Armed with my brand new radio cassette player courtesy of proud parents whose son had just passed his eleven-plus, I settled down to tape my very first BBC Radio 1 Top 40.
In the years before ‘free’ music became the norm, this was the next best thing on 1980s Sunday afternoons for young aficionados whose scarce pocket money barely covered the cost of a TDK C90. That chart rundown some 40 years ago included a new entry at 26 whose introduction went down in music folklore thanks to DJ Tony Blackburn’s on-air gaffe. The veteran presenter was presumably unfamiliar with the cult 1968 classic Barbarella, from whence Duran Duran got their name.
‘Planet Earth’ was the record in question, the quintet’s debut single instantly encapsulating their trademark sound on its way to number 12. Mining each band member’s influences whilst betraying their club scene origins, Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Andy Taylor, and Roger Taylor painstakingly fused elements of glam-rock, new-wave, disco, and electronica. Those early power-pop singles proved both hook-laden and dancefloor-friendly, thanks in part to the Taylor and Taylor rhythm section, Birmingham’s answer to Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson. In contrast, the Moroder-influenced keyboards of Rhodes, although largely at the back of the mix, help give the record an extra, distinctly European flavour.
Duran Duran were of course photogenic, which helped a lot. Effortlessly sending teenage girls into a screaming frenzy in numbers not seen since the height of Rollermania, the key difference in Duran Duran’s case lay in the fact they were a proper working live band. Having honed their chops at Birmingham’s famous Rum Runner club, they’d also supported Hazel O’Connor on the road the previous autumn, sharpening their saws prior to recording their eponymous debut, released in June 1981. Having secured their EMI deal on the strength of those live shows, they were clearly trying their bollocks off in the studio too. Stretching every ounce of their competent yet not exceptional talents to the limits, you could say Duran Duran were the Kevin Keegan of pop.
After EMI overruled the five, releasing ‘Careless Memories’ as the follow-up instead of their preferred ‘Girls on Film’, they finally got their ‘own way’, after the former stalled outside the top 30. The latter provided Duran Duran’s first UK top five single, it’s racy ‘Night Version’ promo, (allegedly) a must-see for your average hormonal teenage lad. More importantly, with MTV only weeks old and desperate for content, a severely pruned version of the ‘Girls on Film’ video received heavy rotation across North America, the first of many Duran Duran track receiving Stateside airplay, helping propel them into almost overnight global superstars.
Search beyond the singles and you’ll find more than just filler on Duran Duran, including the urgent punk-funk of the terrific ‘Anyone Out There’, save its slap-bass spoiled outro. The arty pretensions of ‘Night Boat’ as well as the heavily Bowie influenced ‘Friends of Mine’ also stand the test of time.
Overall Duran Duran still seems a little rough around the edges both musically and visually, a promising start from a band who are not quite the finished article. Astonishingly, that would come within a year with their barnstorming successor Rio, their career-defining album.
Words by James Reynolds
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