Wednesday, September 1, 2010

1986-2000: Duran Duran's Lost Years

British pretty boys, MTV pin-ups, New Romantics, glam rockers. When it comes to British rock/pop outfit Duran Duran, these are only some of the things that could be uttered about this group. Simon Le Bon (lead vocals), Nick Rhodes (keyboards), and Taylors John (bass), Andy (guitars), and Roger (drums) were one of the leading acts of the 1980's during the advent of MTV. Beginning in 1981 through 1985, Duran Duran released three albums of original material, a live record, and countless singles that will forever be associated with that moment in time.

By 1985, the group was at its fever pitch and flamed out. With the group exhausted under the Duran Duran moniker, they ended up splitting into two factions to record. John and Andy Taylor formed with Robert Palmer and Tony Thompson (of Chic) as the funk-rock group Power Station. Rhodes and Le Bon moved further into electronic influences as Arcadia. Roger Taylor removed himself from the board completely until Duran Duran's 11th album, Astronaut (2004).

By the time Duran Duran gathered for Notorious
(1986), only three emerged: John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, and Simon Le Bon. Warren Cuccurullo would become a fixture in this period as the guitarist from Notorious onward, officially joining the group in 1990.

Moving bravely into the new musical landscapes ahead, Duran Duran met resistance. The popular music realm had changed quickly in the year they were gone and many wrote off anything the group did as bids for artistic credibility.

The "critics" were missing the point. Duran Duran's sound evolved throughout their active recording career, they were always about longevity from the start. Their sound morphed, but at the core their pop changeability and hunger for musical adventures never halted. This piece attempts to peek into the period that has become known as their "wilderness years," for others it was a golden age of creative spirit tempered by the flames of adversity.

Pop Trash
Released: 6/19/00 on Hollywood Records
Production: TV Mania*
Singles: "Someone Else Not Me," "Playing With Uranium," "Last Day on Earth"

Released after the stormy Medazzaland (1997), Pop Trash kept the emotional tempo the same as that recording. Duran Duran had coined their own brand of downtempo cool, as heard on the lead single "Someone Else Not Me." The handsome heartbreak wording was honest and handled with grace by Le Bon, the music itself bathed in acoustic and generous synth washes. The warm grooviness housed on The Wedding Album (1993) was gleefully resurrected on "Lava Lamp." Pop Trash did kick and rock occasionally with "Last Day on Earth" and "Playing With Uranium."  The album demonstrated Rhodes and Cuccurullo's knack for production better than any of the other albums from this arc. The tides of Pop Trash came and went without overstaying their welcome, making the LP easy to penetrate. Pop Trash would mark the end of an era, it was Cuccurullo's last recording as a member of Duran Duran. The "lost album" in their body of work, Pop Trash is home to many treasures.

Released: 10/14/97 on Capitol/EMI
Production: TV Mania*
Singles: "Electric Barbarella," "Out of My Mind"

John Taylor departed Duran Duran during the creation of this project, leaving Le Bon, Rhodes, and Cuccurullo to finalize Medazzaland their final Capitol/EMI LP. The album was a black and blue beast, Duran Duran's difficult masterpiece. The title drew from a drug called midazolam, a medicinal chemical Simon Le Bon was subjected to during a dental surgery. A messy mixture of rock and pop was the primary blueprint. After the spooky title track start, vocals courtesy of Rhodes, the next three songs blew by. The rhythmic shift of "Big Bang Generation," the quicksilver "Electric Barbarella," and the Asian splendor of "Out of My Mind" all ranked as divine Duran Duran moments.

Elsewhere, fragments of electro-rock hybridization popped up on the bruising "Be My Icon." Thematically, despondency versus connection threaded throughout Medazzaland. The record also broke new ground, "Electric Barbarella" was the first single to be sold exclusively online at a time when the Internet was still a green avenue for music retail. Not an immediate winner as the melodies dwelled deep underneath Medazzaland, additional exploration was required.

Thank You
Released: 4/4/95 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, John Jones
Singles: "Perfect Day," "White Lines," "Lay Lady Lay"

A collection of cover songs from a cacophony of music influences: Sly & the Family Stone, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, Public Enemy, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and Iggy Pop. Duran Duran funneled these unlikely musical bedfellows through their own kaleidoscopic sound tunnel with solid results. Joined by the originators Grandmasters Melle Mel and Flash on "White Lines," Duran Duran infused it with rock and pop likability while retaining its social hip-hop edge. Dreamy and abstract characterized the lone Duran Duran penned "Drive By" and plush tug of "Lay Lady Lay." Thank You's rhythmic and masculine appeal swung easily on their frisky funk cover of "I Wanna Take You Higher." Roger Taylor, of the original "Fab Five," graciously drummed on "Watching the Detectives" and "Perfect Day" appearing in the video for the latter.

