IN the 1980s, Duran Duran unashamedly indulged in every excess. Three decades on, singer Simon Le Bon tells Sarah Freeman why he has no regrets.
Simon Le Bon is in Los Angeles. It’s quiet, not even the slightest breeze is blowing and the atmosphere doesn’t suit him much.
“It’s so still, absolutely nothing is happening, I don’t like that, it makes me nervous.” Le Bon, Duran Duran’s charismatic frontman, has rarely had much down time since he made his screen debut in a Persil washing powder, at the age of five.
By the time he was out of his teens, he had sung in the church choir, auditioned for a punk band, starred in several West End theatre productions and had just finished a spell working on a kibbutz. He was just 21 years old when he was introduced by an ex-girlfriend to John Taylor and Nick Rhodes in a Birmingham nightclub. The childhood friends had formed Duran Duran a few years earlier and with Le Bon as their frontman they quickly emerged as poster boys for the New Romantic movement.
That was back in 1981, but 30 years on, little, aside from the fashion and a noticeable reduction of eye make-up, has changed. While some bands from the era reappear every so often to run through the old hits, Duran Duran have kept on recording and aside from the occasional break and parting company with guitarist Andy Taylor, it’s the same line-up which was plastered on many a teenage girl’s bedroom wall all those years ago.
When we speak, Le Bon is midway through a gruelling world tour. He looks considerable younger than 52 and admits that just as he did in the 1980s when the band were at the height of their fame he prefers to live very much in the present.
“When I’m on tour, I operate on a need to know basis. I don’t need to know where we’ve been or where we are going to be next week, I just need someone to tell me where I need to be right now. It’s best that way, otherwise I’d look at the schedule and start to panic that we’re taking too much on.”
He could be right. With a UK tour on the horizon, they’ve been playing five shows a week. It’s more intensive schedule than they ever had in the early days when the band made sure there was ample window set aside for hedonism, not that Le Bon’s complaining.
“When you’re on tour, you get on a plane, go to a hotel, if you’re lucky get a chance to read a book and then you’re on stage. It can feel a little bit like groundhog day, but you just have to accept it, it’s part of what we do and God, we’re lucky to be doing it. We write music and get to play it to people, it’s not a bad way to make a living.”
The band’s 13th album All You Need is Now was released earlier this year. It was widely received as a return to form after the disappointment of 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre and a nod to their earlier hits like Planet Earth and Rio. When Duran Duran first hit the charts, MTV had just launched and the band were quick to exploit the potential of music videos. The first, for Girls on Film, was banned by the BBC which felt a female masseuse in stocking and suspenders wasn’t appropriate material for the Top of the Pops audience, but their efforts also earned Duran Duran the title of the “prettiest boys in rock”. As their female fan base exploded, it was a rare edition of a teen music magazine which didn’t have a photo of Duran Duran somewhere on the cover and with their videos seemingly on a permanent loop on MTV,
Le Bon and the rest of the band took full advantage of the adulation which followed. While serious critics were busy dismissing them as lightweight, Duran Duran broke America, forcing New York police to seal off streets around Time Square when a record signing spiralled out of control. If their personal appearances were riotous, behind the scenes things were even more chaotic. Duran Duran spent much of the decade fuelled by drink and drugs, living for a while in a French chateau and regularly pictured on yachts unashamedly revelling in the luxury life fame had brought them. Today Le Bon remains refreshingly unapologetic about the excesses of the 1980s
“That was then and this is now. If I was still doing some of the things I did back then, I’d have reason to cringe, but I don’t. It was different times. We were young, living a surreal life and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do again. The shenanigans we got up to were legendary. I once filled a room with drugs just by sneezing, but you know what we laughed then and we are still laughing now. The problem for some people is that they take themselves far too seriously. That’s one thing we can never be accused of.” The 1980s are an endless source of fond memories for Le Bon, not least because it was when he met his wife, the supermodel Yasmin Parvaneh.
The couple married in 1985 and settled in Putney where they raised their three exotically named daughters, Rose Tamara, Saffron Sahara and Tallulah Pine. The girls are grown-up now, but the family are close and they recently flew out to see dad play the Coachello Festival in California, a performance which reminded Le Bon just why he keeps on going.
“We were third on the bill which was just perfect. We got on stage just as the sun was setting and for the first time that day people relaxed and started cooling down. It was beautiful. We played an hour long set which is just long enough to get the audience on side. I stood there at one point and saw 100,000 hands waving in unison.
“Yasmin and the girls were there, it was perfect. Moments like that make even the downsides of touring more than worth it. Besides, we haven’t got a clue what else to do. We don’t want to open hotels, we don’t want to start our own clothing line, we just want to write music and we’ve been lucky to be able to do that for the last 30 years.”
Part of the reason for Duran Duran’s longevity is the refusal to remain trapped in the decade which brought them to world attention. While they may no longer be accompanied everywhere they go by the deafening sound of screaming fans, they’ve earned the respect of many in the business, most recently collaborating with current industry darling Mark Ronson on All You Need Is Now.
“We’d been eyeing each other up across the dancefloor for a while. We knew Mark had been a fan of us as a kid and a few years ago we happened to finally meet up and asked him direct if he wanted to work with us. He’s incredibly talented. He produced a megamix of Duran Duran songs, not just the hits but some really obscure stuff , mixed in with riffs from Prince and Blur’s Song 2. It was fantastic, but pretty relentless, it wasn’t the sort of thing you could do live. After a while, he said, ‘If you want to make an album with me I’d love to do it’. Let’s just say we didn’t give him time to have second thoughts.
“It was important to have someone who was coming from it from a fan’s perspective. We’d made Red Carpet Massacre with Timbaland and it wasn’t what the fans wanted. I still love that album, but sometimes you can be a little bit too ambitious and by the time we realised it was too late. We knew that if the next album was a flop, that there might be no more new albums and we would have to just tour all the old stuff.
“Mark reminded us what we were about. He said to us, ‘Listen to the Killers, they sound exactly like Duran Duran did in the early days’. He stripped everything back and it just felt right.”
Even a band as successful as Duran Duran – at the last count they had sold 100 million albums – it seems sometimes need a little friendly advice. “People talk of the difficult second album syndrome, ours was a difficult third album,” he says, referring to Seven and the Ragged Tiger, the album which produced Reflex, their second and final UK number one. “Mark himself said that was the one he was disappointed with growing up. He said he felt we had moved towards the middle too much. For this latest album, he wanted us to go back to the early avant garde spirit of the ’80s. A lot of rubbish is written about that decade, but more than anything else it was responsible for so much creativity, not just in music, but across the arts. It gave birth to a lot of people who went in fearless pursuit of craftsmanship. Back then, I would agonise about every note and I still do.”
The last three decades have been good to Duran Duran and as he reflects on where it all began in that dingy Birmingham nightclub he knows they were lucky to have started out when they did.
“The music industry doesn’t focus on artists the way they used to do. When we were first around, there was Top of the Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test and a million other ways of getting yourself known. People say the internet has opened music up to everyone, but I’m not sure about that. If you look at who the big stars are today, well you’ve got Lady Gaga at the forefront, but everyone else is part of the general background. We were very lucky that we really caught the attention of the world and it’s given us slightly legendary status. However, good they are, the Kings of Leon will never have that because of the way the industry has changed.”
“We set out to be the biggest band in the world and you know what, for a little while we were.”
Duran Duran play Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena on June 4. 0114 256 5656, www.motorpointarena.co.uk