The Cherry Lipstick Album Reviews: Big Thing
Big Thing ***
I Don’t Want Your Love ****
All She Wants Is *****
Too Late Marlene ***
Drug (It’s Just A State Of Mind) **
Do You Believe In Shame? ****
Flute Interlude / The Edge of America / Lake Shore Drive *****
If you were a marketing exec tasked with a brief to re-brand a familiar product, then the Big Thing campaign would tick most boxes. Notorious had re-aligned the public away from the bright lights of ’84, to a monochrome, serious band of ’86. Even so, the general classiness of the Duran-machine was evident as the photos and haircuts looked slick and effortless. What was now needed was a reinvention.
Duran ’88 was a slash-and-burn at the past. Nothing had been done to prepare us for the bizarre horror of the Big Thing front cover. Splattered in hard-to-read fluorescent gaudiness, it looks utterly unappealing – even more so given the size of vinyl it was mostly sold in.
For the first time since Rio, the band themselves were not on the cover. Indeed, of the first five albums, four had a band-photo. [The ten Duran albums since Notorious have had only three band-photos (Liberty, Medazzaland and Astronaut) which are unified in being amongst the worst official images in their distinguished career.]
The album’s name is a taunt to an uncaring audience / media. Whilst we may remember the Strange Behaviour tour fondly now, back in the summer of ’87 it was a generally deflating experience for the band in front of smaller audiences, playing new songs that weren’t hits, in arenas that once would have been booked for the week.
Simon, John and Nick collectively jettisoned the effortless cool of yesteryear to present themselves in their new gear and hair-dos (or, as the joke goes, ‘hair-don’ts’). The clothes were in vivid, mismatched colours, or don’t seem to fit, with mad head-wear, presented with gaunt faces that look like they wish the camera elsewhere.
And then, to cherry-on-the-cake the whole brand-makeover thing, came the hacking at the world-famous name. Here is the rejection of the past personified as Duran Duran, once bellowed from the planet’s media, becoming a muffled, garbled, public-confusing Duranduran. For a short while they even toured and released their music under a different name – The Krush Brothers. This looked a lot like a band that didn’t really want to be mainstream – or even ‘Duran Duran’ - anymore.
Big Thing, of course, came out just after 1988’s so-called ‘Second Summer of Love’. The day-glo lettering sends out a message that this is the direction of travel for the album, and another significant gear-change for Duran. Where Notorious had been funk, this would be a dance album aimed at the emerging Ibiza acid-house crowd (an impression given a huge non-hint with the “I like noise” middle-8 of I Don’t Want Your Love). That this direction only really stretches to 3 or 4 tracks we will come to in due course.
It has emerged that there was discord within the band about the direction they should go, and factions formed between Simon / Nick and John. This tetchiness apparently escalated into a threat to quit the band by John about a remix of Drug (the 2010 reissue features his preferred version). Perhaps the legacy of this schism is seen in the ‘two sides’ of Big Thing, though this new retrospective suggests the album is not as uneven as it may have first appeared.
We begin with the AK-47 drumming and hypnotic drone of the Big Voice chorus™ heralding the opening triptych of the album. There’s a burst of squall and then there’s Simon, sounding rather sinister and as off-putting as the album cover. The backing singers again challenge us to remain with this group as we enter some futuristic hall of echoing danger. It is provocative, challenging and scene-setting.
After the air-assault of the title track, the militaristic atmosphere continues with the start of I Don’t Want Your Love. It flows from the title track, with more electronica and robotic singing over the artificial sparse backing track. Fairly schizophrenically, having had Simon assure us he was glad we’d come along, now the listener is told that our love is not wanted. The track is a clear lead single, and acts as another statement-song in being so removed from Rio (compare the welcoming swell of music that leads into Simon crooning, “moving on the floor now…” to “I – don’t mind…”). The guitar break jars and is unnecessarily harsh, but the band will have had one eye on the remixes.
Completing the three-some is the other-worldly All She Wants Is. This represents the high water mark of Duran’s experimentation in dance music. It continues the dream-like state of the first two tracks, as we are lulled into the sound-world of the chorus. The lyrics take us from corners of the street to heaven whilst the fitting video presents a psychedelic cartoon world of suburbia. Warren effectively emphasises the dread of the track whilst John drives the track along. Sonically, the track (unlike I Don’t Want Your Love) remains interesting throughout, with yelps, drum rolls, squiggles and builds to a climax that is not dulled by the fade-out.
