[24 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Think “1980s pop” and Duran Duran have to be two of the first words to pop into your mind. The Birmingham, England quintet have become inextricably linked to the 1980s, its culture, and its music. And, really, what better icon for the vapid, super-stylized, materialistic excess of the decadent decade than Patrick Nagle’s cover art for Rio?
More often than not, though, the cultural context history assigns to a work of art, even pop art, is distorted by subsequent events and the convenience of compartmentalization. In other words, Duran Duran and Rio are seen as quintessential representations of the ‘80s because they came to be seen that way. They grew into the day-glo suits, the yachts, the James Bond-without-the-danger lifestyle. Retrospectively, they fit the role history assigned them. But that was not exactly the way things were at the time.
A nice aspect of re-issues like this one is they provide the chance to re-assess not only the music, but also the original milieu in which it was created. This “Special Limited Edition” of Rio, and the belated release of the contemporaneous Live at Hammersmith ‘82! concert video, are a perfect example.
The impression you get from both is that from late 1981 through most of 1982, Duran Duran were not the streamlined, ultra-chic hedonists their image and videos depicted so vividly. Rather, they were working-class boys. Most of them were barely into their twenties. They were an experienced band that had started out with a dedicated underground following and had had some significant commercial success in the UK with “Girls On Film” and their self-titled 1981 debut. They were just at that magical sweet spot when a band makes the jump from success to superstardom. They had all the confidence of their sustained momentum, and hadn’t yet lost the perspective, focus, or desire of their early days playing Birmingham clubs. In other words, they were watching their dreams play out before their eyes.
That’s what you have to keep in mind as you listen to and watch these few hours’ worth of material. The fame, the flash, the Raiders of the Lost Ark fantasies played out in Sri-Lanka—none of it was a sure thing. According to the interviews in the extensive liner notes, the band cavorted around on that yacht for the “Rio” video and then went home to their parents’ houses, where most of them still lived. At the time, they were not filthy-rich jetsetters. They just did an outstanding job of looking and sounding like it.
The misunderstanding was especially great in America. Like most great British successes, Duran Duran were presented, as part of a carefully-orchestrated marketing scheme from their record label, as a fully-formed, self-contained teeny-bop sensation. Incidentally or not, that label, Capitol, had had plenty of experience doing this sort of thing with the Beatles. Add in the synergy with the new cultural and musical phenomenon of MTV, and Duran Duran’s “Fab Five” status seemed preordained. The reality is that first album had hardly dented the mainstream American charts, and Rio, upon its initial release in May 1982, didn’t fare much better.
Keep in mind, Rio was their second album. The songwriting and production are so sharp, the playing so tight, the roles so well-defined, it’s almost impossible to believe now. Not even nearly 30 years of cultural change have been able to budge the careful juxtaposition between Andy Taylor’s power riffing and Simon LeBon’s willfully artful lyrics and vocals, or the brilliant interplay between the awesome, seriously funky rhythm section of John Taylor and Roger Taylor,and Nick Rhodes’ atmospheric, arpeggiated synthesizer framework. Together, it all created all kinds of energy and just the right amount of camp. Also, you can’t underplay the effect of Rio‘s secret weapon, LeBon’s way of frequently scatting. Take away his enthusiastic “Doo do doo"s on half these songs, and they’re only half as endearing.
Live At Hammersmith ‘82 provides visual and aural evidence that Duran Duran were on peak. Filmed in December of that year, it features just the five of them, plus saxophonist Andy Hamilton, playing against a tasteful, minimalist backdrop. Plenty of nods, smiles, and mugging are exchanged, all of them conveying the general message, “Hey! We did it! Can you believe it? This is great!” The playing is powerful as well. In particular, a rousing trio of songs from Duran Duran, starting with “Planet Earth”, reveals a genuine muscularity. LeBon’s voice holds its own, at least, and he’s an exemplary showman, and he’s given surprisingly effective help by the backing vocals and stage presence of the diminutive Andy Taylor. Just as a cover of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me”) is a nod to Duran Duran’s glam-pop past, the band’s originals lay the dance-rock foundation that would inspire Blur to write “Girls & Boys” a decade later.
The video also includes two British Top of the Pops performances from 1982. During “Rio”, the band miming, LeBon pretends to whistle the bird noises in the interlude. All the band laugh and start joshing around, and it’s clear as ever Duran Duran are still rock ‘n’ roll innocents.
The fame, money, and vapidity would come soon enough. In November 1982, the first half of Rio was remixed by American producer David Kershenbaum and the album re-released. These versions, likely those most familiar and cherished by American listeners, appear here for the first time on disc, as bonus tracks. Pushing LeBon’s vocals out front, the mixes somehow sound less synth-pop while emphasizing the synthesizers. The rollicking “Hold Back the Rain” gains the most.
After the late-1982 reissue, “Hungry Like the Wolf” and Rio took off worldwide. Girls’ screaming drowned out the band’s critical goodwill and art-school credibility. Life imitated art, and Duran Duran became the supermodel-flaunting, yacht-racing, self-parodying band from the videos. To their eventual discredit, they embraced it all. Then they imploded and have spent the last 27 years trying to climb out of the rubble, with varying degrees of success. Yes, Duran Duran were the ‘80s, but these handsome new packages serve as a reminder that, even earlier, they were simply a good band with a great album.