Simon Le Bon Wears Blue Underpants
We had almost reached our destination, the massive, modern National Exhibition Centre outside Birmingham, England, when it happened. Simon Le Bon sneezed. And he kachooed with such force that he popped off the buttons that were holding up his black, silver-studded trousers.
Given the circumstances, this could only be viewed as a major catastrophe. After all, this was the Simon Le Bon. The man who, even though his voice didn't break until he was seventeen, is now the lead singer for Duran Duran, one of the most popular bands in the world. The man who, even though he was never very popular with girls in school and didn't have his first real girlfriend until the age of fifteen or sixteen, is now one of pop music's biggest sex symbols, his picture adorning the bedroom walls of countless little girls. And there he was, standing in the aisle of the band's plush tour bus, with his pants — the very pants he intended to wear onstage that night—popped open at the waist. Gad.
If Duran Duran were like most other rock bands, Simon simply could have changed trousers at the arena. But as they toured their native country just before Christmas, Duran Duran weren't just any old rock group. They were a rock group on a real roll: Their third and latest album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, had already reached Number One in the U.K., while in America it had sold more than a million copies within a couple of weeks of its release. And because of that popularity, the group had taken to dressing for their shows at their hotel and dashing in and out of their concert halls, thereby avoiding the mayhem that can result from hordes of prepubescent girls straining to get a glimpse of the band members, or an autograph, or even a piece of their clothing. A button, perhaps.
As a result, it was imperative that something be done about Simon's pants. Quickly. So as the bus roared closer and closer to the arena, the twenty-five-year-old Le Bon — he swears it's his real name, claiming Huguenot ancestors who moved to England in the fifteenth century (never mind that the Huguenots only date back to sixteenth-century France) — peeled off his trousers and handed them over to the band's two Australian wardrobe women.
As the seamstresses set about sewing on some new buttons, I pondered the situation: an honest-to-God teen idol standing right there in front of me, wearing only a vest, a T-shirt and a pair of underpants. Blue underpants, mind you. It was not, frankly, a particularly awe-inspiring sight. Le Bon, you see, is no John Travolta when it comes to physiques. Not a slob, just slightly chubby legs, a little bit of a gut.
But, then, Simon's problem used to be worse. A while back, it's said, his fellow band members had taken to referring to him as "Lardo." Still, he wasn't too pleased about the pants, and even a positive review of one of Duran Duran's concerts earlier in the week, shown to him by the group's publicist, failed to boost Le Bon's spirits. "The picture," Simon snorted, "makes me look like Porky Pig."
With perfect timing, the wardrobe women finished their work just as the coach wheeled its way up to the arena's backstage entrance. Inside the hall, as a full house of 11,500 teens and preteens waited for their heroes, four young boys on the main floor were basking in their own few minutes of celebrity. Immaculately decked out as Duran Duran carbon copies, the boys signed autographs and posed for pictures with the Durannies, as the band's fans have come to be called in England. So thrilled were the girls that they didn't refer to these young men by their own names but by the names of the real band members: "Simon!" "John!" "Nick!" After all, if you can't have the real thing....
When the lights went down, the crowd, of course, went nuts. It was the kind of scene that's been played over and over again in pop music, from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to the Beatles to Rick Springfield. Girls crying. Girls fainting. Girls screaming. At times, the audience created such a din that even if one could hear the band's music, it was impossible to concentrate on it. Not that it probably mattered to a good portion of the crowd. As Andy Taylor, Duran Duran's twenty-two-year-old guitarist, somewhat glumly pointed out a few days later, "It's been said that we could probably go up onstage and fart and it wouldn't make any difference."
Not that Duran Duran did that. Inspired by their own childhood idols—Queen, David Bowie, Roxy Music — these guys believe in putting on a show. And on this British tour, they were putting on their flashiest show yet: extra musicians (a percussionist, a sax player, two backup singers), tons of lights, six Roman columns across the back of the stage. Sure, its grandness smacked of pretentiousness, the extra musicians seemed to serve little purpose, and Le Bon's tortured singing and klutzy dancing were at times an embarrassment.
