In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The artist: As a founding member of Duran Duran, John Taylor—along with bandmates Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Andy Taylor, and Roger Taylor—was part of MTV’s ruling class during the early 1980s, delivering the bass lines for such inescapable pop singles as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “The Reflex.” Although the band began its initial fragmentation in 1985, Taylor remained in the lineup until 1997, once again returning to the fold when the original five members reunited for the 2004 album Astronaut. While the full reunion proved short-lived (Andy left again in ’06), the other four members of Duran Duran continue to record and tour together, as seen on their new DVD, A Diamond in the Mind: Live 2011.
“Planet Earth” (from 1981’s Duran Duran)
John Taylor: Ah, “Planet Earth.” Yeah, that was one of the first. In fact, it was the first single. I suppose it was the manifesto, in a way. It was quite simplistic, quite naïve, but sort of fresh at the same time. Very much of its time. We were very proud, I remember, once we’d first finished recording it. For a while, everywhere we went, we’d play that song twice because we just loved being able to say, “This is our new single!” [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: There’s a lyric in the song that name-checks the musical movement for which Duran Duran have often served as poster boys: “I heard you making patterns rhyme / Like some New Romantic looking for the TV sound.”
JT: That was kind of cheeky of us, actually, because 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. And I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, it sounds like they’re doing exactly what we’re doing,” and calling the journalist in London and saying, “Hey, if you like them, you’re gonna love us!” [Laughs.] And then in the meantime, I thought, “Let’s put that ‘New Romantic’ phrase into one of our songs!”
AVC: For the video, you worked for the first time—but certainly not for the last time—with director Russell Mulcahy.
JT: Yeah, and, really, it was… Well, we’ve said this a number of times, but the song was getting a lot of support in Australia, and the feeling was that if we could get some television presence down there, the song might go to number one. Well, there was no way we were all going to fly down to Australia just to do some promotional work, so it was suggested that we make the video. That was the primary motivation for doing that video, actually: to support the song in Australia. And it did indeed do that. Unknowingly, we were sort of tapping into this Aussie mafia that sort of existed between Russell and Molly Meldrum, who’s sort of Australia’s John Peel. He was very, very supportive of the band, actually, from the beginning, and he was even more supportive when he found out that his fellow Australian mafia member had directed the video. [Laughs.] And, yeah, it did get the song to #1 in Australia.
“Hungry Like The Wolf” (from 1982’s Rio)
JT: It’s very hard to think of that song without seeing the pictures from the video, because that really was the video that sort of changed everything for the band. We went from being sort of like a club band, an underground band, to being, like, “Wow!” An all-purpose…I dunno, just something more interesting and broader in scope. It was a song which was written very quickly. It was a Saturday afternoon, we were in EMI’s demo studio, a studio they had up in Manchester Square HQ, and I think Nick [Rhodes] and Andy [Taylor] were kind of messing around. Andy had the riff, Nick developed this sequence, Simon had a thing, Roger came in and played ’cause he’d just bought some Simmons drums, so that was where he got those big fills from. I came in, and they’d been working for maybe two hours, and I just knew exactly what to play. The song was probably written by cocktail hour. [Laughs.] It’s interesting when you’re at that time in your career when you just don’t have to think twice about anything, y’know? I guess you’re always striving to get back to that. It’s that combination of confidence and naïveté, actually, that allows you to just… I call it surfing the zeitgeist. It’s when everything you do is right. You don’t have to think. You’re so plugged into what’s happening. And then as you get older, then you start thinking. And by that point, the press and the media have said so much about you that you’ve become self-conscious, and it becomes more difficult the more self-conscious you get.
That was the song, also, that broke us in America, and we were fortunate in that we were signed to a British record label that had a subsidiary in the United States, which was Capitol. The London office was really able to kick their asses and tell them, “Listen, you’ve got to make Duran Duran happen.” I mean, “Hungry Like The Wolf,” it was sent to radio three times. It got three separate releases to radio, that song did. It just had to be a hit. Capitol had to pull out all the stops. Sadly, I don’t think there’s a record label in London now that would have that kind of clout anymore.
“Rio” (from 1982’s Rio)
JT: Probably my favorite song from that era. Yes, because it’s got a bass line that sort of made my reputation, I suppose. [Laughs.] But I think that, musically speaking, it’s a very confident track. And for a band that people tend to be quite… They think of us as quite commercial, and, yes, it’s got kind of a hooky chorus, but the arrangement is rather unusual. It’s a big, confident track. There’s a lot going on. It shifts gears several times. We were thinking along the lines of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” by Sly And The Family Stone. It was a lot of everything. I think it could be the apex of the first phase of the band’s career, in a way, and all the iconography that came along with it as well. The video and the album cover were very powerful and really helped to give the band an identity.
“The Reflex” (from 1983’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger)
AVC: Fans loved Seven And The Ragged Tiger, but critics tore it a new one, which was somewhat surprising given that most of them tended to like Rio.
