Rock GPA: Duran Duran [part 2]

Yesterday I dropped the ROCK GPA® graph of fate. Today I’ll get started on reviewing my rating for each individual album. Let’s begin, shall we?

Duran Duran | UK | LP | 1981 – 3

Their debut album is highly derivative of Japan’s “Quiet Life” album. Particular their “Giorgio Moroder” period [“Quiet Life,”Life In Tokyo,” “European Son”]. “Girls On Film” has always been a drag for me to listen to. Maybe it was the sleazy video that pushed me over the edge on that song. Only Roger Taylor’s roto-tom solo gives me anything back. “Planet Earth” is best experienced in its snappy 7″ version. “Careless Memory” was a non-hit single but showed off the group’s ability to rock. The best tracks on the debut are highly melodic cuts that veer away from the Japan sound like “Is There Anyone Out There.” This was a song that really showed the band was capable of more than sequencer driven dance tracks. “Friends Of Mine” was a great example of “rock disco,” as it was called in the trades at the time. “Sound Of Thunder” takes the Japan/Moroder influence and manages to finally make it something of their own, with a jaunty urgency that shows them integrating the influence and not just imitating.

Duran Duran – Rio | 1982 – 4

Their second album paid off in spades from the promise of their debut! There are no weak cuts. Stylistic influence for this disc went back from Japan to their mutual source of spiritual influence; Roxy Music. The scent of “Country Life” wafts in the sea breezes caressing the shoreline of this “Rio.” Most of the songs are filled to bursting with youthful enthusiasm and vigor. The propulsive drive of “Hungry Like The Wolf” gets me every time. It’s a song that by all rights I should be burned out on, but it’s always welcome to my ears. All of the songs here run a wide gamut from delicate ballads to driving synth rockers; leaving room for even for the arty experimentalism of “The Chauffeur.” They got massively popular with this album; and deservedly so. Could they do no wrong?

Duran Duran – Seven & The Ragged Tiger | 1982 – 2

Apparently not. The “difficult” aprés-fame album came with a huge pre-sold audience who would have bought anything, for the most part. What must have been a lot of cocaine sounded like it went into the making of this record! The songs are weaker than those on “Rio” by a huge margin. How can you find time to hone songs when the whole world wants a piece of you [and vice versa]? The leadoff single raised red flags immediately. “The Union Of The Snake” was a flat re-write of “Let’s Dance,” which already had the distinction of being Bowie’s creative [though not financial] waterloo. The approach on that song typified the weaknesses of this album. The arrangement is cluttered with spidery and percussive details and not at all focused on rhythm and melody, which are the band’s strong cards.

He’s not normally my idea of a good singer, but Simon LeBon’s vocals here really get on my nerves. He manages to almost torpedo “New Moon On Monday,” one of the few bright spots here, with his attempt at a David Sylvian-like lower singing register on the first verse. Having only heard the repulsive Nile Rogers remix of “The Reflex” for nearly 30 years, I was taken aback at how much more musical the LP version was, though it still sports some of LeBon’s most annoying singing ever on the song’s chorus. Elsewhere, “Cracks In The Pavement” scuttles a likable melody with his slapdash lyrics and petulant delivery. “The Seventh Stranger,” the one good song here, sounds like what I imagined would follow the growth evidenced on “Rio.” Significantly, the clattering percussion and filigree that swamps most of the other tracks is held back here to allow the atmosphere of the song breathing room. I should mention that I listened to an LP copy [given to me by a friend years ago] of this album several times for the first time since the day it was released in order to write this post! Having heard some of the much larger train wrecks that followed this album in Duran’s career, I now rate it slightly higher than I did, back in the day. Even so, I’d always felt that the B-side “Secret Oktober” far eclipsed the music on this album and that opinion hasn’t changed.

