Perhaps no group in the 80s was as big as Duran Duran and they were never bigger than 1984’s World Tour. Their third album, the decidedly patchy “Seven And The Ragged Tiger” had seemed more overblown than its predecessor, the sublime “Rio” (still their finest hour), both in terms of production and presentation, as each release tried to be bigger and better than the previous one.
But the world (and I mean the whole world) simply didn’t care and so they followed the typical blueprint of a band at the height of their popularity:
Live Album of World Tour – Check (“Arena”)
Epic one-off single because you haven’t got time to do an album – Check (“Wild Boys”)
Soundtrack single for blockbuster film – Check (“A View To A Kill”)
Solo Projects – Check (Arcadia & The Power Station)
And of course, they appeared at Live Aid in the Philadelphia leg.
In a genius piece of journalistic sub-editing, this was brilliantly termed “Durandemonium”.
And then all of a sudden after somehow keeping the whole franchise alive from the album release in late 1983, when they were still really UK favourites just breaking MTV, it’s 1986 and the world has moved on.
Oh and two of your Taylors (Roger & more acrimoniously, Andy) have left.
So to a diminishing audience of followers emerged “Notorious” from the now very much more adult three-piece Duran Duran and whilst it is still not their best album and a little patchy, it has some of my favourite of their work in its grooves.
First things first, they jettisoned the clattering crash-boom-bang of “The Wild Boys” and “A View To A Kill” and created a far more sinuous and slinky sound. The first sign of this would come in the excellent title track, which would borrow the stutter of “The Reflex” almost as a conscious signal that they were back.
It really sets the sound for the majority of the album with bass-heavy riffs, brass stings and female backing that gives a much more soul feel to a band who had always had a good dance sensibility especially in their remixes.
And really it is the return of an old friend in Nile Rogers as producer that masterminds this change in sound to a more powerful but considered sound for the band. Actually, He had really saved the band when they were on the verge of a disaster during the period of promoting “Seven And The Ragged Tiger” as a singular lack of powerful chart performance (despite some astonishing video accompaniments) had seen him called in to remix “The Reflex” in order to return them to former chart glories which he duly he did by getting them to number one in May 1984 and then followed the afore-mentioned world domination.
But the subsequent period had brought outside influences from the solo projects for John with The Power Station and Simon and Nick with Arcadia, so who knew what they would come back with. But actually you can sense the footprints of both in what was a brave new reinvention of the band.
As if the opener, wasn’t enough “American Science” maintains the groove (with an Andy Taylor guitar solo to boot, before he swanned off) and then comes one of the band’s finest ever moments in “Skin Trade”.
It has what I can only describe as a laser-etched swagger. It is sexy and languorous but never loses its sharpness and focus in the kind of way that a classic Chic track always maintained. In its extended form it is one of their finest pieces of work for the dance floor or indeed any floor.
Many people have always doubted that Duran Duran were ever on “Soul Train” but there’s the proof and it’s hardly surprising as I am certain that if Prince had given us this track it would be rightly lauded as the classic it should be. Not bad for a bunch of lads from Birmingham.
However, like many albums that create such a clear groove based atmosphere there is a tendency for them to peter out and lose variety. “Vertigo (Do The Demolition)” is an interesting track that has the kind of obscure lyricism that the band always liked to use to remind you of their genuine Bowie worship. “A Matter Of Feeling” sadly feels like a “Rio” out-take.
There are two interesting diversions however; “Winter Marches On” has some of the ethereal mystery that you would most often associate with the band’s eponymous first album with Nick Rhodes’s keyboards creating a most rewarding New Romantic throwback which has all the magic of “Tel Aviv” or “The Chauffeur” from “Rio”. Rhodes was always capable of the most inventive keyboard backdrops on their records which may have come from the fact that when he first started playing he only used the black keys on the keyboard.
Despite this being a soulful record and being decidedly funky in parts, the real surprise is when they almost lapse to modern-day Motown with the final single “Meet El Presidente”. There’s stomping drumbeats and “ooh-aah” backing vocals in the chorus that really creates a sound that works but that we had never really heard from them before… or indeed since.
For a band who derived so much from David Bowie this was their attempt at a Bowie-like reinvention and in part it comes off. It’s their very own “Young Americans” – as the “Soul Train” appearance would confirm – and like that the album although undoubtedly imperfect, there is much that is genuinely innovative and gives us much to enjoy. Both move their creators onward in their careers.
Bowie would reinvent himself several times yet but for Duran Duran it only stemmed the inevitable which was a descent from the heights that they had earlier achieved – despite the fact that it is infinitely better than its direct studio predecessor. It did however, start the process of seeing them as a band that you could take seriously and not just clothes-horses and MTV pretty boys, which was a reputation that they had if did not entirely deserve. It would stand them in good stead when they really hit the bottom a couple of albums later only to reinvent again and return with the excellent and even more grown-up “Wedding Album”.
So whilst the first two albums will always be Duran Duran’s legacy, it is “Notorious” that ensures that they were taken seriously enough to be able to leave one.