Switch It On! The Birth of Duran Duran

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.”

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.

PopMatters