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In Please Please Tell Me Now, bestselling rock biographer Stephen Davis tells the story of Duran Duran, the quintessential band of the 1980s. Their pretty boy looks made them the stars of fledgling MTV, but it was their brilliant musicianship that led to a string of number one hits. By the end of the decade, they had sold 60 million albums; today, they've sold over 100 million albums—and counting.
Davis traces their roots to the austere 1970s British malaise that spawned both the Sex Pistols and Duran Duran—two seemingly opposite music extremes. Handsome, British, and young, it was Duran Duran that headlined Live Aid, not Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin. The band moved in the most glamorous circles: Nick Rhodes became close with Andy Warhol, Simon LeBon with Princess Diana, and John Taylor dated quintessential British bad girl Amanda De Cadanet. With timeless hits like "Hungry Like the Wolf," "Girls on Film," "Rio," "Save a Prayer," and the bestselling James Bond theme in the series' history, "A View to Kill," Duran Duran has cemented its legacy in the pop pantheon—and with a new album and a worldwide tour on the way, they show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Featuring exclusive interviews with the band and never-before-published photos from personal archives, Please Please Tell Me Now offers a definitive account of one of the last untold sagas in rock and roll history—a treat for diehard fans, new admirers, and music lovers of any age.
Forty thousand years from now, a beautiful young woman named Barbarella, fleeing a broken romance, will land her rocket on the planet Lythion and launch into a series of battles against galactic injustice. She’s a sexy twenty-year-old gamine with long blonde hair, golden skin, and impressive breasts. Over the course of her adventures, Barbarella will often lose her clothes, be ravished by hideous aliens, and take erotic pleasure with the hunky spacemen who assist her and her main ally, a one-eyed gnome called… Durand.
Barbarella made her debut as one of the foundational mythic characters in a French comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest, often described as the first comic for grown-ups. After appearing in large-format book form in 1964, she was an immediate sensation, selling thousands of expensive volumes in a matter of weeks to readers (and oglers) who wanted answers to the questions posed by the comic’s second frame: “What misadventures, what disappointments in love, have led this girl to wander alone through a solar system far removed from ours?”
Soon French intellectuals began to admire Barbarella beyond just her looks, and they even wrote about her critically. From the literary weekly Arts in 1965: “Clothes may cramp Barbarella’s style, but nudity doesn’t cheapen her. She remains mysterious, fragile but invincible. This crafty, wild creature is the archetype of the modern female, in quest of the Absolute.” From the Parisian daily Le Monde, the same year: “Barbarella represents the contemporary emancipated and independent young woman in a new era of sexual liberation. She controls her own destiny rather than submit to the dictates of men. The mistress of her own fate, she can pick and choose the men she desires.”
It wasn’t long before international publishers took notice and Jean-Claude Forest began to sell foreign rights to the Barbarella strip. In America, Barbarella was acquired by Grove Press, which specialized in Beat literature and Victorian pornography. In 1965, Barbarella first appeared in Grove’s quarterly periodical Evergreen Review, making her debut in book form the following year and quickly becoming one of Grove’s best-selling titles. The story lines were translated into English by Grove’s senior editor, Richard Seaver, who usually worked with Beat and modernist luminaries like William Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett.
Next, the prominent Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis acquired film rights to Barbarella, and in 1966, the Hollywood Reporter announced that America’s hottest movie star, Jane Fonda, would play Barbarella. French New Wave auteur Roger Vadim (Fonda’s husband) would direct a screenplay written by Terry Southern, notorious coauthor of the comic-porn novel Candy.
When Barbarella was released in 1968, Terry Southern and seven other writers were credited with a screenplay that made no sense after the first few campy scenes. Roger Vadim’s studio sets looked cheap, and the dialogue was pathetic, but even so, Jane Fonda’s striptease early in the film seemed to bring highly sexed Barbarella to life. The movie was both hailed as a pop art masterpiece and derided as the worst sci-fi picture ever made. Nevertheless, Barbarella was a huge success in Europe, especially in England, where it was the second-highest-grossing film of the year.
