Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You Can Never Go Home: Duran Duran and R.E.M.

Duran Duran

There was a time in the world of pop music when two bands, Duran Duran from Birmingham, England and R.E.M. from Athens, Georgia, became the reliable supply to radio stations interested in being hip, yet still accessible with their formats. Both groups started in the late 70s just as punk and new wave music were emerging on commercial radio. These groups basically came to represent what we now call “alternative.”

Duran Duran, who were named after the villain in the 1968 film, Barbarella, directed by Roger Vadim, charted their own course by shaping their music and their appearance in what was called the “New Romantic” movement of British bands such as Spandau Ballet. I simply considered them now a British dance band with good hooks and high production values. To their credit, Duran Duran was one of the first acts to issue 12-inch extended re-mixes to club DJs.

R.E.M. was the genuine, original, college radio rock band. They launched themselves in 1980 with one of their great hits, “Radio Free Europe,” a song that garnered them a lot of attention from the get-go. They, too, had a string of great singles all peddled by the new video channels around the world. The kicker was the fact that R.E.M. made the slow, steady climb to pop stardom, while Duran Duran had immediate success following the release of the soft-porn video, “Girls on Film.” It featured topless women mud wrestling, fighting with pillows among other suggestive sexual depictions. It was released originally as a closed-circuit video for dance clubs, but the newly launched MTV was desperate for content before the video directed by Godley & Crème was released. It was a smash hit leading to a string of singles by the group that brought them international attention.

R.E.M.’s success was built around a series of albums, Reckoning (1984), Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and their breakthrough record, Document (1987) garnering the hit “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).” R.E.M.’s appeal was due mostly to the song-writing talent of lead singer, Michael Stipe. His lyrics were well-written, introspective and personal. By 1992, Automatic For The People was a huge crossover hit with well-directed videos to back it up. When drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, the group then continued as a trio.  The band toured regularly and released a few albums that were at best, hit and miss, musically speaking. If it wasn’t for a series of remastered back catalogue reissues, with the occasional new album, R.E.M.’s star would have faded.

Duran Duran, who’s teen audience was beginning to wane by 1985, looked like a split was in the ready, particularly when John Taylor and Andy Taylor took on a side project with Robert Palmer called Power Station. That band’s power funk combo stopped the momentum Duran Duran had enjoyed once peaking in 1984 at the Live Aid concert.  After that, lead singer Simon LeBon made appearances doing large scale benefit concerts with Amnesty International and even performed with Luciano Pavarotti at the latter’s benefit concert in Italy. Duran Duran’s last big hit was “Ordinary World” in 1993. The band split and reunited on a couple of occasions driven by their success in Europe leading to a reunion of the original members in 2010.

This brings us to 2011 and new releases by Duran Duran with All You Need Is Now (S Curve) and R.E.M.’s Collapse into Now (Warner Bros.) These two records seek to recapture the early years in style and presentation.

Mark Ronson, veteran musician who’s most famous work made Amy Winehouse a household name (Back in Black), produced All You Need Is Now. Consequently, the sound is an up-tempo, dance beat with little room for innovation, or music that could be classified as current. That record for Duran Duran was the well produced and musically interesting album of 2007 called Red Carpet Massacre featuring Justin Timberlake. All You Need Is Now features the original band line-up (except Roger Taylor): Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Andy Taylor. It has reached Number One on the iTunes downloading list and has received critical acclaim from the Rock Press, such as Rolling Stone and Mojo magazines.

Alas, I am not among them.

This is a record that falls short of anything Duran Duran did on Red Carpet Massacre, in an attempt to recreate the sound of the old days. (Why some groups bother to do this is beyond me.) All You Need Is Now features a strong lead vocal from Le Bon on this record supported by the classic synth-pop beat of their early work. But nothing on this album suggests to me that they are doing anything fresh. The songs come and go with little to remember them by making this a forgettable record in every way possible.

I’m afraid the same has to be said for R.E.M.’s Collapse Into Now. Recorded in Berlin, New Orleans and Nashville, this record fails to capture the imagination, let alone the ear with its stock electric licks at the top, (“Discoverer” and “All the Best”) to a badly mixed duet with Patti Smith on “Blue.” This is an album that features a cross-section of musical styles that R.E.M. has always felt comfortable playing: rock songs, acoustic ballads and mid-tempo pop tunes. Trouble is, they aren’t songs that stick like “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Hurts.” Try as he might, Michael Stipe’s lyrics have become banal and simplistic which leaves the record sounding forced and uninspired. The youthful angst and self-identity crises that drove the emotion of Stipe and his band mates for nearly two decades has faded into cliché lyrics and flat-lined guitar licks. One reason for this might be guitarist Peter Buck’s side projects, namely, The Baseball Project and Robyn Hitchcock’s Venus 3. Consequently, Collapse Into Now is largely shapeless and serves to mimic R.E.M.’s classic sound. It is truly an “Imitation of Life.”

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director. He first saw Duran Duran at the El Mocambo in Toronto in 1981.

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