Duran Duran: Towards a Construction of the Diagonal
Thoughts on Meaning, Memory and Mascara
"I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites"
What does an image mean? The answer is that an image does not mean anything, in and of itself. Without context, without a degree of prior knowledge on the part of the viewer, an image is meaningless. Meaningless images can still produce a visceral reaction in the viewer - pornography being the most obvious example - but this reaction is transient, glandular. Images can reflect a moment in history, and they can provoke a mob to riot, but without context they are nothing. The famous photograph of a Chinese man holding back a line of tanks with his shopping bag has come to symbolise the triumph of the human spirit over the State of iron and steel; perhaps also the triumph of shopping bags over tanks. But for a viewer who was not alive in 1989, who did not see the Berlin Wall knocked down by The Scorpions, who knows nothing of China or the consequences of central socio-economic control, who knows nothing about effective infantry anti-tank tactics, the image is meaningless. A surreal, puzzling, attractive composition - that the diagonals of constructivism should be used against the system which produced them is irony in its purest form - but a meaningless one nonetheless. How can we be sure that the man is not directing the tanks, or that they are not part of a Stockhausen-esque art event, or that they are not empty? We know, you and I, that the tanks were there to maintain order, and that the man was risking his life by stopping them, and that the commander of the lead tank was risking his life also, by stopping, but we know this because we have been told, because we know what to expect. We already know. The image merely ices the cake.
Transient images can alter the course of elections, and just as quickly lose their meaning and become cartoons. Michael Dukakis' famously disastrous photo-opportunity of himself riding in a tank remains amusing today, because Dukakis' overly large hat does not rely on context to provoke laughter, but unless you know who he was and what he wanted and why he wanted it the image is simply that of a small man in a big tank wearing another man's hat. Or take the image of Lee Harvey Oswald dying in the spotlight, or of a young girl running from a burning village, or of Neville Chamberlain waving a small piece of paper, or of Beirut in the 1980s - particularly the latter, which seemed to be on the news all the time when I was a child, but which I still do not understand - take them all, what do they mean to anybody under the age of five? Perhaps as the children go through school they will learn about the Nazis and Vietnam, indeed it seems that they will learn nothing else, but what of Beirut, or of the Armenians, or of those airliners being blown up on that runway or that mild-looking American holding a sign saying 'Burn All Reds' or the bloated Ethiopian peasants, or indeed of the sidelong glance of Ron Mael from Sparks doing 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us' on Top of the Pops etc? Of the murderers and thugs and drunk-drivers who affect people's lives more directly than grand political trends? The internet has papered so many gaps in my mind, but it hasn't made me feel. I've only seen the pictures, I don't know what they meant to people at the time, what they mean now.
Besides, how long will history be taught? History's major theme is conflict. There are very few stories from the past which do not involve one group of people fighting another group, and there is only so much to learn from uncontroversial feats of endurance or exploration, and only so many feats of exploration which did not involve the extermination of native populations. We can learn from natural history, but nature has its own agenda, an agenda which does not necessarily involve humankind. Most of history is the history of big bastards, conning large amounts of people into dying for them, for the most transient and ephemeral of reasons; it is the history of amoral, dispassionate killing, killing of individuals and masses, of lies and distortions promulgated by liars and distorters who expect people to lie to them in turn. And on the other side are people who use lies to fight the liars. I do not trust anybody whose speeches are written for him, whether that person is Tony Blair or Michael Moore. I do not trust anybody who has power or responsibility, because those two things transform people into machines, and machines do not trust, they act.
Another image. It is 1982, but you can't tell. Five young men wearing sharp suits, pastel suits. They are standing on the prow of a yacht, gracefully cutting through the water. One man stands out; he is miming to a song. "Her name is Rio", he mimes, "and she dances on the sand". There were other lyrics, radial lyrics rather than linear lyrics, but all I remember is the image. 1984 was not Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this was not the doing of Apple or of an Orwellian people's militia; it was the doing of Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes and three unrelated men each called Taylor and Craig Logan. In his classic science fiction novel '2001: A Space Odyssey', Arthur C. Clarke postulated that humanity's course had been set by an unknowable alien force, transmitted into the minds of our ancestors by a geometric slab of coal. As our ancestors gathered around the slab, it showed them things, pictures of how their world could be; one image was of a contented family, relaxing at home, well-fed, master of the world. Another image might as well have been that of Simon Le Bon and his bandmates standing on a yacht, miming to a song about a girl (they were not to know, in 1982, that one of the 21st century's leading footballers would be a man called Rio Ferdinand).
