Election Day *****
Keep me in the Dark *****
Goodbye Is Forever ***
The Flame ****
Rose Arcana / The Promise *****
El Diablo *****
Lady Ice **
30th November 1985: A nation of kids, still in their PJs, are glued to the breakfast TV programme Saturday Superstore. Simon is reassuring a prepubescent fan that despite Duran’s creative whoring they are not splitting up - they just have an arrangement involving multiple partners. Nick sits to his left, sporting a complexion that hasn’t seen daylight since 1982. The conversation drifts as Simon shares a fantasy of watching Sid Vicious having sex with Nancy before we are back on terra firma with banal chat about make up, skiing and yachts.
Seven and the Ragged Tiger, with its dark and jaded lyrical tone, had signposted a sea change for the band. The follow up video, Arena, and its poster child, Wild Boys, did little to dispel the notion of a band trapped by their own self-constructed prison. In true Duran style, the video illustrates a band “shackled and raised”, forced to watch the visual fantasy of themselves, whilst loincloth-clad ballet dancers weave homo-erotic overtones to their anticipated demise. The inevitable fracture within Duran Duran then played out, creatively and personally, with Simon, Nick and Roger forming Arcadia. They didn’t want a band name to come from “a box of cornflakes”... so they chose a 400 year old Poussin painting instead.
Cut back to Saturday Superstore and Nick is waving around a press pack prize giveaway for an album nobody seems aware of. Simon then proceeds to ask these young Einstein’s if they can name the chief city of Arcadia in 300BC.
The question is telling of the intentions of Arcadia – a project that aspires to educate through its genius, yet alienate through its assumed superiority. Indeed, the name ‘Arcadia’ served historically as a password to artistic societies. Those fans granted admission now consider it a favourite. To worship Arcadia as a project is to lend some credibility to fandom. It has become the yardstick by which their creativity has been measured ever since and the go-to in defending the musicianship within Duran Duran.
Roger was absent for both the early writing and subsequent promotion. He filled a role closer to Arcadia’s many sessional musicians, to whom we must give their due. These include Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, Sting, Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, Grace Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Mark Egan. The sound conceived on So Red the Rose is richer than anything we have heard from Duran since, and despite its swollen members, it’s a remarkably cohesive album for a band that like to mix it up.
Beyond the songs lie the recurrent lyrical themes of the album: heaven and hell; the beauty and ugliness of human nature; sex and death, and the delicate balance of power and need; all of these culminating in life as a kind of purgatory. These are then juxtapositioned with the videos for The Flame and Election Day which showcase fantastical pretension and self-mocking undertones. The album cover features a Tony Viramontes sketch of Yves Saint Laurent muse Violeta Sanchez, painted in red, black and gold (symbolic of passion, death and wealth), flanked by numeric symbols. In short, probably not the academic leanings of the average 15 year old fan. Even Grace Jones asked Simon of Election Day “What the fuck is this about?”
Election Day epitomises so much of the album. Lyrically it explores the clandestine underworld of dark pleasures as an inverted reality - a world which infiltrates the daylight dreams of its subjects in the form of haunting shadows “crawling out of the subway”. It illustrates the torment of searching for exclusive love (daylight) through desire (the dark of night).
She moon she turning away,
The city's her slave but he's cheating his mistress
Desire does not reside in mutual exclusivity, but the election of a chosen partner under the shadow of a third party (“entangled strands all sing”). The contradiction in what we want for ourselves sensually and seek from others is played out politically in our relationships - needing to be chosen yet wanting choice in possession.
Shouldn't be asking wild and scheming
Could be my Election Day
Further echoes of the afterlife are referenced lyrically in the heat of eternal damnation, the futility of prayer and musically in interludes of speaking in tongues.
This theme is consolidated in the video’s subterranean playground whose subjects compulsively gyrate. Nick is cast as the malevolent toreador to his female bull and a moaning, lascivious Simon “stretching my body” (though not quite as capably as his spandex-clad entourage).
This push and pull dynamic is superbly captured with a syncopated backbeat over a funky guitar riff courtesy of Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, and Masami Tsuchiya; there are in fact two additional percussionists in addition to Roger, plus Andy Makay on sax. It’s a dream team with a musical dialogue that feeds off the creative tension between them in a similar manner to Andy Taylor and Nick in the early Duran years. However, it makes for amusing viewing when you see this TOTP appearance with a solitary Nick and a smouldering Simon who in fairness doesn’t even try to sing into the mic.
To try to answer Ms Jones, pleasure and pain are calculated in transactions of power and submission (Simon has suggested it’s about freedom and imprisonment ....and that’s as close to a consensus mix that we will get!).
Keep Me In The Dark teases with sensual verses of “heavy lips” and sliding shadows. The listener almost feels blindfolded and accosted by ever changing synth arrangements and key changes, underpinned with a steady determined pace. The reverberation from ear-to-ear is almost whip like, and contrasts with a warm vocal resonance and the seductive caress of feathers and sunlight. The result is teasing and highly erotic, being seen through touch rather than vision. On that note watch the video, then turn the sprinklers on for a necessary cold shower… A light handed guitar sits atop the contrasting staccato of the synths in the verse, lending it a required delicacy for the negotiations underway. The cruel irony is laid bare- the tantalizing uncertainty and submission of power that fuel eroticism culminate in feelings of insecurity and emotional power play.
