American Science ***
Skin Trade *****
A Matter Of Feeling ****
Hold Me ****
Vertigo (Do The Demolition) ****
So Misled ***
Meet 'El Presidente' **
Winter Marches On ***
2 November 1985. The last Duran Duran single had been number 1 in the USA. The Power Station have completed a US tour. Arcadia are being promoted on the airwaves and Election Day has just gone top 10. There are rumblings about new Duran Duran music but the magazine racks are chock full of Duran-related pics and it was business as usual for the kings of pop.
1 November 1986. Notorious enters the UK chart at number 14, the lowest new-entry since My Own Way in November 1981.
We now know there were two major problems for Duran Duran that were not immediately evident in November 1985.
Externally, the cultural hurricane of Live Aid was yet to hit. One year later, Amnesty International had hosted a US tour featuring U2 and Peter Gabriel. Charity singles were everywhere. The 1984 consensus had been shattered. Wham had split (George Michael had another solo number one). Spandau Ballet’s return had flopped. Boy George’s heroin addiction had been exposed. Po-faced social commentary from the Pet Shop Boys was in the ascendancy. The charts got duller and less enticing to flamboyant pop stars (Chris De Burgh and Boris Gardener had the big summer hits; Gabriel and Paul Simon had huge-selling albums).
Alongside the radical shift in the cultural sphere, the band had imploded. All those smiling photos from 81-84, with matching clothes and confidence had fractured in the media into two camps, strange new looks and an insular surliness. There was a near total media absence for 6-9 months after Election Day. John’s solo single, where it was noticed, only added to the dislocation.
And then the band came back with only three of them left.
In fact, the only news coming out from the camp during 1986 was about band rifts. There was a sense that this was the end of Duran and there might not even be a new LP. The year started with Roger silently slipping away, Simon being yacht-bound until May, whilst Andy played the band off against each other for most of the year. Warren, having been alerted to the vacancy, turned up over the summer. Andy officially quit just before the release of Notorious in October, having completed some guitar work alone in September.
Now, here they were, blinking into the light, looking all grown up and deciding to appear in glorious monochrome. Gone were the roaring lion-haired peacocks of 1984, or even the black-haired Euro-artistes of 1985. Instead came their new record in solid black. Whilst it may have won style points, this seemed to prioritise making a statement that they were different ahead of media friendly imagery.
Since 1986, we’ve heard Nile Rodgers talking about making Notorious ‘in a cloud of cocaine’ and John saying that they called Nile and told him they’d ‘needed him to help them make a record’. All of which gives the impression that it felt either like a rush job or a hard slog which meant the quality was lacking. This Duran-revisionism points to a focus on the music being the issue for the (relative) commercial failure, rather than the prevailing cultural forces.
The title track leads the way and is as punchy and different as it always was. This was (brilliantly) not a repeat of anything that had come before. The bass is beefed up, there’s a horn section, the ‘No, no, notorious’ was strangely reminiscent of Paul Hardcastle’s number 1 hit ‘19’. It gives off the energy of the three band members; the sound is tighter, simpler and anything but overproduced. It’s a great opener and a fine lead single which deserved to rank up there as one of their best. That's why it remains a core part of their set and no Best Of would miss it out. Indeed, their 'glory period' is usually seen as 81-86, suggesting retrospectively that Notorious (the song) is part of the Big Hits. However, at the time it said to the world that Duran were not the force they once were. Whilst the single respectably hit no 7 in the UK and no 2 in the USA, it did not do enough to push the album. [For the record, in the UK, the album charted at no 16 and then fell to no 53 the next week, never entering the top 50 again in its 16 week run. In the US, it did better, spending 10 weeks in the top 20 (peaking at no 12).]
American Science woozes into view taking the pace right down which is not necessarily a bad thing after the clatter and bang of the opening. On the other hand, it’s not immediately obvious what this adds to the album. It’s one of those completely harmless album tracks and it swings along moodily about something or other. The strength or weakness of Duran's new direction is in the balance here. If this is to be the staple for the rest then we might be in trouble. Of course the next track is Skin Trade.
