Poster Idols Go the Way of Pop Trash: An Interview with Nick Rhodes of
Unless you were born sometime in the ’70s, you’re too young to have witnessed the fashion-obsessed New Romantic movement, which provided a brief-but-glorious segue between outspoken punk-rock anarchy and the kinder, gentler new-wave music revolution. Leading the pack that now included such long-gone groups as Spandau Ballet, ABC and Midge Ure’s Ultravox were Duran Duran. Not only did Duran Duran top the pop music charts with such hits as “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” they also blazed a trail as pioneers of a then-relatively new medium known as the music video. Owing to the pin-up-quality good looks of the band’s members, Duran Duran’s fanbase consisted of a significant population of teenage girls who demonstrated the kind of hysteria previously reserved for the likes of the Beatles and Elvis. By today’s standards, one could say they were the British equivalent of the Backstreet Boys, only not gay, and with better songs.
In 1984, as the band’s popularity reached critical mass, Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes married his girlfriend, American model Julie Anne Friedman, to the chagrin of many thousands of young ladies whose bedroom walls were adorned with posters of Rhodes’ likeness. I confess: Around that time, I had a poster of the pouty-lipped, ruffled-shirt-wearing, hair-color-changing, dead-sexy Rhodes on my bedroom wall.
The band underwent their first roster change in 1986, when original members Roger Taylor (drums) and Andy Taylor (guitar) departed. Guitarist Warren Cucurullo, who made a name for himself with Frank Zappa before forming [OE]80s electronic pop band Missing Persons with Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio, replaced Andy Taylor that same year. In 1997, bassist John Taylor left the band to pursue a film and solo career just after completing their 11th studio album, Medazzaland, leaving Rhodes and lead singer Simon Le Bon as the last of the original lineup. Since then, Duran Duran — who, despite rumors, never broke up — have remained a solid trio. Considering the band’s rich history, maybe you can imagine what it was like to be alone in a room with Nick Rhodes, when the band made a stop in New York City on a promotional tour for their first millennial release, Pop Trash. During the course of an hour, Rhodes talked about the making of this excellent new record, the history of the group, the most terrifying thing that ever happened to him, and pondered the answer to the question, “What exactly were all those girls screaming about?”
What I like about Pop Trash is that it also sounds like what a Duran Duran album should sound like in the year 2000.
That’s what we tried to do with it, sure. Every time you make a new record, the Duran Duran approach is “OK, where are we going? Let’s just see what comes out, see where it leads us, and can we really put these two songs on the same album together?” And we always answer, “Yes, of course we can. That’s what we do.” The diversity is what keeps us interested. I think, with each album, we try and push it somewhere different to keep ourselves on our toes, really. I couldn’t be in one of those bands that just produce the same record time after time. It’d just drive me mad. For us, the joy of making a record is [asking ourselves] “What can we create, what can we do, how can we do this a little different?”
I spoke to Simon a few years ago for the Medazzalandalbum, and I pulled out a couple of quotes from that interview to get your opinion on. Simon Said: “We were definitely considered disposable at the time. But isn’t it funny how disposable things can hang around so much better than things that have been sort of designed to have staying power?” What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, I agree with him, I think that’s fair enough. It’s true, though, isn’t it? I mean, I do love our title [of the album], because that really does have some great irony, which has always been one of my favorite games with the English language. The fact that it’s called Pop Trash, and we’re doing that after 20 years. When you look at what’s in the charts right now, it’s kind of funny, I think.
He also said: “I think we went through a really boring period when we took ourselves too seriously and forgot what we were really all about, which is entertaining people.” Do you agree with that?
Not reeeeally. I think what he really meant was we didn’t play as many live shows for a while and it all became a little more introverted. I think the other thing that really works about Duran Duran — that definitely works on this album as well as it ever has — is that it has a great sense of humor. Records that take themselves too seriously are always in danger of looking a little too pretentious. They’re not fun. I mean, I love pretentious things when they are a little tongue-in-cheek and when they’re coooool and it’s fun. Once you start trying to make all these grandiose statements about things…it is only pop music.
It’s only Rock and Roll.
