Duran Duran: I've hated them for 30 years but they're the perfect band for the Olympics

The veteran New Romantics would not have been the choice of all music-lovers to showcase English culture to the world. But they have a gift for empty spectacle that suits this gig

All through the 80s, I hated Duran Duran, when for some they were the kings of pop. I hated them because they acted as though they were minor members of the royal family, but those that loved them did so because they made grand, escapist music reflected in escapist videos celebrating their own playboy riches.

When I interviewed them for the NME in 1982, they were already lording it over the charts and playing ornate pop rooted in the otherness of Bowie and the cool of Roxy Music but somehow also in the scarves of the Bay City Rollers and the barnets of Slik. I was so angry at their self-importance that I could never bring myself to call them by the name they had lifted from Roger Vadim's Barbarella – they seemed more soap than space opera.

I used different names for them, my favourite being Diana Diana. (Writing such a piece now, I would call them, among other things, Seb Seb or Lordy Lordy.) Even then, they resembled the freshly minted Princess of Wales; you could see where her look as a fan derived from, certainly her hair, eyeliner and posing genius. You could see Diana as the female member of Duran Duran as Cilla was the female Beatle.

That's one reason why it's apt that they have been selected to be the English pop act marking the opening of the Olympic Games, a decision that provoked so much hand-wringing last week. Duran Duran created a soundtrack to the Diana years and carry with them the glory and burden of those years in much the same way Vera Lynn does for the war years. And, of course, they are mates of James Bond, if merely the plastic Roger Moore model, sealing the "international-symbol-of-Britain-whether-we-like-it-or-not" deal when two Beatles are dead and Adele and Coldplay are too extreme, and when most of the world has no knowledge of PJ Harvey and Arctic Monkeys, let alone Siouxsie and the Fall.

But I hated them, in the 80s. I hated them from the point of view of a rock critic taking pop seriously, even when it was just for fun. They fancied themselves as not so much the made-up boy band they clearly were – the pretty one, the chubby one, the moody one, possibly the talented one, etc – but as Peel-listening pop conceptualists mixing the Sex Pistols with Chic. (Wanton English energy and brazen processed disco, an interesting formula I may have stolen when working with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, my personal chart retort to Dreary Dreary.) Duran Duran, though, sounded forced, lacking the subversive swagger of the Pistols and the transcendent swing of Chic and leaving behind an embellished melodic sludge. They were perhaps more Sweet crossed with Abba – a classically cheering formula for the flashy, revivalist entertainment required by an Olympic Games opening ceremony.

To understand them you need to understand the times. Duran Duran arrived only a few years after punk transformed the idea of what rock could be, in a Britain dragging itself out of the bruising, disorientating 70s. Things were intellectually and spiritually tightening up inside the iron grip of Thatcherism, and at the same time loosening up economically and socially.

Music magazines turned glossy, gossipy and colourful, requiring new sorts of decorated fairytale cover stars, a backlash against the hifalutin' weekly inkies containing thousands of intense words about Cabaret Voltaire.

All new pop then made by those interested in being the latest thing had to be influenced by punk, if just the look, the clothes and the expression. One consequence was an experimental sonic elaboration of punk's ideological spirit and aesthetic vision but a rejection of the safety-pinned visual cliche; this became known as post-punk. Another consequence was more theatrical, with dandy tabloid-labelled New Romantics looking back longingly over the spiky heads of the harsher, angrier punk to the showy costumes and window-dressing camp of glam, where pop stars looked like pop stars.

Some groups could float, sometimes self-consciously, sometimes serenely, between those two camps – Human League, Japan, Depeche Mode, ABC – and others occupied a more purist, thoughtful zone, advocating mental glamour – Gang of Four, New Order, Associates, Magazine, the Smiths. The hardcore New Romantics were definitely all about the clothes, cosmetics, travel and showing off; as a response to grievous, turbulent times, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Wham! and Duran Duran preferred the dolled-up posing in pampered cliques inside VIP sections of exclusive nightclubs. They weren't privileged, but pretended they were, which could be annoying if you didn't get the joke, and especially annoying and complacent when it isn't a joke.

New Romance wasn't all about the fancy dress, shaky pretension and cocktails. There were those displaying convincing signs of resistance to the mediocre, to the restrictive and ordinary – the presence on Top of the Pops of daring Boy George blurring the sexes and positively confusing the mainstream mind, Soft Cell's northern sauce, and something deviant dripping from Adam Ant's painted brow was a sign of intact subversive punk spirit filtered through a kinky dream of Bowie.

