‘Notorious’ Turns 30: How Nile Rodgers Conducted Duran Duran’s Reinvention
After losing two key members, the band discovered a new groove
By the time 1986 rolled around, Duran Duran was at a major turning point in its career. The year before, the group had splintered into two factions: the hard-rocking supergroup the Power Station, featuring bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor; and the art-rock outfit Arcadia, made up of singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor. Both groups released their own albums (The Power Station’s eponymous debut, Arcadia’s So Red the Rose), which yielded Top 10 hit singles collectively. And if that wasn’t anti-climatic enough, Duran Duran scored its second U.S. №1 song with “A View to a Kill,” which all five members together performed at Live Aid for the last time until almost two decades later.
From 1981 to 1985, Duran Duran achieved huge worldwide success and fame at the dawn of the MTV era that earned the band the moniker of the ‘Fab Five.’ But the media and fan hysteria inevitably led to a feeling of burnout within the band. When Duran Duran eventually regrouped in 1986 to work on its next record, both Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor left the band. Those departures of two key founding members, further augmented by a changing music scene in the U.S. that was shifting away from British synth-pop and towards American guitar rock again, might have signaled the end of Duran Duran. But that wasn’t the case with Notorious, the band’s fourth studio album, released 30 years ago on November 21, 1986. Reduced to the trio of Le Bon Rhodes and John Taylor, Duran Duran made an album that heavily turned up the funk and R&B, resulting in perhaps one of the band’s finest — if almost criminally underrated — records on a par with the self-titled debut album and Rio.
A huge part of that creative spark and reinvention came in the form of Notorious’ producer, Nile Rodgers of Chic, who was hot off producing David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Having previously worked with Duran Duran on the remix of “The Reflex” and “The Wild Boys,” Rodgers was the perfect choice to lead the band in a new stylistic direction towards funk and soul, particularly the sound of Chic, the 70s disco-influenced group that has been often regarded as one of Duran Duran’s major influences.
“I love Duran Duran,” Rodgers once said in an interview with Spinner back in 2011. “I think that we were the right paring — it was the right thing at the right time. I don’t like to overly take credit for anything, but since they said it first… Had I not been there in their lives in that pivotal time of their lives, when we did Notorious, when the two other Taylors left, that’s a heavy blow to a band at the top of their career. I think I was the glue that held that together. I used to say to the guys, ‘People don’t realize how great you are because you’re still like this boy band and the girls are still talking about your looks. And the music becomes sort of an added bonus. Now it’s time to go in the direction where you can become more like a U2 that’s really classic and solid artistically. You gotta build that foundation and let’s take the fans along with us.’ And that’s what the Notorious album was supposed to do.”
Although Andy Taylor is credited on the record as a contributor, the guitar slack was taken up by Rodgers and Missing Persons’ Warren Cuccurullo (who would later be promoted as a full-time member). Ace session drummer Steve Ferrone, who played with the Average White Band, also appeared on Notorious, picking up where Roger Taylor left off, and the difference between their styles was quite discernible. Yet, according to John Taylor in his 2012 memoir In the Pleasure Groove, the group was undaunted by such changes, perhaps even emboldened by them. “Simon, Nick and I became closer than we had ever before,” Taylor wrote. “Our relationships moved to whole new level, because we were now just three, fighting to survive. Like one of those soccer teams down to ten men — stronger, more determined, more focused. Less can be more. That was the silver lining.”
In a sense, Notorious was the type of record that Chic might have made in the mid 1980s had it not been on hiatus, as Chic co-founders Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were much in-demand producers for other artists. Notorious had a more organic live-in-the-studio feel than the previous Duran Duran records, which sounded more electronic driven. Thus tracks like “So Misled,” “Hold Me,” “Vertigo” and “American Science” displayed more of a looser funk feel that paid homage to the New York disco/dance scene that was Chic’s domain in the late 70s and early 80s, rather than the British New Romantic movement (only the Gothic-sounding, haunting ballad “Winter Marches On” recalled the mood of the earlier Duran Duran records). A sleek cinematic and noir-ish elegance surrounded the record, even extending to the song titles of “Notorious” and “Vertigo,” which referenced Alfred Hitchcock’s classic films, and the stylish black-and-white front cover photograph.
“Duran have often been applauded for ‘not making the same album twice,’” John Taylor wrote in his memoir, “but we couldn’t have done so had we tried. All the albums that were made after Roger and Andy left had a different flavor, and most often the reason was down to the different personnel involved in making them.”
Any doubt on whether Duran Duran was going to have any more hits following the departures of the two Taylors was quickly dismissed upon the release of the album’s title track. The slinky funk number with the trademark Rodgers rhythm guitar sound, the memorable brass playing courtesy of the Borneo Horns, and that irresistible hook and melody, went to №2 on the Billboard charts .
John Taylor characterized the title track as the “survival song” in an 2012 interview with the A.V. Club. “That was such an important song for us, because after having gone through this sort of band breakdown when Roger and Andy sort of departed, it was a strange time,” he said. “Only Simon, Nick, and I were left holding the flame, sort of wondering, ‘Can we keep this going? Can we maintain the momentum?’ Because, y’know, we’d already taken a break. Duran had stepped away, and we knew we weren’t the biggest band in the world anymore. For about a month (laughs). And the question was, did we have a hit in us? And, again, we have to be grateful for Nile, because… I mean, I think Nick and Nile really sort of cooked up the main hook to the opening, the sort of guitar hook to the song. And by the time we finished it, we knew we had a song that could announce the next phase of the band’s career.”
Two others singles released from the record, the seductive “Skin Trade” and the exuberant “Meet El Presidente,” should have placed much higher on the U.S. charts than their eventual showing. But it didn’t matter much as the album’s title song became one of the band’s most beloved hits and is still a regular part of Duran’s live set list to this day (In the David Lynch concert film Duran Duran: Unstaged, the band performed “Notorious” with Gossip’s Beth Ditto). The song has also been sampled by the Notorious B.I.G. on the posthumously-released track “Notorious B.I.G.”
While the Chic influence was far more pronounced on the Notorious album, the Duran Duran signature ingredients—particularly LeBon’s enigmatic lyrics and Rhodes’ atmospheric keyboard textures — remained intact. Notorious also highlights the musicianship of the main three members that contrasts the perception of them as just pin-ups: Le Bon’s vocal performance on the reflective ballad “A Matter of Feeling” was uncharacteristically poignant and vulnerable, qualities he would later reprise on “Ordinary World”; Rhodes’ dazzling keyboard solo buoyed the album’s closing song “Proposition”; and John Taylor must’ve had a ball playing bass that was suited for this type of sound.
These days, Notorious doesn’t often get its proper recognition compared Rio, the latter generally being regarded as the definitive Duran Duran album and rightly so. But given what the band had gone through internally — losing two key members who played a huge part in the band’s phenomenal success — it’s remarkable that Notorious even got made. Rather than rehashing formula, Notorious showed a willingness of the part of the group to branch out and mix it up, resulting in a very satisfying record. From top to bottom there’s not a weak track in the bunch, which can’t be said for every album in the band’s catalogue before or since. And the relative success of that record (it achieved platinum sales in the U.S.) was followed by the group’s Strange Behaviour tour in 1987. Hinting at a mature phase in Duran’s career following the mass hysteria from a few years back, Notorious marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. As John Taylor aptly summed up that period in Duran’s history in his memoir: “We had a future.”