Despite the obvious enthusiasm that went into Thank You, the project underperformed in critical and commercial corners. The record later received the unceremonious title of "Worst Album Ever" by the ever snobbish British music magazine Q in 2006. Interestingly, every artist covered here enjoyed what Duran Duran did with their work. Groovy and fun, Thank You may have been an exercise of indulgence, but it was still well crafted.

Duran Duran (The Wedding Album)
Released: 2/23/93 on Capitol/EMI
Production: John Jones
Singles: "Ordinary World," "Come Undone," "Too Much Information," "None of the Above," "Breath After Breath," "Femme Fatale"

The album that shook off their '80's curse and bravely placed them in the '90's, their second self-titled effort (often called The Wedding Album) was cool and cunning. Still inspired to write about social issues and love, Duran Duran wrote two of their strongest here: "Come Undone" and "Too Much Information." The former a murky, sensual trip, the latter a glorious surge of energy with jabs at their own history and place in it: "Destroyed by MTV, I hate to bite the hand that feeds me so much information!" Taylor's trench deep basslines, guided by John Jones, made "Love Voodoo" and "Drowning Man" sumptuously play off of Le Bon's versatility. Le Bon himself beamed on the melancholia ache in "Ordinary World." Winning back the sales that evaded them with each release in the late '80's, The Wedding Album is respected by the casual and devout.

Released: 8/20/90 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Chris Kimsey
Singles: "Violence of Summer (Love's Taking Over)," "Serious"

Duran Duran's first offering of the 1990's was an insecure and transitory piece called Liberty. At this epoch in the group's history Warren Cuccurullo officially joined Duran Duran as their guitarist. Drummer Sterling Campbell had a brief stay for this effort as well. Stung by the frosty reception of Big Thing (1988), Duran Duran threw themselves into the pop pot. At its best, Liberty presented Duran Duran in a holding pattern that generated the spiky "Along the Water" and the understated "Serious." The New Jack flat liner "Hothead" and the erroneous retro feel of "Violence of Summer (Love's Taking Over)" muted the few triumphs on the record. Liberty acted as a bridge to The Wedding Album, an uncomfortable hiccup in Duran Duran's pristine discography.

Big Thing
Released: 10/18/88 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Jonathan Elias, Daniel Abraham
Singles: "I Don't Want Your Love," "All She Wants Is," "Do You Believe in Shame?," "Big Thing," "Too Late Marlene"

A winning sound switch paired with Duran's Duran's established phonics described Big Thing. Big Thing operated partly in glossy dancers ("I Don't Want Your Love") and glacial wonders ("Palomino"). The layout of Big Thing was beautifully paced, one song never out of place and featured several inventive interludes. This type of blueprint had the group flexing their conceptual muscles, comfortable in their new skin. Duran Duran was aware of exactly what they needed to convey musically, unfortunately the public didn't "get it" and Big Thing had a decent, if limited stay on the charts.

Released: 11/18/86 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Nile Rodgers
Singles: "Notorious," "Skin Trade," "Meet El Presidente"

Duran Duran's first effort as a trio (with a then ghosting Warren Cuccurullo on guitar) partnered them with Nile Rodgers, one of their self-confessed idols. The former Chic member brought an urban taste to the songs of Notorious. Duran Duran continued to dabble with black music throughout their career from this point forward. Notorious was home to the glistening sex of "American Science" (one of Le Bon's finest hours) and the ingenious "Skin Trade." The title song became immortalized in hip-hop culture forever in Notorious B.I.G.'s hit single "Notorious B.I.G.," Le Bon's clipped vocal stutter is instantly recognizable. The heavier tones of "Vertigo (Do the Demolition)" showed Duran Duran were definitely not content to repeat themselves in any way.

"White Lines" circa 1995
Directed By: Nick Egan

Of all these albums, praise falls squarely on the shoulders of 1993's The Wedding Album due to its  commercial fortunes before they were halted by Thank You in 1995. Notorious and Big Thing are only recognized for the clutch of hit singles they house, while Liberty, Medazzaland, and Pop Trash remain unexamined. This period shouldn't be forgotten and is in need of being revisited. Evidenced by these selections, Duran Duran dared to dare and beat their own hype. More than mere MTV thralls or '80's nostalgia, Duran Duran is about progress, a progression still running today.-QH

[Editor's Note: *TV Mania refers to the brief production unit/side project of Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo who paired together. An album of their own material was due to materialize but never did after his departure from Duran Duran. Only Notorious, Big Thing, and The Wedding Album are readily in print, the former two due to be reissued on 9/27/10. The other albums featured are out of print, but easily found in indie, used, or online music retailers for affordable prices. For more current information on Duran Duran, visit]

1 comment:

Autohypnosis said...

This is an excellent look into Duran Duran's lesser-known material. I think it's a shame how overlooked some of these songs and albums are because much of Duran Duran's best work comes from this period. "Medazzaland" is my favorite album of all time, and some of the other albums from this time rank highly for me as well.