Nick and I looked at each other and said: “We should think about a reunion.” The next day, I went to see John at his house.

NR: It was a challenge, to see if we could pick up where we were, but do something new.

JT: We always work hard on reinventing the sound, to make it Duran Duran for right here, right now.

NR: We worked with Nile Rodgers, which is always great, but I don’t think we were quite ready and didn’t get as much material as we’d have liked.

SLB: We went on tour before we even had a record deal, because we couldn’t wait.

JT: And we needed to prove to record labels that we were … tangible.

NR: For us, playing a football stadium in Birmingham was a big deal. The last time we’d done that was Villa Park in 1983.

RT: We weren’t sure if the politics within the band would work, or if the audience were still there for us. But that gig, particularly being in Birmingham, was an affirmation, a great feeling of “This is working.”

JT: Even though you’re an Aston Villa fan?

RT: Yeah, I had to put that aside.

SLB: I do remember feeling that I’d run a fucking marathon by the time we finished that show, because to cover from one side to the other was like a 100m dash.

NR: We played a medley of Sound of Thunder and I Feel Love, both of which we’d played at the Rum Runner. Sound of Thunder is actually the first song we completed together. That brought everything full circle.

Courtesy of The Guardian