Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: Duran Duran – Notorious

post-punk monk theme week - battle of the mid 80s horn sections
In 1983, Duran Duran became one of the most popular bands on the planet. They were actually referred to as the Fab Five for a rare time. Following the inevitable live album of their “couldn’t hear the band for the screaming” live album in 1984, the group split into two factions for their inevitable side project period in 1985. The next year brought their [almost] reformation back into the DD mothership.  Guitarist Andy Taylor only partially participated on the New Duran Duran album before splitting for that lucrative solo career. And at that time, Nile Rodgers, who had produced/remixed their previous two singles, signed on for the full album. Could they once again scale the heights of chart hysteria? Only time…and the horn section would tell.

Duran Duran: Notorious [1986]

duran duran notorious cover art

Capitol Records ‎| US | CD | CDP 7 46415 2

Duran Duran: Notorious – US – CD [1986]

  1. Notorious
  2. American Science
  3. Skin Trade
  4. A Matter of Feeling
  5. Hold Me
  6. Vertigo [Do The Demolition]
  7. So Misled
  8. “Meet El Presidente”
  9. Winter Marches On
  10. Proposition

Right from the start the all-guns-blazing hit single “Notorious” let everyone know that Double Duran were back. John Taylor had liked working with horns on The Power Station album, so producer Nile Rodgers had roped in The Borneo Horns for the album. The same team who had toiled to no benefit on Bowie’s “Tonight” album. But the change here was dramatic. The title track really gained from the swagger that the horns added to the gated-drum-whipcrack-funk that was “Notorious.” The brashness of the horns in the intro of “American Science” contrasted wonderfully with the subtlety of the song itself. Interestingly, while Nick Rhodes keys were straddling string and horn sounds here the contrast between them and a living, breathing brass section made for an interesting dynamic.

duran duran skin trade french cover artThey earned every bit of their crust on the single “Skin Trade.” The horns were put to sturdy use in adding a suitable vulgarity to the falsetto funk number that showed the band quite capable of meeting Prince half way or more. The horn solos in the middle eight between the gated drum beats created a sense of space that a listener could get lost in. That this single was only a middling top 20 follow-up to the top ten hit “Notorious” was shocking to me as well as the band, who felt they had created their finest work yet. That the LP tracks was six minutes but sure didn’t feel like it suggested they were right and the masses were wrong.

The next three songs stepped back from the brass input; leaving Rhodes’ keys the tonal spotlight for a while. “So Misled” had the brass returning with a vivid staccato arrangement where they syncopated with the rhythm section. I think we can put this track down to the prowess of producer Rodgers. Its inconceivable that the band would have ever made such a track without his guidance. Then the third single “Meet El Presidente” gave the horns the full spotlight as they added a Latin flair to the fiesty number. I especially enjoyed the flutes in this one. Bands often forget the punch a flute can add to a funky track. Finally, the album closer, “Proposition,” gave the brass-infused album a punchy finish that “went out like a lion.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: Unlike some of the bands we’ve looked at this week, “Notorious” represented a more full integration into the band and the arrangement of the album. It was not a case of “what else do we need here?” The brass were present on six of the ten tracks and the arrangements show the care taken with their use. Between the strong songwriting and performance, the outside players adding to this album were all carefully considered by producer Rodgers to balance the flavors on offer thoughtfully and for best impact. This was not a horn section that was bolted on as an afterthought as the playing was integral to the song arrangements. The horns would continue with Duran Duran for their next album but following that would not be a guaranteed feature of the band.


By the end of the period we’ve looked at horns were far from a novelty on the chart music we have discussed. In each case, I’d be lying if I said that there was ever a time where I thought to myself “gosh – when are _ _ _ _ _ ever going to record an album with a horn section?” In some instances, the horn section was a big surprise when it manifest. In the cases of The Stranglers and OMD in particular! As David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Duran Duran hit closer to the mainstream, the horns on their albums were less shocking, though the lack of sensitivity to their use on the Bowie album was still hard to believe. Amazingly enough, the same horn section contributed mightily to the Duran Duran album two years later, so we can lay blame at the artist and producer; not the brass section. And the selfsame Borneo Horns got a chance to right their wrongs with Bowie in 2002 as they acquitted themselves admirably under the direction of Tony Visconti [him again] for the “Heathen” album.

I’m not a fan in particular of horns; they can be a minefield in which bands can get lost and lose their footing. I think their use requires a lot of experience and sensitivity on the part of the bands and producers so that they are utilized in a productive fashion. But like any instrument, they can be used in a way that doesn’t offend me and when they are used in a planned, integrative fashion  as on the Duran Duran album, they can take the whole thing to the next level. Alternatively, the sparing use of their unique brand of seasoning, can add verve to a project such as “Aural Sculpture.” But if the band is not in a place where they have solid footing, I think that the addition of horns can be a slippery surface for the band to negotiate.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

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16 Responses to Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: Duran Duran – Notorious

  1. Duran Duran has a “sound” and horns certainly fit it. Nile Rodgers is also a producer that fits the band, unlike being a producer for… say… one David Bowie. That’s not to say horns don’t belong on a Bowie album, but instead, their liberal use on a Duran Duran album simply out of place. Now, say, if Duran Duran put out a “two guitars, bass and drums” sounding effort, a “standard” or “stripped down” dare I even say “rock” record, then THAT would be out of place for the fab five.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andy B says:

      I agree that the horns worked well on Duran Duran’s ‘Notorious’’ Monk. They fitted the overall feel of the album.