Ten years later, two teenage boys were watching Barbarella on television in Hollywood. This wasn’t in Southern California’s glamour capital but in the suburb of Hollywood, located in southern Birmingham, England’s second-biggest city. The date was October 20, 1978. The BBC was broadcasting Barbarella, and the boys—Nigel John Taylor, eighteen, and his sixteen-year-old friend, Nick Bates—were entranced.
Nigel and Nick had been friends for four years. They were huge music fans who were extremely knowledgeable about rock bands and new trends, and they were currently forming a band with another friend. None of the teens could actually play musical instruments at this point, but this didn’t seem important; with their boyish, androgynous looks and lashings of eye shadow and lip gloss, Nigel and Nick already resembled emerging pop stars of the new wave, New Romantic, post-punk era.
Their current preoccupation was finding a name for their new band.
Earlier that day, the boys spent hours in a pub called the Hole in the Wall, trying to think of names. They had been going to concerts and shows together since 1974, and they were very tuned in to David Bowie, T-Rex, and especially Roxy Music. Later on, they were regulars at Barbarella’s, a converted warehouse that was Birmingham’s main venue for the punk bands coming up from London: Sex Pistols, Slits, the Jam, the Damned, the Clash. Nick strongly suggested that they should call their band RAF, as in the Royal Air Force. Peering at Nick through his thick spectacles, nearsighted Nigel said he thought this sounded a bit “naff,” or pretentious. Still thinking about band names, they left the pub and went to Nick’s house to tune in to Barbarella on the Bates family’s big color TV set.
As the movie began on BBC1, the boys tried to make sense of the totally daft plot, in which Barbarella crash-lands on Earth and is taken to meet the president of Earth. Upon her arrival, Barbarella strips off her clothes, and the president explains that an evil scientist, Durand-Durand (played by the veteran comedian Milo O’Shea), has purloined the Excessive Machine, designed to provide women with supersonic sexual pleasure, thus eliminating the need for men. The president then tells Barbarella that only she can save humankind from extinction. “Your mission,” the president directs Barbarella, is to “find Durand-Durand, and preserve the security of the stars!”
Nigel jumped up. “That’s it! That’s our name!”
Nick was confused. “Wait—what’s our name?”
It was fine with Nick. Duran Duran sounded cool and futuristic and unlike any other of the new bands they liked, bands that had names like Human League, Simple Minds, and Tubeway Army. Nick loved Barbarella and later said he knew that any connection with this Euro-kitsch classic had to be a good thing for them. Asked much later why the band’s name wasn’t “Durand-Durand,” Nigel—who later went by the name John Taylor—replied that it was because they couldn’t hear the final Ds in the film, nor the intervening hyphen.
So Duran Duran it was. And still is.
NIGEL IN BIRMINGHAM
The double-barreled name wasn’t the only thing that set Duran Duran apart from most other rock bands.
Most bands are formed around a charismatic lead singer or a virtuosic guitarist. The Rolling Stones were built around Mick Jagger. Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page’s band. The Spiders from Mars were Ziggy Stardust’s. No Bono, no U2.
By contrast, Duran Duran was the brainchild of two kids, neither of whom could sing or even owned instruments. When they did “take some time and learn how to play,” Nigel found himself playing bass guitar, while Nick stood behind racks of keyboards and synthesizers. In Duran Duran, they would become major rock stars, but they were still seen as sidemen supporting a charismatic lead singer.
