Fame and fashion: John Taylor on Duran Duran’s life with David Bowie

With an illustrious five-decade career peppered with covers including Fame, Diamond Dogs, Rebel Rebel, Boys Keep Swinging, Starman, and, most recently, even a bit of Space Oddity, to say that Duran Duran were influenced by and idolised David Bowie is a bit like saying that water is a bit wet. 

Indeed, not only have various band members attempted Suffragette City, TVC 15 and Let’s Dance in concert but Duran also attempted a demo of We Are The Dead, agreed to be the opening act on ten dates of Bowie’s Glass Spider tour AND even bagged the James Bond theme for A View To A Kill after The Dame withdrew from the film project.

Back in 2010 John Taylor, the band’s chisel-jawed bassist, wrote a lovely guest editorial article on his hero for Arena Homme Plus magazine which, seeing as today happens to be JT’s 60th birthday I’m delighted to reproduce here at stevepafford.com.

London 1982 — and the place I most frequently went for after-hours amusement was the Embassy Club on New Bond Street, owned and run by an ex-guardsman, Stephen Hayter, with whom my running-mate Rob Hallett and I got along with well. The Embassy has a place in London’s club folklore for a number of reasons, among them the fact that for several years, Motorhead’s Lemmy was welded to the Space Invaders machine to the left of the main bar. It was like an art installation; just add amphetamines. And it was understood that no one should attempt to interrupt him; he had far too many scary tattoos, and his interest in the Third Reich was well documented. I never saw him buy a drink or use the bathroom. He was an ironman on that machine.

Less of an iron man was Limahl, whom Nick Rhodes discovered one night working at the Embassy, at a fairies and princess party, or something equally daft. Seeing Nick, Limahl, fetchingly dressed in a white silk bodysuit and wings, ran up and slipped him a cassette tape. On it Nick heard Too Shy and recognised it for the hit song it was.

He would in due course take Limahl and his band Kajagoogoo into the studio and produce their debut album. One night, Rob and I were hanging out in the Embassy restaurant when Stephen beckoned for us to join him in his inner sanctum. “You’re gonna like this. Follow me.” In his office sat David Bowie with his friend Sabrina Guinness. I was almost struck dumb.

In 1973, Bowie was king, and deservedly so. He had pulled off a remarkable string of successes. The release of his masterpiece, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was just the beginning.

He also wrote All The Young Dudes for Mott The Hoople, one of his favourite bands, who had split up but regrouped when they heard the song. He produced Transformer for Lou Reed and helped to give Lou his first ever Top 30 hit, and then, most amazingly of all, he muscled his way into Iggy And The Stooges, adding additional production work and mixing their new-metal colossus, Raw Power.

“There is a very sparse backing track for We Are The Dead in existence, but no vocals. Warren [Cuccurullo, Andy Taylor’s axeman replacement] really liked the idea and actually, in hindsight, it may have been a better choice than Diamond Dogs. We never recorded a studio version of Rebel Rebel, but we did play it in our live show fairly regularly during one of the tours.” — The Band in 2013 answering a question on the Thank You sessions

In July 1973, DB was on a massive tour of the United Kingdom, at the end of which he announced his retirement from the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It was a ploy, of course, as we would all learn in time [it was Ziggy retiring, not David], but I remember hearing it on the 8:30 news, sitting on the back seat of the school bus. It was as if the Queen was abdicating her throne, which in a way, I suppose is what it was. [You can buy the ‘farewell speech’ on iTunes, irony-free, for $1.29].

Actually, it was more like the beginning. First Diamond Dogs, then Young Americans, Station To Station and Low. When Roger Taylor and I began to think and play like a rhythm section it was the late-soul period Bowie rhythm section of Dennis Davis [drums] and George Murray [bass] we wanted most to emulate. “Hello, boys,” said David, across Stephen Hayter’s desk, turning to me, “I’ve heard about you.” “Oh, thank you, yes… we, er, we covered Fame,” I tell him, trying to find some common ground with the Thin White Duke. “And Colin Thurston is our producer.” “Ah yes, dear old Colin,” replies David, “How is Colin?”

I hadn’t met many legends at this point in my career. Jimmy Savile? It would never get any better than this for a boy with my roots. He was the perfect gentleman, and Rob and I spent the rest of the evening in his and Sabrina’s company. When we finally de-clubbed, we were on cloud nine as we traipsed back home to our Kilburn flat. “I c-c-c-can’t believe it,” Rob kept saying, in his stuttering south Londonese, “Us and David Bowie.”

