Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Duran Duran Releases New Video for "Girl Panic!"

Originally published by PopMatters on November 8, 2011

For a band who helped build their reputation on music video, it’s been a long time since Duran Duran made a promotional film worthy of their classic clips from the ‘80s, which repeatedly cast the band as a hedonistic, futuristic, slightly effeminate gang of pirates.

Some of those videos - “Girls on Film,” “Rio” and “The Chauffeur” among them - turn up in a jarring montage midway through “Girl Panic!”, the new Duran Duran film directed by Jonas Åkerlund. I say film, because it’s nearly 10 minutes long, though it could also just as easily be called an infomercial. More on that in a minute.

There is a plot, a sort of loose one which is ultimately meant to tug at memories of an era when the guys in Duran Duran were young and pretty and supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigova, Helena Christensen and Yasmin Le Bon were even younger and prettier. Those models appear in “Girl Panic!” and to the surprise of almost no one, they still look incredible. In fact, the only shock of all is that being married to swarthy Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon for a few decades has only served to make Yasmin Le Bon get even better as the years pass. Surely Oscar Wilde would have had an explanation for that.
So the plot, such as it is, is one of rock & roll decadence: Waking up in a fancy hotel (in this case London’s Savoy) surrounded by hot chicks, clearly having overdone it the night before with the booze and blow, but still looking like a god among wastrels. The rock stars in this case, however, are the supermodels, which I suppose qualifies as a twist if you can’t remember who Robert Palmer is.

Campbell plays the role of Simon Le Bon in the video, while the rest of the Fab 4/5 are portrayed by Crawford (bass guitarist John Taylor), Herzigova (keyboardist Nick Rhodes) and Christensen (drummer Roger Taylor). Yasmin Le Bon turns up as an unnamed guitarist in a sort of tongue-in-cheek gag which may or may not sit well with the band’s long time axeman, Dom Brown, an unofficial member who has been a crucial piece of the puzzle over the past few years, both in the recording studio and on stage.

There are other in-jokes as well, with the actual members of Duran Duran serving as photographers, journalists and hotel staff: Le Bon is a clumsy room service waiter; Rhodes a patient bellhop; Roger Taylor an elevator operator who may be the victim of sexual harassment or at least the makings of a letter for Penthouse Forum; and John Taylor as a chauffeur (get it?!?!?!?)

In the first Wayne’s World film, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey broke the fourth wall in a memorable bit about how products like Doritos can appear on screen as a sort-of-subtle means of advertising. Swarovski Crystals are no Doritos, and their appearance in “Girl Panic!” isn’t meant to be remotely subtle, either. It’s splashed across the screen both in word and deed. So is the UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar, which not coincidentally has a cover feature about the video and the supermodels in its current issue.

In fact, the only thing I was left asking at the end of “Girl Panic!” was whether the video had done a good job of advertising “Girl Panic!” itself. After far too much consideration far too early in the morning, the answer is an emphatic yes.

“Girl Panic!” is just one song on an album Taylor-made (haw haw!) to harken back to an era when Duran Duran mattered most: The ‘80s! All You Need is Now, produced by Mark Ronson, was a deliberately crafted time capsule, one which blended the Duran Duran of 2010/2011 with the sounds of 1981/1982. It’s splashy and sugary and, thanks to a rash of terrific songs and terrifically energized performances, it works from start to finish.

As a single, “Girl Panic!” dipped its toe in the water with a Record Store Day single, which included an exclusive David Lynch mix of the song on the b-side. Good fun, but where was the video?

Several months later, the video effectively captures the hedonism of the song’s grooves in scenes of young, barely clothed models touching tongues on four-poster beds, though “Girl Panic!” ebbs and flows like waves of cocaine and champagne crashing on a crystalline shoreline. The first time through the video, I wasn’t sure it had worked. But the song is like an earworm, catchy and clever, and it’s still there much later.

“Girl Panic!” works because it’s the first time since 1985’s “A View to a Kill” that a Duran Duran video effectively captures the band’s essential modus operandi: Booze, babes and bling.

Duran Duran: 25 October 2011, New York

Originally published by PopMatters on November 4, 2011

With all the other venues on their North American tour of a considerably smaller nature, when Duran Duran announced their date at Madison Square Garden for October 25, it seemed a bit out of step. Sure, it was done in conjunction with some anniversary of a pair of popular NYC septuagenarian radio hosts, and as some cynic nearby said, they probably gave away a shit ton of tickets. But to poorly paraphrase a quote that may or may not have come from another aged New Yorker with a fondness for Madison Square Garden, Woody Allen: 80% of pop icon success is getting people to show up.

A lot of people turned up at the venerable arena on Tuesday night, skipping out on whatever else people do on a Tuesday night in and around NYC to hear the long list of hits in Duran Duran’s extensive back catalogue. And let’s face it: the hits are what much of the crowd turned up for. The faithful in the GA pit in front of the stage would have probably preferred to see a show with no hits at all, though they dutifully sang along with “Ordinary World” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” as they have countless times in the past. But those golden oldies saw the greatest number of iPhone lighter apps held aloft throughout the lower and upper bowls. The new songs? Well, that was something of a mixed bag, especially as far as audience participation goes.

