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Duran Duran: From New Romantic Icons To Planet Earth’s Biggest Band
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In Depth

Duran Duran: From New Romantic Icons To Planet Earth’s Biggest Band

Once dubbed the “Fab Five”, Duran Duran’s ear for hits and knack for reinvention has made the band a touring sensation to this day.

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Duran’s Duran’s notable durability is down to a winning combination of their brilliant launch manifesto (“To be The Velvet Underground, produced by Giorgio Moroder”), a nuanced songwriting skill that has stayed one step ahead of the zeitgeist, and the genius timing that made them the biggest band in the world. Luck might have played its part, but lengthy careers such as theirs rarely sustain on lightweight substance alone.

Listen to the best of Duran Duran here.

While the band’s line-up has fractured and reformed over time, the core professional bond of founders John Taylor, on guitar, and keyboardist Nick Rhodes has endured, while the group’s determined fanbase has now crowned Duran Duran the 80s heritage band it’s still cool to celebrate, with an awesome live reputation ensuring their continued success.

Even so, those albums keep coming, with 2021’s Future Past earning the Birmingham, England, group some of the strongest reviews of their career. That said, little can compete with the halcyon era of the band’s imperial peak – a glorious 36-month run that built gradually alongside the newly launched MTV channel and arguably came to a close with the band’s performance at the Philadelphia leg of July 1985’s Live Aid concert.

The wild boys: early years and fame

From their breakout from the Birmingham club scene to the Top Of The Pops studio, the New Romantic movement offered handy coat-tails for the five-piece. But while they were undoubtedly one of the best New Romantic bands, Duran Duran’s ambitions were much greater. With drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor, Simon, Nick and John’s early hits, such as Planet Earth and Girls On Film, got them noticed but, in truth, largely served to bankroll their Technicolor ambition, with the band being early adopters of the possibilities of the new video age.

From 1982’s Rio album, Duran Duran were operating on a big-budget scale, with each new video seemingly outspending the last, and the singles themselves establishing themselves among the best 80s songs. From the clip for Rio’s title track, filmed off the coast of Antigua, to their major stateside breakthrough, Hungry Like The Wolf, shot in Sri Lanka, this was a band that knew how it wanted to appear. It’s possibly hard to imagine Duran Duran enjoying as much success in any other decade than the 80s but, in that photogenic era, it was a case of the right band at the right time. Across the pages of the teenage press, on TV screens – particularly in the US – and on lengthy concert runs criss-crossing the planet, Duran Duran couldn’t put a foot wrong.

Of course it was over the top. What exactly Union Of The Snake – the first single from Seven And The Ragged Tiger – was all about remains anyone’s guess (but it looked great!), while epic singles such as the Nile Rodgers-assisted remix of The Reflex and the power-pop punch of Is There Something I Should Know? (the group’s first UK No.1), make it easy to see why Duran Duran played right into the hands of a press determined to hype them to new heights. Still missing the “Fab Four” Beatles (the world was still reeling from the murder of John Lennon at the start of the 80s)? Here, instead, are the “Fab Five”! Even Princess Di loves them! Lazy labels for simpler times, perhaps, but it had the desired effect.

A view to a kill: creative risks, chart hits

By the middle of the decade that still defines them, the itch of experimentation needed a scratch, and the band paused, with John and Andy (no relation) focusing on the rock-pop market with The Power Station, leaving Simon, Nick and Roger to flirt with art-pop on the Arcadia project. Smash singles such as Some Like It Hot and Election Day from both directions neatly maintained the momentum.

In 1986, birthday boy Roger (celebrating on 26 April) was the first to bail – burnt out by five years of fan hysteria and an impossible workload – while Andy also left to pursue a solo career that could satisfy his rock instincts. The remaining trio’s work with Nile Rodgers on Notorious was their most assured to date, leaning the band’s sound towards sophisticated, mid-Atlantic urban funk. The remainder of the decade offered further change: 1988’s Big Thing nodded towards the new dance sounds (notably on the frenetic All She Wants Is) while, in 1990, Liberty came coated in a grittier rock finish.

