"I wouldn't wish the eighties on anyone. It was the time when all that was rotten bubbled to the surface." Derek Jarman, film and video director (1942-1994)
It’s frightening to look back on a decade of your life and realise it’s mostly a show reel of pop videos. My 1980s memories are a mental scrapbook of bizarre glamour images that have nothing to do with real life. Whatever that may have been.
Duran Duran loom large in this artificial memory bank. The puffy blouses and UFO hairstyles of Planet Earth. The boxing ring swimsuit models in Girls On Film. The luxury yachting lark that was Rio.
Then there’s that epic trilogy of adventure videos shot in Sri Lanka by Russell Mulcahy. After the people’s liberation of punk, the swashbuckling lads in Hungry Like The Wolf were like raiders of the new videocracy, restoring power to the fashion elite and trampling peasants who couldn’t afford stylists.
Simon Le Bon, reclining like a cat in the executive club of a five-star Melbourne hotel, listens to this view from the gutter with a slow dawning look of outrage on his tanned, smouldering, 46-year-old face.
“You know how much that cost us, the whole Sri Lanka trip?” he demands.
“Guess. Go on, have a guess, have a guess.
I don’t . . .
“No, have a guess, a real, honest guess. Go on.”
Two million pounds?
Four pounds and some change?
Keyboard player Nick Rhodes, still smashing in a considered ensemble of black pop-art t-shirt and cream linen jacket, creases his make-up with a smile.
“Thirty grand,” Le Bon says smugly.
“That was it, for all of ‘em,” Rhodes confirms. “And that’s J-Lo’s hair and make-up budget now, isn’t it?”
Blimey, cheap as chips. What about what they represented, though? After all those cheap new wave videos, was it not something of a reversion to the Rod Stewart image of superstar affluence and privilege?
Le Bon is aghast. “Jesus!”
“Not at all,” says Rhodes. “I think they represented adventure.”
“The boat thing was definitely the closest we got to that,” Le Bon says. “But I don’t think it was elitist. It was like, ‘Hey, look at this! This is fantastic!’ And it was something nobody had seen.
“It was just about images. I mean, you watch a P Diddy video. You watch a rap video on one of those super yachts, with the black dancing girls. That’s elitist. THAT’s about bling, THAT’s about ‘I’ve made the move up’.”
“I guess the videos became fairly iconic later,” Rhodes concedes. “But when we did them, we did them just as a little film to go with the song. We thought they’d last for six weeks at best. But the amount of analysis that . . .”
“Riiiight!” Le Bon gasps. “People read too much into this shit!”
It’s fair to say that this interview hasn’t gone terribly well in parts. It started on the wrong foot, when I took a gamble of describing Duran Duran’s comeback single, (Reach Up For The) Sunrise, as a boring song with excellent hit potential.
For some reason, I felt that Le Bon and Rhodes, who have remained Duran Duran through thick and thin for 25 years, would have better humour about their lofty position in the pop firmament. The press has always been biased against their puffy-bloused yachting ways, after all, and yet the band has enjoyed vindication to the tune of 70 million records.
Instead of rising to the bait, however, Le Bon stood up and walked to the far side of the room to sample a platter of cheeses. It would be at least five minutes before he looked at me again. Rhodes flinched slightly, as if he’d been slapped. I mean, the song is distinctively Duran Duran, I was forced to elaborate feebly. Duran Duran fans will . . . love it.
Good cop Rhodes replied at last. “Well, good. I’d much rather provoke an opinion. In the past, sure, we’ve never been a critics’ favourite. But then we’ve always appealed to girls and mostly critics have been male. I think that’s been somewhat of a hurdle.”
A small one, though. Duran Duran made a spectacular live comeback last year when John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor rejoined Le Bon and Rhodes for the first time since Live Aid. They sold out venues from Tokyo to Los Angeles in record time and then added box office grease to Robbie Williams’ Australian tour of October.
But nostalgia will always be nostalgia. An album of new Duran Duran songs – Astronaut is released this week – might be anything at all, from the multi-million-selling glory days of their 1981 debut to the nadir of 1990’s Liberty. The earlier period, under the slightly prickly circumstances, seems like a good one to dwell on.
Le Bon remembers with relish the day in April 1980 that he met the rest of Duran Duran. He chuckles indulgently as he recalls a penniless drama student in post-punk Birmingham turning up to audition at a hip warehouse nightclub called the Rum Runner.
"It scared me a little bit at first, that they had such drive and motivation," he says. "I came out of the punk scene, so I was used to street cred, doing things for the sake of art. I remember John saying to me, ‘Street credibility, Simon? We’ve got about as much street credibility as Chanel No. 5’. They wanted to be the biggest band in the world.”
