John Taylor seemed taken aback. The trans-Atlantic connection to London suddenly went dead, and there was an awkward pause on the line. He'd just been told something he was unaware of, and something he obviously doesn't much care for. The news was that he and his bandmates in Duran Duran -- the British group that in the early '80s embraced the emerging MTV like no other, and in return was awarded both with international stardom and the sniffing dismissal by some critics that they were the quintessential examples of form over substance -- would be playing their May 28 date at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in tandem with ... Adam Ant.
The next question was so obvious that it didn't even have to be asked: so, are we seeing the emergence of a 1980s nostalgia act circuit?
"We don't think of ourselves as any sort of nostalgia," Taylor said finally. "I mean, in Chicago we're playing on the same bill as the Flaming Lips and Push. So to me we've survived. So okay, in one town we're playing with Adam Ant. He's trying to survive, too. It doesn't matter to me. It's all music. It doesn't matter what year it was made in."
Well, maybe so. But there's no doubt that it can be hard for '80s icons such as Duran or Ant to find a place in the '90s. Ant has done it by trying to reshape himself as an indie progenitor, as a soul brother to the likes of Nine Inch Nails who just got sidetracked into all this makeup and New Romantic stuff when his real heart was in something more punk. Duran Duran, on the other hand, and to their credit, has simply shrugged and said, more or less, "This, too, shall pass." They've seen trends come and go -- even kicked off at least one -- and rather than try to get aboard the latest movement, they're just continuing to do what they've done all along and wait for the audience to find them again. When asked how the band has dealt with going from stadium headliners with an album out every year to club performers with a three year gap between 1990's Liberty and 1993's Duran Duran, and then a two year gap between that album and this year's disc of cover tunes from such curious and diverse sources as Elvis Costello and Public Enemy and the Doors, Thank You, Taylor more or less shrugged over the phone lines.
"Our pace has never really slackened," he said. "Whether people are paying the same attention or not, you just keep doing the same work. And we've had enough to keep ourselves busy."
It's almost a rock cliche that the rebels of today are the ones being rebelled against tomorrow, and it's a little hard to remember that Duran Duran, a band that seems to personify the slickness and superficiality that much of the alternative rock explosion of this decade has reacted against, was a groundbreaker in its own right. The group started, as a surprising number of English bands seem to, in art college. This one was in Birmingham, where in 1978 Taylor hooked up with another local named Nick Rhodes and two others -- Simon Colley and Steve Duffy -- who fell by the wayside as Taylor and Rhodes searched out other bandmembers who shared their desire to, as Taylor describes it, "fuse the New Wave energy with a kind of disco beat. If we were trying to say anything conceptually, that was about it. Of course, nothing is ever that simple."
That notion coalesced around 1980, when Taylor, who'd taken to playing bass, and Rhodes, a keyboardist, hooked up with guitarist Andy Taylor and, following the lead of a bar girl at Rum Runner, a Birmingham club the group had become regulars at, singer Simon Le Bon. The band's first single, "Planet Earth," was released in early 1981, and while they did well enough in England and Europe, they were unsuccessful in breaking into America until they had the bright idea of hooking their wagon to the then unknown star of music videos. While most bands of the era dealt with the new medium by standing in front of a camera and whacking at their instruments -- doing what were basically in-studio demos -- Taylor, Rhodes, Le Bon and Taylor set off for the exotic locales of Sri Lanka, where they filmed "Hungry Like a Wolf," "Save a Prayer" and "Lonely in Your Night," and then went on to other attractive settings for "Rio" and "Night Boat."
The TV music audience of the time had never seen anything like it; four well-coifed guys in spiffy suits, none of them holding anything that looked remotely musical, surrounded by attractive women and performing a tune by acting it out rather than playing it. The gals went wild, the guys were at least intrigued (or jealous), and MTV realized it had found a kindred soul. Heavy rotation of, particularly, "Hungry Like a Wolf" and "Rio" turned a band whose first two albums were barely noticed in the U.S. when they were first released, into platinum level superstars by mid-1983.
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But if Duran Duran was really the first band to break the video barrier in a big way, it was a barrier that threatened to trap them as the '80s came to a close. As Nick Rhodes noted early on, "we suffered from having that kind of image. We have always put music before image, but people [in the U.S.] didn't know us well enough to know that. That flamboyant image made people suspicious of us. It put an air of doubt about us."
That it did, and even if the rock critics began to mellow about Duran, with once dismissive Rolling Stone noting in its Album Guide that the Duran singles from the early to mid-'80s actually stood up well as pop product, if not always art, and The Encyclopedia of Rock, Pop and Soul giving Duran Duran a lengthy and respectful entry, the broader audience grew more fickle, moving on to whatever was the next big thing. The band itself split apart -- into solo projects such as Power Station and Arcadia -- and came back together again minus its drummer and guitarist, added another guitarist, and began flailing about. "We were really looking for another style then," Taylor remembers. "Notorious was kind of a white, blue-eyed soul kind of thing, and then we made a kind of synthesizer record called Big Thing, and Liberty was an attempt to get back to a poppy sort of sound. Truth is, it wasn't until we started writing [the 1993 release] Duran Duran that the band really found itself again."
By that time, not a lot of people were paying attention, though Duran Duran had respectable sales. Taylor, however, doesn't seem to mind much that he and his bandmates have moved well down from the top of the popular pack. "It doesn't really bother me that we're no longer the star of the moment," he said while preparing to pack up and head for the States to push Thank You. "How can you be? I don't know anybody who's been that for all their lives. I'm more than happy where I'm at now. We're producing more music than we've ever produced, we've got a lot of things going on. I mean, it's over 15 years now. How many bands can say they've stayed together that long, and are still able to do whatever they want? We just like to play. And there are some people out there who still just like to listen."
Duran Duran plays sometime Sunday afternoon, May 28, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion as part of the 104 KRBE Audio Bar-B-Q. With Adam Ant, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Water Lillies, Prodigy, Blues Traveler, Pete Droge, Letters to Cleo and Bee Stung Lips. Tickets are $35 and $20. Call 629-3700 for info.