Duran Duran, The Lyceum, London
Daggers, Purple Turtle, London
More than 25 years after they burst on to the scene, Duran Duran show that they haven't lost the art of making great pop songs
Sunday 09 December 2007
'The name's Bon. Simon Le Bon." I don't know about you, but I was never convinced by that moment in the "View to a Kill" video. The singer was simply too smooth-skinned and shrill, and hadn't yet acquired the gravel or gravitas necessary to play Bond.
Now, however, it's a different matter: Simon Le Bon is looking quite revoltingly healthy and suave, and so are the rest of Duran Duran, who are arguably making an even better fist of the boyband-manband transition than Take That.
Speaking of which, I've said it before and I'll say it again: no matter how much derision Duran Duran may have drawn from "proper music" bores in their Eighties pomp, and however much they've been written out of post-punk discourse by serious journalists since, in the modern age we'd surely sacrifice at least one metaphorical limb for teen pop pin-ups as interesting as Le Bon, Rhodes and the assorted Taylors: arcane lyrics, angular, avant garde-inflected disco-rock tunes, art-house sci-fi videos, they were essentially a chart-friendly Japan (and, in the troublingly beautiful Nick Rhodes, even had their own pocket Sylvian).
Duran, unlike their main rivals Spandau Ballet and Wham!, were always unafraid to push things to the limits: witness their hiatus year, in which Le Bon, Rhodes and Roger Taylor recorded an album under the name Arcadia which the singer has since called "the most pretentious record ever made", while John and Andy Taylor combined with Robert Palmer and the drummer from Chic as the rock-funk monstrosity The Power Station to make what is widely considered to be the most cocainey-sounding music in pop history.
It was after that lunatic interlude that they hooked up with Nile Rodgers, the superstar producer of the decade, for "Notorious", exhibiting a canny willingness to surrender a certain amount of autonomy in the interests of making great pop. And, two decades later, they've done it again: Red Carpet Massacre, the Brummies' best album since the Eighties, is basically Duran going up to Timbaland (and his extended team, including Nate "Danja" Hills and Justin Timberlake) and saying, "OK, make us cool again."
The first half of this one-off show at their old stomping ground, the Lyceum Theatre "It's great to be back!" beams John Taylor in an accent that's Sutton Coldfield via southern California consists of the cutting-edge R&B and electro-soul of Red Carpet Massacre, and nothing but. The show is being filmed for VH1, and consequently the entire crowd is blinded by the glare of floodlight beams, which are presumably intended to show what a great time we're having, but actually have the opposite effect: we're too self-conscious and, like roadkill rabbits, we can't move. (It doesn't help that the crowd is packed with too-cool-to-party showbiz types: just glancing around the immediate vicinity, I spot Bob Geldof, Chanelle from Big Brother and, er, Tamara Beckwith.)
"Timbaland!" shouts Le Bon, causing a brief flurry of excitement, but the studio superstar is present only in the form of a life-size projection on a hi-tech screen. An even more puzzling announcement is made by John Taylor, who says, "Like all good punk songs, this is dedicated to the dream of transcendence"... before an entirely instrumental track.
Now that Andy Taylor has quit again, the stand-in role once fulfilled by porn legend Warren Cuccurullo is now taken by a random Bryan Adams lookalike, and a girl singer and additional keyboardist (making three, since JT also has a synth with a giant glittering "D" on the front) pad out the line-up, but any unfamiliarity vanishes as soon Le Bon rhymes "massacre" with "hassle ya": yes, no doubt about it, Simon still finds songwriting about as easy as a nuclear war.
After an interval, something extraordinary happens. This time it's the stage, not the stalls, that is bathed in an unearthly white glow, as the four remaining members of Duran, dressed now in black satin suits and ties, line up sans backing band behind four synths on closely aligned stands (well, three synths and one synth drum rack), exactly like a Kraftwerk concert.
In case we miss the point, they launch into a cover of Kraftwerk's "Showroom Dummies", with Le Bon declaiming deadpan through a vocoder, which slowly transforms into a medley involving The Normal's J G Ballardesque "Warm Leatherette" and their own "All She Wants Is" and "Skin Trade". Hearing Simon Le Bon intone "A tear of petrol/Is in your eye/The handbrake/Penetrates your thigh/Quick, let's make love/Before you die" is truly bizarre.
There's some serious wish-fulfilment going on here: you get the impression that Rhodes, in particular, is living out a lifelong fantasy of being in Kraftwerk. It's also a statement. Following on from the Rhodes/Taylor-curated Only After Dark compilation, which compiled the type of New Wave sounds the band used to play as DJs in their Rum Runner days, this little gig-within-a-gig is saying to the world: "This stuff, not the bloody Bay City Rollers, is our heritage."
It's absolutely superb, an utterly unexpected and more than generous reward for sitting through the new material, and it's the sort of thing one hopes they attempt more often when they get around to touring Red Carpet Massacre.
At that point, the curtain drops, the band are back, and the full-on hits encore begins: "Rio"", "Planet Earth", "The Reflex", "Ordinary World", "Notorious" and "View to a Kill" itself, by which time even grumpy Geldof taps his feet, and even uptight Chanelle is out of her seat.
The last time I reviewed Duran, I wrote about them alongside an up-and-coming Duran-inspired band called The Bravery, who looked to be in with a decent shout of emulating the Eighties legends' success. The way in which they've fallen by the wayside illustrates that, like Le Bon's aforementioned nuclear war, it ain't easy at all.
Time for someone else to have a shot. Enter, from the recently revived city of Manchester, another young quintet with a self-evident love of the Eighties and a synthesiser or two up their sleeves.
Well, I say "sleeves", but in reality, singer Theo, who performs bare-chested in the shredded remains of a ripped-open T-shirt, has none. Daggers treat small club shows as if they were stadiums, and I love that. (The last time I saw a band play a pub gig with that kind of spirit, it was The Darkness, and their self-belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
Before the show, Theo confided to me that after being on the receiving end of a savage beating in Manchester, he spent his recovery in hospital reading Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again, a book that charts the way in which the post-punk generation viewed the scorched-earth that punk had left behind as a tabula rasa to redesign pop from scratch.
It shows. Daggers have digested the theory that there is no necessary divide between art and populism, and they're already putting it into practice. Their debut single "Money", which has been widely compared to The Human League, but which personally reminds me of Heaven 17 circa Penthouse and Pavement, is the sort of song that, with every listen, sounds like a potential modern classic.
If you want to gauge Daggers' potential, you aren't just looking at the Manchester scene, or the indie scene, or anything so irrelevant. You're looking at Planet Earth.
Further browsing From Duran Duran to dirty dirty on en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Warren/Cuccurullo
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