Is There Something I Should Know ****
Hungry Like The Wolf ***
New Religion ***
Save A Prayer **
The Wild Boys ****
The Seventh Stranger ***
The Chauffeur ****
Union Of The Snake **
Planet Earth **
Careless Memories *****
What do you do when you’ve reached the top? It must be a strange feeling. All that striving and planning and ambition that got you there are now out of date. The instinctive reaction to look back must a strong one. I wonder what that feels like? You remember where you were; you see what you’ve gained – and lost. Maybe you look around and wonder who it is that’s at the top with you.
1984 was Duran’s anus mirabulous, but the year had not started well. Back in January, New Moon On Monday had struggled into the top 10. Seven and the Ragged Tiger had not pulled up trees, with only one week at number one. Rio’s third single had been Save A Prayer. The depth of Seven… looked thin in comparison. The tour had gone well but was over now. What was going to come next?
Well, we all know it was The Reflex, but not the thin, slightly drawn album track that must still disarm unwary travellers to this day. The single-mix is one of the key moments in Duran’s history. Check back to the April 1984 UK Top Of The Pops performance. The hair is getting longer, but is not yet the peacock-puffed styles that would come to define them. They look lean and slick, hungry for this single to be a hit. This could almost still be 1982. They have not yet outgrown the TV stage. It’s strange to think that they had just ended the Sing Blue Silver tour. You’d have thought they’d look more tired or complacent. It suggests that the year was not yet a sure thing.
Now see the December 1984 performance on the same TV stage. It’s full of stadium-flicks and knowing looks as the year of excess is on full show in their faces, clothes and mannerisms. You can see they know they’ve moved well beyond all this.
The Arena project started with the video for The Reflex. It introduced us to the world of Sing Blue Silver which hangs heavy over the Arena album. Why do we love Sing Blue Silver so much? Perhaps it’s because it straddles the boundary between Duran as a hungry young band and their mega glorifying success. Duran look lithe, fit and passionate. We get an intimate glimpse into their lives inside the band. But they also are backed by an immense live show with a pounding sound of glory. In summary: they all look great and the music leaps to life from the screen.
But there-in lies the problem: Sing Blue Silver perfectly combines the sound and the vision. And the sound comes a crucial 6 months after the concerts were filmed.
Thanks to the heavy-handed production, on Arena we are offered crunching stadium rock and Simon’s worst performance on a record. Stripped of the visuals, the music is horribly exposed. One wonders if we haven’t noticed as we play Sing Blue Silver in our heads as we listen to Arena. The thousand lighters during Save A Prayer! There’s Simon doing the splits and twirling about during Hungry Like The Wolf! And who can forget the water-wheel when listening to Wild Boys? This retrospective of the album asks you to remove these images and listen. What’s in your earphones is not an easy experience.
Arena concludes the drift from their formative roots in 1980-81 into a world in which Duran had their image manipulated, at first willingly and then in ways they could not control. The Arena project sprawled out into a film, board game, Max Max-style video, tour film as well as the basic t-shirts / calendars / posters that go with being a global phenomenon.
One can see where Arena sits from the pictures of the band from three-to-four years earlier. In early 1981 there were our New Romantic crusaders with the world ahead of them and spirit in their bellies. They had an identity and a clear manifesto for who they were and what they stood for. By late 1984, our late-teenagers had become mid 20-somethings and the world-weariness was telling in the cover photo.
The moody confidence of Seven And The Ragged Tiger is gone. The band are framed down a dark, gloomy corridor. John leans back, the ennui leaking out in his stare. Simon gazes away from us into the middle distance, suggesting he wants to be far away from here. Tellingly, it’s Andy in vivid red that looks most up for it with the band framing him in a ‘V’. His right arm cuts through Nick’s head and almost into John’s neck. Roger is reduced to a prop for Andy’s left arm. Who’s leading this band now?
As with the video for The Reflex, Duran are keen to showcase themselves as ‘real’ musicians – to break free from the video visuals. The track listing is a statement by not being an obvious hits package. Of the 9 live songs, three are album tracks and one is a failed hit single. Their biggest hits – The Reflex, Girls On Film and Rio – are absent. Here is Duran's introspective side. The problem is this seems to have lost amongst the other competing plans for the band.
