New wave and MTV wouldn’t have reached their heights in the ’80s or felt ongoing echoes today without the slick melodies and music videos of Duran Duran.
Eleven Billboard top 10 hits aside, the Birmingham, England new romantics have been sampled by The Notorious B.I.G., directed by David Lynch, and featured in Donnie Darko – so why aren’t we singing Duran Duran’s praises past “Hungry Like the Wolf” at karaoke?
Core members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, and Roger Taylor got the rockist shaft when it came to critical appreciation due to several aggravating factors. Making teens scream to the likes of the 5 Seconds of Summer fandom today wasn’t a five-star pursuit in writers’ eyes. Backwards label execs called Duran Duran’s experiments with hip-hop sampler production through collaborators like Nile Rodgers “too black”. Looking prettier than their fans with eyeliner, earrings, and an eye for style were hypermasculine strikes one, two, and three.
Just as rockism cast Duran Duran apart from the canon of music greats, their impact on new wave can be heard in the synthpop reinventions of The 1975, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tegan and Sara, and more artists benefitting from poptimism today. Taylor Swift even has a song called “New Romantics”. It’s only fitting for Duran Duran to return to the fore and ride the ’80s wave they helped create.
With the tour behind their latest album Paper Gods underway, we decided to reappraise 10 underrated Duran Duran gems that lie under the wake of their lavish yacht videos. Duran Duran stans a.k.a. Duranies will know all of them, of course.
Eighties megahit “The Reflex” may have been the most popular Duran Duran-Nile Rodgers tag team, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Duran sought Rodgers’ production touch again in 1986 for Notorious, their tightest pop record after Rio.
Notorious is a criminally-unsung showcase of Duran’s songwriting maturation, funk rhythms influenced by Rodgers, and Simon Le Bon’s falsetto. “Skin Trade” exemplifies Notorious’ blend of horns and Hitchcockian themes all while Le Bon channels Mick Jagger in “Emotional Rescue”. It’s a soulful critique of people who bend over backwards for money that would have fit on any Prince album.
Rio is without a doubt one of the iconic albums of the ’80s and Duran Duran’s 1982 magnum opus, a perfect fusion of club funk, early electronica, and megapop that defined new wave as a genre. Lying in the afterglow of the title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf” is “New Religion”, a manic conversation between a protagonist and their alter ego.
John Taylor’s expert popping and slapping mimics the ever-hastening pulse of Simon Le Bon’s character as his legato-voiced good tries to wrestle with his staccato-voiced evil. Le Bon’s clever alternating rhythms make each side as tempting as the other.
Arcadia – “Election Day”
Yes, Duran Duran had a goth side project. Arcadia warrants mention on its own as hypnotic, seductive art-rock cloaked in minimal synth atmospherics. With mood over lyrical meaning in mind, Le Bon, Rhodes, and Roger Taylor branched out as Arcadia during a Duran Duran hiatus in 1985 for the one-shot album So Red the Rose.
Arcadia’s standout track, “Election Day”, plays to a number of Duran Duran’s strengths: haunting electronic ambiance, a pulsing low end, and barely-there disco guitar licks that leave you wanting more. R&B goddess Grace Jones sweetens the deal with ominous spoken-word purrs.
Duran Duran’s 1993 self-titled commercial comeback, nicknamed The Wedding Album, is best known for its ballads “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone”, uplifting and unnerving anthems respectively. Yet neither song hits harder than “Shelter”, an intense cry for love that’s unfairly tucked into The Wedding Album’s back half.
Staccato, echoing synths shatter violently like glass before pulling away into a Bhangra-inspired rhythm that lulls you into a trance, eager for the next hit. Le Bon plays masculine and feminine Jekyll-Hyde with two vocal takes layered over each other, building into a chorus that’s vivid enough to induce chills.
Big Thing is both the name and sound of Duran Duran’s 1988 follow-up to Notorious, a bombastic house-influenced record with club cues that are often taken one step too far. Considering Big Thing’s in-your-face start with songs like “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is”, the slow, intoxicating waltz of “Palomino” is a welcome surprise further down the rabbit hole.
Rhodes’ synth wash dreamily underscores Le Bon’s lament, an exercise in restraint that could have benefitted the rest of the album’s aggressive production. With its delicate textured soundscape and poetic lyrics that blend paint with love, “Palomino” is the rightful heir to “Save a Prayer”.
“Notorious” as O.G. Duran Duran fans know it is largely eclipsed by its sample on “Notorious B.I.G.” from Biggie’s 1999 posthumous album Born Again. Duran Duran’s 1986 source material lives up to the famous “no-no-notorious” call-out, a funk track produced by Rodgers that also features his signature Chic guitar work. John Taylor’s bass leads and The Borneo Horns’ brass punctuation follows.
Backtrack to the 2001 cult movie Donnie Darko and you’ll hear that “Notorious” is the soundtrack of choice to Donnie’s school talent show. If you don’t remember, we doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.
“The Chauffeur” is a voyeuristic masterpiece rooted in the very beginning of Duran Duran. In 1978, a young Le Bon enamoured by theatre wrote an untitled vignette about a driver fixated on his passenger’s dress. Come 1980 when Le Bon auditioned for Duran Duran, the poem was one of his first offerings to Rhodes and the Taylors to highlight his lyrical chops. It shows in clever, sultry moments like “the droning engine throbs in time with your beating heart”.
When “The Chauffeur” finally found its way onto Rio in 1982, Rhodes added keys that hypnotically flicker in and out much like the titular chauffeur’s fantasy.
“Anyone Out There”
As much as Duran Duran’s self-titled 1981 debut benefitted from the then-novel eye candy of the music video, its songs hold their own weight with punchy rhythms, building synths, and cryptic lyrics. While “Girls on Film” is the jock at the centre of the party, “Anyone Out There” is the alluring outsider ruminating on lost love against the wall.
Original band member Andy Taylor is the song’s MVP for aggressive guitar slashes that add greater urgency to Le Bon’s pleading, built up further by John Taylor and Roger Taylor’s thundering bass and cymbals, respectively. No, the Taylors aren’t related, but “Anyone Out There” proves that when they were in sync, their connection was as strong as blood.
Even Duran Duran’s mixed efforts maintain their tradition of grandiose, enveloping openers that set the tone for each new album. 1997’s Medazzaland and its title track share a kaleidoscopic sound that reflects how much Duran Duran – then only Rhodes, Le Bon, and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo – were in flux.
John Taylor left the band for a time midway through the album, Duran Duran’s relationship with their first label EMI was no longer safe, and Le Bon came down with writer’s block. Rhodes filled in on “Medazzaland” with Big Brother-esque statements over his and Cuccurullo’s shifting soundscape. “Medazzaland” is not like any other Duran Duran song, the very reason it’s such a thrilling experiment.
Not since their 1989 megamix “Burning the Ground” has Duran Duran made such an invigorating wink to their past. As Le Bon sings on Paper Gods, their 2015 album is a step out into the future as well. Rhodes’ synth hits on “Pressure Off” are straight out of “Shake It” by David Bowie, Duran Duran’s greatest influence and tourmate in 1987.
Longtime collaborator Rodgers once again lends his electrifying rhythm guitar and groove-heavy production work to the team, and Q.U.E.E.N. Janelle Monáe is the perfect feature with soaring vocals that playfully spar with Le Bon’s. “Pressure Off” is Duran Duran’s first true party anthem in years, so don’t sleep on it.