WHEN two starry-eyed kids from the same sleepy housing estate just south of Birmingham discovered the joy of playing records in their bedrooms and going to gigs up town, a mutual passion for music was ignited – and so they began plotting their path to pop stardom.
The pair in question are John Taylor (then known as Nigel) and Nick Rhodes (then Nick Bates) of Hollywood (Birmingham, not LA at this point!), a quiet commuter-belt village on the edge of the north Worcestershire countryside yet only a No.50 bus ride away from the bright lights of Broad Street.
It was in that city centre – chiefly the Rum Runner club – where, amidst a melting pot of burning talent also brimming with UB40, Dexys Midnight Runners and The Beat, the future of Duran Duran was forged, writes (another Hollywood boy) James Iles.
‘D’ is for Duran Duran
It was 1978. Having settled on the name Duran Duran (their misheard take on the villain ‘Durand Durand’ from the cult movie Barbarella starring Jane Fonda) founder members John and Nick set about recruiting for the band.
They had borrowed money off parents for a guitar (John) and – crucially to their eventual sound – one of the first Wasp synthesizers in the UK for Nick. It set his mum Sylvia back £200 but turned out to be a sage investment.
Several line-up changes later (including the departure of original singer Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy), the group were moulding together nicely, now with Roger Taylor (no relation to John) as their drummer. They advertised for a guitarist as John had moved on to bass guitar as he and Roger honed the groove of their disco-funk fusion rhythm section.
Another unrelated Taylor – Andy – answered the call all the way from Newcastle in April 1980, but there was just one problem – they didn’t have a lead singer. Birmingham University Drama student Simon Le Bon was suggested to the boys by Simon’s then girlfriend, a barmaid at the club. He joined them in May, and to the relief of the others, he was armed with a book of poetry that became their lyrics.
Duran Duran quickly became the house band at the Rum Runner, working there too to earn extra money. Nick was a DJ, John worked on the door, Andy “polished mirrors and cooked burgers” while Roger was a glass collector.
They were managed by the club’s owners Paul and Michael Berrow from an office above the nightspot famous for hosting David Bowie, Roxy Music and Chic nights – all artists who heavily influenced the sound of Duran Duran.
A tour supporting Hazel O’Connor followed and, by that December, a record deal with EMI.
Duran Duran broke through with their first single Planet Earth hitting No.12 in the UK in 1981, the video perfectly capturing the New Romantic scene.
Being fans of the club culture and extended mixes, Girls on Film (Night Mix) (1981) was tailored for the seedier side of nightlife. Godley & Creme directed a controversial erotic video for the single (it featured topless ladies pillow fighting in a wrestling ring) which, while being banned on most TV stations, was played on loop in the new clubland video screens. Such ‘exposure’ helped it become their second top ten hit, peaking at No.5 in the UK.
The Fab Five
By the time of their second album Rio (1982), Duran’s sound and image were much more polished and recognisable.
John Taylor, in his memoir In The Pleasure Groove, recalled the band’s musicianship on Rio with high regards stating: “Every one of us is performing … at the absolute peak of our talents.”
The album’s title single, with its classic video filmed on a yacht in Antigua, hit No.9. Rio introduced their famed exotic filming locations and delivered two more top ten hits with Hungry Like The Wolf (No.5) and Save A Prayer (No.2), both with lavish travelogue videos filmed in Sri Lanka.
MTV was launched in 1981 and the 80s was the decade of the video stars. Duran Duran were in tune with this and the exposure from TV became the launch-pad to global domination.
In 1983 they scored their first No.1 in the UK with the stand-alone single Is There Something I Should Know?
The press were by now lapping up the successes and excesses of the band, even dubbing them The Fab Five, a nod to The Fab Four moniker of The Beatles.
The glory they had hungered for was rapidly upon them, even conquering America too, and everywhere they went they were mobbed by the baying crowds of screaming fans.
With pressure on to record a third album (and intending to be UK tax exiles after suddenly becoming very rich) they decamped to Cannes, France to record Seven and the Ragged Tiger. The title references the five band members plus the two managers while “the tiger is success”.
The LP garnered mixed reviews but three more hit singles were borne from it. Union of the Snake hit No.3, New Moon on Monday got to No.9 while The Reflex (remixed by Chic’s Nile Rodgers) scored them their second (and final) UK No.1 but, crucially, their first US No.1.
Now at the peak of their powers, they embarked on their highly successful 1983-4 Sing Blue Silver world tour, famously captured in the live album Arena (1984) which also included one extra studio recording – Wild Boys, a No.2 UK hit released with the world’s most expensive video at that point.
Cracks in the pavement
By 1985, the fame and the fortune and “too many late nights” caught up with the Wild Boys. Side projects The Power Station (John and Andy with Robert Palmer) and Arcadia (Simon and Nick, partly with Roger) came and went but they got together for the one last single as the original five-piece with Bond theme A View To A Kill (No.2 in UK). produced by another Chic band member, Bernard Edwards. They also played Live Aid in the USA.
Their appearance at Philadelphia in front of 90,000 people was to be their last as the classic line-up until their 25th anniversary dates reunited them on stage in 2003.
John, Nick and Simon continued as a three-piece, teaming up with Nile Rodgers again, for their next album Notorious (1986) but they had lost their global superstar crown and suddenly found themselves working harder for the hits.
No ordinary comeback
The intervening years may have seen them struggle to score the hits but the ‘Wedding Album’ (1993) – peaking at No. 4 making it their highest charting album since Seven and the Ragged Tiger – boasted three singles that hit the Top 40 including “Ordinary World” (No.6), “Come Undone” (No.13) and “Too Much Information. Four singles also charted in the USA.
Duran were back with some mature and timeless classics, and looking as cool as ever. A follow up covers album called ‘Thank You’ in 1995 contained a version of Perfect Day – described by Lou Reed himself as the best cover ever of one of his songs.
With their 11th studio album Astronaut (2004) featuring the original five members recording together for the first time since A View to A Kill, the tour that followed gave younger fans who missed their original heyday a chance to see the Fab Five in concert. They did not disappoint, and filled the world’s arenas with their hits all over again.
Though Andy Taylor came and went again, John, Nick, Simon and Roger are still very much working together.
The success of Paper Gods (2015) which saw them team up with Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers on the hit single Pressure Off (also featuring Janelle Monae) and subsequent years of touring the album and headlining festivals has spurred them on like The Rolling Stones of New Wave.
A 15th studio album is currently in progress and due to be released later this year. It will see them become one of only a handful of artists ever to release LPs in five different decades.
With a star on the Hollywood (LA) Walk of Fame, three Ivor Novellos, two Grammys and two lifetime achievement awards from MTV and The Brits respectively, Duran Duran’s position in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame is secured.
Not bad for a plan hatched by two buddies from a quiet housing estate in Hollywood, Birmingham.
My top Duran Duran tracks
2. Ordinary World
3. Hungry Like The Wolf
Underrated track = My Antarctica
Check out James’ Duran Duran playlist on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3Nho8EuCpW4Ho9KaaLIAXq