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Class ?

Main Category: Synth Pop
Also applicable: Dance Pop, Pop Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1981
Overall rating =

Hey, maybe if these New Romantics wore their hair differently, we wouldn't think that bad of them today, would we?

Best song: TEL AVIV

Track listing: 1) Girls On Film; 2) Planet Earth; 3) Anyone Out There; 4) Careless Memories; 5) Is There Something I Should Know; 6) Night Boat; 7) Sound Of Thunder; 8) Friends Of Mine; 9) Tel Aviv.

You might like this record - especially if you were around twelve in 1981. You might hate this record - especially if you were a little older than or much younger than twelve in 1981. You might never have heard this record - especially if you're a hermit with radiophobia. You might never even really care - especially if you're one of those well-meaning, smart lads. What gives?

BUT FOR FUCKIN' PETE SAKE YOU SHOULD HEAR "TEL AVIV". This instrumental alone proves, once and for all, that Duran Duran were a little more than trend-riding nerdy hacks with a bunch of synthesizers and ugly Eighties' hairstyles. Frankly, there's true composing genius in there - it takes brains, and, I'm not afraid to say it, vision, to make something that borrows equally from classical music, disco, and Jewish chanting. At the very least, it beats the crap out of all those middle-of-the-road Genesis instrumentals the band was specialising in during the Eighties, you know what I'm talking about, 'The Brazilian', 'Second Home By The Sea', whatever. What I'm hearing isn't real violins at all, probably some cleverly concocted synth substitute, but who cares? The heavy, brooding sound is adorable, and for the life of me I can't understand why nobody ever mentions 'Tel Aviv' in any review of this album I've come across. Maybe it's because people are so unprepared to treat a band of Duran Duran's caliber as 'art-rock' that when they actually do art-rock, and do it good, it's invisible and inaudible to these people.

What is mentioned is that it's the record that has 'Girls On Film' on it, the one that had the embarrassing Godley & Creme-directed video that got censored. That is remembered all right. Who the heck cares in the modern world? But noooo, we'll remember this album for 'Girls On Film' because it, like, got censored dude! Stuff for the ages! Censored! Imagine that!

Okay, got a little carried away there. Seriously now, this isn't a mind-blowing album, and maybe even 'Tel Aviv' isn't as grand as I've made it seem here, but it's pretty good anyway. It is synth-pop; not as uncompromising as Depeche Mode's debut album of the same year because it's also got guitars-a-plenty and real drums, but still pretty fresh-sounding for 1981. Take the Cars, squeeze the last drops of "classic rock" out of their sound, rev up the tempos, throw in some disco basslines, add in cheesy lyrics with obligatory sci-fi references, and you got yourself the Duran Duran edition of 1981 - nothing particularly scary or disgusting about that definition. And as for the songwriting, the songwriting here is hardly any worse than the Cars' own.

Namely, hooks abound - they give out a weird dorky smell at times, and, once you get used to the formula, they might get a bit boring as a concept, but each song taken on its own is entertaining. 'Girls On Film' has some curiously well-written lyrics, you know, as well as a touch of ethnic percussion for no apparent reason and a dumb but catchy chorus. And did I yet mention that in these early days Simon LeBon's singing style owed a lot to Sting? The flurry half-spoken passages and all. The Police were a huge, serious influence on these guys, and that's a plus in my book.

I can't say I'm a big fan of the New Romantic movement in general (I have my own particular biases in here - in case you didn't know it, lots of amazingly crappy Russian pop bands of the early Eighties seemed to take the movement as their guiding light, and were thereafter embraced by the powers-that-be as a reasonably "inoffensive" alternative to the disturbing underground rock scene... but that's a different story), but 'Planet Earth', one of the movement's main anthems, included here, isn't really half-bad. At the very least, the main synth riff has a complex note sequence, you know. Another good thing is that Duran Duran never got overtly sentimental on the album, and even if 'Planet Earth' does try to be atmospheric, it doesn't do that at the expense of the Fun factor. The one truly disgusting moment about the song, to me, is the 'can you hear me nooooow?' line, so ridiculously dissonant in relation to the rest of the melody, and with no good reason either. Apparently they wanted it to sound "authentic", so that it'd resemble a real call from outer space, but it looks like experimenting with vocals costs a higher price than experimenting with synthesized violins.