      You could have mentioned Ultravox’s use of horns on U-Vox. That was a shock to me. I didn’t think the horns in any way improved a poor album. They did feel like a bolt-on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • postpunkmonk says:

        Andy B – Better to end the series on a high note! Whenever I’d think of the horn trend, for years now, these five artists were the ones to immediately come to mind. I guess I try to supress the horror of “U-Vox.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. negative1ne says:

    Mr. Monk,

    Sorry to disagree. But to me Duran Duran-Notorious : you UVOX – UVOX.
    This is the album and singles that pretty much killed off any interest I would
    ever have in Duran Duran, even to this day. Yes, it was that traumatizing to me.

    I can’t explain the horror of hearing Notorious, or the wimpy Skin Trade songs.
    Also, Meet El Presidente is one of their worst title and single ever, I’m still
    not sure what they were thinking.

    I know Duran had used horns before, and the sax solo from Rio is one
    of my alltime favorites ever. But this album is what killed their progress to me.

    Its a shame because I do like Proposition and American Science, and
    there were some cool mixes on the Duran Duran Mastermix, which was a fake promo,
    but real release (and a cover in Brazil):
    A1 American Science (Chemical Reaction Mix) 7:51
    A2 Vertigo (Do The Demolition) (Mantronix Mix) 6:35
    A3 Skin Trade (Parisian Mix) 8:10
    C1 American Science (Meltdown Dub) 7:33
    C2 Vertigo (Do The Demolition) (B-Boy Mix) 6:07
    C3 Notoriousaurus Rex (Master Mix) 8:15

    I’m not sure how Duran Duran went so far off the rails
    with this album. But for Nile Rodgers, the damage was done.
    I would rate this album a D-, or maybe 1 1/2 stars/5.

    From here on out, Duran would become just a singles band to me.
    Granted I did like the wedding album, but even that was slightly
    above average, and not a return to form for them.

    As far as charting goes, their singles:
    Notorious US 2
    Skin Trade US 39
    Meet El Presidente US 70

    From there on out on, I Don’t want your love, Come Undone,
    and Ordinary World in 1993 were the last top 10 hits they would
    ever have over here, which I feel was telling, as it was 23 years
    ago since then.



    • postpunkmonk says:

      negative1ne – Wow. It takes all kinds. I had broken with Duran Duran when “Seven + The Ragged Tiger” came out. That album was so traumatizing to me that i basically ignored them. It wasn’t until my friend, Mr. Ware, bought “Notorious” and spoke well of it that I gave it a chance. I liked it then, and now it’s possibly my favorite Duran Duran album. But obviously, your mileage varies. If your are one of those people who wish they had followed up “Rio” then I can strongly recommend “All You Need Is Now.” Have you heard that? It’s Duran Duran giving in to their inner Duran Duran at the urgings of their producer. Their new one is having Giorgio Moroder involvement, along with Mark Ronson and one other guy. I’ll admit that I’m curious, but I was pretty down on their last one, and I know that they can always surprise me with an album that’s terrible in new and unforseen ways.


  3. Ade.W says:

    Thanks Monk, its been an interesting thread and ending on DD is a good choice. A lot of Rock critics would say when a group is in trouble they turn to Nile Rodgers for hits, they probably did but it doesn’t always work out, see Debbie Harry. Notorious is a good album and I am always surprised when people have either forgotten or just didn’t know how good a track “Skin Trade” is.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I absolutely love this album – the horns, the 12’s, everything. Great series btw!


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Christopher Mwerritt – Welcome to the comments! Love the avatar! Did you get the Italian EP of remixes?


      • Thanks! Been lurking a while – but I’m def a post punk aficionado, so looking to learn a bit more here. Picked up the Rubellan Records remaster of Love Life on your recommendation and it was incredible. Re: Italian remixes – are you talking Duran or Shriekback?


        • postpunkmonk says:

          Christopher Merritt – I meant the “Strange Behaviour” EP, which came out in Italy as a picture disc, and also in an etched Japanese EP with different tracks and all sorts of paper goods. I used to have the Italian EP but sold it off to fund some good times. I’m not aware of any Shriekback Italian EP, though there was a Grecian release of “Knowledge, Power, Truth And Sex” in 1984. I only recently bought the more common German issue of that gem.


  5. Pingback: Duran Duran ‎– Notorious (US 12″) | myvinyldreams

  6. Echorich says:

    The use of the horns on Notorious do make sense, but unfortunately, I find it a lackluster album on the whole. Like @negative1ne, it’s the remixes which I enjoyed from this project.


  7. Jimmy Haole says:

    Main takeaways from this review is Andy’s solo career was a bust and Bowie’s tonight is awful:)


  8. Jimmy Haole says:

    Also, the muted response to Notorious in my opinion had more to do with their young female audience going through the lightning fast maturation those years can bring and less to do with the quality of their output.


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