In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
All too often, transformative acts don’t score their first #1 singles until the party is almost over. Duran Duran may have been the peak early-MTV group, the band whose flashy and pouty and colorful visual presence came to stand in for a generational shift in pop-music tastes. Perhaps because of that radical newness, it took a little while for American radio to embrace Duran Duran — or, at least, to embrace them tightly enough that one of their singles finally fought its way to #1. By the time that happened, Duran Duran had already started to bloat, and the giddy charge of their best records had begun to dissipate.
Duran Duran’s golden pop moment was their 1982 sophomore album Rio, a close-to-perfect piece of giddy and haughty and flirty pop craftsmanship. The images that came out of the Rio videos — Simon Le Bon chasing a tiger-painted model through the Sri Lankan jungle, Simon Le Bon plunging off a sailboat into the azure-blue Caribbean — are among the most memorable snapshots of MTV’s golden era. But only one of the Rio singles made it into the top 10 in the US. (“Hungry Like The Wolf” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. “Rio” only made it to #14.)
So no #1 singles from Rio. No chances for this column to celebrate billowy shirts and desperate yelps and arch guitar-stabs set against percolating sequencers. Instead, Duran Duran scored their first chart-topper when they were already well into their tax-exile phase, spending too much money to overthink their drum sounds and to wonder whether they really wanted to cause any more teenybopper mob scenes. It would be over-dramatic to say that this twist of fate was tragic. But this is a column about Duran Duran. I’m allowed to be over-dramatic.
Duran Duran came from a beautiful little moment in UK pop history, a time when new wavers reacted against punk’s ferocity and, through the lens of new wave and Roxy Music, embraced the gaudy flash of Euro-disco instead. Before too long, Duran Duran came to overshadow the rest of the so-called New Romantic scene, the Visages and Ultravoxes of the world. But the New Romantics did get their name from the lyrics of Duran Duran’s 1981 debut single “Planet Earth,” so it’s not like it’s unfair to use that term when talking about them.
Readers of this column have informed me that Birmingham, the town that birthed Black Sabbath and Electric Light Orchestra and Dexys Midnight Runners, is not, in fact, a Northern town, that it’s really a Midlands town. But wherever Birmingham exists on the English map, it’s not a particularly glamorous place. Thankfully, nobody told Duran Duran. John Taylor and Nick Rhodes started putting the group together in 1978, when both of them were working at the Rum Runner, a Birmingham club that patterned itself after Studio 54. The Rum Runner, which became Duran Duran’s home base, was torn down in 1987. Right now, across the street from that site, there’s an ’80s-themed club called the Reflex.
Taylor and Rhodes named Duran Duran after the bad guy from the 1968 cheesecake sci-fi fantasy Barbarella, and the band went through a ton of different musicians in their first few years. For a while, they didn’t even have a drummer; they just used a drum machine. Eventually, Duran Duran put together a lineup of foxy boys, three of whom had the last name Taylor even though none of them were related. The last Durannie to come on board was the University Of Birmingham drama student Simon Le Bon, who became the band’s singer. (Amazingly enough, Le Bon was born with that utterly perfect name. Le Bon was the oldest of the group; the #1 single in the US on the day he was born was Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game.”)
When the group found a stable lineup, they signed to EMI and quickly caught on in the UK, where the sensationally horny “Girls On Film” video helped push the 1981 single to #5. By the time they released Rio, their second album, they were a full-on phenomenon in their homeland. Shortly after she married Prince Charles in 1981, Princess Diana named Duran Duran her favorite band. In 1983, when Duran Duran played a charity show at London’s Dominion Theatre, Charles and Diana came out to watch, and the IRA tried to plant a bomb at the show. (Sean O’Callaghan, the chosen bomber, turned out to be a police informant.)
It took a little longer for Duran Duran to catch on in the US. But the band’s vivid, over-the-top videos — usually from Australian director Russell Mulcahy, who’d already helmed the videos for Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and who would eventually make Highlander and The Shadow — were ideal for MTV. They were grand, dramatic productions with exotic locations and cinematic scope, and they made Duran Duran into stars. After “Hungry Like The Wolf,” Duran Duran enjoyed a string of American hits. In 1983, Capitol, EMI’s American subsidiary, reissued Duran Duran’s self-titled debut with the bonus add-on single “Is There Something I Should Know?,” and that song peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) Even the band’s associates were blowing up. Kajagoogoo, Nick Rhodes’ beautifully ridiculous proteges, made it up to #5 with their 1983 single “Too Shy.” (It’s a 7.)
