Under the covers

How could Duran Duran make a comeback when it never went away?

Simon Le Bon loves to bathe in the limelight. Over the phone from London, Duran Duran's lead singer--one of the last famous international playboys, to use Morrissey's lyric--is jovial and seems to relish talking to the press. He doesn't even hesitate to reveal what kind of music he likes to listen to while he's between the sheets with his lady.

"Well, actually there's an album by Harold Budd and Brian Eno called The Pearl," he says with great enthusiasm. "That is really good fucking music."

And what about Barry White?
"Naah! I'd laugh too much, just laugh," he says, laughing. "I don't really like to hear words. I like to hear abstract sounds when I have sex."

Yes, Duran Duran is back and here to stay because they really never went away. They are back partly because the band members cannot live without success, partly because it is 1995 and the band inexplicably is back in style just like other pieces of junk-pop culture that resurface newly shined each five years.

Along with Adam and the Ants and Culture Club, the boys from Birmingham, England, epitomized the last-gasp decadence of the previous decade with their slick, escapist music and image. Le Bon and company pursued their teenage daydreams to perfection--formed a band, manufactured indestructible records and lavish videos, became so insanely popular they were elevated to the status of rich cosmopolitan jetsetters whose lifestyles were unashamedly indulgent and mythically decadent. Their excesses were reported internationally--including Le Bon's near-fatal boating accident several years ago--until, ultimately, they managed to generate more headlines than naughty Prince Charles and Lady Di.

And certainly, more than any other band, Duran Duran defined the video generation, with every new clip becoming a conversation piece in the worry-free '80s. Videos like "Girls on Film" (a bit of soft-core that raised more than eyebrows), "Rio" (almost obscene in its pastels and extravagance) and "Wild Boys" (with its Mad Max brand of cinematic violence) made them video icons, putting music secondary to the flash and style before substance.

And if that sounds like the very definition of MTV, so be it. In a way, MTV is indebted to bands like Duran Duran, and vice versa. Ironically, in "Too Much Information" off 1993's Duran Duran, Le Bon sings: "Destroyed by MTV, I hate to bite the hand that feeds," describing the infuriatingly intertwined relationship the band--and most every hit band since then, from U2 to Nirvana to Ace of Base--has with the music channel.

"We like [MTV]," Le Bon says. "It's a necessary evil. I think we have a love-hate relationship with MTV. I think anybody who watches it actually does. I mean you watch it but you hate that you're glued to it, don't you? It's like a drug. I love music videos but you sit to watch for a while and then realize that three, four hours have gone past, and that's too much television. But MTV is crucial to our career--now and in the beginning, as well."

But despite their considerable presence on television and on radio, somewhere around the mid-'80s the Duran Duran rubber starship deflated. The new songs lacked the hooks of prior hits, and the band members seemed too preoccupied with other things--including the Power Station (basically Duran Duran with Le Bon replaced by Robert Palmer) and Arcadia side projects--to write memorable songs like "Rio," "Save A Prayer," or "Is There Something I Should Know." The media lost interest too after years of incessant coverage; and as for the general public, albums like Big Thing and the dreary Liberty failed to excite or elicit decent activity at the cash registers. By the late '80s, two of the founding members, Roger and Andy Taylor, had already left the band, and by 1989 Duran Duran was stripped down to Le Bon, Nick Rhodes on keyboards, John Taylor on bass, and ex-Missing Person and Frank Zappa cohort Warren Cuccurullo on guitar.

Then the '90s came and most pop stars were forced to forge correct political consciousness, stop eating cooked animal flesh, and howl about how bored, miserable, and angry they were. So when Duran Duran made its third comeback in 1993, the event was met with skepticism because the makeup was still on; they were holdovers from a time that had passed, relics of nostalgia.

But the doubts were dissolved when Duran Duran, their ninth album, proved one of the finest slices of pop music that hit radio in recent years. Immaculate in its plasticity, Duran Duran (which featured the likes of "Ordinary World" and "Come Undone") was a wonderful specimen of what pure and perfect escapist pop can be--all surface, shallow and slick, its impact immediate but never long-lasting.

"A perfect pop song needs good words and good melody," Le Bon explains. "That's it, man. It's simple but also one of the hardest things in the world to find."

The success of the self-titled comeback and successive 16-month tour allowed the boys to be self-indulgent again, and the result is the newly released Thank You, an all-covers album that tackles songs as diverse as Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" and Public Enemy's "911 Is A Joke" (reborn as folk-hop), with the execution ranging from acceptably entertaining to pretty bad.

It splits the difference between homage and in-joke; where the remake of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" is a near carbon copy, going so far as to sample the original nearly in its entirety, their take on Sly Stone's "I Wanna Take You Higher" is recast as new-wave anthem, nearly unrecognizable from the far-out funk of the original. And where Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" and the Doors' "Crystal Ship" are approached with the reverence of the fanatical, they totally destroy Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," reshaping it as a reggae dirge, sapping it of the original's threatening power. Then again, their raunch-out on Iggy Pop's self-sarcastic "Success" works perfectly--Duran Duran (with, hilariously, Flo and Eddie providing backup vocals) using the words of Iggy Pop and David Bowie to comment upon their own fame past and future, laughing with themselves even as others might laugh at them: "Here comes my car / Here comes my Chinese rug / Here comes success--Whoooooooaa--owwww! Hurray success! I need success!"

Le Bon explains the band's desire to cover their favorite songs goes back to 1973, when they heard David Bowie's Pin Ups, on which Bowie performs versions of his own favorite songs.

"When we finished recording Duran Duran we didn't want to write any new songs," Le Bon says of Thank You. "We had already recorded four songs, and we thought, 'Why don't we make an album like that now?' We've been talking about that for years and years. This is one way to do something completely different and something that is a lot of fun.

"We had some really great comments on the songs. When we were recording, Elvis Costello was in the studio next door and we asked him, 'What do you think of it? Do you hate it?' He said, 'No, I like it. Of course, it's your version, not mine.' Lou Reed said, 'This is the best version of one of my songs.' And Flavor Flav [of Public Enemy] said it's an honor and a pleasure to see us do '911 Is A Joke' because it brings new life to the issue."

But what if the roles were reversed, and Le Bon had to choose the artists to perform on a Duran Duran tribute? Le Bon is quick to provide a wish list, so enamored is he of the idea.

"Let's see," he ponders. "Hole has done 'Hungry Like the Wolf,' we want that established. U2--'Ordinary World.' Barry White--'All She Wants Is.' Metallica--'Wild Boys.' Naomi Campbell--'Girls On Film.'" He laughs at the idea. "No, no, that's sick. I'd like to see people like--I'm quite perverse, you know--Billy Bragg or Shane McGowan do our songs. That would be funny."

As for the future, though, Le Bon promises (or, perhaps, threatens) a new direction--something bass player John Taylor likes to call "trance punk."

"I think trance punk is a really great label," Le Bon gushes. "John is really good at coming up with cool names and titles. We were working on one of those songs today, but I don't have the complete lyrics yet. We may play it and I'll make the words as I go, sing, 'Happy, happy fucking birthday,' or something. Everybody will try to figure out the lyrics." And again, he laughs. "The Cocteau Twins have been doing that for years."

Duran Duran performs May 28 at Sundance Square in Fort Worth, with Deep Blue Something opening, and June 7 at Starplex Amphitheatre with Human League.

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