Duran Duran has always had a great sense of irony, even from day one. I mean, how could it be that we were on stage singing songs about exploitation of women in films and nuclear warfare and dark things like “The Chauffeur” — singing them to screaming teenagers? If one cannot see the irony in that, then we should have given up then. I think that the one thing we’ve managed to do pretty damn well, and I’d even stick my neck out so far as to say better than a lot of our contemporaries, is to reflect the times. It sounds like an old cliche but it is what most art is about: looking forward into something new and edgy and unique but, at the same time, reflecting what’s around you. I think Duran Duran have successfully done that.
Maybe that’s why you’ve lasted this long.
I think the last album, Medazzaland, which certainly wasn’t one of our most successful [albums], really did capture a moment. It got that sort of hyperbole of electricity and technology that was going on. The fact that “Electric Barbarella” was the first song to ever be digitally downloaded on the Internet and for sale, actually it’s quite something when you look at it now. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was like, “Wow, we’re using this Internet technology, this is fun!” Now, it’s the future of the music industry. Interesting to me that it took someone like us — who, at the time, had been around for about 17 years — to go and do that.
It is kind of cool.
Yeah! It’s fun, but to me that’s what the whole pop culture thing is about. Pop Trash, to me, is everything we’re surrounded by. It’s your pink hair, it’s my blonde hair, it’s the design of things in the lobby and the shop windows, and things on the Internet and the catch phrase that the guy has on the news tonight. That’s where we all draw inspiration from. I think Duran Duran has a legitimate claim to be one of the first sort of multimedia pop groups to have done that.
Why did you choose to sequence the disc with “Someone Else Not Me” at the very beginning, which I think starts the whole thing off in either a melancholy or a very nostalgia-inspiring moment, depending on how you look at it?
We all thought that song, particularly, was a good place to start because it’s got that thing about it that really grows on you. When you hear it, if you like it at all, you want to hear it again and again. You don’t really know why, and that is the effect it had on us when we wrote it. We thought, “Wow, this is really good.” It was very subtle, that song. The movement in it, it’s not that much, it doesn’t modulate much, which is unusual for us, because we usually have a lot more chord movement. But I think it does set a mood. I mean, the album, as you know goes all over the place. And that seemed like the right place to start. I dunno, I can’t say more than that.
Duran Duran have always made great and very ambitious videos. Which was your favorite video-making experience?
“All She Wants Is.” I’ll tell you why. One, it was made by a dear friend of mine who’s a still photographer. Simon and I used him on the Arcadia project to make a video for a song called “Missing,” which really was one of the most beautiful things. Then we wanted to introduce him into the Duran Duran thing a few years later. He had a photographic technique where he basically made the video a frame at a time with still photos. It’s extraordinary, I think, in just the look of it. Making [that video] took two and a half weeks and we didn’t have two and a half weeks, so I had this idea that we’d have dummies made of us and we’d have them dressed exactly in our clothes and with our hair, the whole thing, and he’d just move the dummies as he wanted and film them. That suited his technique — cause if you move, it’s a nightmare anyway, so the dummy stays still. So that’s what he did. We’re in some of it, for the time we had, a few days, to spend on it, but the rest of it is all dummies.
Well, does it look like you guys?
It’s very strange. At certain times you can’t tell. We actually had the Death Masks made, which is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through in my life.
Is that where you just breathe through straws in your nose?
Yeah, absolutely terrifying. I would never do that again. I didn’t like it at all. Even Simon I think was pretty freaked out by it, and he’s not bothered by things like that, usually. What an experience, wouldn’t recommend that one in a hurry, I have to say. Once your eyes go, and your ears go and your mouth goes and you feel that there’s an inch of concrete on your face and you can barely breathe ’cause there’s just these two little straws, you realize that all you need is for someone to pull those straws away and seal it up and that’s it.
Like being buried alive.
Yeah! It is, I found it absolutely terrifying, I must say.
That’s really freaky.
It was. Mine came out and you can almost see the terror on my face. I guess, hence Death Mask. They said, “Well, we can do another one.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” [laughs]. No!
Wow, I hope I get to see that video some day. “Lava Lamp” is a really great song and my favorite song on the record. Is the lyric like a metaphor for a really sexy relationship or something more metaphysical?
