The first decade of Duran Duran’s existence peaked with a trio of singles, two of which topped the charts in the States. The Reflex (remixed for the single release by long time collaborator Nile Rodgers) with it’s “live” video showcased the mania that hadn’t been seen since The Beatles, with a similar scream-to-audible-music ratio that can’t have been ideal for anyone buying a ticket to actually hear a band play live. The Wild Boys followed, a theme for a film never released, but with a music video that was cinema-worthy itself. And finally A View To A Kill (for a film that shouldn’t have been released), which remains the only Bond theme to reach the top of the charts in the States, or 007’s homeland, despite efforts from a-ha, Adele and a host of other hit makers.
Notoriety, Cocaine and, ah yes, good old fashioned “musical differences” meant that it would be some time before these five members would appeal to this amount of people again. By the time they reconvened to a studio (for 1986’s Notorious), one Taylor (Andy) had left for the States to launch a solo career, while another (Roger) headed to a farm for some bloody peace and quiet. They had conquered the world, sold records in the tens of millions, nearly died from either drugs, windmills or elephant shit, and they had burned out. But this may not have been the most surreal ten years for either the band or the fans…
By 1997 the band had lost their third and final Taylor, as founding member John decided (at last) to concentrate on his health, parting ways mid-way through the writing and recording of a new album. Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes remained, with guitarist Warren Cuccurullo (working with the band since Notorious, and becoming a fully fledged member in 1990) assisting with a career that had started to have more downs than ups, so much so that the album they created may be a stranger to even the more-than-casual fans. Medazzaland was only released in North America and Japan, and although CDs and cassettes were planned to land in Our Price and HMV in 2/3s of the now-trio’s own country, it was the plans that were shelved rather than the physical releases.
In a time when streams were to be paddled in, and the idea of a music shop inside the world wide web an absurd notion, Medazzaland became an oddity in the band’s discography. Their previous album (1995’s questionable collection of questionable covers, Thank You) peaked at a respectable #12 in the UK, and at the end of the following year they’d play two nights at Wembley Arena, but somewhere in an office, a man in a suit (who would soon fall victim to the fact that, while video killed the radio star, the internet would suffocate his own industry) decided that this album was not fit for purpose. Which is a shame, because for the most part it really is.
Medazzaland – named after Le Bon’s experience with midazolam during a trip to the dentist – is a first on many counts: The first DD album released without a Taylor (although John’s contributions can be heard on three tracks), the first to feature a lead vocal from anyone other than Simon (Nick speaks the words to the opening title track), the first with a single to be available to download (Electric Barbarella – in fact, the first single available to download ever – take that, record company suit!) and the first not readily available to those UK fans who’d been there from day one in Birmingham’s Rum Runner club, when John was Nigel, Warren a Missing Person, and romantics were newer than new.
Unlike their last collection of original material (1993’s The Wedding Album, featuring surprise hit Ordinary World), Medazzaland wasn’t radio-friendly. Medazzaland is a harsh, experimental, personal, scientific, ironic, rough, diverse, dystopian, reflective, futuristic collection; a staple in the story of – whether you care to admit it or not – one of the world’s most influential bands. There are nods to their past on the dance floor with Electric Barbarella and Big Bang Generation, tales to the lost on sparse tracks Michael You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For (taking the acoustic approach) and Buried In The Sand (a more electronic eulogy). They ponder obsession (Be My Icon) and prescription (the title track), and are at their most creative. Unfortunately, you’ve got about as much chance as finding a copy of this album in your local Tesco’s bargain bin than hearing a track on a current setlist.
Three years later, the Le Bon/Rhodes/Cuccurullo line-up (DD V 5.0?) released Pop Trash through Disney’s Hollywood Records. Less a Classic during The House of Mouse’s renaissance, Pop Trash is the sort of Disney Channel TV Movie you might find yourself watching by mistake, occasionally laughing, but mainly wondering when you can return to real life. Despite some daily playlist worthy moments, the absence of any Taylor or much input from Simon (suffering writer’s block) made for an album that lacked spark, and features some of their weakest output to date (namely The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever and Hallucinating Elvis, the only DD I’d always recommend skipping).
Later that same year, plans had begun to reunite the original line up. With neither member within or without the band ever reaching the commercial or critical acclaim to parallel those first few years, the time had come to hit the reset button on Duran Duran. With commitments to the Pop Trash tour finished by 2001, Warren’s time with the band came to an end. He had helped steer the yacht through declining sales, a return to the charts, that disastrous (but not actually that bad) covers album and John’s departure, but there was no place for him as the chapter time travelled back twenty years, and so he was asked to leave. (“The awkward moment when…” doesn’t quite cut it.)