Back in April, Duran Duran hit the US on a short tour which included what could have been something of a game changer for them, a sunset performance on the big stage on the last night of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. For reasons they’re only partly responsible for, Duran Duran has spent much of their career marginalized by so-called serious music fans. Frequent spreads in 16 Magazine did little for their legitimacy in the ‘80s, though in their defense, if you were young, beautiful and stuffed stem to stern with cocaine, you might have pouted your lips for the camera and accepted the pre-pubescent shrieks of stadiums full of little girls as your lot too.

At Coachella, none of that mattered. Sure, there were dour musos who slouched their shoulders and bitched on their blogs about having to hear “Rio” in the desert, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the other acts spread out over the three days of the festival had been influenced themselves by Duran Duran.

Maybe it was feeling like they had something to prove, or it was refreshing to tap into the art-rock side aesthetic that was such a part of their earliest work, but Duran Duran killed. Perhaps the stage was still likely buzzing with the unbridled energy of Death From Above 1979’s set, or it’s possible there’s more magic in the air at Coachella than all the piles of drugs consumed by some of the kids who go there. Whatever it was, from the moment they built the Euro-disco majesty of “Planet Earth” from the ground up to the closing crash of “Girls on Film”, it was an absolute, unequivocal victory.

As has often been the case with Duran Duran since the mid-‘80s, they failed to capitalize on that momentum. In this particular case, everything went quiet, as frontman Simon Le Bon suffered a summer of vocal rehabilitation.

And now they’re touring North America in support of an album that was digitally released 10 months ago. The Mark Ronson-produced All You Need is Now is one of the finest collections of Duran Duran’s career, but beyond its nearly universal critical acclaim, it didn’t make much of a sales impact.

Duran Duran belongs in arenas like Madison Square Garden. They did back in March 1984, when they played a pair of sold out shows there, and they have in the handful of times they’ve returned over the years. They play well to the back of the house and are still handsome enough to get squeals of delight out of their fans up front and those elsewhere in the house who saw them on the big screens that were part of the band’s fairly flashy stage setup.

The screens were mostly engaging, and the constantly shifting Twitter feed was fun to see. Also kind of cool was the presence of four giant plastic faces high above the stage, on which film that included the faces of Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bass guitarist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor were broadcast in a way that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever hit the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

But then we were also treated to clips showcasing the band’s inexplicable continued support for Second Life, the online World of Warcraft-style community for people who would rather pretend they’re thin and can dance. Duran Duran first became involved with Second Life around the time of their 2007 album, Red Carpet Massacre, and even then it already felt hopelessly out of fashion.

The music was also not without its peaks and valleys, especially if you gauge such things on how the crowd responds. Most people stood and swayed and even got some of the lyrics right during the chart-toppers from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and most of those same people sat during the other songs. There was an audible groan from someone in Section 108 when the lush semi-ballad “Leave a Light On” was introduced with the standard “here’s our new single” line. But that sort of behavior wasn’t just reserved for the new stuff: “Tiger Tiger”, an instrumental from the 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger likely aired mid-set to give Le Bon a chance to rest his voice, sounded great, but for many in the crowd, its moody vibe just didn’t mean anything.

The prospect of a night of vast chasms between ebbs and flows was established with the first two songs; the opening number was “Before the Rain”, a solemn gem which either closed or turned up midway through the second half of the new album depending upon whether you prefer the initial digital version or the overstuffed CD/vinyl. As a means of beginning a concert – at least one in a vast arena – it didn’t have the feel of a party-starting jam, and the dour black and white footage on the screens that might as well have come from The Sorrow and the Pity didn’t change that. And then they played “Planet Earth”, which was really where the show began.

It would be disingenuous to say all the new stuff fell completely short with the people in the crowd who don’t give a shit that Duran Duran recorded anything after 1985, though the vibe was definitely not happening during “Blame the Machines” or “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”. Aside from having the stones to play those absolutely terrific songs in an arena at least partly packed with people who’ve never heard them, the fault can’t lie with Duran Duran. They played it like they meant it from start to finish, and they sounded terrific. Le Bon’s voice was strong through most of the set, and when it wasn’t it’s probably because he’s always sounded like that. He’s a swashbuckler on stage, not a sophisticate.

In addition to the album’s eponymous lead single, the two All You Need is Now songs which got the best response from the greatest number of people were “Girl Panic!” and “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)”, which saw guest appearances by Ronson and Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic respectively. The former is slated to make some sort of splash next month with a video that harkens back to Duran Duran’s prolific early years, especially as it’s loaded with supermodels. Matronic has only appeared live on stage with Duran Duran to perform the duet on two occasions, with the first being Coachella.

Duran Duran’s tour rolled on through the northeast after hitting New York City, and they’ll pick it up again in Europe in a month or so, appearing on dates initially canceled when Le Bon’s voice bottomed out. They’ve good reason to be proud of the songs on All You Need is Now and despite the world tour happening so late in the game, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to try and support that music. But in Madison Square Garden on a Tuesday night, that noble mission statement only mattered to some of the people there. The rest were perfectly happy to sing along to the oldies.

