At this stage in their career, the members of Duran Duran could be taking it easy, living off worldwide royalties and radio plays, and maybe exploiting the nostalgia circuit occasionally.
Instead, they’ve lately racked up their highest chart positions in over 30 years with their critically acclaimed 14th album, Paper Gods, and a tour with Seal as special guest has seen critics reaching for the superlatives to describe an act they say looks and sounds better than ever.
Even the briefest examination of their history suggests we should have known that you can never count Duran Duran out.
They dominated the ‘80s with Save A Prayer, Girls On Film, The Reflex and a stack of other hits, then came back in the ‘90s to deliver Top 10 UK and US smashes with Ordinary World and Come Undone, before re-appearing in the new millennium with major hits in the shape of (Reach Up For The) Sunrise and What Happens Tomorrow.
So by 2015, they were clearly overdue for another return to form, which they have achieved with Paper Gods – which, amid a raft of high chart placements globally, debuted at No 10 in the US, reached No 5 in the UK and climbed to No 2 in Italy.
Their current UK tour, which started on 27 November at Manchester Arena, comprises 11 shows culminating at Liverpool’s Echo Arena on 12 December.
“And they’re pretty much sold out everywhere,” says Rob Hallett of promoter Robomagic Live, as LIVE UK went to press. “We’ve had people screaming for tickets for The O2 show.”
Hallett, who launched the company earlier this year after stepping down as AEG Live president of international a year earlier, has a long-standing relationship with Duran Duran.
“In 1980, Duran Duran sent me a cassette tape, which I liked,” he recalls. “It had songs on it like Planet Earth and Faster Than Light. I was sitting in my office [at Derek Block Artist Agency] one Friday evening and I got a phone call from the Marquee club to say that The Associates had pulled out of their gig on the next Sunday, and did I have anything that could stand in.
“I said, ‘Well, there’s this group from Birmingham. I’ve never seen them live but I really like their demo tape.” So The Marquee agreed to have them, and that was the beginning of our relationship.”
Although there have been periods when they did not work together, their friendship has continued down the years and he’s relishing the opportunity of being with them again during yet another upswing in their fortunes.
Of all the bands he has worked with, Hallett considers them his special favourites. “They’re family,” he states.
Another vital arm in the Duran Duran hierarchy is Wendy Laister, the New York-based longtime publicist who now manages the band as boss of her own company, Magus Entertainment.
Like Hallett, Laister has been around Duran Duran since the early days. “I can remember when things really took off, going in their car with them for the first time,” she says. “It was immediately mobbed when we left at the rear of the venue and the driver would have to gradually try to ease the way out to avoid knocking fans over.
“I started working with them again when they had their re-union in 2001, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
It was Laister who oversaw the first of the Paper Gods shows. “They came in to the US when the album was released [on 11 September] and did half a dozen very special shows, like playing Red Rocks (in Denver, cap. 9,450] and Hollywood Bowl [17,300] for the first time, plus a couple of festivals.
“They also did a series of high-profile TV shows, The Today Show and all of the late night ones. So that was getting the promotion of the album started, but they’ll be touring the whole of next year, including a major American tour in April, and also in the summer.”
“Their interests lie in the future, in making new fans and bringing new people on board”
When they kicked off the UK leg in front of 18,000 fans at Manchester Arena, journalist Neil McCormick declared in the The Telegraph, “The sight and sound of thousands of pop fans joyfully bellowing ‘This is Planet Earth, ba-ba-ba’” is a response that cannot fail to gladden the heart.”
Steve Howarth of the Manchester Evening News evidently agreed, stating, “the boys were in fine form, starting with the title track from their new album, but then hitting us with Hungry Like the Wolf, Wild Boys and View To A Kill in quick succession. The place went wild. Forget New Romantics – this felt more like a full-blown rock concert.”
But the increasing maturity of a band once known largely for its dress sense and hedonistic lifestyle, was revealed in the encore when Simon Le Bon dedicated Save A Prayer, recently covered by The Eagles Of Death Metal, to “all who suffered that night.” – a heartfelt reference to the terrorist attack on Paris music venue Le Bataclan.
The overwhelmingly positive reviews, understandably, have been well-received by Hallett.
“They’ve been so under-rated and seeing them on the opening night in Manchester, they were so good,” he enthuses.
“They have this great catalogue of hits, but the highlight of the show was Pressure Off, which is a new song from the latest album. To me, that says this is an enduring entity – not a nostalgia group, but a real, live and kicking rock ’n’ roll band.”
The Paper Gods tour is travelling with a complement of 32 crew under the watchful eye of tour director Ken Watts, who boasts a lengthy resume running from the very first Wham! tour in 1983, through artistes as diverse as Jamiroquai, Spandau Ballet and Michael Flatley.
“I’ve also done almost all of George Michael’s tours, most recently the Symphonica Live shows with the orchestra,” he says, “but with Duran Duran I’m the new guy. I started with them in April, and was pleased to find myself joining an already well-established team.”
Clarifying his precise role in the structure of the tour, Watts points out, “I tour with the crew, and I operate from a mobile office which moves from venue to venue, and which is open from the moment we arrive, so I’m always available from 8.00am onwards,” he says.
“We also have our tour manager who travels with the band, taking care of the logistical side of managing their hotels, their travel and all of that.”
Production manager Keith Wood tells us that, “Duran Duran have seven trucks and two busses on the road, and Seal has one truck and another two busses.
