White Lines ***
I Wanna Take You Higher *
Perfect Day *****
Watching the Detectives ****
Lay Lady Lay ****
911 is a Joke ***
Crystal Ship **
Ball of Confusion *
Thank You ***
Drive By *
I Wanna Take You Higher Again *
Success is a currency that needs to be spent wisely. It pays for the favour of your record company to humour you and give you a pass based on your last hit album. Duran Duran's success with The Wedding Album meant they could go shopping. They bought Thank You.
Thank You was born in 1992 during the period that Duran could not get the Wedding Album signed off by EMI who, ironically enough, wary of another failure. Many of the interviews in 1993 referenced Thank You and the January 1994 Wembley Arena performance of White Lines seemed to fire the starting pistol for its release. But 1994 became 1995 and Nirvana's rock-chic ethos (which is largely the sound of Thank You) had given way to Britpop's worship of 1960's pop. Duran's fun, throwaway idea was now rusting on the launch pad.
Cover versions had been a key feature of Duran's career. Fame (Bowie) was a b-side to Careless Memories. Fun Time (Iggy Pop) was played at Villa Park in '83. The Power Station started off with a cover of Get It On (T-Rex). Femme Fatale (Lou Reed) had been an album track on the Wedding Album. When I first heard the b-side to The Reflex, I thought Make Me Smile was the best thing Duran had ever done… so it was a bit disappointing to find out that it was also a cover.
Duran were also continuing an honourable tradition of whole albums of cover versions. David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and even those other Birmingham refugees from 1979, UB40, had done so.
So, what the hell was wrong with Duran doing an album of covers? Nothing, right? Actually, most rock critics beg to differ, with it being trotted out as an easy stick with which to beat Duran. Back in '95 NME declared Thank You to be “not so much a barking dog as a whimpering poodle locked for three days in a broom cupboard with no food or water.” Q magazine (2006) went 'full retard' and put it at no 1 on their list of the ‘50 Worst Albums Ever.’
Who were Duran trying to please with this? Were they hoping to educate the fans that had recently taken to the Wedding Album? Did they think that their loyal fanbase would be enthused by their choice of songs? Or did they just choose a dozen of their favourite songs and rent a studio to record them? For the answer, just ask Nick Rhodes: “Basically we took all of these great songs, and pretended we wrote them, and then just played them.” This might have been slightly tongue in cheek, but gives a sense that there needs to be some sort of answer to why on earth you are doing this thing in the first place.
The best cover versions don’t just replicate the original version as faithfully as possible. The idea has to be to give it a bit of your own soul, make it sound like it could have been written by you, as Duran did so brilliantly with Make Me Smile. If you want to know whether Thank You was even just a little bit better than some of the critical derision it received at the time, that’s the yardstick. Otherwise, whether you actually like the songs they chose or not isn’t that important.
Perfect Day is likely to feature on most people’s top five Lou Reed songs, and it was a logical choice as first single. A full year before a generation fell in love with it on Trainspotting, Duran saw it struggle its way up to no 28 on the UK charts. The original sounds almost like a demo. A simple piano line with Lou reading the lyrics like a poem only stirring out of its slumber for the chorus with a few violins added at the end. Duran added flesh to the bones, smoothed off the rough edges and let it build up to a crescendo. Simon sings where Lou spoke, and if you close your eyes, you might actually think it was a Duran song. At least a couple of Durans had enough experience of drugs for the song to mean something to them. This is a great cover version of a fine song.
If Perfect Day may have been close to Duran stylistically and on a personal level, 911 Is A Joke goes right to the other extreme with Public Enemy. It must surely be written in stone that Simon should not, ever, under any circumstances, rap. '911' isn’t even the emergency services number in the UK and Duran don’t exactly come from the ghetto. And yet… they chose to do this and they even played it live with beefed up Warren guitars. They improvise a hillbilly intro with acoustic guitar and harmonica before Simon does his best Flavor Flav impression. Like with Lou Reed, they soften the edges of the chorus and on a personal level, introduced me to a pretty important chapter of hip hop history that I didn’t know anything about. For that alone it’s worth a few stars.
For White Lines they were self-aware enough to know they couldn’t get away with it without some help. Duran brought in none other the original Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five to support the recording. The soft bass line of the original is replaced by Warren’s guitar who was given a licence to go wild and doesn’t hold back. That makes this an interesting take on a classic song but rather than be another cross-over hit like Walk This Way, it stalled at no 17 in the charts. Simon's vocals by the end leave his limitations rather exposed.