All Tomorrow's Parties: 30 Sep - 2 Oct 2011 - Asbury Park, NJ

Originally published by PopMatters on October 25, 2011 with photographs by Courtney Biggs

I’ve never been to an All Tomorrow’s Parties event in the United Kingdom, so maybe I’m way off base here, but it sure felt like Asbury Park gave it the old English try when the coastal community played host to its first ever I’ll Be Your Mirror event between September 30 and October 2. On Friday, the first night of the festival, the temperatures dipped and the skies opened up and any time spent fussing with one’s deliberately tousled indie-approved hair on the way into town was rendered pointless.
Thankfully, none of that mattered. Any discomfort or fumbling virgin hiccups in Joisey—and there were a few, some more notable than others—was ultimately relegated to an afterthought when the sheer magnitude of what was about to unfold was three days of jaw-dropping, life-defining moments. I mean, where else are you going to see various members of Portishead riding bicycles along a boardwalk? Where else might you share an elevator with Flavor Flav, Bob Weston and Bill Murray all in the same day?

Where else are you going to randomly run into granny-sweatered troubadour Jeff Mangum? Well, everywhere actually. The enigmatic nerve center of Neutral Milk Hotel was spotted all over the place: In the lobby of the Berkeley Hotel; eating an Asia Dog in the Brooklyn Flea food court; standing five feet away from me for half of Public Enemy’s Sunday evening set.

Mangum was on hand to play Friday and Sunday night sets at the Paramount Theater, one of three official venues where music was scheduled. It’s Asbury Park, so there’s live music all over the place. The Stone Pony was a stone’s throw from much of the ATP scene. The Wonder Bar had big burgers, cheap beer and a lousy band on Friday night that covered Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”.
These are the weird moments that will last with people after a festival like ATP; odd little vignettes that will pop up in your dreams and remind you that you once had the best festival experience of your life in New Jersey.

Let’s get the problems out of the way first, because while they matter—some more than others—it’s much more preferable to end on a high. The security was overenthusiastic at various times, with a number of attendees at Swans’ Saturday night set at the Paramount complaining that they’d been shoved, grabbed and generally mistreated. Others said they experienced loudly chatting security and other non-ATP staffers ruining the atmosphere during Mangum’s acoustic Friday night performance at the Paramount.

Though press was given access to Mangum’s Sunday afternoon show, a friend had a spare ticket for Friday night, and down in the lower orchestra seating the mood was far more appropriate. Mangum, seated at center stage and surrounded by guitars, opened with “Oh Comely”, the 8-plus minute epic in the middle of Neutral Milk Hotel’s recognized high water mark, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was a bold move, one he wouldn’t repeat two days later. And that’s a shame, because it was stunning. But truth be told, every second of that 75-minute set was stunning, and was still just one of the slackjawed “I can’t believe this is happening!!!” moments that are par for the course with ATP. It’s a music fan’s festival, but also an experience for people who revel in experience.
Sorry, I got sidetracked. Much like when you’re actually in the middle of the festival itself, ATP gripes are often quickly forgotten when remembering something wonderful. The all-weekend Criterion Cinema was a fantastic idea, and organizers did the best they could with the available options, but the large conference room on the first floor of the Berkeley that served as a theater was less than ideal. Daytime screenings like Putney Swope and Rushmore, were marred by sunlight streaming in over the tall curtains surrounding the room’s interior. For those two films in particular, the crowds were large, as they features Q&A sessions with director Robert Downey, Sr. and music supervisor Randall Poster respectively. Those guys were great, and Downey was especially generous when someone asked which of the Iron Man movies was his favorite (for the record, it’s the first – he thought the second stunk).

Nighttime films weren’t without their issues either, as a midnight screening of Quadrophenia on Friday jumped back a chapter on the Blu-ray player, so the same lengthy scene was shown twice.

But even looking back at everything I’ve typed suddenly seems so petty, because on Sunday night in the Convention Hall, Portishead had both Chuck D and Simeon of Silver Apples on stage, and as cool as that was, the band was already so monumentally brilliant it was almost too much to handle.
Asbury Lanes was the third and smallest of the official live music venues, but was also maybe the most fun once Friday night was over and the attention to capacity wasn’t so severe. Lines were long throughout the weekend, so brilliant sets by the likes of Factory Floor and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 might not have gotten the attention they deserved. But maybe that’s also part of the ATP experience: Swooning over stuff you were there for and gnashing your teeth over the stuff your friends told you later you fucked up because you missed.

It seemed like the schedule was put together perfectly, with little possibility of overlap. The splendid booklets with all the festival info handed out upon arrival made it all look so cut & dry, and of course there was still just no way to take it all in. Even before they wound up coming on 15 minutes late, it was either to see the Horrors and Battles in Convention Hall or the Pop Group in the Paramount. Or, as many did, just jump back and forth between the two. And in truth, that wasn’t such an unreasonable option, because they were only 20 feet from one another.