Among the songs that really stand out I would also like to mention 'Careless Memories'. It's always amazing how much can be done with basically a wave of one finger: had not these guys mentioned to shift the vocal melody merely to sing the repetitive chorus ('with a careless memory, with a careless memory!'), the song would have probably just drifted away as an inoffensive, but totally forgettable fast synth-rocker with nothing distinguishable about it. But the chorus merely adds something - I don't know what it is... climax? short injection of hysteria/euphoria? whatever. And that makes the song a highlight. This and also the swoosh - swoosh - swoosh synth flurries that rush past you as if you were cruising at two hundred an hour and all of the memories in question were just whooshing past your windows. It's also hardly possible to dislike the powerful coda, when the guitars and synths rise together in a messy brawl and the song comes to that abrupt stop.

The other songs, for me, do not stand out at all ('Friends Of Mine' does have an amusing 'oh no, not me, I'm not too late..' hook in the chorus, though), but that's hardly tragic. Take an honest look at this stuff and you'll see its greatest flaw is the circumstances under which it happened to be released - not the songwriting itself, which is adequate. Some true inspiration went into this music, some honest technical work, too. And as for the adequacy of the performances, I'd say that 'Planet Earth', one of the album's most memorable tracks, is also its least adequate - certainly after nearly a decade of highly complex, multi-level sci-fi explorations by psychedelic and progressive bands, it's a bit naive to go ahead and try to woo the audiences over with a synth-pop glorification of said thematics, unless, of course, the "audience" does happen to be a twelve-year old (see above) unfamiliar with everything starting with 'Astronomy Domine' and ending with 'Rocket Man'. But the lesser tracks, such as 'Anyone Out There' or 'Sound Of Thunder', although less memorable, also happen to be less grating on the senses - so?

Actually, Duran Duran do try to go a little "progressive" on here, not only with 'Tel Aviv' but also with the ominous-sounding 'Night Boat', a pretty pretentious song sporting a lengthy intro, tons of guitar and synth overdubs, and spooky-spooky lyrics about shadows and fog and drowning and other matters not for little boys and girls. Unfortunately, while it does entertain, it doesn't quite succeed, because you never really know whether they want you to be truly awed or whether they're just giving you a slow one to wiggle your butt to in a particularly mean and wicked way.

On a different funny note, why is it that nobody notices how the "tacked-on" track, the 1983 single 'Is There Something I Should Know?', is such an obvious Beatles rip-off? With the Beatles For Sale guitar tones and vocal intonations and all? Even the annoying 'please please tell me now' chant at the beginning somehow sounds Beatlesque - think 'Please Mister Postman' or something like that. It just adds Eighties' production, that's all. Funny. But telling. (Actually, it's a compliment for the Beatles rather than for Duran Duran; if even some of the most formulaic Eighties' synth-pop could bear their influence, how come there are still people daring to disbelieve their greatness?).

Anyway, there you have it in a nutshell - the epitome of the typical mainstream Eighties album, or maybe not quite, because epitomes of typical mainstream stuff are supposed to be rotten to the core, and this one is certainly nobler than that. However, Duran Duran had a really hard time trying to come up with something better - or, rather, not trying, because the commercial success of the singles, unfortunately, had convinced them to drop all the non-profitable experimental stuff and concentrate on the far more standard-fare material for the next sixteen years of their career.


RIO ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1982

The band's B-I-G commercial and criticial breakthrough, and the album which is even now primarily associated with the band... but if you ask me, it's not all that hot. Here, they start concentrating exclusively on one side of their appeal, the monotonous mid-tempo disco-bass New Romantic synth-pop, and just about every song is structured according to the same pattern. Commercially, it was a great move, with hit singles and cool clothes and teenage girls and so on, but artistically, I kinda sigh and moan because there's nothing even remotely similar to 'Tel Aviv'.

