Duran Duran is a band that is stubbornly timeless.
They are a musical conundrum: Are they admired for once being ahead of their time or because they are a band forever stuck in an era?
The New Wave band is what David Bowie’s and Roxy Music’s work in the '70s evolved into during the self-indulgent '80s. Their cinematic music videos allowed MTV viewers to not only listen to a song, but also get swept up in it. Despite these enduring qualities, Duran Duran’s songs are entrenched in the Me Decade thanks to their association with big-hair, Patrick Nagel illustrations, and coke-fueled decadence. Even when the English rockers made their first (of many) comebacks in the '90s, it felt like a whiff (or snort) of sentimentality instead of a step into the future.
All that being said, Duran Duran isn’t a nostalgia act. Like an aging parent trying to be hip, their work in the new millennium tried too hard to fit into a world of hip-hop and indie rock, but the songs on this list have stood the test of time, influencing contemporary bands like the Killers and Neon Trees. These six gems show why they were on the forefront of a number of musical trends.
"Girls On Film"
Great bands have one song that defines them for their entire career. Roxy Music has “Virginia Plain.” Bowie has “Space Oddity.” As soon as you hear the camera shutter that opens “Girls On Film,” there is no mistaking that this is the song that defines Duran Duran. Funky guitar hooks, airy synths, and lyrics that bring up a shallow discussion of deep issues. It’s mixture of disco and New Wave that can be described as “tacky chic.”
The song is meant to comment on the treatment of women in the fashion industry, but the NSFW video, originally meant to play only in clubs and the Playboy Channel, only further exploits them. There are women kissing, having sexy pillow fights, and mud-wrestling in various states of undress. It was a shrewd attention grabbing move on the band’s part. MTV rushed to bring an edited version to viewers. Suddenly, a New Romantic group was capturing the imagination of music lovers everywhere.
This instrumental track awaits listeners at the end of Duran Duran’s self-titled debut. It’s an experimental piece that was reportedly inspired by lead singer Simon LeBon’s trip to the title city. Lyrics to the five-minute masterpiece were written but wisely never used (a demo version is available on a subsequent reissue). The result is a dark and ethereal musical experiment that recalls the ambient tracks of Bowie’s Low album, made even more haunting by LeBon’s mysterious chanting in the background.
The best songs are often the simplest. All you need is a great riff. Bowie did it with “Rebel Rebel.” The Rolling Stones made the salacious, sexist mess that is “Brown Sugar” a catchy tune with its intro alone. “Hungry Like The Wolf” is a great guitar lick set against some sparkly background keyboard. Add LeBon singing his demented version of “Little Red Riding Hood” with some catchy “do-do’s” to usher in the chorus, and you have the best single off the band’s breakthrough album, Rio.
The track did well outside of the United States, but it couldn’t break through American rock radio. The band again used MTV to get “Hungry Like The Wolf” heard. With its exotic locales, scantly-clad models, and a cinematic atmosphere, the video went into heavy rotation on the cable network quickly. It peaked at number three in the Billboard Hot 100 chart and cemented Duran Duran’s reputation as a band that used strong, exciting visuals to build their audience.
Being rude at a party snagged Duran Duran the job composing the theme song to the 14th James Bond movie A View To A Kill. According to a DVD movie extra, bassist John Taylor approached Bond film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked when he was going to get someone decent to compose a Bond movie theme.
Taylor got what he asked for. The band worked closely with legendary film composer John Barry to get Bond music out of the adult contemporary doldrums and into a more modern sound. Synths cut through the bass line like a bullet, and LeBon’s vocal go down easier than a vodka martini. Duran Duran made the most of this opportunity to craft a song that sets the sonic tone for a feature length film. It must have left listeners both shaken and stirred: the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, making “A View To A Kill” more memorable than the movie it gets its title from.
Somehow in the age of flannel, gangster rap, and Lollapalooza, Duran Duran snuck up the charts with a charming, transcendent ballad that feels just as relevant today as it did in 1993. For the first time in their career, Duran Duran didn’t sound superficial when singing about how “suffering and greed” and “the news of holy war” was making a mess of things. This song came from the heart. They were a band prepared to move forward, refusing to “cry for yesterday” as they abandoned the '80s, only to ironically find themselves popular in the next decade as well.
You have to admire the reverence Duran Duran has for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. The song, which appears with “Ordinary World” on their self-titled 1993 album (commonly referred to as The Wedding Album), transcends the typical album filler by catching the somber tone of the original track. The band then throws in the things that make a Duran Duran song so great: catchy synths and LeBon’s vocals giving the song a tension and emotion that Nico couldn’t pull off. When you consider the band threw away all the goodwill they built with their follow-up, the truly miserable covers album Thank You, this hidden gem should be admired for its restraint.
The band continues to struggle to make their recent work relevant. Their latest single “Pressure Off,” from the album Paper Gods, finally captures some the contemporary feeling they’ve been working toward (with some assistance from Janelle Monae, Kanye West producer Mr. Hudson, Mark Ronson, and Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar). It serves as a callback to why these six songs are so difficult to dismiss.
Duran Duran is scheduled to perform Wednesday, August 3, at Gila River Arena.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE...
Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.