Sunday, August 12, 2012

Glamour Boys: Duran Duran in the 1980s (Pt. 2--Musical Photoshop 101)


Widely considered to be Duran Duran's full-length apex, Rio was a smash, eventually selling over ten million copies.  Television screens were awash with the outlandish curves and colors of their infamous-on-arrival music videos; pop radio couldn't go more than a couple of hours without sending another hit onto the waves; sold-out concerts reeked of girls and women screeching, swooning, and imagining Mr. LeBon-vivant was serenading them and only them.

Robert Christgau had very little time for the music of Duran Duran in his heyday as the Village Voice's dancer-in-chief, once dismissing their phenomenon thusly:  "Sometimes I think the little girls don't understand a damn thing."  Or sometimes, we realize not all art has to be understood to be valid.  Context is most, but not all, and if lingo-bots like Bobby Christ ever once in their lives eschewed the urge to describe something as "Roxy Music's worst moments meshed with the most mediocre offerings of Chic," and just told us why they enjoyed it, then dancing about architecture wouldn't be demeaned as one of life's ultimate futile efforts.  There would be throngs, fucking throngs I tell you,  fox-trotting in front of the Tower of Pisa.

"Rio"--If you start in such grandiloquent style, does the ending matter so much?  If a couple at their wedding ceremony decide to just say "I do" first things first, shunning such silly sacraments as the ring exchange and vow recitations, won't all the guests remember that twenty years afterward and not so much the acrimonious, permanent separation?

There are a thousand things, or so I imagine, to love about "Rio."  There's the fact that it was a rewrite of one of the demos recorded with Andy Wickett three years prior, itself a pretty crackin' tune even without a distinguishing vocal.   The intro (redolent of Queen's "Play the Game" recorded a couple years earlier) created by Nick Rhodes recording small metal rods being dropped onto the strings of a grand piano, then reversing the captured audio; John's mischievous bass shuffle (which proved quite influential to a young D'Arcy Wretzky...but let's forget that); keening guitar; cryptic imagery ('Cherry ice cream smile/I suppose it's very nice" is a line that only a Brit could write, forget about it); and perhaps greatest of all, double LeBon for the chorus.

Of course I can't forget the bubbling build to that chorus, which feels like an officer of the court just knocked on my door and informed me that all the city's denizens are to be slaughtered posthaste, except for me, for reasons that shall be explained in great detail once I've been evacuated to my new duplex in New York.  By the third time the dude's come 'round, I'm shouting every word of my inexplainable reprieve along with him, word for word.

Andy Hamilton shows up to do his best Kirk Pengilly, and Simon's derring-do post-solo is a nutshot to Grim's bits.

"You make me feel alive alive aliiiiive!
I'll take my chance!"

Of course, video and song are inextricably bound to one another with golden handcuffs designed by Anthony Price and Russell Mulcahy.  Duran Duran sold their product like no act at the time, showing off a stunning visual vocabulary and a sincere knowledge of--and willingness to have casual fun with--color and intensity, line and texture, rhythm and movement.

Soon, MTV would be suffused with vids by acts who followed by the example the boys had set.  In many cases, the style suffocated the substance and nowanights those bands and clips are fortunate to be footnotes.  But the best--Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson--had the complete package.  Life was not as grand as these videos would have you believe.  If you turn your lover into a lion, you will not be so unaffected as to sing your anthem of defloration with no fear of your life (or yourself, 'cause how did you pull that off?).  Zombies are unlikely to be so well-choreographed.  And, Nick Rhodes felt putridly seasick for the entirety of the "Rio" video shoot.  But it was all a sight better than some racket-gang of barely-theres content to play along to a recorded track confident that the editing team would do some nifty effects tricks to try and fool the viewer into thinking that while the song sounded like crap when you heard it on the radio, it's really actually very good, look, saturation!  Smoke machine!  See, acts like DD already knew their songs were excellent and could have stood on their own.  But why, when there's yachts to be rented and martinis to be drank underwater?

