[the palaverist]

Monday, November 27, 2006

[video history of an earth scientist, part 2]

If you haven't already, read Part 1 below.

After the massive success of Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Arena, Duran Duran began to fragment, but productively. John and Andy Taylor, the guitarist and bass player respectively, joined up with Robert Palmer to form Power Station, innovating a kind of synthetic soul rock that would stay current for the rest of the decade. (INXS, anyone?) Their first hit was a cover of T-Rex's "Bang a Gong," but they scored much bigger with "Some Like It Hot," which is sort of a sexified "The Wild Boys." The biggest sonic difference from Duran Duran comes at the guitar solo, in which John Taylor lets loose with a burst of Eddie Van Halen-style high-speed licks where one would expect something more layered and processed. The video is ugly but fascinating.

Less successful, and much less fun, was Arcadia, the side project of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor. As Attack of the Clones is to the earlier Star Wars films, so is the very long video for "Election Day," Arcadia's biggest hit, to the earlier Duran Duran videos. It kind of sounds like Duran Duran, and it kind of looks like a Duran Duran video, but the life is drained out of it. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this shit is kind of funny. (Musically, it probably didn't help that they had Sting, David Gilmour and Herbie Hancock involved.)

Even more pretentious is "Promise," whose video telegraphs seriousness by being in black and white and consists of doomful images of Cold War weaponry, the devastation of war and zebras fighting (no, really). The song itself is dreadful and made worse by the use of a super-trendy South African bass groove.

Duran Duran did come back together once more, in all its glory, to record a final #1 hit: "A View to a Kill." The band seems to be having fun again, and Simon Le Bon's yodel is in top form. In the video, they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely as they play silly spy games on the Eiffel Tower, and who can resist Le Bon's hammy self-introduction at the end of the video as "Bon ... Simon Le Bon"?

But music was moving on, and Duran Duran didn't have an easy time of it. They released Notorious in 1986, and it did produce a major hit with its title track, but only three of the original five members had participated in the recording, and though "Notorious" is a fine example of mid-eighties white funk, the magic was gone. Against Peter Gabriel's gigantic hit record So, with its spectacular videos for brilliant, intelligent songs — "Big Time," "In Your Eyes," and especially "Sledgehammer" — "Notorious," song and video, couldn't help but seem limp.

In 1987, Duran Duran released the video for "Skin Trade," also from Notorious. Simon Le Bon gives a nice performance, but again, neither the song nor the video offers anything grand, new or impressive on the scale of what had come before. It's not bad, just ordinary.

From 1988's Big Thing, "I Don't Want Your Love" is a bit of an improvement, especially in terms of the video, which goes back to having some kind of theme and shows some visual flair. The song itself moves in a house music direction, which at the time is actually pretty with it, if not quite ahead of the curve. Still, it's easy to hear a song like "I Don't Want Your Love" prefiguring EMF's "Unbelievable."

After that long dearth, the Depeche Mode-influenced "All She Wants Is" is a welcome return to something like form. It's sexy, for one thing, sexier than any of the band's singles since their Rio days. And the video looks good, in a way that their recent videos simply hadn't. (Also, this song has a certain positive association in my head because my middle school friend Jon's friend Heather, a freakishly beautiful redhead who had a taste for black stretch tube dresses and was 18 but willing to let me hang out with her — I even went with her and her friends to see Aerosmith and Skid Row at the Cow Palace — could do a perfect imitation of that little moan-yelp sample towards the end of the song.)

The Big Thing period ends with an unfortunate attempt at seriousness, "Do You Believe in Shame?" a rambling ballad that steals its melody line from, of all things, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Suzy Q" and should be charged with one count of Indian drone abuse.

Things get even sadder with 1990's Liberty, which came out at exactly the wrong moment for a Duran Duran resurgence, as the slick, synthetic eighties were giving way to the earthy, grungy nineties. The results are predictably grim. The first single, "Violence of Summer," is like an imaginary terrible song from INXS's Kick, and the video has Le Bon strutting around like an aging George Michael. From the band that wrote the choruses to "Union of the Snake," "The Reflex" and "Is There Something I Should Know?" this is flaccid songwriting indeed, and the "chi-na-na-na" chant is just embarrassing.

