The Critics: Why I'm a born-again Durannie
Duran Duran Birmingham NEC The Big Re-Wind Tour Birmingham NEC
Sunday 13 December 1998
What is so upsetting is that I never liked Duran Duran at the time - or any of the other bands which haunted Top of the Pops in the early 1980s. Their music had no oomph to it, no sweat, no rock'n'roll (I was at a difficult age), and I was delighted when it went out of vogue as quickly as the haircuts of the men who made it.
Now the wheel of fashion has spinned right round, baby, right round. Plays are being staged about New Romantics, there are clubs in which people dance to nothing more recent than "I Should Be So Lucky" and The Wedding Singer will not be the last film to look back at the red leather jacket with a wistful tear in its garishly made-up eye. So was I wrong? Was I letting snobbishness deny me the pleasure of some wondrous pop music?
I expected Duran Duran to reassure me that the answer to the above questions is no. Say what you like about an Eighties revival, but Duran Duran are in a pitiable state. They've been dropped by their record company, and three out of the five original members have jumped ship - or rather, jumped Mediterranean yacht - leaving just pouting keyboard player Nick Rhodes and pouting singer Simon Le Bon. And it's been several years since Dawn French joked that the Le Bons must be a very modern couple, what with Simon taking the surname of his famous wife. If you want to be convinced of the duffness of the Eighties, look no further.
No one seems to have mentioned this to the people of the West Midlands. Years after Duran Duran's last hit, the NEC Arena was filled with 12,000 fans, all of whom stood up and sang along with every meaningless word from the first rumblings of "Planet Earth". We can dismiss this reception as biased, perhaps - Duran Duran are locals - but, alas, it's harder to dismiss my own urge to join in. The music was distressingly exciting.
Nor do I think I was wearing rose-tinted, taste-sapping, I-remember-this- one nostalgic spectacles, because this was not how I remember Duran Duran. Yes, I recognised the gigantic tunes, but I don't recall the band ever sounding so dark or spacey. I don't recall their industrial techno edge or their avant-garde guitar: I was expecting garbage, not Garbage.
For the sake of my own credibility, I should point out that Le Bon sings like a drunken middle-manager on karaoke night, and in his grey suit he looks like one, too. "Wild Boys" is an embarrassing Adam and the Ants rip-off, and the "why-yi-yi" bit on "The Reflex" has lost none of its capacity to irritate. Also, I'm reassured that I didn't miss anything out in the 1980s. Those old records are still blighted by the production - the trebly, headless guitars, the drums that clicked like grasshoppers, the trumpets badly impersonated by synthesisers - and by the memory of the hideous yuppies responsible for them. Now, however, in a new context, there's no denying the grandeur of the melodies. Le Bon would be on a golf course today with his near-namesake, Bono, debating the pros and cons of being the British Isles's biggest bands, if only Duran Duran had spent more money in the Eighties on singing lessons and less on Mad Max's cast-offs, hi-tech recording studios, exotic videos and exotic girlfriends. Mind you, when I put it like that, it seems like Duran Duran got things the right way round.
Culture Club, The Human League and ABC were in the same venue the previous night, on the Big Re-Wind Tour. Its recent success in America, with Howard Jones deputising for ABC, is a reminder that the British invasion of 1982-85 scored enough direct hits on the US charts to make Britpop's efforts seem a firing-squad-worthy military disaster. All the same, on tonight's showing, none of these bands seemed as significant as Duran Duran. And that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd type.
ABC's albums have aged much better than the contemporaneous Duran Duran records, but ABC have not. Martin Fry is the only founder member left, and there is little remaining of the sound that made his/their name. The craftily orchestrated lustre of Lexicon of Love has shrunk to decidedly less debonair jazz-funk, with a lot more bongo solos and sax solos than tunes. Only "The Look of Love" and "All of My Heart" shone, not least because the bongos and the sax kept a low profile.
The Human League were more convincing, but as cult oddities rather than pop giants. The women kept changing dresses, and Phil Oakey strode manfully across the stage, but this showpersonship was in stark contrast with the chilly white stage set and the robotic music. When Oakey intones, "It took seconds of your time to take his life," over a severe, one-finger keyboard figure, it's obvious that Christmas nostalgia tours are really not his scene.
Indeed, both bands seem understandably gloomy about their consignment to the oldie circuit. In his new sleeve notes for Lexicon of Love, Fry writes, "It's every band's birthright to be as self-obsessed and 'us against the world' as they can possibly be ... That's what being in a band is all about. Anything less is cabaret." But when he changes into a gold suit for the encore, and when The Human League close with "Don't You Want Me", cabaret is the only word for it.
Culture Club are definitely cabaret, but they have the major advantage that they don't care. As they went their separate ways 15 years ago, and so never had the time to tire of their songs, they're as excited to be playing them now as the audience is to be hearing them. Jon Moss powers into "Church of the Poison Mind"; Roy Hay, on guitar and keyboards, can't stop wiggling; Mikey Craig, on bass and regrettable hat, can't stop grinning. George, naturally, is delighted by the opportunity to dress up. He wears a dark suit with dramatically flared sleeves and shoulders heaped with dandruff (later revealed by the video-screen close-ups to be a layer of embroidered flowers). The costume is topped off by a tight-fitting lace hood and a tall black crown. It's the outfit that Snow White's wicked stepmother wears to the office.
No doubt Culture Club's bubbling confidence has been heated by their reunion single going straight into the top five. I'm happy for them. I'd rather listen to Boy's band than a boy band, and "I just Wanna Be Loved" is a very nice slice of reggae-pop. All the same, there's nothing distinctive about it. Culture Club's music, as ever, is so determinedly, jauntily lightweight that they will never rank alongside the Bee Gees or Abba in the mainstream pop genius stakes. The reason they can make such an effortless comeback as a cabaret act is that they were a cabaret act to begin with.
Duran Duran: Belfast (0990 321321), tonight; Glasgow (0141 248 3000), Mon; Newcastle (0191 401 8000), Tues; Sheffield (0114 256 5656), Wed; Manchester (0161 242 2560), Fri; London (0181 900 1234), 21 Dec.
The Big Re-Wind Tour: Manchester (0161 930 8000), tonight; Brighton (01273 202881), Wed; London (0181 900 1234), Thurs & 22 Dec; Bournemouth (01202 456456), Fri; London (0171 538 1212), Sat; Newcastle (0191 401 8000), 20 Dec.
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
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