July almost slipped by without us acknowledging one of the greatest game-changers of the late 20th Century:
40 years ago, this month, Duran Duran released “Girls On Film.”
This statement sounds hyperbolic, but it absolutely is not.
Pop culture changed forever in the summer of 1981.
Duran Duran formed in 1978, emerging from the hedonistic scene at Birmingham’s Rum Runner club. Childhood friends, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes, drunk on Roxy Music, David Bowie, Japan, Sparks, and other glammed up envelope pushers, had been kicking around with various versions of their band named after a Barbarella character. One iteration even included Stephen Duffy, who would go on to form The Lilac Time. Eventually fate delivered the perfect singer, and lyricist, in Simon Le Bon, the already in-demand drummer Roger Taylor, and some serious rock energy from Andy Taylor, who had come down from Northumberland to join the group. A frontman with a great range, and an unusually good surname, a Sylvian-esque keyboardist, with a deep curiosity, and three unrelated Taylors, all five of whom were impossibly good looking, seemed guaranteed to succeed.
You’d be forgiven for thinking they had been assembled, boy band style, by some pop svengali, but it happened organically.
Over the 1980 Christmas season Bowie/Visconti protégée Colin Thurston was brought in to get it all on tape, and it proved to be a beautiful fit. He and the lads worked efficiently, and their eponymous debut was born. Even with the band unapologetically wearing their influences on their frilly sleeves, Duran Duran sounded like the future.
Few debut singles set the tone for a band’s career as much as “Planet Earth.” It’s all there: avant garde vocal delivery, keyboard and guitar synth in a masterful call and response, another guitar track toggling between Ronno riffing and Nile Rodgers glassy chop chords, all backed up by a rhythm section solidly locked into a sex beat groove on par with any of the disco veterans. Most notably it name-checked the new romantic scene they were quickly becoming the poster boys for. A sci-fi flavored video soon followed, kicking off the band’s long relationship with filmmaker Russell Mulcahy. It was an auspicious start, and the song charted well.
The same can’t be said for the follow up, “Careless Memories,” though it didn’t exactly flop either. It was go time, though, lest the band lose momentum, so a plan was hatched to make a video for the next single, “Girls On Film,” that nobody could ignore.
In 1981 Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were still best known as the brains behind 10cc, but they had also directed the video for the new romantic movement’s unofficial theme song, Visage’s “Fade To Grey.” For “Girls On Film” the idea was to present an array of sexual fantasies, in succession, almost as if they were trying to start a turf war with Penthouse magazine. In it, the band performs on a catwalk, while scantily clad women have a pillow fight, on a phallic, shaving cream covered candy cane, before making out and dousing each other in champagne. A cowgirl rides a hunky black male. There is cosplay, mud wrestling, sumo wrestling, an oil massage, ice cubes on nipples, and a near-drowning resulting in a rescue that’s an allegory for a femme fatale’s withdrawal. It certainly has a sense of humour at times, but it’s not a naughty romp straight out of The Benny Hill Show. It stands up next to any erotic film piece of the era. It can be argued that they got away with it because they weren’t the most macho band on earth. There is a fine line between objectification and celebrating sensuality.
None of it would have worked if the song hadn’t been such an undeniable banger. Interestingly, “Girls On Film” had been around nearly as long as the band. The first version, demoed in 1979, with Andy Wickett on vocals, owes more to Pere Ubu than Chic, though the chorus is recognizable. A later version, with the Le Bon lineup, is darker, has some new lyrics, and a power chord pre-chorus where there would be a funk tag in later versions. It’s somewhat plodding, and owes an obvious debt to Roxy Music. Eventually the band landed on the version we all know, pristine, and at an ass-shaking 130bpm, about five faster than the previous rendering, kicking off with the sound of an SLR’s autowinder.
So what was the intended plan with this new wave pop masterpiece and its lubricious video? With things like international tour budgets uncertain, it could be sent to other countries to be played in discos, announcing the band to potential new fans. It was certain to grab the attention of people dancing in clubs while carrying out modern mating rituals.
What nobody anticipated was the other thing that redefined pop culture, which also premiered in the summer of 1981.
On the first day of August, 1981, MTV suddenly appeared in suburbia, U.S.A. Though it was broadcast from N.Y.C, it wasn’t available there, or in the other American cultural mecca of L.A. However, people in places like Kansas City were immediately exposed to a barrage of music videos, ranging from old promo clips, and concert footage, to nascent examples of concept pieces. MTV was starving for content, and willing to play nearly anything they could get their hands on, so a sexy video from some androgynous British dandies seemed especially enticing. Duran Duran’s symbiotic partnership with MTV started immediately. The band sent them one era-defining video after another, to the point where the two entities became intrinsically linked.
Walking around Birmingham, England, wearing lipgloss was a bold, badass act of defiance, but now the vanguard of the Second British Invasion would be effectively walking into living rooms in Birmingham, Alabama, as well. Duran Duran didn’t break America instantly, but with the release of each new video, sales figures clearly showed that communities with MTV were buying piles of Duran Duran records, and those without it weren’t even aware of the band’s existence. One spreadsheet even revealed this interesting phenomenon was occurring in the same city, where one part of town had MTV and the other didn’t. The version of “Girls On Film” being played on MTV had been cleaned up to a PG rating, but was still extremely provocative. The BBC banned it. All of this only bolstered the band’s success, though Le Bon was quick to comment that it overshadowed the fact that the song was about the darker aspects of the fashion industry.
There’s not a lot of “M” happening on MTV these days, but four of the original five members of Duran Duran still tour. They’ve sold 100 million records, had ups and downs, even splitting into competing side projects. The Power Station may have essentially presented itself as Cocaine: The Band, but they also had some massive hits, and a great relationship with MTV as well. In the past four decades the music industry has undergone some massive changes, but a video remains as much a part of a band’s release strategy as a single, only now YouTube and Vimeo instantly beam it to any corner of the world with an internet connection. Still working the medium, after recovering from COVID, John Taylor broadcast a series of delightful bass lessons on the ‘net last year.
For most of their career, Duran Duran has pushed back against the notion that they were just zeitgeisty pretty faces in Antony Price pastel suits, even while every release has racked up play counts in the many millions. Today, at the 40 year anniversary of the confluence of these two major events, remember that they are not only shining examples of consummate musicianship, they are cultural pioneers worthy of respect.
Great in depth interview with designer Malcolm Garrett here about his iconic artwork for Duran Duran.