Duran Duran – Arena | 1984 – 1

Duran Duran released this worthless live album as a quick followup to their Ragged Tiger world tour. They appeared in Central Florida but I had no desire to go. This album supports that decision. The net effect is of playing the first three albums on a sound system and recording the playback from the speakers. Only with worse vocals than the originals! There is no “vibe” here and the live ambience is all but missing. Only on “New Religion” are there any signs of life at all. Adding insult to injury, there is a new studio single riding this release. “The Wild Boys” was another track mixed into oblivion by Nile Rogers. It was almost Duran’s take on heavy metal, albeit tricked up with all manner of Fairlight effects and histrionic emoting by LeBon. For years I thought this album was better than “Ragged Tiger.” I was wrong.

Duran Duran – Notorious | 1986 – 4

Whiplash time! After the frenzy of “Arena” the band could get no bigger – so they fissured into splinter groups and doubled up their assault on the charts. Guitarist Andy Taylor said “sayonara,” as did drummer Roger Taylor and the group reconvened to plot their next move. Against all odds, it was a stunner. I was expecting nothing from Duran Duran and this album delivered sophistication, maturity, cohesion and it played to the band’s strengths while moving in a new direction. Surprisingly, Nile Rogers also produced this, but it remains my favorite example of his productions. It lacks the “plastic” sound that he typically brings to the table. The Borneo Horns [from the Saturday Night Live Band] add much flair to this recording. Of all of the bands who added a horn section in the mid-80s, [and there were many] Duran Duran clearly came out at the head of that class.

As with “Rio,” I can’t fault any of the tracks on this album. Like that album, it sports album cuts that are incredibly strong. “American Science” is a slinky number with great, interlocking horns and guitar counterpointing a delicate, haunting melody. Simon’s singing is spot on here with no bad moves made at all. His lyrics are miles ahead of their usual cringe-factor as well. Hearing the band attempt a Prince-styled falsetto funk number on “Skin Trade” managed to be charming instead of embarrassing. “Proposition” closes the album with a rousingly strong melodic flourish. This is an album than hangs together like an Armani suit and has consistently been a pleasure to listen to for all of the years since its release.

Duran Duran – Big Thing | 1988 – 2.5

Having heard the singles from this and not the album for another five years didn’t prepare me for just how much growth the band evidenced in their songwriting maturity. For the most part. I feel that I might have rated this higher except for the following reasons. First of all, the turgid title cut that opens the album all but kills it in its tracks, right at the starting block! For all of the UK critics that lambasted the Power Station album as regressive heavy metal at the time, this track is sincerely that… in spades…and it’s bad heavy metal, to boot! It’s leaden sludge festooned with lyrics that certainly appear to be about Simon LeBon’s penis. Bad form, old sock.

Next came the band’s top ten single from the album, “I Don’t Want Your Love,” which flirted with house music in its choice of rhythms. It also sported a frenzied, metallic guitar solo from newly ensconced guitarist Warren Cuccurollo. The sound seemed to follow on from “Notorious” without gaining much and actually losing a lot of the subtlety of that album’s songs. The next single continued in that vein, but worse. “All She Wants Is” is a mildly annoying song about a panting woman with one thing on her mind. Tedious stuff, but a nice Dean Chamberlain video accompanied the single.

After these three openers finally came the song I’d been waiting to hear. “Too Late Marlene” is a subtle, attractive ballad well sung by Simon. This is the first track on the album than an adult would have written. Unfortunately, it’s followed by another “Notorious” outtake, “Drug [It’s Just A State Of Mind].” It’s not a bad song, but it’s sell-by date clearly relegates it to the previous album period. Following the incredible cohesion of the songwriting and production on “Notorious,” this album was shaping up like a punch-drunk boxer on his last legs, not the champ of the last round.

Then side two hits and [almost] everything is forgiven. The third single,”Do You Believe In Shame,” is a shameless ripoff of Dale Hawkins’ great swampabilly hit “Suzie Q.” Don’t just take my word for it. Ask the court who have now appended Hawkins and his co-writers as co-authors of this song in all modern pressings of the track. I never imagined in a thousand years that DD would ever re-write “Suzie Q” but they did – and it’s not bad. The lyrics and singing are a heartfelt tribute by the band to three of their recently deceased friends; two famous and one not.

