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Episode 15 – Discussion of Duran Duran’s Big Thing

We will discuss Duran Duran’s 1988 album “Big Thing”, but 1st let’s get into some new wave news\.

0:00 – New Wave News

5:17 – Dicussion of Duran Duran’s “Big Thing”

New Wave News

Jools Holland Tour

Jools Holland is known for several things, including keyboarding and singing on some Squeeze songs, as well as fronting the British music television show “Later… with Jools Holland”. Late this year he will be touring in the UK with his backing band,  the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. The orchestra has original Squeeze drummer Gilson Lavis. To sweeten the pot, former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond will be a special guest. Tickets are on sale for that as I speak. Holland recently completed a 4-night run in New York City’s Blue Note, his 1st shows in the Big Apple in 15 years.

Gary Numan Interview

The Irish News had an inspirational interview with synth pioneer Gary Numan who is turning 60 soon. In the interview, Numan talks about his previous battles with depression, but talks about how he has dealt with it. He mentioned “I think one of the best coping mechanisms is to write down what you like about your other half.” They also discussed other aspects of his personal life. For instance, after his wife had several rounds of in-vitro fertilization, they finally had children. Numan mentioned he has Asperger’s Syndrome but he would never wish it away as it gives him an interesting view of things in life.

Boy George

Former Jam frontman Paul Weller recently collaborated with Boy George on a track called “One Tear”, off Weller’s latest album. Weller joked that he can’t tour with Boy George because George’s travel wardrobe would be too big. He then praised Boy George by saying “I really love George’s voice and I think he’s just got better with age and time.” Speaking of Boy George, the Daily Mail recently had an article showcasing Boy George’s luxury home he is renting while he is a coach on the Australian version of the Voice. It looks palatial, indeed, and is costing him about $5500 a week.

Bananarama in North America

Starting February 20 Bananarama’s original lineup will tour North America for the 1st time ever. This is after a successful run of dates in the UK. Unfortunately though the tour is only 4 dates, so hopefully they will come back soon to visit some of the big cities they will miss. Bananarama believe it or not were purely a studio group when making their biggest hits such as “Venus” and “Cruel Summer”. They only started touring in 1988 after founding member Siobhan Fahey already had left the group. In speaking with the Mercury News, member Keren Woodward said that their setlist will be a celebration of Fahey’s return, so I am guessing there will be an emphasis on their classic era.

Depeche Mode Masseuse

Depeche Mode have a masseuse, Peewee Willman that helps them out on tours and such. But for has been also massaging the US Men’s Hockey Olympic team on and off for the past 15 years. Depeche Mode hired him shortly after singer David Gahan suffered a knee injury while on tour. In speaking with Brendan Smialowski, Willman explained that the masseuse needs of a rock band and sports team are different but that he can effectively wear both hats. When the Olympics end February 25, Willman will join back up with Depeche Mode to support them in the South American leg of their Spirit tour.

Sting-Shaggy Collaboration

Former Police frontman Sting has teamed up with Reggae artist Shaggy to record a Jamaican-inflected album together. The 1st single off that collaboration, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, was debuted at the Super Bowl 52 Tailgate party 2 weeks ago and is available for purchase now. The rest of the album, called “44/876”, is due in a couple of months. The album’s title comes from the country and area codes of the UK and Jamaica, from where Sting and Shaggy originally hail from. According to Billboard, the 2 are thinking about touring together to support the album, which would be quite interesting.

Blenheim Palace Concert

Finally, Blenheim Palace near Oxford in the UK annually has a series of concerts called Nocturne Live. Blenheim is one of England’s most stately homes. This year, Elvis Costello will be headlining one of the nights, with Nick Lowe and the Waterboys as special guests. That is a lot of prime songwriting power sharing the bill, and should be a great night.  Nile Rodgers, who has produced Duran Duran, will be headlining one of the other nights. For those not in the UK, Costello will be doing a few concerts near New York City and continental Europe. However, Blenheim will be Nick Lowe’s only scheduled concert so far this year.

