The Most Ambitious and Cinematic of Duran Duran, According to John Taylor and Nick Rhodes

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Wider, baby, smile. You’re finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If you’re Duran Duran, that is. Fifteen years after becoming eligible for the honor, the New Wave polymaths — Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and the unrelated Taylor trio of John, Roger, and Andy — are one of the many inductees in this year’s class, winning the “fan vote” by an absurdly high margin. “It’s nice of them,” Rhodes recently told me about the Rock Hall induction. “I mean, I should be careful what I say about it, shouldn’t I? I think it’s probably much more of a big deal in America, where I know it’s very significant. Over here in England, only so many people are aware of it. But it doesn’t make it any less interesting.” For what it’s worth, Le Bon has echoed that general ambivalence, admitting last year that he wasn’t “waiting with bated breath,” because “it’s just not really a big deal for me.”

Still, it’s a celebratory time for the band — divisive institutions or otherwise. (Don’t worry, they’ll attend and perform at the induction ceremony in November.) The lads are about to embark on an international arena tour in support of their 2021 album, Future Past, which, like the rest of their discography, transcends the idea that music can be a never-ending art project — right down to how to approach the band’s cinematic videos, studio technology, and, yes, sartorial sensibilities. The heartthrob and Tiger Beat factor was an added bonus for the eyes. We have zero complaints.

With the future past covered, Rhodes, John Taylor, and I gathered in the present on Zoom to reflect on Duran Duran’s four decades in the music industry. “You look rocking!” Rhodes greeted his fellow co-founder, setting the cheery tone for an hour-long discussion about their legacy, how they defined the ’80s, and what certain people just don’t understand about them.

Best song

Rhodes: That’s always a difficult question. I could say “Ordinary World” because, musically, the atmosphere of the song and the melodies match the lyrics perfectly. It’s a song of hope that seems to touch a nerve and means different things to different people. It’s a complete success as a song for us. But also “Planet Earth,” our first single, was a big success, because it meant that we’d actually written a song together and it became a hit. We were on Top of the PopsFor the Yanks: A wildly influential British music program that aired weekly. for the first time because of it. That was the most important song to us in many ways.

Taylor: I’d push it one stage further and say “Sound of Thunder,” which was the first song we wrote together. It was crucial, because Nick, Roger, and I, we’d been busying away — refining this melodic, rhythmic beat that we had going. We’d work through a few different singers and guitar players, and we had this one piece that seemed to say what we were wanting to say. Andy came into the room, and he started playing these chords, then Simon came into the room on a different day and started singing. It was like, that is who we are.

Rhodes: It was proof of concept.

Taylor: Exactly. That’s a crucial song for us, because everybody stepped back and said, “Well, I’m very comfortable with my part in this sound.” And then with “Planet Earth,” the next song we wrote.

Rhodes: It was defining our musical personalities. The other thing about our band that’s perhaps a little different than a lot of bands is … well, everybody that’s ever been a member has always had a very strong musical personality of their own. Somehow we’ve managed to cram them all together into the “Duran Duran sound.” Each of us could have been solo artists in different ways or written with other people rather than pulling in all these different directions, which is what makes our sound more interesting. There’s much more tension than a lot of other similar bands.

Taylor: Simon is a very romantic lyricist. He’s all about melodies and lyrics. I don’t think I even registered that at the time, but he’d been singing all of his life. He’d been a choirboy and was very experienced. Nick and I grew up at a time when instrumentalists were the best bands. Everybody was interesting, and everybody had a personality. It’s hard to believe now. We were devotees of the British music press. We weren’t really into those kinds of virtuosos, but then you have punk rock and bands like the Clash — you’re seeing these incredible personalities onstage. So for us, it was second nature when we started to make our own band. You didn’t want any passengers. Everybody had to be interesting. And ideally, they had to have interesting haircuts and wear interesting clothes. And if they didn’t, we’d make them, right, Nick?

Rhodes: Absolutely. Inventiveness is at the core of what we try to do. Sometimes as a musician, you hit the jackpot. Other times, you’re trying to find your way toward it. But with us, we’re excited by things that sound more unusual and unique. I feel blessed, because I have the best rhythm section in the world, so I try to live up to my bit, which is to provide a different direction that excites every band member. That’s where the challenge is. That’s what keeps it fresh and exciting. If you look at most artists who have been around for four decades, not many of them are producing what I would still term “modern contemporary” and inventive music. Sound has always been important to us.