I could go into best sets or disappointments, but honestly, who cares? The great thing about ATP is that it’s a collective experience, but also one tailor-made for having it however you see fit. During a Public Enemy set that began with one song followed by 10-minutes of Flavor Flav sounding like a remix of someone reading his IMDB page, I turned to a friend and mentioned how disappointed I was that they’d screwed around with “Welcome to the Terrordome”. He very magnanimously shrugged his shoulders, said he liked it anyway, and then I was crushed under the sheer brilliance of “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power” and it didn’t matter what I thought about their skilled-but-who-cares live band taking solos. I hadn’t really given occupying Wall Street any serious thought until Chuck D mentioned it, and by then I’d have done anything for the guy because he’s so goddamn cool, even his lone stage maneuver that involved tossing his microphone a few feet into the air like a kid with a Nerf football in the yard pretending he was in the Super Bowl didn’t seem nearly as dorky as it should have.

Look, I got a birthday hug from Flavor Flav in the lobby of the Berkeley late on Sunday night, so maybe I’m not in a position to offer an unbiased opinion. But really, forget those other festivals where the bands are a thousand miles away and the beer is seven bucks and the dust gets so deep in the crack of your ass you’ll think it’s a new tattoo. ATP is where it’s at. It’s a music lover’s festival, curated by musicians with (mostly) impeccable taste. And if it comes back to Asbury Park next year and you’re not there to have some “I can’t believe this is happening!!!” moments of your own, you deserve the regret you feel when your Facebook news feed is filled to the gills with constant frothy updates from your pals who had the good sense to jump on the train and make the scene.

ATP America Presents: I'll Be Your Mirror Curated By Portishead & ATP

Originally published by PopMatters on September 26, 2011

After three years in the middle of the former playground of Borscht Belt comedy, All Tomorrow’s Parties America is bringing its annual I’ll Be Your Mirror event to the beach. From Friday, September 30 through Sunday, October 2, Asbury Park will play host to one of the world’s most unique festival experiences. PopMatters spoke with the festival’s founder Barry Hogan about where ATP has been and where it’s going.

ATP America Presents I’ll Be Your Mirror boasts a lineup curated by Portishead and ATP this year, with performances on tap from Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Public Enemy (performing Fear of a Black Planet), Swans, the Horrors, Mogwai, Battles, the Pop Group, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Company Flow, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and many, many more. There’s Criterion Cinema featuring screenings of films from their vast collection, comedy, DJ sets, rock & roll bingo and trivia and so much other one-off cool shit, it’s no wonder past ATP attendees are so dedicated to the festival, traveling from all over the world for its intimate and friendly atmosphere.

Fittingly, the locations for the past four years have come on the recommendation of friends and colleagues, with both Kutsher’s and Asbury Park coming into play thanks to childhood memories.
“The manager of Dinosaur Jr., Brian Schwartz, he said to me, ‘If you’re doing this in the States, you’ve got to come look at this place I used to go to when I was a kid in the Catskills called Kutsher’s,’” Hogan recalled. “We went to look at it and went, ‘Wow, this place is amazing.’ We fell in love with it and decided to do the event there”.

Though the Asbury Park iteration is on the threshold of its inaugural weekend, the town actually came into the picture well before the Catskills.

“Before Kutsher’s, we looked at the Paramount and Convention Hall (in Asbury Park),” Hogan said. “There’s a guy from Other Music in New York called Josh Madell, and he used to go there as a kid, and he said, ‘If you ever do it in America, you have to go to this place.’ He took us out there, showed us the Hotel Berkeley, where Johnny Cash used to live and owned and what have you”.

The idea of Asbury Park cemented itself in Hogan’s mind after a visit to Asbury Lanes for a birthday party a few years ago. 

“I thought, ‘I love this: This is magical,’” Hogan said. “We had so many people saying to us, ‘You’ve got to do it here,’ so we made the decision to come down and check it out”.

The decision to move ATP from the Catskills wasn’t an easy one to make, but Hogan said it was important to maintaining the integrity of the festival.

“We did three events there and they were great, and we were very happy with how everything went with Kutsher’s, but we found it financially restrictive to make it work without raising the ticket price to sort of an insane amount which would put people off,” he said. That comes not only from years as a music promoter, but also years as a music fan, something which puts the promoters of ATP squarely in the company with the people who come to their events.

“Myself and Deborah (Higgins), who is my wife and helps run the festival, we’re just passionate about music and we’re passionate about presentation,” Hogan said. “We’re kind of like an alternative to other festivals. You go to a festival, and they’re trying to charge you for everything. They charge you for the program with the schedule inside, and to walk into certain areas. It’s crazy. The whole thing with ATP is, yeah the ticket is not the cheapest thing in the world, but it’s good value for your money when you look at it and think about what you receive. We give away free booklets, and the quality is great. Seeing Jeff Mangum and Public Enemy in a space like Convention and Paramount, that’s kind of unheard of.”

This brings the conversation around to the sometimes uncomfortable topic of money, and the underlying internet buzz that a festival like ATP might not be able to make it work in the U.S. on a consistent basis without making compromises that would sully what they’re all about. Hogan said that while things are going well for the first visit to Asbury Park, there are always questions about whether it’s something that can be sustained.

“Obviously they’re expensive projects to put together,” he said. “It’s hard to say with the economy so up and down whether people will have enough money to come out to things like this, but this year has sold more tickets than Kutsher’s had ever done, so we’re really pleased. We want to keep doing it, of course, and we’re hoping to be able to continue coming to Asbury Park. And if it works there, we hope to be able to expand it to other locations. But before we start trying to turn it into a Starbucks, I want to make it so that Asbury is kind of the crowning jewel and starting point so everybody always refers to it as the place where it really began and expand from there, if it does”.

