Today, we tackle Sin of the City, the final track on The Wedding Album. Produced by Duran Duran along with John Jones, the song serves as a sort of tribute to the Happy Land fire that killed 87 people in an “unlicensed social club” in New York City. The fire was started by Julio Gonzalez, who was later convicted of murder. His former girlfriend was employed at the club, which was essentially the motive behind the fire. Sadly, only five or possibly six people survived the club fire on the night of March 25, 1990, largely – if not solely – due to the fact that the club had no fire exits, alarms, or sprinkler system.
Coat check girl up in Happyland has a violent row with a Cuban man Julio leaves in a drunken rage Comes back with the gasoline The club has no fire exit The club had no door Only five people came out alive The sin is that 89 died 89 dead 89 dead 89 dead 89 dead The sin is that a year and a half before the fire chief's out and he's raising cain brands Happyland hazzard close down but no. No-one ever paid him no mind City living heavy trouble City living rough We are given angry heart But angers not enough Daily News reviews of the landlords life found six thousand code violations light. The city has more a hundred thousand wars all for one of Forbes' Four Hundred whores. Just one fire cracker on a big bonfire of self serving penny pinching wiseguy style. Never allowing for the human condition. The sin is that these guys survive. City living heavy trouble City living rough. We are given angry heart But anger's not enough... rpt. You're using your people up. Stop killing your people now. Stop wasting your people now Sin of the City.
For me, there is no other song on The Wedding Album that tells a story quite like Sin of the City. Admittedly, I had never heard of the Happy Land fire until listening to this song, and it wasn’t until far later that I fully understood the lyrics and the events that inspired them. It is mind-boggling for me, even today, to ascertain all of the failings that needed to take place in our world for something like this to happen. I urge anyone interested to please google the Happy Land fire and read beyond the major headlines. $1.00 worth of gasoline killed 87 people, all because a few wealthy and powerful people couldn’t be bothered to ensure some basic safety. Unbelievable.
This song is a prime example of the maturity of Duran’s writing at the time. Reaching well-past the somewhat cliché topics of girls, love, and other similar ilk, Sin of the City is a gritty, angry, and in turn, also beautifully written piece of music, expressing equal parts outrage and grief. Anyone still believing that Duran Duran began and ended with “Rio” is sorely mistaken. It isn’t all yachts and pretty girls. The song is dark, textural, and incredibly pointed, both lyrically and musically.
The intro of the song opens gradually, beginning with the noises of a bird overhead, along with voices in the background, and then typical city traffic noises, then sirens, increasing in volume until the music begins. While perhaps any listener might not recognize the intent, knowing the story of the lyrics makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. As the music begins, it is obvious that this is not the same Duran Duran who wrote “Hungry Like the Wolf”. This isn’t a song that is going to take you on a fantastical journey through seascapes, jungles, or even the Paris countryside. Instead, it conveys outrage, shock, and fury about a system that doesn’t work to protect everyone equally. The song is not only pointed, but also timeless.
Grit and indignation is punctuated throughout each verse, using the guitar as a way to continue texturizing the nearly-rapped lyrics. Yet, the chorus changes completely, becoming driven by melody. The featured and very identifiable guitar that ends the track uses the same sort of gravely-sounding riff that is employed on a number of rock-driven songs during Warren’s tenure, and the song closes with the faintest sound of fire in the background. It is a song that leaves me thinking, each time I listen. One of the best on the album, if not one of the best gems from the decade.
This is definitely not the Duran Duran of my childhood or the one that people typically think of when they hear Duran Duran. They aren’t the pretty boys in beautifully colored suits hanging on to a yacht. No, this band is mature and tackling serious issues. Real life issues. Real life events. In this case, they focused on an unnecessary tragedy. They didn’t hide the topic or obscure it in any way. No, they just opted to be explicit, especially lyrically. I can think of many songs that discuss real life events but none that are quite so clear. Usually, I like the lyrics in which I have to think about what the song is about. I like figuring out the meaning or ones that can have multiple meanings applied to the song. Yet, in this song, it fits. I wonder why this particular event hit them as strongly as it did. I’m not arguing that it wasn’t worth talking about or bringing attention to it. I’m just saying that there have been lots of upsetting events throughout the band’s history that could have received the same treatment.
Another part of the song that really works for me as well is the opening with the street sounds, the voices, even the siren. While there have been other samples used on this album that I haven’t liked, these work well. They first of all remind us that this story about is about life. It is about people’s lives, ones that were cut short due to violence and greed. It adds a layer of seriousness that was needed, especially with the introduction of the siren. It shows that everything was going well until it wasn’t. Fun before destruction. Life before death. Similarly, the lyric “anger’s not enough” adds to the feelings created by the song.
The one part of the song that I’m not sure about is the instrumentation. I like the instrumentality but not sure that it fits completely. I really like the guitar solo around six and a half minutes in as I think it adds an emotional punch. Yet, in the beginning of the song, it feels almost too happy for the topic at hand. Perhaps, though, that was the intention. Did the band want to acknowledge that people were having fun before the fire started? If so, then, bravo to them for doing that. I wish I could remember what I thought the first time I heard the song. Did I hear it before I knew the story? If so, the music probably would have totally worked.
Obviously, this song mattered to the band. I remember hearing John Taylor’s version of the song. He didn’t cover a lot of Duran songs and this is one of them. I would love to know why this one captured his attention more than others. If you haven’t heard it, I recommend looking it up. It will probably enhance your appreciation for this song.