Duranalysis: The Power Station
“…an album that was made by some guys once, and that’s it.”
I’ve been paying a lot of extra attention to Simon and Nick in recent Duranalyses. Since I don’t want Andy and John to feel neglected*, this week I’m taking a look at the Power Station, the supergroup John and Andy formed in 1984 with singer Robert Palmer and drummer Tony Thompson of Chic; Chic bassist Bernard Edwards produced the band’s self-titled 1985 album, which scored two monster hit singles with “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”.
*I’ve probably paid even less attention to Roger than to Andy and John, but I feel confident Roger prefers it that way, thank you very much.
I’d intended to focus on the videos for “Some Like It Hot” and “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”, both of which were directed by Peter Heath, but… well, the videos are fine, but there’s not much there to Duranalyze. Of the two major Duran Duran side projects, Arcadia clearly came up with the more interesting and visually striking videos. No contest. So instead, I’m examining the band’s electronic press kit, a fourteen-minute behind-the-scenes featurette showcasing the album recording sessions and the filming of the “Some Like It Hot” video. The usual warnings about muddy screenshots taken from grainy VHS footage some kind soul uploaded to YouTube apply.
It’s three in the morning, and the assembled members of the Power Station are swilling Heinekens and giving dramatic interpretive readings of the “Some Like It Hot” lyrics (complete with requisite circumscribe/circumcise puns) and bopping around in the control room of a New York recording studio. This particular studio’s name happens to be—wait for it—The Power Station; the band took its name from the studio (whereas Nick named Arcadia after Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. The differences in the stylistic approaches of the two bands are already readily apparent). Raucous decadence is in the air: In Andy’s memoir, he talks about how he and John moved into New York’s Carlyle Hotel while making the album and managed to rack up a $450,000 bill over six months.
Next, we hop on over to the Meantime Film Studios in Greenwich, England, where everyone is busy making the “Some Like It Hot” video. I’ve never been to Greenwich, but I imagine a whole lot of businesses there are named some variation on “Mean Time”, because that’s too irresistible to pass up. We see some behind-the-scenes footage of John and Andy shredding it on their guitars by a big fake cactus.
Again, the “Some Like It Hot” video is fine. There’s no plot, but the bright, stark, cartoonish visuals—flaming cacti, neon lipstick, flashbulbs—are a good match for the driving, pulsing, overheated nature of the song. John looks good, as usual, but it’s Andy, with his tangled rat’s nest of hair and his tight leather pants and his crisscrossed bandoliers, who really steals the video. The ratty, scruffy image he sported during this time might’ve been a terrible match for his sleek and well-coiffed bandmates in Duran Duran, but for rough-and-tumble Power Station? It’s perfect.
John hangs out in his trailer on the set while wearing a baggy cow print blazer with padded shoulders which, defying all reason, manages to look pretty darn good on him. He fumbles his way through an explanation of the video’s concept, which is about "…individuals in individual situations. It's all pretty surreal.” As if realizing he hasn’t shed too much light on the subject, he shrugs and concludes, “I like things that are nice to look at." Fair enough, John. So do I, and that’s why you’ll always have a place in my heart.
John describes the video’s featured performer, actress/model Caroline “Tula” Cossey (who, in 1991, became the first trans woman to pose for Playboy), as a "wonderful six-foot Amazon. She's quite a daunting prospect for any man, I think.”
Both John and Andy seem head-over-heels enchanted with Tula. Andy gushes, "Tula, the tall girl, she's actually seven foot tall with shoes and her hair. I'm five foot six, and she's seven feet, so..."
It’s hard to overstate how cute and bright and chipper Andy seems in this featurette. From all appearances, it looks like he’s having waaaaaay more fun than he ever did with Duran Duran. In his memoir, Andy writes, “The Power Station made me very happy for a long time.” It shows.
Wardrobe update: John is now wearing a dazzling, glittering, sequin-covered paisley shirt. John’s outfits have been delightfully bizarre thus far; apparently this is what happens when Nick isn’t around to give him pointed sartorial suggestions. He discusses his love of Bernard Edwards, whose work on Chic’s “Good Times” first inspired him to pick up a bass. He mentions he feels “totally inadequate” playing the bass in front of a legend like Bernard. John is… look, it’s 1985, so it probably goes without saying that John and Andy are probably riding high on something other than life throughout this featurette, but he seems cheerful and sincere, like he’s having a great time working on a project he feels genuinely passionate about. As a preteen Duran fan in 1985, I harbored deep resentment toward the Power Station—dude, why would you want to be in the Power Station when you could be in Duran Duran?—but looking at it now with the wisdom(?) of age, it’s clear taking a break to play a different style of music with a different group of musicians was exactly what Andy and John needed at the time.