Most underappreciated song

Rhodes: When we made Notorious, we finished the album and listened to all of the songs and said, “Well, what’s the best song here?” We agreed that it was a track called “Skin Trade.” We thought we would save that for our second single and lead with “Notorious,” which we all love. So we put that out, and it became a pretty substantial hit worldwide. We were thinking, Great, now we can put out “Skin Trade,” which didn’t do very well at all. We got it wrong. I still love that song, and I think it’s one of the best pieces of music we wrote during that period. But you can never guess what the public likes. Whatever you think is the right choice often isn’t.

Taylor: The gem that I think went by was “Someone Else Not Me” from Pop Trash. It’s up there with “Ordinary World” for me. It’s an absolute beauty, but it was just one of those times. It really didn’t matter. I mean, I wasn’t a part of the band then,Taylor departed Duran Duran in 1997 to pursue other musical endeavors. He returned in late 2000, after the release of Pop Trash. and people were looking in another direction with Duran Duran. If you have a long career, you’re going to have times when nobody cares. It doesn’t matter what you do. They’re off and they’re into something else. Thank God, you come to the point when you realize, well, whoever they’re caring about right now, they’re going to stop caring about them at some point. And at some point, people are going to come back around, reconsider you, and put you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Song you’re most critical of

Rhodes: “My Own Way.” It’s a perfectly decent piece of music, but I never liked Simon’s chorus lyrics. It didn’t work for me at the time at all. I don’t mind it as much now as I did then. I mean, everybody likes to have their own way, that’s for sure. The first version we put out of the song was a New York disco attempt, and I didn’t like that much either.

Taylor: The songs that I’m not satisfied with I don’t even think about. They’re persona non grata in my life. They don’t hang around me going, “You could have done me so much better.” It may sound pretentious, but I understand why we did everything we did. You can only use the tools you’ve got at the time — both intellectually and emotionally. For the most part, Nick and I are very sincere in our endeavors. We never dial it in. That’s not what this band is about.

Rhodes: We’ve thrown away more music than we’ve put out in order to make the albums as good as we could. I completely concur with John that everything we’ve done, we’ve done at that time to the best of our ability. It’s easy to look in hindsight at the decisions you make in life about anything and say, “Oh, if we’ve just done that instead.”
Duran Duran song that sounds most like Roxy Music

Taylor: It comes down to spirit more than sound. What made Roxy Music so immediately appealing to Nick and me was the way they looked. You’ve got this synthesizer playerEno! Eno! turning knobs with gloves on. When “Virginia Plain” came out, there was nothing like it. It was this incredible melange of futuristic, sci-fi, doo-wop, and rock. Truly mind-blowing.

Rhodes: We are very good at picking up hints from different artists we like: Roxy Music, David Bowie, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, Chic, the Sex Pistols. People could easily listen to any of our songs and say, “It sounds nothing like the Sex Pistols.” Of course it doesn’t. But at the same time, the energy they had was like nothing else — they didn’t care, they just wanted to play and do their own thing, and they were relentless with the style of the band. What we learned from them and Roxy Music was that you could make a killer first album.

Taylor: Roxy Music dared to credit the model on the cover. We love that.

Most ambitious album

Rhodes: When we did Notorious, it was a complete risk. When the record label heard it, I remember having a call with Nile Rodgers and telling him, “We’ve got a problem: The label thinks that the music sounds ‘too Black,’” which was the term we used for it at that point. We both laughed and said, “It’s ridiculous. We’ve made a great record together.” But the label wanted another album like our third or second. It didn’t want Notorious, because Notorious was radically different. It was us getting back to dance music and discovering funk more. An influence on that album was Sly and the Family Stone. John and I had been listening nonstop to Fresh, which is a magnificent record, and Stand! Niles, of course, knew how to guide us through that better than anyone else could have. But I think that was pretty radical, really, for a bunch of kids.

Taylor: I would say FUTURE PAST, because it’s defiant. In the last ten years, we’ve tried a few different outfits on. We worked with Timbaland, and we worked with Justin Timberlake. But I feel that FUTURE PAST is the most true to our original ethos. It’s a very romantic album in the same way as the first few albums. It has the same spirit of experimentation. It’s funky. We rarely set out with any kind of master plan. We’re all too sensible to sit down and go, “Okay, well, now this album’s going to be …” We don’t think like that. Albums are created one song at a time, one component at a time, one beat at a time, and sometimes one lyric at a time. God forbid we would ever sit down and go, “Let’s write something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” It’s just not going to happen. That’s not what we’re about. We don’t like top-down authority. We don’t like it when there’s a set of rules. Everybody appreciates that. Every song that we write individually, it’s like our own little sandbox.

