It should have been a happier time for Duran Duran when the group hit the stage on July 13, 1985, in front of an estimated 90,000 people (and to a televised audience of 1.5 billion around the world) at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium — one of two concert sites for Live Aid, the massive all-star musical event mounted by Bob Geldof to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. For Duran Duran, the appearance at the ‘global jukebox was reaffirmation of its tremendous popularity, joining such other luminaries as U2, Queen, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and a reunited Led Zeppelin for an important humanitarian cause.
In the same week that Live Aid took place, Duran Duran scored its second U.S. number one hit, “A View to a Kill,” the theme song for the then-new James Bond movie of the same name. Several months earlier, Duran Duran released the live album Arena, which yielded a smash hit in “The Wild Boys.” Both those songs continued a hit streak for the band that began two years earlier with its American breakthrough single “Hungry Like the Wolf.” With some groundbreaking music videos and constant media coverage, Duran Duran wasn’t so much a band but a phenomenon in America between 1983 and 1985, earning it the nickname “the Fab Five.”
Yet behind the scenes, as some of the members would recall years later, the period leading up to Live Aid was one of tension, given the stress of being in a hugely successful group. It explained why two factions within Duran Duran developed their own side projects prior to the massive event: bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor formed the Power Station, while singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor founded Arcadia. Both groups made music that stylistically departed from the synthesizer-driven dance pop of the parent band. As Rhodes told The Guardian in 2003: “Arcadia and the Power Station were commercial suicide…but we’ve always been good at that.”
In a way, the crack within Duran Duran’s shiny armor and the side projects symbolized the musical holding pattern experienced by several British pop acts who found success in America during the early 80s. In fact, some of those artists — including Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, Simple Minds Adam Ant, Howard Jones, Paul Young, and Nik Kershaw — also performed at Live Aid. But after Live Aid, Duran Duran and some of those other acts would find themselves in transition as homegrown American music reasserted itself on radio and MTV for the rest of the decade.
Similar to what happened with the first British Invasion in the 60s, the Second British Invasion filled a void in the American music scene in the early 80s left by punk and disco. An outgrowth of the New Romantic movement in London, spearheaded by the late Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, these British bands (whose music was described as ‘New Pop’) were a merger of punk/post-punk and disco sounds for American audiences who never really connected with either of those genres. In contrast to the American guitar rock bands of the day, the predominant instrument for most of these New Pop acts the synthesizer. During the period between 1982 and 1984, many British acts like the Human League, Kajagoogoo, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham!, and Eurythmics scored catchy, energetic pop hits on the American Top 10. Further evidence of the popularity of British pop in America can traced to the week of July 16, 1983, when there were seven British-based acts on the Billboard Top 10 pop singles chart. For Generation X, these bands represented a vibrant era in pop music that was by no means dull.
“It was a turning away from the negativism of punk and the doubt and despair and political guilt of so much post-punk,” Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again, told me in 2013 for CBSNews.com. “It was time for something lighter, a return to fun, positivity. The idea that the point of pop might be escapism and that this was okay started to circulate. This would have been the antithesis of punk and post-punk values. But nearly all of the people involved in New Pop had been through punk and post-punk. So it was like the dialectical next stage in the British music scene’s development. It wasn’t the complete reversal or repudiation of punk/post-punk. It was more like, ‘We tried this, it led to a certain deadlock, now we’ll try this new direction.’”
Around the time of these groups’ emergence was MTV, and the marriage between the two couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. MTV was the vehicle for these photogenic artists to not only export their sleek and vibrant pop music but also the trendy fashions and look from Britain. It was video that brought such acts as Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Dexys Midnight Runners into the living rooms of America. With both the music and visuals as its identifiable markers, British pop was so hot in the U.S. that it was the subject of cover stories in both Rolling Stone and Newsweek, featuring Culture Club’s charismatic singer Boy George.
“Rock and roll was a macho affair in the 70s,” British synthpop musician Howard Jones told authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks in their book I Want My MTV, an oral history of the music channel’s golden age. “And us lot came along with brightly colored clothes and the haircuts. It was a real affront to the establishment. It rubbed so many people the wrong way. That whole explosion of MTV was quite significant in the sense it gave the finger to rock & roll.”
