We Were Promised Jetpacks’ #thesefourwalls10 anniversary – my thoughts

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Last Tuesday, I went to go see a band I’d been a fan of for 10 years.

If you think about it, 10 years is a really long time.

Read more about We Were Promised Jetpacks, the 10th anniversary tour in North America for ‘These Four Walls’ (2009, FatCat Records), and my formula for longevity in the business through here at my other blog, The Practising Troublemaker.

Song Analysis #58: Duran Duran – Proposition (part 2)

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NB: This is part 2 of my song analysis of ‘Proposition’ from Duran Duran’s fourth album ‘Notorious’, released in 1986. I’ve decided to post this now, 2 days before the band perform at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday night, 16 July 2019 (previewed on TGTF through here), as part of the festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I recommend reading part 1 through here before diving into part 2 below.

Title: ‘Proposition’
Where to find it: ‘Notorious’, (1986, EMI/Capitol)
Performed by: Duran Duran
Words by: Simon Le Bon

Verse 1
“Bring back that child,” she said.
“Spare me the price of freedom.
Cold is my baby’s head,
blown by the wind of reason.
Even the rage behind
cries out to see
we’re still standing
under the closing edge,
pay for the crime of feeling.”

Prechorus 1
When all your pride is dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Verse 2
“Show me my youth,” she cried,
wasted for desolation.
Hold up the sacrifice,
pull down your institution.
Resting while anger flies,
question’s the same.
who’s deciding?
After the clouds have lain,
shame on your generation.”

Prechorus 2
When all your guilt lies dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Instrumental bridge

Prechorus 3
When all your pain lies dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus 2X
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Proposition…
Proposition…

Quite simply at the time when they hit it big in the early ‘80s, there wasn’t another band like Duran Duran. They were the complete package: they were five gorgeous, trend-setting English boys whose music was neither punk, pop, or funk. Simon’s job was to provide the words that would overlay the sonic landscapes that the four others had already come up with in the studio. I’ve always been amazed by writers who do this, as it isn’t easy trying to fit lyrics onto an already established melody. It requires you to massage syllables, either by cutting them or adding more, so they’ll fit what you’ve been given. If you have ever written poetry to fit a certain meter, you know what I’m talking about. When I write poems, I like a formal structure, such as successive iambs arranged in couplets, because then you are assured that the final result will be nice and neat. That doesn’t necessarily happen in the world of pop music.

Further, lyrics in songs are most often telling a story, either complementing the story already told through the music or coming in fresh with a story because there isn’t one in the music just yet. In the early days of Duran Duran, there was a lot of color and flavor from Andy Taylor’s guitar lines and bursts and John Taylor’s bass lines. Still, it fell on Simon to write words that would connect the songs with their audience. For sure, his lyrics over the years have garnered more than a few head scratches. Let’s revisit some of his gems from 1980-1986, some possibly familiar, some not so much:

Am I alone, or is the river alive? (‘Night Boat’)

Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war. (‘Is There Something I Should Know?’)

Funny, it’s just like a scene out of Voltaire, twisting out of sight. (‘Last Chance on a Stairway’)

And if the fires burn out, there’s only fire to blame. (‘Hold Back the Rain’)

I’m on a ride and I wanna get off, but they won’t slow down the roundabout. (‘The Reflex’)

Show me your secret and tell me your name, catch me with your fizzy smile. (‘I Take the Dice’)

Would someone please explain the reason for this strange behavior? (‘Skin Trade’)

Use your lipstick line, to color fear and loathing with a pink disguise. (‘Meet El Presidente’)

Simon was one of the first lyricists I had encountered who taught me it was okay to be oblique with the words you chose.

A few days ago, I queued ‘Proposition’ on Spotify during work, listening intently to the words for the first time in years. Of course I knew all the words. It was my favorite on ‘Notorious,’ and I had sung along to the lyrics so many times before. I even remembered where in the song to air synth Nick’s chord progressions. I can hear them and see him play them in my mind. Then I came to a terrible realization and wanted to punch myself repeatedly following an ‘aha!’ moment. What on earth? How did I miss this deeper meaning before? It seems so obvious to me now, but there was no way when I was a naive girl raised in a middle class suburb that I would have seen it. Now that I can see what’s inside, the song is more beautiful to me than ever before.

Before a single word is spoken, ‘Proposition’ begins with a series of aggressive keyboard chords, brass notes, and guitar tones. The introduction is a fanfare for the serious nature of what’s come. It seems perfect for the song’s title. I mean, what does the word ‘proposition’ conjure up in your head? For me, it makes me think of business arrangements, often unsavory ones, and putting yourself in situations you’re trying to get out of.

Years ago, I thought verse 1 was describing a woman in the war-torn Eastern Bloc and the difficulties of raising a child in that environment. “Bring back that child,” she said. / “Spare me the price of freedom”: those are the words of a woman who has made a painful decision to keep her child despite the cost of raising said child in a dangerous place. The epiphany I had last week about ‘Proposition’ is this. It’s not about that rough-faced mother in behind the Berlin Wall at all. It’s about the fight for a child who was either going to be given up for adoption or may have been lost in an abortion.

A woman has just given up the baby she just gave birth to and is now having second thoughts about giving the child away. “Cold is my baby’s head / blown by the wind of reason”: the baby is being given up for adoption for “the reason” presumably that the young mother cannot reasonably take care of it. It’s unclear whose rage is noted: is it the rage of her own parents about the child being born out of wedlock, or of the mother being forced to give up her own child? Regardless of who’s rage it is, “we’re still standing / under the closing edge / pay for the crime of feeling.” The “crime of feeling”, doesn’t that get you right in the gut? A ‘close’, the conclusion of a prior agreement, is about to occur, and the feels are gut-wrenching.