Discussion of Duran Duran’s “Big Thing”

Let’s talk about Duran Duran’s Big Thing album from 1988. New wave music was starting to lose some steam commercially by 1988, Duran Duran included. Though Big Thing is a small step below Notorious in my opinion, the former is still a rewarding listen and you could even detect a turning point in the band with this album.

Side A of Big Thing is mostly a slightly mellower continuation of Notorious, while side B sounds a bit more experimental and features more avant-garde guitar work from Cuccurullo.

I Don’t Want Your Love

“I Don’t Want Your Love” sounds like a good continuation of the singles off of the previous album “Notorious”. The bassline is warm, funky, and fits the song well. LeBon dials back the intensity a little bit from the song “Notorious” but still delivers solid vocals. I also enjoyed the bridge which has good guitar work from session musician Chester Kamen and an almost-rap section by LeBon. All in all, the song is a good, funk-inflected new wave song. The theme of the song is full of good snarkiness. I think on the surface the narrator is rejecting a courter, as evidenced by the song title and lines like “my obsessive fascination is in your imagination”. One could also argue the courter in this case is the media. The video for Big Thing features Duran Duran embroiled in courtroom drama. Are they on trial for their perceived excesses earlier in the ‘80s? The quick edits and switching between black and white and color makes it visually stimulating. Simon LeBon is sporting longer hair than usual in the videos for the album “Big Thing”. Interestingly, the song fared quite better in the US than the UK, hitting only #14 in Britain while reaching #4 across the pond.

All She Wants Is

“All She Wants Is” is one of the more eccentric Duran Duran singles. The structure of the song revolves around a detached chanting of the song title, along with a woman moaning in a clipped manner. The melody is repetitive and droning, which adds to its moodiness. Cuccurullo’s and John Taylor’s guitars add enough spice to the song to keep the listener interested. Lyrics-wise there is not a lot, and to be honest I had a hard time ascertaining the possible meaning of the song. My guess is that all she wants is is drugs. Simon writes “If you need a lead to heaven now, just stick around”, the heaven perhaps being a temporary drug euphoria. The video like the song, is weird creative in a good way, and is the best late ‘80s Duran Duran video in my opinion. For example, the video has some trippy light effects which is pretty cool.The band and other characters in the video seem animatronic and have rubber facial expressions. “All She Wants Is” actually performed better than “I Don’t Want Your Love” in the UK, the former hitting the top 10. In the US it did not do as well but was still good for a top 40 hit. I think it is a rewarding song but perhaps its eccentricity hurt its chart performance.

Big Thing

Let’s move on now to the album tracks on “Big Thing”’s  side A. It starts on a positive note with the charging title track. The insistent drum into segues into a gang chant interspersed with LeBon singing solo. It sounds somewhat like New Kids on the Block, who were breaking out around the same time. Female backup vocals are present in the chorus, much like other songs on side A of “Big Thing”I think this song is about the music industry, and making it big on the singles and radio charts. Indeed, there are references to music industry terms like “power rotation” and “play list”.

Too Late Marlene

“Too Late Marlene” is a slower track, clocking in at a little over 5 minutes. A 6-note synth riff is played throughout.  “Too Late Marlene” has a soulful sound with some female backup vocals to that effect. They are a good counterpoint to LeBon’s vocals, which also sound soulful and mellow. The keyboard by Rhodes is subtle but nevertheless strengthens the song. From what I gather, the song is about a relationship that is having some trouble. Lines like “Still I wonder why everybody’s saying that ice is thin” made me think that. The song’s title might allude to it either being too late to reconcile, or too late to back out of the relationship, I’m not sure which.

Drug

“Drug (It’s Just a State of Mind)” sounded a little too generic for me so I would argue this is the weakest song on the album. The song features horns similar to those used in the previous album “Notorious”. It is a pretty fast-paced song, so it is high on energy. I believe “Drug” is about the singer asking a love interest to sleep with him to the point that he is like a drug. Indeed, he asks her to “take me every morning, take me every night”. Alternately, the narrator could literally be a drug, maybe cocaine, to keep someone up all night.

I would argue that the 2nd-half of this album injects a new type of sound in the Duran Duran arsenal: a more guitar-oriented and adult contemporary one. This is perhaps due to guitarist Cuccurullo’s increasing influence on the band.