What follows on this is the sumptuous ballad “Palomino.” This marks the point where Duran Duran have finally moved beyond creating something “pretty” to making something of real beauty. It’s certainly a high point of their songcraft. It’s then followed by the even more stunning “Land;” a song of such achingly tender beauty that it’s hard to imagine it coming from the same hands that penned the title cut of this album. It’s truly the band’s finest hour.  These songs on side two are so accomplished and beautiful, that I rate side one even lower in comparison. If this album weren’t such a patchwork collision of moods, abilities and feelings, it’s finest moments would clearly rank it among Duran Duran’s acme. As it stands, in the cold light of day, I have to give it 2.5/4 with reservations.

Next: That difficult middle period

About postpunkmonk

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12 Responses to Rock GPA: Duran Duran [part 2]

  1. Taffy says:

    Well done, Sir Monk. I respect your grading, but must quibble with the debut only getting a 3. Mostly, I want to defend the singles. While the video for Girls on Film is surely crass soft-core porn, it is one hell of a tune. From its camera-shutter sound effect opening to its stuttery beat, this (admittedly played-out) song could perfectly score an Andy Warhol short. And I prefer the night version of Planet Earth which graced the original US album release. That three minute instrumental lead-in made for some seriously memorable dancing at the Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria (famed NYC rock discos). Yeah, I was there.
    Looking forward to Duran Duran part three.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      @Taffy – Welcome back! I’ve been listening to nothing but the Duran Duran albums for two weeks straight now and I’m not sick of them yet. That says something. I haven’t seen them in ten years so I hope that they come nearby on the next tour. So you were at Danceteria and the Peppermint Lounge back in the day? What fun that must have been. Borelando, Florida [where I was at the time] had one “New Wave” club, Spit, which was a disco disco the other six nights of the week. I didn’t ever get there because as soon as I was “legal” [and I don’t drink] Florida raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 [thanks to that fascist Reagan] so that kept me out of Spit until it was no more. I didn’t get a change to dance in a club to Duran Duran until I was in my late 20s and clubs had started having “Old Wave” nights in the late 80s/early 90s. HLTW still killed on the dance floor.


      • Taffy says:

        Well, i remember being a young college kid in Binghamton, (upstate) New York, and going out to this sort of video rock disco called the Power and Light Company. I think it was late’79/early’80, and burned into my head is the memory of watching the video clips for Pop Muzik, Video Killed the Radio Star, and especially the Vapor’s Turning Japanese! Going down to NYC while home on holidays/summer break allowed for the tentative exploration of Danceteria, Hurrah, etc. To my eternal sadness, I never got to the Mudd Club.


  2. Brian Ware says:

    A good start PPM, and your comments are well reasoned regarding “Big Thing”. I guess we’re just more forgiving of it’s indulgences. It’s also one of those albums that always recalls a special time for Kenna and me as it’s the year we got married.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      @Brian Ware – I’m listening carefully to these albums and formulating new opinions day by day. Overall, I’m being kinder to some of them, but this one, as tremendous as it’s heights are, causes me problems as an album. Ideally it should be 2.75/4 but I’d made a decision to to have that level of granularity to the ratings.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      @ Brian Ware – Let’s not forget that “Big Thing” also had in its favor that great trilogy of US CD-3s of all three singles that were so wicked.


  3. chas_m says:

    I think 2.75 is a fair grade for Big Thing. I like the parts I like, but you’re right that it’s uneven, a band still not sure where to go from here.

    As I said before I’d rate Seven a bit higher than you but yes his singing did get annoying in places on that one. I paid no attention whatsoever to “Arena” except for the long-form “Wild Boys” video, which I still think is overindulgently beautiful. Russell Mulcahey and his obsession with male beauty, ah those were the days!


  4. regularjoe says:

    I agree with a lot here. DD1’s stronger moments were certainly not the singles but a fine introduction to the group.
    Rio is quite solid. Most bands in my estimate have a real ‘sophomore slump’ where the first album is really where they put their best foot first. The material has probably been played in clubs, bars, concerts so many times that it has been refined and distilled to as good as it will probably be. BUT…are they able to do this again or will the creative juices run dry?
    7&TRT….geez what a mess. I didn’t mind the music so much but the lyrics were just dreadful jibberish. At the time I loved it merely just because it was new DD but boy has that one not aged well.

