Arts: Calling planet Earth...

Some words were meant for each other. Like Simon, Nick, Duran and Duran. Yes, they're back.
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The Independent Culture
Have a smoothie," said Simon Le Bon to Nick Rhodes, without a trace of self-parody. He was talking fruit cocktails, with a connoisseur's enthusiasm ("Some things just never blend in. Melon, for instance") but every word he uttered radiated smoothness. He and Rhodes are, on the face of it, as smooth as Sir Samuel Smoothiboots's pedigree salukis. They are as polished as a brace of Regency escritoires. They are easy about fame, relaxed about wealth, knowing about fashion, unflapped about competition, cool about going on tour again. They are laid-back to the point of narcolepsy. If the Gore Hotel, where we're closeted together, were suddenly to become a raging inferno, you feel they'd merely flick an imaginary cinder from their designer breeches, before summoning a chauffeured Maserati and driving smoothly away.

They wouldn't turn a hair. But hair was the main talking point when Duran Duran first appeared in the early Eighties. The bouffanted barnet, the traces of mascara, the elfin good looks, the scarves, the on-stage posturing and swishing. The pop world stared at this pouting crew of Ganymedes, who played a curious hybrid of punk, glam-rock and disco-funk - it stared and stared, wondering who would be the first to giggle or throw things. But the Durans survived to become the top Eighties' pop success: 60 million records sold, 13 top ten hits ("Planet Earth", "Girls on Film", "Hungry Like a Wolf", "The Reflex", you must remember), seven top 10 albums. They were Princess Diana's favourite band: a Vanity Fair article described a pitiful scene, the hapless Di's solo boogie in front of a mirror, listening to "Girls on Film" on a Sony Walkman, either as a cure for, or endorsement of, her loneliness. They were chosen to sing on the credits of a James Bond film, From a View to a Kill, an honour usually reserved for the likes of Shirley Bassey or Sir Paul McCartney.

Their relentless, frictionless chic began to grate after a while. A succession of videos showed the band disporting themselves in the Caribbean surf or quaffing Martinis and wearing blazers on someone's yacht; they embodied the callow, moneyed, Eighties, this quintet of rich camp heterosexuals, this Thatcherite band of international playboys.

It couldn't last. The Nineties saw them spending more time in America, while Britpop established itself here. Now they're about to tour with a greatest hits album. Their last original-material CD, Medazzaland, was launched in the US but not here. "Had a bit of a fracas with the record company," says Rhodes, the band's founding keyboards player. "There's nothing wrong with it. It's a strong record. But we didn't believe it was being handled properly, the marketing, and promotion."

"I think," says Le Bon, the singer, "they wanted us to lie down, be quiet and be a `catalogue' band, and for them not to put any backing into it. They weren't taking it as we wanted it to be taken."

"Duran Duran is quite a modern act still, after 18 years," says Rhodes plaintively. "It's difficult for record companies, dealing with a band who's been around for years, like the Rolling Stones or David Bowie or us. They don't see that we still create very modern music that's more in competition with newer bands than with the Stones."

Rhodes manages the band these days though he stresses: "We make our decisions together and I implement them." He's a considerable diplomat, an emollient talker and spin-doctor about the band's fortunes. Simon Le Bon, by contrast, is a frowning, sulky and slightly truculent presence, with a constant air of pissed-off disappointment. When I ask what they would be wearing at the Birmingham gig that kicks off their tour on 7 December, he snorts with disgust, "This is hi-lar-ious."

"Some fine British tailoring, I should imagine," says Rhodes, coming to the rescue. "I think the new Savile Row boys are a huge asset to our country." And 10 seconds later, a calm Le Bon smoothly lists his favourites: "Richard James, and Mark Powell. And you can always rely on Gucci for a bit of flash."

The quest to be taken seriously has, you can guess, occupied many of Rhodes's and Le Bon's waking minutes since 1980. Too pretty to be real, their sound was complicated, funky and rather odd. Three wholly unblendable tunes or riffs would struggle for the upper hand in their songs, while Le Bon's voice sometimes sounded as if it were straining in the wrong register (like in "Wild Boys"). They seemed to be more about posturing than performing, acting for a camera rather than an audience.

