Tag Archives: Notorious album

Post-imperial funk: Notorious

In 2010, Pitchfork contributor Tom Ewing helped define the concept of imperial phases as it applies to popular music. Coined by Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, also a music critic, it’s the sort of term that obsessive music fans and writers grasp immediately. Ewing laid out certain parameters for what constitutes a band’s imperial phase while also noting that empires eventually crumble: “it holds a mix of world-conquering swagger and inevitable obsolescence.” On October 20, 1986, Duran Duran released the single “Notorious” and rose up from the rubble of an empire in tatters. 

Without discrediting their success in the UK, the entire concept of an imperial phase implies an empire that stretches beyond borders. For Duran Duran, that meant conquering the United States and the world. I would make the case that the band’s imperial phase began in March 1983 when “Hungry Like the Wolf” peaked at #3 in the U.S. and came to a close with “A View To A Kill” becoming the band’s second #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 1985.

For those twenty-eight months, Duran Duran possessed the three traits required of a band’s imperial phase as laid out by Ewing. The band’s sense of command was impeccable. The original idea of a band that blended Chic and Sex Pistols had become a reality. The New Romantic scene was left behind and the band was creating a singular style all their own where over-driven guitars and textured synths could dance in harmony. Secondly, they had permission – the world was listening and the hysteria was deafening. Finally, the band’s imperial phase set the tone for the rest of their career. Within the sounds of Rio and Seven & the Ragged Tiger are the seeds of everything that would come after. 

It was the unpolished performance at Live Aid in July of 1985 that put all the internal issues of the band in front of the world and they were overshadowed by everyone from Howard Jones to U2 that magical day. The fragmentation into two camps: rock (The Powerstation) and art-pop (Arcadia) were both successful but the band’s imperial phase was grinding to a halt. The loss of Roger and Andy should have been death blows to the Duran Duran empire. Can you imagine The Beatles moving on if Ringo and George Harrison had left? It was time to burn out or fade away. Thanks to a little help from a friend in Nile Rodgers, Duran Duran emphatically chose to do neither.

The release of “Notorious” thirty-three years ago this month ushered in the band’s post-imperial phase. As Tennant once said, “what’s interesting is what you do after” and Duran Duran lived up to that immediately with a funky single that introduced us to a leaner, more mature band. While the single performed admirably, the album stalled outside the Top 10 in both the UK and America even though it remains one of the deepest albums they have ever released. From start to finish, there isn’t a song on there that makes you wonder if maybe they could have found something better for the album. 

The follow-up singles to “Notorious” are two of my favorite Duran Duran singles, especially “Skin Trade”. The fact that it barely nibbled the Top 40 remains one of the biggest mysteries in their career. The video, the bass line, the vocal, everything came together on “Skin Trade” but most people had already made the decision to either move on to new bands and styles as the decade wound down. It’s a shame. Things were starting to get really interesting….

Question of the Day: Monday, September 2, 2019

Our voters own Seven and the Ragged Tiger in the following formats:

  • 30% own it on compact disc
  • 26% own it on vinyl
  • 19% own it on cassette and digitally
  • 3% own it in a different way

Which of the following formats of Notorious do you own? Like the previous polls, include other formats outside of the typical and if you do not own it.

[socialpoll id=”2566597″]

Notorious Memories

If I remember correctly (and if my home-created Duran calendar is correct), the anniversary for the release of Notorious (the album) must be near.  Again, if my math is correct, this means that the band’s fourth studio album is turning 32.  Ouch.  I have colleagues younger than that (who like to remind me of that fact a lot!).  It is an album that marked some significant changes within the band’s history.  As we know, it was first album of the three (John, Nick and Simon) after Andy and Roger left.  It is also the first album recorded in which the band was managing themselves.  For many of us fans, it ushered in a new phase of our fandom.  No more was Duran Duran the “biggest band” in the world but one fighting to maintain its popularity despite these changes.  In thinking about this album, I have some memories that capture a lot about my life and my fandom.

Buying the Album:

In late 1985, my family moved from the south side of Chicago to a small town in Illinois.  My old place had Top 40 radio and MTV along with a best friend who loved Duran Duran as much as I did.  The new place didn’t have any of those.  I remember meeting a neighbor girl the first week I was there.  I asked her about what she thought of the song, A View to a Kill.  She had no clue about what I was talking about which signaled to me that I was in trouble.  By the time 1986 rolled around, I desperately wanted any sign of home.  The new Duran album was just the thing!  I remember going with my mom to the town’s mini-mall which had a Disc Jockey record store to buy the album.  As Mom drove home, I quickly opened up the vinyl, anxious to just hold the album in my hands.  I loved the cover but was sad to see that there were no lyrics included.  Still, I couldn’t wait to go home and listen!

A little while after the album came out, I called my best friend.  At this point, not only had I moved away from the south side but so had she.  We vowed to keep in touch and I was determined to do just that.  So, I called her, hoping not only to reconnect but to hear what she thought about the album.  My hopeful mood was quickly swashed when she told me that she hated it and decided to take down all of her posters because they just weren’t that “in” anymore.  While she insisted that it wasn’t just the album that caused her to make this drastic decision, I couldn’t help but think that she had lost faith.  I felt even more isolated and fears about losing her grew.  Where she chose to move on to the next thing, I opted instead to hold on for dear life.

Buying the Single:

Of course, before the album even came out, I wanted to purchase the single for Notorious.  One day, I saw it with its completely dark cover except for the title sitting on the shelf in the town’s newly opened Wal-Mart.  I believe that it cost a dollar and some change.  As soon as I saw it, I begged my grandma who was the one with me to buy it for me.  She refused.  Completely crushed.  How could my grandma not understand?  How could she be so cheap?  Why couldn’t my mom be with me?  All of these questions flashed in my mind and more.  Eventually, I was able to get the single.  Funny story. I shared this little story at my grandma’s funeral.  I’m not even sure why.  I guess the simple answer is that it is a very strong memory of mine.  I’m sure that says more about me than her!

How I Feel About the Album Now:

I cannot help but see Notorious as a marker for transition.  It was for the band and it was for me.  It is funny to think about how my life sort of paralleled the band’s.

Throughout its 32 year history, my thoughts and feelings about it have gone up and down.  Sometimes, I loved it like when it first came out.  Then, I grew frustrated with it, probably partly because of what it represented.  Now, I think I can see it with a more objective lens.  There are songs that I love and some that I tend to skip over, much like how I view a lot of their albums.  That said, I’m very thankful that they created it.  Why?  It helped them get over the hump of significant changes.  If they didn’t make the album, I wonder if they would have been able to really continue.  I think it also helped me get over my personal hump of moving to a new place and finding a new normal.

-A