Aside from Culture Club, Duran Duran was the biggest act to emerge from the Second British Invasion. The five-man group from Birmingham, England entered the American pop chart beginning with their adrenaline-pumping “Hungry Like the Wolf,” followed more hits in “Rio,” “Is There Something I Should Know,” “Union of the Snake,” “The Reflex,” and “New Moon Monday.” Augmented by their good looks (which unfortunately overshadowed their musical talent early on that has since been considered influential) and innovative promo clips, Duran Duran was a smash.
Yet by 1984, the pressures of success, the hysteria from screaming girls, and the temptations (women, drugs, alcohol) that came with being major rock stars took a toll on the band. In retrospect, one could could sense a change happening in Duran Duran’s music like on “The Wild Boys,” produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, which was more in the vein of rock than synthpop. In a 2012 interview to promote his thoughtful and compelling autobiography, In the Pleasure Groove, John Taylor spoke to me for Spinner.com about his substance abuse: “What I tried to portray was the safety and warmth and comfort that I had in my most perfect nuclear family … just that comfort that I had at home. I really fucking missed it when I got out on the road. I really suffered from incredible loneliness. And I was also shy. So the drugs and the alcohol really enabled me to be that guy.”
For John Taylor and Andy Taylor, a break in Duran Duran’s schedule in the latter part of 1984 led to the formation of their own side project. As John Taylor would wrote in his book, the purpose of their splinter group was to aim for something “‘funkier and more organic than Duran. Louder guitars.” With Chic’s Tony Thompson on drums and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards producing, the Taylors’ new band was called the Power Station, named after the New York City recording studio where the album was being made. Originally the project was to feature different lead vocalists (Mick Jagger was reportedly among those considered), but when veteran British singer Robert Palmer sang the band’s version of T. Rex’s glam classic “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” in the studio, it was clear that he was the obvious choice as front man.
“Our musical tastes clash,” Palmer told Rolling Stone in 1985, “but when it came down to the overview, we were in total agreement.” And in his 2008 memoir, Wild Boy, Andy Taylor wrote of his experience in the Power Station: “More important for me, I’d proved to myself that I could cut it outside of Duran Duran by doing what I loved best, playing guitar music.”
Released in March 1985, The Power Station album fulfilled John Taylor’s wish for something funkier and louder, as it was very a state of the art, high-octane album that merged both hard rock and Chic’s elegant funk. The record was a hit, thanks to the driving lead-off single, “Some Like It Hot,” which reached number six on the Billboard pop chart; it would later be followed by the band’s cover of T. Rex’s “Get It On.” Other notable highlights from the album include the under-appreciated “Communication”; the burning, heavy rock of “Murderess”; and the stately, almost jazzy ballad “Still In Your Heart.” The Power Station featured John Taylor and Andy Taylor’s most fiercest playing on bass and guitars respectively, complemented by Palmer’s suave and soulful vocals. But the album’s true star was Thompson, whose muscular, no-holds-barred drumming propelled the music. (It’s all the more poignant to listen to The Power Station now, given the deaths of Edwards, Palmer and Thompson in the years following the album’s release).
Meanwhile, while John Taylor and Andy Taylor were off doing their own thing in New York, the other Duran Duran members Le Bon, Rhodes and Roger Taylor relocated to Paris to work on their own side project called Arcadia. (It should be noted that Roger Taylor was the only Duran Duran member to appear on both Arcadia and the Power Station albums). Arcadia employed an impressive cast of guests, including Sting, Herbie Hancock, Grace Jones, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, In contrast to the Power Stations’ brash sound, Arcadia’s album, So Red the Rose, which was released in December 1985, was more of an Euro art-rock record. The band’s biggest hit single was the elegant and seductive “Election Day,” which went Top Ten. But like The Power Station, So the Red the Rose wasn’t all filler — key songs included the funk-hip hop merger of “Goodbye Is Forever,” the dramatic and dazzling “The Flame”; and the Latin-tinged “El Diablo.” Even the haunting ballad “Missing” showed a rare poignant side from the Duran Duran members.