The album, funnily enough, starts well before being badly exposed. GONE (in a good way) is the rinky-dink tinniness of the original Is There Something I Should Know? IN comes the thundering roar of the intro with associated crowd screams. BANNISHED (in a bad way) is the under-stated menace of New Religion. WELCOME the stadium roar of the new chorus. Subtlety flies out of the window. This, then, is Duran’s cocaine album. Only loud will do. It’s the result of four years of parties and hedonistic delights. It all comes pouring out on Arena – this is their view at the top of the mountain.
Three other hits fair particularly poorly under the new regime. Union Of The Snake and Planet Earth commit all of the main sins of the album. They try too hard and Simon sounds terrible. He squawks over the top of Union… as he tries to breathe life into a song that was not good enough to start with. It trudges along until mercifully quitting. Planet Earth has moved from a statement of cultural intent into a boorish rock anthem with Andy let loose. It is, quite frankly, horrible. Simon’s first ‘can you hear me now?’ at 1:11 is wince-inducing.
Save A Prayer features Simon sounding like he’s not going to make the end of the song. The final ‘morning after’ (5:29) is especially drawn and gasping. It’s a world-weary performance which fits his cover-photo perfectly. The visuals are sorely missed here - on audio-only it’s desperate stuff.
[From this recorded performance, one is drawn to the fact that Simon barely performed live for well over a year after the end of the tour in April ‘84. These lack of live shows and aural evidence on Arena starts to suggest the vocal horror at Live Aid looks less like bad luck and more like a lack of professionalism and preparation].
There are highlights on the album. One of the delights is the utter incongruity of The Seventh Stranger. What other pop band has ever released such a track, especially on a ‘hits’ album? What must it have been like to be there, watching the biggest band in the world produce such noises? (And let’s not forget they also forced Cracks In The Pavement on a multitude of adoring teenagers, as featured on the Wild Boys b-side).
The Chauffeur shows how far ahead Duran and Duranies were from their peers, both back in 1984 and anything since from a mainstream pop act. It has a creeping beauty that undercuts the noise wreckage of its 9 companions on the album. Again, this live version can’t challenge the album track, but it is simply too good to fail. It is easy to forget that this two-year old album track gave this tour its name from a song with no recognisable chorus and doesn’t even mention the song title.
The one on which it all comes gloriously together is, bizarrely, the chart flop - Careless Memories. It had failed in 1981 for good reason – it’s a clatter and bang of noise on the first album, and not a single. It’s too angry and lacking a mainstream hook. Roger offers a heart-hearted drum roll. The chorus, such as it is, is over before it’s begun and, unlike the to-be hit Girls On Film, does not make you want to come back for more. Chart flops are often flops for good reason. On Arena, though, it is unleashed. Again, it was a strange choice for this album. Few can have remembered it. Yet there they were including it on their biggest tour and on their compilation album. Roger (as on most of Arena) has his drums turned up to 11. Simon rises to the occasion without the reticence of the original track. The crowd, horns and backing singers are added to Andy’s belting guitar. Then for good measure there’s a helter-skelter of an ending from 3:30 And the live video! That’s what being on top of the world looks and smells like. Yes, this review eats its words and gives the audio 5 stars.
Added as part of the project (and need for a hit single) was The Wild Boys. Perhaps it works on the album as it’s so familiar for being there. Musically it fits with the full-on guitar and wall-of-sound that cocaine usually introduces. Simon’s strained vocals make more sense here as he reaches for a lyric and sentiment that is fantastically over the top. Again the images overwhelm the audio track but it flows as the follow up to The Reflex. It’s a mighty beats that should be considered as the second part of Duran’s Imperial Trilogy of singles that was completed with A View To A Kill.
What do you do when you’ve reached the top? Duran Duran – and their managers – attempted to answer these questions through the many-clawed Arena project. It can be seen as part celebration, part attempted reinvention and definitely part cash-in. The only one that really succeeded was the last of these – which ended up, of course, killing the golden goose as the band disintegrated in exhaustion from the whole thing. The music of Arena can be enjoyed – but you’ll probably want to be watching Sing Blue Silver to do so.
Acknowledgement: Mood boards above created specially for the Cherry Lipstick Arena album review by @papergoddess
The Reflex Top of the Pops April 1984
The Reflex Top of the Pops December 1984