First Read: Duran Duran’s Rio by Annie Zaleski

I’m feelin’ 1982, when I grooved to a musical stew overseen by Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn most summer afternoons. Senior year of high school was in the offing and, when not out and about, I prepped for AP English by devouring such “classic” tomes as the interminable Jude the Obscure. (Why that Thomas Hardy novel was on the recommended reading list, I have no clue; the teacher never referred to it once class commenced.) I also watched TV, listened to music – and frequently combined the two by turning on MTV, which I treated like the radio. I read to the beats.

The first time I heard Duran Duran likely came during the week of June 28th, which is when “Hungry Like a Wolf” was added into rotation at the music channel (alongside such other clips as “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac and “Vacation” by the Go-Go’s). I never liked or loved the band, but didn’t loathe them the way I did, say, Asia and their arena-rock clones. To me, they simply represented a slice of pop music that, while I may have liked some songs, didn’t speak to or for me. That said, for reasons I’ll get to later, I actually consider them an important band within the development of my idiosyncratic approach to music criticism.

I share that so that folks know that I picked up Annie Zaleski’s entry in the 33 1/3 book series, Duran Duran’s Rio, with neither trepidation nor expectations, but a hope I’d learn something I didn’t already know. Pre-lockdown, I should explain, I often read books about artists and acts that I’m not familiar with over several weekend visits to B&N. (In my view, pop-culture history is an array of torrents; assuming we know it all guarantees we’ll never reach the ocean of truth. Or something like that.) In this case, since Diane and I have cloistered ourselves in our cat’s castle for the past 14 months, I ordered it from Amazon. 

In the intro, Zaleski explains that – by virtue of her age – she stumbled upon the album in the mid-1990s via her local library a few years after discovering the band itself. Her description of their “chic futurism” and how it impacted her in “khaki-boring suburban Ohio” should resonate with anyone who came of age in the ‘burbs during the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, just as her romanticizing the music of the ‘80s should hit home with those of us who grew up in the shadow of Woodstock. (The music-minded among us routinely look back to look forward, if that makes sense.)

She buttresses the story, which spans from the band’s formation in 1978 to the delayed U.S. success of Rio, with research and new interviews with the band members, who shed light on the whys and wherefores of their whirlwind rise – and it was rapid in their native U.K., where Rio reached No. 2 in the charts in only its second week and three singles from it reached the Top 10 by year’s end. In the U.S., however, it was a much harder slog. As anyone who lived through them can recall, the early ‘80s saw a retrenchment within the music industry and, by extension, rock radio. With rare exception, new music that didn’t mimic the tried-and-true was ignored everywhere except the review sections of the music magazines.

MTV helped changed that, of course. Without it, Duran Duran likely would have gone the way of the Jam – huge in their homeland, but a niche act here.

Anyway, to circle back to why the band remains important to my approach to music: Within a year, MTV’s influence waned from my life, while the Paisley Underground, Lone Justice, Long Ryders and folk music took root. By decade’s end, when I managed the CD departments at two video stores in the Philadelphia area and wrote album reviews on the side, I’ll admit to having become something of a music snob – not quite Jack Black flipping out on a customer asking for an uncool Stevie Wonder tune, but one willing to denigrate an artist or act I found lacking.

A video clerk whose name I’ve long forgotten changed that, however. She was a new hire and just out of high school, about to start community college. One night, I kept her company while she waited for her ride – it was dark, the parking lot was deserted and she was nervous to be left alone. I asked who her favorite band was and, without hesitation, she named Duran Duran. I probably laughed, as was my wont, but she defended her choice, explaining how their songs lifted her up when she was down and, though just a kid to me, she’d had some major down times in her life. “They’re my Beatles,” she said (or words to that effect).

Putting yourself in another’s shoes, accepting their truth, is difficult no matter the issue. In this case, from that simple conversation, I gradually formulated a new approach to music, choosing not to scoff at or slough off the sounds that, once upon a time, I might have dismissed out of hand – and, aside from Asia, their arena-rock clones and most prog rock, I’ve generally stayed true to that approach. To borrow the line from Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” that I borrow all the time, “…every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.” It’s the way of the world, really. (There’s a difference between mean-spirited ripostes and honest criticism, too, but that’s for another post down the line.)

None of which has anything to do with the Duran Duran’s Rio, I know. Of that: For those of a certain age, it should bring to mind memories such as mine; and for those too young to recall the time, it should fill in the blanks. We live in age where the bare facts of any subject are just a few clicks away, after all, but context is generally absent. Zaleski provides both in spades. Hers is a well-written book that should prove worthwhile to anyone with an interest in the band, album or the era. I recommend it.

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