“We decided when the Power Station decided to work on their project for a while that we were gonna do this,” said Le Bon in an interview during that time, “mainly as a means of killing some time. I was gonna go on holiday and then [Nick] phoned me up…We went into the studio, started, and it developed into a full scale album, just like that.”
“I’m personally very pleased what I did on Arcadia,” Rhodes said in an archival interview featured on the DVD portion of the So Red the Rose reissue, “because it was really something that needed to be done — an experiment to experience working with other musicians, to create something radically different and not in such a strict format as the pop group Duran Duran.”
While both The Power Station and So Red the Rose were not perhaps on the level of Duran Duran’s first three memorable albums, they allowed the factions to branch out in areas that that might have not been possible within the confines of the parent band. Reviews of those albums around the time of their release were mixed, but retrospective assessments have been generally positive, with AllMusic.com’s Kelvin Hayes calling So Red the Rose, “the best album Duran never made.”
“A lot of people in the media have been trying to set us up as enemies with the Power Station,” Le Bon said in an interview at the time. “They’ve been trying desperately to do that. And there’s absolutely no question of any animosity whatsoever. I’m proud of what they’ve done, I’m proud for them. I see their record gaining up on the charts in America and… ‘Wow, that makes my heart beat.’ I think we all are totally and absolutely behind the Power Station in the way we know they’ll be absolutely behind our project, when ours actually come out.”
Amid their separate projects, the members Duran Duran together worked on the Bernard Edwards-produced theme song for the James Bond film A View to a Kill — it was John Taylor who lobbied famed Bond producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli to allow the band to write and record a song for the film. In collaboration with composer John Barry, “A View to a Kill” became another memorable song in the Duran Duran canon.
But there was no denying that a rift existed within Duran Duran that carried over to the filming in Paris of the “A View to a Kill” video, helmed by the then-hot music video directing team of Godley and Creme. It was a moment that John Taylor and Andy Taylor recalled in their own individual memoirs without fond nostalgia:
John: The filming was tough. It was the worst fucking day. Not surprising, given by complete lack of sleep. But in addition to that, all the band members were on different planets, in different universes. All the video filming was individual shots — Simon does this here, Nick does this there.
Andy: That’s when I made up my mind I’d do the Bond video and get the hell out of there…The booze and the drugs and the carnage that surrounded Duran Duran was all just too much.
“Looking back, when John and I formed the Power Station prior to “A View to a Kill,” Duran Duran had already split up.”
Yet despite the problems, Duran Duran stuck around long enough to participate in Live Aid. In an interview with the Guardian in 2003, John Taylor recalled: “When Simon, Nick and Roger flew in, we were in different teams. Andy and I had grown our hair and were doing the U.S. rocker thing. They were doing the esoteric European artistic thing. It was all in the haircuts. The writing was on the wall.”
John Taylor and Andy Taylor were pulling in double duty on that day when they performed two songs as the Power Station a few sets earlier with Tony Thompson and new singer Michael Des Barres — Robert Palmer opted not to tour with the band and instead worked on his upcoming solo album Riptide, which featured the smash single “Addicted to Love.”
After Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young finished their set, Duran Duran came onstage and performed “A View to a Kill,” along with “Union of the Snake,” “The Reflex,” and “Save a Prayer.” But as John Taylor wrote: “There was a nervousness in both camps; our relationships had not gotten any better since Paris. If anything, things had gotten worse.”
“When we came offstage in Philadelphia,” recalled Andy Taylor, “there were no congratulatory hugs or friendly smiles. It was like we were completely foreign to each other, and it would be the last time we played together for almost two decades.”
