Book Review: Rio by Annie Zaleski

The 33 1/3 book series has always prided itself on taking a serious approach to popular music. For the last few decades, the 1980s have gone in and out of fashion a few times but rarely has the decade been treated with the respect of other decades. It was all fun in the sun, riding around in designer suits on yachts. Right? That perception has become a reality in the minds of many even though they miss the overall context of what it meant. With the latest entry in the series, writer Annie Zaleski situates Duran Duran’s Rio in a broader context and makes an undeniable case for the album’s lasting importance in popular culture. 

As a writer, Zaleski shows a relentless passion for getting the details right and her research on the rise of Rio in the United States via MTV and mainstream radio really highlights the long journey the album made. The success of the record globally wasn’t overnight and, as a fan, that makes sense because when I think back to Rio, I feel like it was still “new” as late as 1984. The band’s attempt to break on radio in the States is a significant part of the story and a lot of bands (and record labels) might have given up. Luckily, perseverance and determination have always been built into the Duran Duran DNA. 

For fans of the series, the recording process always forms a central part of the narrative and Zaleski’s book manages to add new information to a story that has been told by the band many times. For this reader, the emphasis on what guitarist Andy Taylor brought to Duran Duran has been missing from the Duran story far too often but Zaleski sets it right in this book. Not only did his guitar work give them an edge in breaking the States, his experience as a musician helped the band immensely in the early years when they were learning how to play and write songs. 

Just seeing this book in print is a victory for fans of Duran Duran and other 80s bands who were dismissed because they either had female fans or they embraced visual imagery. Those first few years of MTV were a creative time when bands were using videos as an extension of their musical art. Record labels eventually figured out the importance of videos and everything was soon watered down and over-budgeted. That was not the case with Duran Duran on Rio. As Zaleski carefully chronicles with a meticulous timeline, the band’s travelogue videos were filmed before the global success of the band was assured. They weren’t celebrating a lavish lifestyle; they were working hard to make it a reality. They were writing their future and helping us write our own at home in characterless suburbs. 

It’s not often I read a book cover to cover in one sitting but that speaks to the quality of Zaleski’s writing. Her passion for music and her lack of cynicism gives all of her writing a refreshing tone that is all too rare in a time when snarky comments about Greta Van Fleet is all the rage. Speaking of Greta Van Fleet, the backlash they endure reminds me of the critical thrashings often given to Duran Duran. Forty years later, Rio is now on the bookshelf next to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and David Bowie’s Low. And if you listen to the music, you know it has always belonged in the same revered space.

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