We drift seamlessly into the third track, Goodbye is Forever. It is a musically funkier version of its predecessor but the promising intro evaporates by the first verse. The vocals sound uncomfortably strained both at the bottom and top of the range and ricochet between the two extremes in a jarring manner. Despite the greater sincerity and richer tones towards the middle eight, it is the weakest delivery on an outstanding album which showcased a new maturity to Simon’s voice. The track has a posturing musical backdrop which is far too self-aware for the vulnerability exposed within. Arguably that suits its theme of the thinly veiled threats and self-saving emotional disinvestment that mark the death of a relationship and mask the pain of loss.
Who could conceive that The Flame would be accompanied by such a slapstick Scooby Doo video? It is almost as if the scales are being balanced between Arcadian pretensions, the awareness of self-prostitution and their fluffy media image. The video of a bespectacled Simon, and Nick as his nefarious dinner host, endearingly explores social alienation and self-preservation through incidental stupidity and character assassination (literally!). It’s a clever pop at their detractors, though creatively one must consider the song and video to have separate agenda here. Lyrically the song expands on the feelings of powerlessness that infiltrate obsessive love, as need insidiously surpasses the emotional control of its love struck victim. It’s a song that sits more at the Ragged Tiger than Notorious end of the Duran spectrum. Despite its coaxing opening, it hasn’t aged as well as others on the album. The drum and bass flesh this number out, but the main interest comes from Nick’s shifting soundscapes.
In contrast to popular opinion, Missing has failed to grow on this listener. Inspired by Richard Middleton’s poem On A Dead Child, Simons vocals are some of his career best here, it’s musically evocative of a crypt-like atmosphere with echoes of icicles thawing... and it’s subject matter of being haunted by ghosts of loved ones has universal resonance. However, to these ears it tediously sounds like a band tuning up for a gig, there’s a plethora of random sounds that unintentionally blend into each other and it is not musically dynamic enough to hold interest.
This writer considers Arcadia as an elaborate subterranean tomb that visits various chambers of experience; from passion to greed to loss and grief. Rose Arcana, serves as a musical corridor between these contrasting rooms. The abridged album version acts as an extended intro to The Promise, a song that builds on the notion of power and submissive need. It is both sexual and political in its imagery, with “joining lips” and “flashes of steel”.
According to Simon, The Promise is about “all that's worst and all that's best about humanity.” The altruistic goal of parity through giving and receiving is an illusion. Our motivations are ever self serving and the price of receiving is relinquishing freedom, whereas generosity has an ugly greed of control at its heart. The divine forces of good are unable to watch over the wretchedness of this transaction. It’s yet another dimension of instinctual human nature that draws on the influences of heaven and hell. Musically, the plaintive guitar opening evokes an expanse of landscape as viewed from a mountain top, as if under the judicial eye of a higher power. It is perfectly paced with Mark Egan’s bass intricately carrying much of the melody and reminding this listener of absent members. Its familiar song structure is readily appreciated as a reprieve from the effort other tracks on the album demand.
This battle between heaven and hell continues in El Diablo, a seductive but calculated invitation into the lair of hidden pleasure and pain. It builds on the thread of thought of the album - seduction as a force of evil, sex as a force of life, and the navigation through this evil in the quest for rebirth as some sort of purgatorial existence.
One life - but the devil is in my way
This track, more than any other, pulls on the world music influences that Simon described as “a kind of dark, Mediterranean, Spanish, Russian, Irish feel." The opening strains of the violin cast a lonely figure. The sound of crackling flames give way to celestial sounding woodwind (think renaissance-era recorder rather than the cherubic panpipes). The verse tangos with punctuated controlled Latino eroticism, plausibly the signature influence of Alomar (though quite who played on what isn’t entirely clear). Contrastingly, the chorus in its exposed honesty is melodically expansive and desperately longing. The result is truly heavenly.
Lady Ice is a desolate funereal exit track that lumbers to an eventual close. “The world is frightened too”....the search for erotic connection to defeat death is futile; it ultimately fails to stave off loneliness of existence. Thematically and theatrically it is the most perfectly appropriate if depressingly bleak end to the album, and may have made a wonderful film soundtrack but without the visuals to sustain interest, it feels laboured, heavy and tedious.
Nevertheless, So Red The Rose is one of this writer’s favourite albums despite its pretentious leanings, and truthfully because of them too. From its imaginative conception, to the dying echoes of its closing bars, and the tortuous journey between, there is a sense that both heaven and hell are a human creation and it is the choices in the face of our instinctual nature which leads to this purgatorial torment.
And so, finally, to the bands name. “Et in Arcadia ego” (a Latin phrase popularised in Poussin’s painting), translates roughly as "Even in Arcadia, there I am." The "I" refers to death, and "Arcadia" referring to a utopian land. In re-orientating their career in a more sustainable direction, the Arcadia project functions as a chrysalis between the death of a juvenile ‘Duran Duran’, and the resurrection of the more mature form that would emerge for Notorious. They explored their own impending death through the Arcadia project, and the pleasure and pain in trying to defeat it.
And, along with some unorthodox sexual enlightenment, they taught the children of 1985 that the chief city of Arcadia in 300BC was Tripoli. Back to your cornflakes, kids...
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Discover more by Ruth at Head Full Of Chopstick which includes her analysis of The Promise
So Red The Rose review is a special addition to the Cherry Lipstick series of Duran Duran album retrospectives. Explore them all here.