But Duran Duran delivered all a fan could have asked for in the way of music: an hour-and-a-half-long set, replete with the group's numerous hit singles, like "Rio," "Planet Earth," "Hungry Like the Wolf," "Girls on Film," "Is There Something I Should Know?" and their latest smash, "Union of the Snake." Still, the highlight of the show had nothing to do with those songs. It had to do with Simon, who, midway through the set, suddenly stopped dancing and raced over to the side of the stage for assistance. The pants had popped again.
Boys on Film
"It's funny," mused Andy Taylor, "but a year ago this time, we couldn't have sold eggs in America."
Taylor was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a bedroom in the three-story house he shares with his wife, Tracie Wilson Taylor, his brother, and one of Tracie's brothers. Situated in a residential section of Wolverhampton, a city with a population of about a quarter-million located about a half-hour's drive from the center of Birmingham, the house looks like the kind of place any upper-middle-class professional would own: furniture that might have been bought at Conran's; good, though not extravagant, stereo equipment; a video machine.
Like the other members of Duran Duran, Andy has invested a good portion of his earnings in houses: he also owns a loft in London and a cottage on a couple of acres of land outside Birmingham, where he and his wife can raise animals, a particular passion of theirs. Simon Le Bon and his girlfriend, Claire Stansfield, have just purchased an apartment in her hometown of Toronto and are looking for a place in London. Keyboardist Nick Rhodes has a house in a chic section of London, while bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor (none of the band's three Taylors is related) still live in Birmingham, though they, too, are scouting around for places in England's capital.
The money for those houses has largely come from the band's enormous success in Great Britain, where they have had a string of nine hit singles dating back to 1981's "Planet Earth." But, as Andy Taylor was pointing out, the group's rise to international stardom wasn't made complete until Duran Duran finally cracked the U.S. market.
It was early last year that Duran Duran's fortunes in the U.S. began to change. The reason was MTV. From the group's inception, Duran Duran had invested a good deal of time and money on videos. The decision to exploit video to such an extent was a deliberate one reached by the band and its management. "Video to us is like stereo was to Pink Floyd," said Nick Rhodes. "It was new, it was just happening. And we saw we could do a lot with it."
Indeed, while other groups were content to film live concert sequences for their videos, or maybe toy around with a few special effects, Duran Duran were flying off to places like Sri Lanka and Antigua for location shootings. The resulting video clips, which more often than not showed the band members prancing around exotic locales with beautiful women on their arms, engendered some hatred for the band among older, more serious rock fans. After all, what was a British band doing espousing a jet-set lifestyle when millions of people in their own country were on the dole? How could it be that the members of such a young group had already adopted Rod Stewart-like personas? Whatever happened to the idea that rock & roll was supposed to be subversive?
But those kinds of thoughts weren't entering the minds of the young girls who were glued to their television sets watching MTV every waking hour. These girls had little use for the Clash's left-wing politics, or the ranting and raving of that weird-looking Elvis Costello. But Duran Duran, now they were something else. Five extremely good-looking young men. Dream dates.
Suddenly, these guys were video superstars, like the Monkees. It didn't matter that their nine British hits had come without extensive use of videos, or that they had released two albums, Duran Duran and Rio, in America. It didn't matter that, unlike so many of their made-by-TV predecessors, Duran Duran could actually play their instruments and had already paid their road dues in America with two grueling club tours and an opening spot on Blondie's ill-fated final tour. They were cute, their videos were wildly popular, and that meant they were marketable.
No wonder Capitol Records started putting their publicity machine into overdrive. They spread word of the Beatlesque mania afflicting the Durannies in the U.K. and began organizing stateside media events: publicizing the time and flight number of the group's arrival at a New York airport (only a handful of fans showed, but what the hey) and setting up an appearance in an already overcrowded Times Square video store. By the end of 1983, Capitol's efforts had more than paid off: both of Duran Duran's earlier albums had made it into the U.S. Top Ten, while Seven and the Ragged Tiger had reached Number Twelve only three weeks after its release. Video had brought them their huge following — at the cost of their rock & roll credibility. Not that they seemed to mind at the time. Good looks and a little hype never hurt anyone, right?
