Switch It On! The Birth of Duran Duran

Steve Jansen
Duran Duran in 1981

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Duran Duran's first single, "Planet Earth", Gimme a Wristband launched an in-depth review of the band's earliest years. In this PopMatters exclusive excerpt, writer Steve Jansen talks to the movers and shakers and brings us back to 1981.

Thirty years ago this February 2nd, Duran Duran released their debut single, "Planet Earth". Presented as a spirally scratched, 7" wide piece of black plastic, the enclosed music had been honed from spit, dreams and determination above a Birmingham side-street club by a then-unknown band of five nobody-in-particulars. There was no drama, no hype. Just another record on the racks as shops opened that Monday morning. Yet nestling inside that shiny white, ultra-modernist Malcolm Garrett designed sleeve was the kick to a ride that would see the band overshoot their wildest dreams to become, inside of three short years, the biggest band on the planet and one of the defining -- and at 30 years and counting, most enduring -- acts of their age.

With the band poised to release the CD and vinyl version of their 13th album, All You Need Is Now, and with a prestigious appearance at the Coachella Festival shortly thereafter, it seems apt that we consider just how -- free of subsequent fame and experience -- five young hopefuls achieved the massive, and by no means simple, task of actually getting their first record out to the world.

"Crossing over from the end of the '70s into the '80s, there wasn't much money around" recalls Beverley Glick, who under pen-name Betty Page was the first national journalist to write about Duran Duran, for Sounds magazine. "There was a lot of unemployment and young people thinking, well if I can't get a job I'm just going to do something myself."

John Warwicker, co-founder of design agency Tomato, artist and renowned designer of multi-media for the band Underworld, was collaborator and friend to the band during this time: "Punk had been so good, but became so utterly constrained. It seemed to get narrower in its thoughts and ideas, not broader. So inevitably people moved on, looking for new ideas. (So) people looked back to move forward, to Bowie and Roxy Music, the people who'd had the bright ideas before."

In an interview in 2000 for a television documentary, Duran's bass playing founder, John Taylor, recalled he and keyboardist Nick Rhodes as "young punks; we just wanted to get involved. To us, music was like a commodity. It was this word-of-mouth thing that brought you together with people; it made you your friends -- and some of your enemies. It was the mixer. And as you got deeper into it, it took you places. And you'd trade in it, 'Oh, have you heard this? You'd really like this.'" John Warwicker laughs. "John, Nick and me, we used to race each other to the record shop, to be the first to get the new release. We all absolutely loved the music. And inevitably all those ideas, all the music and the sleeves and the photographs, they end up seeping into what you do."

Given the genre-mashing sound of "Planet Earth" and credo of Duran Duran, the idea of influences and a love of dynamics is an important one in this story. Warwicker continues: "You'd go and see Duran Duran in the early days, before Andy (Taylor) and Simon (Le Bon) joined the band. And, yes, there'd be a lot of knob-twiddling, Kraftwerk stuff going on. But underneath it all, there were some really good ideas. You'd see some bands and think, this is lacking something; they just don't have that 'whatever' to take it to the next level. But with John and Nick even back then, it was there; these really good pop ideas. It was very rough and unpolished. But you could see that, given time, they would get it right."

With a reach that still exceeded their grasp, Nick and John -- the brother-like nucleus of Duran Duran from the get-go -- would need more. As Jeremy Thirlby, a fellow local musician, whose band Astral Plane would rehearse next door to Duran, points out, "getting Roger in was when Duran Duran really started happening. He was no doubt about it, the best drummer in Birmingham." When pushed for an insight as to the second-incoming Duran Taylor's key skills, Thirlby is quick to point out: "He's rock-solid. Then later on, he could play to a click (track). He could keep time against Nick's sequencers."

With Andy Taylor and Simon Le Bon joining, providing guitar -- and crucial music arranging skills -- and vocals, respectively, Duran's development would rocket over the next 12 months. Equally important would be the part played by the band's rehearsal/business space, the Rum Runner club. Aside from being the business domain of brothers Paul and Michael Berrow, the subsequent role of their club, the Rum Runner, in the launch of the band is a vibrant one.