Not only that, there's nothing even remotely similar to 'Girls On Film' - the jerky New Wave elements are on their way out to make way for something more smooth and less, er, "questionable". These are all love songs, with a few minor exceptions, and it's obvious that Rio was carefully and diligently designed to be the very commercial album to end all other commercial albums. Well, that might not have been that much of a problem, but I guess when the actual music actually suffers as a result, it is a big problem. And the music does suffer - instrumental-wise, there ain't a single interesting melody on the album; it is all held together by the vocal melodies, and to be more specific, by choruses. I've yet to see an album where the discrepancy between a catchy, well-constructed, emotionally-touching chorus and everything else would be even slightly higher. And it's easily seen in the cases of songs where the choruses are not catchy: 'New Religion', for instance, is a well put together, slick, million-dollar-produced nothing, with all the interlocking vocal overdubs giving me nothing but a headache. Oddly enough, it's one of the few tunes that tries to go beyond simple love thematics lyrically, but with all the opposing vocal melodies you can't make out the lyrics anyway.

Most of the songs, however, do have these great grand choruses. The title track will probably have you singing 'her name is Rio and she dances on the sand' almost in spite of yourself, even if it's not the kind of catchiness I particularly enjoy - rather hollow and pointless. Is this a love song, or a sceptical depiction of a disco dancer with tongue-in-cheek overtones? Dunno. Whatever. 'My Own Way' has a really cool drum sound, and it's nice to hear LeBon's singing bouncing off of that pattern as he goes 'cuz I've got my own way...'. On the other side, I don't see that much use for the song in the light of the superior 'Planet Earth' with exactly the same vocal effects and a far more interesting melody.

It's just as ambivalent in the ballads... Gotta give them the props for never even remotely trying to sound sappy and sacchariney: 'Lonely In Your Nightmare' has a steady rough beat, thin jangly guitars, a loud and almost gruesome bass pattern, and dreamy, totally restrained vocals that make Brian Eno sound like a sexy crooner or something. And a great chorus which, this time around, works well when opposed by these prolongated feedbacky guitar wails in the background. But I'm not sure if somebody would actually like to venerate this ballad as the next 'Michelle' or something. Musically, it ain't all that different from 'Hungry Like A Wolf' which follows it, even if "conceptually" the two songs are quite remote. But it's just the same disco drive and the same bleak synth atmospheres. Yeah, it makes for some great radio listening, I guess - what a great treat for a car drive, eh? The rhythm, the catchy chorus, the full production, everything is just all right. It's just totally interchangeable with everything else.

Only the last two songs mildly step away from the excruciatingly stiff formula (in case you live long enough to reach the end), and even then it's not that much of a departure. Mmm... 'Save A Prayer' features surprisingly emotional singing from LeBon, which a pessimist could interpret as a particularly nasty attempt to get attractive for the little girls, but an optimist could interpret like a great change of atmosphere and an attempt to soud a little more intimate. And 'The Chauffeur', I suppose, is a bit more gloomy and doomy than everything else, but that's the only thing I gotta say about it.

Now don't get me wrong, it ain't a bad album. It's got some major chorus hooks going for it, you know. It's got some good arrangement tricks and all. It's just that after the debut album, to me this looks like a very clear and obvious retread with a clear hyper-commercially-based motive. The formula really gets to me after just a few numbers, and the lack of "look-at-me-you-cannot-leave-me-unnoticed" melodic hooks is even more painful. True, the album yielded a couple monster singles, and taken on their own, they're probably all right, but when taken in the overall context of the album, they just merge together in one undissectable mess. For a decent album, Rio certainly have its merits, but you know, in order to achieve "classic" status, record makers really have to try harder than that. This is, of course, my subjective opinion, but that's the good thing about subjective opinions, you can say yours ain't any worse than Jann Wenner's or Robert Christgau's and end up sitting on top of the world in a benevolent and friendly mood. Whereas if you want your opinion to reflect objective truth, I guess you have to kick the crap out of everybody first, which isn't a particularly nice thing to do for anybody who isn't Mike Tyson.



