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….