“It’s hard to believe that this was the last place Ziggy Stardust ever stood,” says Nick Rhodes, keyboardist and founding member of Duran Duran, striding to the point, front and centre stage at Hammersmith Apollo, where David Bowie laid his beloved persona to rest. We look out across the hundreds of empty seats. A pigeon flutters around the rafters.
It is Tuesday afternoon, and as we wait for his fellow band members to arrive, Rhodes and I make our way up to the empty backstage bar. He is in black suit, T-shirt, trainers, carrying a faint whiff of eyeliner, and makes for amiable company. As we walk, he notes the tour posters that line the venue walls, shares tales of Kate Bush and Kylie and Lou Reed, and divulges his unexpected preference regarding Covid vaccinations. “Normally, I like very modern things,” he says, with a nod towards the more recently approved Johnson & Johnson and Moderna jabs. “But with the vaccine, I wanted the AstraZeneca, because it’s old school.”
It is 43 years since Duran Duran formed, springing out of the nightspots of Birmingham and quickly getting swept up into the “new-” scenes: wave and romantic. There were No 1 singles, world tours, Live Aid, Grammys. Later came lineup changes, side-projects, contract disputes, hiatus and reunion. Today they stand among the bestselling artists of all time, and their post-reunion success rolls on; their last album, 2015’s Paper Gods, debuted in the Top 10 here and in the US.
This week they released a new single, Invisible, to be followed, this year, by a new album, which sees collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Mark Ronson and Erol Alkan. There are live shows planned for September, a Radio 2 special with Claudia Winkleman, and a new video created by an AI artist named Huxley. Ahead of the interview, there have been instructions from their record label that our conversation must not dwell on the past; instead we must understand that Duran Duran are a band focused on the future.
Still, when drummer Roger Taylor arrives, the pair are happy to indulge in a little nostalgia. “The early days here were something else,” says Taylor, recalling the five nights Duran Duran once played at Hammersmith. “They never used to have gates at the back here, so there’d be a thousand kids in that alleyway at the back. We’d look out the dressing room window, and you’d just see this sea – of mostly girls, I have to say, and it was the first time I think we really realised that it was going crazy.”
“It was super exciting,” adds Rhodes. “But it was bizarre, because you’d go out shopping to buy a T-shirt or something and suddenly you get locked into a store and they’d have to call the police to get us out of a place. It was just odd, surreal, because we were just kids from Birmingham who’d come up to London and started a band, and suddenly out of nowhere …”
The strangest thing was that Duran Duran had never seen themselves as pin-ups. In their eyes, they were more of an arthouse band, “a bit more underground,” says Taylor – something like Japan, with a strong aesthetic vision. The record company clocked their commercial appeal: perfect pop heart-throbs for the dawn of the MTV era. “They looked at these five pretty good-looking guys and thought: ‘We’re going to put them on all the teen mags,’” Taylor continues. “And once you go down that avenue, it’s hard to get back.”
For a while, life was crackers. “If you look at some of the early schedules you think: ‘Are they even physically possible?’” Rhodes says. “Moving countries three times in a day, playing live and doing press conferences in all of them. You get to a point where you think: yes, it’s great to be ambitious and light on your feet, but you need to be slightly more sensible, because otherwise …”
“When you’re 22 years old you don’t know how to say no,” adds Taylor, who these days exudes an air of tanned composure. There was no single breaking point, no one moment of collapse, but Rhodes recalls making “a very conscious decision when I was 21 not to take any more drugs”. It was not that he had a particular problem, he says. “But I could see what was happening, and I thought: ‘I don’t ever want to be out of control like that.’ But that was a lucky decision that other people don’t necessarily make; I’m sure I made other decisions that weren’t as wise as that one.”
“It’s interesting that almost everybody who finds themselves in a situation like Duran Duran sort of sabotages themselves,” says bassist John Taylor, when he arrives wearing a maroon and yellow baseball cap and carrying a book by the thriller writer Mick Herron in his blazer pocket. “How long do you want to live like that for? It’s fun for a minute and then it stops being fun.”
He remembers quite particularly when things changed: doing promotion in Australia in the late 1980s. “I remember walking out of the hotel and there being nobody there. I’m walking down the street – streets we’d never been able to walk down before, we’d have had to have minders – and I almost wanted to stop people and say: ‘Do you know who I am?!’” He grins. “But then it was like: hang on, I’m free to walk down this street, and it’s kind of fucking great!”
It must be a strange balance for them these days, I say: a band known for innovation, for often being at the forefront of technology, but vividly remembered for posing with feathered hair and pastel suits on a yacht in the Rio video, their success today resting on their 80s popularity. Rhodes smiles beatifically. “One has to accept age with grace,” he says. “While all bands would still love to be 18 years old, you have to embrace your history. There’s no point pretending. The way you just avoid it becoming nostalgia is by rearranging things, changing the visuals and the setlist. We don’t have to play Hungry Like the Wolf every night.”
