I could never buy a record by an ugly group. I just couldn’t.
A few years back I conceived and submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 book series. For those unacquainted with the line, they are short-ish music books, each volume by a unique author and dedicated to discussion of a single influential album. Most are relatively straight-up perusals of critically enshrined records (Let It Be, Harvest) though there have been a few oddball outliers throughout the series’ hundred-plus run (Carl Wilson’s take on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, for example). It is safe to say these books tend to cater to a very specific niche.
Every so often, the editors send out a general call for submissions. As a writer and musician who has dabbled in entwining the two forms, I felt I could polish my meagre credentials enough to at least warrant consideration of a pitch. This impulse was also due to timing: I was then a couple of hundred pages into a sprawling, somewhat directionless novel, and was beginning to suspect my heart wasn’t really in it. A 33 1/3 book, by design of limited length and focus, seemed a refreshing shift. I thought it might prove a resuscitating move in my own, frankly, not-so-fiery writing quasi-career.
My first inclination was to write on Frank Sinatra’s 1965 LP September of My Years, the melancholic strains of which I’d been soaking up. I quickly recognized, of course, that deep jazzbos had made entire professions from writing on Sinatra and his body of work, which I knew next to nothing about. To opine with any authority in that realm would require a colossal amount of research.
Focusing instead on my existing well of knowledge—admittedly, wide but shallow—I thought of a band I loved as a kid, probably the first thing I had considered myself a “fan” of, but which had received little in the way of critical appraisal. I whipped off a few prefatory pages, feeling good about this new direction. Here’s one of the opening passages, which for the sake of verisimilitude, I have resisted tinkering with:
In 1983 Diana, Princess of Wales, was the unrivalled focal subject of the British press’s fevered attentions. With her demure, composed public image and youthful energy standing out amid a putrefying monarchy, Diana had, in her wedding to Charles the previous year, achieved iconic status. The relentless press in the U.K. and beyond was naturally voracious for any scoop or insight into the person behind the persona.
So it became headline news when, queried about her favourite music, Diana’s answer demonstrated a contemporary bent unexpected from the palace: Manchester-bred pop group Duran Duran. For a charity concert at the Aston Villa ground at Villa Park, the five-piece band was handpicked by Diana as featured performers and was even invited to meet with the royal couple; in the televised visit in July of that year, the band appears elated by the invitation, even passing along a stylish grey DD logo-adorned sweatshirt to Prince Charles. The concert itself was almost cancelled due to an IRA bomb threat—a plot that would turn out to have been legitimate, only to be thwarted by Sean O’Callaghan, who was working within the Irish Republican Army as an informant for the Irish government. Despite the threat, the concert unfolded successfully and without incident. Duran Duran had been semi-officially anointed the reigning princes of British monarchic pride.
Heavy-handed, yes, and sort of drab. But writing this stuff was a welcome relief after vexing fruitlessly over non-concepts like “emotional truth” in my fiction. Duran Duran were the kind of group that made for a perfect intro to the pop-rock paradigm. They shot expensive videos in Sri Lanka, delivered soaring singalong choruses, but exhibited enough experimentation and artsy-ness to warrant repeat listening, and endless perusal of their cryptic album graphics.
Their 1983 record Seven and the Ragged Tiger is considered by even their fiercest advocates to be a pretty mediocre offering, buoyed by a few moments of distinction. But I was interested in how that particular record, and the context of its production, could be framed as emblematic of a luxuriant postmodern eighties sheen; its release, I might contend, marked an era’s terminus. Again, from my proposal:
1983 was a year of tumult and tension in Great Britain, a moment both of dramatic shifts and hopes of reaffirmed tradition. Deep into the Cold War, the West stared down the Soviet threat; global eradication had become both a source of constant terror and a cartoon. In Britain, the street dissent roused in seasons before had been mostly stifled, and in July, bolstered by victory in the Falklands and a ruptured Labour Party, Thatcher’s Tories bulwarked for another term following a landslide victory. In England, as throughout most of the West, the early eighties was an era that privileged success, or the polish of such a perception. And so was born the age of the New Romantic. These kids were future-leaning and androgynous (yet horny), hearkening back to chaste generations before yet strapping any whim of free love with something shaded in neon, preferably in taut grids. To the average schmoe, the end was nigh; to fashionable young people, this fear meant everything—including punk’s erasure—was a huge yawn. Better to be bored and beautiful than tremble in expectation of nuclear annihilation.
