Monday record review 4/9/2012: "Rio," by Duran Duran

That Duran Duran was my first favorite band makes sense: their emergence coincided with MTV’s. But it wasn’t just that channel: there was a local station which played nothing but music videos, and another local station which had a video show for an hour a day. Music video, for a time, was unescapable. It’s been well-documented and well-argued elsewhere that no band benefited so thoroughly from music’s shift to a visual medium as immediately as Duran Duran did (just as it’s been argued—though I can’t remember by whom, specifically— that the same shift was responsible for Christopher Cross’s untimely musical demise: he made more sense, unfortunately, as the faceless mastermind behind a flamingoed album cover than he did on television playing his music). MTV was The New Thing when I was eight and nine, and Duran Duran’s sensibilities were perfect for that age: quasi-plotless Indiana Jones-tinged adventures in exotic locales. I was a bit too young for the exotic women in the videos, but I understood that they held an appeal I wasn’t yet privy to.

Of course, I got a bunch of shit for loudly proclaiming them my favorite band to anyone who’d listen. Their ubiquity in girly pop mags like Tiger Beat didn’t help things any. Nor did their New Romantic style: ruffles will never be in, no matter what anyone says. But I soldiered gamely on, through lineup changes and side projects, until I declared Van Halen my favorite band in the eighties in an attempt to ward off predatory bullies in a new school (and this was Van Hagar—I was better off, in retrospect, with ol’ DD). Then punk found me, and it was the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys and all the rest.

Hold Back the Rain

I think, now, that Duran Duran are unfairly pinned to their singles. The videos remind people of a certain age of a certain time—that era of video ubiquity—and people of other ages of what they think the era was like. I have no idea what 1982 was like in the clubs so maybe things were all New Romantic. I bet, though, that New Romanticism is kinda like Electroclash: a genre that reflexively generated more buzz than substance, with caches of pre-Facebook photographs stuffed neatly under rugs, never to be seen again except ironically. What I’m saying here is that there’s a case to be made that “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are pure kitsch. Which is a shame, because the album which spawned those tracks remains one of my favorites.

Listening to so many records causes callouses to grow, though sometimes not on the sentimental center of the brain. It’s always a drag when revisiting old stuff that meant a lot and finding it doesn’t hold up. One of the first records I ever owned, the J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, is a perfect example, and one that works well in the context of this specific argument: like Duran Duran, their videos fueled their ubiquity, and point to a very specific mini-epoch for both people who were there and weren’t. Unfortunately, Freeze-Frame doesn’t hold up as an album. It sucks to realize that the only reason I was so smitten with the band was because I had listened to maybe five records to that point, but that’s the brutal reality of time passing.

Beyond Duran Duran being heartthrobs and having amazing videos, their early music manages to effectively meld synth, rock, and disco. Roger Taylor’s drum throne is planted squarely in hi-hat city throughout Rio, sizzling beats as John Taylor flexes his bass throughout. Nowhere on the album is this demonstrated as amazingly as in My Own Way, where his bass runs astound. They’re maybe a bit show-offy, but what makes them work is the fact that everyone is trying to be heard on the record (except maybe for Roger, who, hi-hat aside, always struck me as the most workmanlike member of the band—he was foundational, not flashy). Nick Rhodes harnessed the potential of his synth and keyboards in such a way as to circumvent the inherent tackiness of their potential: his parts, to this day, don’t sound as dated as other bands reliant on the instrument (Depeche Mode, I’m looking at you). Andy Taylor, on guitar, always had a knack for big, glam / arena riffage, opening up the undercarriage for nuance and subtlety, hollering without bogarting. And singer Simon LeBon, of course, always sounded good, the cocksure safari captain, somehow simultaneously macho and sensitive.

My Own Way

It’s not all just about pulsing disco beats and danceable bombast, as it is in “My Own Way” and “Hold Back the Rain.” Singles aside, there’s the slow-dance element of Rio, which manifests in synth balladry like “Lonely In Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer” (the one song on the record I think is heavy-handed and clunky, requisite shimmering video aside) and especially “The Chauffeur,” a song as impenetrable now as it was thirty (jeez—thirty!) years ago, with its vague lyrics and anthemically melancholy keys line (to say nothing of the odd background “found” studio noises, later prominently reprised by, among others, Talk Talk and Rodan).

Because of all the associations—the radio / video hits, the reprehensible fashion choices, the eighties in general—I understand that listening to “Rio” objectively can be very difficult. It’s the album, aside from the aforementioned J. Geils slab, that I’ve owned the longest. It’s the one I’ve kept returning to. Recent remasterings have brought John’s lines to the fore—the man rivals only Mike Watt on my list of preferred bassists—and have added a depth grounded in hindsight to Nick’s keys. Seriously, get over the associations—most of ‘em are probably bogus anyway. The album stands as a monument to an era: one not of pirate shirts and blow, but of the level playing field of punk / post=punk allowing bands to take—and, in this case, succeed in—chances.

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