The band are all far-flung now, with families, side projects, lives that span from Los Angeles to Chelsea. But they refer to an almost gravitational force that Simon Le Bon, sitting next to John Taylor in hoodie and blue jeans, says he felt right from his very first audition. The band started playing the track Sound of Thunder, and he stood up and invented a verse on the spot. “I thought: ‘God, this is the real thing, this is how it’s supposed to be,’” he remembers. “And I knew that I had to hold on to it as a job, and I had to hold on to those melodies, and I had to hold on to these guys because I knew there would never be anything in my life that was more creative and more immediate and more absolute than being in Duran Duran.”
“There was a certain inevitability about the new album,” John Taylor continues. “We get to the end of a touring cycle and we know we need time away from each other – but it’s like a chemical thing, it’s a pull that happens, almost like a mission; we have to go back!”
“I wasn’t into making a new album at all,” counters Le Bon. “I was like: ‘Let’s just do a single’, because I thought nobody’s going to listen to a whole album, people just listen to singles now. But I think I was on my own in that camp and it was a band decision. That’s how we work: four people and no leader.”
Arriving at the studio, “we show up with no ideas whatsoever and run up at it like a lump of clay in the middle of the room”, says John Taylor. Invisible began with a Le Bon lyric, “a personal thing about a relationship where one person is not listening, and the other person starts to think: maybe I’m just not here”. Soon it grew into something broader, “about being human, and realising there’s a lot of us and we don’t all get heard”. It is a year since it was recorded, but Taylor notes that in that time, as the world has weathered isolation, upheaval and political protest, the song has acquired new layers of meaning. “It’s become enormously resonant,” he says. “And I’m glad that we are not coming back with a party song. That would feel tone deaf.”
This is not to suggest that the new album is without party songs. In particular, it was a long-held dream to work with Moroder, “the first person who could tell us exactly what to do”, says Roger Taylor. “He comes in like a doctor, with his suitcase with his little keyboard inside.” Also making an unexpected appearance on the new album is Blur’s Graham Coxon, who has “given so much life and surprise to the music”, says Le Bon.
The three producers and Coxon help fill the place once occupied by guitarist Andy Taylor (none of the Taylors are related). Taylor joined the band’s reunion in 2000, but by 2006 they had once again parted ways. Today, Rhodes describes their relationship as “not one of those situations where hell freezes over”; an unreleased album featuring the guitarist may see the light of day.
But his departure altered the careful equilibrium of the band: for years, Taylor had offered a musical counterpoint to Rhodes. “His record collection disturbed me!” Rhodes says. “A lot of real heavy rock things, stuff that you would have avoided the kids at school for.” Beside him, Roger Taylor smiles. “But you collided,” he says, “and made something really incredible.”
It was, Rhodes agrees, “Andy’s edge and Andy’s rockiness” that gave Duran Duran something special. “It really worked because it was going completely against the disco grooves and the electronic pulses,” he says.
“It was what the Americans liked as well,” adds Roger Taylor. “Because they were still playing FM rock in America; we were the only new wave band that had heavy guitar, so it crossed over.”
The world has changed considerably of course, since their early days; they talk about the grand piano in the corner of the old EMI offices, being “taken out for a ride in the Rolls-Royce” by the record execs who told them they were “going to be the next big thing” and about bobbing around the office chatting to the international office and the art department and “hanging out with the secretaries”.
It would be easy to look for scandal in such a setting, but largely, the band have remained free of disrepute – a 2018 accusation against Le Bon of groping an American fan at a record store event in 1995 was denied as “simply untrue”. When I ask if there are any lessons to be learned from their younger days in the music industry, Rhodes says that there are few from their perspective as a band: “We treat people with great respect as we did then,” he says.
It has been strange to see the business adapt to streaming, Rhodes says. “It’s amazing that the labels are so rich and becoming more powerful again,” he adds. “Because it’s like the guy who does the worst job in the world and gets promoted.” In 1997, he “pushed the button on the world’s first download for sale”, he points out. It would be another six years before the launch of iTunes. “Six years!” he says. “And in that six years all they did was try and smash up some small guy in the middle of nowhere who’d illegally downloaded a couple of songs.”
How did it feel to push that button? Did he realise how much it would change? “Sort of, yes: that’s why I wanted to do it,” he says. “I didn’t understand why people were being so foolish about trying to smash it up. What’s the thing we all learned about at school, the Luddites? It was like that – trying to stop progress.”
I wonder if it is strange to be thought of as an 80s band. People are critical of the greed and selfishness of that decade, Rhodes says, “but if you look at art and fashion and design, it was absolutely extraordinary. And it was an exciting landscape for music and for being able to create your own sound. None of us would have been seen dead copying someone else’s sound then. Everyone had to have their own identity, that was your badge of honour.”
This was the change they felt as the decade ended, he says, and perhaps, by extension, what we are seeing again now, too. “The 80s was about individualism,” he explains. “Whereas once we got towards the 90s it was more about wearing the same trainers, and the same jeans, and being part of that clique.” And how did that feel for an 80s pop star? Rhodes looks waspish. “I’ve never owned a pair of jeans in my life!” he says.
Invisible is out now