Simon Le Bon on decades of success with Duran Duran, and a new lease of life with Nile Rodgers of Chic
The British singer says his younger self wouldn’t have believed the band would be together again after all these years, but they’ve weathered splits and departures and a seriously misjudged covers album
When Duran Duran released their debut album in 1982, lead singer Simon Le Bon didn’t expect the band to be around very long, let alone still be active in 2016.
“When we started, we weren’t thinking beyond the next two years. We weren’t thinking beyond the next two weeks,” says Le Bon, who was 21 when he joined the fledgling English rock quintet in 1980.
Duran Duran have been back on the road in the US and their opening act has been the current edition of pioneering disco band Chic featuring veteran producer Nile Rodgers, who co-produced Duran Duran’s most recent album, Paper Gods.
“It’s a funny thing,” Le Bon says, pondering his band’s durability. “I’m not surprised, now, by our longevity. But the 1982 me would have been very surprised. I think that guy expected to be drinking cocktails now – probably on his second marriage – on a beach, with hookers.”
Now 57, the veteran vocalist has been married to former supermodel Yasmin Parvaneh since 1985. They have three daughters, Amber, Saffron and Tallulah, who are all in their 20s.
His daughters may giggle when they see photos of the rather outlandish clothes and palpable amounts of make-up their dad and his bandmates wore in the early 1980s. That was back during the heyday of the New Romantic movement, which also gave rise to such stylish, synthesiser-heavy acts as Ultravox, ABC, The Human League and Spandau Ballet.
Le Bon himself laughs at the outfits, but he makes no apologies. “When I look at photos of us from back then, I think: ‘Yeah! Go there, my son!’” he says. “Am I embarrassed? No. Not at all. It’s all part of the road we’ve taken that got us to where we are now.”
That road started with a slew of hits on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the 1980s, many anchored by snappy, disco-inspired beats. Duran Duran’s heavy MTV airplay, catchy songs and teen-idol looks made them international sensations. Their early hits – including Girls on Film, Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf, Save a Prayer, The Reflex and the James Bond movie theme A View to a Kill – remain staples of the band’s concert repertoire.
Duran Duran’s initial popularity, especially with young female fans, mushroomed so quickly that the band’s members were dubbed the Fab Five, a designation that echoed the Fab Four, as The Beatles were called in the 1960s. Yet, while The Beatles lasted for nearly a decade before disbanding, the original Duran Duran broke up after barely five years – after an infamously pitch-challenged performance at the televised Live Aid all-star benefit concert – and they did not reunite until 2003.
In 1986, drummer Roger Taylor quit the band, citing exhaustion after five years of steady touring. He was followed by guitarist Andy Taylor.
That left Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and bassist John Taylor (the Taylors are not related) to recruit seasoned studio musicians, including former Frank Zappa/Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, for the 1986 Duran Duran album Notorious. By 1987, John Taylor had also left Duran Duran behind, rejoining in 2001. Roger Taylor is now back on board as well.
Their 1996 album Thank You found the band unwisely performing reverent but laughably misguided cover versions of such classic songs as Public Enemy’s 911 Is a Joke, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s White Lines, and The Temptations’ Ball of Confusion.
The resulting album was a commercial flop and widely ridiculed. Even so, Le Bon is quick to acknowledge Duran Duran’s artistic inspirations.
“Black music was a massive, massive, massive influence on us,” the singer says. “I grew up at a time when soul music was hitting the charts, and you had incredible artists like Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. Later on, reggae music was a really big part of my life, around the same time as punk.
“And, then, of course, Chic were just the best thing, and the whole dance revolution, which happened in the late 1970s. For us kids here in England, it was completely dominated by black music and black artists.”
Longtime Duran Duran collaborator Rodgers is featured on Paper Gods, the band’s 14th studio album, as both a co-producer and performer.
Other guests on the dozen-song, dance-happy outing include Janelle Monáe (on Pressure Off, co-written by Rodgers), the London Youth Choir (on the slow-building The Universe Alone) and, to no audible advantage, actress Lindsay Lohan (who speaks, not sings, on Danceophobia). Also making cameos are former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.
The results are alternately intriguing and uneven, with the album often sounding geared to listeners much too young to have heard Duran Duran in their commercial heyday. But it is Paper Gods’ moody, seven-minute-plus title track – with its a cappella introduction, sung by album co-producer Ben Hudson McIldowie – that most clearly suggests Duran Duran were seeking to move beyond their comfort zone.
“Absolutely,” Le Bon says. “We wanted to get something new and different out of ourselves. And I feel we’ve achieved that by very much getting out of our comfort zones. Paper Gods is a good one to mention – it’s so not like anything you’ve ever heard from Duran Duran before. This is an album where we really have tried to let go of a lot of things that we were holding on to, quite jealously, for many years.
“For example, me jealously holding onto the microphone and not letting anyone else [sing lead vocals]. That has changed this time. We have guest artists. And to have Ben sing on the opening of the album is the most I could possibly let go.”
Despite the band’s three-decade professional relationship with Chic co-founder Rodgers, who produced the band’s 1986 album Notorious, this is the first joint tour by Duran Duran and Chic.
“I’ve been onstage with Chic before; I’ve fronted Chic before. But this is the first time we’ve gone out together,” Le Bon says.
“It’s a great evening. We turn up at the venue and Chic is onstage, and we can hear the audience going crazy. We think: ‘Oh, my God! Are we going to be able to follow these guys?’ And, of course, we do. Because we bring something completely different.
“I don’t want to be too coy, but – yes, Nile comes out and plays with Duran Duran. He’s part of our history.”
And how did Duran Duran and Rodgers first meet? Le Bon laughs. “It was quite funny – I think we ended up playing hide and seek! We were messing around. There may have been some substance-abuse involved. But that was the 1980s, and that’s what it was like.”