Despite these differences, the two Birmingham teenagers had several key traits in common that would propel them to genuine rock stardom. The first was an almost encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, fueled by listening obsessively to the radio, going to shows, and seriously studying English music newspapers. Secondly, they were unusually handsome and naturally good-looking, which they then accented with makeup and hair dye in homage to idols like Bowie, Bolan, Roxy, and other glam icons. The third was a mutual ambition and confidence that enabled Nigel and Nick to predict their new band’s trajectory with uncanny precision and then pursue this wild ride with a compelling energy that brought the people they needed into their orbit to help them achieve their goals. This was especially true with Nick, who began having premonitions of stardom when he was ten years old and watched Ziggy Stardust on England’s must-see music show, Top of the Pops. Even then, Nick was thinking about timelines: when his band would play at London’s main rock venue, the Hammersmith Odeon; when they would sell out Wembley Arena; when they would headline Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Unlike the dreams of many kids who hope to become rock stars one day, Nick’s teenage ambitions would all actually come true, almost exactly on schedule.
But it all started in Hollywood, the quiet and leafy middle-class neighborhood south of Birmingham’s city center, where Nigel and Nick grew up as only children in quite different families.
Nigel John Taylor was born in Solihull, Birmingham, on June 20, 1960, the only child of Jack and Jean Taylor. The Taylors then lived in Warwickshire before moving to 34 Simon Road in Hollywood, one of the new housing estates built in the fifties for the city’s post–World War II population explosion. “I had a pretty happy, normal, suburban childhood,” he later recalled. His mother was a devout Catholic and took her young boy to mass with her almost every day. Afterward, they would often go to matinees at the cinema and watch newsreels and cartoons. His father worked in Birmingham’s booming motor industry. The only real cloud John later talked about was his father, who could be remote and withdrawn to the extent that John was a little afraid of him. When he was older, his mother explained that Jack Taylor had been a prisoner of war and had spent some harsh years in a German prison camp. Of course, this was never talked about. John called it “the great unspoken subject.”
Nigel was sent to a Catholic school, then later attended Abbey High School in nearby Redditch. He had a collection of lead soldiers and loved the James Bond movies starring Sean Connery. When he was twelve, in 1972, he watched David Bowie perform as Ziggy Stardust with his sensational band, the Spiders from Mars, on Top of the Pops, the BBC’s popular weekly national music program, which was watched by almost everyone who had a television. Nigel became an instant convert to glam, the new teen religion inspired by the biggest rock stars in England performing as feminized men. After his parents retired in the evening, John would sneak downstairs to the family room, keeping the lights off, and tune in Radio Luxembourg, which played rock and roll long after English stations shut down for the night. He’d listen to Marc Bolan’s T-Rex and their magical #1 hit single, “Bang a Gong,” hooked on what the music press branded “Rextasy.” Mott the Hoople’s (Bowie-produced) “All the Young Dudes” followed, another #1, and then came Roxy Music with their synthesized rock, space-age costumes, and suave singer Bryan Ferry crooning above it all.
Fifteen-year-old John Taylor was now a lanky, longhaired, nearsighted teen with thick glasses and an obsession with pop music. He couldn’t wait to leave school at sixteen, when British students who weren’t deemed to be on track for college or university left their education behind, either to pursue an apprenticeship or join the workforce. Despite his age, John hardly ever showed up at Abbey High School to begin with. Instead, he caught the big red Midlands double-decker bus that went the other way, toward central Birmingham, and embarked on adventurous rambles about the city.
On the bus, he always sat upstairs, watching as he sped past the Maypole pub and Bates’s Toy Corner, the brightly lit shop owned by his friend Nick’s mother. They’d motor through King’s Heath on the way “uptown,” where he had a weekend job stocking shelves, and then Moseley, a funky neighborhood where you might buy a bit of weed from a local Rastafarian and home to aging hippies, artists, bohemians, and a lot of musicians. Industrial powerhouse Birmingham had been brutally bombed by the Germans from 1940 to 1943. Nearly three decades later, in 1975, he could still see piles of rubble, great swathes of cleared land where the old factories had been, and new construction everywhere.
