Thursday, July 14, 2016

Throwing Back to 1983: Duran Duran

Where were you when music changed your life?

I was in my room in our pink ranch house, listening to Casey Kasem's American Top 40 on my boom box radio, which is a very, very old sentence to say. Along with the TV shows Dance Fever and Solid Gold, Casey Kasem was expanding my musical range beyond that of my parents' influence.

Not to imply that my parents have poor taste. Quite the opposite. My parents crush it for sorting out the best music. In those days their growing record collection had propulsive disco 45s and long-playing singles, danceable hits like "The Hustle" and "Fly, Robin, Fly." I was taught to carefully lower the turntable needle into the groove for Vicki Sue Robinson, Barry White, Earth Wind & Fire, The Commodores, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone. We never missed Soul Train. The living room radio dial was permanently fixed at 107.5 out of New York. WBLS. All soul and R& B with jazz on Sunday afternoons, and the Quiet Storm really late at night. Slow jams. Luther Vandross, Minnie Riperton, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Sade.

Still, at 13, I was looking for my own musical icons, and for me that meant diving into the mainstream. I turned to Mr. Kasem and Deney Terrio and that lot for new sounds. In retrospect, it was most likely in order to have something in common with my cousins and the other kids in my class. Before long my bedroom walls were covered with pulpy magazine pin-ups and posters of Rick Springfield, David Bowie, Styx, Journey, Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson.

Now, let's see, who was charting in Billboard in '83, the source from whence Casey Kasem spun his weekly Top 40. A quick consult with Wikipedia to collaborate with my memory and my bedroom walls. We had Juice Newton, Air Supply, Supertramp, Barry Manilow, Christopher Cross, Lionel Richie, The Pretenders -- Oh! Culture Club! Now there was an outlier. Clearly something new was afoot with Boy George arriving on the scene with "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" but that masterful new wave pop deity hadn't fully hit my radar yet, and it would be months before "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" got far enough up the charts to share space with "Billie Jean."

Then seemingly out of nowhere, here comes "Hungry Like the Wolf." Things would never be the same again.

From the first trill of girlish laughter that kicks off "Hungry Like the Wolf," I was quite literally stopped in my tracks. The song was so utterly captivating that I just stood there in my room, staring at my mini-boom box, transfixed by the bright bass and the infectious synths and doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo's the likes of which I had never heard before in my scant life. Time slowed down. I can see the whole scene in my mind's eye -- my antique bed with its white eyelet spread, my radio, all of it. It's like the music was saying "This is going to be important. Forget nothing about this moment."

I had no clue who the heck was this Duran Duran. I was too young to have seen Barbarella so I didn't even recognize the reference as the name of the bad guy in that 1960s Jane Fonda soft porn space movie. No Wikipedia, kids. No looking up every iota of information in two seconds.

I wasn't the only one. Before too long, my friends and I were ALL ABOUT Duran Duran. We each picked out our favorite guy and wrote his name all over our book covers and did a lot of other stuff you do when you're a 13-year old girl. I remember one Tiger Beat or some such publication informed us that Nick prides himself on keeping his nails trim, and Simon had studied to become a tree surgeon and prefers blue underwear. Utterly ridiculous from the adult perspective, but at the time, we absorbed every inane factoid as gospel and reveled in every dumb detail. They were our Beatles.

I had dibs on Nick Rhodes. Not only was he simply a stunning beauty with full, effeminate lips, a shock of floppy boyish hair and bold eyeliner, but that 80s synth just never fails to slay me. I wouldn't know until years later that Nick is in large part the primary studio guy for Duran Duran, meaning his gift for synth sounds and songcraft carried a lion's share of the distinctive DD sound.

I still don't think Nick Rhodes gets enough credit, because people see him in live performances pressing one finger on his keys and assume he can't play. You have to understand the programming he does in the studio in order to be able to trigger those sounds with that one finger. He's created and arranged those sounds in advance. He's a genius.

In the video for "Hungry Like the Wolf," notice that Nick is barely in it? That's because the rest of the band went to Sri Lanka to start shooting it ahead of Nick, who remained behind in the studio making magic for the next release.

Though "Hungry Like the Wolf" blew my little mind at first radio listen, who knows where Duran Duran would be today if not for MTV? There might have been better songs out that year, but these five young men were gorgeous, and just in time here comes a platform to exploit their stunning looks and London style. The video launched them into super-stardom. "Hungry Like the Wolf" aired on MTV every two hours, at least.

My friends and I all got our own copies of Rio, and I played mine until my parents wanted to murder me in my sleep. I even named my cat Rio.

Rio is start-to-finish a magic slice of 80s synth pop bliss, and "Hungry Like the Wolf" instantly became a personal and cultural touchstone for me and many members of my generation. My parents had some great records, but Duran Duran showed up at the exact right time and place to become part of the great wave of influence that put my generation on the map, culturally speaking. The "fab five" contributed in a huge way to the rich foundation where we planted our own flag, and it's still there today. It'll always be there. X marks the spot, my loves.

(This essay was part of a "Throwback Thursday" series requested by a friend. A bunch of us did it. You're supposed to post, and write about, one "top favorite" video from the 1980s every Thursday.)

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