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.

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