Rhodes: It’s about instinct, isn’t it? And we always think about the future. We’re talking about doing a film. At this point, half the artists that are our age or even younger seem to be doing the same thing. It’s a format we like. We like the new TV formats, the series formats. There are interesting things for artists there. John was at art school when we were kids together, and I remember thinking at the time, I’m also going there when I leave school. I used to visit him at college, and we’d hang out and he’d make posters for our upcoming shows. If the band hadn’t taken off, we probably would’ve moved into some kind of art — whether it was graphic design or painting or sculpture.

Why Duran Duran’s music videos double as short films

Rhodes: We came around at the right time for the music video. Video, for us, was a tool. We instinctively felt we knew what to do with it. Simon was from an acting background. He’d been studying drama, so he was comfortable acting out the part of the lead singer. It was quite good fun for us at the beginning, when we were saying, “Okay, we’ve got a budget of X,” which really wasn’t a lot. But those budgets went a long way. I’m talking about the early ones. We did get up to a very big budget by the time we got to “The Wild Boys.” But when we were making the first few, it was all about an idea and trying to make something work.

John and I were particularly big fans of indie movies. I remember when we went together to Birmingham Arts Lab to see David Lynch’s first movie, Eraserhead, that changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Imagery is powerful. We all know that, and we wanted to use it. It was the advent of MTV. They needed content, and we could provide it. Nobody had done the travelogue video. Nobody had done the slightly X-rated video for nightclubs in America, which became “Girls on Film.” “A View to a Kill” was a gift of the Eiffel Tower and Grace Jones and being able to use the footage of Roger Moore. They all developed naturally, but for that period, I don’t think there were many artists around who grabbed hold of video as much as we did. Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Prince came later.

Taylor: The word that comes to mind is ambiguity. In the early years, the songs on the first three albums in particular with their lyrics and titles — “Union of the Snake,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and “The Reflex” — were easy to interpret in an impressionistic way. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible to make great adventures out of them, to explore sexuality, geography, and all sorts of things that are going on in so many of those videos. By the third album, it was like the die was cast. We were the video stars of that era, and we were probably the greatest achievers of that first phase of the video. The other thing, like Nick said, is that we had a singer who had gone to acting school. You saw people like David Bowie and Rod Stewart — all these guys trying to be in music videos. They clearly weren’t that comfortable with it. We were. We were very, very comfortable with it.

Rhodes: Lest we forget, we had Russell Mulcahy, who was the greatest video director at the time.

Taylor: He loved us. Nick and I had plotted and schemed our career to the nth degree, but what we hadn’t seen coming was the music video or how that was going to impact our careers. It was only because we had a hit single in Australia and none of us wanted to go to Australia to promote it. So our record company said, “Well, why don’t you make a video?” The day we made “Planet Earth” was a day of revelation for us, because Russell already had a few little tricks that he put on for the camera. We came away that day thinking, Wow, this is a medium we’re going to have to take seriously.

Rhodes: It opened Pandora’s box. I remember some of the older musicians we met being very anti-video and saying, “This has got nothing to do with music” and “This is really terrible. We don’t want this.” I think they were frightened at the time, because it was something new. If you look at the history of video, the Beatles made a lot of great films. The “Strawberry Fields Forever” video is fantastic. Queen made an amazing video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” People had tried to make films before. It’s just that the technology with video had advanced to a point that we could use it more easily, and it was fuller by the early ’80s. Then, of course, MTV launched. There was an actual place to put the videos. In England, on Top of the Pops, which was our main music show, they absolutely hated showing videos. You had to prove you were out of the country filming.

Taylor: What was different with Duran Duran was that, around the world, most people’s first impression of the band was a video. Whether it was “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” or “Hungry Like the Wolf,” these were their first exposures to the band. If you saw the Beatles in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, you’d already seen them on The Ed Sullivan Show. Everybody knew what the Beatles looked and sounded like. But for a lot of people, the first time they saw Duran Duran was in our videos. That was a very strong image for a group of young musicians to have. We had video technology supporting us in our presentation. Particularly in America, in Middle America, oh my God. I’ve spoken to so many people who said, “I lived in Columbus, Ohio, then I saw your video on MTV and knew I had to move to New York.” We were part of a vanguard that really changed people’s lives. Those videos went to places where we would never have gone.