I was very envious of the pastel phones in the vid, as well.  They cast the ones in my own home in an uncomely light, for sure.  And the women, well, those warpaint bitches also made quite the impression on li'l Jenny Lee.  Did I want to be them?  Just be around them?  Was it possible they were even cooler than the Duran guys?  'Cause I knew what the Duran guys did, they were rawk gawds, they made music and toured the world and shagged the most pulchritudinous babes.  But those women...I knew nothing of the modeling world, a realm that once penetrated left me nauseous.  But back then, I could pretend these were for-real soldiers of the islands.

"My Own Way"--Well, that's a precipitous drop!  Not a fave of the band, either.  It's funk-rock in clear, actually translucent imitation of their beloved Chic.

"Lonely In Your Nightmare"--Doesn't come off particularly unnerving, unless you would describe the sound of early INXS as such (the surviving band members would likely share your belief).  There's a lightweight spray of solace to be enjoyed underneath the colors of John's bass parts.  Man, a talented broomsman and he caught that TD pass from Joe Montana to win the Super Bowl!

"Hungry Like the Wolf"--One of their biggest hits, and one of the songs that defines its time.  The Juicy Lucy of 80s pop music, supremely tasty and sloppy in equal measure.  VH-1 viewers named "Wolf" the third greatest song of the decade, behind "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Livin' On a Prayer."  (A swifter pendulum swing from brilliance to idiocy you will be hard-pressed to locate.)

This is my favorite Duran Duran song, and like "Rio," it has an infamous video that it can exist quite comfortably away from.  The percolating synth is a near-constant presence without infringing on the song's essence, and the same can be said for the Marc Bolan-esque guitar swaths.  The chorus is one of the stickiest of all time (and varies; my favorite is the second, which gives the impression of a more formidable predator).  Simply, I can't think of a greater testament to DD's power as an actual band.  During each instance of the aforementioned refrain, for example, the bass switches up in subtle ways.  First time, it's a pretty basic bedrock pattern.  Then, when it comes 'round again, John pops an octave and I kinda pop a blood vessel.  Almost as good is when (around 3:14, give or take a half-second) suddenly John switches to eighth notes, making the song even more minatory.

The video is a faithful recreation of the tune's subject matter:  the condensation of male/female relations into a trusty metaphor of the lusty hunt.  Does it stunt progress or insure propagation?  Can't the answer be both?  And can't you just enjoy the song?  I was 5 when this thing came out, what the hell did I know about the carnal urges that both facilitate and complicate our lives?  I mean even if I did have those feelings when I was young I just transferred them to food anyway.

Another vixen with facepaint!  Is she a metaphor for Spandau Ballet, and Simon a metaphor for his own band? Why don't more people randomly flip over tables in diners?  And with all due respect to Spandau Ballet, I can't get over the fact there was an honest to Jebus rivalry between both bands.  Mind you it was only relevant in the U.K., 'cause over here we recognized straight away which band was legendary and which was good for one smash hit...just sayin'.

I wonder if the members of Duran Duran liked leaving the lights on during sex so they could gaze upon, and gain further stimulation from the sight of, their own immaculate duds strewn on the floor.

"Hold Back the Rain"--It may not be as evocative as setting fire to it, but it's equally as preposterous.  Given that LeBon's inspiration was John Taylor's worsening drug addiction, however, I can forgive him the indulgence.  This is a thoughtful plea from one imperfect person to another, and if it made any impression on Taylor (per LeBon, the pair have never spoken about the song) it wouldn't make itself manifest until many years later, when he finally cleaned up.

The backdrop is peppy, which might be unfitting for the topic at hand, but completely in step with Rio's single-bodied dedication to dance or die.  Physicality uber alles.

"New Religion"--Per the liners, "A dialogue between the ego and the alter-ego."

Translation:  Fuck Spandau Ballet.

"Women don't care about the lyrics," goes the conventional wisdom.  Yeah, 'cause sometimes the lyrics are pants.  So we focus on the beat and the bass like it's the snap of bones and the thump of the heart and move our hips in a time-old rhythm 'cause "I'll bring my timing in/Seagulls gather in the wind" doesn't do it for that part of me that aches to have something done to it.

"Last Chance On the Stairway"--To get off a witty riposte?  (LeBon does have French Huguenot ancestry, after all.)  To get a handjob while burning the candle at both ends?  (LeBon is a rock star, after all.)  The seismic shifts in mood, tone and speed keep "Last Chance" enjoyable.  Really, Rio is an album of hits.

