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.