Hogan said the temptation to go for some craven money grab isn’t something that’s ever even entered his mind.

“Obviously, we could have veered off the track and gotten someone like Limp Bizkit to curate or somebody like that, and that’s when things would go horribly wrong. Fred Durst would probably turn Asbury Lanes into a nudie bar or something”.
Though the lineup is set in stone, Hogan did make an allowance for the possibility of an impromptu set by one of the area’s most celebrated native sons: Bruce Springsteen.

“I’ve heard that if you walk around the boardwalk you might see him,” Hogan said. “If he wants to come down to the Paramount, he’s more than welcome. We’ll give him a guitar and he can perform Nebraska for us, and we’ll be very happy”.

Whether Springsteen shows or not, Hogan said ATP has always been quite lucky, and this year is no exception.

“It’s like we’ve taken our records and put them on the floor and said, ‘I want this person and that person,” he said. “And I guess over the course of time we’ve worked with a lot of these artists, so we’ve been really fortunate”.

Still, Hogan has a wish list.

“Dream curators? I don’t know if they necessarily would want to curate, but someone I’d love to see would be Kraftwerk play ATP,” he said. “And we’ve also been quite vocal about the fact that we love Wes Anderson films and the music in his films we’ve always liked, so we thought he would be a good curator if he’s available and interested. The list is kind of endless, I guess”.

The future of the festival could be in Asbury Park, provided things continue going in the right direction. Makes sense to its founder.

“So much musical history has taken place here,” Hogan said. “It’s a perfect place for us and it will open people up for people who maybe live in New York but have never been to Asbury Park and are curious about it. Hopefully it will ignite their interests. I hope people will enjoy the event enough that we’ll be back”.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why I Love Duran Duran