It’s kind of about a girl, really. It is obviously very abstract. What I did, originally, I’d just written down the title on this piece of paper — literally — “La la la la lava lamp.” There’s just something about it that was so frivolous, yet very appealing. Anyway, Warren and I had this bizarre sequence going on when we were in the studio one day. Warren started playing that guitar riff over it, on “Lava Lamp,” and I knew that that was that song. I just held up the piece of paper to Warren, I said, “Look!” And we had the chorus within about ten minutes, because it just sounded like that song should sound. Then I had to fill in the gaps because it’s almost got a slightly Caribbean feel to it, the way that the words all fall. I mean, they really are the most bizarre bits.
It’s a very visual song also.
Yeah, yeah, it’s got lots of puns in it and lots of funny little rhymes and things. There’s images in there that are taken from different things. “Babe Rainbow” was a painting made by Peter Blake, who is the British pop artist equivalent of Andy Warhol at the time. It’s a very famous, a great painting, actually. There are lots of funny references in there. Without spoiling it, ’cause I don’t like explaining lyrics really, it is about really being magnetized to someone.
One of the cool things about revisiting the old videos is watching “Come Undone” and seeing John wearing this gorgeous white ruffled shirt, just like in the early days. It made me want to ask if you kept all of the clothes and costumes you’ve worn over the years?
Definitely, I’ve got the goddamn lot. All of it. Most of it’s in storage, which is kind of a shame, actually. I wish I did have all of them in one room somewhere. I’d never really thought about telling anyone about it, because no one had asked. Actually, it’s David Bowie who is responsible for me keeping the clothes. I remember when we’d met him very early on in the early ’80s. He said to me that he’d kept all the clothes, and I thought, “WOW!”
From Ziggy and everything?
That’s so cool.
Well, that’s what I thought at the time and that’s what inspired me to keep all mine, to be honest. I just thought it’d be cool to look back on them and think, well, yeah, I do have that “Rio” suit from on the boat or I’ve got the “Wild Boys” ridiculous leather jacket or whatever those things are. They kind of take on a different life of their own almost. So I do [have all that] apart from things used in photo sessions, [that] they just vanish off afterwards, so those are the only ones missing.
Wasn’t “Hallucinating Elvis” meant to be the title for the album at one time?
It was for awhile, yeah. We changed it because of two things. One, we had that title for twelve months already and we thought, “Well, this is old for us now.” I like the song very much, but it didn’t seem right for the album title. Then one day somebody said, “What about that song ‘Pop Trash’ that you’ve got?” We went, oh, that’s interesting — just two words that seem to belong together and that actually we feel very comfortable with. As I said, what it meant to me really was all of the things we’re surrounded with. And it looks good on a T-shirt. It just had that thing about it.
It’s pretty darn Glam, and Glam is so back.
Yeah! It was something that made me smile a lot and I thought in a way, while there was a very serious side to the album, too, there is lots of those [humorous] things. I mean, writing a song about someone hallucinating that they’re Elvis on an airplane, it’s kind of a weird one, you know? [Laughs] And “Lava Lamp” and then you’ve got “Mars Meets Venus,” which I took the words for the verses from Personal Ads in a newspaper. I just strung them all together — it was too irresistible. The thought of people advertising themselves freaks me out a little bit anyway, but trying to advertise yourself in four lines to find the ideal partner and then having three words as a byline, it was just too much for me to resist. It’s just the strangest phenomena. There are some great lines, like “Frog Seeks Princess,” [that] was one of my favorites, I have to say. You know, “Genuine American” — why? “Candle-Lit Dinner,” I mean the things that people use, it’s amazing what they see. That’s what I was fascinated by. It’s just human nature. It’s, “What is it?” I just like to scratch that surface off and have a little look underneath for minute.
Songs like “Starting to Remember” and the beginning of “Pop Trash Movie” sound very much like John Lennon’s or George Harrison’s stuff from the Beatles around the time of the White Album.
That’s very kind of you. “Starting to Remember” is definitely, I would own up as a Lennon influence, no question. It was just that sort of a song when Warren had played on his guitar this really beautiful, simply acoustic guitar figure. It really did remind me of that stuff I have to say. I guess even when I wrote the lyric I didn’t think, “Oh, let’s write a lyric like John Lennon would write a lyric” — I wish, I wish I could — but I did certainly think it had to be a sort of close-up, personal lyric. I think the music required that, the emotive frequency demanded it. So, that [observation] is correct even to the point where, I have to confess, we used Ken Scott — the engineer who did a lot of the recording on the album — he recorded the Beatles’ White Album.
