A few of our favourite things

After years in the wilderness, Duran Duran are million-sellers again. Here, they talk Justine Picardie through their new album
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BY THE end of the 1980s, the boom years that had characterised the earlier part of the decade were increasingly castigated as an obnoxious time of greed and excess ruled by hideous wide boys making serious money. This was unfortunate for Duran Duran who were seen, in many ways, to be the quintessential Eighties pop group: five rich white boys wearing lip gloss and eye-liner, who made fabulously expensive videos in exotic locations, complete with scantily clad babe extras. They owned big houses and fast cars and more expensive suits than were good for them. They had models for girlfriends and yachts for pastimes; and they appeared with these shiny accoutrements of fame in Hello! magazine with monotonous regularity.

It is little wonder, then, that the public turned on them. After a string of hits ("Planet Earth", "Girls on Film", "Hungry Like the Wolf", etc), bought by a seemingly endless number of devoted teenybopper fans (including Princess Diana) their careers nose-dived. "We were broke at the end of the Eighties, just like everyone else," says Nick Rhodes, the band's keyboard player. "We got the bill for the Eighties - it arrived on our doorstep. We said, `What, take the boat back and the suits!' "

Their records bombed, and the critics jeered, and no one came to their concerts: almost as if they were being punished for the conspicuous consumption of their earlier career. By 1990, Duran Duran were all washed up with nowhere to go.

And then in 1993, much to everyone's surprise, they wrote a couple of hit singles, one of which was called "Ordinary World". In it, Duran Duran seemed to be saying that they were ordinary people who had suffered ordinary afflictions, and survived. It was a big, positive, stadium-filling song, and a new generation of American teenagers took them into their hearts. The band's last, eponymously titled album was a massive hit, selling three million copies; and last year they played a sell-out US tour.

So here they are, successful again in 1995. There's a new album out now - called, appropriately, Thank You - which consists of 11 cover versions, chosen from their favourite songs (including one of their own). Their record company has arranged for them to talk me through the album. Simon Le Bon, the lead singer, does it on the phone; Nick Rhodes meets me at Blakes Hotel, a glossy location much loved by Eighties rock stars. He has immaculate dyed-blond hair and a freshly powdered nose and looks more than a little like Andy Warhol. Perhaps some things never change.

WHITE LINES

(Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel)

Simon Le Bon: Me and John were sitting in a limo going to Los Angeles airport and we stopped off at a record shop and bought something called Rap Classics. When "White Lines" came on, we said, "Whoah, yeah." I never had a drug problem but I view the whole drug industry as evil. There's so much horror and suffering in it. Cocaine equals death, don't do it: that's the message in the song, and it has to be said again and again and again.

Nick Rhodes: It's one of those important songs. It's a remarkable lyric, that rings even truer today than at the beginning of the 1980s. The message was probably truer for us as a band in the early 1980s. I think we needed to listen to it then, but not now. We've managed to sidestep that issue, thankfully.

I WANNA TAKE YOU HIGHER

(Sly and the Family Stone)

NR: I wanted to do a Sly and the Family Stone song, because I've been a fan of them for years. They really were top of the pile for a while and then just totally frazzled out. You see footage of them doing "Take You Higher" at Woodstock and it was such an amazing vibe. We're as sensitive as anybody else about a great song. The last thing you want to do is go and murder it.

PERFECT DAY

(Lou Reed)

SLB: That was something Nick and I had talked about for years. When I was recording it, I kept getting this image in my head of Lou Reed on the cover of the Transformer album and I couldn't help doing an imitation of Lou's vocal style, because I'd sat around and stared at that album cover from the ages of 14 to 17. So I had to invent a new picture in my head and a new story. I imagined I was singing it to my daughter Amber, and suddenly the song became mine. It's such a beautiful song, it doesn't have to be about heroin.

NR: It's very me, that song. It symbolises everything I grew up with in the Seventies. I bought Transformer when I was 12 and that album stuck with me. I play it now and it still sounds great. I love Lou's irony, and there's a lot of irony in our band. You could sell shares in it.

