The thing that is sometimes forgotten about Duran Duran, is how much they did not seem destined for the massive megastardom that they rather quickly went on to achieve. In fact, arguably the most exhilarating moment during the new Showtime documentary There’s Something You Should Know shows Roger Taylor walking around their old pre-stardom Birmingham stomping grounds, leading to recollections of the legendary club Rum Runner.
“It was a capsule of glamour in the middle of this grim industrial city,” he tells BlackBook, “that was struggling to come to terms with the end of the heavy industrial age.”
The Rum Runner was like an incubator for a now almost unimaginable scene, characterized by society-shaking gender-bending and radical, machine-driven musical experimentation – certainly not the stuff that makes it to the pop charts. And as images from that time show up on the screen, it’s clear that nothing even remotely like it has happened since.
“I drove through Birmingham recently on a cold and dank night,” says Taylor, “and all the amazing people that made up the ‘scene’ came to my mind. I wondered where they all were now and what their lives are like.”
The doc tells Duran Duran’s extraordinary story in their own words, along with collaborators and contemporaries including Nile Rogers, Boy George and Mark Ronson. Within an hour’s time, it travels from those insalubrious Birmingham streets, where they were a revolutionary gang of cultural provocateurs shopping for “ladies clothes that fit” (Taylor only half-jokes, “Jumping on the night bus wearing a pair of skinny jeans could be a life-threatening experience at the end of the ’70s.”), on through to the wildly successful reunion tours, for which literally millions of tickets were sold.
But Anglophile post-punkers and screaming Gen X teenage girls will thrill most to the scenes of those heady early ’80s days of Rio and the absurdly titled Seven and the Ragged Tiger, when the band essentially changed the way music was presented to the world. To be sure, with their artfully bombastic, and gorgeously shot videos, they were the veritable gods of the MTV age.
Director Russell Mulcahy was instrumental in that vivid visual revolution, and in the film he reveals of the now iconic “Rio” video: “It was wild, we actually just made it up on the spot.” For all the outré glamour, they were essentially still punks at heart.
Of course, they’d graduated from charity shop cross dressing to full fledged fashion icons by then; and a scene in which Nick Rhodes and Duran Duran “official” fashion designer Antony Price go through racks of their old clothes with a running commentary (“They’re quite panto now…”) is, well, priceless. But the pomp is balanced with keen self-reflection and self-awareness, with Simon Le Bon recalling matter-of-factly, “We were objects of desire, and people wanted to have us at their parties.”
The film also delights in no small number of Beatles-esque clips of hysterical females risking life and limb for a chance to meet their idols (Le Bon claims with a smirk that one even popped out of his hotel room wardrobe). Taylor describes it perfectly as, “Totally exhilarating but in some ways frightening, like being on a runaway train that you had no control over.” But he is quick to clarify, “It was a journey we all chose, so no complaints or regrets at all.”
Still and all, like any artist that experiences such monumental early success, there were the pressures of keeping it all going, both internal and external. And the doc does do quite a good job of conveying all the attendant anxieties and insecurities. After Rio, remember, critics were not so kind to Seven and the Ragged Tiger. And as the band splintered apart in the mid-’80s – leaving just Simon, Nick and John Taylor to record 1986’s Notorious – one gets a keen sense of how careers and long term friendships were always quite fragile matters.
At one point Boy George even reveals his shock at Roger Taylor’s leaving the band at the height of their success. But the drummer is quick to remind how he had joined Duran Duran at just 19, and so was never really allowed a proper transition into adulthood.
“The speed of our ascension was breathtaking,” he recalls. “I felt that I needed time to discover what it was like to wake up as a ‘normal’ human being every morning. But, of course, that never really happened. And the general feeling at the time was that I must be crazy to leave something so successful.”
Long periods are breezed through due to time constraints (There’s Something… could easily be twice as long). But emotional climaxes come by way of their spectacular 2004 reunion tour, which guitarist Andy Taylor infamously walked out in the middle of…and the creative triumph that was their 2015 album Paper Gods – produced by Nile Rogers – catapulting them back to critical acclaim. As Taylor so succinctly puts it, “Vindication is a wonderful thing!”
The doc actually opens and closes with the boys – minus Andy – sitting in a Citroen (their signature transport), listening intently to their first demo. It decisively connects their past and present in a touchingly visceral way – and yet it’s hard to watch those scenes and not feel a sense of longing for a time when music, and style, were changing the world every day. And Duran Duran, of course, were very much a part of that cultural insurgency.
“I’m always amazed when I hear our early demos,” Taylor enthuses. “We were like sponges absorbing everything around us, and somehow regurgitating it into this sound that was just so unique to us.”
Could he ever imagine Duran Duran without him again?
“Hahaha…good question. My answer to that is no human being, no matter how important he feels, is irreplaceable in this world.”
There’s Something You Should Know premieres December 27 on Showtime.