Duranalysis Book Report: Neil Gaiman’s Duran Duran
Back in 1984, at the start of his career, Neil Gaiman—the best-selling, award-winning, widely-acclaimed author of Coraline, Stardust, the Sandman comics, etcetera—wrote a book titled Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five.
Naturally, I had to get my hands on a copy. This sounded important.
These days, the book is a sought-after collector’s item. The publisher only did a single print run before going bankrupt, and Gaiman has resisted offers to get it back into print. (His feelings on the project seem somewhat less than positive: In an interview with January magazine, he stated, “I spent several months writing a book that I wouldn't have wanted to read.”) The book could’ve used some judicious editing, as it’s riddled with typos throughout (to the best of my knowledge, Duran Duran never released a song titled “Hungry Like a Wolf”), but small stuff aside, you know what? It’s good. Dry, witty, and insightful, it features a comprehensive biography of each band member, plus thoughtful reviews of each song and video, padded out with general observations about the societal influences in England in the seventies and eighties (sample sentence: “To understand Duran Duran, one must understand the scenes and the pendulum swings in the Britain from which they emerged”). The book is short—only 126 pages, and maybe half of those are devoted to glossy photos of the boys—but it’s got some heft.
I’m going to jump right past all the insights and heft, though, and focus on the frivolous, gossipy stuff, because that’s the way I roll. Here we go:
Neil Gaiman on Simon Le Bon:
“He has mentioned in interviews that he believes in fairies, goblins and ‘the magic of Nature. I know there’s a lot more to it than anybody dreams of.’ (As he told the Sunday Mirror paper, in an article they headlined Secrets of Sexy Simon, accompanied by a photo of Simon bared to the torso and brooding magnificently.) His lyrics to The Reflex are apparently about a ‘little friend.’”
Ah, yes, fairies and goblins. While it’s probably best not to take anything Simon says at face value, ever, his explanation about “The Reflex” is in no way incompatible with Andy Taylor’s pet theory that the lyrics are actually about Nick Rhodes. In turn, this lends credence to my own pet theory that Nick is some kind of bizarre magical creature—fairy or goblin, who can say—who’s been living amongst humans in the guise of a dainty and glamorous pop icon for the past thirty years, waiting for the right moment to carry out some unknown but almost certainly malevolent scheme.
On John Taylor:
“His fascination with James Bond borders on obsession—he possesses a complete set of Bond videos, which he watches and rewatches, drives an Aston Martin (gold, DB5), the car that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger. His current long-term girlfriend, Janine Andrews, appeared in the Bond film Octopussy. He has confessed to a desire to play Bond. … He has often regretted that he became famous too late to date a Charlie’s Angel.”
John Taylor is a once-in-a-lifetime beauty who has charisma and stage presence oozing out of his flawless pores. That said, he would have made a downright awful Bond. Despite all that charm and bone structure, despite being intelligent, articulate, and insanely photogenic, he turns into a sleepy-eyed, somnambulant void whenever film cameras are turned on him. Granted, he wasn’t always given the strongest material in his acting career—it’s not like audiences expected him to perform miracles with A Diva’s Christmas Carol or The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (note: he did not perform miracles with either)—but surely he could have brought a little more verve and zest to his substantial role in Allison Anders’s Sugar Town.
Age difference notwithstanding, I’m reasonably certain John could have dated one of Charlie’s Angels, if he’d really set his mind to it.
On Nick Rhodes:
“An observer of life, rather than a participant, he is fond of strawberries and champagne for breakfast … He’s a night-bird, a ‘non-sun worshipper’, happiest messing about in studios. He is often considered to be the brains or the ideas man behind Duran Duran…”
There’s a strange yet wonderful moment in the development of any Duran fan when the realization dawns that Nick—dazzling, beautiful, high-maintenance Nick, Nick of the champagne breakfasts and the refusal to get out of bed until midday, Nick of the bored, drawling speaking voice, Nick of the hilariously over-the-top reactions to any affront to his aesthetic sensibilities (flashback to his tirade about the stage lighting in Sing Blue Silver: “Terrible. Horrible. Vile!”), Nick of the heavy makeup and the huge fluffy hairstyles and the flouncy ruffled blouses—really is the brainy one in this bunch.