"Serious," is only slightly better. If it had been the product of an Australian band in the heyday of Men at Work, it might have been an acceptable hit. On the other hand, the band's forced levity in the video — with a black guy! — gives the whole affair the feel of an ad for khakis.

1993's The Wedding Album, then, was a surprise. This was way before any eighties revival, but the album was a hit, to a great extent on the strength of its lovely lead single, the ballad "Ordinary World," which recaptures some of the feel of the first three albums (though mixed with a hearty dose of aging-rocker schmaltz).

The followup hit, "Come Undone," likewise sounds a bit like Seven and the Ragged Tiger-era deep tracks, though of course its house beat is distinctly turn-of-the-nineties. What stands out, though, is that, like "Ordinary World," it's a lovely song.

The final single, "Too Much Information," is a fun, well crafted little romp that includes, strangely enough, lyrics that mean something concrete. Indeed, it's a clever dig at their own lunatic success. Musically, they're still channeling INXS plus EMF, but they're doing it well. (It's also the first video in which Simon Le Bon is adequately tortured since "The Wild Boys.")

If you were a rock band that had just had its first hit record in years, what would your next move be? Probably not a Quixotic cover album, but that's where Duran Duran went, releasing "Thank You," on which they cover the likes of Lou Reed, Sly and the Family Stone, and most notoriously, Public Enemy — their cover of "911 is a Joke" has to be heard to be believed.

The first single was "Perfect Day," by Lou Reed, and is delivered with appropriate drugginess. The video keeps the mood with its color-saturated red padded cell.

More startling is their cover of "White Lines," by rap pioneer Grandmaster Flash, which opens with a heavy emphasis on the word "white" (really). In the video, the band poses as an actual rock band, and musically they pull off a kind of thrash-funk version of themselves. The whole thing is kind of a disaster, but certainly one of Duran Duran's most interesting disasters over the years. After the success of The Wedding Album, this nearly killed the band.

At this point, John Taylor left the group to join Neurotic Outsiders, a metal band whose other members were Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses.

But back to Duran Duran. Now down to two original members, the group released Medazzaland, or at least they sort of released it. After the disaster that was Thank You, EMI at last dropped Duran Duran, and the new record was only released in the US, not in Europe. Still, its first single, "Out of My Mind" (no embedding), managed to get inserted into the soundtrack of The Saint. It's actually not bad, and the band does put on its New Romantic duds for the video.

"Electric Barbarella," recalling the band's namesake, is also a kind of throwback: a techno dance song that tries (but sort of fails) to have a memorable chorus. With its sexy video, the song managed to be a minor hit in both the UK and the US, but it ain't no "Girls on Film."

By the time of Pop Trash, released in 2000, there was little left to the limping trio. "Someone Else, Not Me" is a faintly psychedelic ballad that is not immediately offensive.

But by now enough time had passed since their heyday that Duran Duran could sell out shows on the strength of their classic material. What surprised people was that there was new material as well, and that they liked it. The result was Astronaut, the first Duran Duran recording since "View to a Kill" to include all five original members of the band. (Poor Warren Cuccurullo, an Italian from Canarsie who had been a session musician and then a member from Notorious through Pop Trash — the lean years, in other words — was booted to make way for the lineup people actually cared about.) The first single, "(Reach Up for the) Sunrise" is not exactly a return to form, nor is it particularly compelling as something new. It somehow sounds like an old band reunited, though I can't put my finger on why. But it exists, and here it is.

I don't know, maybe it's the messaginess of the songs. In "What Happens Tomorrow," Simon Le Bon declares that "You've got to believe it will be all right in the morning," and that's a pretty good summary of the lyrics. I much prefer Duran Duran's lyrics from back when they were all coked up and didn't make any sense at all.

Sadly, another Duran Duran record is expected next year.



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