That’s very cool. Back-pedaling a bit, lyrically, is “Pop Trash Movie” a comment at all on the past, as in the first wave of your success? And I mean this in the nicest way, but isn’t Duran Duran’s musical legacy often thought of as being more of a pop culture phenomena than a serious musical statement?
Yeah, I think so. I love the word “trash.” There’s actually a New York Dolls song called “Trash” that I always loved, so I often think trash is a good thing, not a bad thing — though we definitely had some confusion over the word, particularly in foreign language countries [laughs].
Actually, the song “Pop Trash Movie” was something that Warren and I wrote for Blondie, when they were first talking about reforming. Debbie’s a friend, you know, we’ve known her for a long time. I’ve always been a big fan and thought that she launched so many people’s careers. People like Madonna, really, have got a lot to be thankful for, that Debbie was around. I always thought she was incredibly underrated. When we heard that they were trying to put the [band] back together, Warren and I were asked if we could write a song, a couple songs. And we did, we came to New York and we produced them, which was a lot of fun. I like everyone in the band, I think they’re all good-spirited, Jimmy and Clem, and Chris, you know, has gotten himself together amazingly well. We had a lot of fun doing it, but the song, sadly, got tied up with a lawsuit with EMI America and never got released. Then [Blondie] moved to another label and they had to redo the whole album. Warren and I obviously own the song, so Simon was thrilled because he’d heard the song and he’d said, “I want to sing that song!” We thought about it and said, “Well, obviously let’s try that.” [Despite] the fact that it was written for Debbie, it worked equally as well for us because in a way we’re from the same [place].
This is one of those hindsight/historical-perspective/present-day opinion kind of questions. Looking at this kind of fan-mania that doesn’t happen all that often really, you have the Beatles and the Stones, that first wave British invasion and Elvis. Then you have Duran Duran, and to a much more regional degree (and by that I mean in England), bands like Kajagoogoo getting mobbed and stuff by hordes of girls. Then it doesn’t happen for like 10 years…then you have this flood of teenybopper boy bands, Backstreet Boys, etc., and you see that same hysterical mania showing up again. The thing I noticed is, the music has changed so much…the quality of the music just isn’t there anymore. There’s no substance. Do you have any comments or thoughts on that and why music has become an afterthought to maybe the marketing of these bands as a product?
Well, it is [a product] isn’t it, these manufactured things. [Sighs] It’s sort of difficult, or actually it’s really easy, to talk about it. I think there’s probably a lot of talented kids in some of those groups. They’ve got great voices. They can dance — God bless them — Duran Duran could never dance. We said to someone the other day, “We’re a Man Band that doesn’t dance, what do we do?” There’s huge differences, without a doubt, in that our heritage and all our influences were rock bands, really. We were influenced by the Beatles and the Stones and the Doors, who were the first people to experience that kind of mania. I’m sure when we were standing on stage singing “Waiting for the Night Boat” we felt a similar sensation of “I don’t quite get this, why they’re screaming at us. It’s fine, but I don’t quite get it,” as Jim Morrison felt when he was singing “This is the end, my only friend” — that I can relate to.
Musically, we were coming from glam rock and punk rock and disco and all those things. We grew up listening to the Velvet Underground, I don’t know what these kids listen to. I don’t know how much it matters. It sure as Hell hasn’t affected their record sales. I wish they weren’t on the radio quite as much (laughs), but I do wish them well. The one thing that drives me to distraction about it is the fact that all the songs are written by the same people, and they’re all completely interchangeable. You never know who’s who, musically that is.
Did the advent of that kind of digital recording software make a big change in the way you approach how you make music?
Yeah, absolutely, but really all it is is that it’s a much more adaptable tape recorder. That’s what it is. It just means that we can break things down into segments, little tiny things and beats and bars and move them around a lot more easily. Actually, everything you can do with it you can really do with analog tape. But it would just be a complete nightmare because you’d be copying things and cutting them up and moving them around and it would take hours and hours. Now you can do it in seconds.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. I love technology.
Duran Duran play the House of Blues in Orlando on July 21st and 22nd, and the Mars Music Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach on July 23rd.