But Duran Duran wasn’t the only band from the Second British Invasion that were going through motions around the time of Live Aid. In 1984, Culture Club (who did not perform at Live Aid) put out its follow-up to the hugely successful Colour By Numbers album with Waking Up With the House on Fire; despite a hit single with “The War Song,” the underwhelming album tanked at number 26. Also that same year, Spandau Ballet, which achieved a top 10 hit with “True,” released the Parade album, whose sound was more dramatic compared to the blue-eyed soul of the True album — its single “Only When You Leave” peaked at the lower bottom of the Billboard Top 40. Following the mixed reception to 1984's Hysteria, the follow-up to to its breakthrough record Dare, the Human League later sought help for its next album, Crash, with the Minneapolis production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Harris, hot off their work on Janet Jackson’s Control. Those aforementioned acts and others New Pop artists would experience either break-ups, lineup changes, or a dry spell in delivering more hits.
Even before Duran’s side projects and Live Aid became the symbolic curtain falling down on British dominance of pop music, American music reemerged fully revived in 1984. It was the year that saw the release multiplatinum sellers like Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, and Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Add those with the previous smash albums by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, and ZZ Top, American music bounced back, reflecting perhaps a yearning for music that was more organic-sounding instead of coming from a synthesizer.
“I think most of those groups, as so often happens, started to make worse records and accompanied them with really bloated, absurd, pompous videos,” said Reynolds of New Pop’s decline. “It was the combination of success and touring and astronomical demands on your time affecting your creativity, but also success bloating egos and destroying any sense of perspective.
“But also it was that the Americans by that point had cottoned on to video and making more catchy, singles-oriented, danceable stuff. They were beating the British at their own game.”
It’s not to say that British pop in America completely evaporated after 1985 — on the contrary, acts like the Pet Shop Boys, Simply Red, Level 42, the Outfield, Rick Astley, and especially George Michael scored hits on American radio and MTV. But towards the end of the 80s, the American music scene was now embracing hair-metal acts (Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi) and dance artists (Paula Abdul, Exposé) along with established megastars (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston Madonna, Prince). That, too, would all change starting in 1991 — six years after Live Aid — when another musical revolution was fomenting, courtesy of a band from Aberdeen, Washington.
As for Duran Duran, the band underwent major personnel changes with the departures of Andy Taylor and Roger Taylor in 1986. The remaining members carried on and crafted a brilliant, if shamelessly underrated, record in Notorious with producer Nile Rodgers — it yielded a classic Duran Duran hit in the title song. For the next 14 years, that version of the band experienced varying degrees of success and scored several more singles, but it was nothing like that of Duranmania. In 2000, the original members reunited and reestablished Duran Duran as a vital group still capable of delivering strong music, as was the case of 2010's excellent All You Need is Now.
While the glory days of the Second British New Invasion and Live Aid have receded into memory, British New Pop still commands an audience in America for a generation of fans now in their 40s and 50s. Earlier this year saw Spandau Ballet return to touring the States for the first time in 30 years. Culture Club reunited for a new American tour this year along with the promise of a new record. And Duran Duran — whose current line up of Le Bon, Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor — is back with a new album titled Paper Gods, due out this September, with production work by Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson. The band recently unveiled the first single from the record, “Pressure Off,” featuring Janelle Monae and Rodgers.
“We don’t dwell on nostalgia very much,” Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor told me in 2013 for CBSNews.com. “We talk about the early days very fondly but I think we’re quite careful not to live in nostalgia. We like to live in the here and now and we like to think of ourselves as contemporary. A lot of people get bogged down in their era, you get people that never get out of the 70s and you also get people who never come out of the early 80s because it was their heyday. We’re very careful not to do that because I think it’s very stifling creatively. But we got great memories of that period. It was an incredible time to grow up.”
While historically unprecedented by its sheer scale to promote a cause bigger than the superstar performers themselves, Live Aid in a minor way provided a snapshot of British pop royalty from MTV’s golden era coming together for one last symbolic hurrah. And for Duran Duran, its performance on that Philadelphia stage marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one in a career now going on 37 years: “On stage we played as hard as we know how,” wrote John Taylor in his book, “but when the curtain fell in our performance…none of us had any idea that the curtain was falling on the first act of our career and our lives together.”
Special thanks to Simon Reynolds for inspiring the idea for this story.
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