Duran Duran: Future Perfect

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On July 16, 1980, Duran Duran would play their first show together. They were scheduled to play at The Rum Runner, a local nightclub in Birmingham, England where the band would hold a regular residence, rehearse, work, and later pull in venue owners, The Berrow Brothers (Paul and Michael), to serve as their managers. It’s also where Duran Duran wrote their first song, “Sound of Thunder,” off their 1981 self-titled debut.

This night, the two-year-old band—started by schoolmates bassist John Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes—ripped through a set including “Girls on Film,” “Night Boat,” and “Late Bar,” with the very first song of the evening being a splashy cover of Donna Summer’s 1977 single “I Feel Love,” written by Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, a longtime inspiration of the band in their early years. Drummer Roger Taylor, new singer Simon Le Bon, who landed the gig after auditioning plastered in pink leopard-skin pants, and then guitarist Andy Taylor were also part of the band’s earliest days.

Forty years later, Moroder, the electronic dance pioneer, often called the “father of disco,” would end up producing Duran Duran for the first time on their 15th album Future Past.

“He was one of the big heroes of ours in the early days, but we never got to work with him,” says Roger Taylor of Moroder, now 81. “He came with so much energy, so much vision, and he was quick. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear from us, and we actually listened to him.”

Moroder’s tenure on Future Past would run only one track, yet his contribution was a kismet stamp as the band began revisiting the more natural elements of their past sound, while addressing the bitter aftertaste of a year, subsisting in their present state, and carrying on into the future.

First convening in 2018 with producer Erol Alkan in Northern London, spending weeks jamming and building a backbone of songs, then moving to another studio to start tracking, Duran Duran was initially set to deliver a new album by summer 2020. When the onset of the pandemic forced everything to close, in retrospect, it turned into an unexpected and welcome reset for the band.

“We were at each other’s throats,” says John Taylor. “It was really tough. I wasn’t entirely sure that we were going to make it, but when you’ve got deadlines, and you’ve got gigs, and you’ve got a tour that’s supposed to start, you’ve got to deliver it. The pandemic just put this pause button on everything, closed up the studio, and everybody went home, and we didn’t speak to each other for about nine months.”

Returning to the studio by Christmas 2020, the band rebooted and found that some of the tracks on the album, like the opening “Invisible,” recounted the experiences of the previous year. “I guess it’s just reflective introversion,” says John. “Essentially [on Future Past] you’re dealing with stretching the human relationships and how far you can stretch them before they snap, so the best songs always work best globally. I’ve never been one for songs that say ‘we, we, we’—it just doesn’t work—but when somebody says ‘me and you, you and me,’ we can all buy into that. It doesn’t sound forced.”

Checking the inventory of their songs and having more time to nurture each track after nearly a year detached from the music helped the band develop a more objective view of the album.

“It was an unexpected luxury to have all this time on our hands to focus on what we were doing,” shares Roger. “Everybody’s mind had to slow down because since we reunited in 2003, we’ve always been on a bit of a treadmill where we release a record, we tour, we release a record, tour. I really enjoyed getting off that cycle for a while.”

The forced break helped reveal more introspective lyrics composed by Le Bon, then fleshed out by the band. “[Le Bon] really had time to look into himself,” says Roger, “and I think he’s come up with some incredibly deep lyrics.” John adds, “He was prepared to be vulnerable and put himself on the line. That speaks to Simon’s humanity. He can be really prickly, but he’s a real humanist, and I think that you find that in his best lyrics. I felt a certain comfort in listening to the songs back after some time.”

Injected with questions about honesty, identity, and “how you equate your desires and your wants with the rules of life,” says John, Future Past marks Duran Duran in a renewed form.

“That’s really the marked difference, and something we’ve been moving toward,” says John. “‘Ordinary World’ and ‘Come Undone,’ those songs that brought Duran Duran into the ’90s, not only sonically but lyrically, were in a new style for us, because the first wave of songs—‘Girls on Film,’ ‘Hungry Like a Wolf,’ ‘The Reflex’—were more post-punk surrealism. They were fascinating with a lot of symbolism, but more often than not they didn’t seem to deal in real life, and if they did, they were so oblique.”

“Save a Prayer,” off their second release, Rio in 1982, divulged a more lucid tale of love, but it wasn’t until the band’s second self-titled album in 1993 when the shift in writing was more evident.

“I think that there was a transition period where we were moving toward a different style of songwriting, more of an emotional, human, experiential, kind of approach, and I think we got that with ‘Ordinary World’ and ‘Come Undone,’” says John. “It’s exhausting for the lyricist because he’s having to plumb the depths of his emotional world while fighting this idea that Duran Duran is a happy band that makes happy music.”