We next consider the trio of Iggy Pop, The Doors and Led Zeppelin. These covers dare to tread on the hallowed ground of rock royalty. However, whilst the choices are not obvious, they are also not particularly interesting.
Iggy’s Success is faithful to the original although it sounds like they’ve sped it up a bit and Simon’s whoop goes a whole lot further than Iggy’s yelp. Frankly neither the original nor the cover are much to write home about. Duran's self-perception of themselves as having a sense of humour around irony (see also: Yo Bad Azizi) tends not to produce musical merit. Rather, rewind 14 years to their 1981 cover of Fame on a similar topic and hear the earnestness and yearning launching out of the band, rather than a knowing smugness.
Having never been a Doors fan, Crystal Ship left me a little cold. It meanders along without being offensive, but it doesn’t take away my view that the Doors are best appreciated on hallucinogenic drugs. I actually marginally prefer Duran’s version which again seems slightly sped up and adds a few extra layers to the music and the backing vocals. It’s only 2 minutes 51 which makes up for all the rest.
Thank You was a Warren choice – Jimmy Page may have something to do with that – and weirdly he tones down the guitar lines on this when he might have wanted to emulate one of the best rock guitarists ever. Otherwise, Simon’s voice is not like Robert Plant’s and wisely he doesn’t attempt to imitate it.
Having had a go at the might of those three, Duran next turn their attention the darling of the NME, Elvis Costello. The original of Watching The Detectives sounds like the soundtrack to a seventies TV series with a Police-like reggae beat and plenty of clashing cymbals like ‘Pow’ and 'Crash’ from a cartoon. Duran dispense with all this after the first few bars. Instead we have a saloon bar schmooze with sultry sounds and Simon crooning. Backing vocals are added to give it more weight and take it away from Costello’s whiny, distinct voice. Presumably Elvis Costello fans will hate this. I like it.
On Lay Lady Lay, Simon’s voice (which has received plenty of criticism over the years) doesn’t sound much like Bob Dylan’s. More than that though, and this is true on a few of the songs, most notably Perfect Day, he changes the intonation. Where Dylan hold back on certain syllables, Simon smooths it over. Duran give this a Come Undone-like instrumental sound and it might not seem out of place on the Wedding Album.
Finally we have to consider the trio of tracks which let the album down, and none more so than Drive By. It seems strange to have to point this out, but cover versions are supposed to be someone else’s songs, not your own. Simon goes full Nightboat video-muttering in a way that makes This is How a Road is Made seem like a joyous singalong. Four minutes in, finally the melody of the original comes in which is a blessed relief. But not enough to save it from getting one star.
Sly and the Family Stone’s original version of I Wanna Take You Higher seems like a fun jam session with organs, violins and a brass section accompanying the drums. It rattles along at a fine pace and doesn’t linger on when it should have finished two minutes ago. Duran give us a more pumped up version with Tony Thompson (of Chic and Power Station fame) on drums and Warren getting a little bit too excited on guitar. It screams out of the speakers without the sense of fun of the original and this all goes on way too long.
The Temptations, circa 1970, gave a groovy sound to Ball of Confusion which tried to capture the mood of an era in the US. It’s actually fairly low key with the exception of the chorus and bops along (possibly for a little too long). Duran put it on double speed, with a half rock, half rap (see previous assumptions about rapping). This is neither faithful to the original or Duran circa-1995.
So, after 11 songs does Thank You do itself justice? Are the eclectic choice of songs Duranified sufficiently? Is there enough interest for Duran fans to want to listen and discover what influenced our favourite band? On balance, I think there is. Where it works best, we might almost be listening to songs penned by Duran. Even on the songs that don’t quite reach those heights, they have added their touch. Yes, there are some duds - and one notable confused mistake - but that’s what albums are.
At the end of it all, there are two Thank You albums. There's the one that's been reviewed here and is actually quite OK. It contains one bonafide great, several tracks that are regulars on a play list, and the usual smattering of stinkers.
There's also the one that killed their comeback, left John in rehab, and was so staggeringly ill-advised that it makes one wonder what became of the bright young things that planned and organised their early career. The price of failure was high. By the time of the next Duran album, Medazzaland, they had lost another member and found that they were back where they were in '92 with an album they could not get released. If you listen to this version of Thank You, it does not sound so great. Better to play again Perfect Day and appreciate what Duran were offering us to enjoy.