This is about the point at which I began to experience the first real quivers of doubt in this project. Undaunted as I was in slinging zingers about Jamesonian historicity vis-à-vis generational combatoire and “post-Warholian eradication,” writing about S&TRT was turning out to be almost too enjoyable. I worried the whole enterprise was a trifle, or worse, a waste of time—not necessarily my own, or not yet, but that of whoever might eventually read it.
The 33 1/3 series is itself, arguably, an exercise in inessentiality. A case could be made for book-length studies on certain canonical records: Live at the Apollo or Forever Changes or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. But is there really anyone out there slavering for ten chapters on LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver? Is there anything remotely interesting left to say about Exile on Main St.?
Much as I was enjoying waxing lyrical about Nick Rhodes and his exploits with a Fairlight CMI, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it amounted to an empty venture. Ethically, at least, there was nothing wrong with the project—in the conceivable spectrum of travesties, mine was far from the vilest. Yet the question nagged: was the whole enterprise just a self-serving lark? Some bid for recognition of my own imagined cleverness? What possible purpose could such a book even serve? Does the world need more of this kind of fluff?
This line of thinking, extended reductio ad absurdum, leads to unsettling questions. Do we even need more books at all? We have more than enough, and plenty of good ones. This is not to question the intrinsic value of expression, or to apply some twisted Benthamish utilitarianism to literary creation. But it could be strongly argued one could read, say, Kafka or Baldwin or Balzac or whatever, and feel just as enlightened as to the tenor of our frantic, commodified times as from reading anything written in the past decade. This is not to dispute the merits of any particular creator or outlet; it’s an issue of sheer quantity. The burden is the glut. In the pursuit of ammunition, we end with a lot of fluff.
And there’s a real sense of waste when it comes to this sort of fluff: wasted time, wasted energy, wasted opportunity to create something profound. Just as we drag our clinking blue bins out to the sidewalk every second week, should we also self-regulate our written/posted/repurposed output toward some viable societal good? How does a well-meaning writer answer the question of utility?
Pretty boys and unapologetically commercial, Duran Duran was never taken seriously by the critical beards, even in their heyday. They aspired from the outset to be more than just a band. Working with stylists and designers, they crafted an image inseparable from their sound; they were, as Nick Rhodes put it, not just a music group, but a “multimedia corporation.” This corporate model befitted the era, and they were an efficient operation. Duran Duran was a shockingly well-compiled amalgam of the previous decade’s trends, merging five distinct elements that played to their strengths. Rhodes and John Taylor, art school kids, provided Kraftwerk-inspired synths and disco-approximate slap bass, respectively, ornamented by Andy Taylor’s heavily processed guitar and grounded by Roger Taylor’s headphones-abetted thump. Simon LeBon had inconsistent pipes but a persuasive delivery, with lyrics conveying little but getting a lot of mileage out of sheer conviction.
In 1983, Duran Duran was one of the biggest bands on the planet. Quintessentially New Romantic, yet without the knowing irony of contemporaries like Heaven 17 or Human League or the more cartoonish flair of Culture Club or ABC, Duran Duran brazenly flaunted its unabashed rock star ambition. Theirs was a seductive, glammy allure, reinforced by the suggestion of backstage decadence and an aura of mystery obscuring their real purpose: the perpetuation of their own popularity. “I’m not actually a musician,” John Taylor once quipped, “I prefer extortion, leather and hair products.” They were not a band that had qualms about being beautiful, famous, and rich.
