Today is Nick Rhodes' 50th birthday. He's the youngest member of Duran Duran, so they, the pretty mascara-ed wild-boy new romantics, are all safely embarked on their 50s now. They remain pretty (and I'm not just being polite, they do), and Nick hasn't stopped wearing mascara and I hope he's pleased every day with all the new de-clumping formulas available, but still, it gives you vertigo. Do the jumpsuits still fit? Does John Taylor ever avoid invitations to go out so he can stay home and watch Veronica Mars? Does Simon LeBon say to friends at dinner, "Lately if I drink more than two glasses of red wine, I get the worst hangover"? Do they wake up at 3 a.m. feeling dread about how things will end? How do they feel about young men in their early 20s from northern industrial cities who've been to art school and carry around notebooks of their poetry and who like models and cars and are constantly on the make now that they're big pop stars—affection, exasperation? When they look in the mirror, are they ever startled by who they see there?
When I was in eighth grade, I went to a Duran Duran party hosted by my friend Allyson, who lived across the street. This was 1984—a little after Seven and the Ragged Tiger came out. There were five, maybe six other girls there. We were all 13 and 14 years old. One of the girls who I hadn't met before, Sarah, would become a good friend. Sarah liked Simon, singer. Allyson liked John, bass. I liked Nick, synth. Everyone knew who each other liked in the band, like you would know which house someone lived in at Hogwarts. There was one Andy Taylor, guitar, at the party but I don't remember any Roger Taylor, drums, which seems strange as Roger was really cute but then he was the house at Hogwarts that never spoke. We filled out a questionnaire about our favorite songs and colors and nicknames. We watched VHSs of the band's videos, including an uncensored version of "Girls On Film," and lots and lots of MTV, which was still pretty new. With Nick's birthday, and the momentous occasion of the band being launched into their next decade, I emailed Sarah and Allyson to have a long-distance Duran Duran reunion party and talk about what it was like to be teenage fans.
Carrie: So how young were we back then? Young! For example, I have a distinct memory of wondering aloud to Allyson if maybe they were still virgins. We were hanging out outside your house. This would have been junior high, which seems too old to have been that naïve. Were we that naïve? What other ridiculous misapprehensions/illusions did you have?
Allyson: I don’t remember that conversation, thankfully!
Sarah: I was convinced that if I looked like Simon, he'd be interested in me romantically. So I had a Simon haircut and dressed like he did in the "Hungry Like the Wolf" video (khaki fedora? check). When my family visited England and France during the summer of 1984, I was sure that the "John Taylor" paged at Gatwick Airport was the John Taylor and Duran Duran were just around the corner, down the next concourse (not realizing how common the name John Taylor is and what the hell would they be doing at Gatwick).
Allyson: I totally agree about the “looking like them” thing… bleached bangs, anyone? Jazz shoes? Carrie, you had leather pants! And I remember a specific red shirt that I bought primarily because it reminded me of the shirt John Taylor wore in the "Reflex" video.
Carrie: A few magazines listed "Mr. Nighttime P.R." as one of John's nicknames. I understood there was flirting in that, but I thought it meant, like, staying up late at the hotel bar.
Carrie: Do you still have random Duran Duran factoids floating around your head like "Mr. Nighttime P.R."? This is why, I think, I can never remember the capital of Delaware, because these particles are still stuffed in my brain.
Sarah: Hmm, factoids. That Simon's birthday is October 27th, making him a Scorpio, a water sign, and making him highly compatible with me, a Cancer, another water sign. I will find good omens everywhere! Others: Simon has a passion for yacht racing and indeed was yacht racing when his boat had an accident and he was hurt in August 1985. I was a nanny at the time and instead of watching the kids, I watched the morning news, desperate for information on if he was okay. Obviously, he was. Until I knew, I cried.
Carrie: I had forgotten about that accident! I'll insert here that Nick and I are both Geminis—so, you know, we have a great deal in common. Us, and Prince.
Allyson: I still know John’s birthday. And that his girlfriend in 1985 was Janine somebody (oh, Janine Andrews, just Googled it) and she had posed nude in some magazine, so we called her "Ja-nude." Hey, bet she’s in his autobiography! I also thought Roger never talked.
