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)

Friendly Fires/The Naked and Famous/Cults - Live at SummerStage in Central Park

Originally published by PopMatters on August 10, 2011

With the punishing humidity and fetid stench of rotting garbage and human waste, summer in New York City is no picnic. Just try telling that to the sea of pink-faced revelers who streamed into Rumsey Playfield on Sunday afternoon (some of whom were actually picnicking with baskets of food and blankets) for a free Central Park SummerStage show headlined by English post-funk outfit Friendly Fires with support from New Zealand-based indie popsters the Naked and Famous and Cults, a New York band who admitted to being more nervous about playing in their own city than they’d been two days earlier at Lollapalooza.

On record, Friendly Fires are a kinetic blend of dance rhythms, massive washes of synthesizers and guitars and the blue-eyed soul yelps of frontman Ed Macfarlane. Live, however, they’re even better, a frenzy of motion from which the noise escapes. In Central Park, there was the standard instrument-hopping and continuous pulse as experienced by this reporter at Coachella two years ago. There was also a two-man horn section helping certain numbers lean a decade further back than the oft-noted ‘80s influence the band seems to revel in. And there was also Macfarlane, one of the most energetic singers trodding the boards today.
Much has been said of Macfarlane’s fondness for exaggerated Jaggerisms (ex-Jaggerated?) on stage, and it must be said that there’s really something to that. Few young bucks even bother attempting to mince and flounce around the way Macfarlane does. There’s an air of the wan socialite in the way the microphone is scornfully held with a limp wrist, dangling there as Macfarlane gyrates and shimmies. And anyone who’s seen Friendly Fires before knows Macfarlane spends so much time in the crowd during his band’s set that he really should have to buy a ticket. You know, unless the show is free.

Because many of the SummerStage shows are free (with donation boxes prevalent at the exits), the crowd is often something of a mixed bag. Without casting aspersions on anyone in particular, it’s not unreasonable to deduce that many of the people who feasted on the bounty of some of Brooklyn Flea’s most popular food vendors and quaffed $8 beers might not have turned up for a regular Friendly Fires show with an actual ticket price. It mattered not, as all three bands on the bill brought the goods in their own way.

Cults were on stage for around 30 minutes, at least half of which sounded pretty much the same: The same beats, same blend of weedy pop and faux-darkness. Cults, a duo, are fleshed out on stage by three musicians, presumably chosen as much for their skill as their huge piles of hair. Madeline Follin is a perfectly fine singer, though her voice occasionally cut through the mix in an unappealingly sharp way. Still, it was hardly an unsuccessful set, and the audience was appreciative.

The Naked and Famous, if I’m being completely candid, probably drew the biggest crowd. Their radio-friendly songs have been featured in popular television shows like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, and there was definitely sporadic widespread singing along from the audience. With their approachable songs carried on a throbbing electronic pulse and occasional loud guitars, it’s likely popular for the same reason MGMT caught on a couple of years ago. In fact, one of the few low points in their set was probably my own fault, as the outro to one song reminded me a little too much of an ad for consumer electronics company Haier.

For Friendly Fires, the show was an opportunity to showcase songs off their latest album (Pala, which sounded fantastic alongside tracks from their eponymous debut), to possibly develop a wicked sunburn before heading off to Japan for Summer Sonic and to bring some of the energy that led to a stage invasion at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn two years ago. They did all that and more. With a fall tour of the US lined up, it’s worth whatever you have to spend to hit one of their shows.