The triumphant revival of Duran Duran (aka “The Wedding Album”), recorded on the cheap against modest expectation, reignited the band’s fighting spirit, with aid from guitarist Warren Cuccurollo. On hits such as the epic ballad Ordinary World and the haunting midtempo cut Come Undone, the band found themselves welcomed back to contemporary pop radio while, in the process, creating a work that reshaped their future.

Save a prayer: rebirth and renaissance

It wasn’t all plain sailing in a rock and pop market in thrall to grunge in the US and the “Battle Of Britpop” in the UK. 1995’s covers collection, Thank You, delivered a handful of moderate hit singles, such as the Lou Reed classic Perfect Day. John Taylor’s subsequent defection and the collapse of the old record-label hierarchies would, however, see 1997’s Medazzaland and 2000’s Pop Trash fall through the cracks.

In 2001, the reformation of the original line-up signalled a remarkable change of fortune (off the back of some long-overdue industry recognition). Released three years later, Astronaut was Duran Duran’s best-selling album in years, and single (Reach Up For The) Sunrise took the group back into the UK Top 5. After a rekindling of interest in the 80s, followed by the distraction of the new millennium’s music-industry implosion, the band were finally getting the respect they deserved on the live circuit, too. A new rhythm of expectation, fuelled by fresh marketing channels making access to their fanbase easier, saw each release become arguably more assured than ever before in terms of reception and sales.

Collaborating with hitmakers such as Justin Timberlake and Timbaland wasn’t an entirely bad idea, but Duran Duran aren’t a band that can just recycle a contemporary sound. Andy quit for a final time, and the recordings were largely scrapped, though the Timbaland tracks made it on to 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre.

For 2010’s All You Need Is Now, the group enlisted the help of Mark Ronson – a fan since childhood – to extract the essence of what makes a classic Duran Duran record. He wasn’t intimidated by the heavy hooks that permeated the best Duran Duran songs, instead celebrating those techniques while fans lapped up the results.

On 2015’s Paper Gods, the band revisited the funk sounds of the Nile Rodgers era (the Chic mainman guested with Janelle Monáe on launch single Pressure Off). Mr Hudson, who also hails from Birmingham, worked extensively on the record, too. Issuing Future Past in 2021, with the world still in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, was a risky move, unshackled as it was by the support of a live touring schedule, but it proved a masterstroke. The critics had little to distract their attention and the songs powered their way across radio. Airplay successes such as Anniversary and Give It All Up (a duet with Tove Lo) proved the band had lost little of its Midas touch. Working again with Mark Ronson and – finally – enlisting Giorgio Moroder didn’t hurt, either. This was like a Duran Duran greatest-hits record with all-new songs.

My own way: legacy and continued impact

With touring back on the agenda from 2022, Duran Duran are perfectly poised to continue evolving further into the new wave Rolling Stones of a later generation. Among the best 80s musicians, this is a group that straddles the cultural siloes with a lengthy run of singalong classics and a tight live set that truly cuts through. Roger is arguably the backbone of the band; John remains a gifted guitarist with a demanding charisma; Nick is the canny business and artistic lead with a restless appetite for what’s next; and Simon stands as the colourful frontman who has only strengthened as a vocalist. It’s easy to see why this DNA has such impact.

All heritage acts navigate the tightrope that demands gentle artistic development and comforting predictability, and Duran Duran balance that brilliantly, with each new release somehow welded around former glories. Across the past four decades, the group have largely captured that spirit of crowd-pleasing predictability while never sounding – or looking – boring. The screaming fans have aged with them, but something of that hysteria echoes on. The band that never grew up? Does that remind you of someone?

Find out where Duran Duran rank among our best 80s musicians.

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