Looking back now, especially having gone through a boy band phase with Veronica [daughter, age 11]—who's still going through a Jonas Brothers thing, actually, even though they’re on hiatus—is how different their real lives were from the public persona, and even with all the things we “knew” about them (like the address of Simon’s parents in Birmingham, which I got from a pen pal in England), they were different people in real life. I don’t think at 14 you comprehend the truth in that, or think about how it must feel for them to have girls screaming and throwing panties at them wherever they went. I might turn to drugs and drinking too! And I judged them harshly for the drugs and alcohol bit when that broke. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Too young, too naïve… but it's that youth that makes them into “idols,” right?
Carrie: You two used that address to send a mixed tape off to "Simon's parents in Birmingham." And one reason I love this story is how feverish and hopped-up you two sound in it. It started really innocently—we were talking about how the album Rio seemed to have two characters, Rio and Blue Silver, who slipped in and out of the songs. (Congratulations, ladies—you've just discovered archetypes!) Then I left and you guys went absolutely nutto and ended up making this tape. Please describe it.
Sarah: Okay, deep breath. I think that we analyzed the lyrics from Rio, and a couple of songs from Seven and the Ragged Tiger perhaps, and decided that Simon was in love with John's fiancee and she was a virgin and Simon was going to take her virginity ("Save a Prayer"). Somehow we believed that John wasn't treating her right ("Lonely in Your Nightmare"); Simon declared his love and explained, sort of, how they met ("Last Chance on the Stairway"). "The Chauffeur" was the aftermath of Simon and "Blue Silver's" tryst (in a car, natch): "You sit beside me, so newly charming"—she just lost her virginity. And then she left Simon anyway and went off with John. We mixed the tape using the songs in about that order, but I remember the coup de grace being the mix of "New Religion" (this is Simon expressing his anger about how John was treating Blue Silver) into "Last Chance on the Stairway." Allyson and I sweated for hours it seems getting the exact chord match from the line "Lady screaming, lady leave me out" to "And sometimes I'm caught in a landslide" using my hand-me-down 1960s Harman Kardon turntable stereo onto a Maxell cassette tape. We nailed it, by the way. I think we stayed up until 4 a.m. at a sleepover at my parents' house, working on that thing. Then mailed it off to Simon's parents in Birmingham. Why I didn't save a copy, I'll never know.
Carrie: I wonder how reliable your pen pal's information was, Allyson? Like, did some random Birmingham family receive an envelope postmarked from Appleton, Wisconsin, with this tape in it, and did it seem like a mystery to them? The music journalist Lyndsey Weber has a new long essay out about being a Duran Duran fan and it mentions scrutinizing the "Union of the Snake" lyrics. This is how a generation learned to close read, deep study of Simon LeBon's poetry. "The Union of the Snake is on the climb…": Discuss.
Carrie: What are your favorite songs/albums now? Mine shift but right now the songs I listen to the most often are "The Chauffeur" and "Planet Earth."
Sarah: My favorite album is a tie between their first, Duran Duran, and Rio. Though Seven and the Ragged Tiger does hold a particular spot in my heart as "The Reflex" was the hit that put me over the edge to complete Duranie nutso-ism. Favorite songs were "Planet Earth" and "New Moon on Monday."
Allyson: I'm bad bad bad at picking a favorite anything. Can’t pick a favorite food, color, season. I see the benefits from all choices; it’s a blessing and a curse. But I think my favorite album now is the first one. Back in the day it was Rio, I’m sure.
I’m proud that Veronica is a fan (not like me, of course) and she told me just the other day that “The Chauffeur” is her favorite Duran song. She’s got some good taste! She still rolls her eyes when I get all giddy about seeing them perform that song live. But loving Duran Duran has made me a better mom. My parents were so dismissive and told me it was “just a phase”—which I‘m not sure I forgive them for, even to this day! When Veronica first loved the Jonas Brothers, I told myself that I wouldn't dismiss her passion as a phase or not worthy of my attention and time. I did the things for her that I wish my parents had done for me: joining the fan club, entering her in contests, taking her to shows wherever they might be. It's not only made her happy; it brought us closer together. And it was fun! Fun to allow myself to get caught up in that youthful energy and excitement.
Carrie: In Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, music critic Rob Sheffield (who was a big fan too) has all these interesting observations about them. Like, he mentions how unusually high-pitched Simon's singing voice is for a pop singer. (As a bit of history, he shares this great thing Bing Crosby, a baritone, said to Dennis Day, a tenor: "Get your voice down here where the money is, kid.") And he notes how much of being a Duranie was about purchasing things, not just the records, but the buttons, the posters, the shirts, all of it, which will be, I hope, the subject of a zillion dissertations about class and consumerism in the 80s, and this conversation can be in the data set.