    You’re dead on with the 12” Reflex vs. the album version. I don’t know if you’ve ever spotted this:

    but someone went to a lot of work to take the best of all worlds and do something better with all of the parts available.

    Sometimes I cringe when I troll through the hard drive with all of the music and revisit some of the old 80’s stuff, but they really hasn’t been anything like ‘Rio’ since it came out.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      regularjoe – Thanks for the link to the fan mix of “The Reflex.” It certainly corrects the many wrongs of Nile Rogers and his Fairlight. Back in the times when bands were allowed to develop, it was not uncommon for a debut album to be merely tentative and followed later by albums of growing strength. Just look at Simple Minds! Often that third album was the sweet spot [Japan, Ultravox, Simple Minds, OMD among the many groups that I collect and deeply love].


  5. JT says:

    It’s interesting to me that you completely skipped mentioning the three BEST tracks on Seven and the Ragged Tiger. For me, the biggest tragedy of this weak-ish record is that the three worst songs were picked for singles. Reflex and Union are both shit, and New Moon is tolerable on a good day (the band hate it and haven’t played it live since it was, um, new). Potential fourth single Seventh Stranger is a weak attempt to capture the same feelings that inspired Save a Prayer.

    But… had “I Take the Dice”, “Of Crime and Passion”, and “Shadows on Your Side” been selected as singles and mixed/remixed as carefully as the three historical singles, I think this record would be remembered a bit more fondly. Those three, along with the cool instrumental “Tiger Tiger” are the best stuff on the record. Give them another spin and see what you think.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – Wow! A DD Rock G.P.A.® that lasted 3-4 days?! Hah! I was green! Bad, raw green! Well, I certainly got over that! Since I only had this on vinyl, I made a CD-R rip of my copy and I don’t think I listened to it since I wrote this. I’ll have to give it another listen tomorrow and report back with my findings. Maybe I’ll “remaster” this Rock G.P.A.® and drag it out for 100,000 words and alienate more readers!


    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – I looked back on the Duran Rock G.P.A. and had to laugh at the single paragraph that SATRT merited! Oh, impetuous youth! I’ve been listening this last week to the album on your recommendation. You make cogent points, though I still approve of “Moon” and “Stranger.” I think the latter is not just informed by “Prayer,” but also “Chauffeur.” I suppose that part of my historical antipathy for this album can be held to the choice of lead off single that was dead from the neck up. The annoying #1 single from the record was broken glass ground into the wound.

      “I Take The Dice” has irresistible synth pop hooks from Rhodes, but was held back by LeBon’s vocals and lyrics. “Of Crime And Passion” was the clear winner here, and notably, the one time they let Andy out of his cage, and even then with a shock collar on that relegated half of his licks to a guitar synth. Even Simon’s lower register singing [when he deigns to sing in his range] sounded pretty good. Nick’s atmospheric string patches added frissons of delight as well. This was a worthy sequel to “Careless Memories” and the last time the original band ventured this far into “rock.” The arrangement suggested a much better Bond theme than they eventually made later on. “Shadows On Your Side” was almost as good. And the instrumental touched on Japan nicely while staying more pop oriented. According to the Wikipedia page for the album, “Shadow” was a mooted fourth single that never happened. It’s on the Internet, so it must be true!

      I can see where you were going on your EP idea, but had they done that after a monster album like “Rio” they would have been crucified as were the Human League when “Fascination!” dropped in America, even though I thought it was wise of them and a much better record than “Hysteria” and especially “Romantic?”
      On the whole, the album is a half-baked, half-step towards the more fully realized and successful Arcadia sound. There, they had the time and money to get it down right. Time, and their later – more egregious gaffes, have been kinder to this album than I would have imagined in 1983. I’d definitely bump it up a half point, at least.


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