Nietzsche believed that Man had a Will to Power; I believe that Man has a Will to Comfort, a Will to Luxury, a Will to Duran. By 1984, what band most evoked the supremacy of mankind over the animal kingdom, over the natural world, over mankind itself? At a time when the Cold War seemed on the verge of a decision - whether war or peace - what gave more hope to the people of the world than the sight of Duran Duran standing on a yacht, miming to a song? At a time when politicians were larger and more impressive than real life, what put their trifling ambitions into context more than the sight of Duran Duran, etc? Ronald Reagan may have had 'Star Wars', but Duran Duran had Quantel video effects. Margaret Thatcher had an iron fist, but Duran Duran had velvet gloves, and crisp white shirts, and panama hats. Helmut Kohl was overweight; Duran Duran were not. Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko died; Duran Duran were alive, Le Bon's puppy fat and kissable lips capturing the innocent sexual vibrancy of youth.
"I know this much is true"
The image of Duran Duran standing on a yacht retains its power today. The band provoked contrasting reactions during the height of their success. Some mocked the band, laughed at Le Bon's mishaps with his own yacht, despised the group's disinterest in social issues, indeed despised their success. In 1982, 1984, for years after in certain parts of Britain, success was not acceptable, it was shaming. Yet the miner's strike is now forgotten, the political issues which made headlines in 1984 are gone, the SDP has gone, 'the bomb' no longer provokes a reaction, unemployment and inflation are gone, 'Thatch' is gone, Ben Elton writes unsuccessful musicals with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, only Duran Duran remains. Now they are more likely to be seen in a nostalgic light, in an whimsical light, as a welcome throwback to a modernist age. All documentaries in all media which cast their gaze on the 1980s include a shot of Duran Duran on their yacht, a shot illustrative of Duran Duran, of the unashamed affluence of an age, of the power of rock music video, of the power of an image to encapsulate and contain the spirit of an age.
Without context, the image is of five men standing on a yacht, one of them with his mouth open, wearing colourful clothes. It means as little as the majority of classical paintings. Why is Uma Thurman standing on a giant sea-shell? Why is the naked man reaching out his hand to touch the hand of the bearded man? Why is the woman grinning, and why is the painting behind glass? Why is the pope screaming? Why does everybody look so miserable, and why does that baby have light coming out of his head? Duran Duran defy meaning. They are clearly aware of the camera, indeed they are deliberately posing for the camera, something which sets the image apart from most conventional news photographs. In conventional news photographs, the people in the picture do not know they are being photographed, or are not there because of the cameras, or are not posing for the benefit of the cameras. The people are ducking behind tanks, or lying dead, or standing in a mass cheering on a tyrant, or crying as they bury their children. Duran Duran were not passive participants in the conspiracy we call 'image'; they knew where the camera was, and they knew how best to exploit it. Through the camera they continue to exploit us today.
In their age, Duran Duran vied with Spandau Ballet for chart supremacy, for 'mindshare'. Spandau Ballet remain less iconic today. Their greatest hits, 'Gold' and 'True', are perhaps more durable than those of Duran Duran, but despite the kilts and the parallel background Spandau Ballet did not stand on the prow of a yacht, mining to a song. Their videos did not become part of the television matrix. Witness also Ultravox, self-consciously more serious and grown-up than either of the aforementioned, yet remembered nowadays for 'Vienna', for the video of 'Vienna', for Midge Ure's pointy sideburns and narrow tie. Of the period in British pop, only Madness and Adam Ant utilised humour, style and affluence in the same way as Duran Duran, although Madness' videos were so off-beat - by being 'normal' they did not fit the early 1980s, despite their ongoing success - as to remain overshadowed by the music.
