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The name Duran Duran once conjured up the most glamorous of all possible worlds. Simon Le Bon singing "Rio" while swinging off the mast of a speeding yacht. Nick Rhodes wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater while playing a Roland keyboard. The three Taylor boys -- Andy, John, and Roger -- preening and pouting before thousands of frenzied teenage girls. They were fabulously wealthy, tremendously good-looking, and, for a while in the mid-Eighties, at the center of a celebrity hysteria not seen since the Beatles.
The five English lads could do no wrong back then. Le Bon himself, during the height of the Duran mania, admitted to Rolling Stone that the band could "go on-stage and pass gas, and it wouldn't make a difference."
"'Fart.' I said, 'fart,'" Le Bon insists, speaking by phone from a hotel room somewhere in Connecticut. There's a bit of mischief in his voice, a little coyness in his light accent. "I didn't realize fart was a rude word. It's just a good old English, Anglo-Saxon word. It's just a word for a... fart."
Duran Duran has certainly floated its share of stinkers. "Hungry Like the Wolf" was a terrific pop song, but is there any defense for "Union of the Snake" or "The Reflex"? Maybe not, but those songs hit No. 3 and No. 1, respectively, on the Billboard singles chart. In their prime Duran Duran enjoyed no less than nine Top 10 hits. The band's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983), went double platinum. Duran Duran mania bordered on the frightening: In the early Eighties, the band's appearance at a Virgin record store in New York City required mounted police to corral hundreds of rioting females.
By 1985 the band had split into two short-lived side projects. Even those struck pay dirt. The Power Station featured two Taylors (guitarist Andy and bassist John), the drummer from Chic (Tony Thompson), and the heaving vocals of Robert Palmer. The group scored two Top 10 hits with "Some Like It Hot" and a souped-up cover of the T. Rex classic "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Arcadia, fronted by Le Bon and including Rhodes and Andy Taylor, released only one album, a piece of art-rock trivia called So Red the Rose. It went platinum.
Back then R.E.M. was just a college-radio cult band with a couple of catchy tunes and some quirky videos. The Cure was a semipopular goth-rock group without one hit single in America. U2's star was on the rise, but it would be another two years before The Joshua Tree conquered the world. Duran Duran were the true darlings of the new wave.
But as John Taylor once observed, "After Live Aid, it was like, 'U2 in, Duran out.'" The new wave crested after 1985 or so and then quickly ebbed. So did Duran Duran's phenomenal fame. The band's hot streak began to falter with Notorious (1986) and grew even colder with Big Thing (1988). Duran Duran's greatest-hits CD Decade already seemed like a eulogy when it was released in 1989. Liberty, issued the following year, failed to chart at all.
But whose nasal voice is that on the radio these days, whining, "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Barbarella"? None other than Simon Le Bon's. The Duran Duran name lives on, though all the Taylors have long since taken their leave. Rhodes (who helped found the group in 1978) still plays keyboards, while guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, formerly with campy new-wavers Missing Persons, makes the group a trio. Duran Duran's most recent album Medazzaland -- their eleventh full-length record -- appeared in stores early last month, and the dancy single "Electric Barbarella" has already made a dent on the singles chart.
Contrary to popular belief, Duran Duran is not yet washed up. "We've had our biggest hits in the Nineties," Le Bon asserts. He sounds proud but also a tad defensive. That's understandable: Every time his band releases an album, critics talk about the "return" of Duran Duran. In fact they never went away. For those who weren't paying attention in 1993, Duran Duran hit the Top 10 twice -- with "Come Undone" and "Ordinary World." And though most people scoffed at Thank You (1995), the band's collection of cover songs, a few were impressed. Duran Duran's version of "Perfect Day" was heralded by Lou Reed as "the best cover ever completed of one of my songs."
So perhaps it shouldn't surprise listeners that Medazzaland is a solid pop album, relying on good old-fashioned hooks, notably those found in "Electric Barbarella" and the even catchier "Big Bang Generation." The title track is an experimental bit of spoken-word weirdness not unlike the recent Blur song "Essex Dogs." Rhodes does more writing on this album than ever before, revealing a wicked sense of humor in "Be My Icon," a tale told from the point of view of a stalker. Le Bon stretches himself creatively with "Michael You've Got a Lot to Answer For," a simple singer-songwriter piece that's one of the album's more distinctive tracks.
"To me, the album's very much like an urban landscape," Le Bon notes, "a very electronic sound and very industrial at times. 'Michael' is like a stream that bubbles up in the middle of all this concrete, very organic and flowing and fresh.