Gearing up for their third album, however, the band found itself wracked with expectations, and questioning its purpose for the first time. This was to be one of my proposal’s hooks:
Behind the shimmering gleam and coif, in approaching its next move Duran Duran encountered something previously inconceivable: doubt. The band had forayed into the typical gold-plated excesses of ceaseless rock touring, and by the time plans were underway for a quick follow-up to Rio, the corporation was posting vast profits. The mandate of its stakeholders had become hazy. Early rehearsals in grubby Birmingham studios were a distant memory: self-imposed tax exile following the previous year’s success led to sessions in spring of 1983 at a chalet on the Cote d’Azur in southern France that proved mostly fruitless, followed by work at George Martin’s facility in Montserrat, the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.” The fantastic image Duran Duran had cultivated of globetrotting Englishmen in expensive suits had become reality, or at least a reality to which they could actively aspire.
At their best, Duran Duran exemplified pop music’s efficacy as a pleasure delivery system. Pop music is often characterized as “disposable,” though in reality the opposite is usually true. Pop songs become go-to era-defining soundtracks, enduring past their expected expiration dates in the nostalgia of collective consciousness. Subjective considerations about “quality” (whatever that means) aside, the experience of great pop music, even at its most frivolous, is defined by energy and immediacy, a strange but enthralling alchemy of universality and intimacy. When it works, it allows you to forget you’re consuming the mass-marketed product of a corporate machine—or, in Duran Duran’s case, you love the machine itself.
Seven and the Ragged Tiger is not a great album. In its weakest moments, Duran Duran come off as lazy, even outright dumb. Musically, it takes the blueprint of the first two albums—washy Euro synths and a Chic-inspired rhythm section, festooned in LeBon’s arch suaveness and inscrutable lyrical conceits—and jacks these elements up, overcompensating for a deficit of actual ideas. While it’s sort of absurd to call a multiplatinum-selling album a bomb, many did. Robert Christgau griped:
As public figures and maybe as people, these imperialist wimps are the most deplorable pop stars of the postpunk if not post-Presley era. Their lyrics are obtuse at best, and if you’d sooner listen to a machine sing than Simon Le Bon, what are you going to do with both?”
But even in such soullessness there are elements that transcend the shallow waters of post-new wave pop: the ecstatic chorus of “New Moon on Monday,” the cinematic dicking-around of “Tiger Tiger,” pretty much everything Rhodes comes up with. If Duran Duran failed to live up to its own track record, it’s a respectable failure. To tear this apart and scrutinize it too clinically, however astute or pitch-able the take, might be to miss Duran Duran’s essential point—or to prove it.
Writers, when feeling distrustful of their own vocation, typically lap up inspirational anecdotes or pithy quotations about how difficult writing is, and how woefully misunderstood writers are. One familiar gem comes from George Orwell: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Cool, got it. But more searing is the observation that follows: “For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” Orwell isn’t elevating writing to some lofty rank; he’s situating it as a mode of expression with real potential purpose, and reminds us that to achieve any such purpose, one must set aside, or reckon with, one’s vanity.
A pop band with unabashed commercial ambitions has clear criteria for measuring its worth: sales, fans, longevity. For writers with a certain ambition but following a hazy trajectory, any such goals are elusive and ever-shifting. Misgivings and anxiety are an inherent part of the undertaking, as Orwell says, though what is often far more excruciating is justifying the work’s very existence. Most writers operate in a vacuum of their own design, lacking any salve of adoration or remuneration for motivation. The only justification we have is generated internally, leading almost inevitably to futile inner dialogues, delusion, and the dank chambers of disappointment.
And yet: this is a good thing. To push one’s motives for writing is to demonstrate respect for both the work itself and any potential reader. It situates self-expression as an exchange of sorts, even if only one voice is raised at a time. There’s an element of risk in this kind of laying-it-out-there gesture, but such risk increases the possibility of achieving resonance. Doubt can provide fuel. It reveals complexity of intent while stimulating clarity of method. I like to think this is what Simon LeBon is alluding to in S&TRT’s opening cut, “The Reflex”:
The reflex is a door to finding
Treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover
Isn’t that bizarre?