A yacht is like a mistress; it is an expensive dream which eventually goes wrong. The early 1980s - and when people talk about 'the 80s', they usually mean 1979-1987, rather than the 80s of acid house and Then Jerico and Lockerbie and Johnny Hates Jazz - the early 1980s was a passionate age, an age of expensive dreams. If the 1970s was characterised by the heightened, brutal realism of 'Get Carter', the 1980s was characterised by slick professional unreality. 'The Long Good Friday' is an interesting example of an age in transition; its combination of brutality and affluence, of yachts and Austin Princesses, of a period when America was genuinely exotic. There were yachts in Alan Pakula's 1974 'The Parallax View', and in Robert Zemeckis' 1984 'Romancing the Stone'. In the former, the yacht exploded, killing two people and throwing Warren Beatty into the sea, ruining his perm. In the latter, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner sailed in one down a New York street, the credits bringing closure. So many films in the 1980s ended with the heroes richer, winning, better off than they were before; 'Back to the Future', 'The Secret of my Success', indeed everything with Michael J. Fox, 'Rocky II', 'Trading Places', the list is endless. (Curiously, two of the decade's most popular blockbusters, 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' and 'Ghostbusters', had relatively downbeat endings, culminating in the imprisonment and unemployment of the heroes, respectively. The revisionist theme of 'Ghostbusters II', in which the heroes of the first film were portrayed as washed-up failures, suggests that failure can only be delayed by the closing credits, by death). Duran Duran were themselves inspired by a film, by Roger Vadim's 1968 'Barbarella', in which Milo O'Shea played renegade scientist Durand Durand. At one point Mr O'Shea attempted to kill Jane Fonda with the power of orgasm; it was 1968, no need to say more.
"It ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road"
Duran Duran did not die. Pop videos rarely have closing credits; they fade out. In continuing to live, they passed from life. After the success of their 1986 hit single 'A View to a Kill' - perhaps the only worthwhile element of that year's Bond film, and of course the video for 'Rio' was itself modelled on Maurice Binder's Bond titles - the group dissipated, broke into factions. Neither The Power Station nor Arcadia amounted to anything, and when the band re-emerged they struggled. Their subsequent survival has, with the exception of 'Ordinary World', not been organic, it has been artificial. Whereas U2 and Madonna continue to attract new listeners who know little of their earlier work, it is impossible for anyone to view Duran Duran without viewing them in a nostalgic, ironic light. They have passed from the natural world into amber, where they are trapped; we project their reflection against the amber, and compare the two, flicking back and forth. Pluto was discovered in this way, by flicking between different photographs of the same patch of sky. What planets are there yet to be discovered in the mind of Simon Le Bon, the hair of Nick Rhodes, and the hearts of the Taylors, and Craig Logan?
Suppose that Morrissey, right now enjoying a career comeback, suppose that Morrissey was to book Duran Duran in support of his recent tour? It would be poetic revenge, Class of 1985 reunited, tables overturned. 'Videos are vile' vs. the Video Band, 'dance into the fire' vs. 'burn down the disco'. The Smiths and Duran Duran had much in common; they were both studied, calculated, artificial, obsessed with image. They were profoundly English bands, in different ways. Duran Duran were England Now, whereas The Smiths were England Past, perhaps reflecting their formation away from the country's capital. In both cases the bands were not England As Was; even 'England Now' was an image. The population of England in 1985 did not, as a whole, wear pastel suits whilst standing on a yacht, miming to a song. No. I was alive in England in 1985, and I know that it was not Duran Duran, although I can remember Duran Duran being part of it. 1985 was not The Smiths either, perhaps even less so, for The Smiths were not on the television. They did not have The Reflex. For me, England in 1985 was the Sinclair Spectrum and the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Transformers and robots and technology and toys. The Optica spotter plane, fibreglass, renewable energy, the Thames barrier, white-painted gleaming metal stressed skin.