John Taylor photographed in his study at South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire on 22 February 2010, courtesy Carsten Windhorst

The next time I met David was when all the members of Duran Duran made the pilgrimage up the Riviera from the chateau we had rented in the Cannes suburb of Valbonne, recording our ‘difficult’ third album, which would be called, Seven And The Ragged Tiger. On the lam, as it were, from the teen hordes of Britain who were dogging our every step, and the tax man. David’s Serious Moonlight tour alighted at the Roman amphitheatre at Fréjus for two nights, and we were all in need of a night off from our own music.

Let’s Dance was on the GTi stereo non-stop that summer, the album that reconnected David with his already sizeable fan base, but built on it, particularly in the USA. Nile Rodgers’ smart, hip pop dance production put DB back at the top of charts, and back into the hearts and minds of us all, enabling him to take up residency as an ‘elder-statesman’ of rock, and not before time. Duran were granted full backstage access and guided to our seats, which were positioned like royal boxes above the stage.

Serious Moonlighting at Fréjus Les Arènes, May 1983, courtesy John Taylor

The venue was almost in the round, and our seats were up and to the side of the stage. I wasn’t comfortable being in view of the audience but we had no choice, and besides, no one else seemed to have a problem with it. Down on the floor, in front of the stage, the fans were working themselves into a froth. It was festival seating, that curious term for ‘standing or sitting on yer arse’, which always has the tendency to get the blood flowing of those in the midst of it, whether waiting on a performance from Green Day or Leonard Cohen.

Of course it happened. One member of the Bowie fan club spotted us, then another, and in a few moments the entire crowd [it seemed] was pointing up at us. It wasn’t much longer before some young swine took up a chant, ‘Wankers, wankers, wankers…’ I was happy when the stage lights dimmed and the show began, thankfully on time. It was a killer band. Tony Thompson from Chic and soon to be Power Station on drums. Carmine Rojas on bass, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitars. Full horn section and backing vocal chorus. Many members of the crack New York session players Nile had used on the record. David did not cheat on the band for the Serious Moonlight. It wasn’t quite as slippery-funky as the Murray/Davis Station To Station band, nor as rock-melodic precise as the Spiders From Mars, but it was contemporary and it had character, and did the songs from all periods justice.

At the interval we were taken backstage to say hello. David looked happy, tanned and fitter than ever, hair blond, suit cool and casual. “He was delving into the realm of the eighties metrosexual world of high fashion, the precursor to what’s called Executive Realness,” as Nile Rodgers put it in Le Freak. And he sure looked to be enjoying himself, maybe because there was nothing paranoid or neurotic about this incarnation, and he could just be himself. This role seemed to say, ‘This is the real DB’. “You’re all so tall,” he said, as we lined up for a portrait together for friend and Serious Moonlight tour photographer, Denis O’Regan*. A strange thing to say, I reflected later, as only Simon and I are taller than the Thin White One. The epitome of graciousness once again, he said goodbye and ran off to the stage for part two of the show.

A few years later in the New York office of RZO. Bill Zysblat is both David’s business manager and ours. Duran have a new album, Notorious, due out, and David is about to release Never Let Me Down. Neither of us have been on tour in the US since each of our relative blockbuster tours – his Serious Moonlight, ours the Seven And The Ragged Tiger Tour immortalised in the Sing Blue Silver documentary. Bill Zysblat’s plan is to put us out on the road together for shows across the US — that the potential for big business is obvious. He sells us the idea as equal billing, “Although David will go on last, obviously.” “Of course Bill,” we say, “we’re fine with that.” Sadly, neither album would do the hoped for business. Au contraire.

At least we have one bona fide hit single on Notorious. David is back in the boondocks with his album. Hindsight seems to suggest it was the lowest artistic point in his career. But the show must go on. The joint tour kicks off in Denver, Colorado, at the Mile High Stadium, and moves north from there across the border into Western Canada. His stage set is enormous, though not terribly cool. It’s a giant glass spider, hence the tour’s title, the Glass Spider Tour. David had written the song Glass Spider about black widow spiders, whose webs, he felt, reminded him of council estates. The damn set dwarfs all the equipment we have brought with us. Our gear has to jam onto the few feet left available, practically on the lip of the stage, not leaving us much room to strut our stuff. Every night we noticed how the entire centre-floor section in front of the stage would be empty during our set.

Turned out David would be having his Pepsi-sponsored meet and greet with his keenest fans at that time. It wasn’t personal, happens all the time, but it was a rude awakening and not fun for us. It was a lesson in an industry truism, that ‘If you ain’t closing, you’re opening?’ Sharing drinks in the gents toilets with David post-show at some lumberjack beer-hall in Edmonton, I have no idea what is in his glass. On a Lennon kick myself I’m interested in talking to him about the Nowhere Man. Would John Lennon have hung out and shot the shit with us if he was here now? “Absolutely,” David was convinced, “He was one of the boys.”