Skin Trade, the band never tired of saying, was the best song they’d ever written. No doubt they felt this was the killer second single to 'seal the deal' of their new status for which Notorious would be laying the groundwork. However, by the time the single arrived, the album was out the charts and this track – genius or not - had a lot of heavy lifting to do. It follows the sound of the album set by Notorious and lifts the song writing up to new heights. It’s a curious mix between a laid back bass, a few chords from Nick Rhodes to add a bit of weight, a cute little guitar over the top (played by Andy? Warren?) and a horn section. Simon does a decent Prince impression and the result is possibly my favourite Duran track. It’s neither a slow nor a dance number. It’s definitely Duran and fits perfectly onto the album and yet, just like The Chauffeur it is not a single. It is not radio friendly for all the reasons it is a great track 3. Whilst the album gains for its sound, the band did not in the singles chart. John would go on to complain about the unfairness of Wild Boys being a hit whilst Skin Trade was not – but Wild Boys was a great single… and Skin Trade just wasn't.
A Matter of Feeling is a very Duran track which could be as much at home on Rio or Big Thing. This strong album track leads very nicely to the close of Side One with Hold Me which John described at the time as ‘not moving very far away from a typical Duran formula’. At the time, I remember this as being one of my favourite tracks which could very easily have been a single. Today, it still holds up (just) and – Duran revisionism alert – might have been the missing second single. Whilst Skin Trade wonderfully bodyswerves the public just getting used to Notorious, hindsight tells us this was not appreciated. Special mention for the coda with ‘na, na, na, na, na, na’ which I’m a sucker for. What would Hungry Like the Wolf have been like if Simon had written lyrics to replace the ‘Do do do do do do do dodo dododo dodo’?
Vertigo is another gem and in terms of the album it is almost as important as New Religion was to Rio. Neither was a single because they thought there were other stronger songs for that (which is debatable again as we'll see in a couple of songs’ time) but both were among the best songs they’d written. The only difference is that while New Religion was on Rio and is a track you wouldn’t be surprised to hear live, Vertigo hasn’t been played since the Strange Behaviour tour.
So Misled goes back to the American Science / Matter of Feeling formula. This is where the album wins or loses. If you like these tracks as an interlude or a ‘calm between the storms’ to quote John, then the album is incredibly strong. If you tire of them, then you probably will never listen to the album but put three or four tracks on a Duran Compilation (and yes I am aware that nobody under the age of 25 listens to ‘albums' any more but this was 1986 so it’s important here). For the record, I like them and that’s why this far in, this album, is performing well.
The opening to Meet El Presidente augers well. Then… well I was never much of a fan. This was the third single and although by that point they were already no longer really a singles band, it could have been so much better. You feel they were writing a single here, yet the overbearing ‘woo hoos’ and ‘yeahs’ scream 'trying too hard'. Had the album been winning commercially, A Matter of Feeling might have been a better choice as third single.
Two tracks left and Winter Marches On is a welcome break. Is it as good as My Antarctica? How does it compare to Save a Prayer? Does it stand up to Edge of America? Much as I like it, I’m not sure it does. Not quite. But then, does it have to? Duran have always written great ballads and this one might not be great but is still very, very good. It surprises me to write that because at the time I thought it was but maybe, like Hold Me, it’s not quite as good as I remember it.
The final track of an album is an important track. You don’t want it fizzle out and it's the last chance to make a statement. Proposition has got the punchy brass section of Notorious, a strong keyboard line and, shock, horror a guitar solo. There's a wonderful menace in the lyrics and Simon's voice. There’s the clear shade of Arcadia underlying the track but with Nile Rodgers stripping it of any of the pretension that Nick and Simon might have got up to in Paris. Not unlike Vertigo it’s almost too strong to be hidden as an album track but that shows the strength of an album.
There are precious few albums that are listenable all the way through. Bar Meet El Presidente this album manages it. Duran may not, for my money, have managed it quite so well since. It makes it all the more galling and painful that this was where the band started second-guessing and struggling to find their footing. So much of what they had done to make Notorious a success through the turbulence of 1986 had been correct.
Notorious, as I saw it put recently, was when Duran fans decided to stay on or get off the train. If Ordinary World hadn’t come along a few years’ later the train might have stopped running altogether. John believed at the time that if the music was good the fans would come back - which is sound enough logic but it seemed most weren’t interested in listening any more.