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 
Duran Duran: Notorious – US – CD 
- American Science
- Skin Trade
- A Matter of Feeling
- Hold Me
- Vertigo [Do The Demolition]
- So Misled
- “Meet El Presidente”
- Winter Marches On
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.
They 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.
GRADE – A
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.
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