Duran Duran – 2019: A Space Odyssey
By John Earls | November 14, 2019
Even by Duran Duran standards, flying 300 drones in formation above Nasa while performing to astronauts in front of a moon rocket is quite something. It’s been a tale of extravagance and drama for nearly 40 years – so how better to celebrate the anniversary than with a brand new chapter?
July 16, 2019: The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s launch to take Neil Armstrong’s crew to the moon. It’s quite a big deal for NASA, who have a gala event planned at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where Buzz Aldrin, David Scott, Charles Duke and all the other surviving astronauts to have walked on the moon will be reunited.
There will also be a performance in the rocket garden at the Center. As the name implies, rockets from NASA’s Apollo, Mercury and Gemini missions are dotted around the garden like giants’ toys, a reminder of mankind’s greatest feats of the era. Over there, it’s the Mercury-Redstone 3, in which in 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to complete a space flight.
If you want entertainment worthy of such an awe-inspiring sight, in every sense you’re going to have to reach for the stars. Anyone got Duran Duran’s number? They’re perfectly suited. Not only are they one of the most forward-thinking, mega-selling pop bands of all time, but they’ve got spiritual ties to NASA. The clues were there straight away in debut single Planet Earth that space travel might appeal to Duran Duran.
In the event, having them play in the rocket garden was casually arranged. On a day off from a US tour the year before, Nick Rhodes was given a guided tour of the Space Center. Its director mentioned plans for the 50th anniversary gala and, well, I don’t suppose Duran might…? “I didn’t miss a beat,” laughs Nick. “I said, ‘Of course! It’d be a great honour and an absolute joy! Yes. If it’s a possibility, yes!’” Nick admits he wasn’t sure if NASA would actually go through with the plan and forgot about it for the next few months while “our people spoke to their people in the background.” Once it became clear the show was a reality, it was time to consider something worthy of the setting. “We were thrilled and touched to be asked,” says Nick. “It’s something very different, clearly a show that will only happen once in our lifetime. We wanted to make it special, and represent what Duran’s relationship is to space, too.”
One Small Step
Nick was seven when Armstrong set foot on the moon. “My father had gone out to buy our first colour television,” he recalls. “He wanted us to watch the moon landing in the best way possible. And, of course, the fabulous irony was that it was broadcast in black and white! Everyone in my class, all the kids I knew, instantly wanted to become astronauts. It seemed like the brightest future you could possibly have at the time. I grew up in suburban Birmingham. Looking up into the sky, thinking there was someone bouncing around on the moon up there, was completely surreal.”
Simon Le Bon watched the moon landings at his family’s home in Pinner, the Middlesex suburb also home to the young Elton John. Two years older than his future bandmate, Simon was far more blasé about Apollo 11. “At nine, you don’t really question things,” he laughs. “Comics made landing on the moon look normal, so you don’t want to look stupid by going, ‘They put somebody on the moon?!’ Instead, you just think, ‘Of course they did!’ It’s only decades later that one realises the significance of what an incredible achievement it was. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, I saw that happen!’ It makes you feel very special.”
Trying to create a show worthy of the magic they felt as kids was thrilling – but a logistical nightmare. Dutch art collective Studio Drift created a program which enabled 300 drones to fly in formation. “The drones are a beautiful sight,” enthuses Simon. “They flock in a pattern that’s like a murmuration of starlings. It’s a dance in the sky.” Nick adds: “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. This should be a Duran show for the ages!”
By those standards, inviting along an orchestra and a 40-piece choir to perform while the drones are flying is almost routine. Duran planned the show to start with The Universe Alone, the epic finale of their most recent album, 2015’s Paper Gods. “The Universe Alone was already orchestrated,” Nick explains. “I’ve developed it for the show, so that the first couple of minutes are like ambient science-fiction.”
The trouble is, flying 300 drones above NASA airspace requires a bit of paperwork. “There’s been an awful lot to deal with,” says Nick with considerable understatement. “There are all kinds of security issues, because NASA don’t usually allow anything to fly over their airspace and, well, we’ve got 300 drones! When all the clearances finally came through, we were working on our new album. Suddenly having to get every little detail right has been eight weeks’ work in a fortnight. It’s quite hectic, but it’s exhilarating and we’re happy to rise to the occasion to make it as special as it can be.”