"Save A Prayer"--Another well-deserved smash.  "Save A Prayer" is a musical muffuletta:  best enjoyed after sitting at room temperature for a few hours, all the better for the olive oil to soak into the roll and for the salami, cheeses and mortadella to curl.

The bending allure of Nick's synth is enough to suck the listener into a very human tale regarding the swells and ebbs of the string-free relationship between two people whose first language is kinetic.  Forget society's code of behaviors and expectations of emotional etiquette.  One person's miasma is another's, well, paradise.  All you have to do is call it such.

"The Chauffer"--Dear to many Durannies (and still a live staple).  The music vacillates between faux-horror and foxy sci-fi.  Proof that Simply Simon is not only capable of relatively straightforward lyricism, he can even excel at it.

The drums aren't missed for the first two minutes because everything else is so damned enrapturing like the greatest conversation you've yet to have, but when they do finally materialize and begin the journey forward with their admirable steadfastness, it only accentuates what has already proven itself to be a class tune.

The gent in question has always struck me as an unwitting yet punctilious escort, hoping the singing blue silver can one day somehow deliver him from the evils of banality.  I don't think it ever panned out, but I hoped secretly it did.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Glamour Boys: Duran Duran in the 1980s (Pt. 1--Discover Your Distraction)

6/15/1981 (U.K.)
4/25/1983 (U.S.)

Ladies and gentlemen--but mostly ladies--Duran Duran.  And there was much rejoicing.

Look at that cover.  Gaze upon those poised bastards.  One hundred million records sold worldwide absolutely could lie, but in this case they don't.

Please note that this review concerns the American reissue, which replaces "To the Shore" with "Is There Something I Should Know?", the single whose presence on the U.S. charts facilitated such reissue in the first place.

"Girls on Film"--Band manager Paul Berrow had himself a Nikon camera, and it never took a picture so grand as this:  all foreground, no background.  The uncensored music video was apocryphal for MTV viewers who couldn't or wouldn't venture out to the much less-private dance clubs.  In retrospect, it was fortunate that this five year old girl didn't see the band's other, seedier version.  I mean, nipples getting iced down, greasy grappling, and multiple instances of women rendering men unconscious via acts that really shouldn't render men unconscious...I just wasn't ready.

The impressionist blaze of "Girls on Film" is undeniable.  When I confessed to a friend that Duran Duran were my so-called "guilty pleasure," I expected some playful ribbing.  Instead, I got a pithy, "Hey, they did 'Girls on Film.'"

They had first done it in 1979, when Andy Wickett was still out front.  The demo has a wicked romp to recommend it--and harmonica!--but Wickett's performance goes through all the metal dangling off the chain and has to pick the lock before he freezes to death.  When Simon LeBon put his vagabond Huguenot poetry to the revamped tune, he had the good sense to recognize and retain the one great quality about Wickett's original--the chorus.

"Girls-on-film!  Girls-on-film!"

Make the guitar 98% funkier, and there! You have a classic.

LeBon claims it's a feminist statement, lost in the ensuing hubbub over the indecent visuals.  Well, if he wasn't sympathetic to the struggle of women back in the 80s, I can guarantee fathering three daughters years later did it.

"Planet Earth"--The first single, "Planet Earth" reached #12 in the U.K., but it doesn't possess the gravitas of "Girls on Film," which is one of those small shames one must simply learn to live with. They did get to lip-sync it on every music program on European TV, though.

The band sounds like they're encased in a smokey cube, bop-bop-bah'ing a New Romantic manifesto (they even namedrop the movement in the lyrics; self-awareness and an attendant sense of humor helped to separate the guys from the pack early on).  Its swirl and snap is disco-ready, but while the cocaine remains, the names and places have been altered to ensure the guilty parties don't get crashed.  The transition from bridge to chorus--"Can you hear me noooowwww-oowww?--is reminiscent of biting into a caramel-coated apple and discovering that the center is...even more caramel.