Year Of Release: 1983

The band streamlines the music. Most people I've seen comment on the record fall into either the "hey, more solid Duran Duran hooks! Cool tools!" camp or the "nah, they sold out on this one" camp. As usual, both camps are right: this album is full of solid Duran Duran hooks, yet it's also an album that proved, once and for all, that not only did the band reject any kind of artistic ambition in order to sell more records and seduce more housewives, they also rejected the very idea of evolving and searching for something new. This is Rio Vol. 2 from beginning to end. The only change, I guess, is that there's a whole lot more mystical imagery on the record; both the album title and several song titles and some of the lyrics make me think the boys were somewhat unhealthily preoccupied with China at the moment. But combining Chinese-inspired mysticism with mainstream generic synth-pop wasn't such a good idea, really.

And it shows on the album's lone instrumental, 'Tiger Tiger', which is okay, but nothing compared to the actual emotional depth of 'Tel Aviv'. Instead of that track's soaring violins, here the predominant instrument is a lone whiny saxophone which eventually gets lost in all the guitar and synth overdubs. I can't even define the style, not because it's undefinable but because the track's so utterly faceless, having no main melodic structure at all. Pointless all over.

As for the regular "songs", see everything I've written about the 'formula' for Rio and multiply it ten times: every single song on here sounds exactly the same, not any less so than on any given Motorhead album. The songs are all taken at the same tempo (sure they are, dem kids at da discuh wanna get it on); the instrumental melodies, where they actually are present, communicate zero emotion/expressivity; LeBon's bombastic wailing occasionally starts getting on my nerves; and even if the vocal hooks are different, you don't really feel like it once the record is over.

Some people actually go as far as to separate 'highlights' and 'lowlights' on Tiger. Where? WHERE? Either all of the songs on here are good, or they all suck ass; it is not within my power to make a good/bad distinction on here. As Vincent Furnier once sang, 'we're all clones...'. So 'New Moon On Monday' was the biggest hit, does it necessarily mean the song is better than anything else? It carefully recreates the atmosphere of 'Planet Earth' one more time, making appropriate use of the word "satellite" in the chorus. Is it a good recreation? It is. A masterpiece? Whatever.

As usual, you receive chorus upon chorus of catchiness. And the choruses, as usual, are good. See how much you got in that department. The funny prolongated delivery of 'why-y-y-y-y don't you use it? try-y-y-y-y-y not to bruise it!' on 'The Reflex'. The energetic vocalizing on 'New Moon On Monday', supported by the powerful (if utterly generic) pulsating bass. The pleading, expressive intonations when they chant 'something on my mind!' on 'Cracks In The Pavement'. The total concentration and great dance power of the 'catch me with your fizzy smile!' line on 'I Take The Dice'. Absolutely the same with 'Of Crime And Passion'. And so on and so on, ad infinitum because I really feel these guys could go on forever like that.

In desperation, I decide to single out two songs. 'The Union Of The Snake' is a little bit funkier than any other song on here, which means that for once, the actual instrumental "message" of the song is valid - not just another generic piece of tossed-off synth-pop "melody", although, granted, it's still not much more than that, and after all, 'funk' as applied to Duran Duran is really just generic disco. And the second 'interesting' song is 'The Seventh Stranger', which is actually slower than anything else (can you believe that?) and so probably begs to be taken more seriously. Oh no! Wait a minute! It's supposed to be taken as Duran Duran's attempt at a sentimental ballad! Can you imagine hordes of Top 40 fans shedding tears to Simon LeBon's straight-off-the-heart crooning? No, seriously, it's not a bad song, although I guess had I heard it on the radio I'd dismiss it with a wink and a blink as another piece of shitty fodder. It's only within the context of Seven that it manages to possess an identity.