Following a fact-finding mission to New York's club scene, the brothers installed a state-of-the-art sound-system in the club, preceding the whole quality-sound draw that would prove so important come the '90s dance explosion. Paul Berrow: "That unique relationship between (Duran's) rehearsal room upstairs and the club -- which was pumping six, seven nights a week down below. All they had to do if they were running out of inspiration, was walk down one flight of stairs and they'd find themselves in a club with four or five-hundred, maybe even a thousand people sometimes, with a very loud sound system. You could see how an audience was reacting to a certain record, a certain sound every night. Part of the fun was observing that: 'Look the dance floor has erupted with that!?'"

Guitarist, Andy Taylor: "'Planet Earth' was a groove thing. And it was one of those days when we decided to write something to really grab people. (Because) at the time, we only had 'Girls on Film' as an obvious kind of single for the demo tapes we were going to make to send to labels."

Back in L.A. 11 years ago, John Taylor would reflect on Duran's days before the pressure of writing on a label: "We never wrote consciously to be commercial until after we had a taste of commercial success; at least I didn't." And regarding "Planet Earth," he reveals: "For me, I just wanted something fresh; that had balls and a disco beat. None of us thought 'this will be a bigger hit if only we...'"

Paul Berrow was on-hand: "Rhythmically, 'Planet Earth' was very close to Giorgio Moroder, and all the stuff that was going on in New York: Bang-bang, four-on-the-floor. Then, over the top, Andy put that lick."

As provider of "that lick," Taylor reckons "the simplicity of 'Planet Earth' is its key; the guitar riff is small, but it added edge. That was the fundamental difference between us and all those (other) overly synthy-sounding bands."

Having witnessed Duran develop, John Warwicker is quick to pick up on Andy Taylor's point, but also the broader dynamic that enabled "Planet Earth" to work, citing how "that idea of nuances held forth. (The band) made sure there was room for things to happen (in the mix). If everyone had just gone for it, it'd have just been too much. A lot of the reason why Planet Earth still sounds good today is, to be fair, down to Nick. If he'd pushed the synths and turned them right up, they'd be too obvious, and after a few listens you'd have gotten bored of them. But he didn't. He was quite tasteful in what he applied."

For co-manager Michael Berrow though, the best was yet to come: "When Simon's vocal melody made it onto the top, it stood out as soon as you heard it. Simon is one of the best around, I mean, he's proven it as well over his whole career. I will always remember, years later, with 'A View to a Kill,' when he just strummed that on an acoustic guitar one night in Paris, very slowly. And I just thought, 'What a brilliant melody.' His melodies, you've don't seem to have heard them before, which is unusual. And they're very distinctive."

Acting on a tip, Dave Ambrose had travelled to Birmingham to catch Duran at the Holy City Zoo club on 22nd October 1980. Despite already bringing acts such as the Sex Pistols and Dexys Midnight Runners to EMI while in the label's publishing department, Ambrose had only recently been promoted to Artist & Repertoire in a formal capacity. Duran were to be his first A&R signing to the label; but he was also convinced they were the next big thing. "People used to say to me, 'Dave, why are you getting so excited about this band?' But I was convinced they were going to be massive."

Paul Berrow: "Dave became a seriously important member of the team. Being very sensitive and experienced, he wasn't one for playing games; if he'd been manipulative or controlling, then (we) would have been in conflict with the label. Instead, Dave got what we were trying to do, and became one of the team."

Looking backwards, everything is tidy. Forwards, things are generally less clear; decisions having to be arrived at. So, I put the question to Ambrose as to how "Planet Earth" came to be Duran Duran's debut single. Was it an executive decision? He laughs. "I'll tell you how it happened. I brought Duran's demo tape home. I was with my wife, Angie, and Rob Hallett, the band's live agent, came round. We opened some wine and listened through all the tracks. And Angie and Rob ended up dancing around the room. And we all, individually of each other shouted for 'Planet Earth' as the first single."

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