Duran’s merch designer Patty Palozzo has even created two AI T-shirts for the show. Imprinted with a video screen, when paired with the Zome app, one T-shirt shows Apollo 11 taking off, while the other has footage of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon.
With hits like Planet Earth, Ordinary World and New Moon On Monday, it’s only right that Duran do a special space-themed segment in the show. As Nick points out: “It’s handy when you’re singing to people who have walked on the moon that one of your songs is called Astronaut.”
In the event, the show is stellar. The Universe Alone’s introductory two minutes of “ambient science-fiction” are so wildly spectacular as the drones swarm around the rocket garden, it makes a Muse show look minimal. The remaining 90 minutes are a reminder of how high-octane Duran Duran are as performers. After the opening half of lunar tunes climaxes with their knockabout Walking On The Moon, the remainder shows there’s still no one to touch them for glamorous pop, as Notorious segues into a full-throttle Pressure Off. It ends with a majestic, box-fresh Rio.
“I wanted to be in the audience for that show so badly,” says Simon afterwards. “Everything about it was incredible: the setting, the extraordinary drone show, having the full moon above us…”
Speaking two days later, Simon is “fucking knackered”, having got back to his home in Surrey that morning. “I’m cream-crackered, but that show was amazing. The rockets surrounding us were just fascinating. I spent the first two minutes watching the drones from the side of the stage. I was captivated, and I didn’t really want to leave!”
It’s perhaps fortunate that the drones were behind Simon once he was onstage, helping him get into professional performer mode. “I become very single-minded about getting a connection with the crowd as soon as I’m up there,” he explains. “At all Duran shows, I’m part of something bigger than myself, but at that show it was particularly so. It was overwhelming.”
At least Duran don’t have much time to dwell on how they can possibly top the NASA show. Since the start of the year, they’ve been working on the follow-up to Paper Gods. “With that album, I felt very much that we had to dig and dig and dig to get to the really good songs,” Simon admits. “This new record feels different. It feels like going fishing, that it’s about timing and catching the moment, rather than having to get down and dirty and dig.”
On Your Mark
As with Paper Gods and its predecessor, 2010’s All You Need Is Now, Mark Ronson is co-producing the new album. “Mark is such a gentle, accomplished professional,” says Simon. “He makes working so easy – you don’t have to necessarily bang your head against the wall to get a decent song, and Mark facilitates that.”
As well as Mark, the album is being co-produced by Erol Alkan, the electro artist who’s previously produced Ride and The Killers. “Erol is full of energy and has the most phenomenal knowledge of music,” enthuses Nick. “It’s fun to trade ideas with Erol about where songs could go. He’s got very strong ideas and is keyed in to Duran’s attitude.”
Nick and Simon both emphasise how the new album is unlike anything Duran have made in their previous 14 LPs. “We tend to wipe the slate clean when we work on a new album,” says Nick. “Rather than copy our previous styles, we say, ‘What would we do if we were a new band today?’ Of course, there’ll be similarities – Simon’s voice is very identifiable, and we like to have one foot on the dancefloor with some songs. But we give ourselves a lot of latitude to create in different ways.”
Simon goes further, saying: “The new record makes sense for us, and it’s nothing you’ve ever heard from Duran Duran before. There are two kinds of artist – ones like The Rolling Stones, who are great at finding something that works for them and sticking to that. And there’s the other kind like David Bowie, who always want to experiment. That’s the category Duran fit into. We’re really playing around with structure – we’re experimenting with time signatures and it’s uncompromising harmonically. It’s very exciting, a very different approach for us.”
Lykke Li guests on one of the songs Mark produced, while Erol’s neighbour is helping out on guitar: Blur’s Graham Coxon. “Graham is brilliant at finding the essential part of any song,” says Simon. “He can find a tiny little guitar part that suddenly makes everything sound glossy.”