Hooray For Hollywood
Nick Rhodes and John Taylor grew up in Hollywood, and they named their band after a character in a movie. The movie was Barbarella, but the Hollywood wasn't in California. It was a suburb of Birmingham.
Rhodes, who's now twenty-one, had lived right around the corner from Taylor, who's two years his senior. As youngsters, they shared an avid interest in music; in fact, recalled John, they were the only kids on their block hip enough to own a copy of David Bowie's Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust LP.
From the start, Rhodes knew he wanted to be a rock star. "I have immense ambition," he told me, tugging at his lip as we sat in the bar of the Plough and Harrow, a posh Birmingham hotel. "And I had a very vivid impression of what I wanted to do." So when he was sixteen, he left school and bought a cheap synthesizer. His mate Taylor took up guitar, and they enlisted two other would-be musicians from Birmingham: Steve Duffy, who sang and played bass (and who now records under the moniker Tin Tin), and Simon Colley, who also played bass, as well as clarinet. They christened the band Duran Duran and, in proper rock-star fashion, Nick adopted the surname Rhodes, dropping his real name Bates ("aesthetic reasons," he explained).
That version of Duran Duran, like several others that were to follow, didn't last long. But by 1980, the group had attracted a fairly significant following around Birmingham. In addition, Taylor (who had switched from guitar to bass) and Rhodes had settled on a permanent drummer, another Birmingham native named Roger Taylor, who was the same age as John.
Still, Rhodes was determined to get things moving at a faster pace. He decided to pay a visit to a swank Birmingham disco called the Rum Runner, which was owned by two brothers, Paul and Michael Berrow. "It was full of businessmen with trendy shirts on," said Rhodes, still tugging at his lip as if it would help him remember. "But it was also the hippest club in town." As it turned out, the Berrows were as eager to make their mark as the members of Duran Duran were. Paul had recently returned from a trip to New York City, and he, too, had big plans. He wanted to turn the Rum Runner into the Studio 54 of Birmingham. But how?
And then, almost out of nowhere, came this group of ambitious young men whose music, a slick combination of rock and disco, was similar to what he'd heard at Studio 54. It didn't take much to convince the Berrows to let Duran Duran play at the Rum Runner. Not only that, the Berrows, sensing their own possible route to fame and fortune, said that they would also manage the band. Give it some guidance, some direction. They would make a perfect team.
One of the Berrows' ideas was that the group should be presented as a package. This made perfect sense to Rhodes. "I'm a Gemini," he explained, "and I believe in immense detail." So he and the managers began working on the particulars of this package, like the group's image. "I think the image was obviously very important to us, after the music. Let's face it, everybody who's been massive in the past twenty years has had a bloody strong image." And Rhodes wanted Duran Duran to be massive.
The Berrows also started taking a hand in shaping the group's lineup; the latest guitarist and singer would have to go. This time, instead of just plucking someone from the local pool of musicians, the band placed an ad in the British music paper Melody Maker.
One of the people who responded was Andy Taylor, a guitarist from Whitley Bay, a coastal fishing town near Newcastle in the north of England. Spurred on by his father, who saw music as a very viable career choice, Andy had taken up guitar at the age of five. When he was sixteen, he left home to tour around Europe, where he played at military installations and the like. In fact, he had just returned from a European jaunt when he saw the ad.
At his audition, the members of Duran Duran made one thing clear: "They were quite blatant," Andy remembered. "They said, 'We're poseurs. We want a good-looking poseur band."' The latest Mr. Taylor didn't flinch. "I said, 'Good, because I like dressing up and I love wearing makeup."'
With Andy in the fold, the band still needed a singer, and a barmaid at the Rum Runner, where the musicians had all secured jobs, told them of her ex-boyfriend, who was a drama student at Birmingham University. They invited him down to see what he could do.
"This chap turned up in pink leopard-skin trousers, brown suede jacket, dark glasses and pointed boots," said Rhodes. "He said his name was Le Bon, and I thought, 'No! He can't be called Le Bon.'"
