Girls On Film *****
Planet Earth *****
Anyone Out There ****
To The Shore ****
Careless Memories ***
Night Boat *****
Sound of Thunder **
Friends of Mine ****
Tel Aviv ***
“Once upon a time…”
It is our culture's great opening line. An adventure of mystery is about to begin, with heroes and heroines in disadvantaged circumstances getting ready for their adventure. Adversity will be overcome, dragons slain, treasures gained, and crowns won. When retelling these stories to our children, we rewind back to yesterday and start the tape there – and see the familiar story unfold with all the highs and lows already known.
It is very hard to look at Duran Duran’s past without the knowledge of what is to come. We now know that Simon le Bon was the last piece of the puzzle, the truce between Andy and Nick could never hold, and a video on a yacht was bound to be a great idea. It must be so because it happened.
It is now time to see beyond what did happen, and back to what was seen and heard by the eyes and ears of 1981. The curse of hindsight tells us John and Nick were able to astonishingly predict their path to 1984, but then so did lots of other teenagers in their bedrooms and Dad’s garages in 1978. The future really wasn’t already written.
‘Duran Duran’ was released in June 1981. Of their contemporaries, Japan had released four albums, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ (which the album cover of ‘Duran Duran' virtually copies) was a year old, and Spandau Ballet were on the verge of their fourth hit single. The New Romantic scene had been big, marvellous and ridiculous for 18 months. But it had now been subsumed by Adam Ant to its logically pompous conclusion. Electro-pop / futurism was being developed by, amongst others, ABC, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, the Human League and Soft Cell. Despite their drive and years in pre-production, Duran’s album was released four months after their only hit, off the back of a flop single, and was tethered to a dying fashion. What did they have to offer?
Planet Earth is suitably anthemic and agenda setting. It showcases this new band perfectly – a moody synth chord leading quickly into the guitar hook, a bass throb, the drums and then the cut-glass vocals of our chorally-trained lead vocalist. There is no mid-Atlantic drawl, or dropped Ts. “My eyes so cloudy I can’t see you…” he over enunciates, as the band fight for attention behind him. Half-way through, each band member gets to do ‘their bit’ as they all determinedly play “the very best they can play,” as John remembered in 2018. With the call-back chorus, it was a deserved hit, and a fine statement of intent.
What follows on the album is a far more introspective place. The next track is tied to Planet Earth by its title, but is much more forlorn. This time the question ‘is there anyone out there?’ sets the tone for the lyrical heart of the album. Spread before us are the dreams, anxieties, and philosophical ponderings of the youthful Simon le Bon. Teenage desires and preoccupations abound. To The Shore drips of sex and aching sensuality. Anyone Out There bemoans unrequited love. Careless Memories rages at the moon, a rebel for an ill-defined cause. Sound Of Thunder is an annoying, whiny, passive teenager.
Teenage enthusiasm is brightly on show. The wonder of youth is in the glory of your own new, in not knowing or caring what is ‘right’ or trite. Your vision and talent is poured out with care and love. Night Boat is the sound of Nick’s “art band who might find an audience.” The track throbs to life, as Nick leads the intro, building to a shimmering, haunting, menacing fulfilment two minutes 16 seconds later when Simon is allowed to join in. Tel Aviv is a tell towards Simon’s exotic adventure in Israel. It is the most interesting of the Duran instrumentals, and pairs with Planet Earth as a showcase for their experimentation and musicianship. Across the rest of the album, Duran pay tribute to their influences and heroes and in doing so create a smorgasbord of music delight. For your delectation they show off their Bowie, Chic, Kraftwerk, Human League and Sex Pistols influences, and stir them together to produce our Duran Duran.
The band’s live heritage comes through, contrasting with the electronic jiggery pokery. Anyone Out There, To The Shore, Careless Memories, Night Boat and (most satisfyingly) Tel Aviv all have hard endings (as opposed to fade outs). Despite continuing to be a live act, Duran became more radio-friendly, and fade-outs dominated their singles and albums for the next 30 years. The next album featuring four tracks in a row with hard endings, fact fans, was Medazzaland, 16 years later.
Friends Of Mine (which has a botched job of a fade-out) offers a different sort of youthful angst. The song has a claim to being the darkest Duran track of them all. The clue is in the seemingly joyous shout of “Georgie Davis is coming out!” Davis was something of a cause celebre in the mid '70s in the UK. He was wrongly convicted for armed robbery in 1974, creating a massive public campaign for his release, which happened in 1976. As Simon was well aware at the time, he had been re-arrested and convicted in 1978 (for, ahem, armed robbery). The song is therefore set in the future, and in this context, takes on a very different meaning. Now we can see it as someone bemoaning their fate with people who “said they were friends of mine, I'm not taking it anymore.” It is an anticipation of a life of regret and acrimony: “It's time you were told - I think you're growing old, I'm not too late and I know I'm not taking it anymore.” The references to The Stranglers (No More Heroes) and the Beatles (Twist and Shout) reference the protagonist back to childhood and teenage years, with an apocalyptic desire to reset to zero - “Why don't they drop the bomb!” It suddenly seems less strange - and more honest - that this song was chosen by Duran as their opening song at their mid-life crisis reunion tour in 2003/4.