JT: Well, you know, that was a difficult album. That was the difficult third album. [Laughs.] Usually, it’s the second album, but we had a difficult third album. The vultures were definitely circling. I think “The Reflex” is a really interesting lyric, actually. It’s a very paranoid lyric, a very ’80s lyric. You don’t hear lyrics like this in #1 songs anymore. I’d say where we benefited most on that album was our connecting with Nile Rodgers. The recording that we’d made of the song… I think we did, in fact, write the song on my birthday. It would’ve been my 23rd birthday: June 20th, 1983. We were at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which sadly is no longer with us. It was a fabulous studio. You could record a track and then just literally jump into the pool outside. It was a beautiful place to work. But we didn’t really nail it, and it was one of those songs where we were, like, “There’s a hit song in there somewhere,” but we didn’t get it. And when the album came out, it was a little underwhelming that there was no obvious follow-up to “Hungry Like The Wolf” or “Save A Prayer.” But we sent the song to Nile and said, “Could you do anything with this?” And then Nile… I mean, he was having a moment, and he turned it into something extraordinary, with all the “fleck, fleck, fleck” and the “why-yi-yi” and all the magical things that he applied to the original recording. And then we did something really wacky with the live video and… Yeah, we were still in the game. Back in the game again! [Laughs.]
“New Moon On Monday” (from 1983’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger)
AVC: Does the band dislike “New Moon In Monday”? There was a rumor that that was why it didn’t make it onto the Decade compilation.
JT: Oh, I don’t dislike “New Moon on Monday” at all. It’s a very mellow track, which is an aspect of it that I like a lot. It sounds beautiful. I love the sound of that album now. It’s just not in-your-face like the first albums. It’s a much softer, much more subtle seduction. But it’s more seductive, actually, in a way. We were trying to be grown up. It’s got beautiful production from Alex Sadkin, who produced Grace Jones’s albums. He never made a bad record, Alex Sadkin.
“The Wild Boys” (from 1984’s Arena)
AVC: There are a lot of Duran Duran songs that people remember as much for the video as for the song itself, but “The Wild Boys” has got to be near the top of that list.
JT: Well, that’s the first song, really, that we wrote that was really motivated by the visual project. And that was really Russell. Russell was going to make a full-length feature film based on William Burroughs’s book. And I remember, at least, us saying to Russell, “Then you have to let us write the title song.” So when we went back to London and went into the studio with a view to writing a couple of new songs, with Nile Rodgers producing, one of the songs was “Wild Boys.” And then the big payoff came, and… Russell’s film project fell through, but all these fantastic production ideas had been developed for the film, and we got to use them in our video. I think the long-form video for “Wild Boys” is such a fantastic… I’m quite proud of it, actually. I rather like it. I just wouldn’t want to have to watch it every day. [Laughs.]
“A View To A Kill” (1985 single)
AVC: This was essentially the last gasp of the original line-up, at least for a while.
JT: Yes, but what a gasp. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a fantastic experience also. I mean, we were just so lucky to work with John Barry. To see your song up there… I mean, I didn’t like the film A View to A Kill, but I’ll tell you, when those titles came up… Maurice Binder was the guy who did all the early James Bond title sequences, and if I wanted to see something to do with the song, rather than watch that horrible video on the Eiffel Tower, I’d take Maurice Binder’s title sequence any day. It was a big deal, and it was a big song. But Bond songs have to be big songs, don’t they? They have to have the grandiosity. It’s like designing a Rolls-Royce. You want it to be completely state of the art, but it’s always going to have the honking great radiator grill on the front. There’s certain criteria that have to be fulfilled. But I think we nailed it with that song. We really did nail it.
The Power Station, “Some Like It Hot” (from 1985’s The Power Station)
JT: All of Duran Duran were fans of Chic, then particularly Tony Thompson, the drummer. And we got to know Tony, and Andy and I talked to Tony about maybe forming an offshoot project. What we really wanted to do was put this drummer out there in a way that we felt he deserved, so that song particularly was sort of designed to really showcase Tony. But I flew to Nassau in the Bahamas, which was where Robert Palmer lived at the time, and played him the demo that Andy and I had written and said, “We’ve got this idea that we’re calling ‘Some Like It Hot.’” And he just looked at me and said, “And some sweat when the heat is on.” [Laughs.] I was, like, “Yes! That’ll do…”
AVC: Bernard Edwards reportedly kind of kicked your ass in the studio, but in a good way.
JT: Yeah, well, he wasn’t really an ass-kicker, except insofar as I was so fucking… [Hesitates.] I mean, at the time, I was just so… My head was in the clouds, so I did have to sort of be anchored down. I had to be, like, strapped to the desk if I was gonna get a bass line finished, because I was just all over the place. It was just such a mad, crazy time. But, yes, he was very inspirational. It was extraordinary getting to work with Bernard and Nile independently of each other. I cannot imagine what it must have been like working with the two of them together. They must’ve really been an amazing team. Still, I feel we really got the best from them both.
John Taylor, “I Do What I Do” (from 1986’s 9 ½ Weeks soundtrack)
JT: [Pause.] Ah, well, you know, um… [Pause.] Shit. I mean, it was not my intention to sing on that track. I had to be coerced to sing on that track. I think what I learned from that was that I was not about to be a solo singer. [Laughs.] But, you know, I’m… Glad I did it.
