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  • Writer's pictureLaura Kelly

Duran Duran on critics, escapism and creepy AI

This profile interview was first published as a cover feature in The Big Issue, in November 2023.

It’s 1981, and for large portions of the UK, a time of frustration and anger. Austerity measures have hollowed out communities. Trust in the police is low, unemployment is high. It’s in this febrile atmosphere that The Specials’ protest masterpiece Ghost Town reaches the top of the charts.

It will come to be seen as the totemic musical depiction of a country in which industry was being dismantled and young people – particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds – were left behind. As Thatcherism is taken up in the inept hands of Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab, it still chills. It’s a surprising song for Duran Duran – the ’80s’ most glamorous band – to cover.

“I was never a big ska fan. I liked glam rock and electronic music, and punk and disco, but not so much ska. However, if you’d said to me at any point over the last 40 years, what’s the greatest ska song from that period? I would have said Ghost Town,” says keyboardist, aesthetic driving force, and the band’sresident goth Nick Rhodes. “It’s a really great song.”

Duran Duran’s two founder members – Rhodes and his childhood friend John Taylor – are speaking to The Big Issue the day after filming the video for their new single, Black Moonlight (“a New Romantic séance hosted by Edgar Allan Poe’s sisters”). It’s the second of three new tracks they’ve recorded for their Halloween-themed album Danse Macabre. Their cinematic version of Ghost Town is the most unexpected of the covers on the record, despite stiff competition from songs by Billie Eilish, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and Siouxsie And The Banshees.

Ghost Town is “the most sacred of cows that we took on”, admits Duran Duran’s rock’n’roll heart, bassist John Taylor. Singer Simon Le Bon was particularly nervous taking on Terry Hall’s classic vocal, he adds. “I do think that the one thing about this band is we’re fucking sincere in what we do, even if we look like we aren’t. Everybody took their roles very seriously.”

In Ghost Town’s third week at number one, Girls on Film hit the charts. It’s the song that saw Duran Duran break the top 10 for the first time, heralding a four-decade-long career as one of the world’s biggest bands. The contrast between those two songs is in many ways emblematic of how Duran Duran have come to be seen since – bright, opulent, thrustingly ambitious. The antithesis of The Specials’ gritty realist critique of Thatcher’s Britain. 

But the bands are closer than simplistic historical dichotomies would have you believe, not least geographically. When they formed Duran Duran in 1978, Taylor and Rhodes were Birmingham teenagers, living 20 miles up the road from The Specials’ Coventry stomping ground. They went through various personnel changes before settling on their most famous line-up with drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor and lead singer Simon Le Bon. 

Rhodes recognises the picture of the early ’80s Ghost Town paints. “We were coming out of very high inflation and high unemployment. And there was a lot of civil unrest. There’d been miners’ strikes and power cuts all the time. It was quite grey and depressing,” he says. “Birmingham was bad enough, I can imagine Coventry could possibly have been a little worse.”

As a band trying to make it outside of London’s all-consuming orbit, the fledgling Duran Duran saw inspiration in The Specials’ success. “A few months before we did this, Terry [Hall, Specials singer] died,” says Taylor. “And I felt a tremendous kinship for him. I met him around the time of Fun Boy Three, and I just thought: he’s one of us. I mean, when you get right down to it, there’s really not that much difference. Just their inspirations were different. They took a different path, but they were a phenomenal band, and immensely impactful.”

Where Specials songwriter Jerry Dammers took the scalpel of his words to cut through the social issues surrounding him, Taylor and Rhodes took in a similar view and dreamed of escape. “I saw music as a mental passport out of the suburbs,” Taylor explains. “Whether it was Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, or Roxy Music’s A Song for Europe, I could lose myself in these songs and just be transported.”

They weren’t so much writing the soundtrack of affluence as of aspiration, says Rhodes. “I was 16 when we formed the band, and we wanted to get out of there. People are lovely in Birmingham. However, the overriding feeling was: there’s got to be something else out there in the world that we want to see.”

Lifted on the wings of irresistible new wave pop, their resulting exotic escapades were beamed back to a pre-budget-airlines, “dark and grey” Britain in a series of “travelogue” music videos. Save a Prayer and Hungry Like the Wolf saw them romancing and exploring among the jungles, beaches and temples of Sri Lanka. Perhaps their most enduring image is on a yacht, sailing the impossibly clear, blue waters of the Caribbean for Rio

“When people saw those things, they had an impact – oh, look at them, lucky them. But on the other hand, all we were doing was spending a day filming something for a song that looked beautiful,” says Rhodes. “If you’d said to us, this video is going to be shown in the future, 24 hours a day when anyone wants to click on it, and kids that aren’t even born yet are going to be looking at and referencing that video… I would have laughed.”