Birmingham’s bus terminal sat next to the Bullring, the city’s ancient market; early in the morning, it was teeming with vendors and shoppers, fragrant with the smells of baking bread and fresh flowers. There were Jamaican goat patties to buy and all manner of fresh curries and bacon sandwiches. There was also a tiny record shop in the market where Nigel had first heard the voice of Bob Marley. Just up the elevator was the newish Bullring shopping mall, humming with modernity. After leaving the Bullring, he often had a cup of tea at the bakery by New Street Station before heading over to Threshold Records, one of a chain of shops owned by the Moody Blues, Birmingham’s legendary pop stars of the previous decade. (Everyone’s parents loved the Moody Blues.) Next stop was Reddington’s Rare Records, which carried Jamaican singles, American imports (New York Dolls, especially the Ramones), and used albums.
John loved these meanderings in the city, hunting for clothes and vinyl, trying new flavors and styles. “I was Birmingham’s teenage flâneur,” he later wrote, “walking idly along New Street. It wasn’t Paris, but it worked for me.”
Sometimes he met up with his older friend Marcus, a major Roxy Music and Brian Eno superfan, and his girlfriend, Annette. At lunchtime, they’d check out some of the cooler boutiques like Bus Stop, or maybe Oasis, an indoor emporium of new and vintage clothing. Before he went home, he always went by his favorite stop, Virgin Records. It was a new kind of store, “a hippy enclave,” with headphones to listen to records and friendly staff who never rushed you or told you to leave. Nigel was there so frequently that the manager started giving him little odd jobs and let him take home outdated band posters for his bedroom walls.
Then, by midafternoon, it was time to get back on the bus.
“Toward the end of my schooldays,” he recalled, “I could time that trip to perfection. I would be walking up to the front door of 34 Simon Road just as the school bus was dropping off my classmates—the suckers!”
NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN
Nigel had a best friend his own age named David Twist who was just as into music as Nigel was. They lived near each other, and their mothers were close friends. They talked all the time about forming a band. David was in school with a younger boy in Hollywood named Nick Bates, and he kept insisting Nigel had to meet him. One day, in 1973, Nigel was invited to Nick’s house, and they formed a friendship that would change both of their lives. Nick was eleven years old. Nigel was thirteen.
Nigel had never encountered anything as cool as Nick Bates’s bedroom. He’d never seen this level of affluent teenage rock fandom. Posters covered the wall: Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry. Nick had a good stereo system with a tape deck, big speakers, and all the latest albums, singles, and cassettes. A Roxy Music album was spinning on the turntable. There were neatly stacked piles of the English music papers Nick subscribed to: Melody Maker, New Musical Express (NME), Record Mirror, and Sounds. He had a complete file of Brum Beat, a fanzine that covered the Midlands music scene. (Brum was local slang for Birmingham.) Nick even got the teenage girl magazines Jackie and My Guy, explaining to the astonished Nigel that they often had the latest news on cutting-edge bands. He later noted, “I realized in Nick’s bedroom that afternoon that I was in the presence of someone unusual, and with almost unlimited resources. He was an even bigger music fan than me or David. I was just kind of in awe.”
Nicholas James Bates was born in Moseley on June 8, 1962. His parents, Roger and Sylvia Bates, moved to Hollywood a few years later, where his mother opened Bates’s Toy Corner, a popular shop in the neighborhood. (Nick has distant connections to an aristocratic Scottish family through his mother; this rates him a mention in Burke’s Peerage, the semiofficial register of Britain’s landed gentry.) Nick was an adorable baby and his parents’ only child; he was doted upon and spoiled by his extended family as he began to grow into an unusually beautiful youth. His androgyny was heightened when he started using light makeup after seeing Ziggy Stardust on television in 1972 when he was just ten years old. Some children in his school were uncomfortable with his androgynous style—he was teased about his short stature and called Master Bates—but when Nigel met him, Nick already had a girlfriend, a slightly taller girl named Jane. At this point, Nigel didn’t even have a girlfriend; he was impressed that this younger boy did.
In Ziggy’s comet-like wake, Nick became a musical polymath, able to complete the NME’s challenging musical crossword puzzle by the age of ten. He was well-informed about all the great rock bands the Midlands had produced, including the Moody Blues, Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Black Sabbath, Gary Glitter, Judas Priest, the Move, and Electric Light Orchestra, among others. Half of Led Zeppelin and the mighty Slade were from nearby Wolverhampton, in addition to scores of blues groups, metal bands, and glam kids like Nigel Taylor, Nick Bates, and David Twist, eager to form new bands of their own.
