had asked you a year ago to predict which 1980s band’s reformation would result in five sold-out nights at Wembley Arena (following an ecstatically received tour of Japan and the US), a Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution To Music, an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award and a greatest hits album reacquainting itself with the top ten, you certainly wouldn’t have replied: “I know! The Thompson Twins!” But would you, in all honesty, have guessed Duran Duran?
It’s February 20, a few days after the Brits, and in the bowels of a London club, five 40-something men are posing in designer finery. They’re wrinklier, of course, and jowlier, with suspiciously over-coiffed hair. But otherwise, time has been kind to Simon Le Bon (vocals), Nick Rhodes (keyboards) and unrelated Taylors Andy (guitar), John (bass) and Roger (drums).
As they horse around – mocking Roger’s white jacket (“You look like the cover of Thriller!”), applauding when Simon excuses himself to perform an “emergency trouser change” – you can’t help but share their sense of vindication, and feel satisfied at the enactment of one of pop’s classic redemption narratives: the written-off band, reunited against the odds, basking in long-denied acclaim. If the truth is slightly more complicated, that’s only to be expected.
Between 1982 and 1985, this gang of pretty-boy Brummies (excepting Simon, who was born in Bushey) ruled the world. To describe them, as some have, as the first boy band misrepresents their appeal. Their weapons were never just their looks, but self-penned songs . There were, famously, videos too: state-of-the-art ones reflecting the post-New Romantic fascination with travelogue and peddling a semi-ironic but NME-baiting vision of the good life borrowed from advertising and Roxy Music album sleeves.
To catch the band at the peak of their imperial phase, watch Sing Blue Silver, the hilarious, oddly touching chronicle of their 1984 US tour for which Duranies across Britain set the video when it was televised that Christmas (it was also released last week on DVD). Hindsight invariably telescopes events, but even so, it seems incredible that by the time of Live Aid the following July, Duran Mark 1 were all but washed up.
Roger: “Live Aid crystallised the disquiet of the original band. We were on the same stage but in different places.”
In fact, the band had already split down the middle. John and Andy joined forces with Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson to form the rockist Powerstation; Simon, Nick and Roger decamped to Paris, christened themselves Arcadia and spent months and loads of EMI’s cash finessing an album of oblique art-pop called So Red The Rose whose highlight, The Promise, is almost certainly the only chance you’ll get to hear Herbie Hancock, Dave Gilmour and Sting on the same song.
The centre could not hold. Roger was the first to quit, citing nervous exhaustion. He bought a farm in Gloucestershire, where he embraced a life of quiet anonymity. Then Andy seemed fazed by the twin demands of his nascent solo career and recording 1986’s Notorious album. He was replaced , but though the years 1987-90 saw some of their best work, the hits more or less dried up.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the success of Ordinary World summoned the good times back. But they bungled the pass. 1995’s tribute covers album, Thank You, bombed; then John left halfway through recording 1997’s Medazzaland (never released in the UK after a plan to release a single on the internet caused a massive row with EMI). The most recent album, 2000’s Pop Trash, limped into the UK album charts at 53. Whoops!
Simon: “We weren’t quite sure what to do, to be honest with you.”
Nick: “We realised that Duran Duran without a single Taylor was pretty tricky, and not something people would readily accept, no matter how good the album might have been. It was a marketing nightmare.”
Roger remembers John calling him “out of the blue” in September 2000 and asking the big question. “I said, ‘Give me 24 hours to think about it and I’ll call you back.’”
Did you expect it to be different this time?
“It’s already very different. The landscape is different, the fans are different. When I left, the mainstay of the audience was 13-year-old girls. Now those girls are 30 . More guys come to the shows, too. It’s a more mature audience that’s easier to relate to, and the hassle factor is a lot less.” Roger hated the attention more than the others, and grew frustrated with not being able to hear himself play over the screaming. “I’d certainly lost a part of myself after a few years of being in the band. We got together when we were very young and didn’t have time to form as individuals.”
Simon: “It kind of ran away with us, and you get forced into roles.”