But following Rio wasn’t easy. The members of Duran Duran were getting tired of their whirlwind teen-idol fame. They were spending money and getting strung out. For a year, they avoided UK taxes by living in France. They spent months working on their ponderous third album Seven And The Ragged Tiger, which they co-produced. Seven And The Ragged Tiger isn’t breezily, gloriously ridiculous, the way that Rio was. Instead, it was ridiculous in some of the wrong ways — grand, ultra-produced, too big to fail. Still, the album is not without its charms. Duran Duran weren’t crafting the same kinds of immediate jams anymore, but they remained devoted to the art of making cool sounds.
Seven And The Ragged Tiger did not register as an immediate fall-off. The album went double platinum in the US, just like Rio before it, and its early singles were hits. (“Union Of The Snake” peaked at #3. It’s a 6. “New Moon On Monday” peaked at #10. It’s another 6.) And then there was “The Reflex” — the song that the band didn’t even intend to release as a single that became, at least in its moment, their biggest hit.
Early on, Duran Duran had described their sound as the Sex Pistols meets Chic. They were lying. There was always very little Sex Pistols in their sound; by the time of Seven And The Ragged Tiger, only trace amounts remained. Duran Duran were dance-club kids; Chic clearly loomed way larger for them. The band had thought of “The Reflex,” the opening track from Seven And The Ragged Tiger, as merely an album track. But then Chic leader Nile Rodgers, who’d already helped push the New Romantic inspiration David Bowie to #1 by producing “Let’s Dance,” agreed to remix “The Reflex,” and Duran Duran rethought things.
The album version of “The Reflex” already had Chic-style jittery guitar-scratches and a rubbery bassline. It was an extremely produced dance-pop track with a hysterical Simon Le Bon belting out half-out-of-tune lyrics that truly made no sense at all: “The reflex is a lonely child who’s waiting by the park/ The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark.” (Even Le Bon has admitted that he doesn’t know what the song’s about.) But the song had a big, howl-it-out chorus and a nice sense of forward momentum.
Nile Rodgers and his associate James Corsaro mixed both the 7″ and 12″ single versions of “The Reflex,” making it choppier and adding bigger drum sounds and lots of sampling and pitch-shifting effects. Truthfully, Rodgers may have been doing too much. There’s a harsh blockiness to the single version of “The Reflex.” Le Bon’s whiny “why-yi-yi-yi” was already annoying in the original; the Rodgers mix stretched it out and weaponized it. But there’s something huge and impressive about that remix, and I can only really imagine how it might’ve sounded on a packed dancefloor, with cocaine coursing through your veins.
Duran Duran used the Rodgers remix for the video version of “The Reflex.” This was toward the end of the album cycle, so it’s the rare Duran Duran video that’s not a huge production. Instead, Russell Mulcahy flew out to Toronto and filmed the band on tour — first taping them lip-syncing in an empty Maple Leaf Gardens, then filming them in front of a packed house of people who danced very badly. I have to wonder: Did they dance that way because they were Canadian? Or did they dance that way because it was the ’80s, and everyone danced that way? Either way, I would hate to be the guy doing that strenuous finger-snap move at the 1:31 mark of the clip. I have to imagine that, if you did that dance move in the video for a #1 single, your friends would spend the rest of your life clowning you. Decades later, you’d walk into a room at a party, and at least three people would immediately hit that move.
The video for “The Reflex” has a few arty touches — the naked models doing S&M shit in silhouette on the screens, the surreal bit where the wave comes out of the screen to soak the audience. But mostly, the video is a valuable document of an extremely foxy band working at peak foxiness, broadcasting sex in all directions — even if it could’ve used more close-ups of John Taylor, the foxiest of the Durannies.
These days, “The Reflex” does not stand up as one of Duran Duran’s immortal moments; you practically never hear it anymore. But it’s a pretty nifty piece of work in its own right. And anyway, Duran Duran’s commercial peak was not over. They will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the fun, fast, adenoidal cover of “The Reflex” that the Florida ska-punk band Less Than Jake released in 1997:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “The Reflex” that Ben Lee and Kylie Minogue recorded for the 1999 Duran Duran tribute compilation UnDone:
(Kylie Minogue’s highest-charting US single is her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2006 Chappelle’s Show sketch where Dave Chappelle, in whiteface as the Stereotype Pixie, sings “The Reflex”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2015 movie Man Up where Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, mid-argument, dance and sing along to “The Reflex”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Bruce Springsteen’s synth-rocking frustration anthem “Dancing In The Dark,” his highest-charting single, peaked at #2 behind “The Reflex.” It’s an 8.