Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Nick Rhodes?
While the Duran Duran founding member and keyboardist might not be one of the first names you’d think to mention when listing innovators, he certainly deserves to be. That’s because his band, the one best known for its good looks, impeccable fashion, and monster hits such as “Hungry Like the Wolf,” have also long been shrewd observers of the next big thing.
In 1979, before the highs of sold-out stadiums and music videos stocked with fashion models, Rhodes was working as a DJ at the Rum Runners club in Birmingham, England.
“It was a real transitional period,” he recalls. “Punk had burnt out very quickly and disappeared, and electro was coming up with people like the Human League and Fat Gadget. There were post-punks and rock and a bit of electronics with groups like Magazine and Ulravox. It was actually a really inspirational time, and certainly a lot of that music is what’s at the roots of Duran Duran.”
Future bandmate John Taylor also worked at Rum Runner, primarily to run the door. Rhodes was later tapped to DJ, a gig he attributes to the fact that he happened to own a great record collection. His Tuesday night slot quickly grew popular, allowing him to take over Friday night duties as well. However, DJing in 1979 was a far cry from the lucrative and digitized enterprise we know it as today.
“You did have to do everything manually, but I really enjoyed it,” he says. “There was something so great about seeing people having fun and seeing the excitement on their faces when you put a certain song on. It just delivered joy to them immediately.”
One thing Rhodes noticed was that popular songs were ending too quickly.
“When a song was three minutes long and people were dancing to it, they didn’t want it to be over. They wanted more.”
While some extended plays were available, this observation soon led to Duran Duran’s decision to create their own extended plays, which they dubbed “night versions,” after their eponymous debut album was released in 1981.
“When we first made our night version for our song ‘Planet Earth’ — our very first single — it was made in a completely manual way. We literally worked out a seven-minute arrangement and played it. You didn’t cut up tape or move things around — and, of course, with no computers, you didn’t have the option of copy-and-paste or to make something a bit longer or take that bit out. You literally just played it.”
Duran Duran would become one of the first bands to generate their own remixes. Shortly thereafter, the advent of MTV would offer the group a chance to do something even more revolutionary.
The rise of MTV as a 24-hour music video station arrived just as Duran Duran were enjoying widespread popularity following the release of their blockbuster sophomore album, Rio. It was 1982, and the pairing of the station with a band stampeding toward international stardom would prove pivotal for both parties.
“The major difference between us and MTV is that we didn’t go on to make game shows,” Rhodes jokes.
In the early days, when MTV was still focused exclusively on music, a thirst for new content gave Duran Duran license to do just about whatever they wanted with their videos.
“It was an amazing time for music in the early ’80s, when video was a new landscape,” he says. “MTV in particular desperately needed programming, all the time: ‘Please give us something new! When are you putting another one out?’ We embraced video because it seemed just so obvious for us. It was moving pictures, a little film to go with the songs we’d made.”
In a time before the internet and instant Google searches, Rhodes says making videos was also a way for faraway fans to get a chance to see the faces of the lads from Duran Duran.
“The record label came to us on our first single and said they needed us to make a video,” he says. “We asked why and they said it was because we had a huge hit in Australia. We couldn’t schedule a tour down there for many, many months because we were already booked up around the rest of the world, and these Australian fans wanted to see what we looked like.”
One thing Rhodes points out is how, at that time, no one had any idea that, decades later, kids would still be watching these videos YouTube.
“None of us knew that in the crystal ball the internet was coming,” he explains. “It’s quite strange to have [these videos] develop a life of their own, and to have people referencing them now. I meet young kids who are maybe 10 or 12 years old and are just discovering our early videos. It’s fantastic. It’s a little bizarre in many ways to me, but no more bizarre I suppose than me first discovering ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ when I was 15.”
Many bands rode the wave of the MTV generation only to fizzle away when new technology and an endless sea of alternatives came to take their piece of market. Instead, Duran Duran once again decided to look forward. Sure, it would be easy to keep booking tours on the strength of the hits and fame they already had, but Rhodes had other ideas.
In 1997, he found himself enamored with Napster, a file-sharing program that served as a precursor to the modern era of torrents, streaming, and other forms of illegally obtaining digital content.
“Whilst I didn’t think it was proper for artists to have someone just stealing their copyrights and sending them around, at the same time, I thought it was the most utterly brilliant idea,” Rhodes says. “They had figured out how to put a song in a format that could instantly be sent to someone else.”
Rhodes contacted the audio technology and software company Liquid Audio, and together they concocted a plan to make “Electric Barbarella,” a single off 1997’s Medazzaland, the first song to ever be sold online, and a nod to the psychedelic Jane Fonda film from which Duran Duran took its name. Recalling the afternoon he walked into Abbey Road and successfully completed the transaction, Rhodes says that aside from some compression quality concerns, he was thrilled.
“We didn’t sell very many copies,” Rhodes says. “I think it was in the low thousands, actually, but I am still quite proud of that fact that we were first and tried to push things in that direction. That was in 1997, and to put things in perspective, Apple did not open iTunes until 2003.”
Duran Duran’s longevity is due in no small part to the band’s willingness to go beyond the formulas prescribed by the music industry and strike out on their own. That the group remains frustratingly handsome, keenly aware of the moment’s most in-demand designers, and capable of crafting a perfect dance-rock song time and time again — go ahead, give 2015’s “Paper Gods” a listen — only underscore their belief that it’s one thing to have a moment, but quite another to constantly adapt to the one at hand.
“It’s a tightrope that you have to walk,” Rhodes says. “You have to stay modern and listen to contemporary music, understand the sound, and take some influence from it — but you also have to stay true to your vision and keep your integrity without borrowing too much.”
While music critics have taken their fair share of shots at Duran Duran over the years, the fans seem as eager as ever to welcome Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor when they come to town. In part, it’s because many in the audience remember back to when they first saw the “Rio” video in all its sun-soaked, Antony-Price-suit glory. Yet there are also other faces in the crowd: those who perhaps first discovered the group by hearing their remix at a club back in the ’80s; early internet adopters who caught wind that a band was actually selling their music online; and young kids on YouTube who, with a few clicks, were suddenly greeted by the opening notes to “Planet Earth.”
“I feel we’re moving into much more enlightened times now,” Rhodes says. “The dinosaurs are finally wandering away to a different planet. People understand that modern music is all about technology and pop culture and visuals and fashion and art and design and the internet and everything else we’re surrounded by too — which is what we were getting at, in our own way, almost 40 years ago now.“
Duran Duran, plays Friday, July 7 at the Fox Theatre (Oakland) and Saturday, July 8 at 7 p.m. at The Masonic.