But I disagreed with him on this point: "Does anybody know or care what Duran Duran themselves want? Does anybody worry that they are not finding artistic fulfillment? Does anyone wonder what they are 'really like' or how they 'really feel' in everyday life?" Which isn't true, at least for me! Not that I think I'll ever know-know them—as you said, Allyson, there's the public persona and the person. But I am curious! And I've enjoyed things like watching the "Classic Album" documentary on Rio (available to stream on Netflix) or reading Andy Taylor's autobiography (trashy excerpt here) and re-calibrating my impressions of who they were and what they were like then, as well as the glimmers of what it's like to be a pop star three decades down the line. New things gleaned from these materials:
• Roger, it turns out, can talk! And the hunted look he had in the 80s seems not so weird now, but like the reaction of a normal person to being pursued by mobs of shrieking people in fedoras and jazz shoes (nightmarish).
• John's charming and the one perpetually taking the emotional temperature of the room, which has to be exhausting. Also: this Plum Sykes/Vogue profile of his wife, Gela Nash-Taylor, who co-founded Juicy Couture, has nine novels in it, four of them satiric, one involving a governess.
• In this Amoeba Records video, I love the fussy, little way Simon purses his lips when he doesn't realize the camera's on him, like a British housewife eyeing the produce.
• And poor Nick! In all the anecdotes related to the making of Rio, he always seems to be working late in the studio, feeling slightly martyred, and (I note disloyally) comes across as the potential pain-in-the-ass coworker who won't stop dicking around with a project. That said, his appearances in the Andy Taylor book are the best. He's like a wet, unhappy cat stalking through. When making the video for "Rio," he was seasick on the yacht and upset about the waves messing up his suit; on the way to the "Hungry Like The Wolf" shoot in Sri Lanka, he nearly died from wearing leather pants in 100-degree heat, which will never not make me laugh. (And Rob Sheffield reminded me of a line of his from an interview in 1987, when he was asked who he'd want to play him in a movie: "Joan Crawford, because she wore great shoulder pads!")
Sarah: Andy Taylor is probably the only member of the band that I'm predisposed to think some unkind thoughts about, especially after reading the autobiography, which I found bitchy (not that he didn't have a right to be bitchy, but, you know). Andy was a rocker and that just didn't fit in the long run with the overall vision of the band. I guess I could agree that Nick is probably a total pain the ass, but he's a complete perfectionist, noodling around the mixing board, and this lends itself well to producing great albums. But we had the same revelation about "Classic Album: Rio" and "Behind the Music Remastered" with Roger—he can talk! And is pretty intelligent and insightful as well.
Allyson: Seeing them now, seeing them more as peers, I’m proud of them. I’m proud that they've exorcized their personal demons; that they're still making music (successfully!); that their old albums have stood the test of time; that they seem like genuinely nice people; that they still have the energy to tour for us. I love that John (and the others) tweet regularly and want to connect with the fans.
It amazes me how much effort I had to put into seeing/hearing/reading about them back then compared to now when you can order anything up. Yet there's something to be said for how hard we had to work to be fans: Combing record stores in faraway cities, looking for rare imported 12”s; watching and waiting all day to see videos on MTV; devouring any tidbit of info in magazines; having a friend record them (on cassette!) at Live Aid, because you were going to be at Girl Scout camp that day. And Carrie and I would walk to Mike’s Towne and Country [nearest grocery store] every Tuesday to check out the new magazines.
Sarah: I still have a strangely giddy reaction to Duran Duran despite the full knowledge that they are human and probably did a lot of fucked-up stuff back in the heyday. When Allyson and I saw them in Chicago, in April 2011, I had a stupid grin on my face and jumped up and down the whole show (well, not during the ballads). This is the strangest part for me: I absolutely cannot listen to their music objectively. And I try. For every other band/musician I have ever loved, I can go back and listen to and say, "Oh, the lyrics are wonderful" or "the harmonization is heavenly" or "this has the perfect anthemic beat" so that is why I appreciate this song. But not DD2. Everything about the music, the videos, photographs, etc., is just so wrapped up with raw adolescent emotion that I cannot break through it to tell you why I like Duran's music.