Even at the time, though, there was some jealousy in the air. “I remember one of the guys from Heaven 17 having a go at us,” says Taylor, “saying that our videos were, like, show-offy. Do you remember [Heaven 17’s 1983 album] The Luxury Gap? Well, that’s what they were saying. The Luxury Gap was about bands like Duran Duran prancing around exotic locations, ‘while we’re back in our council flats’.”

We’re dancing into the fire now, of course… getting closer to broaching the thorny subject of politics. Despite having been encouraged to take up their guitars by seeing punk icons The Clash and Siouxsie And The Banshees playing on two-foot-high stages in Birmingham clubs, Duran Duran have never been a political band.

Yet they have found themselves unwillingly tethered to the Tory legacy of their formative decade. Neither Rhodes nor Taylor seem massively keen to talk Thatcher. Honestly, I can’t really blame them – but after a few (increasingly less subtle) hints, Taylor gets into it.

“Whatever we were criticised for, we were just writing the zeitgeist, you know?” he says. “We’d all been through punk but coming after punk, it was like this incredible wave of sound and fashion and yet somehow it got aligned with Thatcher and the Conservatives. Honestly, I’ve never really been apolitical animal. My dad hated politicians, he hated experts. He didn’t trust anybody. So, I grew up with his inbuilt scepticism. 

“And so to me, music was a form of escapism. But I’ve come to see it as a force of unification. When the lights go down and whoever’s in the room becomes as one. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what your age is, what your sex is, gender, ethnicity, you’re all moving to the same beat. That, to me, is us doing our bit. We’ve tried on a few political hats at times, and it doesn’t really feel authentic,you know?”

Though they may have sparked ire in some quarters, Duran Duran’s early videos were artistically pioneering. In the UK there was barely anywhere to see these new visual interpretations of the songs. The nation’s most important music show, Top of the Pops, was so set on having bands perform live that Rhodes says “you almost had to have a written excuse” to not show up in person. 

But he saw the potential. Rhodes was the driving force pushing the band into this burgeoning artform and, as MTV launched in the US, Duran Duran were primed to take advantage. They became global superstars.

In the 21st century, Rhodes is still keen to explore new possibilities – to similarly controversial effect. Two years ago, Duran Duran became the first major act to release an AI-driven film for their song Invisible. The title track of Danse Macabre once again sees Rhodes working with the latest AI technology (and director Linc Gasking) to create a 3D-animated, gloriously spooky confection of witches, warlocks, demons and other ghouls. 

“I think I spent around 100 hours with the video and playing around with different things and Linc spent more than double that amount of time, for sure. Because there are so many possibilities,” says Rhodes. 

The day before I speak to Duran Duran, music publishers Universal Music, ABKCO and Concord Publishing sued the artificial intelligence company Anthropic, accusing it of misusing “innumerable” copyrighted song lyrics to train its chatbot Claude. Recently Nick Cave reacted furiously to an AI attempt to emulate his songs, calling it a “grotesque mockery of what it is to be human”. Sting has told the BBC: “That’s going to be a battle we all have to fight in the next couple of years: defending our human capital against AI.” Other artists who’ve expressed concern include Ed Sheeran, Drake, Noel Gallagher, Swedish pop star Zara Larsson and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. 

They’re failing to see the possibility, says Rhodes. “I’m actually in the pro-AI group. I know a lot of people seem to think it’s very controversial, and it’s got no soul, and ‘what is the world coming to?’ They’re the same people that always moan about any new developments in technology and machinery. We learn about them at school: the Luddites. 

“I feel that it is a remarkable technology, actually. If you use it in a sensible way, as a tool for artistry. Don’t just tell it to make something. Then yes, the AI is making it. But if you guide whatever you want and use it as colours, almost as if you’re painting with it; I think that it’s fascinating what you can do with machines.

“And of course, people will be using it for music more and more. We haven’t used it for music yet. We’ve only used it for visuals. But it’s what you put in. You have to be the master of the AI and not let it be your master.”

The Danse Macabre video would simply have been impossible without AI, he adds. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford to do it. It would have been an animation studio of perhaps 20, 30 people working for a couple of months to make something like that happen. We managed to do it in a few weeks.”

In 2023, more than 40 years after they transported fans from grey Britain to the shining seas around Antigua, Duran Duran are once again offering another beautiful fantasy, an escape from the everyday.

“It just makes you smile when you look at it,” says Rhodes. “And with the horrible world we’re living in at the moment, anything that can lift your spirits and take you away from getting depressed by how awful things are is important.”

Duran Duran’s Halloween album Danse Macabre is released on 27 October 2024 via Tape Modern for BMG. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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