DURANALYSIS (book excerpt) by Morgan Richter

August 25, 2017

Roger Taylor is a smoldering slab of shirtless man-flesh. This is the opening shot of “Planet Earth,” Duran Duran’s first music video for the first single released off their 1981 self-titled debut album, the band’s first large-scale visual introduction to the world, and everyone is doing his best to make an impression. In Roger’s case, this means losing his clothes, good lad. Roger’s sculpted shoulders emerge out of wispy clouds; lighting flickers in a glowing sky as he tilts his head back to look at the Earth, which hovers above him. It’s not at all clear what’s going on; maybe we’re witnessing the birth of humanity from the primordial mist, or maybe Roger is a celestial deity. A smoking-hot celestial deity.

“Planet Earth” is directed by Australian video superstar Russell Mulcahy, who built his pre-Duran reputation on visually striking works like the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Ultravox’s “Vienna.” “Planet Earth” marks the start of a long and fruitful creative collaboration between Mulcahy and Duran Duran. Mulcahy will ultimately direct some of the band’s most famous videos—“Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “The Wild Boys,” “The Reflex”—and will be behind the helm for the full-tilt lunacy of the band’s surreal sci-fi concert film, Arena (An Absurd Notion). Later, he’ll find success directing big-budget features, starting with 1986’s beloved cult sensation Highlander; most recently he was seen coaxing good performances out of various smoldering slabs of shirtless man-flesh on MTV’s Teen Wolf.

Simon’s lyrics for “Planet Earth” are evocative and indecipherable, subject to a billion interpretations. Maybe the song is about floating in the far reaches of space and listening for sounds from a dying earth; there’s also a part about rhyming patterns, and a part where Simon sings, “Bop bop bop, bop bop bop bop bop.” It’s cryptic and unfathomable, but that’s new wave for you. New wave doesn’t need you to understand it. New wave doesn’t want to be coddled. New wave is experimental noise released into an electronic void, chilly and clinical. New wave is punk with the chaotic rage surgically removed, disco exorcised of all traces of soul. New wave is what will play while a fully-operational Skynet obliterates humanity in a fiery blast. New wave is awesome, and so is “Planet Earth.”

They’re not calling themselves a new wave band, though, not right now. For this moment in time, Duran Duran have embraced New Romanticism, a stylishly cultish and club-based movement which, in 1981, is making a stir in the UK. Epitomized by acts like Spandau Ballet and Visage, the New Romantics dress like world-weary time-travelers from bygone eras in velvet coats and frills; as with new wave, their signature sound is electronic and aloof. Despite some stylistic overlap, New Romanticism isn’t exactly where Duran Duran want to be—Duran Duran’s dreams involve sold-out amphitheaters, while the New Romantics, arty outsiders at heart, prefer lurking glamorously on the fringes—but right now, the New Romantics are getting noticed, and that makes them useful. The Durans are smart and mercenary, with an instinct for anticipating the zeitgeist; they dress up like fashion-conscious pirates and attach themselves to the New Romantic movement for a hot second, then drift away when the label threatens to become inconvenient.

So Roger is shirtless, and Roger is smoking hot. There’s an attempt in this video to nudge Roger closer to the front and center of the band, which is an idea that makes a lot of sense on paper. Roger has James Dean’s hair and Brando’s eyes and a tendency to look adorably lost and wounded in unguarded moments; the breakout heartthrob potential is strong with this one. Of the five Durans, though, he’s the one with the least affinity for the spotlight; he doesn’t want to raise a fuss, but given any choice in the matter, he prefers to be left alone in the back of the room with his drum set, thank you very much. As it shakes out, Roger’s exhibitionism in “Planet Earth” will be an anomaly. After this, he’ll mostly hover in the background of videos, often looking sheepish and uncomfortable.

Not to be outdone by Roger, Simon also ditches his shirt. He lies demurely on his side, flashing a provocative glimpse of one fuzzy armpit while making bedroom eyes at the camera. Simon is, now and forever, Duran Duran’s most foremost star, the one who owns the lion’s share of screen time and attention. In this video, he drifts from vignette to vignette: Here, he’s embracing a pretty young woman in a fancy hat; there, he’s dancing on an inverted crystal pyramid in a chamber of ice. There’s no cohesive narrative to found, just a bunch of cool images revolving around a general theme of the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. At one point, random facts scroll across the screen like a computer readout—hey, did you know the oldest known song is the Shaduf Chant?—while the band members pose in the background, looking solemn and lovely.

