By Miriam Di Nunzio
The soundtrack of the early 1980s simply oozed Duran Duran. Their extraordinary run of singles—“Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Rio,” “Save a Prayer,” “The Reflex,” “The Wild Boys,” “Girls on Film”—earned Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor, and Andy Taylor the moniker “The Fab Five” among pop music’s second British Invasion. Their music videos proved almost too risqué even for MTV, at a time when the cable music video channel was the “social media” pinnacle for recording artists. To paraphrase that old song: If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. And make it they did. Duran Duran’s highly stylized, feature film–like videos (shot on 35mm stock) propelled their New Romantic/synthpop music to the tops of charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Their success was cemented by 13 albums and 14 top-10 singles, selling 70 million of those albums and earning a pair of Grammys along the way.
And then the late 1980s arrived.
Amid impossible in-fighting, a hiatus ensued and the group splintered off into various other music projects, regrouping in 1985 for the chart-topping James Bond movie theme song “A View to a Kill.” But it was a second eponymous offering (dubbed “The Wedding Album” because of its cover art), with its intoxicating single “Ordinary World,” released in 1993, followed by a compilation album (appropriately titled Greatest) released in late 1998, that helped propel a most remarkable (and some thought impossible) comeback.
And they are indeed back, heaving released their 14th studio album, Paper Gods, in 2015—with guitarist Andy Taylor the only absentee of the Fab Five—and that’s anything but ordinary.
“We concentrate our energy on making good music. We like each other. We make each other laugh. We’re still friends. There’s a real love in this band,” Le Bon told Ravinia magazine in a recent interview, when asked about the staying power of Duran Duran. “We’ve been through some really low times and we’re not scared of them. And we’re not scared of failure. The fact that we really want to survive, that’s a big deal for us. And that we don’t want to do anything else with our lives. There’s nobody who wants to be a fashion house or a film director. We’re really happy being a band.
“And also we’ve worked at the friendship. If somebody has a gripe with somebody else in the band we get it out straight away and nothing’s left to fester,” the 57-year-old Le Bon elaborated. “The songwriting is the heart of the band. That’s what makes you able to look each other in the eye when you’re on stage and feel good about it.
Duran Duran was born in 1978 in Birmingham, England, the band’s name borrowed from the character Dr. Durand Durand in the Jane Fonda cult sci-fi film Barbarella. (They would later record the song “Electric Barbarella” in homage to the movie.) The hits came and went, but the sound—their sound—remained, and stood the test of time, as Paper Gods has proven. They’ve been out on the road since 2015 in support of this latest studio project, which brings them to Ravinia for concerts on July 8 and 9. [Nile Rodgers (who cowrote and coproduced a couple of the album’s tracks) and his band CHIC share the bill.]
“We basically got started with it in 2013 and we started the way we always start—with jamming our music out and seeing if anything good and worthy came out of it, which it did,” Le Bon said of Paper Gods. The album plays out like vintage Duran Duran, with an altogether contemporary spin. “Well, you have to find a balance. If you’re Duran Duran, you know there’s something expected from you by the fans, and you have to stay true to your core values,” Le Bon continued. “And it’s also [about] quality—the quality of the lyrics, the quality of the melodic-ness, if you will. What we did for the first time with this album is that we were very minimal. It’s the most minimal Duran Duran album that’s ever come out, which is constantly overlooked by people, actually. That’s the one thing we’ve been trying to do for decades, [but] we never really had the balls to really ‘leave it empty.’ Somebody would always go, ‘I’m not comfortable with that bit of silence there. I need to put something in it.’ It’s the sparseness of those silences and the space around those notes that gives them the power on this album.”
Much of that “power” is due to the album’s arrangements and the mixing, courtesy of longtime Duran Duran studio collaborators engineer Josh Blair and mixer Spike Spencer. “The arrangements, that’s a whole band and producer and engineer project. Everybody’s involved with that,” Le Bon said. “Then you send it off to Spike, who mixes it—and frankly things can change in the mix; they can completely change. We’re very lucky to have a great relationship with Spike. He understands us musically. He likes Duran Duran. Sometimes he just does stuff and you go, WHAT? We had no idea that it was going to sound like that! And [it sounds] great.
