One of the nice things about the ‘80s revival, now on its second or third wind, is that a former mullethead can go see Duran Duran without being laughed off the school lunch table. I really liked “Hungry Like the Wolf” in the seventh grade, but I couldn’t reveal that to my Iron Maiden-loving friends. Duran Duran was a girl band. They wore makeup, for chrissakes. Glam metal had yet to arrive, and Kiss (which didn’t “wear makeup” in a normal sense, anyhow) had fallen out of favor. Liking a band that wore makeup would have inspired doubts about my fledgling masculinity. And paying money to go see them? I might as well have turned in my Y-chromosome.
Nowadays, my mullet is gone even if doubts about my masculinity remain, but my love for Duran Duran still burns strong. As my companions and I approached the Spectrum, I saw a bronze statue of an unquestionably manly ‘80s icon, Rocky Balboa, standing on the arena’s concourse. The statue was made for the movie Rocky III. It used to stand atop the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but a few years ago, the museum’s board decided that their grounds weren’t an appropriate place for a movie prop and gave it the heave-ho. Duran Duran, touring with their original lineup for the first time in twenty years, would probably empathize. “We were always criticized as this disposable pop thing,” bassist John Taylor said recently in an interview for the Philadelphia Daily News.
The last time this band played Philly, it was July 1985, and the world was watching them. The gig was Live Aid, and it took place about 200 meters east of tonight’s show, in the since-demolished JFK Stadium. Consequently, it was also Duran Duran’s last appearance in its original incarnation; drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor left the band soon afterward.
Once inside, the first thing I noticed were the curtains. They were enormous, black shrouds draped from the ceiling of the arena, hiding the vast expanse of empty seats in the upper deck. Thus the Spectrum, which is already fairly small for an all-purpose arena, began to feel intimate. My wife attended Duran Duran’s last Spectrum visit, in 1984, and she assures me that no curtains were necessary at the time.
After taking the stage, but before assuming their positions, the band came forward and stood in a row to receive the crowd’s adulation. Simon LeBon was wearing a skinny tie; these guys were serious.
The band opened the set with “Reach Up for the Sunrise”, from recent release Astronaut, a good choice for a first single. It’s an upbeat, anthemic song that fits easily into the band’s oeuvre. For better or worse, six other songs from Astronaut made it into the show. They were generally well received. They were certainly well received by the earring-clad, forty-something man to my right, whose enthusiasm required me to dodge a number of flying elbows.
Then it was time for “Hungry Like The Wolf”. I danced, everyone danced, and everyone sang because, well, Duran Duran songs are fun. Most of them make precious little sense—“I smell like I sound”?—but everyone’s in on the joke, and so it’s okay, whether you’re Older Earring Guy or an erstwhile subscriber to Tiger Beat magazine—I suppose it’s possible that Earring Guy was both, but I couldn’t turn to ask him without risking injury.
The rest of the set list shuffled the new material with crowd pleasers like “Save a Prayer” and lesser-known fan favorites like “Chauffeur” and “Hold Back the Rain”. A five-panel video backdrop flickered throughout, mostly displaying a mix of live stage footage and light show-style eye candy. One exception was for “Careless Memories”, which featured a clever anime-style cartoon that poked fun at the recording industry—the band’s animated alter egos bloodily slaughtered masked thugs with their respective instruments.
The anime piece was the only time the crowd’s attention was wrested away from LeBon, who eagerly mugged for the crowd all night long. LeBon’s stage presence is excellent, and he can still leap into a mid-air split with the best of them. Unfortunately, there is a faint whiff of former-bad-boy desperation lingering, one that most frontmen this side of Steven Tyler manage to avoid.
After “Save a Prayer”, LeBon asked, “How many people here tonight have something in their pocket… besides a cell phone… that vibrates?” Thus began “Bedroom Toys”, the worst song on Astronaut and the lowlight of the show. A smattering of true believers kept dancing, but the rest of us were just embarrassed for the band. Even if “Bedroom Toys” weren’t such a dog, there would be something a little icky about a doughy-faced, 46-year-old man rapping about sex aids. Later, he introduced saxophonist Andy Hamilton by telling us, “You should see his fucking dick!” Cringe. Hamilton, to his credit, kept it tucked safely in his pants as his Rio solo closed out the evening.
The band sounded great. It’s sometimes hard to know whether credit for that should go to the players or to the sound technicians, especially at an arena show. In any case, the drums were tight, the guitars were crisp, the keyboards were bright, and nobody got lost in the mix. It almost sounded too good; the usual rawness of a live set was missing.
Duran Duran was born on MTV, but there’s no question that they’re on VH-1 now, closer to John Tesh than Johnny Ramone (with whom they once shared a bill). But maybe that’s exactly what us former ‘80s kids are most comfortable with: an easy-to-swallow, polished pop show on Saturday night; our coffee and a newspaper on Sunday morning.
“Sweetie, pass the ‘Lifestyle’ section, would you? Oh, look, it says here that John Tesh is going on tour. Maybe we could get tickets? Hey, have you seen my Y-chromosome?”