This is what pisses me off so much: these guys obviously had talent, but they eventually decided to use only a small part of it. The Eighties offered technical and other possibilities the Sixties could only dream of, so what was it that caused mainstream artists to forsake any kind of experimentation? Were they that afraid to scare off their audiences? Whatever. Yeah, Duran Duran care about the vocal melodies in their choruses. I really don't see them caring about anything else. Of course, their arrangements are still miles better than your average Britney Spears, but everything must be judged in the context of its time - and in 1983, Duran Duran were making their music side by side with Depeche Mode and eventually just gave up on the 'artistic' competition to concentrate on hit-making. And to think how much potential they were displaying on the self-titled album. Sigh.


ARENA **1/2

Year Of Release: 1984

A live album. No, really? A live album? Gee, if it weren't for the fact that most of the tracks bear the names of Duran Duran classics, I'd never have guessed that; it looks like just about every little bit of audience participation has been carefully wiped out. Okay, so when these guys play a very quiet passage, or right before they launch into a song, you can sometimes barely discern some weak, muffled shouting... I mean, if a live album actually makes you yearn to hear more screaming and whistling, you know there's something wrong about it.

Seriously now, I don't understand the point of this album. Duran Duran are said to have been a major live attraction, but I guess it was mainly due to the visual effects and Simon LeBon's dancing and stuff like that. Because essentially what they do is just reproduce the slick-to-death originals, electronic drums and synth rhythms and all; if there is any energy at all in the album, it's just the same energy that you could see in the studio. And this is quite stupid - this is synth-pop we're talking of, not Delta blues or heavy metal; there's no improvisation involved, the effort is on reproducing the same generic guitar riffs and looped synthlines. Where's the fun in that, I ask you? I personally can't even imagine how a synth-pop live album can add something to your usual experiences; robotic music is always the same, whether it's live or in the studio, unless you dare to improvise or thoroughly rearrange your songs. But geez, the Duran Duran audience was consisting of the same kind of teenage girls who now get their kicks at N'Sync concerts - they just wanted exact reproductions of the hits and nothing else, so I guess the band was forced into this routine by the actual image.

It's not like I'm offended or anything, juzt puzzled. The track selection is actually quite good, mind you: for instance, these nice prophets of the great God of Synth do the exact two tracks that are the best on Seven And The Tagged Rider ('Union Of The Snake' and 'Seventh Stranger') and dump the rest, preferring to concentrate on the Duran Duran and Rio material. So it actually can function as a concise best-of package for the earliest period - since the arrangements are so tight and the audience has been so carefully wiped out, you're well advised to get the album instead of the three preceding if you just wanna get a whiff of this here stuff... hell, no, you'd be missing 'Tel Aviv' then, so you do have to get the debut.

Oh yeah, there's actually one new track here - and I have no idea if it was recorded live or not (probably not, because there are obvious vocal overdubs there that could have hardly been done in concert). It's 'Wild Boys', and it's actually interesting - it's a little bit different from the standard Duran Duran formula, with a pretty minimalistic melody, mainly carried by the rhythm section; the funky rhythm guitar steps in only about halfway through, and, watch this, there's no dense synth rhythm track to accompany the song, just isolated bleeps and bloops. Not that the song is particularly good or anything, it's just different, and not particularly appropriate for the band's 'New Romantic' image either. A sign of changes to come? Well... not exactly...

To tell the absolute truth, I really like the final three-song chunk of the album. Maybe these versions aren't at all different, but dang, who cares? When you got 'Union Of The Snake', 'Planet Earth', and 'Careless Memories' directly seguing into each other, you actually realize what a goddamn talented band these guys actually were - in that special slick synth-driven (even if 'Union Of The Snake' is actually guitar-driven, but let me make a goddamn generalization!) way, they still manage to rock out with power and conviction. Listen to the bass work on 'Union Of The Snake'. Listen to the way the new-romantic guitar kickstarts 'Planet Earth'. Listen to the wild breakneck tempo of 'Careless Memories' and the paranoid electronic drum fills before the chorus. Shit, I can't believe how good these songs are, synth-pop or not.

Anyway, that's something in between two and a half stars and three stars... kick out half a star for the lack of purpose and for the audience discrimination - if you give me a live album, I want to be able to know that not just because it says so in the liner notes. But even so, there's hardly a better way to convince yourself that these guys used to tear than to listen to Arena.


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