Le Bon had been studying drama on and off since his childhood. Born in Pinner, Middlesex, outside of London, he had a middle-class upbringing. "Totally middle class," he said. "It's actually very comfortable. It's a very secure kind of background." (In fact, he's so proud of his roots that these days, when asked by reporters what it feels like for a working-class guy to be thrust suddenly into stardom, he almost arrogantly responds, "I am not working class!")
And though he was as ambitious as the rest of Duran Duran, he had no idea of how serious they were. "I thought it was a hobby thing. Then I realized they meant business. Real business." Indeed.
To finance a tour for Duran Duran as the unlikely opening act for the self-styled political activist and singer Hazel O'Connor, who was then enjoying success with her record and movie Breaking Glass, Michael Berrow had to sell his house. But once Duran Duran got on the road and out of Birmingham, record companies began to take notice. By the autumn of 1980, the group had signed a deal with EMI Records. The following February, "Planet Earth," Duran Duran's first single, was released. It reached Number Twelve on the British charts — a situation no doubt aided by the similarities between Duran Duran and the then-burgeoning New Romantic movement, that convergence of frilly clothes and funky sounds that had replaced punk as Britain's dominant rock genre.
Though the other band members have maintained all along that any parallels that could be drawn between them and such New Romantic acts as Visage and Spandau Ballet were purely coincidental, Le Bon remembered it differently: "We jumped on the bandwagon. We got our feet in the door as quick as we bloody well could. We needed something to give the band a sort of personality—and it worked."
Fifty Million Duran Fans Can't Be Wrong
The more you hang around Duran Duran, the more the whole question of their image—and the hundreds of thousands of dollars they've spent to create that image—keeps coming up. Now that their videos have established Duran Duran as upscale party boys, the band and its managers seem eager to repair their tarnished credibility as rock & rollers. That's why Paul Berrow was getting pissed off as he sat in the lobby of the Plough and Harrow and talked with an EMI Records representative.
Berrow had agreed to allow a film crew from The Tube, a rock & roll show broadcast over British TV, to come to Birmingham to tape segments of Duran Duran's two homecoming shows at the National Exhibition Centre as well as an interview with the band members. But things had gotten a little out of hand.
The problem was that the people from The Tube wanted to film the interviews alongside a pool at a nearby hotel. The damned media! Trying to foist that phony glamour-boy image on the Berrows' boys again! He wasn't about to let them get away with it. Why not do the interviews on the bus, he wondered. Finally, a compromise was reached: the interviews would be taped in a restaurant. But even that worried Berrow. "They'll probably have them sitting around drinking wine," he muttered.
For all their success, the members of Duran Duran and their managers are still bothered by one thing: the media. More specifically, they feel that the media are constantly misrepresenting the band. Take, for example, the way they refer to Duran Duran as a teeny-bopper group. Now, none of the band members will try to tell you that there aren't a lot of young, screaming girls in the audiences at their concerts. Nor will they deny that they get tons of letters from little girls (not to mention the X-rated photos they receive, mainly from America). And it's no secret that Andy Taylor's fan mail drastically dropped off when he got married a year and a half ago. What the members of Duran Duran will try to tell you, however, is that they've done nothing to encourage this sort of image.
"Maybe we should have worn masks," Nick Rhodes said when asked if a lot of the group's fans are attracted to Duran Duran only because of their good looks. Then, after pausing for a moment, he added, "We don't play our music for thirty-year-old bank clerks."
Simon Le Bon was even more emphatic. "This is one thing I'd like to get straight," he said. "We are constantly referred to as a teenybop band. But you've seen our audiences. I mean, I wouldn't call that a teeny audience. Would you?"
Well, yes. There are an awful lot of young girls. "Sure," Le Bon said. "But after a month or two, we had to get out of that New Romantic thing, because the frilly shirts looked really stupid." And so, the members of Duran Duran became five well-dressed playboys, younger versions of the Diors, jet-setting around the world.
"I think that's all bullshit," said John Taylor. "I mean, we get criticized for our exotic video locations. Does Cubby Broccoli get criticized for doing the same thing in James Bond movies?" (Taylor is an avowed James Bond fan who, in fact, is currently dating Janine Andrews, an actress who appeared in Octopussy.)