Nigel and Nick began going to concerts together. When the Faces announced two Christmas shows at the Birmingham Odeon in late 1973, the boys cut class (Nick was at Woodrush School on Shawhurst Lane) and took an early bus into the city. Nigel was apprehensive because the rip-roaring Faces were the most popular band in England after the Rolling Stones went into tax exile in 1971. Rumors had Rod Stewart going solo and Ron Wood about to join the Stones. These could be some of the Faces’ last concerts. Nigel knew from bitter experience that Birmingham ticket lines could get rowdy, with shoving and fistfights. But somehow glam child Nick charmed and insinuated their way to the head of an already formed line, and the boys scored a pair of seats in the front row.
“It was just somehow so smooth, so easy,” John later said. “I saw this as evidence of [Nick’s] magnetic personal magic. Nick is very creative and blessed with incredible good fortune. How lucky can you get? I knew from the beginning of our relationship that if I stayed close to him, life would be exciting.”
The next concert they attended was several months later, in April 1974. They got tenth-row seats to see Mick Ronson, the Spiders from Mars’s brilliant lead guitarist, at Birmingham Town Hall. By then David Bowie was exhausted, having played the Ziggy persona around the world while also producing Mott’s hit record and Lou Reed’s Transformer. Bowie had announced Ziggy’s retirement the summer before at the second of two concerts at West London’s Hammersmith Odeon. (No one was more surprised at this than the poor Spiders from Mars, who hadn’t been informed beforehand and now found themselves out of a job.)
Nick and Nigel were excited to see Mick Ronson, whom they rated almost as highly as Bowie himself. Nigel’s parents allowed him to go to his first nighttime concert in the city on the condition that the boys were driven to and from the show by Nick’s mother. (They’d be beaten up if they tried to take the night bus back to Hollywood.) Like most of the young audience, Nigel and Nick were wearing makeup and silk scarves, somewhat dampened by a pouring spring rain. But the concert proved to be disappointing. Mick Ronson’s new songs were mediocre, and he seemed awkward holding the stage alone, while down front a riot was underway with flying chairs, screaming girls, and tidal waves of teen flesh churning like a disturbed sea. This was the first time the boys witnessed a concert riot, but it certainly wouldn’t be their last.
Later in 1974, they got tickets to see their favorite band, Roxy Music. Nigel and Nick had both been amazed by Roxy’s debut on Top of the Pops in the summer of 1972. Roxy’s sound was the frontline of rock’s avant-garde. They had a pile-driving drummer who wore caveman skins and a platform-heeled guitarist who played lightning bolts. Singer Bryan Ferry was a handsome lounge lizard from Newcastle who crooned over the band’s massive attack in vintage-looking suits like a Rat Pack star from Vegas. For Nick, Roxy’s main attraction was the exotic, impassive Brian Eno, resplendent in furs, rouge, kohl, and kid gloves. Eno was a keyboardist who didn’t play keys but instead manipulated the knobs of his tape recorders and synthesizers. Eno had actually left the band just before this, but Nigel and Nick loved Roxy Music so much they tried to sneak into their afternoon sound check and then joined a boisterous group of fans (mostly girls) that mobbed them when they left the Holiday Inn for that evening’s show. (This became their usual pattern when the big bands of the day—Queen, Genesis, Wings—came to Birmingham to play the Odeon or Town Hall. They wanted to see and meet the bands offstage as well as on.)