“Vince Foster’s show design has been great. Each song has its own video content/graphics on an LED wall which gives the show an impressive visual element, making it a much more memorable performance than many typical arena-sized shows where video is just used as an imag screen.”
Watts is keen to stress that, “At the core of it all, of course, the performance of the band is absolutely brilliant. I think they sound better now than they ever have done. However, the video and lighting aspects that Vince has put together have been outstanding. I’ve worked on several large video-based productions, so it’s inspiring to see a medium-sized installation which is so impressive in what it delivers.”
Hallett too is enthusiastic about the visual aspect of the show. “The video screens, and the content on those screens, is exceptional,” he says. “And then they have these video ribbons – two or three-foot high video screens – running across the stage which change the appearance of the stage for virtually every song. Its the best live production I’ve seen them do for a long time.”
Nevertheless, Watts confesses to having had some initial doubts about those ribbons. “In the planning stages, when I first saw the video ribbons, I was a bit unsure about them. But once we got them, Alex Leinster from Video Design was superb in conceptualising how to manage it and, after some tweaking, I now think they look really good.”
Another industry veteran, the aforementioned Alex Leinster, founder and MD of Video Design in Rushden, puts some meat on the bones of that visual side of things.
“We have three people out on the road, headed up by our crew chief Andy Tomks, and are providing the large upstage Winvision 9 LED screen and the LED Ribbons – three rows of LEDs that intertwine with the risers leading from the downstage to the upstage edge,” he explains.
“They required a custom metalwork supporting them because of their shapes, so we put all of that together too.”
Ratcheting-up that visual impact still further, London-based Neg Earth Lights has four crew touring with this package.
“We have worked for Duran Duran over the last two tour cycles and this is our third,” says Neg Earth’s Dave Ridgeway.
“We are supplying a four-truss system of Magic Blades, Mythos, K20 B Eye, Solaris Flares and four light moles, with four Lancelot front-of-house spots. It’s actually an admirably straightforward lighting system, but with Vince Foster designing and operating it, is a great looking show.”
Audio for the Paper Gods tour is in the hands of a four-man Britannia Row crew. The Twickenham-based sound company’s business development manager Dave Compton outlines their installation.
“We have supplied an L-Acoustics K1 PA with flown K1SB subs. Front-of-house is handled by a 96-channel Avid Profile desk. Britannia Row also bought the new AVID S6L 32D / 192 engine for the band’s monitor engineer, Charles ‘Chopper’ Bradley, so that’s making its debut on this tour.”
One of the lengthiest associations on this tour is claimed by Chris Redburn, the fourth generation lead trucking company Redburn Transfer, based in Enfield.
“I actually drove one of our LB111 Scanias [tractor and trailer units] for them on their 1982 UK tour, when Save A Prayer had just been released,” he reveals. “That was just a one-truck tour, but I remember thinking at the time that this new young band could really make it, In the past 10 years, we have worked with Ken Watts and his team a lot, on George Michael’s various tours.”
For Paper Gods, Redburn is supplying six tractors, trailers and drivers, pointing out that, “Duran Duran have quite diverse requests and requirements for different types of vehicles as they do a variety of diverse promo events and TV shows. So we can be supplying a Sprinter Van and driver one minute, a 7.5 tonner the next and six tractors and trailers the next.”
The crew are travelling in a pair of Setra 16-berth double deckers with two drivers, provided by Phoenix Bussing in Romsey. “Our relationship with Duran Duran goes back over several tours,” says operations manager Paul Hattin, “and it’s always an enjoyable experience – partly because Ken Watts is a very experienced tour director who always knows what he wants and always asks for his favourite drivers.”
Wendy Deans, founder and head of the Popcorn Catering in Cleveland, has links with Duran Duran that run back to their 1987 tour. “They had four catering people even then, so it was a major tour. Of course, I remember the screaming girls, especially in Italy, but also that the band didn’t use the standard tour laminates like everybody else. They had black and red fabric armbands, quite a ground-breaking change.”
For the 2015 tour, says Deans, “We have five staff on the road, feeding around 90-plus for dinner – the crew, the band and Seal. We provide at least five main course, so we have a white meat and a red meat, a fish dish and vegetarian/vegan, and a healthy option too, which would be lighter and easier to digest.”
Looking back at the recent American shows, Ken Watts notes that, “Those were a whole mixture of dates, everything from festivals to arenas and outdoor shows, so every day was different. I adopted what I call a Pick ’n’ Mix approach where we traveled with trucks carrying enough lights, audio, dressing etc to be able to put the show together wherever we were.”
Here in the UK, however, Watts feels that not only have the production values been ramped up, but “we have our own bespoke designed production on an arena tour, where you’re putting more or less the same production into a new space every day. So essentially these shows have a more coherent, consistent look to them.”
With a career spanning 37 years, Duran Duran could be classed as a heritage act, but neither they nor their team sees it that way.
“Although they do respect their past achievements, more than anybody I’ve ever worked with, they hate to look back,” reckons manager Wendy Laister.
“It’s not that they want to distance themselves from their past achievements, but their interests lie in the future and in making new fans and bringing new people on board – their audience is now multi-generational.”
In the wake of Le Bataclan incident, Save A Prayer has taken on a new significance in Duran Duran’s live performances, but as Rob Hallett points out, “Wild Boys has also taken on a new significance live, because of the line ‘Wild Boys never lose it’ – which they’ve now proven to be absolutely true.”