There is power in a union
After 34 years, 13 albums, numerous line-up changes and a history of game-changing live shows and videos, Duran Duran might have seemed indestructible. But the pop rockers, who in their early 1980s heyday as the 'fab five' were the biggest and most glamorous band in the world, almost didn't make it onto the current leg of their mammoth 'All You Need is Now' tour, which includes a show at AsiaWorld-Expo on March 14.
That's because, on an earlier leg of the tour last year, singer Simon Le Bon - icon of suaveness, the voice that launched a thousand hits, and so on - suddenly lost the ability to sing. 'I had a problem in May,' he says. 'I was onstage in Cannes and I went for a high note and it just wasn't there. I lost the top third of my range, which is about an octave. I wasn't able to access that for more than three months. It was a long and challenging recovery period.'
The five-week swing through the US followed by some dates in Europe, he adds ruefully, 'was supposed to lower me back in' before the band embarked on their most ambitious tour of their native Britain. 'The most I can hope to do is five shows a week, and we were back to that almost straight away.'
For a man who has been one of the world's most successful singers and songwriters for more than three decades, losing the very thing he's famous for was, to say the least, a scary experience. 'There were definitely some times during those three months' when he feared he might never get his full range back, he says. 'In the first two to three weeks, there was no improvement at all. I was going to five or six different consultations a week; I had four therapists and a vocal coach. I spent a lot of time to no avail.
'It became very depressing. I questioned my whole career, my whole reason for being here. People tend to define themselves by the job they do, especially as they get older,' says the 53-year-old.
'It was a frightening thought: what would I do with my life? After a month, I cancelled all my therapy sessions and went on holiday - I went sailing with my family around the coast of Croatia, which is so beautiful. It took the pressure off. When I got home, I sat down at the piano to see what I could do, and of the 12 semitones that had been missing, I was able to get to five. Then I knew it was going to get better. You can imagine the sense of triumph and relief.'
Triumph and relief are emotions the band have felt quite a bit since the release of the 2010 album from which the tour takes its name. After a series of releases that were only moderately successful, All You Need is Now has not only notched up impressive sales (and been accompanied by a rapturously received tour which Le Bon describes as among the most rewarding he's done) it has also been their most critically acclaimed album for a long time. 'We really want to get this album out there,' says Le Bon. 'More people have heard this album than the previous three put together, probably.'
In fact, pretty much every album since their third, 1983's Seven and the Ragged Tiger, has been compared unfavourably by critics to previous releases - in particular to the benchmark they set in 1982 with the album that brought them to worldwide attention: Rio, featuring the singles Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf and Save a Prayer. But then critics have often been so blinded by their mistrust of the band's good looks and carefully crafted pop image that they forget to listen to the music. Fortunately that doesn't really bother the band, or their fans, who have bought more than 100 million of their records over the years.
So while it might be nice that All You Need is Now, powered by musician and producer Mark Ronson's Midas touch at the controls, earned the band some of their best-ever notices, Le Bon isn't going to get carried away. In fact, he admits, he's still reluctant to read reviews. 'You do get a bit wary,' he says. 'We've been hammered by critics before, and it's kind of hard to read reviews. If you read the good ones, you've really got to read the bad ones as well.
'We've been around for three decades; the one thing that can't be argued with is our longevity. I'm very proud of the band. The longer we go on, the deeper the friendship gets. You get good at something and you want to carry on doing it. I like having a job, to be honest. I feel good about myself. That's a massive driver. And it's a good job. I get to travel around the world and do what I love doing. I'm very lucky.'
Live shows have always been at the heart of the Duran Duran experience, and they've a reputation for innovation. It's part of why they are a fully rounded pop package - along, of course, with their frequently dazzling videos. Fortunate to come to prominence at around the same time as another musical phenomenon, MTV, they wrote much of the vocabulary of the modern music video with high-budget, high-gloss productions such as the Indiana Jones-themed Hungry Like the Wolf, the raunchy Girls on Film and the yacht-tastic '80s glam-a-thon that is Rio.
That does create a pressure to constantly up the ante, says Le Bon, 'but it's like a pressure to look good - it's something you want to do. It's like as a teenager, when you want to look good to get girls. It's the same with the shows and videos.
'And I still love touring. The most important criterion in our list is always the crowd. Over the years, we've become aware that audiences are different in different parts of the world, and there are some places that are especially enthusiastic about us. We've done the least amount of work in Asia, but we've had some incredible shows in Hong Kong. It's one of our strongholds in Asia, along with Seoul, where for some reason they're crazy about us - and they're very passionate people.'
To be able to draw such responses 31 years after they released their first album is quite an achievement. The secret, Le Bon says, is very simple: 'People will always be prepared to pay money to go to see a band that write a song from the heart and play it with passion and expertise.'
Duran Duran, Mar 14, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau Island, HK$588-HK$1,088 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2629 6240