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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: Two titles plant stakes in the critical firmament for Duran Duran

Two new books about Duran Duran.
Two new books about Duran Duran.Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

July 15, 2021

Here's a thought experiment: you're going to be reincarnated, but it's going to be circa 1960, you're going to be a white guy, and you're going to be in an '80s rock band. Bear in mind that you're going to have to live this whole life out: so if you pick Angus Young, get ready for hearing loss and septuagenarian schoolboy togs, and if you pick Huey Lewis just because he seems like a chill guy, get ready for critical irrelevance and endless casino-showcase renditions of "The Power of Love."

So who do you pick? It's got to be a member of Duran Duran, right? Take your pick: they all have musical talent, and you have a 60% chance of ending up with the very pronounceable surname of Taylor. More importantly, you'll enjoy both the dizzying heights of MTV superstardom and an enduring career that sees rising critical recognition as you find (to borrow a phrase from fellow 1983 icon Jabba the Hutt) a new definition of cool.

In her new 33⅓ title, respected music writer Annie Zaleski plants a firm stake: "Rio feels like a complete, cohesive statement — a cultural-shifting sonic universe akin to 1980s blockbusters such as Prince's Purple Rain, Madonna's Like a Virgin, Michael Jackson's Thriller, and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. Back then, I would've been roundly shamed and ridiculed for saying that."

She's not wrong. No band may have been more purely emblematic of MTV in its explosively influential early years than Duran Duran, who looked so damn good, it was easy for musicheads to peg them as the station's creation. In fact, as Zaleski details, the opposite statement would be much closer to the truth: "When 'Hungry Like the Wolf' appears on early MTV," she writes, "it's akin to when television turned from black-and-white to color."

Few would argue with Zaleski that Rio is the quintessential Duran Duran album, not just because of its timing (the 1982 LP made 1983, as one of her chapter titles puts it, "the year of Duran Duran") but because the process of its creation showcased the band at their best. The album's songs were largely written and honed during a year of worldwide touring behind the group's 1981 debut, meaning that not only did the music soak in a globe-straddling sensibility, the band had a firm grasp on the material when they entered London's AIR Studios and could spend their limited time perfecting the arrangements and even adding avant-garde touches like the building crescendo that opens the song's original album version, produced by a reversed tape of keyboardist Nick Rhodes dropping metal rods onto the strings of a grand piano.

When Duran Duran come up in histories of the era, they tend to come off as living a charmed life. Please Please Tell Me Now, a new band biography by Stephen Davis, helps to contextualize both their appeal and their initial critical disdain: although they grew up on the famed British music scene that produced mournful masterpieces by the likes of Joy Division, Duran Duran were young enough, pop-embracing enough, and frankly talented enough to skip post-punk angst and go straight to the masses. In the music world, suspicions of Duran Duran took on a similar tenor to film buffs' suspicions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg: they were seen as having sold out their anti-establishment origins for a Reagan/Thatcher-era glossy escapism.

It's certainly true that Duran Duran were never a particularly political band; Davis points out that singer Simon Le Bon was hired as much on the basis of his loopy Beat-influenced lyrics as his vocal abilities. Did you know that Seven and the Ragged Tiger is a concept album about, as Le Bon puts it, "a little commando team"? The seven represented the five band members and their two managers; "the ragged tiger is success."

Duran Duran did, of course, end up on the superstar charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?"; in Davis's account, Bob Geldof called Le Bon first. "Have you seen this fookin' shite on the telly about fookin' Ethiopia? We fookin' gotta do something!" (Harry Belafonte was so exasperated by the syrupy song's condescending lyrics that he got Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write the equally saccharine but less Eurocentric American upgrade, "We Are the World.")

While Davis neither attempts nor achieves Zaleski's critical insights, his book is a well-informed and valuable addition to the not-insubstantial shelf of Duran Duran lit. It started out as a band autobiography when Duran Duran re-formed their original lineup in the early 2000s; that book never came to fruition, so Davis has now supplemented the interviews he did at that time with new research to flesh out the band's multi-decade career. The book understandably focuses on the group's '80s heyday, but lengthy quotations provide detailed accounts of the band's changes in style and membership before their classic lineup finally coalesced in 1980.

Both new books pay minimal heed to the group's "Behind the Music" drama, recognizing that it's not particularly informative or exceptional. What's important about Duran Duran isn't what didn't work, it's what did. Zaleski argues that the band deserve more credit for shaping the decade's sound with their "blazing electric guitars blended with moody synthesizers"; I'll confess to forgetting Rio came out in the early '80s, not the mid '80s when its sound was already all over the radio.

As Rhodes told Zaleski, American radio initially resisted the band's "edgy and English" aesthetic; what the band's haters may not have realized is that Duran Duran were embraced by college radio around the same time as R.E.M. Because they were filming videos surrounded by sparkling seas instead of creeping kudzu, Duran Duran were assumed to have no indie cred, when in fact they had it all along. They also established a U.S. beachhead (so to speak) for the New Romantic look; Davis's book is full of observers including Andy Warhol himself wondering at these straight cis British boys wearing more makeup than the many women they effortlessly bedded.

Zaleski came to Duran Duran with fresh ears, being a millennial who first heard the band in the '90s. By that point, Nirvana and Tori Amos had both covered "Rio"; who could have ever thought Duran Duran to be irrelevant? Robert Christgau, that's who: the fabled Dean of American Rock Critics. Rio, he wrote in the Village Voice when the album was originally released, wouldn't be any good even "if it had as many hooks as A Flock of Seagulls (not bloody likely)."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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August 5: Why Marianne Faithfull Matters by Tanya Pearson

August 12: Razabilly: Transforming Sights, Sounds, and History in the LosAngeles Latina/o Rockabilly Scene by Nicholas F. Centino