If there was one band that benefited from the advent of MTV and music videos in general, it was Duran Duran. Sure, they sounded good, but to millions of female fans all around the globe, they looked even better. Other bands had better chops, but Duran Duran was the total package.
There was also the name, which just rolled off the tongue and was taken right from a character in Barbarella, the cult Jane Fonda sci-fi flick from the late ‘60s, which added to its cool cache. And again, in their early ‘80s prime, the individual members — Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Andy Taylor, John Taylor, and Roger Taylor (no relation among the three Taylors) — were handsome, stylish, and seemingly made for the camera. Even casual fans couldn’t get enough.
But really, we’re here to talk about the music, which was high New Romanticism: lots of synthesizers, dancey 4/4 beats, and driving basslines. The band’s level of musicianship was high, so it was a bit unfair that they got stuck with the ‘80s version of the boy band label. Le Bon was and still is brilliant as a lead vocalist, Rhodes was perpetually innovative on synths, Andy Taylor’s prowess on guitar was well respected (he was even tapped to play lead on Belinda Carlisle’s 1986 hit “Mad About You”), John Taylor was no slouch on bass and Roger? He kept the beat and kept his mouth shut, which is exactly what you want from a good drummer.
The band put out lots of music in the early ‘80s — a studio album each in 1981, ‘82, and ‘83, plus a live album in ‘84 — and kept creating through the ‘90s and into the 2000s and 2010s. While their best work was their earlier, more pop-oriented songs, there are still a handful of more recent tracks that are certainly worthwhile. Here’s our pick for the top ten Duran Duran songs.
# 10 – Union of the Snake
In the early days of the band, Simon Le Bon was always a bit ambiguous with his lyrics, and this big single from 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger album is no exception. While it’s unclear what exactly he’s singing about (and even his later proclamation that the song was about tantric sex didn’t do much to clear things up), does it really matter? The opening guitar riff sets the tone, the synthesizer lines are infectious, and the driving beat holds it all down. Add in some stellar backing vocals from a few unknown studio musicians and a lot of percussion toys, along with the requisite 1980s sax solo (not even Duran Duran was exempt from the mandatory 1980s woodwind solo), and you’ve got an amazing track that grooves from start to finish.
# 9 – The Wild Boys
The band’s 1984 album Arena was sort of a live best-of compilation, but it did feature this one studio track, which was released as the single. While it contained some of the successful elements of earlier Duran Duran songs, like a strong dance beat, driving bass, and synths galore, “The Wild Boys” was decidedly more aggressive and percussive than their earlier singles. Despite its new sound, it did well on the charts, though in 1984, Duran Duran was going to have a hit with anything they put out. That’s saying a lot because in 1984 artists such as Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Huey Lewis completely dominated the music charts. Still, it holds up over the years partially because of the driving beat and fantastic production, but mainly because Simon Le Bon was really just coming into his own, vocally, and he carries the song on the strength of his voice alone. True, he sounds like he’s reaching about half an octave above his comfort zone, but his ability to sustain it is what makes it so impressive.
# 8 – Ordinary World
By the early ‘90s, much of the world was ready to write off Duran Duran as a relic of the ‘80s, but the band, in a slimmed down formation, wasn’t done yet. After a few duds, chart wise, they offered up “Ordinary World” in 1993, and suddenly they were relevant again. The guitars, performed by Missing Persons and Frank Zappa guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, are prominent and lush, but really, the strength of this one is Simon Le Bon, who gives nothing short of a master class in rock ballad lead vocals. The chorus is at once full of resignation and hope, with loads of texture and just enough of a hook to keep you listening. What makes “Ordinary World” so great, though, is that it just sounds timeless.
# 7 – Hungry Like the Wolf
As far as radio-friendly ‘80’s singles go, it doesn’t get much friendlier than 1982’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” On this one, we get a full display of Andy Taylor’s guitar chops, but we also get the backing “do do doos” that have turned singles into hits since the 1950’s. Sure, it’s formulaic, but it works, and in the span of a three minute single, no one wants to hear about the tension between risky innovation and what’s always worked — they just want it to sound good. “Hungry Like the Wolf” sounds good.
# 6 – Is there Something I Should Know
Is there any more iconic ’80s song opening than the Simon Le Bon and Andy Taylor harmonies of, “Please please tell me now” over a simple kick drum? Probably not. “Is There Something I Should Know” was released as a standalone single in 1983, and it did well, thanks to the catchy verses, the great guitar line throughout, and totally relatable subject matter. Plus, it’s got one of the biggest mic drop lyrics of the entire decade: “Don’t say you’re easy on me / You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.”
# 5 – Notorious
By the second half of the ‘80s, Duran Duran’s relevance seemed to be waning. Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor had departed under tense circumstances, and the New Romantic sound was being pushed out by hair metal and cheese rock. Rather than adapt to more of a guitar driven, synth-less approach, though, the band doubled down and intensified the sound that had always worked for them — with great success. As the first single from the 1986 album of the same name, “Notorious” boosts Le Bon’s always solid vocals with the addition of horns and slick Nile Rodgers production, resulting in a riffy, slightly funky track that sounds like Duran Duran, only better.
# 4 – Rio
What do you get when you combine a synth and guitar dance track with a positively ‘80s beach video full of glam shots of the band and scantily clad women covered in body paint? You get “Rio,” one of Duran Duran’s biggest hits and one of the best songs of the decade. John Taylor’s aforementioned brilliant bass line, along with a singalong chorus and Simon Le Bon’s predictably clear vocals, all work together to create a groove held together by some of the best drumming that Roger Taylor’s ever done. And remember that quip about the requisite ‘80s sax solo? There’s one here as well — a weak point in an otherwise gorgeous song.
# 3 – Planet Earth
There’s something magical about a band’s first single: it’s a meticulous compilation of their absolute best stuff, packaged and polished, eager to make a good first impression. “Planet Earth” was released way back in 1981 as Duran Duran’s introduction to the world, and it worked. Confident drums punch through the synths, and the fun “ba ba baaaaahs” of the chorus are a ringer. The dreamy and quasi sci-fi bent of the lyrics add to the band’s mystique as the then-future of music, and when it was all over in just under four minutes, the real planet Earth couldn’t wait to hear what would come next.
# 2 – The Reflex
Part of the fun of 1984’s “The Reflex” is that no one is sure what it’s about (drugs? gambling? fame?), but everyone will gladly sing the pre-chorus of, “Why-y-y-y-y don’t you use it?” What is “it”? It doesn’t matter — “The Reflex” is full of meaningless lyrics that sound profound (“I sold the Renoir and the TV set”), intentionally out of tune synthesizers that somehow work, and stunning “ta na na na” backing vocals that provide a strong foundation for the pop palace that’s built upon it. You can sing along with it, you can dance to it, and you can hear it on just about every ‘80s compilation because it’s flat-out amazing.
# 1 – New Moon on Monday
Simon Le Bon croons, Roger Taylor cracks on the downbeats, and when the chorus lifts everything up after the brooding first verse, the juxtaposition is almost overwhelming. It’s the incredible hook, of course, but it’s also the relentlessly popping synthesizers, and it’s also the whole band coming in on vocals, and since when does Le Bon use a falsetto? There’s so much going on here, but it all clicks. “New Moon on Monday” may not have been as popular as “The Reflex” or pulled the band from the brink of irrelevance like “Notorious,” but on the great target of pop music, it hits the inner bullseye.
Photo Credit: By Samira Khan from Toronto, Canada (Duran Duran @ ACC – Toronto) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Top 10 Duran Duran Songs
written by Amy S