By Wes Eichenwald - Special to the American-Statesman
In any half-decent video montage of ‘80s commercial pop, there they’d have to be: three guys sharing the surname of Taylor (but none related to each other), singer Simon Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes. Rhodes and Le Bon are still in Duran Duran, as are two out of three Taylors, drummer Roger and bassist John (sorry, fans of guitarist Andy), though not all continuously. The band opens the season Friday at Austin360 Amphitheater, with Chic, the ‘70s disco outfit John Taylor cites as an early influence, as their opening act.
John Taylor and Rhodes co-founded Duran Duran in 1978 while kicking around the punk scene of Birmingham, England. Taylor, with his chiseled good looks, honey-whipped hair and male-model style, epitomized the ‘80s pop-star high life to a near-cartoonish degree, complete with all the drugs, booze and women he could handle and then some (for the lurid details, start with his 2012 memoir, “In the Pleasure Groove”). These days, at 55, his keel is far more even. Over the phone recently, Taylor was eager to place his group in context and make the case that there’s a lot more to Duran Duran than hairstyles, videos and striking a pose. The tour is named for their 14th and most recent album “Paper Gods,” released last June to respectable reviews and healthy sales. Nobody’s called them a flash in the pan for a while.
Since Duran Duran was first linked to the New Romantics, most observers didn’t connect them with the punk movement — after all, wasn’t punk anti-image? Not according to Taylor.
“If we were to consider the strongest images in the history of rock,” he says, “you wouldn’t find anything stronger than the Sex Pistols and the Clash, or the Ramones. It was ‘anti,’ but it was very clearly defined. The Sex Pistols had Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren designing their clothes for them. They had the most extraordinary shoes, belts, shirts, you name it. And the Clash, they had a thing, too. (But) by the time Simon, Nick, Roger and I were making our own music, what was apparent was that the world didn’t need another Clash. You had to find your own space; you didn’t want to sound like anybody else. We liked the electronic music that was coming out of Germany, like Giorgio Moroder was producing, but yeah, we (also) liked the Pistols and the Clash and we kind of liked Chic and that disco thing, and we just thought, ‘Let’s see if we can kind of mold that.’”
Aside from Andy Taylor, he adds, nobody in the band could play very well at first. “It was all about being young, all about having enthusiasm. We knew that we wanted to get on stages together, and we just learned how to survive. Somebody once said it doesn’t matter on what level a musician is playing, but if they’re playing at the peak of their abilities then there’s something exciting about it. And certainly with Duran, for the first couple of albums we’re all using as much technique as we’d learned at that point. Because we all came of age at the time of punk rock, we were all able to sort of jump on stages with a pretty rudimentary knowledge of music.”
Duran Duran bassist John Taylor and lead singer Simon Le Bon jam together on the group’s Paper Gods tour at Philips ... Read More
It would follow, then, that the band was on a learning curve even when at the peak of their popularity, making one hit after another.
“I don’t like learning things at the best of times, but learning things when everybody is looking at you is just awful,” he says. “It’s difficult when you’re under pressure to deliver – I mean, we’re a self-contained writing unit. It was challenging to keep updating the sound. All writing is experimentation. We learned quite early on, don’t try to replicate, just try to go somewhere we haven’t been before.”
There’s always that delicate balance with groups of a certain vintage to try to keep from devolving into a nostalgia act, while knowing the fans want to hear the hits. “There was a point where maybe 10, 15 years ago, every interview that we would do we would get asked, ‘Don’t you get bored playing those songs over and over?’ It’s like saying to the audience, don’t you get bored listening to those songs over and over? I found the songs that people really want to hear are actually great songs to listen to, and they’re great songs to play.”
As for the past, Taylor says writing his book helped him “tie up a lot of loose ends that were kind of dragging ‘round after me.”
“I love seeing photographs from the first couple of years, when we’re just getting going, and it was just so exciting to be out and on the road, but at the same time it was challenging for me. I can’t speak for anybody else, but (I was) getting by on so little sleep, and yes, I started doing stuff that was not helping. It was adding to the chaos. I didn’t know any better. We were all hanging on for dear life.
“So I don’t look back through rose-colored glasses. I would not go back. It’s all been a learning curve, and every time we go back out again, it’s an opportunity to get it right. Which is somehow, to kind of combine the excitement and adrenaline of the early years but with the calm and sort of depth of understanding that is going on now. Because we’ve all evolved together, we can kind of have that.”
Taylor’s quite happy to have survived and left the chaos to his back pages, thank you. “We don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he says. “If people are choosing to buy a ticket to see our show when they could be going to see so many other things, we owe it to them to be as good as we possibly can be. And in order for that to be, we’ve all got to do certain things. It’s real simple: sleep right, eat right, stay healthy. And then through that, everything’s possible. We’re all so passionate about music generally, and our music specifically. When you’re burnt out, you lose that passion.”
Duran Duran with Chic
When: 7 p.m. Friday (gates at 6 p.m.).
Where: Austin360 Amphitheater, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
Courtesy Austin American Statesman