“We actually approached Spike before about other albums to mix, and he said no [several times]. His first one with us was All We Need Is Now [released in 2010]. We asked him why he didn’t work on previous albums we sent to him, and he said, ‘They weren’t good enough to be Duran Duran albums.’ Which is very interesting—and really scary for us! What he made us understand is that he cared about Duran Duran, and that’s to say, if I’m gonna work on a Duran Duran album, I want it to be one of their very good ones. It validated [Paper Gods] to us.”
Does Le Bon think some of Duran Duran’s previous albums were not very good ones?
“I’m sure there’ve been times when—yes,” Le Bon concluded with some hesitation. “But I’m not really into drudging up that stuff. It’s fair enough to say some albums are better than others. That’s the reason it took us two years to make this album, because we knew that it wasn’t good enough until we’d really dug [deep]. It’s not like the good old days of just lying around on the surface. You’ve got to dig down, and sometimes you dig until your hands bleed. And it’s only then you get to the good stuff. We spent a whole year digging without finding anything that was really worth it.
“Many years ago I had a conversation with [INXS cofounder] Michael Hutchence about writing lyrics and having writer’s block, and I asked him, What do you do? And he said, ‘I just keep writing. I write rubbish, and I find that eventually I get to the good stuff.’ And that’s kind of like what we did with this album in a general way. We knew we had to go through this process before we found the stuff that was good enough.
“You don’t want to go back and do the same thing with the next album, you know? You have to move on. So we went with one word: Dance. We wanted to write something that would work on the dance floor. It may be egotistical, but there’s nothing better than seeing sexy guys and sexy chicks gyrating on the dance floor to your record! That’s outstanding. That’s [timeless] thinking. In the ’80s you could go to clubs and everybody was dancing to [our songs] and you could dance to them!”
One interesting surprise on Paper Gods, which already features a slew of collaborators in Janelle Monée, ex–Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Kiesza, and Mr. Hudson, is the presence of Lindsay Lohan, providing spoken word in a brief span on the track “Danceophobia.”
“We’ve [remained friends] ever since we met, I believe on The Tony Danza Show in New York,” Le Bon said. “So we had this part in ‘Danceophobia’ that needed something really special to make it work, to make it click. And she was in London doing the stage production of [David Mamet’s] Speed the Plow and she’d been [asking me] about doing some singing on the album. And I said, ‘Come on guys let’s get her to try this part out.’ And she did, and it was amazing.”
Le Bon and company haven’t exactly mellowed these days, judging by the early reports of the tour, but there is a newfound maturity it seems in Le Bon’s outlook. “I think the change with me is that my ears are so much more open now,” he said. “I will listen to an artist like Afghan Whigs and then I’ll turn on the radio and I’ll hear some early music with those old strings and things and I get turned on by that as well,” Le Bon said. “I’ll hear someone drumming on a beach and that will turn me on. I’ve become a much more open person, whereas before I was very concentrated on very narrow sort of boundaries. … You’ve got a choice in life, haven’t you? As you get older, you can either get narrower and become less tolerant, or you can become more open and more tolerant. In that way, you keep learning. It keeps your mind fresh and willing to accept new ideas and that’s a very important part of life for me. Music is a very good way of doing that.”
Duran Duran briefly considered scrapping their April 16 tour stop in Charlotte, NC, on account of the fury over the state’s recent passage of HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (“The Bathroom Bill”), but they decided to go on with the show. “We are very liberal people. We are a band for everybody. I think one of the things that has been a message in our music is to be true to yourself and to honor yourself and not be forced by fear into being anything else than who you are. I’m very proud of our LGBT following. So we did not cancel our show. We played. And we had massive support from the audience. [Education] is the best way to defeat this [discrimination]. … For us to cancel—we’d have been punishing them when what we wanted to do was go there and support them.
So we did.”
Miriam Di Nunzio is the entertainment arts editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, covering music, theater, and pop culture.