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ON THE STAIRWAY
Duran Duran's Rio Took The World By Storm
BILL WOOD | MARCH 2, 2022
It’s hard to believe it's been 40 years since “Hungry Like The Wolf” made its debut in AOR rotation, awkwardly shoehorned somewhere between Foghat's “Slow Ride” and ZZ Top's “Tush.” Announcing this newest tune from newcomers Duran Duran with cautious enthusiasm, I could easily envision the hometown deejay rolling his eyes as he rushed to queue up the next AC/DC track. The song blasted from a friend's car FM radio and it immediately caught my attention. It was artsy and very new wave-ish, but with an energetic rock guitar hook. The crisp production and dazzling keyboard lines popped out of the speakers, the chorus was catchy as all hell. And what was that woman moaning about? “Hungry Like The Wolf” sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time... and I loved it.
Most people associate Duran Duran with their MTV-ready image, but we didn’t have MTV in Sacramento in 1982. Therefore I had no idea who these guys were, I actually assumed they were a local band since our radio station promoted local artists every now and then. I didn't even know what Duran looked like until I stayed up late to watch them perform on Saturday Night Live, which may have been their first live U.S. TV appearance. Yeah, there was no way these guys were from Sacramento. With their flashy designer outfits and brightly-dyed haircuts, Duran Duran were new-age fashion models that leapt off the runway and onto the stage. That was all it took to convince me, it wasn’t long until I ditched my rocker shag 'do for a Nick Rhodes-inspired frosted mullet.
Propelled by the mainstream success of blockbusters such as “Hungry Like The Wolf,” “Save A Prayer,” and of course the title track, Duran’s sophomore effort Rio kicked down the doors and earned them a massive (if predominantly female) worldwide fanbase. The band's detractors—and there were many—complained that they were little more than an '80s version of the Bay City Rollers, pinup idols with plenty of style and zero substance. But man, what style! Even Rio’s iconic Nagel cover was perfectly illustrated to compliment the synth-heavy dance grooves found within. As a young metalhead, I certainly didn't fit into Duran Duran's target demographic, but I collected their 12” singles and even saw them live in Oakland on the Seven And The Ragged Tiger tour. It was a fantastic show!
But you know how it goes: Times change, tastes change, people change. Truth is, I’ve rarely gone back to Rio since those earliest days. So why not take a trip back in time and revisit the “cherry ice cream smile” that changed at least one young man’s preconceptions about popular music? We've already touched on how important the band's style and cutting-edge videos were to their early success, so I'm leaving that on the table in favor of focusing on what really matters; the music. Because, as it turns out, there's a great record buried underneath the pomp and circumstance.
Rio kicks off with the carnival-esque title track, and it’s one of the strongest on the record. The three Taylors (no relation) lay down a solid foundation for Nick Rhodes’ bright sequencer loops, which shimmer perpetually beneath the exuberant dance beat. Simon LeBon’s poetic wordplay is equally nonsensical and exotic, his freeform phrasing invents an improvised form of new wave lounge singing. Floating subtly between minor and major keys, "Rio" is essential Duran, as catchy as catchy gets. If you're not sold, you may as well lift the needle.
Next up are the new-age disco of “My Own Way” and the IRS-era R.E.M. jangle of “Lonely In Your Nightmare,” followed by the “Wolf” that briefly managed to infiltrate AOR radio. The fact is there's very little filler to be found on Rio. Of the LP’s nine songs, three went on to become worldwide smash singles while others became long-time live staples and fan favorites. Everyone recognizes the hits, but at the same time you’d be hard pressed to find a single Durannie who doesn’t list “The Chauffeur” as one of the best songs the band has ever penned.
Most U.S. fans hadn't heard Duran Duran's self-titled debut prior to Rio's success (it was subsequently repackaged for American fans, with the hyper-glammy New Romantic cover photo replaced by a more masculine shot). That album consists of a mostly innocuous selection of spacey new wave, and while it produced its own share of hits, the fact is it might have been recorded by A Flock Of Seagulls or any number of similar artists. Rio represents a musical evolution for Duran, its band members coming together with nearly equal influence to deliver a matured collection of Bowie-inspired synth-pop. Their timing was perfect, as Roger Taylor’s clockwork percussion and Andy Taylor’s economical power riffing forged a sonic gateway for American ears who weren’t quite ready for the guitar-less dirge of early British electronica. Simon LeBon’s emotive crooning, pitch-perfect harmonies and inspired-yet-head-scratching lyrics (what exactly is a Reflex anyway?) helped to make him one of his generation’s biggest megastars.
But the heart and soul of Rio—and the early Duran sound in general—is defined by John Taylor’s white-boy-funk bass lines and Nick Rhodes’ effervescent synth play. Taylor slaps and plucks away at "New Religion" and "Last Chance On The Stairway" with such feverish precision and intensity that it’s impossible to imagine these songs being played any other way. (Author's note: I taught myself to play slap bass by learning Taylor's lines.) Rhodes’ sound designs are equally brilliant, his spaced-out melodies and sequencer loops intertwining with the Taylors' dance grooves. The tempo downshifts on the album's two closers, and it is here that Rhodes' inventive keyboard playing and programming takes the spotlight. He elevates the band to new peaks on "Save A Prayer," forging an electronic soundscape of echoed synth and panpipes. "The Chaffeur" is Sgt. Peppers as imagined by Depeche Mode, with Rhodes' brooding orchestral arrangement creating a strangely ominous coda for an otherwise upbeat album.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly where Duran Duran ranks in the pantheon of MTV-era British icons. In the early ’80s they were the biggest pop stars on the planet, but they were eventually eclipsed by U2 and The Cure as de facto stadium-rockers. Wham! and Culture Club had just as many hits, but they are now known more for their famous singers than their music catalog. As pure musical nostalgia, Depeche Mode and The Smiths have aged considerably better. Of course, none of this detracts from Rio being a thoroughly enjoyable listen after 40 years, not to mention a landmark of '80s popular culture (even non-fans can identify the album cover!). It seems the critics have finally come around as well, as Rio is now heralded as one of the vital albums of the new wave era. The LP probably won't win over any new devotees, but if you loved it back in the day, odds are you'll love it just as much today. Duran's follow-up to Rio, Seven And The Ragged Tiger, evolved the band's sound even further and is every bit as essential for fans.
To the surprise of many, Duran Duran managed to outlast their flash-in-the-pan teen idol trappings. Save for a few brief hiatuses, they have never stopped performing and are still recording new music and touring the world with the majority of its founding members (only Andy Taylor is absent). They’ve recently been announced as 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, so perhaps it won’t be long until we hear them performing “Hungry Like The Wolf” at their induction ceremony. - BW