When Duran Duran released its debut album in 1982, lead singer Simon Le Bon didn’t expect the band to be around very long, let alone still be active in 2016.
“When we started, we weren’t thinking beyond the next two years. We weren’t thinking beyond the next two weeks!” said Le Bon, who was 21 when he joined the then-fledgling English rock quintet in 1980.
He performs in San Diego with Duran Duran on Tuesday night at Sleep Train Amphitheatre. The opening act is the current edition of his pioneering disco band, Chic, and veteran Duran Duran producer Nile Rodgers, who co-produced Duran Duran’s most recent album, “Paper Gods.”
“It’s a funny thing,” Le Bon said, pondering his band’s durability. “I’m not surprised, now, by our longevity. But the ‘1982 me’ would have been very surprised. I think that guy expected to be drinking cocktails now — probably on his second marriage — on a beach, with hookers.”
Now 57, the veteran vocalist has been married to former supermodel Yasmin Parvaneh since 1985. They have three daughters, Amber, Saffron and Tallulah, who are all in their 20s.
His daughters may giggle when they see photos of the rather outlandish clothes and palpable amounts of makeup their dad and his Duran Duran band mates wore in the early 1980s. That was back during the heyday of the English music scene’s short-lived New Romantic movement, which also gave rise to such stylish, synthesizer-heavy acts as Ultravox, ABC, The Human League and Spandau Ballet.
Le Bon himself laughs at the memory of Duran Duran’s fashion high jinks, but he makes no apologies.
“When I look at photos of us from back then, I think: ‘Yeah! Go there, my son!’” he said, speaking by phone from his home in London. “Am I embarrassed? No. Not at all. It’s all part of the road we’ve taken that got us to where we are now.”
Swift stardom, then a split
That road started with a slew of hits on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the 1980s, many anchored by snappy, disco-inspired beats. Duran Duran’s heavy MTV airplay, catchy songs and teen-idol looks made them international sensations. Their early hits — including “Girls on Film,” “Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Save a Prayer,” “The Reflex” and the James Bond movie theme “A View to a Kill” — remain staples of the band’s concert repertoire.
In April 1984, Duran Duran played two consecutive dates at the San Diego Sports Arena, now Valley View Casino Center. Each performance drew a packed house of screaming young fans. Many of them were teenage girls. Others in attendance, accompanied by their parents, were younger.
The age of the audience was reflected in a San Diego Union review of the first of those two shows, which referenced “the barrage of teddy bears and panties that showered the stage.” The band’s music fared less well, with the review noting that, while “the group showed itself capable of creating one catchy dance groove after another, (it) too frequently failed to add anything of substance to them,” and surmising that “style is clearly more important than substance” for the then-young band.
Duran Duran’s initial popularity, especially with young female fans, mushroomed so quickly that the band’s members were dubbed the “Fab Five,” a designation meant to liken them to The Beatles’ “Fab Four” designation in the 1960s. Yet, while The Beatles lasted for nearly a decade before disbanding, Duran Duran’s original lineup broke up after barely five years — after an infamously pitch-challenged performance at the televised Live Aid all-star benefit concert — and did not reunite until 2003.
In 1986, drummer Roger Taylor quit the band, citing exhaustion after five years of steady touring. He was followed by guitarist Andy Taylor (no relation).
That left Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and bassist John Taylor (no relation to Andy or Roger) to recruit seasoned studio musicians, including former Frank Zappa/Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, for the 1986 Duran Duran album “Notorious.” By 1987, John Taylor had also left Duran Duran behind, rejoining in 2001. Roger Taylor is now back on board as well.
While the 1976 Wild Cherry hit “Play That Funky Music” predated Duran Duran’s formation by several years, its title served as something of a credo for Le Bon and his groove-hungry band mates. Their 1996 album “Thank You” found the band unwisely performing reverent but laughably misguided cover versions of such classic songs as Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “White Lines,” and The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.”
The resulting album was a commercial flop and widely ridiculed. Even so, Le Bon is quick to acknowledge Duran Duran’s artistic inspirations.
“Black music was a massive, massive, massive influence on us,” the singer said. “I grew up at a time when soul music was hitting the charts, and you had incredible artists like Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. Later on, reggae music was a really big part of my life, around the same time as punk.
“And, then, of course, Chic were just the best thing, and the whole dance revolution, which happened in the late 1970s. For us kids here in England, it was completely dominated black music and black artists.”
Longtime Duran Duran collaborator Rodgers is featured on “Paper Gods,” the band’s 14th studio album, as both a co-producer and performer.
Other guests on the dozen-song, dance-happy outing include Janelle Monáe (on “Pressure Off,” co-written by Rodgers), the London Youth Choir (on the slow-building “The Universe Alone”) and, to no audible advantage, actress Lindsay Lohan (who speaks, not sings, on “Danceophobia”). Also making cameos are former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.
The results are alternately intriguing and uneven, with the album often sounding geared to listeners much too young to have heard Duran Duran in its commercial heyday. But it is “Paper Gods’” moody, seven-minute-plus title track — with its a cappella introduction, sung by album co-producer Ben Hudson McIldowie — that most overtly suggests Duran Duran was seeking to move beyond its comfort zone.
“Absolutely,” Le Bon said. “We wanted to get something new and different out of ourselves. And I feel we’ve achieved that by very much getting out of our comfort zones. ‘Paper Gods’ is a good one to mention — it’s so not like anything you’ve ever heard from Duran Duran before. This is an album where we really have tried to let go of a lot of things that we were holding on to, quite jealously, for many years.
“For example, me jealously holding onto the microphone and not letting anyone else (sing lead). That has changed this time. We have guest artists. And to have Ben sing on the opening of the album is the most I could possibly let go.”
Despite the band’s decade-old professional relationship with Chic co-founder Rodgers, who produced the band’s 1986 album “Notorious,” this is the first joint tour by Duran Duran and Chic.
“I’ve been onstage with Chic before; I’ve fronted Chic before. But this is the first time we’ve gone out together,” Le Bon affirmed.
“It’s a great evening. We turn up at the venue and Chic is onstage, and we can hear the audience going crazy. We think: ‘Oh, my God! Are we going to be able to follow these guys?’ And, of course, we do. Because we bring something completely different.
“I don’t want to be too coy, but — yes — Nile comes out and plays with Duran Duran. He’s part of our history.”
And how did Duran Duran and Rodgers first meet?
Le Bon chortled.
“It was quite funny — I think we ended up playing hide and seek! — we were messing around. There may have been some substance-abuse involved. But that was the 1980s, and that’s what it was like.”
IF YOU GO:
Duran Duran, with Chic, featuring Nile Rodgers
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Sleep Train Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Phone: (800) 745-3000
Courtesy San Diego Union Tribune