Duran Duran has had more ups and downs than your typical 1980s teen sensation. They’re still as active as they ever were—they were touring as recently as 2012 and reportedly are working on their 14th album, this time with the help of Mark Ronson, who has produced albums by talents as notable as Q-Tip, Amy Winehouse, Black Lips, and Paul McCartney. Being Duran Duran, there’s more than a faint whiff of “1980s has-been” connected to them, but it would be preposterous to claim that they’re anything remotely close to one-hit wonders—their first four albums went platinum in the U.S., and eleven of their singles cracked the top 10 in the U.S., a list that for some unfathomable reason doesn’t even include “Rio.”
Still, Kurt Cobain and N.W.A. more or less smashed to pieces any pretension of relevance to which Duran Duran may have laid claim to in the 1990s. Even after that point, however, their journey was not altogether embarrassing. Allmusic.com gives high marks to their 1993 self-titled effort (many refer to it as The Wedding Album), even as it disparages their “wretched” cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Femme Fatale.” Jumping ahead to our own era, Allmusic.com similarly has positive feelings for their last two studio efforts, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre and 2011’s All You Need Is Now.
It will be clear that my purpose here is not to heap derision on Duran Duran. I was in middle school in 1983, and I recall full well how thoroughly they dominated the 13-year-old demographic, particularly the girls. I respect the supreme popcraft of Duran Duran at their best. But it would be foolish to pretend that there haven’t been some low points.
Foremost among them may be their cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” off of their 1995 covers album Thank You (even reflexively generous Allmusic.com gives that album a single solitary star).
Here’s the album cut:
Duran Duran’s version of the Flavor Flav classic off of Fear of a Black Planet takes the unimpeachable Hank Shocklee beats into a more rootsy direction—many have commented that it sounds a lot like early Beck, in fact (Beck, of course, was probably at peak visibility around then). In the video below, it’s hard to feature to what extent Simon Le Bon and the boys (former Zappa player Warren Cuccurullo without a shirt seems like a version of Glenn Danzig) are taking themselves seriously or not. After all, the song is a pointed critique of the deeply embedded racism that may or may not be peculiar to the United States, where your address will determine the level of social services that you receive. It’s difficult to imagine that Duran Duran ever had any such problems with the emergency services in the UK, or if they did, it’s pretty certain that race wasn’t a factor. (Also, 911 doesn’t even mean anything in England, where they use 999 for that purpose.) Point being, surely none of this was lost on them, right?
In the end, the key miscalculation may have been to underestimate the skills of Flavor Flav. As PE’s court jester and figure of fun, Flav doesn’t conform to anyone’s idea of an artistic master. But “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” off of Nation of Millions is a work of sheer, unbridled genius; as far as I know, there’s nothing in the rap canon that can touch it (hey, refresh your memory if you disagree). And “911 Is a Joke” ain’t far behind.
Here’s that live rendition of the track, taped at Musique Plus in Montreal:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
When Duran Duran supported Hazel O’Connor’s Megahype
He Ain’t No Joke! Flavor Flav’s awesome cameo in decidely old school 1987 Eric B. and Rakim video