But is that what Duran Duran aspires to? Do they want to be rock & roll's answer to a James Bond movie? Well, Taylor admitted, maybe they did go a bit too far. "Videos in Sri Lanka. Duran Duran here. Duran Duran there. Our videos did give the impression that we were frolicking around on beaches or going sailing in the afternoon. We were trying to give that sort of young, jet-setter, playboy image, which was great at first .... Well, we have made a few mistakes, and I think that was one of them. But I don't regret having done it."
Neither does Simon Le Bon. He, in fact, doesn't think that the image was manufactured or that it's anything the band should be ashamed of. "That's what people do: they work and have parties. The fact that we fly around is because our work is all over the world. And any excuse for a party. I like parties. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all. And if people think that's glamorous, fine. But if people think that's something bad, I'd like some reasons for it."
Le Bon firmly believes that the image Duran Duran presents, in their music, their looks, their videos, is a positive one. "It presents kids with a very obvious example of people who've done something to get out of the dumps. We've been called decadent, but I wouldn't agree. We are very optimistic. I don't think the world is crumbling. I think it's just a matter of people doing things themselves and not putting too much weight on the politicians' shoulders and letting them live your life for you.
"Kids in England have been brought up with the attitude that somebody would give them a job, that they'd never be unemployed, that they didn't have to create a job for themselves. That attitude is what we're up against. That's what we're subverting: that whole kind of social attitude of being looked after by the state. I believe in looking after myself. I think I do it better than anyone else does."
But Simon Le Bon Is Not A Snob
Paul Berrow likes to think of Duran Duran as the perfect group for the Eighties. They put a great deal of care into the way they look. Their music is pure, escapist entertainment; you can dance to it, and you won't have to worry about hearing any songs that dwell on the world's problems. And they've helped move music into the age of video.
Given that most people today seem to feel that watching TV is as rewarding as reading a book and that being physically active is more important than being politically active, Berrow is probably right. Duran Duran, in their music and their videos, may well be the best possible group for this kind of era. And because of that, they have become a unique kind of pop idol.
For one thing, Duran Duran's audience isn't made up entirely of twelve-year-old girls. As the group proudly points out, there are some twenty-five-year-olds among the crowds of teenagers at their concerts. Maybe not many, but even a few is more than, say, Shaun Cassidy or his brother David could attract. And there are many, many more Duran Duran fans who don't go to the shows but who buy the group's records or hear them on the radio. Even such a noted rock station as Cleveland's WMMS is programming an unprecedented five tracks off the group's new LP. You can bet you don't hear that many Rick Springfield songs on that station.
In addition, Duran Duran's songs are unlike any others that have traditionally appealed to the under-sixteen crowd. On Seven and the Ragged Tiger, you won't find any of the boy-meets-girl type of love songs that generally appeal to twelve-year-old girls. And though you'd be hard pressed to tell by listening to it, it's a concept LP, of sorts. According to Le Bon, it's "an adventure story about a little commando team. The Seven is for us—the five band members and the two managers—and the Ragged Tiger is success. Seven people running after success. It's ambition. That's what it's about."
And, of course, it's that ambition that got Duran Duran where they are. Still, survival for a group with such a large following of youngsters is a precarious thing. Some new group could easily come along tomorrow, duplicate their formula for success and knock the band completely off the charts. And at this moment, there's no evidence that Duran Duran possesses a major talent—a John Lennon, say, or a Keith Richards — who could enable them to withstand such a challenge.
Right now, though, the group is moving ahead on schedule. John Taylor remembered how he and Nick Rhodes used to sit in the Rum Runner and plot out the group's course. "We'd say, 'Hammersmith Odeon in London by 1982. Wembley Arena by 1983. Madison Square Garden by 1984."'
"People seem to be coming around to our point of view," noted Le Bon. "You know, I was once quoted as saying we'll be the band to dance to when they drop the bomb. But I've got a very strong sense of the survival of the species. I believe in genetics and breeding, very much. That's a very important part of evolution. But I'm not a snob. Ask anybody."
Le Bon paused, smiling. "Well, anybody who matters."