On Roger Taylor:
“He is not tall, with a muscular physique: the strong silent type. It has been said that is [sic] is almost impossible to get into an argument with him—he’s too placid and easy-going. It is ironic, then, that Roger was involved in the worst bit of trouble of any member of the band, when he was attacked by a gang in a Munich disco and wound up in hospital with stitches and concussion.”
Yikes. Both John and Andy, in their respective memoirs, also discuss at some length the incident in which bat-wielding assailants ambushed Roger in a nightclub. It’s shocking, especially since Roger always seems so gentle. Then again, there’s a passage in Steve Malins’s Duran Duran Notorious: The Unauthorised Biography in which Andy Wickett, who was briefly Duran’s lead singer in the pre-Simon days, recounts an early gig at Birmingham University that got out of hand when the rugby club started hurling plates and ashtrays at the band: “These guys were coming for us, and the next minute Roger got up and hit someone with his cymbal.” This gives added nuance to that part in the 2004 “Careless Memories” anime video where Roger slaughters a pair of gun-toting ninjas by embedding his cymbals in their skulls. Never knew you had it in you, Roger.
Also, “He is not tall” may be the best phrase in Gaiman’s entire book.
On Andy Taylor:
“His early nickname within the band was ‘Sniffer’, for reasons we can only guess at.”
On second thought, that’s the best phrase in Gaiman’s entire book.
On Duran Duran’s videos:
Gaiman analyzes Duran’s videos individually, much as I’ve done with my prior Duranalyses, though he spends less time waxing philosophic on John’s cheekbones. We’re also usually not on the same page with our opinions. He calls the “Careless Memories” video “far more adult and confident” than “Planet Earth,” which he believes is “the weakest of Duran Duran’s videos,” whereas the best I could say about “Careless Memories” is that it “isn’t wretched.” He describes the “Lonely in Your Nightmare” video as “an excellent film, manipulating the various images—the sleeping beauty, the watcher at the window—with confidence and dexterity”; I called it “unwatchable.” He thinks the iconic “Rio” video is “amateurish,” which treads damn close to blasphemy in my book.
We’re in agreement that “Night Boat” is pretty badass, though.
On “Hold Back the Rain”:
“A stuttering synthesiser segues into a ballsy guitar intro, and Simon Le Bon sings a love song. Will she come back and help him to hold back the rain? The song is dated 19 March 1982; was this a specific incident? A specific person?”
Funny you should ask, Mr. Gaiman, and it’s not a love song, at least not in a traditional sense. In the 2000 BBC documentary Wild Boys: The Story of Duran Duran, Simon claims he meant the lyrics of “Hold Back the Rain” (“And if the fires burn out, there’s only fire to blame…”) to serve as words of caution for John, who was already in the clutches of the vices—drugs, booze, sex—that dogged him throughout Duran’s early years. Says Simon, “The night I wrote it, I slipped a copy under his door. He’s never mentioned it to me.”
On the band’s performance for Princess Diana:
“They had just returned from the recording studios, were under-rehearsed, nervous, and working with unfamiliar equipment; during the first number a drum pedal broke, a guitar string snapped, and a thrown box of chocolates knocked the bass guitar badly out of tune. It was a fiasco. Princess Diana was not amused (neither were the band) and she and Prince Charles left for the bar ten minutes before the end, only returning for Dire Straits (fresh from a recent tour, familiar with their equipment and the songs) who she was seen to enjoy. Whether it was the screaming of the fans, the poor quality sound, or something else, it seemed obvious to the press that the Princess preferred Dire Straits.”