Having been lulled into this trance-like state, we are then awoken by the beautifully clean and crisp piano introduction to Too Late Marlene. Now Simon is inviting, letting us in, not wanting to fight about it. From a clubbing perspective, this is for the chill-out room. From a Duran-fan perspective, we finally have something to hang our hat on, with a track that would fit onto Notorious and is immediately warm and welcoming. This is one of the few Duran tracks that is eminently available to cover.
We are brought out of our reverie by a rousing trumpet blast reminiscent of the horn-break in Skin Trade, but this is a false dawn. Drug quickly finds itself on a mud bank where Meet el Presidente was already beached and would be joined later by likes of UMF and Last Night In The City. And yet there is a groove in there fighting to get out. Towards the end, just before it fades out they stumble across a perfect mix of guitar and melody and however fleetingly it might appear, it elevates it above being a dreaded one-star track.
Side 2 appears to be over-loaded with half-finished pieces – two interludes, a two minute track and an instrumental with no natural end. There seem to be only three actual ‘songs’ of the 7-tracks listed all of which seem to change direction from Side 1.
Do You Believe in Shame? is Simon’s most obviously personal lyric to this date which is another statement of change. We feel the ache of grief in its vocals and melody which builds to the cathartic conclusion. It was a fitting choice as the third single to show-case this new, mature Duran. Its failure to impact on the charts may have been in part down to the song title. Simon seems to address us directly in asking if we believe in shame (a powerful and unusual word in the context of grieving). This, of course, came on the back of the equally audience-baiting statement ‘I Don’t Want Your Love'. Ordinary World would succeed where Shame failed four years later.
The next pair are linked by the first interlude. Palomino has a strong lineage from Lonely In Your Nightmare via Arcadia and Winter Marches On. As with All She Wants Is, Duran again stake a claim forwards into the dance culture of trance / electronica (such as Portishead, The Orb, Faithless). Whilst we are familiar with pop sensibilities of their verse / chorus structure, the interludes and middle 8 of Palomino show they had one foot in the clubs in ’88 and were confident in their direction.
Where Palomino sours, Land then broods. It is the most musically and sonically interesting of the three and makes use of its length to envelop us into its world. Simon sighs and breaths into the track which invites escape and wonder. The Spanish guitar drives the track into its second half, fore-shadowing the similarly effective Breath After Breath. What luscious treasures Duran have offered the world beyond their greatest hits!
So what makes Palomino the top-rated of the three? Well, this reviewer made a personal choice. It was the track that convinced his wife-to-be that there was more to Duran Duran than Hungry Like The Wolf. And you will know that a personal connection will often trump objective musical merit.
The closing three listed tracks are re-considered in this review as one musical piece lasting 6 minutes. Flute Interlude bridges two contrasting spaces – from a place where Land is love into an America of fear. Edge of America (with some of the sharpest lyrics of Simon’s career) then segues from its closing refrain into Lake Shore Drive which in turn echoes back to the Flute Interlude in its chaos. The ending of the album with its wall of sound contrasts sharply with the opening bare rattle of Big Thing. To flip the album back over after the end Lake Shore Drive is to make you realise how far you have come in 45 minutes. Big Thing remains Duran's most daring album.
This review therefore asks you to reconsider Big Thing as a tight 9-track album. The up-tempo numbers are in a majority and more evenly spread, including a way that they top-and-tail the album most effectively. Palomino and Land mirror Side 1 through their use of electronica and musical sound-scapes.
Underpinning the change is the new gem in the pack – Warren. Even considering Ordinary World and Come Undone, he is at his most musically effective on Big Thing. He is subtle on All She Wants Is, sensitive on Land and cuts loose on Lack Shore Drive, yet all is contained within the structure of the band.
Our marketing exec is delighted. This is Duran’s Achtung Baby, a reinvention that promises greater treasures in the future. We are light years from the chorus of Rio. The direction and sounds have evolved from the schism of 1985. Taylor-Rhodes-Le Bon have created two albums of new music and now have their own identity ('Duranduran' indeed).
But the commercial department is not impressed. It all has looked messy and the numbers are unacceptable. Regardless of how it defeats the whole object of the campaign, an urgent cash-in compilation is demanded. As this band are still called ‘Duran Duran’, the 86-88 tracks are bundled up apologetically at the end of Decade which emphasises all that they were trying to leave behind.
That killed off Duranduran / The Krush Brothers and the band, with Warren given a new status, headed off to find a new direction.
* review includes contributions by J.R. Kiss