The greatest music debuts of all time #9: Duran Duran’s Planet Earth. First stop Milton Keynes

Viewed by insufferable rock snobs as little more than a boy band whose appeal was mainly to teenage girls, at their peak Duran Duran were actually five great musicians and one of the great British singles bands of the 1980s. No, really. And it all started with a 45 beamed down from the future via a shiny new shopping centre in Milton Keynes — my local high street at the time, I kid you not. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, this is Planet Earth.

Formed in the industrial West Midlands of England where the hardly glamorous outer fringes of Birmingham meet the rolling hills of Worcestershire, Duran Duran emerged out of the state-funded art-school free-for-all of the late 1970s. Though their naked ambition and peak years of success and excess would coincide with those of Margaret Thatcher; embodying the perfect eighties capitalist paradigm that heralded a new world more brash than brave. It’s difficult to imagine they could have existed at any other time. 

The end of the decade was undoubtedly a cultural crossroads, and inspired by their mutual love of Mick Ronson, Roxy Music and Chic, in 1978 school friends and Bowie fiends Nick Rhodes (synthesisers and keyboards) and John Taylor (guitar turned bass) made their first baby steps in putting a band together, settling on drummer Roger Taylor (no relation) and trying out a succession of would-be band members that included future Kiss Me hitmaker and Robbie Williams collaborator Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, who effectively band-swapped with TV Eye’s vocalist Andy Wickett. Wickett’s early Duran demos were rescued from the vaults in 2016 and include super angsty embryonic versions of Rio and Girls On Film. Watch out for the Blackstar reference.

“When John and I first heard David Bowie, he was certainly an inspiration for us to become musicians. To my mind, without doubt, he created the most interesting and compelling catalogue of 70s music. We met somewhere, some place in the early 1980s and we got along just fine, cos Kent ain’t so far away from Worcestershire.” — Nick Rhodes, duranduran.com (2002)

In February 1980, Nick and John chanced upon a night spot advertisement inspired in no small part by Steve Strange’s Visage and the whole Blitz club crowd, as Taylor recalled in his 2012 memoir In The Pleasure Groove: “Walking up Hill Street, we noticed posters for a ‘Bowie Night’ at a nightclub called the Rum Runner. ‘New Sounds, New Styles’, the poster promised. Looks interesting. We walked up to Broad Street and knocked on the door.”

After listening to Duran’s demo tapes, Rum Runner owners Paul and Michael Berrow agreed to give the band rehearsal space and casual employment in the club so they wouldn’t have to take day jobs (John works the door, Nick DJs, Roger collects glasses). Berrow had the foresight to see Duran Duran as the natural heirs to Roxy Music, and, of course, a fascination with David Bowie was par for the course for a group of guys who looked like they’d walked out of a salon modelling his every tonsorial whim of the previous 10 years.

Early and girly

Now joined by Geordie guitarist Andy Taylor (also no relation) and, finally, Pinner-raised vocalist Simon Le Bon, the entrepreneurial Berrow brothers took on management duties, their conviction that the five-piece would eventually hit the big time was such that Michael Berrow mortgaged his house to finance a tour opening for Breaking Glass star Hazel O’Connor. Their faith would be repaid handsomely as a record company bidding war broke out, with London’s EMI group emerging victorious, the senior if slightly uncool British major that had Queen, Kate Bush and the Beatles catalogue.

Sharing the post punk (post Low, post Ferry) vogue for alienation and ennui, Duran provided a beatifically languid counterpoint to the taut, grey anxiety of Joy Division. Though they had their detractors from the outset, particularly NME journalist Paul Morley, who, much later on, admitted, “I hated them, in the ‘80s. I hated them from the point of view of a rock critic taking pop seriously, even when it was just for fun. They fancied themselves as not so much the made-up boy band they clearly were – the pretty one, the chubby one, the moody one, possibly the talented one, etc – but as Peel-listening pop conceptualists mixing the Sex Pistols with Chic. (Wanton English energy and brazen processed disco, an interesting formula I may have stolen when working with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, my personal chart retort to Dreary Dreary.)”

“Where did the name come from? Every fan knows that. From the film Barbarella, a masterpiece of Euro-kitsch which starred Jane Fonda as the most gorgeous astronaut detective the galaxy has ever seen, who is sent on a mission to ‘Find Durand-Durand and… preserve the security of the stars.’ So why not Durand-Durand the band? Because you cant hear the final ds in the film, nor the hyphen, and there was no imdb.com back then.” — John Taylor, In The Pleasure Groove (2012)

Big in Duran

After honing their live act for much of the latter half of 1980, in release terms the first signs of life came when Duran’s debut was released on Monday 2 February 1981. With its discordant disco pop firmly in the angular art category, Planet Earth was a gloriously catchy sci-fi adventure that owed a sly debt of gratitude to Japan’s Quiet Life, right down to the flickering, flanged opening replicating a helicopter hovering ahead.

