It’s easy to dismiss Duran Duran. When they blew up in 1982 and 1983 with their second album, Rio, they were all over MTV in impeccable suits and perfectly coiffed hair. Their music was full of danceable beats streaked with fashionable keyboard riffs. They dominated teenybopper magazines. Girls screamed.
What those who failed to look beyond the superficialities didn’t realize was that Duran Duran — who went their separate ways after Live Aid 1985 — made sophisticated, meticulous, deeply felt music — and continued to do so for decades. Rio may have been their apex, but they were hardly a flash in the pan. What’s more, anyone who dives into Rio will be rewarded many times over with an album that may be an iconic statement of its times but also resonates to this day.
As part of Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, journalist and critic Annie Zaleski dissects Rio, places it in its proper cultural context, and makes a strong case for its present-day relevance. This is an album released nearly 40 years ago but it still merits repeated listens. Zaleski follows the band from their initial formation in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by way of a local Birmingham [England] club, the Rum Runner. Bassist John Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, both rabid fans of glam rock, were looking to form “a cross between Chic and the Sex Pistols.” Eventually, guitarist Andy Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor (none of the three Taylors are related), and vocalist Simon Le Bon were added, and the band was off and running.
Zaleski’s book often underscores the fact that Duran Duran — a band with a relatively fast trajectory — became successful largely due to hard work and talent. While often lumped in with the early ‘80s “New Romantics” such as Spandau Ballet and Human League, they set themselves apart through sheer tenacity and dedication. What’s more, the glitterati style they perfected on Rio (mainly through the iconic music videos) was hard-won. “While recording the album,” Zaleski explains, “the band members weren’t jaded jetsetters, but hopeful dreamers. The cosmopolitan and escapist vibe permeating the Rio LP is aspirational, rooted in sincerity and earnestness.”-
After the modest success of their self-titled 1981 debut album — which includes the singles “Planet Earth” and “Girls on Film” — Duran Duran was hard at work on the follow-up, using the band members’ disparate styles to their advantage. Rhodes’ adventurous, forward-thinking keyboards worked well against Andy Taylor’s more rock-leaning guitar work, and the combination of John Taylor’s fluid bass work and Roger Taylor’s danceable beats made them a unique rhythm section. Le Bon’s occasionally surreal lyrics were the cherry on top.
“We had an open-mindedness with each other musically about anything we created at that time,” Rhodes quotes. “Really, it was a free-for-all. You had to pass the board of everybody else. But if you wanted to try something out, everybody would just step aside and say, ‘Go for it. Let’s see what we get.’” This type of professionalism and easy creativity will likely come as a shock to anyone with the mistaken notion that Duran Duran were a band of models assembled by record company executives looking to profit off their good looks.
While Zaleski chronicles the making of the Rio album in great detail, the book’s longest chapter, “Duran Duran, Video Pioneers”, was inevitable. Musically, Duran Duran may have rock-solid bona fides, but their popularity was aided in part by MTV, which was officially launched between the release of the band’s first and second albums. Duran Duran hooked up with now-legendary music video director Russell Mulcahy and headed off to Sri Lanka in the Spring of 1982 (between the recording and release of Rio) to shoot videos for “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “Save a Prayer”, and the album’s title track. These videos were crucial in helping sell the Rio album, established the band’s cosmopolitan “look”, and aided in the legitimization of music videos as an art form. The making of these music videos also helped bond friendships amongst the band proved their desire to work hard to attain artistic and commercial success.
Still, by December 1982, MTV was only available in 7.5 million US households, meaning their success on the music television channel was only reaching a fraction of American music fans. Thanks in part to 1982 release of the Carnival EP, which retooled a handful of Rio songs for club play, the band’s stateside popularity soon increased via radio airplay. Thus, 1983 became known as “The Year of Duran Duran”, to quote the title of one of Zaleski’s chapters.
Indeed, they soon had singles all over the US charts, appeared on American television shows, and were mobbed at meet-and-greet appearances. Roger Taylor is quoted in the book as calling the whole experience “pretty overwhelming” but adds, “At the time, though, it felt quite natural, and it was something we all aspired to. We all wanted to be in a big band, and especially in those days, it came with the territory.”
What makes Zaleski’s book so enjoyable and so on-point is that it not only works as a mini-biography of a popular band, it also makes a case for the importance and relevance of their best-known album – an iconic work that exudes staying power despite its obvious connection to another era. Zaleski refers to Rio as a “perfect album”.
“What’s impressive,” Zaleski writes, “is that they achieved this perfection while distilling their inspirations in such savvy ways. The album certainly has antecedents — Roxy Music’s rakish art-pop drama, Bowie’s glammy decadence, Chic’s throbbing grooves, the lacquered glamour of post-punks Japan, the electronic innovations of both Kraftwerk and early Human League – but no direct homages.”