And they were, near as damn it. And then they weren’t, as is the fate of many pop groups that wear fashionable fragrances and appeal to young ladies. But Duran Duran are unrepentant about the emphasis on style that defined the MTV revolution, and arguably led to medium term shortcomings in the substance department of Pop Inc.
“The whole of the ‘80s was about standing out,” Rhodes says simply. “The ‘90s was about blending into the crowd."
"Yeah," Le Bon sneers, appalled by the dual grunge and DJ catastrophes that made him redundant. "YOU decide which one you wanna be. Really!"
"This is not a band filled with shrinking violets," Rhodes chuckles through his lipstick.
"It wasn’t so much the anti-star thing of the ‘90s," Le Bon adds, "it was the false modesty that really got me."
Strangely, though, when the term New Romantic is mentioned, as it must be, Le Bon is keen to distance himself from the whole frilly-cuffed ordeal.
"I’d seen it in the NME," he says. "There was an article about Spandau Ballet and l’d seen the phrase New Romantic and I thought, I like that, I’ll have that. So I stuck it in a song (first single Planet Earth) and suddenly we were in it!"
"We actually consciously avoided getting dragged into it," says Rhodes, "cause when things are incredibly fashionable, they go out of fashion just as quick."
But really, chaps. You say New Romantic to anyone over 30 and the name Duran Duran is likely to come up.
"Sure," Le Bon concedes. "We’re the only survivors of New Ro… of that thing. But Steve Strange, I mean, he was the archetype. And Spandau, they embraced it much more than we did. They wore f---ing tartan for God’s sake! Not a checked shirt in this band, ever."
Who knows, this cunning fashion choice may have been the making of Duran Duran. Even as their general popularity fell in the ostensibly anti-star ‘90s, they held onto fans in high places. Courtney Love covered Hungry Like The Wolf when Hole were at their peak. The Smashing Pumpkins dragged Le Bon on stage in ’98 and Puff Daddy sampled Notorious in ’00.
The Dandy Warhols paid homage on their last album, partly produced by Rhodes, and Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand is one of a whole new wave of hip rock bands not averse to a synthetic bubble skirt flashback.
“Powderfinger!” Le Bon shouts. “They did a cover of The Chauffeur!”
The all-Australian tribute album of ’99, Undone, also featured Kylie Minogue, the Living End, Jebediah, Something for Kate and Ben Lee. It was one of several around that time.
“You know,” says Rhodes, “it’s always great when other artists get into your music and say nice things about you cause you know that they understand what you go through. When you put things out there that are very different, you’re on the edge and you don’t know which way it’s gonna go.
“And when we did the Thankyou album,” he adds, bravely speaking of their seldom bought covers collection of ’95, “it did get the most DREADFUL reviews –“
Le Bon laughs fit to burst.
“- but you know what? Every single artist without exception said great things about the versions that we did. Even Led Zeppelin! And we took on some serious things, from Bob Dylan to Public Enemy to . . . to . . .”
To Lou Reed and Grandmaster Flash.
“And that was why it got the panning from the press!” Le Bon hoots. “‘How dare they do that to my favourite song!’” he sobs into his sleeve, exactly like an offended music critic.
With all that homage afoot, reunion was an obvious choice for the Fab Five. Astronaut is only their fourth album together, the first since the sagely titled Seven and the Ragged Tiger had everyone from Andy Warhol to Princess Di to Bob Geldof to the James Bond movie people on the phone.
"The first day we got (back) together and plugged in, three years ago, we didn’t play any old songs, we went straight into something new,” says Rhodes. “It went really well so that’s when we knew it was gonna be worth doing for us, to make something really creative out of it.
"But the music business was in absolute free fall. Every time we started to talk to someone about a record, the CEO would get fired. One time we went in to sign a deal and the company was gone! Incredible!"
Hence last year’s tour. Highly convincing box office figures eventually attracted more serious attention, ultimately in the corridors of Sony Music.
“As soon as we started playing,” Le Bon says, “it crystallised the passion in the band, and when that happened, suddenly people who were in charge of record companies – however briefly – they really started to sit up.
"The thing is, we’re survivors," he concludes. "It doesn’t matter how much shit you throw at us, it doesn’t stick."
So far, so good. And speaking of metaphors, what’s with Astronaut?
"We’ve made this guy," Le Bon says with exaggerated enthusiasm, "and we’ve put all our energy into it and we’re sending it out there to see what it comes back with."
"I think there’s something really romantic about astronauts actually," Rhodes adds dreamily.
"No," he says. "Just romantic."
This article first appeaed in The Age, Melbourne, October 22, 2004