Annie Zaleski, author of Duran Duran’s Rio, on the 40 year legacy of one of the most iconic bands of the 80s.
It’s a vast understatement to say Duran Duran’s early days were a whirlwind. The classic-era lineup—vocalist Simon Le Bon, bassist John Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor, and keyboardist Nick Rhodes—played their first show on July 16, 1980. Less than a year later, the band released their debut, a self-titled LP. And less than a year after that came Rio, the subject of my 33 1/3 book.
In hindsight, that Duran Duran evolved so quickly within such a short timeline is astounding, especially considering the sonic differences between the band’s first two albums. Duran Duran is a study in contrasts: Rhodes’ atmospheric keyboards, which unfurl like rolling fog, bump up against John Taylor’s wiry basslines, Roger Taylor’s taut rhythms and Andy Taylor’s sharp-edged guitar riffs. The album is very 1981, in that it bears the imprimatur of funky disco, urgent punk and erudite post-punk, with gleaming flashes of glam and art-rock thrown in for good measure.
Duran Duran technically planted the seeds for their debut album on July 29, 1980, when they entered AIR Studios – founded by Beatles producer George Martin — and recorded “Girls on Film” and “Tel Aviv.” These early versions were quite different from the ones that later appeared on their debut LP; in fact, they were heavily inspired by the noisy contortions of Roxy Music.
Later, the band entered several other London studios, with Colin Thurston at the helm producing, to finesse these songs and others. The results could be extroverted—the strutting dancefloor napalm “Girls on Film,” sizzling disco-punk anthem “Planet Earth,” rumbling “Careless Memories”—or introspective, as on the horror movie-eerie “Night Boat” or whispering, morose ballad “To the Shore.” But Duran Duran weren’t content on settling into one mood or groove; the band’s appeal from day one was how they conveyed a broad, heartfelt range of emotions.
In his memoir, John Taylor cited Simon Le Bon’s “post-punk intellectualism” and Andy Taylor’s “raw but well-wrought playing style” as things that “multiplied the band’s appeal by any number of degrees.” Both of these things were present in spades of the urgent “Sound of Thunder”: Moroder-esque keyboard percolations and cascading synthwork give way to Le Bon’s existential musings—was he waiting on inspiration? divine intervention? a flash of creativity?—and a bridge full of abstract sonic sculpting.
This kind of intriguing lyrical obscurity would also become a Duran Duran hallmark. “Planet Earth” contains one of the first major instances of surreal Le Bon-isms (“making patterns rhyme”), while doubling as a manifesto on apocalyptic cultural shifts (led by Duran Duran, naturally). And on “Anyone Out There” (“My face in the mirror shows a break in time”) and “Careless Memories” (“It always takes so damned long / Before I feel how much my eyes have darkened”) Le Bon communicates angst and heartbreak via vivid, thought-provoking imagery.
However, it’s important to note that Duran Duran was self-aware, not solipsistic. Just consider the dinosaur-stomp funk twist “Friends of Mine,” which boasts some clever wordplay. After singing “I’m not too late,” Le Bon alternates between singing “And I know that I’m not taking anymore” with “And I know that I’m not waiting anymore,” a subtle change that signifies he’s fed up (and hip to) the antics of so-called friends.
Elsewhere, the line “No more heroes, we twist and shout” is a sly nod perhaps to pop songs of yore by the Stranglers (1977’s “No More Heroes,” which references a litany of famous people) and Isley Brothers (1959’s “Twist and Shout”). However, as this lyric comes after a line referencing the infamous robber George Davis being released from jail, the insinuation is clear: There’s a new guard in town that has no use for what worked in the past—or what idols may have reigned supreme.
That push for new beginnings was classic Duran Duran at this point. Mere months after this debut landed in stores, the band was already heading full-speed-ahead into the Rio era. A disco-fied take on “My Own Way,” later to be re-done for Rio, arrived in the fall as a single; a nearly fully formed “Last Chance on the Stairway,” which referenced Voltaire, was being played live.
“When we went into the rest of the writing to prepare the Rio album, we hadn’t really had time to think about the success that we’d achieved with the first album,” keyboardist Nick Rhodes told me in an interview for the Rio book. “We’d already moved on, and we’d got some songs that we thought were as good, if not better, than some of the songs on the first album already.”
Bassist John Taylor echoed this sentiment—but went one step further and crystallized just how special Duran Duran’s evolution was, particularly as the five band members settled into a groove. “You know, maybe the first album could’ve been made by a few different variations of guys, but that second album could’ve only been made by us five,” he told me. “Rio could’ve only been made by those five guys.”
Want more Duran Duran? Check out Annie’s book today!