Originally published by Gimme a Wristband on September 1, 2011

The first time I paid any attention to Duran Duran was the night of March 19, 1983.
I’m sure I’d heard them on the radio before, because back then that was the only place to hear new music if you didn’t have cable and access to MTV. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was all over the charts at the time, but had it really wormed its way into my subconscious yet? I don’t remember; I’d certainly heard it, and it’s likely the staged female orgasm in the mix had at the very least given me pause to wonder if I’d ever get the chance to hear that sort of thing in real life from an actual girl. But I wouldn’t say I was a fan of the band. Not yet, anyway.
I can’t remember anything else about the night Duran Duran played on Saturday Night Live. I’d completely forgotten about Robert Guillaume hosting the show, and if I watched it on Netflix today it would be as though I was seeing the skits for the very first time, because that night was all about Duran Duran.
I’ve described it to friends as my own personal Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, recalling the impact the Fab Four’s February 1964 television appearance had on countless impressionable teenagers, with seemingly 99% of them combing their hair forward and picking up guitars. That’s what it was like for me; an uncle had given me a pair of drumsticks a few years earlier, as well as a pad he’d fashioned from a block of wood and a circular piece of spongy padding from his days as a college hockey hopeful. But until I saw Duran Duran perform on Saturday Night Live, I didn’t actually think about starting a band.
I was an awkward kid in his early teens at the time, listening to new wave, punk and hip-hop and wondering how to make pretty girls notice me. I was looking for a way to turn the corner, and though I wasn’t conscious of it, something clicked when I saw Duran Duran on Saturday Night Live.
By then the band was already a sensation on the fledgling music channel MTV, though I missed out because we didn’t have cable in our house until several months later. And while I was indeed transfixed when I did finally get the chance to see the band’s epic clips shot in exotic locales like Sri Lanka and Antigua, it was an actual live performance on American television that first hooked me. It was the pulses of sleek Eurodisco and the grit of urban funk and roll. It was the impossibly orange hair of Nick Rhodes.
My mother bought me a drum kit later that year, and I began a series of ultimately fruitless “rehearsals” with the small handful of friends who didn’t think Duran Duran was fey nonsense for girls. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing, fumbling with our instruments and hoping beyond any rational thought that some glorious noise would just accidentally spill out. But it didn’t matter anyway, because cute girls noticed and that’s what I was really going for in the first place.
I plastered my bedroom walls with posters and pinups, wore t-shirts with the band’s logo and shitty, low-rent thrift-store outfits I believed had an air of Simon Le Bon sophistication about them. I wore eyeliner and dyed the front of my hair blonde. I did all that, risking derision and bullying from classmates, because of my love for Duran Duran. They didn’t make me fall in love with music (that had already happened, mostly because of my parents for playing me the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and later because of the Clash and Devo) but they brought me out of my shell. They made me want to see the world, to experience new things and strut my stuff a bit. They made me think, if only for a fleeting moment, that white jazz shoes were cool.
Other musicians played important roles in my wanting to take playing music seriously. Simple Minds recorded their massive Once Upon a Time album not far from where I grew up, and after a conversation in a record store with their drummer Mel Gaynor I was given a pair of his sticks; they were huge, much larger than the ones I’d been using, and it felt like I was trying to swing two baseball bats. And though my marginal skills were better suited to the styles of drummers other than Roger Taylor, there was something in the music of Duran Duran that has always been a part of my own musical DNA.
In the nearly 30 years that have passed since I became a fan, I’ve had more conversations than I’d care to relate in which I was forced to defend my fondness for Duran Duran. The serious music cognoscenti among my friends and colleagues laughed scornfully, though more than a few eventually confessed to having liked one song or another or respecting the bass guitar wizardry of John Taylor.
I’ve since come to accept that Duran Duran themselves were at least partly responsible for their collective predicament. They were great looking and they knew it, sampling the spoils of fame by alphabetically working their way through the rosters of some of the top modeling agencies of Paris and Milan. Certainly no one forced them to submit to a steady diet of promotional photo shoots with every teen magazine on the market not solely devoted to video games. They were absolutely brazen in their love of success and all its sexy trappings. All that shit adds up, though back then I was just happy to be able to have a constantly evolving source of inspiration for effete fashion tips.
When I was a teenager still in the heady early stages of my fandom, I had neither the wisdom nor the interest in cracking that particular code. I found it infuriating that most rock journalists didn’t take Duran Duran seriously, positing as biased fans are wont to do that it was just jealousy (I’ve since joined the underpaid ranks of professional rock journalism myself and find that whole jealousy thing absurd; sometimes I just think an album or a band sucks because I think it sucks.)
I never felt any particular kinship with the members of Duran Duran; whatever Simon was singing about didn’t tap into the garden variety introspective teenage angst I thought made me special or unique. Duran Duran was escapism, pure and simple. It didn’t ever feel like they teleported into our realm from another galaxy the way David Bowie or Parliament-Funkadelic seemed to, but they were often just as distant. Even Andy Taylor’s muscular guitar riffs and sensible mullet were some futuristic ideal far out of reach.
The band’s recent forays into social media have broken down some of those barriers; on Twitter, John seems to genuinely enjoy sifting through the thousands of missives sent his way from around the world and responding in a warm and gregarious way. Also on Twitter, Simon comes off like an eccentric raconteur, a comedic loon for whom the internet is like a night at the pub. Roger’s Facebook posts are full of charming unfiltered enthusiasm, marked by the occasional typo that if nothing else proves he’s not waiting around for some handler to copyedit his thoughts.
Andy was really the first of the band’s classic Fab Five lineup to take to social media in a big way, unloading stream-of-consciousness blog posts bearing the same frankness utilized in his autobiography, Wild Boy, but without the restrictions of a specific subject tying him down.
Duran Duran is many things to many people. Though it didn’t start out that way, for me it’s almost solely about the music, in the sounds they make and how they make me feel. It’s in the fact that they’ve refused to sit still, will follow whatever artistic whim tickled their particular fancy. And maybe you’re one of those chin-scratching musos who believes that an artist’s commercial successes automatically work against their artistic credibility, but not me, pal.
In the fascinating rock & roll documentary Dig!, Peter Holmstrom, guitarist of the Dandy Warhols, spelled it out pretty clearly.