That night, Nigel and Nick were enchanted by Bryan Ferry’s smooth vocal control as his band burned behind him. Roxy’s presentation was everything they wanted, a sophisticated mix of art college flair, fashion-forward costumes, and Hollywood clichés set to a driving beat. Ferry performed in suits made by the hot young London designer Antony Price, which appealed to Nick Bates’s other obsession: fashion. Nick liked posh magazines like Vogue and Tatler. He read biographies of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. He dressed carefully, even shopping for his own clothes, unusual for a twelve-year-old. He liked to quote Bryan Ferry: “Other bands want to wreck hotel rooms. Roxy Music wants to redecorate them.”
While the boys in Birmingham were trying to get something going, the world around them was convulsed by social changes and often violent class struggles in a rapidly changing English political landscape. The harsh, gray realities of Britain in the seventies would provide a sharp contrast to the cheery music and vibrant images that Duran Duran would be selling a few years later.
In the midseventies, England was beset with chronic labor unrest, industrial actions, and major strikes by coal miners. The winters were cold, and people shivered in their homes when fuel ran short. Jobs became scarce; unemployment soared. Dole queues—unemployment lines—were long. Taxes were so high that people who could afford it were emigrating. Among the rich fleeing the country were the most well-known rock stars, such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John. Despite their national popularity, these musicians were now reviled as “boring old farts” by a new generation of radical young musicians who were bursting out of the febrile London club scene, spitting with rage against the nearly bankrupt, demoralized condition of modern England.
The London punk scene was largely inspired by American bands like the New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Ramones: speed-rapping poseurs screaming savage, dumbed-down lyrics over blazing guitars, dressed in ripped clothes held together by safety pins (in a nod to this fashion choice, superfans even wore pins in their cheeks). This was the age of punk rock, spewing phlegm and fury, bursting like a boil out of London. The Sex Pistols led the way in a canny haze of negative media manipulation (insulting the queen, cursing on the BBC) and provocative hit records like “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK.” The Pistols were followed by the Jam, the Damned, the Clash, the Slits, Generation X, and Sham 69. There hadn’t been so many exciting young bands coming up since 1963, the year when the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Kinks all crashed onto the scene. In England, punk rock elbowed aside the major musical trends of the era—northern soul, pub rock, Euro disco—and was ardently supported by hip media outlets like the crusading NME as well as the infamous pirate radio stations broadcasting to the UK from old fishing trawlers in the North Sea.
Music fans across the country were dying to see these new bands, especially in the Midlands, where the Sex Pistols’ anguished prophecy of “No future for you” struck a chord for kids growing up in an area rife with unemployment. New clubs sprouted up in Birmingham, and older ones changed their music policy to accommodate both the punk bands and the new local reggae bands following in Bob Marley’s footsteps, like Steel Pulse, the Beat, and UB40. Birmingham’s main punk venues, Rebecca’s and Barbarella’s, let younger local bands (Fashion, the Only Ones, TV Eye, the Prefects) open for the big London groups, which introduced even more new music to the ever-expanding fanbase.
Nigel Taylor and Nick Bates went to see almost all of these NME-approved bands between 1976 and 1978. Nigel venerated the Clash and was also a huge fan of guitarist Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks, a great London band with more dance-friendly songs. The Buzzcocks were one of the prototypes of the so-called new wave: corporate-sponsored, more professionalized post-punk bands such as Blondie, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Talking Heads—groups that would take pop music into a more commercial arena later in the seventies.
Nigel’s parents noticed he was spending every shilling that he earned stocking shelves at Sainsbury’s on record albums and posters of pop stars, so they bought him a black acoustic guitar for his sixteenth birthday. “It was a copy of something I had seen Bryan Ferry play,” he recalled. No lessons came with the guitar, however; he didn’t even know how to tune it. Whenever Nigel tried to play it, the strings began to snap, and, frustrated, he decided the instrument was only good for folk music, which didn’t appeal to him in the slightest. At the end of his academic term, Nigel decided to leave school. His father, who had just been laid off from his job at a car factory, was particularly unhappy with this. Nigel explained that he and some friends were forming a band, and he begged for a year of support while he learned to play and established his band in Birmingham. Reluctantly, Jack and Jean Taylor agreed.
- On Sale
- Jun 28, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Hachette Books