By 2003, with fresh material written (both Nick and Andy, more famous for their disagreements, agreed there had to be new music) but not yet released, the five-piece left their studio hideaway to return to the road, not really knowing whether the plan would work. It did, of course, with venues selling out in seconds, as smaller halls in Japan soon became seven sold out nights at Wembley Arena. And whereas previous shows had lacked enthusiasm, with session musicians in the shadows where legends once played, this was a tour-de-force with funk; no one gave the band edge like Andy, no one used two hands on an instrument like Roger, and no one played the fucking bass like John. One watch of the Live from London DVD is enough to see why only an original line up can play their own songs with the vigour that was there during the demos, through the rows, and at the first live outting.
But it wasn’t only the fans who were pleased to have their famous five back. The music biz in general seemed genuinely chuffed to see them again, and showed their appreciation with a plethora of awards and recognition in actual physical music magazines (something else quaking a little as the presence of the ‘net grew). They were cited as influences, from artists including Justin Timberlake (who presented their BRIT for Outstanding Contribution, and suggested working together during a backstage chat…) and worked with the producers of the time (Dallas Austin, Don Gilmore) and producer of Good Times, Nile Rodgers, on the first Taylor/Taylor/Tayor/Rhodes/Le Bon credited studio album since 1983’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger.
Astronaut saw those 5 elements that initiated Duran Duran’s success back in place, like an oddly sliced yet perfectly circular pizza. They had the anthems (Sunrise, Nice), the electronics (Want You More!), the big ballads (Finest Hour) and they had something they didn’t have before; wisdom, reflection and maturity (Still Breathing, Point Of No Return – like many of the tracks later on the album, written after 9/11 and the dawn of a less than ordinary world). With both the lead single and album breaking the top 5 in the UK, and a new world tour in the pipeline, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. To quote Andy on Astronaut’s bonus DVD (or was it the DualDisc?): “I think we’re back, and maybe for some time…”
Following sessions for Astronaut’s follow up (Reportage – released in even fewer places than Medazzaland, as the only demos are probably gathering dust in Nick Rhodes’ cellar), Duran were a guitarist down again. Depending on whose story you go on any of the following could be blamed for Andy’s second departure: Visa issues, a lack of communication, an unworkable gulf. Perhaps the fact that, according to his autobiography, there were already arguments during the tours and recording of Astronaut. Perhaps because Roger and himself were reportedly getting less than the other three, due to their 16 year absence. (Roger didn’t seem to have a problem with it, but then again, Roger’s always been the quiet type.) Perhaps, although he has denied being against it, because the band were heading into the studio with hitmaker Timbaland and our aforementioned potential collaborator, Timberlake.
It wasn’t the first time that DD had allowed one producer’s trademark sound to flavour an entire collection (Nile Rodgers’ flare was noticeable on all of Notorious’ ten tracks), but in this instance it wasn’t an entire recipe for success, which members have since admitted. Red Carpet Massacre was released just over a decade after Medazzaland, and thanks to progressions in technology, was available to buy from a home computer rather than arranging an import from the other side of the world. Not as many were interested in the collaboration, however, with the album becoming the second-lowest charting after Pop Trash. It certainly wasn’t all bad, Timberlake collab-ballad Falling Down is a nice blend of his Cry Me A River and their Ordinary World, The Valley’s middle-8 break down showcases individual elements like New Religion did so many years before, and Tricked Out embraces the industrial influences that Rhodes brought to the band at the beginning.
But it wasn’t what the larger crowd wanted. And it’s the old age predicament facing musicians who have been doing it for some time: The balance between pleasing the band and pleasing the fans. Duran don’t always get it spot on, but they certainly know how to win their followers back, so despite a commercial low-point ending for this decade-long focus, it’s far from the end of the story.
To recap: 1 decade, +2 original members, -2 “official” guitarists (Dom Brown stepped in while Andy was absent, and has toured and recorded with them ever since), 1 album not released in the UK, 1 album not released at all, 2 lowest charting albums to date, 1 highest charting album for 2 decades, 1 biggest tour to date, SEVERAL outstanding contribution awards… And, as a fan of any band from any decade, this is what frustrates when the band are defined by the decade when they began. Duran Duran are far from an 80s band, you just have to look at this decade – not to mention what happened after 2007, when they stepped out into the future further than ever before…