Leggy knockout John Taylor possesses the daunting bone structure and icy impassivity of a supermodel, both of which he uses to great effect in “Planet Earth.” His eyes remain hidden for the duration of the video by a thick sheaf of glossy bangs that fall to his nose, providing a barrier between him and the riffraff. In grand New Romantic style, the wardrobe for the video consists of a metric ton of ruffles in the form of frilly blouses paired with draping scarves and billowy pants tucked into knee boots. Blessed with the ability to look effortlessly stylish in whatever he’s wearing, John makes it work.

Some of his bandmates, though, aren’t as lucky. Nick’s blouse appears to be murdering him. Ruffles erupt from his chest, Aliens-style, and slither around his throat, throttling the life out of him. Nick and Andy sport matching thatches of stiff white hair that burst from their heads like dandelions on the cusp of shedding their seeds. Andy’s got enough aggressive moxie to pull off his weird hairdo—sure, go ahead and mock his hair, like he gives a rip what you think—but Nick is a disaster. His straw-dry hair is crimped as well as bleached, with weird pinkish patches scattered throughout, like someone started to add some highlights and lost interest halfway through the process. Still in his teens, the baby of the band hasn’t sorted out his image yet. Before the year ends, he’ll transform himself into a sleek and lovely creature, but right now, he’s a work in progress. He’s still a cygnet, bits of shell and albumen clinging to his pinfeathers from his recent emergence into the world.

“Planet Earth” is an imperfect video, but as first efforts go, it’s an outstanding calling card for the band, establishing them as glamorous beings who go on strange and often supernatural journeys, the likes of which are inaccessible to mortals. Here, they’re bopping around the Fortress of Solitude; next year, they’ll storm through jungles and battle zombies and cavort with sultry brunettes on the decks of yachts while gliding through azure waters. Someday soon, they’ll fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They’re not just a band, they’re adventurers.

Actually, you know what they are? They’re Voltron. You ever watch Voltron? An altered American version of the fabulously-named Japanese animated series Beast King GoLion, Voltron: Defenders of the Universe first aired on US television in 1984, right at Peak Duran; it centers around five cute intergalactic spaceship pilots who band together to form a gigantic evil-fighting robot. The Duran Duran parallels are, I believe, obvious.

Bear with me here; I’m at least 35% serious. There’s something powerful and romantic about a five-person team, a quintet of disparate individuals with different but well-defined strengths and weaknesses who can team up to form something greater than the sum of their parts. This is a dynamic that crops up a whole lot in both anime and live-action sentai shows (in the US, Power Rangers is the best-known example of the latter) and frequently surfaces in other forms as well. Duran Duran are a five-person team, and, like the Voltron pilots (or like the Gundam Wing pilots, or like the ladies of Sailor Moon… I could go on), the individual band members each bring something unique to the table.

Let’s break them down into archetypes: Simon is the leader, the showiest and most charismatic of the group, all personality and swagger, the one most likely to flash you his bare armpit whether you’ve expressed an interest in seeing it or not. John’s the right-hand man, the backup heartthrob, solemn and serious and maybe a little above it all. Andy’s the loose cannon, the mouthy one, the comic relief. Roger’s the quiet one, the one who outwardly appears to have his act together; his interior might or might not be a seething mess of neuroses. Nick is the weirdo, the savant, the enfant terrible. If Duran Duran are a basket of fluffy kittens, Nick is the baby ocelot who somehow got in there by mistake.

Excerpted from Duranalysis: Essays on the Duran Duran Experience

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Morgan Richter is the author of nine books, including Bias Cut, a 2012 semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) and a silver medalist at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She has worked in production on television shows such as Talk Soup and America’s Funniest Home Videos, and has contributed pop culture reviews to websites such as TVgasm and Forces of Geek, as well as to her own site, Preppies of the Apocalypse. Born in Spokane, Washington, she currently lives in Seattle.

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