All of this is thrilling, dramatic and powerful, but also lacks an obviously popular edge. We can see how they saw themselves as “an art band” (John). We can hear how the songs contain “sexual tension and threat” (Simon) and are “very dark” (John again).
The rough, raw and abrasive Careless Memories had limped out of the chart 3 weeks before 'Duran Duran's release. The story now told is that EMI insisted on it being the second single, but Nick has also stated he saw it is a natural successor to Planet Earth and had been surprised by its failure. Either way, a chart flop was hardly an ideal launch for the album. Nevertheless, the album entered the chart at no 9, before placing at 13 and 11 in subsequent weeks. Not shabby, but, frankly, it could have gone either way. Spandau Ballet's debut album, despite containing two top ten hits, was already heading out of the chart after only 16 weeks. Could ‘Duran Duran’ – with no top ten hits so far – stay afloat?
Which brings us to the strangely positioned, over-familiar opening track. As an album opener, Girls On Film is tour de force. As a guide to the rest of the album, it is a red herring.
At this point you are directed to You Tube to spend 8 minutes checking out the two earlier incarnations of Girls On Film. In September 1979, Andy Wickett performed on the original demo (with John, Roger and Nick). This version has the disco sensibility of the time. The July 1980 Air Studios demo is with Simon. The familiar lyrics are now in place but it is an angrier, punkier take on the song - the lost twin of Careless Memories. Simon's delivery is a searing indictment of the sex industry. “Wider baby, smile” he sneers, emphasising the darker side of the subject matter.
“12 months later” and Girls On Film zings out of your hi-fi and transistor radio. We are greeted by the camera clicks, then Roger gives a Beatles-thump to the opening. Andy has been dialled down to the glorious hook which drives the song. The vocals now titillate and give you a cheeky nudge: “You just made a million!” (Later there would be that joyous yell added: “I need money, honey!”).
By giving the lyrics an upbeat delivery, Girls On Film contrasts heavily with much of the rest of the album. Elsewhere there is “no sign of life,” “rusty disease,” “darkened eyes,” and “fog in my mind.” Not here! Simon lets rip with “heads turning,” “lights flashing,” “fuses pumping,” and “shooting stars.” All sung over a throbbing beat that hums in a frenzy all the way down your spine.
Musically it stands out for another reason. Nick leads on most of the intros on the rest of the album, often playing in moodier scales. He even plays alone for the first 40 seconds of Friends of Mine. On Girls On Film, Nick is seemingly non-existent until the chorus.
The video, infamous for the obvious, is more interesting here for different reasons. Though not filmed until August, it again emphasises the move away from the previous look. The Planet Earth and Careless Memories videos had been both filmed way back in December 1980, and therefore remained locked in to the New Romantic frills, imagery and the club scene. This new video upped the production budget ten-fold and the band hit us with their best shot. The song and image were attuned to the mainstream, and was a deserved summer hit. Add in some cute controversy and the deal was sealed. You may now pass Go and collect £200.
On the release of Girls On Film, 'Duran Duran' rose back into the UK top 10 for the next 9 weeks, peaking at no 3, and stayed on the chart for another two years.
Girls On Film therefore has a claim to be the most important song in Duran Duran's career. The future was not yet assured. A second hit single was required, but the shackles of New Romanticism needed to be thrown off. The song, the look and the video all gave the band the freedom to develop from the path that had got them this far. There was still the hangover New Romantic-ish stop-gap in My Own Way to complete the year. But it laid the groundwork for the real follow up that delivered on its promise - Hungry Like The Wolf.
In December 1980, just 20 weeks after their first live show at the Rum Runner, the Fab Five signed with EMI. They were young in age and legacy. We know how Nick and John had a clear burning ambition, The real future was in putting one foot in front of another every day to make a single. It is true that in this they were ably supported by the Berrows and EMI. But the individuals in the band had to deliver, and had to dig deep within themselves to do so. All of this is on show on Duran’s debut album.
Creative marketing and a strong fashion brand can only do so much. Our bright young things had created a setting in which in they could succeed. As we have seen, even within this album they had changed direction at a crucial time. They took their cue from the last track and ensured its successor was quite different. They moved from a place where there was ethnic tension in a war-torn part of the world, to one renowned for its parties. Duran looked west, and found Rio.
This is the 14th retrospective album review written for Cherry Lipstick.
The others are
Seven and the Ragged Tiger
The Wedding Album
Red Carpet Massacre
All You Need Is Now
Plus So Red The Rose
You can find the link to them all here.
To complete this series - next is Rio