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark
Though, according to the internet, “The Reflex” is just about wacking off. Tomato, tomahto.
Perhaps it’s best to think of literary work as akin to other niche pursuits: of tremendous concern to those faithful adherents who choose to value them, yet of zero meaning to the vast majority who cares little of such things. Writers might occupy the same role in our greater social fabric as yoga instructors—both are merely methods of introspective contortion, and no doubt kundalini yoga has enriched as many lives as pop culture criticism or contemporary fiction. The personal significance of such things is as multifarious as the imagination allows.
Think of the Olympics. Like me, you’ve probably caught the telecast of some obscure, less renowned event—skeet shooting? that one where they make horses dance?—and wondered: (1) what stirs such commitment to these unsung, marginal sports, and (2) who the fuck are all these hardcore fans in the stands? I’m sure the explanation for (2) is more banal than I imagine: most are likely friends and relatives of the competitors, there to show support (just like at a book launch). Yet little commentary about dressage (that’s the horse-dancing one; I looked it up) concerns itself with its presupposed place in a larger social fabric.
This is not meant as some coarse devaluation of literature, but merely to recognize the trickiness of defining its utility. Excessively interrogating the crux of one’s self-interest can only stymy the creative process. Such questioning, however, is necessary in the greater project of de-varnishing, then re-varnishing, some meaningful conception of a human essence through our work. Or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing.
There’s a thing another eminent George, George Saunders, said in an interview that delineates this paradigm better than I can:
As far as the “impulse to create”—what comes to mind is something like this. Say you were standing in a group of people, and nearby some guys were throwing a Frisbee around, and suddenly one of them misthrew, and here it comes now, right over your head—that impulse to jump up and catch it is similar to what I feel when I’m writing. Why did you jump? Not to “honor the Frisbee” or “make a connection with the thrower” or “serve as the conduit/recipient of the Frisbee’s symbolic journey, blah blah blah.” You did it … well, who knows why, really? Partly the motivation is a “because it’s there” kind of thing. You start a story and in rereading it, see a place where it could be made better. Well, why not?
This whole vibe encapsulates why Saunders is so beloved among writers and readers of a certain earnest disposition. Demystifying the process isn’t to rob it of any arcane magic, but to allow us to approach the endeavour honestly and with humility. It helps illustrate how interrogating the purpose behind the creative act is a necessary stage, but only that: a stage.
There seems to be a common feeling nowadays that, with the ascent to power of totalitarian buffoons and the rampancy of online shitheadedness, the aspiring writer of substance must sharpen their focus and write righteously, fearlessly. But given the right circumstances and context, couldn’t such ends also be achieved through, say, canoe slalom, or rock gardening? Maybe, if this work entailed the same kind of interchange between generator and receptor, writer and reader—the thrower of the Frisbee and its catcher. I want to say this type of accord is what LeBon is suggesting in S&TRT’s lead single “Union of the Snake,” but I suspect he’s again only talking about his dick.
There is some truth in the hackneyed notion that the way to be a better artist is to be a better person in general. “Keep your own side of the street clean,” as the old saw goes, but also try to think of others first, or at least in equal terms, when and if you can. We tend to chastise those who flagrantly “put themselves out there” as self-absorbed or vain, yet gazing inward is integral to self-expression. Self-inventory and self-appraisal are, to varying degrees, imperative in any work of production. And so, as I wavered on whether to continue on with this goofy book proposal, I suspected such wavering itself might provide an answer.
In the late eighties, pop music took a turn for the “socially conscious,” but in 1983, pop music was still sheer escapism: the appeal of its success was success itself. Duran Duran was the perfect postmodern product—a polished quiltwork of a decade’s influences. This was an era when it made sense to be photographed next to a helicopter.
