Switch It On! The Birth of Duran Duran

by Steve Jansen

1 February 2011

Duran Duran in 1981 

Huge ambition was driving "Planet Earth"

Michael Berrow: “Huge ambition was driving ‘Planet Earth.’ We knew the point of departure was about to happen and it had to be great, otherwise we’d got no chance.”

Fate, however, was on hand, as brother Paul recounts: “Nick, who was a huge Bowie fan, had seen Colin Thurston’s name on a 12” mix by a band called the Men. (The Men, being a short-lived Human League side-project; which suggests the record may have been “I Don’t Depend on You.”) We bought the 12”, played it in the club, and we could hear that the production value; the aesthetic was exactly what we were looking for.”

Aside from Duran, Thurston is remembered for engineering David Bowie’s “Heroes” album and co-producing Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. The producer died in 2007 from a degenerative muscular disease, but Ambrose remembers his talent as such: “Colin wasn’t what I would call a producer-musician, he was more an engineer-producer, and in a sense he found the perfect band with Duran. See, there are two types of producers. You have the engineer-producer, who can pick up on whether the vocals are pitch perfect, the drums razor-sharp, everything is spot-on; or a producer who’s also a musician, who comes in and just dominates. Where Duran were concerned, it was not necessary for them to have a domineering producer—because they had all the song structures really worked out.”

But before recording could commence at Red Bus Studios in London, there was one final preparation to undertake. Paul Berrow: “Colin came up to the Rum Runner and sat pretty much on the dance floor for hours on end one day, spent the whole afternoon just playing one Studio 54 track after another. That way, by the time he left he’d heard all the classic drum sounds and production values that the Americans were doing at that moment through a big American sound-system, and to his credit, he absolutely got it.”

Less than two months after Duran Duran had signed to EMI, “Planet Earth” was released first in the UK on Monday February 2nd, 1981, followed by all major international territories. At Sounds, Betty Page was listening out: “When I first heard the single I just thought, yeah, this is going to be huge. I just thought it was so clever of them to actually get the words ‘New Romantic’ in there. I always thought there was something a bit calculated about them, but in a good way.”

However, Duran Duran were not off the blocks yet, as Dave Ambrose reveals: “Things were looking very dire for a minute. At that time it was radio or bust, and we weren’t on any playlists. Duran had got a bit of press, but that for a new band is not going to win the day. Even the power of EMI could not make a band happen unless there was support; and with ‘Planet Earth’ there wasn’t really enough to make it go. When that happens, the sales team can’t operate. They can’t walk into a shop and say ‘Here, take this record’, because the shopkeeper will say ‘Why?’”

Fortunately, after several weeks Peter Powell, at that time Britain’s highest-profile DJ on BBC Radio 1, gave ‘Planet Earth’ a spin. Liking what he heard, he added it to his show, and Duran began their slow—by today’s standards—climb into and up the charts, finally reaching #12 six weeks later. Even still, Michael Berrow remains pragmatic: “Without getting (“Planet Earth”) played on Radio 1 as we did, we would have lost it; I don’t think it would have been a hit, because there were people who were definitely anti-Duran in the media.”

Friction provides movement; but as Duran were about to find out, it can also prove a bumpy ride. Did Betty Page pick up on any anti-Duran sentiment while at Sounds? She laughs: “(Duran Duran) weren’t accepted by the serious music journalists at all. I used to get a lot of flack from other writers for even writing about them. They were seen as merely a pop group, with no redeeming features at all. But what those same critics failed to understand was, Duran were what people wanted; what they needed—escapism—because things were pretty bad economically, and socially.”

Yet it seems another factor was at play. EMI might have been one of the four biggest labels in the world. But—and as a direct result of maintaining such a profile—their board had famously fired the Sex Pistols several years earlier, for their headline-grabbing, drunken appearance on a late-afternoon UK TV show.

Page: “EMI were still considered to be an ‘establishment’ record company, especially after the Sex Pistols fiasco.”

A fact which John Warwicker picks up on: “What you have to remember is that when punk happened, especially the Sex Pistols and ‘God Save the Queen,’ for one brief moment it really did look like something was going to change. Nothing could hold (the Pistols). So whatever came after punk was never going to compare; it could not live up to that sense of expectation.”

Andy Taylor recalls the time with some discomfort, but remains pragmatic: “We were never that well supported by the cultural British media. They were pretty awful to us in most respects. But we didn’t give a toss. Besides, we had America firmly in our sights.”

If media heat was becoming an issue in the UK, “Planet Earth” would experience no such problem in America, where Duran Duran had near-zero profile. Despite his music industry experience, Dave Ambrose was also on a steep learning curve, especially when it came to coordinating Duran’s pick up by EMI’s American partners, Capitol Records. “I’d been told ‘This is your band, so go out to LA and just do it’. So I’d gone out there specifically to push Duran, and I will never forget—I was in a limo on the way to Capitol Records (offices), in the back with all these A&R guys. And I played the demos for the first album, saying this is going to be the biggest band in the world—and they all laughed.”

Speaking to respected KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, the so-called Mayor of Sunset Strip reveals how his role as the breaker of Duran into America came not through a Capitol plug, but more pro-active means: “I was the first to play (‘Planet Earth’) on my radio show. I used to go to this record shop in Pasadena called Pooh-bah, and they had all of the English imports, and that’s where I found it. ‘Planet Earth’ was just a fantastic dance tune.”

Ambrose: “The fact that Bingenheimer had to go out and buy the record himself tells you that there wasn’t much enthusiasm at Capitol Records; so that groundswell was crucial.” An observation Bingenheimer backs up: “People didn’t know who they were at all. They were calling in, wanting to know who Duran were. ‘Planet Earth’ got people’s attention because it was so different. But the label wasn’t doing anything. I don’t think it was until people started hearing them on my show and asking about them that Capitol started (promoting Duran).” Ambrose picks up: “At that time, the American acts were all very conservative, so you had to be very strong about (introducing) bands from England. I really had to push: I would have gone to the wall for that band.”

“Planet Earth” would not hit with much clout in America. However, unbeknown to the band and all concerned, with that first single the mother of all countdowns had been initiated. One that would, inside of three short years, see the band race into orbit becoming (officially) the world’s biggest. But before leaving 1981 and our return to 2011, I couldn’t resist asking Andy Taylor one last question. Okay, he’s a rock star, and his former band Duran Duran are currently thirteen albums strong—no mean feat, itself—but, how did it feel when he first received that shiny black “Planet Earth” 7”—his very first, but by no means the last Duran Duran record to pass out the pressing-room door: “Whatever was about to happen, nothing felt better in that moment. We had done it: here’s the fuckin’ single! From our first album! With EMI! (He laughs) I think we probably all got well drunk that evening.”

* * *

This is an abridged version of an article featured on Gimme a Wristband. To read the full version, complete with rare and unseen visuals, extra interviews and extended discussion, including a dedicated chapter on Duran Duran’s early visuals, please visit www.gimmeawristband.com.

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