Birmingham’s finest f
ive-piece four-piece three-piece f ive-piece four-piece band hold a special place in my heart. Although I knew many of the earlier singles, in 1984 I got my hands on a cassette copy of the 90% live album “Arena” and from that point on, I was completely addicted to the mixture of strong hooks, innovative art direction and complete gibberish, pseudomystic lyrics.
I’ve seen them live three times now, with five, three and four members. The most recent show, part of the Paper Gods tour, was their strongest show yet even if the album it was named for was something of a step backwards. As with Pet Shop Boys and Stuart Price, in Mark Ronson the band had found a collaborator who understood them as well as they understood themselves and “All You Need Is Now” era Duran Duran was as strong as they had been since “Notorious”, with strong hooks and robust production. “Paper Gods”, by contrast, is a thin, reedy affair that at times sounds like you’re listening to music via someone else’s headphones on the bus.
Nevertheless, Duran Duran were my first musical heroes and this Spotify playlist constitutes my eleven favourite Duran Duran songs. Sort of.
1. Night Boat (Duran Duran, 1981)
Also titled “(Waiting for The) Night Boat” for the US release of Duran Duran’s debut album, this atmospheric album track was apparently inspired when Simon was waiting for the night bus home. Given that the video features the band being attacked by zombies on an Antiguan beach (one of whom was the band’s manager, Michael Berrow, “covered in flour and gunk”), it’s not clear exactly what that says about the state of Birmingham’s buses. The track itself does accurately represent the experience of waiting for a late bus; there’s a long period with strange noises when things are just a general low level sort of sinister with an odd looking chap quoting Shakespeare semi-incoherently, followed by some wailing, and then some noises that could have come straight from one of Jean-Michel Jarre’s nightmares, and then quite a bit of banging, and what was previously manageable levels of sinister actually start to shred the nerves a little and in the end you’re quite glad when the whole thing ends and you can have a nice mug of Horlicks and a lovely nap.
The video, by the way, was released months before Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” hopped on the zombie bandwagon/night boat/night bus/whatever.
2. Lonely in Your Nightmare (Rio, 1982)
There are times on the first two albums when Duran Duran sound like no other band on earth, either before or since. It’s a heady mixture of Simon’s lyrics, the band’s approach to making music and it being 1982, I think. Even a track like “Lonely in Your Nightmare”, which sounds like it should be dark and, well, nightmarish actually sounds like a summer-drenched late evening, a pop classic in the same vein as “Rio” or “My Own Way” for all its talk of cold and winter. The track subverts the “Night Boat” structure; where that had low tempo verses and uptempo choruses, this picks up the pace for the verse and slows down for the chorus. It’s a track full of contradictions.
3. New Moon on Monday (Seven and The Ragged Tiger, 1983)
For the third album, “Seven and The Ragged Tiger”, Duran Duran’s sound changes. “Rio”, “Girls on Film”, “Hungry Like The Wolf” – these are songs where Duran Duran are being Duran Duran, just four regular guys plus transcendental pop poet Simon Le Bon. The tracks on “Seven…” sound like Duran Duran being an International Pop Phenomenon and there’s an unassailable feeling that they’re being, well, just a bit more American. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re aiming to be more inclusive of American radio audiences, which is no bad thing. After all, where would pop be without the J. Geils Band, Martika and Tone Loc?
“New Moon on Monday” is peak 80s Duran Duran. The lyrics, which could be about Easter or the plot of a 1960s revolutionary novel or one of Simon’s bowel movements, because let’s face it no one really understands the lyrics, do they, and if they say they do they’re fibbers, sit astride the music rather than blend into it. The production is wide and loud and pressed right up against your eardrums, whereas for the previous two albums you had to pack a lunch and go searching for all the different elements of the music, they were so subtle. And don’t even get me started on the extended version of the video.
4. Wild Boys (Wilder than Wild Boys) (Arena, 1984)
“Seven and The Ragged Tiger” gives us probably the greatest forgotten single of all time. Number One in 10 countries, quarter of a million single sales in the UK with another half a million in the USA, the ninth best selling single of 1984, staple of every Duran Duran live show to date and where does “The Reflex” come in the 1984 Smash Hits Poll? Nowhere mate, that’s where, and all because of the unexpectedly bonkers genius that is “Wild Boys”. The single, the band and its constituent parts claimed every trophy going that year, apart from Simon only managing to come fifth in Prat of The Year: “I’m a bit worried about beating Arthur Scargill… I mean, have you seen his hair?”
The 12″ mix is a thing of beauty. It has everything in it, literally every noise ever made. Everything and two kitchen sinks, like you just stretched out saying, “what the actual fuck is going on here?” for exactly eight minutes. Amazing.
5. (I’m Looking For) Cracks in The Pavement (Live) (Seven and The Ragged Tiger, 1983)
The B-side to “Wild Boys”, no less, and recorded during the same concert that the video for “The Reflex” was filmed. As an album track on “Seven and The Ragged Tiger” it’s okay; as a live track, it’s four minutes of perfect pop music. You cannot help but smile and nod your head and just jolly well get caught up in the infectiousness of it all. Like the clitoris, it serves no purpose other than to be itself and make sure everyone attached to it is having a darn good time.