Album era with the strongest visual impact

Rhodes: Undoubtedly, Rio had an enormous impact and is larger than life at this point. It’s bigger than the album cover. That image of the girl smiling, the Patrick Nagel painting featured on the cover, represents the ’80s. Everybody speaks about it. It’s been appropriated more than any other album cover that I’ve ever seen. The colors of it, the energy of it, and the fact that it was one of our best albums from that period — it all worked out well. It was the time of the colored suits and the boat. We got the palette right overall sort of by accident. It wasn’t that we thought, Oh, we must use these pastel shades and pinks and purples, but it was the logo, the designs, everything about that. It had an energy that captured the moment.

We managed to do Rio by scrambling quickly to get the album finished, because the first one had been quite successful and we wanted to capitalize on some of the momentum. Fortunately, we’d written half the songs already before we went into the studio. That’s why we never suffered from second-album syndrome. A lot of bands panic after they become a hit. Now what do we do? How are we going to follow it? What are we going to write? They freeze. We didn’t.

Taylor: I’d have to go for FUTURE PAST. I’m going to go back to the ideas of defiance and audacity, particularly, because so much time has passed since that right place, right time scenario Nick just described. There’s a certain conception that we’re always going to have about what our music has to be. There’s this ideal that we have, and no amount of 21st-century music is going to shape that. Our ideals were shaped by our experiences as kids. We’ve got things we believe — in spite of everything that we’re hearing in the outside world and in spite of the fact that we have to restrain ourselves from sterility, that very processed way of making music today.

We hold onto that band’s spirit and that core, that musical independence, that creativity Nick and I have. I know it sounds crazy. You could say, “Well, that’s what you guys do.” No, it takes a lot of work to sew that together. We’re constantly shrugging off and fighting off people who want us to do it the way of “now,” which we all know will soon be the way of yesterday. We’ve tried a lot of things over 40 years, but we have an ethos in our souls that if we’re left to our own devices, that’s what serves us best. The album and its associated products aren’t out there in the way that Rio was, because it’s a different time, but I think it’s very successful on a conceptual level. I can talk like this for another three hours if you’ve got time.

Biggest misconception about Duran Duran

Rhodes: So many people have different misconceptions. Probably the videos we made, which took about a day each of our lives to exist. When we were making them, we thought they were a promotional tool that would be around for maybe a couple of weeks — the lifespan of a single — then it would be gone and you would move on to the next thing. We never envisioned that there would be a music channel, then a music channel that would play older videos, then YouTube. These formats where people can look at new and old videos all the time.

Videos are very powerful. If you do them well, they enhance the song and make people smile, then people want to watch them time and time again. But other times, people try to pigeonhole you and say, “Ah, I’ve seen that one video, so I know what that band is like.” You take something like the Rio video, where we’re all on a yacht wearing nice colored suits. It was quite a tricky video to make. But there were a lot of people, maybe the old-guard rock media of a certain age, who just thought, Ah, that’s them on the boat trying to be this, and that’s got nothing to do with music. For those more narrow-minded people, they missed a lot about Duran Duran. Whereas the people who looked at it and thought, Actually, that’s funny, colorful, and bright, and they’re trying to lift people’s spirits a little for a minute — they came on a good ride with us.

Taylor: Thank you for that. I think the biggest misconception is people underestimate how seriously we’ve always taken our roles and what we do — or how seriously we’ve taken each other. To be as versatile and integrated as we are today, it’s taken an enormous amount of care and respect. We almost lost it all. We had a blazing few years at the beginning, then we almost watched this thing that we created go up in flames. I remember Anthony Burgess,Famed English writer and composer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange. of all people, wrote a letter to a newspaper and said, “Don’t these young bands realize they’re ephemeral? It’s time for them to get off the stage.” I couldn’t believe it.

Rhodes: We never lost the plot again after that.

Taylor: We had to really fucking work hard to stay in the game. It’s not that we didn’t have fun. I mean, that’s a given. We have a very precarious democracy. We are a group of equals. There aren’t many groups like that, and we have protected that fiercely. It’s one of the most important core elements of what keeps the band breathing. We take our audiences seriously. We take our gigs seriously. And we still think that our best gigs and songs lie ahead. We still believe in the future of ourselves as a unit.

Courtesy VULTURE