Despite both bands’ indebtedness to Donna Summer’s pioneering ‘70s records with Giorgio Moroder, it was the kind of inspiration that could have been brazened out much easier had Nick Rhodes not turned himself into a custard-mopped clone of David Sylvian almost simultaneously. Japan’s synthmeister Richard Barbieri said once that he owns a very early Duran Duran demo tape of that Nick and John had given him in the vain hope the Catford lads might produce them. Let’s get technical. 

“The sequencer was in fact a Prophet 5, the flanged sound on the intro is a Roland Jupiter 4 processed by an MXR flanger. The string sound is a Crumar Performer and the other parts are a combination of Prophet and Jupiter 4.” — Nick Rhodes, duranduran.com, 2002

With Le Bon’s trademark keening, ebullient vocals veering on just the right side of in tune, the name-checking of a fashionista fad very much in its infancy earned the quintet the distinction of the first record that explicitly mentioned the burgeoning New Romantic movement… and the derision of their cooler Blitz kid contemporaries in London that were living it.

Chisel-cheeked tall one John Taylor admitted the oh-so-current scene-dropping was an “opportunistic” attempt to get their foot in the door, even if Rhodes claimed it was laced with sarcasm: “That was kind of cheeky of us, actually,” the bassist told the A.V. Club in 2012. “A journalist had written an article about a band in London called Spandau Ballet, and the headline of the article was ‘Here Come the New Romantics’ or something along those lines… I remember reading it and thinking, ‘Wow, it sounds like they’re doing exactly what we’re doing,’ and calling the journalist and saying, ‘Hey, if you like them, you’re gonna love us!’ And then in the meantime, I thought, ‘Let’s put that “New Romantic” phrase into one of our songs!’”

Andy Taylor: so photogenic

Nevertheless, Duran were thinking bigger than an achingly trendy club scene where their soon to be arch rivals were the house band. The Brummie boys had set their sights on the very thing they were singing about on their debut single. The fivesome would make Planet Earth their success manifesto, though their first port of call was a new town with a bit of a Napoleon complex that had suddenly sprung up from the green belt of the Buckinghamshire countryside. Though I just called it home.

Strategically placed to be equidistant not only from London and Birmingham but also the historic university hubs of Oxford and Cambridge, if anyone identified with true blue aspirational Milton Keynes it was the even newer Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Despite not being in need of a new handbag, Thatch was more than happy to officially open MK’s modernist new shopping centre (CMK for short) at the front entrance to the John Lewis department store just five months after being swept to power in the Conservative landslide of 1979.

Plant Earth

Scores of shoppers with heavy wallets used to flock from all over the country to see this futuristic marvel, half a mile in length and at the time the largest covered complex in the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Attracting the new and the extremely old, even roller-skating closet Cliff Richard got in on the act, shimmering and sashaying around this marvellous mirrored Mecca for his Wired For Sound video. 

The march on modernity naturally included the Duran boys, who’d undergone their first photo session for EMI in the same spot as Cliff a few months before him. In MK nerdspeak, it’s the eastern end of Midsummer Arcade, along the tiled south wall of John Lewis on the very day my mother was working there, desperately trying to get to grips with the new computerised tills. Styled by Perry Haines and photographed by Andy Earl, despite the space age synchronicity, one of the CMK photos would end up as the 12″ cover photo for Planet Earth and not the more popular 7”.

A second batch of snaps were done with Earl later the same day at — you ready for this? — Cotton Valley sewage works on the eastern extremity of the ‘city’. In fact, the boys would have passed our house to get to it on the seven minute drive from the shopping centre. As old as me, the dystopian wastewater treatment plant was a place my school friends and I would sometimes hang out at and giggle at the “rubber johnnies” floating about in the open-air pools. No one said we were normal. 

Planet Earth peaked at No 12 on the singles chart dated 21 February, with the band’s eponymously titled album following in June, reaching an impressive number three and a two-year stay on the UK chart. Immaculately produced by Colin Thurston, who’d helped shape David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s Berlin albums “Heroes”  and Lust For Life (both 1977), you could make a solid argument that the band’s debut remains their best record. As MOJO magazine would surmise later on: “Take Roxy Music, add Kraftwerk, and sprinkle on some Chic, and the result is Duran Duran”.

