20 Years Ago: Duran Duran Enter the Electronic(a) Age with ‘Medazzaland’
Duran Duran's career was in a strange place upon the October 14, 1997, release of Medazzaland.
For starters, the band's previous studio effort, the 1995 covers album Thank You, deflated the momentum gained by the surprise success of their 1993 self-titled release. Perhaps even more important, bassist John Taylor departed Duran Duran in the middle of making Medazzaland, leaving frontman Simon Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes the only original members left in the lineup.
In his book, In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran, Taylor revealed that he left the group in part because he had grown weary of commuting between California—where he was dating his future second wife, Gela Nash—and London. "In Gela's and my family, I found something that was now more important than writing another hit song, and I figured I could not do both," he wrote. "If I was going to lay down some new roots and make this family work, I had to stop traveling for a while." Taylor had also been dabbling in solo work, along with touring and recording with side project the Neurotic Outsiders, and felt compelled to see what he could do on his own.
"It was a tumultuous time for us," Rhodes said in a recent interview on Duran Duran's website. "It was in question if Duran Duran would continue without any Taylors." (All three of the unrelated Taylors from the group's early days - John, Roger and Andy - reunited with Rhodes and Le Bon in 2001. Guitarist Andy departed again in 2006, the other two remain in Duran Duran's current lineup.)
Back then, the remaining members of Duran Duran kept positive about the change. "There was a lot of uncertainty for about a 12-month period with John in Los Angeles and us in London, which made it difficult to complete the record," Rhodes told Billboard in September 1997. "But, ironically, when he did actually depart, that was a catalyst for us to finish the record a lot quicker. We sort of compensated for our loss, I suppose, and actually wrote some of the best material on the album." Added Le Bon: "If you want a nice rhododendron bush to flower, you prune it, and I think that's what kind of happened to us: We got pruned, and then we blossomed."
Taylor ended up contributing bass to only four songs on Medazzaland. But his absence was keenly felt: Rhodes wrote the lyrics of "Buried in the Sand"—a song about realizing that a relationship has changed—for Taylor. "That's sort of my little postcard to him," Rhodes told Rolling Stone in 1997. "When he left, a layer had been peeled away, actually. Suddenly it made us more sensitive." The lyrics of the mournful, nostalgic "Midnight Sun," meanwhile, were also heavily rumored to be about the departed bassist.
Loss was also on Le Bon's mind while writing the lyrics of "Out Of My Mind": The song is the concluding part of a trilogy of tunes written for his late friend David Miles (with the others being "Do You Believe In Shame?" and "Ordinary World"). And, tragically, the delicate, acoustic guitar-heavy song "Michael, You've Got A Lot to Answer For"—which Le Bon wrote about his close friend, INXS vocalist Michael Hutchence—took on a grief-stricken tone after Hutchence died suddenly in November, while Duran Duran was in the middle of a tour. The band had been playing "Michael" live, but understandably removed it from the setlist, starting with an emotional show at Lakewood Civic Auditorium near Cleveland, Ohio, the same day Hutchence's death was announced.
Still, Medazzaland's lead single, "Electric Barbarella," was a glittery, danceable Duran Duran synth-rock confection with playful lyrics and a cartoonish programming sheen. Rhodes told Billboard then the song was "one of the most up pieces of music we've written in a long time, and we thought it was nice to have something that was optimistic and fun and makes people smile." The impetus for "Electric Barbarella" was work Rhodes and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo had been doing with Blondie for their song "Studio 54," Le Bon noted to Billboard. "I got wind of it and said, 'Can't we have something like that on our album?'"
Medazzaland also soaked up inspiration (even if subconsciously) from TV Mania, the forward-thinking electronic collage project Rhodes and Cuccurullo were working on at the time. The pair had actually compiled a TV Mania album in the midst of Medazzaland's sessions that Capitol Records had no interest in releasing. (The record, Bored With Prozac and the Internet?, finally surfaced in 2013.) Nevertheless, Rhodes and Cuccurullo co-produced Medazzaland under their TV Mania moniker, along with Le Bon, Anthony J. Resta and Bob St. John.
"I wrote a lot of lyrics on Medazzaland because Simon had writer’s block," Rhodes said in the recent Duran Duran website interview. "It’s not really 'my baby,' but an album that I was more involved with on the writing side. ...There are some great songs, it holds up, and I like the sound of Medazzaland. It is definitely different than earlier albums."
When compared to other electronic-leaning albums released at time, Medazzaland has aged rather well. It helps that the record is a rock album with synthetic accents—which, basically, has been Duran Duran's m.o. all along—and has sturdy songwriting bones. (For example, "Be My Icon" emerged from a grinding, industrial-influenced demo called "Butt Naked" that featured John Taylor on lead vocals.)
"Big Bang Generation" is a robotic strut with digital dust tossed over top a massive hook, while the sparse and atmospheric "Silva Halo" combines jagged guitar echoes with distorted vocals and eerie, faucet-drip programming. Le Bon sounds like he's singing "So Long Suicide" inside a metallic barrel, a match for the clanking backdrop; the mesmerizing "Buried In The Sand," meanwhile, incorporates Middle Eastern-inspired percussive and rhythmic flourishes.
Yet Medazzaland adopts these contemporary flourishes in subtle and smart ways. In hindsight, the torchy guitar-pop ballad "Who Do You Think You Are?" fits in with the sound of late-'90s modern rock. And, as always, Duran Duran weren't afraid to evolve with the times. "Electric Barbarella"—the first digital single download sold by a major label—was remixed a staggering amount of times, while the lush synthpop ballad "Out Of My Mind" appeared earlier in 1997 on the all-star soundtrack to The Saint (a compilation which also featured David Bowie, Orbital, Moby and other electronic acts).
"It's an area we feel very comfortable in, and the advent of all this electronic stuff has worked very much to our advantage with this album. It's a natural habitat for us, because we've always moved around in our genre, but at the end of the day we've always had a great interest in mixing rock and pop with dance music and electronic [music]," Rhodes told Billboard.
"I think we're definitely related to the music people are dancing to now," Le Bon added. "We're part of the ancestry of that, and hopefully we're part of it again now."
Unfortunately, Medazzaland wasn't the commercial success everyone hoped it would be; the record peaked at No. 58 on the Billboard album charts. To this day, it remains a bit of an obscurity within Duran Duran's catalog: The record isn't available to stream on Spotify or Apple Music in the U.S. (although it is for sale on iTunes) and it was never released physically in Europe or the U.K.
"The fact that it isn’t on Spotify works against it, I think, so it doesn’t get the interest a lot of our other albums have had," Le Bon said recently on the band's website. "I think it’s unexploited. I had some interesting experiences with it, but it’s like a 'marmite' album--you either love it or hate it."