Much has been written already about Duran Duran’s association with Princess Diana, so let’s take another path: In Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield’s book Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, he writes, “Sweatband-wearing rock prudes Dire Straits rustled up a huge hit called ‘Money for Nothing,’ raging against [Duran Duran].” Huh. Interesting! There’s no consensus as to whether the vicious, venomous lyrics of “Money for Nothing,” which are told from the perspective of blue-collar workers sniping about the pampered lives of rock stars, are specifically about Duran Duran (for what it’s worth, Nikki Sixx claims the lyrics are about Motley Crue), but there’s evidence to support Sheffield’s theory. Just look at the original, unedited video: During the verse that tends to get snipped out of the song and video these days due to repeated use of an anti-gay slur (the verse about the earrings and the makeup and jet airplanes… if you know the song, you know the verse), the television set onscreen is tuned to MTV, which is airing a (fake) video from a (fake) band that looks suspiciously Durannish:
(It’s also hard not to listen to the lyric “maybe get a blister on your little finger, maybe get a blister on your thumb” without thinking of the part in Sing Blue Silver where Andy compares blisters with a distraught and exhausted Roger in the back of a limo after a concert. I’m not convinced of the likelihood of Dire Straits having watched Sing Blue Silver before penning “Money for Nothing,” but it’s an interesting thought.)
On Duran Duran’s views on women and gender roles:
“Their viewpoint on the matter seemed to be that men were men and women were women, with fairly clearly defined roles. As Andy put it, after his marriage, ‘My wife’s a better cook than I am—but she doesn’t play very good guitar. Gentlemen should be bold and open doors for women. I wouldn’t want a lady opening a door for me. If every man looked after one woman everything would be fine.’ Nick Rhodes went a little further: ‘The thought of something like a woman fireman is very silly. I believe women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs as men, but there again, I’d still much rather women be feminine.’”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Nick and Andy. Really? Go sit in a corner, you two.
I could fume about this, but instead I think I’m going to sit back and quietly marvel at the cognitive dissonance required for Nick Rhodes to get all snotty and dismissive at the idea of anyone venturing outside the arbitrary boundaries of established gender roles.
On rumors about the band—spurious, scurrilous and otherwise:
Gaiman devotes a chunk of words to sorting through all the dirt Duran Duran’s former bodyguard Al Beard spilled to The Sun in April of 1984 in a three-part exposé (Part One: “I Saw Duran Duran Go Crazy On Coke! They Need It To Perform They Need It To Relax Says Ex Minder.” Part Two: “Here Are The Girls You Ordered, Said The Posh Porter.” Part Three: “Spoilt Little Rich Kids! I Saw Them Change, Says Ex-Minder”). By Beard’s account, all the Durans were coke-addled (except for Roger), slutty (except for Roger), and monstrous (except for Roger). Beard also makes a few jabs at Simon’s weight and Andy’s stamina (per Beard, Andy was “very good at chatting up girls but he didn’t spend very long with them. It would all be over in three or four minutes”), then tosses in some idle speculation on Nick’s sexual orientation (“We all watched Nick Rhodes closely because we weren’t sure whether he was gay or not.[Duran manager] Paul Berrow once said to me “I don’t know if Nick knows either”).
Of these rumors, Gaiman notes, accurately, that “for the rock business, it was all rather tame,” and points out, “The Sun articles can be taken with a large pinch of salt. Even so, much of it (and more, none of which shall be gone into here) had been admitted or implied by the band in earlier interviews or articles, or had been gossiped in London club-land.”
I’m making a mental note to open an Etsy boutique featuring novelty t-shirts emblazoned with “I Saw Duran Duran Go Crazy On Coke!” Actually, all these vaguely-sordid allegations remind me of my idea for another Duran-based business enterprise: I have this cherished dream of creating a glitzy, tacky, inappropriate-for-all-ages cartoon series featuring 1980s-era Duran Duran as glamorous, dissolute superheroes who fly around in their private jet, surrounded by topless women, sniffing glittery lines of pixie dust and going on wild, magical adventures in between sold-out gigs. On the spectrum of animated awesomeness, it’d fall somewhere between Heavy Metal and Jem and the Holograms. I’m pretty sure I could talk Nick into granting me permission to go ahead with this, as long as I promise his character would be drawn to look younger and prettier than the other Durans.
So that’s the book. Plenty of good stuff, and certainly nothing that should unduly haunt Neil Gaiman.