In a live setting, sometimes there’s just an alchemy combining the band, the song, the venue, the crowd, the time of night… everything just comes together on the night, like the time we beat Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford. The other most notable example of this I can think of is when Girls Aloud do “Black Jacks” as part of the Tangled Up Tour. The album version is just throwaway electro filler, but the live version is a stomping Motown pop blunderbuss that shoots you in the face at point blank range with funky fun ‘n’ good times. Or something.
6. New Religion (Arena, 1984)
7. The Seventh Stranger (Arena, 1984)
I could have picked any of the nine live tracks from Arena, truth be told, and missing out “The Chauffeur” and its saucy recorder solo was indeed a grave decision. But if “Cracks in the Pavement” and “Lonely in Your Nightmare” represent the hook-filled pop pieces in their repertoire, so “New Religion” and “The Seventh Stranger” represent the mysteriously experimental, less commercial and more introspective side of the band, one they have never got nearly enough credit for. The side that prog rock fans secretly like and would never admit to.
“A dialogue between the ego and the alter-ego” is how the “Rio” sleeve notes describe “New Religion”, a reference to the call-and-answer format of the chorus. There’s a trick that Duran Duran do elsewhere, after the middle 8 (it’s about a middle 88 in this song) the verse comes back with a completely different structure and “New Religion” is perhaps the finest example.
According to the Duran Duran Wiki, Simon says that “The Seventh Stranger” ‘…was inspired by Chapter 26 of Voltaire’s Candide, “Wandering Swordsmen” (Ronin), and the Seven Samurai films of Kurosawa’. Glad we cleared that up.
8. Missing (So Red The Rose, 1985)
Yes, strictly speaking this isn’t a Duran Duran song, it’s by Arcadia. But it was written and performed by members of Duran Duran and I can include if I want to, because this is my blog and not yours.
Originally I was going to go with “Election Day”, the lead single and go-to backing muzak for American political TV editors. It is the strongest song on what is very much a C+ album for hardcore Durannies only. But there’s something charming about “Missing”; it’s less a song and more a poem set to music. It’s short, dramatic, ethereal and according to Simon, inspired by a poem about the grief that a physician feels when a child in his care dies. Something to think about if you were going to use this song as part of your sexytime playlist.
9. Meet El Presidente (Notorious, 1986)
Another one where the original member of the starting roster was dropped at the last second. I looked forward to the release of both the single and album “Notorious” for the longest time, and they were everything I hoped they would be. An early mission statement from Duran Duran said that they wanted to be a perfect mix of The Sex Pistols and Chic. Someone at the time of the “Notorious” release – probably Smash Hits again – remarked that they had completely dropped The Sex Pistols and perfected the Chic sound, and that’s not a bad summary of the album.
“Meet El Presidente” on the album is a little so-so and not an obvious single candidate. It has neither the infectiousness of the album’s title track, the sophistication of “Skin Trade” or the power of “Vertigo”. But when this remix came out for the single release, the backing track had been completely overhauled. Latin horns and percussion combine with dramatic edits to produce a track chock-full of vibrancy and innuendo and the overall impression is that you’ve just spent three and a half minutes in the company of a very energetic Mexican dominatrix.
10. Come Undone (The Wedding Album, 1996)
In November 1993 Duran Duran performed on MTV Unplugged, the first show after a long live performance hiatus. Accompanying them, as she did on the whole Wedding Album tour, was a singer called Lamya Al-Mugheiry. I first saw Lamya perform with Soul II Soul’s incredible live show around 1991, singing “Fairplay” and other tracks on tour, and she was incredible. She wrote and produced her album “Learning from Falling” using lyrics she’d been writing since the age of 11. With an amazing 5-octave voice and cute, flirty stage presence, Lamya was all set to rule the world.
Sadly, Lamya suffered a sudden heart attack and died aged just 35. The live unplugged performance of “Come Undone”, Duran Duran’s best song of the decade, was already stellar but Lamya’s cameo performance lifts the whole thing into another universe altogether, one you and I are only allowed to peek into.
11. The Man Who Stole A Leopard (All You Need Is Now, 2010)
AKA The Chauffeur, part two.
Like “Night Boat”, it’s an epic piece of storytelling with obvious cinema and literature influences. It’s music that is made for visuals, and the fact that the band made a video for a non-single (as they did with Chauffeur) speaks volumes. Inspired by a 1960s film the song is a story of obsession and longing. My favourite part is Nina Hossein’s spoken newscast, taking the place of Andy’s recorder solo.
For me, “Night Boat” and “The Man Who…” represent my favourite side of the band – the narrative aspect, the emotional pull, the complex arrangements, and the complete gibberish/beautiful poetry that could mean literally anything. It’s exactly why they were my first musical love.