For five polite and huggable English lads with a harmless foot-twitching beat, the members of Duran Duran certainly have a bewildering capacity for controversy. The latest tempest for the Fab Five—as they’ve been dubbed by the hyperactive British press—broke last month like a tidal wave over the record biz when the group decided to pay back a few debts by releasing its new hit single, Union of the Snake, to MTV a week before giving it to any radio station in the U.S. Horrors! The outcry was immediate, shrill and ominous. “The next time that record company comes to radio with one of their lesser-known acts, stations who are upset about this may think twice about returning the favor,” said one angry program director.
Actually, radio already had a rich history of declining to return the favor to at least one lesser-known group. For seven months after its release in May 1982, Duran Duran’s second album, Rio (with the single Hungry Like the Wolf), gathered dust in record stores all over America, primarily because radio stations would not play it. Then MTV, taking note of the group’s preternaturally photogenic possibilities, its tenderizing effect on young women and, to be fair, the care and craft that had gone into its videos, began to provide Duran Duran with considerable exposure. The rest—Rio’s rise to No. 6 on the album charts, the ascension of Hungry Like the Wolf to Singles’ Heaven—now belongs to rock history.
In the beginning, things were far more humble. Founding Father John Taylor, an 18-year-old bassist and soon-to-be-former art student who named the group after a character in the Jane Fonda movie Barbarella, joined forces with 16-year-old keyboard player Nick Rhodes and a nameless few who have since gone on to lesser things. Rhodes remembers the next two years as “hellish,” with dozens of singers, guitarists and drummers passing through. Finally the boys recruited drummer Roger Taylor (no relation to John) of the Sex Organs, a punk band; a local barmaid recommended vocalist Simon Le Bon, an indifferent drama student at the University of Birmingham and ex-tree surgeon who now doubles as the group’s lyricist; and guitarist Andy Taylor (no relation to John or Roger, but then you can never have too many Taylors) answered an advertisement in a music paper. Duran Duran was ready to face the ’80s.
The quintet’s strategy was simple—make music that people could dance to in discos (“night music,” in their own phrase) and they would never want for work. The timing was perfect. Punk was dying in England, and the Durans’ sweet looks and wriggling rhythms—particularly their Top 20 debut single, Planet Earth—bewitched a public tired of punk’s cynicism and visual drabness. The boys, in turn, were caught up in the New Romantics fashion craze—foppish, ruffled clothes, neon-tinted hair and heavy eye makeup.
Their first album, Duran Duran, was named England’s “Third Best Album” of 1981 by the trade paper Record Mirror, and the tabloids quickly caught on, running breathless stories almost daily under such headlines as: “FAB FIVE FEVER!” and “DURANDEMONIUM.” In its customary knee-jerk reaction against popular taste—Princess Di publicly declared Duran Duran one of her favorite bands—the splenetic British music press branded the boys “an ’80s Osmond Family.”
Nevertheless, by 1982, Duran Duran was a bona fide supergroup everywhere in the known rock world—except America, which was proving to be as immune as ever to the charms of new British acts. This all changed when the group’s surreal, hot and exotic videos—mostly hard-to-follow but engaging misadventures filmed in places like Sri Lanka and Antigua by brilliant TV ad director Russell Mulcahy—began to get significant airplay in the five million homes then being reached by MTV.
How important was MTV in the rise of Duran Duran? All-important, some critics contend. As David Handler put it: “After all, the clips are a heckuva lot more striking than the music, which is little more than pasteurized, synthesized pop-rock with video launching pads for lyrics.”
Not that the boys disagree about MTV’s role, though they object to those who characterize their musical abilities as one step above the Monkees on the evolutionary scale. Who cares? What’s saccharin to the critics is honey to the masses. In Sydney recently to mix their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger—don’t ask—the Durans were forced to abandon their rooms in the city’s top hotels because management objected to herds of teenage girls milling around the entrances day and night.
“We have no private life,” sighed Roger Taylor between the group’s marathon sessions in the Sydney recording studio. “You go to a restaurant and it’s in the paper. You can’t scratch your bum in public.”
Added John Taylor, “It’s like a nightmare at times. We’ve been here for 11 weeks and that’s the longest I’ve been in one place for three years. I’ve got a flat in London that I’ve spent only 10 nights in and I bought a house in the country that I’ve been in once.”
Not that they’d like to return to Birmingham—England’s Pittsburgh—where all except Andy Taylor, a Newcastle lad, and Londoner Le Bon grew up. “For a band to break out of Birmingham, you’ve got to be better than if you were from somewhere else,” Roger once reflected. “That’s the best thing about the place.”
So what’s next? A massive tour of America, their third trip to the New World, is planned for February and March—”I think people like to see that we can actually play what they hear on radio,” Nick Rhodes has said, explaining the group’s love of performing live. Perhaps there will be a movie. And, of course, more of the videos that made this all possible (the group has thus far made 11, which were recently collected in an hour-long video album). “We don’t want to be has-beens by the time we’re 25,” said Roger. “It would be the worst thing in the world to go around saying to people, ‘Do you know who I used to be?’ ”