Spring 1990 — My first wife Amanda de Cadenet and I fly to Rome to see David’s Sound + Vision tour at the PalaEUR. After the show David and his girlfriend Melissa are back in our room at the Hotel Hassler. Noting the Moroccan scarves I have draped over the bedside lights to give the room some atmosphere, David chuckles to himself, “Ah, there’s a little bit of Keith in all of us…”

We decide to go shopping the following day in the Spanish steps shopping district. The paparazzi go crazy and soon there is a large crowd of ragazzi following us down the Via della Carrozze. It becomes clear we aren’t going to be doing any clothes shopping today. David says, “Maybe we should write a song called Does It Come in Black?” That’s a bloody good song title I still think, and would still like to write, although it’s unlikely now it will be a joint composition.

A Roma, April 1990

I last saw David at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, at a Fashion Rocks event when he performed with Arcade Fire. And that was it. After curating the High Line Festival for the city of New York David slipped off the grid. Extraordinary in this paparazzi decade how anyone can do that, but David has done a real Garbo on us all. Bravo! Some say he haunts the downtown cafes in the disguise of Keyser Soze, another rumour involves an upstate dairy farm. Maybe he has gone to the moon. Quality time with the kids, is what I’m assuming, what I hope for him. 

It’s hard to believe now just how available David was in times gone by, when he too was ‘just one of the lads’. What we wish we had told him. The most frequently repeated conversation between Nick Rhodes and I on our recent world tour: “Wouldn’t it be good to see him, just one more time?” ”Yes, even just to give him a hug…” Seriously, what could you say to the man who changed everything, and made anything possible? Raised the artistic bar for our generation of writers and artists by an almost indecent degree?

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the love for DB in the industry of music is a video message recently posted by Nile Rodgers, Quincy ]ones and Mark Ronson, offering their services to David if or when he should choose to come out of retirement for one more album. Imagine that!

I told a friend how on a recent visit to New York I found myself in David’s neighbourhood, looking upward at his apartment building. “You were stalking him,” said the friend. “No, not at all,” I replied, “But you know, if he had happened to step into the street as I walked past, that would have been great. “You were stalking!” my friend insisted. I continue to deny it, but you know what they say, ‘Once a fan…’ I saw Iman not too long ago and told her, please, to tell David how much we love him. “He knows,” she replied sweetly.

Transcription by Salvo at duranasty.com, edited by Steve Pafford

“He’s always been God to me. I love everything he’s done. He was so important to me growing up, and helped me towards a sense of identity. And having been lucky enough to get to know him a little, I can say that he’s a proper gentleman and hasn’t in any way disappointed me. He’s a proper artist. It’s all about the music, and the attendant fame means nothing to him. He always conducts himself perfectly too, which is inspiring in itself. You worry about meeting your heroes, but with David there‘s been nothing at all to fear.” — Simon Le Bon, 2005

“I think David Bowie owned the ‘70s. When you think of what he did it’s just such a mind-boggling amount of work. I think David, more than anyone, allowed artists the luxury of being able to experiment.” — Nick Rhodes, 2005

Postscript: After the Starman’s departure from Planet Earth, John Taylor spoke with Atlanta Music Scene’s Melissa Ruggieri in April of 2016

He was like a creative parent, mentor, friend. We toured America with him. He was always such a great guy, positive and upbeat. The ‘70s was the rock decade, and he, more than anybody, showed what a limitless imagination could bring. He left us such an extraordinary legacy.

You had this sequence of musical developments that had really fabulous visual imagery. That’s really what Bowie did that no one had really done. Prince and Madonna took Bowie on in the ‘80s. He was moving very quickly, he was very light on his feet. But that was back in the day before world tours and you had to put three years between album releases.

I think the really compelling aspect of his journey, he became this rock star in Britain in ‘73, and then he was the first white singer to do Soul Train, then he let go of that identity and came to America and got an R&B band together and became this white soul singer. NOBODY did that. Jagger couldn’t do it. Rod Stewart couldn’t do it. Nobody has pulled that off.

When I became a bass player, the two biggest influences were Chic and David Bowie’s rhythm section from the Station To Station album. The song Stay, that’s what Roger and I were trying to emulate.

John Taylor, April 2016

*Photographer Denis O’Regan remembers that “at the Sebel Townhouse in Sydney I introduced David to my old friends Duran Duran again (I’d first done so in France earlier in the tour), but interestingly they spent a lot of time speaking to David’s drummer Tony Thompson from Chic. Later he joined the Duran Duran offshoot group Power Station.”

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