Cascading space-age synthesizers, crunchy post-punk guitars, funky disco-inspired bass lines that Bernard Edwards would kill for, and idiosyncratic songwriting that explored a darker territory than the unabashedly pop singles might let on. And speaking of the singles, Rio may have propelled them to world domination but there isn’t an album in the band’s catalogue that possesses the 1-2-3 knockout punch of their first 45s Planet Earth, the zig-zagging Careless Memories, and their first top tenner Girls On Film; the latter’s stuttering Love Is The Drug style syncopation a highpoint that even Girls Aloud’s kooky cover couldn’t untangle.  

The record was art-school unorthodoxy meets pop futurism, and it felt thoroughly modern—the idea of new wave (and New Romanticism) writ large, even if To The Shore* had a melodic if clumsy, grasping at just-out-of-reach depth. Much better is the danceable almost-single Anyone Out There. Its staccato guitar and solid Taylor & Taylor rhythm section steal the show, in particular Roger’s intricate drum and high-hat work. But also, in the song’s final fifty seconds, John’s propulsive, driving bass comes to the fore, an obvious if affectionate nod to George Murray’s work on the then recently released Ashes To Ashes by DD icon David Bowie.

Take a look at the second side, and you’ll see an even bolder beast altogether, arriving before Duran realised that pop was their forte. Almost as if the boys were attempting to compose their own version of the moody experimental second side of Bowie’s Low, where Berlin meets Birmingham at a beach hut in Brazil. Sound Of Thunder is a bizarro Planet Earth, propelled by a similar flanged synthesizer loop awash in minor chords. With its ominous lyrics about shadows and fog and drowning and other dark materials, Night Boat could serve as atmospheric background music to a spooky zombie film, while the mysterious Friends Of Mine, a BJ favourite, is disconcertingly edgy, like The Clash covering Heart of Glass, or Blondie covering London Calling. (To the surprise of no one, Duran would write a couple of songs for Debbie Harry’s band many years later. In the business, they call this a tease.)

Finishing with the icy cool instrumental Tel Aviv and its swerving, orchestral-like backdrop, Duran Duran showed a depth and versatility that precious little of their New Romantic peers could come close to replicating. 

Some of the B-sides from this nascent era weren’t bad either – which  included a cover of The Dame’s Fame, the first of many Bowie covers that continued with Five Years in January 2021. Soon Duran Duran would evolve from rouged ruffle-necked androgynes to tanned slave labour adventurers and Bond theme suppliers, ironically replacing Bowie. Five pretty boys (OK, four plus Andy) who espoused consumerism, materialism, style over substance, fashion over passion.

In a way, after getting the New Romantic look out of their systems, Duran became the Roxy of the Eighties, all suave élan with a distinctive yuppie edge. And that yacht rock in the Caribbean video for Rio cemented the hate in their detractors’ minds. Summing up, Robert Smith, The Cure’s resident shoe gazer, explained how the fab five came to stand for everything he despised about music in the 1980s: “It was generally Duran Duran, which is really sad because they loved us and they used to come to our shows,” he admitted. “But they represented everything we hated: the whole glamorous eighties consumer bullshit; this horror show that we were up against.”

Then again, perhaps some people are easily scared. Despite the adversity and their own arty imaginations, Duran also managed to ride the era’s musical changes better than most. They may have begun as prime movers on the synthpop scene along with Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and the Human League, but before long, they were dominating the singles and albums charts and becoming key players in the MTV revolution. And they were almost alone – the Mode being one of the few other exceptions – in making the transition into the nineties and beyond. With 14 Top 10 UK singles and an alleged 100 million total record sales worldwide, Duran Duran have earned their place in the pantheon of all-time pop greats. Bop bop bop bop bop bop bop bop.

Steve Pafford

Sources: The Guardian, Classic Pop, Becci James

BONUS BEATS: *The Duran Duran album and its attendant singles did little in the States first time round. But with Rio shooting up the US charts, Capitol reissued the debut in 1983 with a brand new recording to replace To The Shore (however incongruously) and maximise sales. Duran always wore their Bowie and Roxy influences on their frilly sleeves but for Is There Something I Should Know? the Fab Five looked to the Fab Four for inspiration. With its harmonised chorus/opening chant of “Please please tell me now” it could have been an early Beatles song, to say nothing of the guitar tones and vocal intonations. As if to hammer the point home the boys all wear cute matching shirts with tucked-in ties in the video. Across the pond, the orphaned single achieved the rare feat of crashing straight into the UK charts in pole position, the only 45 of the year to do so (it would be dethroned by Bowie’s Nile Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance in the process). Put that in your tent Karma feckin’ Chameleon.

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