When Duran Duran convened to record the balance of Rio at George Martin‘s storied AIR Studios in the beginning of 1982, they couldn’t have known the major leap they were about to make both in their own career and in pop music as a whole. The sound and stance the album represented would help push them toward the worldwide superstardom that came to full fruition with 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and would provide a payoff on the aspirations of the New Romantic movement in the bargain.
The band’s self-titled 1981 debut album made them stars in the U.K. but they had yet to beat a path to the top in America. As the poster boys for the New Romantic movement that took over England in 1980-81, they started out by mixing post-punk edge with German-influenced electronics, glam influences, and a solid disco-informed groove (early on they cheekily described their sound as a blend of Chic and the Sex Pistols).
They also fully embraced the New Romantic anti-punk ethos that valued aspirational hedonism over gritty anarchism—they wanted to be pop stars living the high life. But despite having hooks aplenty, their first album still bore trace elements of their underground beginnings and lacked a full-on pop production sheen. It felt more like music for the emerging dance-rock club culture than the work of a world-beating pop phenomenon.
But even before the album was out, Rio‘s first single, “My Own Way” (released in late ’81) signaled a shift. Its swooping strings, soaring choruses, and do-or-die production pointed towards the glittering prize of Duran Duran’s worldwide pop-star future, even if an altered version was eventually cut for the album release.
You didn’t even need to pull the LP out of its sleeve to get a whiff of what the band was aiming for on Rio. For the album cover, Duran Duran enlisted the talents of Patrick Nagel, sort of an American Alberto Vargas, best known for his glossy images of women for Playboy magazine. The explosive colors, sleek lines, and glamour-gal image contrasted sharply with the starkly framed band shot adorning Duran Duran’s debut.
The inner-sleeve image of the band followed suit. Instead of the flowing, foppish New Romantic gear they sported on the first album’s cover, the boys presented a sort of proto-Miami Vice look, nattily attired in expensive-looking suits and looking better suited for celebrity hobnobbing than cultish clubbing.
And of course, the visuals set up a batch of songs equally invested with a shiny, stylish flair. “Rio” is an ode to the idealized title figure, an aspiring international playboy’s dream girl. A guest sax solo from Andy Hamilton added to the sophisticated Roxy Music vibe, and the track’s combination of elegant melodic flow and danceable groove was the mixture that would hit pay dirt for the band.
That song and “Hungry Like the Wolf” solidified this second phase of Duran Duran’s evolution and lodged themselves and the band firmly into the pop pantheon forevermore. A generous helping of power chords from guitarist Andy Taylor mixes with John Taylor’s (no relation) thumb-slapping bass lines and Nick Rhode’s frothy, burbling synths. But Simon Le Bon’s suave delivery of his feral, randy lyrics probably did more than anything to aid in the band’s burgeoning sex-symbol status. The single’s Top 5 placement on both the U.K. and U.S. charts served notice of Duran Duran’s increased commercial clout as well.
The videos the band made for these tunes had no small role in establishing Duran Duran’s new image either. In “Hungry Like the Wolf” they’re Indiana Jones-like adventurers in exotic locales. The “Rio” video finds them alternately sunning themselves on a yacht and engaged in beachside antics in tropical climes, clad in the same sort of well-tailored suits seen in the album art. Not only did these ubiquitous clips solidify the band’s superheroes-of-hedonism persona, they changed the game for the entire music video industry.
But Duran Duran’s intercontinental stardom had its downside too. John Taylor was, at least in Le Bon’s view, leaping a tad too wholeheartedly into the whole hedonism thing, taking full advantage of the band’s lofty perch to overindulge in every conceivable way. On one level, it’s simply what’s expected of a certain sort of rock star, but Le Bon worried that instead of burning the candle at both ends, Taylor was taking a blowtorch to the middle and endangering himself in the process. In lieu of a frank discussion, Le Bon decided to channel his concerns into the lyrics for “Hold Back the Rain,” which he actually slipped under Taylor’s door after finishing them. Decades later, Le Bon said Taylor never offered up any response, but if nothing else, it all ended up in one of Rio‘s most potent, propulsive tunes.
By the album’s end, the other side of Duran Duran’s sound popped its head up. The record’s last two tracks were like a long, wistful sigh following the urgent momentum of the rest of Rio. The delicate “Save a Prayer” floats on a bed of lush bed of synths as its tender, romantic sentiments unfold into one of the most emotionally impactful ballads in the entire Duran Duran oeuvre.
And on the album’s final track, “The Chauffeur,” the band taps into something downright transcendent that has nothing to do with the pursuit of pop perfection but instead speaks to their credibility as true artistes. It’s a poetic, wistful evocation of romantic yearning riding on a fragile, arty framework. Rhodes’ graceful keyboard lines support Le Bon’s evocative lyrics in an arrangement that’s unconventional without being inaccessible. The drums don’t even enter the scene until halfway through the track, turning up in time to help propel the song’s long, atmospheric ride-out and achieving a feel somehow closer to a ’60s Godard film than an ’80s pop record.
But artful detours aside, ultimately, Rio proved that both Duran Duran and the entire British new wave realm from which they emerged could be refitted for more pop-friendly purposes and take over the world in the process.