Those moaning about Duran Duran singing for the Olympics are being as nostalgic for something as the thing they criticise is – nostalgic for a time when it was clearer what the meaning and purpose of pop was and why it was worth fighting for. They are inheriting 30-year-old critical standards that do not apply now. It's the same with Eurovision. Something perhaps representing a deeper, richer and more inspiring sense of the restless, radically creative British spirit would be crushed by the essentially fraudulent and kitsch nature of the event. I worry about the Specials, Blur and New Order show closing the Olympics and any remaining transformative energy being squashed by routine, committee-organised ceremony.

Engelbert is finger-on-the-pulse correct for Eurovision, where the English pop 60s might as well never have happened, let alone glam, punk and rave, in the way Duran Duran are finger-on-the-pulse correct for an Olympics event, which has nothing to do with music, art, innovation and fashion, but is to do with publicity, marketing, fabricated history and the celebration of success.

In a mainstream pop world so thoroughly emptied, mostly by constant, degrading replication, of pop art, punk militancy, artistic surprise and disruptive, maverick gaiety, Duran Duran as representatives of English talent are an incredible, inspired choice. Theirs is not necessarily musical talent, but just a brilliant ability to take themselves seriously in the middle of general superficial commercial mayhem, to manifest a sense of occasion, however preposterous, and parade their own self-appointed greatness – self-promotional skills that make the group as contemporary as anything. Equally of the moment is their unashamed conclusion first broadcast while Thatcher cruelly reigned that tough times call for nothing more and nothing less than a party; 30 years later, tough times, unsympathetic, cutting Tory government, and the wrinkled New Romantic superheroes are still available to those that need saving through sheer hammy, self-loving spectacle.

So, yes, I've hated Duran Duran since the 80s, but now, in a world where they are attacked for being too old and dated, for obviously accepting a prominent showbusiness invitation, I find myself drifting toward a sympathetic position. I don't love them or anything – that's impossible, especially after their version of Elvis Costello's Watching the Detectives, which is Rolf Harris meets David Sylvian. I may, though, have developed a grudging respect for the way as enduring light entertainers they're perfectly poised in a very modern fashion between being prized national treasures and grotesque figures of fun. The marginalised, even mocked, New Romantic movement they stolidly represent has, for better or worse, turned out to be a big influence on the current ostentatious, synthetic pop landscape filled with bragging, stunts and fancy dress.

Perhaps stubborn Duran Duran were right all along; being a pop star is all about being sure of yourself, whatever anyone else says.

The Old Romantics


Known for singer Mike Score's hairstyle as much as singles like I Ran (So Far Away), they had a series of international hits in the early 80s.


Now one of the biggest goth-pop acts in the world, but started life as New Romantics - 1981's Just Can't Get Enough was the first of many top ten singles.


Formed by Steve Strange, right, and Rusty Egan, released three albums in the early 80s and had their biggest success with Fade To Grey, a worldwide hit.


With hits like True and Gold, Spandau Ballet were one of the biggest acts of the 80s. They split in 1990, but reformed for a world tour in 2009.


Unsurprisingly big in the Far East, the avant-garde five-piece had their biggest UK hit with Ghosts, which reached number five in the singles chart in 1982.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Duran Duran to represent England in Olympics opening concert
Show to mark start of London 2012 Olympic Games will also feature acts representing Scotland (Paolo Nutini), Wales (Stereophonics) and Northern Ireland (Snow Patrol)

Guardian music

01, May, 2012 @10:13 AM

Article image
Open thread: Which bands should represent the best of British at the Olympics?
Adam Boult: A huge concert marking the start of the London 2012 Olympics will feature four bands, respresenting each part of the United Kingdom – but are they the right artists?

Adam Boult

01, May, 2012 @10:43 AM

CD: Duran Duran, Red Carpet Massacre

Le Bon and co prove too much for even Timbaland.

Paul Flynn

11, Nov, 2007 @11:42 PM

CD of the week: Duran Duran, Red Carpet Massacre

CD of the week: Massacre feels like a record pulled this way and that between band and producer, making for tunes that really satisfy no one

Kitty Empire

11, Nov, 2007 @11:43 PM

Article image
From Eno to Dua Lipa, why musicians are fascinated by outer space
Artists have long been seduced by galactic themes. Now Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes is releasing a celestial epic

Edward Helmore

24, Apr, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Duran Duran, Forum, London

Forum, London

Alexis Petridis

16, Oct, 2003 @11:43 AM

Article image
Duran Duran – review
On the strength of the new songs premiered here to an indulgent crowd, Duran Duran's new album will not add to their legacy as one of the great singles bands, writes Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

08, Mar, 2011 @6:29 PM

Article image
Duran Duran, Nottingham Arena

Nottingham Arena

Dave Simpson

13, Apr, 2004 @12:06 PM

Article image
CD: Duran Duran, Astronaut

(Epic )

Dorian Lynskey

01, Oct, 2004 @12:45 AM

Article image
DVD: Duran Duran, Greatest


James Griffiths

17, Oct, 2003 @2:23 AM