For girls of a certain age, Duran Duran was when we learned we had hormones. There was endless discussion over the phone or in carefully folded notes passed surreptitiously in class or at slumber parties about which one was the most gorgeous: most popular were Simon Lebon and John Taylor, with some in favor of Nick Rhodes, and the occasional Roger Taylor fan, but poor Andy Taylor was usually left out of the discussion. And who didn’t love them? Handsome men in videos shot in exotic locales with singable melodies and catchy refrains. But recently, while unpacking after a move, I began to watch not only old and new videos of their songs, but also listen to and watch interviews with three of the four original members (Andy Taylor departed long ago, and Roger is usually stumm.) And I was quite surprised to discover their true artistry, and how profoundly intelligent and talented the band members are. Perhaps this has been Duran Duran’s curse–their good looks and supermodel-filled videos have detracted from their musicianship and their powers as artists.
If you listen to interviews with Simon, he discusses listening to classical music in his childhood, being a choir boy, and how he had the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on his wall–these are not unsophisticated, vapid tastes of a pop singer. He was also trained in drama while university student in Birmingham, and one can see his complete commitment to performance in any video or concert footage. The ways in which he moves, emphasizes words, and sings his heart out are really quite remarkable. If you close your eyes and don’t think about how it looks, you really hear an expressive, powerful voice. Articulate, sociable, and charismatic, Simon Le Bon is the consummate lead singer. But his poetic side comes through in his lyrics, which are often mysterious and opaque.
Nick is a living tribute to that most English of traditions: the dandy. Heavily inspired by glam rock and David Bowie, he was friends with Andy Warhol and is to this day quite the artist and art aficionado. Watch his personal tour of the V&A Museum–there is a level of sophistication in his knowledge of art that is quite astounding. While he no longer looks like his 80s androgynous colorful-haired persona, having morphed instead into a well-heeled handsome English gentleman who looks like a London gallery owner, there is something still so striking and intriguing about him. And let’s not forget that he is quite the genius musician. Think about all the sonic universes he creates in each of during Duran’s songs, which are very synth-heavy. Nicknamed “The Controller,” Rhodes has an incredible ear–listen to the complexities of any Duran Duran song and how the variety of parts and harmonies fit together.
John Taylor, underneath his hair and aging rock star good looks, is fundamentally an incredible bassist. If you listen to Duran Duran’s music, it is bass-heavy, and in my opinion, this is a sign of musical sophistication. Taylor is not simply playing 1-4-5-1 but playing interesting patterns with funky rhythms. Watch his videos on bass lines of the band’s songs: not only does he play beautifully, but he also communicates what he is doing very clearly. Not to mention, he spoke at a UCLA Engineering symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the Internet.
Roger Taylor is sadly getting the short shrift here, but this is not to say that he isn’t a formidable drummer (and one must notice that he has aged quite well, perhaps the best of any members.) Andy was also an equal contributor, though he is left the band, and he provided backing vocals in addition to guitar. Nile Rodgers has been not only a welcome addition as a sometimes-guitarist, but also a longtime supporter and producer of the band. Which brings me to another point: Duran Duran has always been influenced by black music. Not just with the presence of Rodgers, but with Black backup singers and bass-driven, music to dance to. They got their start in a Birmingham club, and so their first experiences as a band were to play live to audiences who could dance if they wanted to.
Duran Duran’s musical talents are sometimes outshined by their embracing of the visual. Fashion, videos, performance, theatrical concerts were all a huge part of their work. Think back to that oh-so-80s, cheerful graphic cover of Rio: an image that defines a generation. But we must understand that their love of the image was part of their style, and style is a part of artistry. (Check out the video for “Pressure Off” from a few years ago–it is nothing short of stunning and chic!) It is sad that many critics disparaged them and saw them as superficial pop stars who only held appeal to teenage girls. 40 years later, Duran Duran has proved them wrong. It is worth revisiting their body of work as an adult, and understanding what intelligent, lasting, and phenomenal artists they are. And of course, good-looking ones.