Do You Believe in Shame?

Let’s flip to the 2nd half of “Big Thing” now. “Do You Believe in Shame?” was the 3rd single off of “Big Thing”.  LeBon’s vocal delivery is different than in singles past: it is full of pathos. The instrumentation has a bit of a blues-inflected adult contemporary feel to it. There is enough synth action to give it that Duran Duran flavor. At 1st I thought this song was about Andy Warhol, who passed away the year prior. However, in reading John Taylor’s autobiography I learned it was about Simon LeBon’s childhood friend’s passing. There are some melancholy lyrics like “I don’t think I ever can believe my friend is gone”. And “I feel so damn lonely when I think of you”. The video features the LeBon, Rhodes and John Taylor traversing New York City in separate storylines, which I believe all deal with grief and moving on. It is a powerful, reflective video, much like the song. Unfortunately the song flopped commercially. Though I was still a kid when it came out, I wonder if the song didn’t do well because of the change in sound compared to the previous 2 singles off “Big Thing”. Though 1993’s “Ordinary World” was different as well from Duran Duran’s earlier sound and was a big hit.

Palomino

“Palomino” is a ponderous track; it features long, atmospheric synth notes. The relative quietness of the song is punctuated at times by Cuccurullo’s guitar. In the verses, the vocals are in a lower register than usual for the tenor LeBon.The chorus is full of emotion and contrasts well with the broodiness of the verses. The chorus lyric, “When I run out of blue Give me red instead”, was a quote from Pablo Picasso. There are other painting references, such as “Painting eyes, thick with the color she brings in”, and the song title is a particular color for horses.

Land

The 6-minute “Land” is the next track off of “Big Thing”. It is a beautiful song but perhaps being next to the also-slow-paced “Palomino” makes the 2 seem to blend into each other. The extended intro features backup vocals and more moody keyboards, and the bridge features a Spanish-sounding guitar. LeBon’s vocals are a similar style to Palomino but perhaps a tad more melancholy. I think the song is about the narrator leaving behind a love interest because he is going on a journey via sea. Indeed, LeBon says “Soon my ship will sail”. There are contrasts drawn between land and sea.

The Edge of America/Lake Shore Driving

“The Edge of America” is short at about 2 ½ minutes but is still potent. The emphasis is on the lyrics and vocals, as the instrumentation is a bit more sparse than in other songs off the album. The keyboard is more prominent than the drums or guitars and thus drives the melody. The song is a sad view of inner-city America. The song is full of lyrics like “Inside the subway stinking fear and shame. Becomes the violent breath.” He might be talking about Chicago in particular because “The Edge of America” segues into the album closer “Lake Shore Driving”. “Lake Shore Driving” was indeed inspired by the Chicago highway with a similar name. It is an instrumental song which really shows off Cuccurullo’s avant-garde guitar chops. The guitars are punctuated by light synths. It is kind of a trippy song, which makes sense given the song title. Besides the avant-garde, part of the song sounds a little funky, thereby tying together the 2 halves of the album. The song (and album) end abruptly.

I Believe

The B-side to “All She Wants Is”, is the sonically different “I Believe”. It is a Duran Duran fan-favorite. It reminds me a bit of side-project Arcadia’s “El Diablo”. LeBon sings a bit lower and mellower for this one. It has a good harmonica section and low-pitched synths. It lacks funk elements, so if it were an album track it would find a better home on the 2nd side.

In Conclusion

While the album “Big Thing” and its singles did not fare as well as their early-to-mid ‘80s material, Duran Duran was still able to play at arenas holding 20,000 people and such. One example is Nassau Coliseum near New York City. Considering the changing musical landscape, I would argue Duran Duran were holding up quite well compared to its new wave contemporaries.

One more thing to note. Unfortunately in the late ‘80s Duran Duran was slipping commercially. Perhaps sensing this, or perhaps because the decade was coming to an end, the band created an amalgamation of many of their hits. It was dubbed “Burning the Ground”, named after a “Hungry Like the Wolf” lyric. A video was made to support “Burning the Ground”, which appropriately had clips from their iconic videos. Both song and video were a great capstone to the ‘80s incarnation of Duran Duran.

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