"We've always been incredibly honest from the start about what we want to do," says Rhodes. "We wanted to involve ourselves in the stylisation of what we were doing, meaning the album covers, the videos, the logos, the clothes. We were hammered for it then, but now everybody realises it's part of the whole entertainment thing."

Simon Le Bon's thespian skills made him a perfect front-man, however. A middle-class child from Bushey, Herts, his first job was in a washing powder commercial. ("It came just before the milk round," he recalls. "Simon's had some fantastic jobs," says Nick, not very enviously: "My favourites are the hospital porter and the tree surgeon." Mr Rhodes has only ever been a musician, but then he was a pop star at 16). Simon studied acting from the age of five. "The kind I did was always very highbrow - Shakespeare, lots of poetry. I was in a musical version of Tom Brown's Schooldays at 13, and was amazed to meet all these showbiz people from the Italia Conti and Barbara Speke schools, whose approach was quite different from mine."

He was studying drama at Birmingham University when the Duran Duran audition came up. Already a seasoned vocalist with three different outfits, he and the young Birmingham art-school avant-gardistes Rhodes and John Taylor (later to be the band's bassist and top dreamboat) were made for each other.

In London, a floating population of exquisites in trumpet sleeves, eyeliner and wispy fringes cruised the metropolitan nightclubs and called themselves the New Romantics; as their musical mascots they adopted Spandau Ballet, another handsome cocktail-funk ensemble from London's East End. Piqued by the competition, Duran Duran decided to join in. They even worked the words "New Romantic" into the lyrics of their first single, "Planet Earth". Record companies fought in the street for a slice of their gilded hindquarters. EMI beat Polydor and won. "Here comes Durren Durren!" said Tony Blackburn on Radio 1, and was royally mocked. "The sound we made was unlike anything anyone had heard," says Rhodes. "It was a cacophony, Velvet Underground with a bit of Kraftwerk. We were marking our territory and the New York scene was very important to us."

The androgynous look may have been something to do with Stephen Duffy, the first Duran Duran singer, whose effete introductions in front of Brummie punk audiences ("For those of you who are literate or have studied the work of America's finest writers, this song is inspired by a book by F Scott Fitzgerald") stunned the violently disposed into silence.

Rhodes and Le Bon insist the looks of the musicians was coincidental. "When you're that young," says Simon, "it doesn't occur to you, because you're all good-looking." "The first time it occurred to me," says Nick, "that we were all..." "...better than the back of a dog?" asks Simon. "...almost handsome", says Nick, "was our first photo session in London. I thought, `We look about 12. Something's gone wrong. Where's our edge gone?' "

"I remember sitting in a Birmingham club with John [Taylor]," said Simon, "and thinking, `this guy's got great cheekbones. If only he could take off his glasses and learn to eat with his mouth shut.'"

Eighteen years pass by as we talk; 18 years of hype and talent, of being mobbed by screaming fans and not being able to hear what you're singing for two years, of writing dark, heavy songs about nuclear war, alienation and lost children and having them hummed and yelled by "loadsamoney" morons. Years in which they conquered America, hung out with the Princess, watched the band break up when the Taylors left, acquired a new guitarist in Warren Cuccurullo and a new white-funk idiom, and got married and had children. Nick's daughter is called Tatjana Leigh Orchid, pronounced "Tazhahna". Simon's three little girls are Amber Rose, Saffon Sahara and Tallulah Pine. "They're lovely names," says Simon . "Yasmin [Parvenah, his ex- model wife]and I chose them for the way they sound. We weren't following any, er, family tradition. And yes, I think Paula and Bob and Michael gave their kids fantastic names. Really mega."

The Durans are mid-way through recording a new album, provisonally titled Hallucinating Elvis, which may come out before the stricken, homeless Medazzaland. In the meantime, they're preparing to summon up the spirit of a million blow-dried seductions in 10 concerts, culminating in a pre- Christmas thrash at Wembley Arena. This is not, they assure me, a nostalgia trip, a reunion tour, or a Memory Lane constitutional. It's another step on their career path and good luck to them. Now tell me, I asked, as you've got older and wiser, what's the thing that's been hardest to give up? "Staying up all night," says Le Bon. "Sleep," says Rhodes. "Damn," says Le Bon, "I should have said that."

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