Forgotten Horrors: The Electric Barbarella video
The following article appeared in Cherry Lipstick Volume 2 Issue 13 in July 1999, two years after the Electric Barbarella video was released in America to promote Medazzaland. The video was also back in the public eye in late 1998 when Electric Barbarella was released as a single in Europe to promote Greatest. This is therefore a considered look back at the video and also how it failed to re-launch the band as a trio.
I knew when I first saw it on the Tower Records shelf, it was made me for. The American import of Electric Barbarella with its red cover and kindergarten drawing, priced at £7.99. I snatched it off the rack and paid for it without a moments hesitation, back in November 1997. No sooner had I heard that coughing, bleeping intro sweep into those carefree driving synths nailed by that pounding quasi-disco rhythm, I realised Duran Duran had made the song I’d been waiting for them to churn out for a long, long time.
“Hey!” I thought. “This is Duran Duran. Welcome back.” In contrast to previous new releases, this is a song only Duran Duran could produce. Nick’s keyboards say so. So do lyrics like “so wear those fake fur and fake pearls for me and put on your mystery.” And so does Warren’s grating guitar ‘fest’ in the middle.
That intro – brutally cropped (thought not as brutally cropped as Save A Prayer) on Greatest, is among the best Duran-and-offspring have ever produced, providing heated competition for Girls On Film, Arcadia’s The Flame, and The Reflex. That delicious soundscape created by those smooth keyboards and Warren’s stuttering guitar and silky bass – especially when he holds off for the first half of the second verse before launching back into it when Simon starts singing about fake luxury items… it seems designed to take over the radio and plop the ‘Ran back into the consciousness of an increasingly nostalgia-hungry public.
Even the mid-8 is diverting, coming as it does in a ‘trilogy’, as it were: first Warren’s grating bit, which goes on far too long. Then another more likeable grating bit where sampled guitar rains down on the song like classic bombs, before gliding professionally into the third bit – a mirror-ball spinning Studio 54 throwback that completes the nostalgic patina of the song while contrasting with the 1990s grinding technology of the previous two parts. And then the chorus (disappointingly, the song’s one weak point) instead of predictably fading out, treats us to a welcome encore of the initial burst of keyboard scales but this time with the distant wail of an old horror film soundtrack, the shuddering guitar and crisp beat refusing to run out of energy.
It’s just occurring to me that I might be talking bollocks, and that perhaps such detail should be preserved for such topics like ‘how Greece and Turkey can resolve their differences’ and ‘is Tony Blair a bit of a try-hard?’ not Electric Barbarella. Well, anyone who thinks that can sod off. Because this song was supposed to be the one. And it wasn’t. Why? Radio stations should have been falling over themselves to play it. But they weren’t.
So it was last Sunday and I was watching Mad TV, Greece’s very own MTV (and it’s terrestrial, anyone can receive it). Now Mad TV are quite Duran-friendly. The few times I’ve watched it I’ve caught them playing Rio and bit of Burning the Ground to accompany a Greatest Hits segment and even seen Duran themselves on! Simon bellowed, “Hello Greece! You’re watching Mad TV.” So it shouldn’t perhaps have been surprising when suddenly out of the blue they decided to play the video for Electric Barbarella.
I’d always thought the video would look a little like Madonna’s Ray Of Light video – all speeded-up urban landscapes, streaked out video lights and blurred movement. But Ellen Von Unwerth (a renowned video photographer held in very high esteem, is very much in demand and who’s worked with Duran all decade) has opened her bowels and let a piece of prime-time ranking poo poo drop into the out-tray. This is not merely the worst video Duran Duran have ever made, but conceivably the worst made by and for anyone.
Now Duran have made some crap videos before. I’m no fan of Meet el Presidente (“let’s put some flags in to spice it up”) nor of Do You Believe In Shame, where all three members of the ‘Ran manage to look absolutely horrifying. And Violence of Summer is ruined only the presence of a body-builder hamming it up about the place – guess who that might be…
But Electric Barbarella is just awful, with barely a redeeming feature. It’s trying to look kitsch and ironic, but looks merely cheap. The sight of Duran operating a RoboDoll and getting her to do all the housework is pathetic and hideously misguided. “It’s ironic!” they scream, “It’s talking the piss out of what all men secretly want from their women!” Oh, I see, it’s a ‘statement’, not a few hastily cobbled together, depressingly obvious half-baked ideas! Silly me. It fails spectacularly to achieve any conceivable objective... it only succeeds in reinforcing the image of Duran Duran as sexist, misogynous dinosaurs rooted in the distant 1981 world of the Girls on Film promo.
Here indeed is a group who’ve exhausted every career-resuscitating idea in their attempt to matter in the late 1990s, just to appear modern and get in The Face. They’ve gone back to all their old ideas to see if that will work. The sight of grown men playfully throwing about a remote control, and clouds of little stars appearing whenever any of them is kissed by ‘Barbarella’ is pitifully tacky, and so are the scenes in a night club when five supposedly, like, totally cool way-out extras pretend to be arty and stylish. The illusion of a busy night club is not effective and the timing of it – during the mid-8 – is so predictable.
And then there’s Warren. Despite some slip-ups, Warren’s contribution to Duran Duran’s music is, in my opinion, indisputable. The same cannot be said for his contribution to their image, I mean, does he have to look like a tosser 100% of the time? Here is, before the current Egg phase (another sartorial disaster, doesn’t Nick say anything?) with an absurd fringe, an almost see through short so we can see his chest (what a colossal surprise) and that FUCKING double-neck guitar (ref to para 1 page 1 of the little known book ‘How to look completely naff’). It’s embarrassing.
But then so is the whole video. They may cringe at New Moon On Monday; given time they’ll cringe at this one too. And Von Unwerth sure won’t be putting it on her CV. And we have another flop of a single to contend with while the band’s stock plummets lower and lower.
When a band thought to rely heavily on video to promote themselves lazily turns out utter arse like this, one is inclined to worry.
Ellen Von Unwerth’s website – in a retro 1990’s throwback – is ‘under construction’.
She had two recent interviews about her photography work (mostly of supermodels in their underwear - journalist: "I find myself grasping for the word 'pornographic'."). She made no mention of her work on the Electric Barbarella video.