In the studio, Bernard coaches a visibly exhausted John through the "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" bass line. Of John, Bernard says, "He didn't want to be thought of as a teenybopper all his life, he knew ten years from now when the cute blond hair is gone and all that… you gotta play, you know?" Blond hair, Bernard? I guess John sported some highlights off and on throughout the eighties, but he seemed pretty consistently brunet during his Power Station days.
Tony Thompson talks a bit about his early years with Chic, which is fairly interesting, but my main takeaway from this is the following: Goddamn, Tony was smoking hot back in the day. As in, “hey, if you ever get tired of drumming, you could probably scrounge yourself up a nice career as a supermodel” levels of hotness. Maybe even approaching “John Taylor is the second most attractive person in this featurette” levels of hotness, if you can wrap your mind around such an outlandish concept.
Andy talks about Tony: "He's an idiot. An adorable idiot." Andy, who could sometimes be described as an adorable idiot himself, dissolves into hysterical giggles: "Tony's going to kill me for saying that. And he's bigger than me! Much, much bigger!"
Robert Palmer: "John is the instigator, their ideas man. Andy is the volatile one." This is accompanied by footage of Andy cavorting about in the control room with cigarettes jammed up his nostrils.
(Is it wrong that I cringed a little upon hearing John described as an “ideas man”?)
Bernard Edwards: "Andy just goes and attacks things. That's his attitude about things. He can be abrasive at times—and very nice—but usually he's pretty angry and pretty rowdy." He seems to mean this as a compliment.
Andy explains how he prefers to record in the control room instead of in the sound booth: "It's very lonely when you're out on the studio floor all on your own, just playing, and there's a big piece of glass, and you can see all these people talking behind it, and you don't know what they're saying about you. You don't know if they're going, oh god, listen to what he's doing tonight, he's really not playing very well." As charming and fun as Andy seems throughout this, it’s interesting how the personality traits that would later fuel his acrimonious split from Duran Duran—namely, the anger issues and the vague sense of persecution and paranoia—are very much present here.
Ah, Robert Palmer, the immaculately-groomed soul singer who looked like the love child of Ewan MacGregor and Kenneth Branagh. In his wildly successful post-Power Station solo career, Palmer gave the world some of the smuggest and most brotastic songs and videos of the eighties. As a result, I came into this featurette harboring a few anti-Palmer feelings, but he seems like a perfectly nice dude. He talks about how the Power Station wanted to get back to a more classic rock-and-roll sound, in contrast to the synth-heavy bands of the day: “We're all in this unit a bit bored with that. It isn't organic enough, it doesn't have personality." And somewhere across the Atlantic, Nick Rhodes narrows his beautiful eyes, glances at the stack of synthesizers piled haphazardly in the corner of his luxurious suite at the Plaza Athénée, raises a flute of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay to his painted lips, and gives a dainty sniff of disdain while muttering something incomprehensible about “personality”.
Here’s Andy to wrap things up: "The Power Station can only ever be looked at as an album that was made by some guys once, and that's it, and it all finishes in a couple of weeks. And if people like it, they can buy it, and if they don't, well, it doesn't really matter."
Despite Andy’s assurances, that wasn’t quite it for the Power Station. The band went on tour in 1985 with Michael Des Barres filling in for Robert Palmer, who left to launch his solo career. Everyone reconvened to record a second album in 1996, minus John Taylor, who dropped out of the project due to personal issues. There’s an impossibly grim coda to the Power Station story: Bernard Edwards, who took over from John on bass, died suddenly of pneumonia in 1996 at age forty-three while the reformed band was preparing to go on tour; seven years later, Robert Palmer died of cardiac arrest at age fifty-four, while Tony Thompson died of cancer at age forty-eight, less than two months after Palmer’s death. The Power Station’s time in the sun didn’t last long, but for a moment in the mid-eighties, it burned.