"Is There Anyone Out There"--The riff here is supremely listenable, one that's more of a loop than a line.  It stresses the third note each go-round, but it's the first two notes I'm most enamored by, as they can be either eighths or sixteenths depending on my mood when listening.  The keybs are ready to dunk heads back into the water, and if "Planet Earth" suggested  John Taylor was a bad-ass on bass, irrefutable proof is contained within these few minutes.

"Careless Memories"--The wit of the staircase; a whit of the heart.  The guys watch an Adam Ant video while dressed as the cast of a spaghetti Western.  Heavy on the bread, heavier on the balsamic vinaigrette.

Save for the chorus, the voice-work is a celebration of mumble-mouth.  The music is abrupt in a manner that nicely mimics a disintegrating connection.  My mind always hears the deadening horror of domestic violence in the lyrics.

"Is There Something I Should Know?"--Hitting the top of the charts in the U.K., and placing within the American Top 5 two years later, here we have a standard fantastic Duran single.  Lyrics nothing more or less than richly-angled sketches, hooks smeared with exotic jellies, a friggin' harmonica solo that enlists the help of a lazily-arpeggiating guitar to stretch the melancholy.  Stealthy as kept, their knack for small touches as a song progresses--knowing what, knowing when--cannot go unappreciated.  The "ohhh-ohhh"'s after the first chorus don't last long, and don't need to.  The "jungle drums" need poke their head out from behind the bedroom door when called.  Duran Duran know that you should eat all the fish by day two.

"(Waiting For the) Night Boat"--It's Night Boat!  The crime-solving boat!  Whenever it seems that the bad guys are gonna triumph, whenever it feels like all hope is lost, just remember:  there's always an inlet.  Or a peninsula.  Or a fjord.  There is always...Night Boat.

After two minutes of build-up, Simon begins singing about moaning water (the first line is "quay," an invitation to a Scrabble game if I've ever heard one).  The idea of sentient natural elements freaks me out.  The theme would seem to be stasis.  The vessel could be an extraterrestrial one in its other life, and the emotional and physical dissonance it emanates is rubbing off on the nearest humanoid.

"Sound of Thunder"--Thunder sounds like Blondie fronted by a Bowie wanna-be.  Who knew?

2:20 to 2:35 could have been excised and encouraged to birth another full song.  Simon continues to dawdle:  "Waiting for the sound of thunder."  It's all tasteful, if not quite timid.

So there it is:  minimalism reigns, here and throughout the album.  Just as LeBon is uncertain at this young stage who he wants to sound like (and just how much he wants to sound like them), his clearly-talented bandmates are still playing with visors on. This is down to greenness, which necessitates a gentle treading.  They had those superstar ambitions almost from day one, and they knew one fulfills said ambitions by being able to fill every available crevice, but they couldn't do that until someone actually knew and cared about who they were.

"Friends of Mine"--The boat arrived, finally, took off and docked at an ungodly soiree thrown in the mansion later used for the film Octopussy.  The attendees, like the hosts, are the dregs and lees of their generation, buzzing about what they or someone they know saw this and did that, but it's all bullshit, and no one's fooling anyone.  But there's finger foods to be ducked down throats, alcohol to be quaffed, and powder rooms to overcrowd, so what's the 100% truth matter?

LeBon's disgust with the scene's pervasive toxicity is evident.  "I'm not waiting anymore," he announces in a jarring chorus that steals the show by a fair pace, a harmony-rich treat over a mortal thump.  The name "Georgie Davis" is dropped, which meant nothing to me as a child.  Davis was wrongfully convicted of an armed robbery in East London sometime in 1975.  Naturally, he became a cause celebre, with rock luminaries and ordinary protesting citizens united in the quest to see justice served.  Sure enough, Davis was freed within a year.  Two years later, he pled guilty to another charge of armed robbery.  No one took to the streets or shouted him out in song over that one, or maybe they did and I just don't care.

"Tel Aviv"--LeBon had words for this one, inspired by his time as a volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz, but the decision was reached that it worked best as a five-minute instrumental that just missed its calling as a Miami Vice interlude by a few years.

What's key to the ear is the way the band's individual elements blend without becoming bland.  That's chemistry, and a collective either has it or hasn't it.  For all the baby steps and juvenile missteps, those five guys had to come together at that time to share those goals and write/perform those songs.

It would change the world.