“There’s no way to have a revolution if you stay underground. The fuck’s the point of that?”
Holmstrom was referring to the spectacularly self-destructive Anton Newcombe, the damaged creative force behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre. But he might as well have been talking about Duran Duran. If it wasn’t exactly a revolution, the rise of Duran Duran meant much more than most people are willing to admit. They’ve inspired countless artists across the musical spectrum, and not just with their cocaine-and-sportfucking prowess, either. Damon Albarn said that Blur’s “Girls & Boys” featured a bass line that allowed Alex James to scratch his Duran Duran itch. Everyone from Lou Reed to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is a fan, and they’re not exactly considered spineless lightweights.
I’m not gonna lie: I’d kind of lost track of Duran Duran a few times over the years. Real life, as it’s so fond of doing, will often conspire to divert one’s attention from the things that once mattered the most to us.
It first happened somewhere in the middle of college, which though admittedly as far from real life as it’s possible to get, was not without its drunken jags and fitful stabs at becoming the sort of insufferable overly erudite musicologist I’d so often derided as a teen. I tried listening to VERY IMPORTANT MUSIC recorded by VERY IMPORTANT ARTISTS; the less likely it was that an album would be played on the radio, the more I wanted to hear it. And that tiresome bullshit lasted maybe half a semester.
Don’t get me wrong. Even during those times I stepped away from Duran Duran, I was still buying their albums. I might not have listened as intently any longer; I’m not sure I made it all the way through Liberty for at least a year after I bought it, possibly longer. Medazzaland was the same way when it came out, and I confess that I still have trouble with that one.
Duran Duran never really left, of course. I’d seen them live when they toured their second eponymous collection (dubbed “The Wedding Album” by fans), though was unable to convince any of my friends to join me. I didn’t see them again for nearly a decade; a Pop Trash show in Las Vegas that I only went to because I happened to be in town at that time. I expected to have a good time, because I always had a good time at Duran Duran shows, going back to my first at Madison Square Garden on March 21, 1984. I’d seen them tour Notorious and Big Thing(twice!) and loved it. And while I was thoroughly unmoved by guitarist Warren Cuccurullo’s shirtless cheeseball antics involving an inflatable fuck doll, I really had a fantastic time. I enjoyed Pop Trash more than I had any of their albums since the splendid Notorious and decided there could still be a special place in my life for Duran Duran.
And if you’re a fan, you know what happened next. Duran Duran, the Fab Five iteration, returned. And so too did a rush of fandom that was only partly nostalgia. While I was certainly thrilled to hear some of those songs from the first three albums performed by the band that put them together in the first place, I was even more intrigued by what they’d do next. And that’s one of the things I love about Duran Duran the most: They’re like that line from Annie Hall
“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.”
Obviously Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer wasn’t talking about Duran Duran, especially not in 1977 when they didn’t even exist yet. But it’s applicable here, because no matter who has been in the lineup at the time, Duran Duran has always seemed to have a violently allergic reaction to stagnating. And that’s kind of thrilling, because even though they stopped being prolific songwriters following their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, they’ve rarely sounded the same from one release to the next.
Granted, I haven’t always been bowled over by what they’ve come up with, but even the stuff that didn’t particularly thrill me was worth the listen simply because Duran Duran is constantly evolving. And goddamn if it isn’t the fucking coolest thing when you feel like you’re not the same person from experience to experience to have a soundtrack for all that shit.
Astronaut, the first (and likely last) release by the fully reformed Fab Five, could never have lived up to the expectations of the fans for whom it represented much more than just an album. Even so, it’s quite good stuff. I loved Red Carpet Massacre too, a robofunk descendant of Notorious that was so viscerally polarizing among the fanbase that it made me love its slinky urban grooves even more.
Which brings us to now, or rather All You Need is Now, an album I rated 9-out-of-10 in my review for PopMatters. I listened to it again as I wrote this story for Gimme a Wristband and I still maintain that’s it’s the band’s best album since Rio.
But beyond the music and the inherently flashy fashion and fandom, maybe the thing I love most about Duran Duran is who they’ve brought into my life. It wasn’t always easy being a teenage male into Duran Duran. Sure, probably every time I fooled around with a girl from 1983-1987 was a direct result of my having worn a Duran Duran t-shirt, but that was a two-way street. I was already something of an unpopular goofball before I started flouncing around in leather trousers and skinny ties; my transformation into a strutting peacock with a predilection for sarcasm made me something of an easy target for bullies. But it also maybe drew me closer together with my friends, some of whom I’m still close with today.
I’ve also become friends with people in recent years because of Duran Duran. I joined the now-defunct official message board when the band reunited, and as a result count among my very real and very good friends some very, very wonderful people. Three in particular have become like brothers to me, in part because they’ve helped rekindle the joys of playing music. We got together in late 2006 and called ourselves Chekhov’s Wig.
If I became a drummer because of Duran Duran, it’s only fitting that it ends with a band inspired by Duran Duran. Chekhov’s Wig is a tribute, though not in the classic sense. We don’t dress up like Duran Duran, and we don’t try to sound like them either. We’re paying tribute to the music we love by bringing all our other influences into the equation, which seems like a very Duran Duran thing to do.
Duran Duran also brought this website, Gimme a Wristband, and its brilliant and dedicated creator Kitty into my circle of friends. Gimme a Wristband and Chekhov’s Wig are getting together with some other fantastic people to throw a Duranie bash at the Knitting Factory in New York City on October 24, one night before Duran Duran’s triumphant return to Madison Square Garden. It’s going to be our final show as Chekhov’s Wig, and there’s no other way I’d ever want to have that happen: That night will be a celebration of Duran Duran, of what they’ve meant to all of us and how they helped us become the people we are today. That sounds like a pretty rad party to me.
I love the Beatles more than any other band; the Clash have probably informed my way of looking at music and the world like no other artist; Blur are the band I’ve turned to the most since their debut, Leisure, and frontman Damon Albarn has never failed to captivate me with his work outside the band. But Duran Duran is something altogether different.
They wrote the soundtrack to my teenage years, reinvigorated that exuberance in later years and still manage to give me something new and potentially exciting with every release. I know some of their songs, every fucking note, from beginning to end, yet they still manage to remain plump and juicy as though fresh off the vine. Duran Duran are my band, and they always will be.

