1981: It was the dawn of the 'New Pop' era. The moment when bands that had toiled away on the margins, scratching out manifestos, building up their audiences, gaining favourable write-ups in the weekly music press were making their assaults on the pop charts.
Although the bands that '...fulfilled the New Pop dream of chart-busting music that combined pop's flash with post-punk perplexity...' * were adored and could be heard on both daytime and night time radio, there were others that were still deemed to be fake, faddish, and fame-hungry.
Birmingham-based Duran Duran were a doggedly persistent bunch, despite losing three lead singers and almost as many guitarists since forming in 1978, they just kept soldiering on. According to bass player John Taylor, their musical vision was to be ' ...a cross between Chic and the Sex Pistols'. Meanwhile, when deejaying at the city's Rum Runner nightclub, keyboardist Nick Rhodes had treated the crowds to the most revered post-punk, electro and disco records. Surely, with all of their knowing reference points, they were going to be welcomed with open arms, surely...
"Duran Duran are going to be huge, the sad thing is, they don't deserve any of it"
NME, Live Review, Spring 1981
Something about Duran Duran rankled with the critics. Their debut single 'Planet Earth' with its futuristic washes of synths and dominant bass lines suggested that they had not just listened to, but studied Japan's 'Quiet Life'. Their debut album also had the whiff of the synths vs. rock guitars of 'Systems of Romance’ the final album by the John Foxx era-Ultravox. Then there was the image, they dressed as if they were queuing to be let into the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden. Their early videos (directed by Russell Mulcahy who had just made the oh-so-serious ‘Vienna’ for Ultravox), gave off a similar vibe.
However, it was clear by the string-driven disco of the interim single 'My Own Way' (Winter 2021), that the band remained unruffled by the slurs (I'm never bothered what you say'), It was this defiance that wound feed into their next album: ‘Rio.’
1982 - The band was keen to prove that they weren't just a manufactured product and in doing so, set about making the most self-assured and confident record to date. Everything about 'Rio' screams their new status - starting with the arresting cover image, designed by Playboy favourite Patrick Nagel, announcing that this is a brand new adventure. And then the music starts...after the scraping metallic noise that introduces the title track, there’s a galloping, slightly disorientating, interplay between Andy Taylor's guitar, Rhodes keys, and Roger Taylor's drums. Vocalist Simon Le Bon’s lyrics feel like a stab at the tantalizing trash of early Roxy Music and it just falls a little short of its intentions. He doesn’t have the Ferry-like charisma, a realisation made clear in the ludicrous video (antics on a yacht in Antigua, the band all wearing Anthony Price suits). The title track is by far the least enduring number on the album.
However, it’s the sleekness of late Roxy’s ‘Flesh and Blood’ that imbues the musical maturity of ‘Lonely in Your Nightmare’, which alongside the soulful intentions of ‘Last Chance on The Stairway’ point to how far they had moved from the futuristic also-ran status of their first album. Amongst the singles ‘ Hungry Like The Wolf’ opens with a glammy guitar riff that’s indebted to Marc Bolan. Even if the tinny drum sound screams eighties overproduction and Le Bon’s lyrics now appear rather creepy (‘…I’m on the hunt, I’m after you’), it still maintains much of its appeal. However, it’s the five and a half minutes ‘Save a Prayer’ that is the surprise, a wistful synth-led ballad that elevates a one-night stand to something far more eloquent. Its morning-after melancholy may have been lost on some listeners.
‘New Religion’ was, and possibly still is Duran Duran’s most adventurous creation. The cinematic and, ahem, spiritual introduction melts into Andy Taylor’s sweeping guitar soundtrack and Le Bon’s peculiar and disturbed internal monologue (at several points, I swear he is trying to rap). Every member of the band is playing to their best ability (and the bass no longer feels inappropriately high in the mix). Speaking many years later Roger Taylor noted: ‘…it was a deep cut for a band that was really considered to be a teen band.’ It still sounds splendidly fresh.
It’s the finale of ‘The Chauffeur’ that shows Duran Duran as the arthouse band they always (and still) claim to be. Only Le Bon and Rhodes (with sequencers, synths, sampled sounds of ice cubes cracking, and a nonsense outro from a spoken word album about nature), appear. The lyrics, a poem that Le Bon wrote before joining the band, maybe yet another adaptation of the familiar cars as sexual object metaphor (so you've got some JG Ballard novels, right?) – but somehow, with that chilly soundtrack, it fits together brilliantly – a perfect ending to the album.
Forty years on, you’d be forgiven for wondering if the pioneering ‘new wave band' (as they were confusingly referred to in so many of the anniversary articles last year), is the same Duran Duran that received such scorn so long ago, but it is. Furthermore, their diverse list of collaborators and producers (Janelle Monae, Mark Ronson, Chai, Giorgio Moroder, Mike Garson, Graham Coxon and, obviously, Nile Rogers) show a band still keen to experiment and move forward. And as for 'Rio'? Yes, it's Duran Duran's best album. So far.
*Simon Reynolds – Rip It Up and Start Again