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

(Elvis Costello)

SLB: It's one of my favourites on our album. It's so uncompromising. I was never really a fan of Elvis Costello, but I respect him.

NR: We were looking for a punk song to cover because the punk thing, out of everything, had the most influence on us, mainly because it made us realise it was possible that you didn't have to be a musical virtuoso to get up on stage. That's what motivated us to say yes, even though we don't know how to play these instruments, we're going to do it.

LAY LADY LAY

(Bob Dylan)

SLB: I've always loved that song. It's the easiest Bob Dylan song to play on the guitar. I learnt it as a teenager. I used to make up my own words to it.

NR: We were talking about doing an Alice Cooper song. And then I said to Simon, "Bob Dylan". He's not someone we're particular fans of, but he does have a broad catalogue. I always liked Bryan Ferry's version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall". I like "Lay Lady Lay". It's nice that it's such a simple song . . . He's a funny one, Bob Dylan.

911 IS A JOKE

(Public Enemy)

SLB: We keep getting asked why we chose this song and what do we know about the black urban experience? Well, I don't think you have to be standing in shit to know what it smells like. Our use of the song is quite a powerful statement. The artist Ren Magritte said that criticism is more powerful if it comes from within. That's why he always used to wear a suit.

NR: This was John's choice, totally John's choice. When he first said it, I couldn't imagine how we were going to do it. But it was so incongruous that it worked. There's irony for you, us doing that song. But it's really just a simple protest song. It doesn't matter who sings it, quite frankly. We knew we were setting ourselves up for press harassment and aggravation but we like that. We're real martyrs.

SUCCESS

(Iggy Pop)

SLB: It's a funny song, just taking the piss out of being a pop star. You can't take yourself too seriously. It's not a very useful job you're doing, not like baking bread or building houses.

NR: We all wanted to do an Iggy song. If there's one performer that we can universally say we love in Duran Duran, it's Iggy. He's this song - making fun of the thing that everyone tries to achieve.

CRYSTAL SHIP

(The Doors)

SLB: I've always had a special relationship with Jim Morrison. He's responsible for "Hungry Like the Wolf" - he was the Lizard King, the animal spirit god. That idea meant a lot to me and I tried to get it into my music. While we were standing there wearing Anthony Price suits and lip gloss, there was this writhing, scaly thing inside us. That image thing was just a decoy. You just had to package yourself in a way that people were prepared to accept.

NR: Simon's choice. All rock singers are obsessed with Jim Morrison. Simon's no exception.

BALL OF CONFUSION

(The Temptations)

SLB: We ripped the song to shreds and put it back together again. I'm not entirely happy with it. But it's got a brilliant line in it: "Great googamooga, can you hear me talking to ya?" That's God.

NR: That was my choice. We had to do a Temp-tations song - could have done the whole catalogue, actually. I knew we could make this song entirely different. I wanted to make it very groovy, but industrially violent.

THANK YOU

(Led Zeppelin)

SLB: I love this song. It's about spending your life with someone. It's innocent and straightforward, and Yasmin [Le Bon's wife] is in my head as I sing it.

NR: It's amazing to me that we've ended up with a Led Zep song on the album. It's ironic because at school John and I were on one side of the fence and the Led Zeppelin fans were on the other. We were totally into glam rock. But I was blown away when I heard this song. I'm really pleased we did it.

DRIVE BY

(Duran Duran)

NR: We wanted to do something of our own, just for the fun of it. This is a very abstract cover of a song called "The Chauffeur". We knew that if we did something of ours, we could really mess with it, which you'd never dream of doing to a Temp-tations song. The thing about doing a covers album is that we thought it was going to be easy. All the songs were there, the words were there. That's usually the worst thing - trying to get the singer to write some words. You finish the music and think: I wonder if he's got any words coming to his head today? Maybe we could put some through his postbox, or paint something on his window. Simon was thrilled because he knew that this time he wouldn't have the word police after him. But what transpired was that these songs were so precious, we were handling them in vacuum-sealed chambers with white gloves on. We were so worried about every note, that it took longer than if we'd written and recorded our own song from scratch. It was a real learning process.

! `Thank You' (Parlophone, CD/LP/tape) is out now.

Comments