Paul McCartney: McCartney/McCartney II

Originally published by PopMatters on June 17, 2011

There are few chapters in the life of Paul McCartney that have ever been underreported, and that certainly applies to his acrimonious departure from the Beatles in 1970. But while the stature of his bandmates—especially John Lennon and George Harrison—escalated in the decades which followed, McCartney has often been given comparably short shrift by chin-stroking music nerds. In fairness, McCartney himself must shoulder some of the blame for his spotty reputation: His recorded output has sometimes wavered somewhere on the shaky precipice between mawkish and schmaltzy; he had no concept of irony; there wasn’t a picture taken for 15 years straight where he wasn’t winking and hoisting his thumbs aloft.

McCartney has been making a concerted effort for a while to try and turn the artistic tides in his favor, perhaps beginning with his 1989 collaborations with Elvis Costello, working with the likes of Welsh indie-heroes Super Furry Animals, hanging out with Dave Grohl and playing festivals like Coachella. McCartney has also attempted to cast a different light on his previously released material, and as such has finally gotten around to his first two solo albums proper, collections on which he played every instrument.

McCartney and McCartney II are separated by a decade, the former recorded as a low-key, pressure-free tonic after the Beatles split, and the latter a polished collection of private recordings worked up before the final Wings tour and released a year later when the band was no more. The end of the Beatles allowed the Fab Four to each break off and find their own way: George Harrison had a lot to say, John Lennon a lot to get off his chest and Ringo Starr a desire to step out from behind the drumkit and become a frontman in his own right. McCartney, though, just wanted to chill the fuck out.

McCartney bears all the telltale signs of the circumstances that led to its creation; the album is at once intimate and inspired, finding a relaxed Macca on top form. Songs like “The Lovely Linda” and “Junk” are the work of an artist from whom a broader view of Love (with a capital “L”) was most effectively told through a deeply personal lens, while “Hot as Sun/Glasses” and “Momma Miss America” are so perfect in their rough state, it’s as though the artist stepped away from the canvas to add more paint to his palette, caught a glimpse of the pieces in mid-design and instinctively said, “Fuck it, they’re done.” If the album proper has one defining track, it’s probably “Maybe I’m Amazed”, an absolutely scorching love song that might have been a massive single in 1970 had it actually been released in that format (a live version recorded with Wings hit #10 on the charts in the US in 1976), but is instead one of the finest songs ever written and recorded by McCartney, including his work with the Beatles.

The bonus audio material on McCartney is also more than just filler, including three songs performed with Wings at a 1979 concert in Glasgow; a live in-studio run through “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the 1974 documentary One Hand Clapping; and three unreleased tracks, including “Don’t Cry Baby” (a jam on what eventually became “Oo You”), a piano-and-vocals demo of an amusing work in progress number called “Women Kind” in which McCartney sings about bra burning, and a compelling demo of a song called “Suicide”.

McCartney II, released in 1980, is perhaps even more overlooked in McCartney’s canon, in spite of it including the chart smash “Coming Up” (the live version recorded with Wings during a Glasgow concert in 1979 that was a #1 hit in the US and Canada is included on a second disc of bonus material). For many, the album was an odd curio upon release, and in many ways it sounds even weirder now. While much of his most popular solo/Wings material up to that point was recorded on traditional rock & roll instruments, McCartney II doesn’t just feature synthesizers and other electronic instruments, it showcases them.

Just two songs in, “Temporary Secretary” is a manic, futuristic laser blast with an actual melody simmering underneath. It would be pointless to compare it to anything McCartney had ever done before, and would be equally so to compare it to anyone else as it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. More than any other song on either eponymous album, “Temporary Secretary” illustrates the complex nature of Paul McCartney’s musical output, and why painting him into a corner as an artless and cynical hack has always been utter bullshit. “On the Way”, a sparse, mid-tempo tune that sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a deep chasm, is another gem, as are “Waterfalls” and “One of These Days”, two songs which are rescued from succumbing to sugar shock by virtue of their genuine beauty.

McCartney II also features a handful of terrific bonus tracks, including a few futuristic b-sides (the Gorillaz-forecasting “Check My Machine” and the full-length version of “Secret Friend”), an even stranger relative of an already strange album track (“Bogey Wobble” is the b-side, “Bogey Music” the album cut), a cheesy yuletide single (“Wonderful Christmastime”) and a couple of unreleased songs: “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” (a Devo-esque shimmy which opens with the line, “The Shangri-La’s vs. the Village People”); “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway” and “Blue Sway”, the latter featuring the addition of orchestration by Richard Niles. (A second disc of bonus material, most of which features extended versions of album tracks, was not available for review.)

The bonus DVD material is also fascinating, especially on McCartney where the album’s songs are revisited many years later by Macca himself. Following a splendidly animated film accompanying McCartney’s present-day recollections of recording the album and a few archival clips, “Every Night” and “Hot as Sun” are given a live airing by Wings at one of the benefit Concerts for Kampuchea on December 29, 1979. McCartney’s MTV Unplugged performance recorded on January 25, 1991 also featured a pair of numbers from his solo debut; “Junk” and “That Would Be Something” are included on the DVD.

McCartney II includes a much longer DVD, in part because of a 25-minute English television chat show called Meet Paul McCartney. The program is definitely of its age, a somewhat dry, overly intellectual conversation between Macca and presenter Tim Rice. McCartney II also includes videos that predate the launch of MTV by one year, including a fairly literal promo for “Waterfalls”, a clip of “Wonderful Christmastime” that looks as though it’s spent the past 30 years in direct sunlight and the legendary tongue-in-cheek video for “Coming Up”, which takes the DIY means by which the music was recorded and features a band entirely comprised of McCartney in various costumes, with a pair of backup singers played by Linda.  “Coming Up” gets the most video coverage by a long stretch, with clips of a 1979 rehearsal, a Concert for Kampuchea performance with Wings from that same year, and a “Making of” version of the promo video with commentary provided by McCartney. Both reissues are available in a few different formats, including digital, vinyl and both two-disc and super-deluxe CD versions.

McCartney and McCartney II are both essential releases for different reasons, though they both find the former Beatle in his comfort zone. He recorded these tracks as though no one was ever going to listen, and in doing so released himself from the pretense of pressure. This is Paul McCartney in 1970 and 1980; stripped down and terrific.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (both albums)