Nick: “Rolls-Royces. They’re the only kind I’m ever forced into, let me tell you.”
Andy: “If someone had said, ‘You’ll hate doing this in five years, Rog,’ you’d have said, ‘How could I ever hate this? Making music with you guys?’ But that’s what happened. That’s the scary bit. Who am I? And why do I no longer like the one thing I loved about my life and thought I could share with other people?”
Nick: “Because if you weren’t who you thought when you were thinking that you thought that …”
Tall, gaunt John has lived in LA for several years and seems comfortable now with the idea of Duran as his life’s defining project “We’ve been around the block, all of us, but we’ve come back to something that really works. It’s comfortable, but it’s still challenging. It’s not always easy.”
I suggest that age is less of an issue for a band like the Rolling Stones because their music is blues-derived; but there’s a perception of pop as a young man’s game.
He bristles slightly. “I think we’d rather call it rock now. Also, the term pop has changed. If you say that Duran are a pop band, people who’ve never heard us would assume we sound like what’s in the top ten, but we don’t. We are an older wine than that. But you know what? It’s one of those old questions, and it’s tired. I mean, f*** – who says what you have to wear and when you have to stop wearing it?” He sighs. “We’ve been justifying our existence for a long time, and now people say ‘and you’re not even young any more!’”
Conversation turns to the music industry (Andy: “Nothing stays on the shelves for longer than a decade. At the Brits I was thinking: ‘Hang on, where did all the Britpop go?’”) and, reluctantly, hedonism.
Andy: “Your average Friday night down any boozer will be rowdier than any rock’n’roll band. More drink, more fights, more drugs.”
Except you had better quality drugs.
Andy: “Well, I don’t know. (Laughs) Disco Charlie was never very good.”
By dint of being lead singer, Simon has always been Duran’s Flackcatcher General. Sun columnist Dominic Mohan called his run-like-the-wind Brits performance “wheezy” (“Well, I wasn’t!” he says, indignantly), and tabloid speculation about the state of his marriage to supermodel Yasmin has gone into overdrive in recent months. Does this piss him off?
“It pisses me off when it’s completely f***ing shit, yes. But the fact is we believe that the band will outlive the bad press.”
At the Brits, Simon declared that Duran felt “validated” by their award, and it’s clear it meant more to them than the cynics assume.
Roger: “We want to be doing this for a number of years now. The bands we look to are the bands who’ve had long careers but still manage to make an impact – U2, the Chili Peppers, the Stones. We don’t want to be a band that comes out every year and does a tour at Christmas, playing the oldies. The only way forward is new material.”
The slight snag is that little of this exists yet, other than as bootlegs (some of which bode thrillingly well, particularly the Save A Prayer-like Still Breathing, which they include in their live set). Jason Nevins’s remix of one song, Sunrise, has found its way onto the soundtrack for the US TV show Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, but the album they’ve been recording intermittently for over a year now won’t be out until the autumn.
So what of the accusation that you’re Only In It For The Money? Is it naive to wonder if you’d have reformed solely for music and friendship?
Simon: “You have to look at different scenarios, don’t you? The scenario would be if there was no money in music any more, or if we were prepared to play Butlins and little club shows. And neither scenario works. Because the Butlins scenario … part of it for us is getting up in front of a big audience and getting our point across. I don’t feel embarrassed about being paid for what I do. People say ‘are you doing it for the money or the art?’ and the answer is ‘a bit of both, actually’.”
Whatever their idols’ motives, fans are delirious with excitement. Pity those poor souls who nailed their colours to a flimsier mast – Spandau Ballet.
“Actually,” says Roger, “there was a lot of goodwill from [former Spandaus] Martin and Gary Kemp at the Brits. They seemed genuinely happy that we were back together.”
“Yeah. In fact, I think reforming is at the back of their minds at the moment …”
Come back The Thompson Twins! All is forgiven!
Duran Duran play the SECC, Glasgow on Thursday. The DVD Sing Blue Silver is out now
www.duranduran.com 11 April 2004