Further guests may yet be a possibility on the album, with Nick teasing: “There are a lot of cool artists, older and younger, who we’d love to work with. If any are interested, send us a postcard!”
Although song titles haven’t been finalised, Nick picks out one tune as a likely first single, saying: “It’s interesting when we’re all magnetically drawn to one particular song as a frontrunner. It’s just so different from anything I’ve heard from us before, or actually from anyone else. There’s a dance element to it. The construction, the melodic content, the lyrics, some of the sounds… they’re all very different for us.”
Mentioning this to Simon causes the singer to gently mock his bandmate, saying: “Oh, really? Nick says we’re all agreed, does he? I bet it’s not the same song I’m thinking of! OK, it probably is, because there’s one song that’s really strong and, yes, very, very different from anything you’ve really heard.” There’s a pause, before he says: “Describing songs is almost as hard as being asked to explain lyrics.”
Simon might not especially be enamoured of explaining his lyrics, but it’ll be interesting to see if Duran address the current political turmoil of Brexit and Trump. “We’ve never really trusted politics or liked politicians,” says Simon. “As the main lyric writer in the band, I always take the personal view. I don’t write about the big shit that’s going on, like institutions or institutionalised life. Occasionally there’s a ‘We’ in there, but our songs are nearly always from one voice. There’s a line in one new song which says, ‘And the voiceless crowd isn’t backing down’, which is about as political as I get.”
Deal Or No Deal
Being apolitical in their songs doesn’t mean the four men in Duran Duran are wholly removed from political life. As Nick explains: “Because we don’t speak out about politics, people probably don’t realise that everyone in the band has fairly strong opinions on politics, and we always have. But we felt politics should mostly be left to politicians.”
There’s a bitter laugh, before Nick adds: “When politicians monumentally mess it up, you do think, ‘There are a lot of musicians, actors, scientists, journalists who probably could have done that a lot better.’” And yes, Brexit could very much be included in those messes. “It’s a very bitter divide,” Nick sighs. “I hope Brexit will somehow find an equilibrium, but I fear it’s going to be painful. Whatever happens, it’s going to take a while. Perhaps another referendum could happen at the last minute, because people will realise No Deal is a situation that nobody voted for. How can you not have another referendum, if what you’re offering isn’t what was on the table in the first place?”
It’s unlikely the divide will be healed before Duran’s new album is released, with Nick saying a late spring release is “realistic”. “I’m optimistic some tracks will be finished by December,” he says. “That would mean releasing the first single early next year.”
Whenever the new Duran album emerges, there will definitely be shows in the UK to coincide. Since they last toured back home in 2015 to coincide with Paper Gods, there have been frequent shows, with Simon saying the band need to play every three months, “Otherwise we get rusty and you have to work it up from scratch.” But precious few of those gigs have been in the UK. The singer insists it’s not deliberate, but admits: “Whenever I’m back home or meet Brits abroad, it’s always, ‘When are you going to play back home?’ I know it’s been bloody ages, but it’s good that we’ve given people a chance to miss us. I don’t want people to take Duran for granted and think, ‘Oh look, here’s the annual Duran Duran Christmas tour.’”
This Is 40
If album 15 does emerge next spring, it’ll coincide with the 40th anniversary of Simon Le Bon joining Duran Duran, having replaced Stephen Duffy in May 1980. “It seems utterly absurd to me that we’ve got all those years behind us,” laughs Nick.
“If you’d asked me when I was a kid how long the band would last, I’d have been thrilled with a couple of years. There just wasn’t anyone who lasted that long when we started. But The Rolling Stones have led the way for everyone, because we hadn’t thought back then that they’d still be playing shows at this point.
“Who knows how long Duran will last? The Duran Duran Express has been a great train to be on, as we’ve been able to do most of the things we’d want.”
This time, Simon agrees with Nick, saying: “We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t still fun. We’ve made all the money we need, so it’s down to ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ Making people feel better is a very good way of approaching life. If this is what 40 years feels like, it’s extraordinary how quickly it’s gone by!”