AVC: If nothing else, the song is forever associated with one of the classic soft core films of the ‘80s.
JT: Yeah, there’s that as well. [Laughs.]
“Notorious” (from 1986’s Notorious)
JT: The survival song. That was such an important song for us, because after having gone through this sort of band breakdown when Roger and Andy sort of departed, it was a strange time. Only Simon, Nick, and I were left holding the flame, sort of wondering, “Can we keep this going? Can we maintain the momentum?” Because, y’know, we’d already taken a break. Duran had stepped away, and we knew we weren’t the biggest band in the world anymore. For about a month. [Laughs.] And the question was, did we have a hit in us? And, again, we have to be grateful for Nile, because… I mean, I think Nick and Nile really sort of cooked up the main hook to the opening, the sort of guitar hook to the song. And by the time we finished it, we knew we had a song that could announce the next phase of the band’s career.
“Ordinary World” (from 1993’s Duran Duran)
JT: Another survival song, one that meant that we’d made it into a second decade. Just when everybody was writing us off as just being an ’80s band, it was, like, “Wow, we had a bona fide worldwide smash hit song!” And, let me tell you, it was just such a relief. [Laughs.] It wasn’t what you’d call typical Duran material, but it did speak to our audience. I think that all the people who were 18 when “Planet Earth” came out, they were coming up on 30 when “Ordinary World” came out, and they were feeling that kind of introspection. You know, “Ordinary World” spoke to the same people that “Planet Earth” spoke to, but by that point they had children, their marriages may have been a bit challenging, and they were sort of looking at that mid-life phase. So the song, it really did speak to the audience. It was a very, very important song for us, that one. I don’t think we’ve played a concert since we wrote that song that we haven’t played it.
“(Reach Up For The) Sunrise” (from 2004’s Astronaut)
AVC: When the original five members reunited for Astronaut, what was the first song you recorded?
JT: I think probably “Taste The Summer” was one of the first ones. And “Sunrise” was one of the first ones. We started the writing sessions for that album in the south of France, and we were listening to a lot of Ibiza-style dance music, and we were trying to figure out where the Duran Duran aesthetic was going to fit into the new order, if you like. And Roger and I particularly, we were listening to a lot of the dance records that were getting played, and I seem to remember saying, “Look, that’s kind of what we do!” [Laughs.] So, you know, “Sunrise” was definitely a sort of conscious attempt to re-style the Duran aesthetic to sort of fit into that contemporary European dance mold. What’s amazing about that song now is that it’s one the biggest songs we play live, I think maybe because, for the fans that weren’t around in the early ’80s, it’s a song that they can own and feel a part of.
AVC: What was it like getting back into the studio with the original five members again?
JT: A nightmare. [Laughs.] Uh, yeah, that was some of the most challenging times… I mean, because writing an album is difficult anyway. When you haven’t really been together or spent time together for so long… There was the creative side of it, but there was also the personal, emotional side of it as well, and… Oh, my God. I think that album would’ve been a lot better if we’d had an in-house shrink.
“The Man Who Stole A Leopard” (from 2010’s All You Need Is Now)
AVC: The band’s most recent album received strong reviews, but “The Man Who Stole A Leopard” seems to have been the track most often cited as the album’s highlight.
JT: Now, we did have an in-house shrink for that album… and his name was Mark Ronson. [Laughs.] I love Mark so much. He’s just… He’s one of the loveliest guys, and he’s such a fan. And he’s not just a fan of Duran. He’s just such a fan of music. And his enthusiasm is just so contagious. He’s an addictive sort of guy to be around. Like Nile and Bernard, you just want to do your best. They’re inspirational. They just make you play better just because of the way they are, and you don’t want to let them down. You don’t want to let down that belief. And Mark was really galvanizing. He kind of healed a lot of identity damage that we’d sort of suffered since we’d come back together. You know, we tried with Astronaut, and it was a very authentic attempt at sort of restyling the original band. Red Carpet Massacre, with Timbaland and Nate Hills, it was just, like, “Let’s try anything we can try to have a hit.” But it was so polarizing, that album, for the audience. And then to meet Mark and have him say, “I just want an album with JT’s bass on it!” [Laughs.] “And Nick’s keyboards!” He didn’t want any power ballads. Mark didn’t come into it with a “What do we have to do to get in the charts?” attitude. He just wanted to make an album that was entirely true to what he considered to be the original Duran… manifesto, I suppose. And, you know, the original Duran manifesto is really a forward-looking kind of thing, if anything. But we were ready to sort of look back and make an album that referenced our early work, which we probably would not have done a few years hence.
AVC: Are you still planning to move in that same general sonic direction with the next album?
JT: Well, I don’t know. When we’re on tour, you know, we always get in touch with the visceral aspects of the band, and I always want to make an album that sort of has that. But then we get into the studio, and different kinds of criteria take over. I still think we’ve got a great album in us. We’ve got great songs, we love working together, we’ve got a lot of confidence… So who knows?