But all great things must end, and Seven and the Ragged Tiger would mark the conclusion of Duran Duran’s early, and most fruitful, period. My proposal wrapped thusly:
Seven and The Ragged Tiger was indeed an album deeply saturated equally with shaky assuredness and half-baked concepts. It marked Duran Duran’s ascension into arena status, even as its members—exhausted, bored, coked-up, deluded—began jumping ship. In the years to follow, the supersonic wave of British groups that had come to prominence in the early eighties would ebb, along with the worldwide dominance of British pop. The solidity of the empire stood shaken, and after such gilded heights things could only go two ways: upward to the heavens, or to the miseries of humility. From there, anything could happen.
Duran Duran would continue, with many more records and incarnations of variable success to come. The waywardness of the lean years (1995’s covers collection Thank You possibly being the band’s foulest transgression, though its follow-up Medazzaland is also pretty vile) forced a recalculation of what they were, and what they meant to those who cared. Even now, while functioning chiefly as a stadium-packing nostalgia act, the band works hard on new music supported by producers like Timbaland and Mark Ronson. The results are, at the very least, not embarrassing. Everything they’ve done and become has largely been consistent with the identity they forged from the outset.
Meanwhile, my proposal was rejected by 33 1/3’s editors without commentary in the first round of review. I had no way of knowing if it was turned down because of its subject matter or my sloppily rendered framing of it. Was my “angle” too clever, or not clever enough? I never found out. Frankly, I was relieved to be let off the hook from these wearying vexations. Fluffy as it was, the project had begun to chafe. It was light, and I wanted to be heavy.
Wallowing in questions of utility leads nowhere. Relentless self-valuation is itself the most insipid breed of fluff. This very essay arguably serves no justifiable purpose (hey, fuck you too!). However, in working through a specific point of concern, honestly and hopefully unboringly, some gainful exchange might occur, even if only minor. The gesture made, the communication sent—at some level, that has to be enough.
Earlier, I said I’d stalled on my novel because my heart wasn’t in it. This is the kind of wishy-washy excuse writers—all people, really—offer when they’ve reached an impasse and find themselves unable to summon the confidence to continue. But it can be wise to know when to heed one’s inner referee and abandon ship. In my case, writing about Duran Duran allowed for a clearing of creative cobwebs. I scrapped the novel and started something else.
Last summer I saw Duran Duran live in concert for the first time. It was a mild July night, when even the unseemliness of Toronto’s Budweiser Stage (née Molson Amphitheatre) made for pleasant vibes. My pals and I found spots on the budget lawn seating and promptly lowered our expectations. When Duran Duran hit the stage, it was with the title song from their new album Paper Gods, which was met with an appreciative but tepid reaction. The crowd was there to hear the hits.
Now well into their fifties, the original members of Duran Duran (minus Andy, not really missed; he always came off as a hothead) are corny as hell. They sport preposterous highlighted hairdos and encase their trim but nonetheless middle-aged physiques in unforgivable “rocker” leather. LeBon’s stage banter is rife with mood-disrupting dad-jokes. But they are still a killer band, energetic and loose yet click-track tight, a tribute to their commitment to appeasing dancefloors and rock radio alike. Live, they do justice to the layered production of their records, with vocals that have, somewhat improbably, improved with time.
The sun began to set around the time they kicked into the schmaltzy ballad “Save a Prayer”—never my favourite jam. But at that moment, I have to say, it decimated. The crowd swayed; cell phones-as-lighters were raised; John Taylor grinned his cruelly handsome Dorian Gray grin. There was a palpable sense of exchange, a spirit of breezy joy, a confirmation (as Duran Duran would have it) of allegiance to the brand—whatever that meant. And even in all its pointlessness and fluff, it felt honest, and it was great.
Rob Benvie is a writer and musician from Halifax, Nova Scotia, currently based in Toronto. He is the author of Maintenance and Safety of War (both with Coach House Books) and the forthcoming Misty Green. His most recent album is You Will Not Enter The Valley. His favourite member of Duran Duran is Nick.