As bassist for the poster band of the "new romantic" pop scene in the early '80s, Duran Duran's John Taylor assimilated his love for funk rhythms with progressive pop into a style that defied the expectations of a pop band—while bewildering critics looking to stop new wave in its tracks.
Duran Duran was far more than a synth band, though, and the roar of fans around the world soon silenced the clamor of shallow critics. The band's five musical personalities had gelled, spawning a hybrid pop band equal parts funk, hard rock and new wave.
Duran Duran albums are exercises in balance. For each of the band's hooky MTV hits, you'll find far moodier album fare within the band's catalog. Compare the bouncy dance-pop of "Is There Something I Should Know?" and "Rio" to the melancholia of "The Chauffuer" and "New Religion," and you'll begin to understand why few musicians have worn the dual crown of pop star and musical innovator. It's a monumental task.
For the Monitor, John reflected on Duran Duran history and his enduring bass work.
Duran Duran's 1980s catalog features some of the most distinctive bass work of the decade. How did your style develop?
I think it's a knock-kneed English white boy's attempt at a sophisticated funk style, really. I became a player in punk rock, and English punk rock was very loose and not as fast as U.S. punk, so there was a looseness to the playing. I got a taste for certain R&B dance records, and that coincided with me meeting Roger (Taylor, drums). I'd been playing guitar in the band originally, but when I met Rog, we started working the rhythm section. Actually, on the first demos we cut with Roger, I was playing bass and guitar. We were still looking for either a guitar or bass player, whichever came around first. I just sort of gravitated toward the bass. As a young kid, I knew who the guitar player was and I knew who the drummer was, because those are big "personality" instruments. I wasn't really aware of what the bass did. I think it was Chic, Bernard Edwards and his playing, that really yelled out to me: "Check this out. This is a cool instrument, and you can move the music this way." That, coinciding with Roger being the first good drummer I had played with—and the first who had a full drum kit.
That's keeping with the spirit of punk rock, too: anything goes. I think that influence comes out especially on the first record, like on "Planet Earth."
Yeah, exactly, because you've got this proto-funk thing going on, but it's clearly coming from a fundamental—I don't want to say "white"—but white background. (laughs)
Taking that cue, I consider you as more of a "feel" player than a technical player. Is that a fair statement?
Given the band's level of musicianship, were you surprised when more emphasis was put on fashion rather than songwriting and skill?
I don't remember how I felt about it at the time. We had more success than we could handle. We never thought of ourselves as being great musicians; we just did what we did. It wasn't until I moved to New York in 1984 and started hanging around studios and started getting the session vibe—working on The Power Station album—that I started thinking of myself as a musician and comparing myself to other musicians. Not in a good way, either! (laughs)
Up until that point, I never compared my playing to anyone else; I never really thought about it. There was a great energy in Britain at the end of the '70s. The punk scene made so much possible and there were a lot of artists moving in new ways and attempting a broader sort of music than the basic punk thing. Everyone in the band was such a good fit and we just did our thing. We had enough knowledge. It was much more instinct than technique, although Andy had the strongest technique in the band. He's the one who would say, "Well, here's what we're doing here."
Did being in that new creative environment influence Duran Duran's stylistic shift in the mid- and late-'80s?
It probably did, actually. By the end of the '80s, I'd gotten quite self-conscious about my style and found myself really simplifying. There were a few records I made toward the end of the '80s where we were all self-consciously trying to find a new style. You can't keep doing the same thing. We had a very well-defined thing when we came out, which worked for us on the first three albums. I think also, I just didn't have any choice; I couldn't play the way I played with any other drummers. I started playing with Steve Ferrone, and it just didn't work the same as it did with Roger—and Tony Thompson, likewise. And yeah, I've gone back to Roger over the past few years, and what I did back then doesn't sound cliché or naïve, it just sounds cool. We're very locked in and we inspire confidence in each other. We'll work and work our parts until it feels right, and I think you have to have a very good understanding of your rhythm partner in order to do that.
During the years after Roger and Andy left, there were both artistic high points and commercial high points, the latter being "The Wedding Album," which was another stylistic departure for the band. Did that album come together as organically as the other Duran albums?
We worked very hard on it. It was really all down to one song, and sometimes it only takes one song. "Ordinary World" was it. That was the first record we made that was tightly A&R'd. Tightly policed. Because on the couple of albums leading up to that one, we'd blown so much cash and not had successes, that the label said, "You know what? This time we're only giving you this much money, and then you're going to come back and play us what you've written, and if we like it, we'll give you some more. And this is going to be good for you." (laughs)
So they gave us a bit of money, we went away and then they gave us a bit more money; we went away and came back with "Ordinary World," and they were like, "Okay, great, we've got ourselves a hit." It was the first time we'd had that interaction with a label. And then "Come Undone" was written, but I had nothing to do with that one. I was in Los Angeles at the time Nick, Simon (LeBon) and Warren (Cuccurillo) came up with that little baby. That song, added to "Ordinary World," made that album a big success.
Is there any difference in how you approach Duran Duran projects today as opposed to the previous records?
I think what I've learned to do in the last eight or nine years is to show up with a four-stringed instrument and that's it. There are a lot of toys around. Keyboard players have lots of them. Guitar players have lots of them. I just want to keep my whole trip really lean. On the first sessions for Astronaut, when everyone else was plugging in trainloads of gadgetry, I just came with four strings and that was my religion. It felt really good. It felt soulful. And it was enough that I was back and playing with these guys. With my playing, style has been important. Style is that thing that sits between instinct and technique. If you don't consciously go after technique—which I never have, I've never learned scales—then instinct will turn into style, given time. My style has very much been formed as a result of the people I've played with, Roger and Andy and Nick, and finding a way to communicate amongst what they're bringing to the table. So you have the guitar player and drummer leave, with whom you forged your style, and your style is suddenly out at sea, you know what I'm saying? So you have to adapt. My point being, coming back to these guys, it was like, my style was, "Oh, my god, I'm home!" And that's why I don't need any tricks. I have a few toys that I take with me, but I don't need them. There are a couple of songs where I use delays and whatnot, but to really get my mojo working I don't need any toys, and I pride myself on that. I think it's almost necessary.
But everybody's different and everybody has to find a way to express themselves. My reference points are, for the most part, played on a four-string instrument without any effects, whether it's Bernard Edwards or James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, whoever.
On tour, are you doing mostly singles or some of the more obscure, deep-cut album material, too?
I have to say the most magical day was the day we started rehearsing for [our first reunion] tour, and it wasn't from playing the hits. I mean, I played "The Reflex" even when I was in my own band. It was digging into the catalog—songs like "New Religion," "(Waiting for the) Night Boat," songs I hadn't played in twenty years—that was extraordinary. You felt like you were untapping all this feeling, just by playing the songs, you know? People talk about muscle memory and how you can store experiences in your muscles, and we're almost in tears, because our fingers are finding positions they haven't found in twenty years. It was just extraordinary, a really beautiful thing.