By Adam Lovinus
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In March, Duran Duran—yes, that Duran Duran, the '80s new wave mega-sensation from England who sold more than 80 million records and became synonymous with an emerging media known as the music video—launched their world tour at South By Southwest (SXSW). Which is weird because the music-industry fest, held annually in Austin, Texas, is usually where new bands go to be discovered. After 30 years of making music, are Duran Duran beginning anew?
"I've been saying recently that we've been on the comeback trail since 1985," says John Taylor. He laughs. In a way, Taylor is right. At the very least, Duran Duran are presently restarting what has, for the most part, been a brilliant career.
Producer Mark Ronson, who was a child when Duran Duran were at their peak, is being credited with bringing the band back to their roots with 2010's All You Need Is Now. "He didn't mind telling us how much in love with us he was when he was a kid," says Taylor. "And having done that, he then proceeded to put our shit under greater scrutiny than any producer has done in 20 years. He did not let us off lightly. Consequently, every note and every word is well-considered—which is more than we can say for, you know, some of the more recent albums."
The problem, explains Taylor, is that Duran Duran are, at their core, a pop group, and they need hit songs to survive. "And when you haven't had a hit in a number of years you think, 'Well, what are we doing wrong?'"
But he says they didn't start out as a pop group. "We put this band together to take our place alongside Simple Minds and Human League. And we started having hits," he recalls. "And I've yet to find anything more addictive than hits."
Taylor says it was the demand for hit songs that led to the making of the three stale records that preceded All You Need Is Now. "You go down a road like Red Carpet Massacre, where you go and work with Timbaland because he was that year's king of hits, and you still don't have a hit," he says. "And you're thinking, 'Shit. We were, like, the first flop that Timbaland had in, like, a three-year run.'"
The bassist admits he's satisfied with Duran Duran's catalog, in that he can take artistic pride—but he's less satisfied from a businessman's perspective. "You know, it's disturbing if you don't find an audience for your pop songs. And pop music has to sell. It has to get on radio, or it's not pop music."
Formed in Birmingham in 1978 by Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran would eventually come to have three Taylors (John, Roger and Andy, none of them related) and a singer with an overdose of sex appeal in the form of Simon Le Bon. Their self-titled debut was released in 1981 and reached No. 3 on the U.K. charts but got zero airplay in the U.S.
It was a video that Duran Duran made for the album's third single, "Girls On Film," that landed in high rotation on America's MTV. They'd finished the video just two weeks after the launch of MTV and had intended it for air on softcore pay TV, such as the Playboy Channel. Banned outright by the BBC for sexual content, the video got a heavy edit from MTV. The network then put it into rotation with the group's "Hungry Like the Wolf," which would ultimately become one of the channel's most played videos of all time.
"I was always drawn to music that had a visual sense," says Taylor. "I grew up on glam—Bowie and Ziggy Stardust—and I came of age to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and, you know, I was dancing on my cot to the Beatles."
Having debuted new songs alongside indie rockers half his age at this year's SXSW, who did Taylor see when he looked out at Duran Duran's audience? "I think it was a cult for a few years in the '80s," he says, "but it's not now." He still thinks of his band as having mainstream appeal. "I kinda like that, actually. I feel more than ever that we are catalysts, really, for people to come together and have a good time, or just stand in a dark room and dance together. And that's okay. We've got a big job to do." He laughs. "We've got to turn this baby around."
This article appeared in print as "Still Hungry: For too long, Duran Duran have been a pop group without a hit. John Taylor and the boys mean to change that."