[video history of an earth scientist, part 1]
Duran Duran have always been easy to mock. First of all, they were very pretty, and they flaunted it, incorporating fashion into their self-presentation. But that puts them in the same camp as Roxy Music, David Bowie and Andre 3000. Second, their sound was heavily synthetic, with every instrument, including Simon Le Bon's unusual voice, sounding electronically processed. But again, how different is that from Devo or Kraftwerk? Third — and possibly this is what really drove the rock critics nuts — they were enormously popular.
But set aside the critics and the mockery for a moment. I remember Duran Duran from when I was a kid, first noticing pop music at about age nine, in 1983, when "Union of the Snake" was getting Top 40 radio play. I loved them instantly. They sounded great, and they still do. Other artists I grasped instantly included Cindi Lauper, Van Halen and Quiet Riot, and on the whole, I think I was right. This was before I learned which bands I was supposed to like because they were cool — before I rejected music that sounded good because it wasn't metal, for example — so my responses were fairly pure. Not sophisticated, but not tainted either. (And not wholly unsophisticated: I'd been raised on a steady diet of Beatles, modern jazz and trips to the San Francisco Symphony.)
In my subsequent reordering of my memory to fit the historical picture, I've been too willing to label Duran Duran followers rather than innovators. The official narrative has groups like The Cure and Joy Division out front, but neither created the electronic sheen that was Duran Duran's trademark. Likewise, Talking Heads has already by 1980 invented the angular electro-funk that will define much of the eighties, but they haven't yet harnessed it to a coherent pop vehicle. (Nevertheless, 1980's Remain in Light has more depth, seriousness and beauty than all of Duran Duran's output together.)
Here's Duran Duran's first video, "Planet Earth," beautifully shot and already showing a powerful sense of fashion that is, yes, oh-so-eighties, but is also good and interesting to look at years later. Keep in mind that this is 1981, the same year that the Cure puts out the pleasant but ponderous "Charlotte Sometimes," whose video looks downright shoddy, and "Primary," which is pretty much precisely the sound that Duran Duran proceeds to transcend.
Next we come to an interesting bit of video that Duran Duran used as the backdrop for live performances of their second single, "Careless Memories." It's an anime action adventure — five years before Robotech, three before Transformers.
Two weeks after the launch of MTV, Duran Duran filmed their most notorious video: no, not "Notorious," but "Girls on Film," a racy melange of campy fetishes suited for projection at stylish nightclubs and clearly never meant for basic-cable TV. It is obscene, though in the super-glossy, hyperreal mode of Playboy spreads or Varga girls. It is also an extraordinarily appealing song with a killer bass line, and a video in which every shot is beautiful and the fashion, though outrageous, is also very, very good.
A curious artifact follows: the video for "My Own Way," but not the version of the song that appears on Rio, the band's sophomore record. This version has got disco strings, and the video is flimsier than many by the band, but the Spanish motifs do point the way forward toward the exoticism that would mark the Rio period.
Though their first record did well in the UK, Duran Duran had yet to chart a single in America. That changed with "Hungry Like the Wolf," from Rio, which was also the first of the band's exotic-locale videos (and a clear ripoff of the hugely popular Raiders of the Lost Ark). Shot in Sri Lanka, this video probably shares some of the blame for my Orientalist fascinations later in life.
But listen also to the sound of the song. There's that little tootling keyboard riff throughout, and the snarling, anti-melodic guitars in the solo. And as always, there's John Taylor's grooving New Wave bass line.
The exoticism is even more blatant in "Save a Prayer," the first ballad the band released as a single and a huge hit in the UK (it was not released as a US single). The video is essentially a tourism promotion for mystical Sri Lanka, and possibly the inspiration for those weird background videos that show in karaoke bars. The song itself is lovely, and the most sonically interesting trick is the hitch introduced into the main keyboard line, which mimics the unique yodel-hitch in Le Bon's singing voice, in which transitions from one note to another seem to incorporate a leap to a third, more distant note.
For "Rio," Duran Duran trades Sri Lanka for Antigua, and with the change comes a visual lightness suited to the song. Though it was not even close to their biggest hit, "Rio" seems to have lodged in people's minds as the Duran Duran song and video, and you can see why. The fashion (a year before Miami Vice) is at its peak, the band is stylish and playful, and the music is quintessential: the sixteenth-note keyboard riff floating on top, the buzzsaw guitar, the prominent bass line, and Simon Le Bon's nasal whine leading the whole story.
In 1983, Duran Duran took a step backwards to re-release their eponymous debut LP in the United States, but with one addition: "Is There Something I Should Know?" The new song, which bursts to life with a blast of supercharged tom-tom as a double-tracked Le Bon sings a simplified version of the chorus, was Duran Duran's first UK #1, and a big hit in the US as well. The video casts a backward glance, incorporating clips from earlier videos, but the look is certainly fashion-forward. There are endless Mondrian-inspired cuts and wipes, not to mention an interior set that is stolen two years later for the influential and then-startling ads for Calvin Klein's Obsession.
With 1983's Seven and the Ragged Tiger, Duran Duran continued their saga of synthetic exoticism, complete with an album cover that looked like an inscrutable Dungeons and Dragons map. Everything about the album was huge, especially the sound. The first single, "Union of the Snake," was one of the first contemporary pop songs I ever fell in love with, and I still remember how gigantic and adventurous it sounded. Like many bands of the era, Duran Duran was moving to a kind of synthetic power-soul (with credit due to Bowie), but keep in mind that it's still two years until Robert Palmer finds his new sound (with help from members of Duran Duran), and three until Peter Gabriel releases "Sledgehammer" (which happens to have one of the best music videos ever made).
Their followup single, "New Moon on Monday," is not one of Duran Duran's strongest songs or videos, though it does showcase Le Bon's considerable vocal skills.
What came next, though, was the high point in Duran Duran's career: "The Reflex," a giant #1 hit in America and the UK. The whole song is great, but it's that chorus, with its irresistible vibrato, that really does it — that and the clever variations on the chorus planted throughout, like Easter eggs in a video game. I remember watching this video over at Joey's house when I was a kid — he had cable, back when that involved a brown box on top of your TV set and a lighted switch that you slid along a printed bar of numbers like a slide rule — and waiting anxiously for the cut chorus, then the "why-yai-yai-yai" chorus, then finally the "aawww, the reflex" chorus.
The video looks more dated than many of Duran Duran's, especially because of that terrible wave special effect. Still, it's a good reminder that Duran Duran was a live act. Despite their processed sound, they toured constantly, and their live record, Arena, is surprisingly good.
Speaking of Arena, which you can watch online, I had a period of listening to it constantly and fantasizing about one day writing a novel that would follow its emotional contours. (The novel would, of course, be about my Lego warriors, the Sylvanians, doing battle against the enemy forces of Alto Deto on the jungle planet of Reorilia, where dinosaurs still roamed a landscape with a surprising resemblance to my parents' shag-carpeted conversation pit.)
Arena included one studio track, "The Wild Boys," which was to be the band's last hurrah before they split into side projects. The video is one of their most compelling, set in a sexy sort of industrial nightmare, but there is something overly pushy about the song, something forced and too loud. Le Bon's voice sounds tired, and the beat is a little too Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The trademark sinuous bass is stiffened. Still, the video looks really fucking cool, and that's worth something.
For a while there, Duran Duran were, if not a great band, a band with an incredibly compelling and distinctive sound that melded a wide variety of influences into something new.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which Duran Duran falls apart, does some interesting side stuff, and then fades slowly into obscurity.