Instead, the nucleus of Future Past penetrates hope. The insightful “Invisible” weighs in with Has the memory gone? Are you feeling numb? / Not a word they say / But a voiceless crowd isn’t backing down / When the air turns red / With their loaded hesitation. Additionally, the digital pulse of “Give It Up” exists as one of the four longer tracks clocking in at more than five minutes. The track also features a duet with Swedish dark pop singer Tove Lo—one of several collaborations on the album. Other collaborations include rapper Ivorian Doll, Japanese rockers Chai, Mark Ronson (who also produced the band’s 201o release All You Need Is Now), and Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, recruited by Alkan, who plays on the majority of the album.

The circuity of Future Past dances around the buoyant charges of “Anniversary,” the rousing piano-led “Falling,” featuring David Bowie’s former pianist Mike Garson, and the title track, a bare reverie for the past and future, which rallies against an anthem of solidarity on “Tonight United,” the sole track produced by Moroder.

Working with Alkan, who impressed the band with his work on The Killers’ 2017 single “The Man,” was the key sonic element. They emptied the overproduction and went back to basics, to the under-manufactured sound—from Duran Duran and Rio—that was concentrated more on each instrument, pulling the rhythm section to the forefront.

“When you listen to those early Duran albums, you can hear John, you can hear me, you can hear everyone,” says Roger. “We’ve probably lost that a few times along the journey, because you’re always exploring different routes, and we’ve gone down the electronic corridor a few times, but Erol wanted to get that organic sounding record where you can actually identify the individual members.”

Sonically, the band already had its musical core in place before Le Bon joined the Taylors and Rhodes, a sound John calls their own “punk Moroder.”

“By the time [Simon] came on board, we’d already got the sound together, and that kind of set the template for how we approached songwriting,” says John. To this day, a majority of the band’s albums are credited as “all tracks written by Duran Duran.”

There’s this notion of songwriting, of one mind with a guitar or piano—or one mind and a computer—yet Duran Duran rarely operate in this fashion. Theirs is an ensemble effort. “When I started thinking about actually making music at 16, 17, I remember buying ‘Anarchy in the UK’ [Sex Pistols], which was such a fucking explosion of a song, and it was written by [Paul] Cooke, [Steve] Jones, [Glen] Matlock, and [Johnny] Rotten,” says John. “You’ve got four guys. Nobody sat with an acoustic guitar. Nobody brought a song into the studio and said, ‘I’ve written a song,’ and that’s been Duran Duran’s modus operandi since day one. As a band, we probably write 12 songs every three years. It’s not a huge amount of songs, so the process that we have, we fucking guard it.”

Duran Duran have always been inclined to make a different record from their previous one. “Even going back to the Rio days, the next record, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was a very different album,” says Roger. “It would have been very tempting to remake Rio with the same producer in the same studio, but we worked with a different producer, Alex Satkin, and in different studios around the world.”

In 2015, Paper Gods extended the branch to several co-writers, including Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Mr. Hudson, and Janelle Monáe, before Duran returned to a blank canvas for Future Past.

“We don’t even talk about what we’re going to do before we start,” says Roger of the band’s system. “We just literally set up in a room, jam for hours, and see what comes out, which I think is pretty unusual these days. There’s so much music now written between singers and producers, or a singer and a team of producers and few doing it the old-fashioned way, but it works for us.”

Incorporating an AI presence Huxley, in their video for “Invisible,” the recording process took a more analog approach, barely reliant on modern technology to “cheat” around songs, or overdub arrangements. “Now you can cheat with technology,” says Roger, “so we had to keep saying to ourselves, ‘let’s keep it simple.’ Don’t put too much paint on the canvas. We were very aware of how we used to work, so there’s a lot more space in the songs.”

Now, 40 years later, there’s little looking back for Roger. “I think your history can be a bit of a bind at times since you’re always trying to kind of live up to these previous moments, so we have to be very aware of not getting bogged down in it,” he says. “We have to keep looking forward.”

There are always key reference points for John, mostly the high ones. Referencing the band’s longevity, John jokes that he often gets caught looking at Spotify numbers, and other artists’ streaming prowess.

“I feel really good about what we’ve done,” he says. “When you have the kind of success that Duran had out of the gate, millions and millions of albums sold, then I go on Spotify and see how many views or followers [someone like] Olivia Rodrigo has, I have to tell myself, ‘Yea, but nobody owns an Olivia Rodrigo record, and there’s millions of Duran records out there.’ They’re like trophies now. People have heirlooms.”

A proclivity to constantly evolve is something Duran Duran have managed to keep intact throughout their lifespan. “We can go out on stage and entertain,” says John. “We can use our catalog for that, but that’s the easy bit. The tricky bit is where you take the safety harness off and you go back into the studio. That’s where you look at yourself and say, ‘Have we still got anything in us?’”

“I’m always surprised when we can write a good song,” John adds. “I say that, but we wouldn’t be together and I certainly wouldn’t still be in the creative trenches with these guys if I didn’t think that we had something that we could still deliver.”

Courtesy American Songwriter