Then we go into one of three prechoruses of the song, each of them structured similarly, but there’s one major difference in the first half of each. In prechorus 1, the lyrics are “When all your pride is dead, / you must be scared instead.” Let us go over the other two, as to illustrate the importance of word choice. Prechorus 2 stars, “When all your guilt lies dead.” Prechorus 3 starts, “When all your pain lies dead.” Pride, guilt, pain, these are all clearly terrible emotions. We’ll come back to these, as well as the chorus.

Verse 2 gives more credence to the idea of adoption and abortion. The young mother lost her childlike innocence when she became pregnant. “Show me my youth,” she cried, “wasted for desolation”: her youth is gone but now without her child, she is left desolate. Desolate is an interesting choice to describe a woman, too. When I think of a desolate landscape, I think of a barren desert. Did the young woman have complications during her pregnancy that have left her unable to have any more children? That would make the pain of separation from her child and the forced adoption that much more painful. “Who’s deciding? After the clouds have lain / shame on your generation”: this is an indictment of the woman’s parents and of the decision to put the child up for adoption was out of her hands and made without her consultation.

Let’s now tackle the chorus:
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

A quiet word is my proposition” and “Without surrender if you stay”: is it possible that the young woman resigned herself to staying in a loveless relationship with the baby’s father in order to keep the baby and prevent the adoption? In political parlance, a coalition is an alliance. If “a body bleeds for this coalition,” meaning her body, does that mean that her heart was bleeding that she was placed in this awful position? Or is it literal, as in she would be bleeding and lose the baby if she was forced to have an abortion?

I want to revisit those three emotions in the prechoruses: pride, guilt, and pain. Regardless of the outcome for the woman, the prechoruses ensure a clear message: once you lie down and resign yourself to what has happened, e.g., “When all your pain lies dead,” that means you are no longer feeling anything. You are numb. You are dead inside. But why? Simon thinks, “you must be scared instead.” Too scared to admit the pride, guilt, and pain of this heart-wrenching situation. You’ve given up. I don’t think the word choice of ‘dead’ is a coincidence, lending further credence to the possible connection to abortion.

It might be a stretch to connect the two, but given the tumultuous time in Duran Duran with Andy and Roger leaving, I’m wondering if this song was an allegory written by Simon to reflect the desire to keep everyone together. He (and John and Nick?) cared too much and was holding on the emotional baggage, yet he knew, ultimately, that they were never going to keep Duran Duran the five-piece together.

Duran Duran were bleeding but when they came out of the other side of ‘Notorious’, they’d birthed a new lineup, and a fresh new era. Like the face of ‘Proposition’, the young woman who had given up her child, she had plenty of fight left in her. So did Duran Duran. And a global nation of Duranies is grateful.

Sadly, no video for this perfect song, so you’ll have to make do with a stream. Don’t let that stop you from discovering (or rediscovering) this ’80s gem.

Song Analysis #58: Duran Duran – Proposition (part 1)

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NB: This and the one that follows are specially timed posts, as Duran Duran will be performing at a special late night show at the Kennedy Space Center this coming Tuesday night as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing celebrations (preview on TGTF here). It is just about killing me that I cannot attend, not only because I am a Duranie, but because NASA and Duran Duran have a special connection for me.

My father worked at NASA Goddard for most of his career as a physicist, and he was well aware of my Duran obsession when I was in college. A few months before I graduated, he asked me what I wanted for a graduation present. Most other kids would have asked for a car or money. I asked for a trip to Japan to see Duran Duran play, and he took me to Tokyo to do just that. My father passed 15 years ago and while he is no longer here physically, my bet is that he’ll be at the show in spirit because he knows how much they mean to me. He’ll probably be doing his silly made up dance that he would always trot out when I was home on the weekends and I was blasting one of their tunes in the house.

I am currently taking stock of past experiences and relationships while I am putting together the stories and chapters that will eventually lead to my compilation of a memoir. Over 5 years ago, I did an analysis of a Duran Duran song from their 1993 self-titled LP that everyone knows colloquially as “The Wedding Album” so to not confuse it with their actual debut album, also self-titled. The song I had chosen at the time was ‘None of the Above’, which I used to play at very high volume in my dorm room. It was one of my personal psych up songs, something I would use to give myself confidence, as when I was young, confidence was in very short supply.

I have been thinking about Duran Duran in the last month. Somehow it had passed me by, or perhaps somewhere along the way I had forgotten that John Taylor had written an autobiography in 2012. Back in May, I devoured it in an evening, and my thoughts on the book are on yet another one of my blogs over here. Like many fans over the years, John was my favorite. I was 19, the internet was here, and you could lose yourself online in ‘80s photos and pretend you were there when the adorable John Taylor in his early 20s was making girls cry around the world. Unfortunately, at the time I became a fan of the band in 1999, John was no longer part of the band. Although I quickly and easily became a fan of his solo work, I needed to choose another favorite band member. I settled on his best friend Nick Rhodes. Who doesn’t love a dapper, brainy musician with a mischievous sense of humor?


for 5 years 2 decades ago, these were the two most important men in my life

Over the last 2 weeks, I came to the realization that although I had been a Duran obsessive in the early 2000s, I have been giving their singer and lyricist Simon Le Bon short shrift all these years. I had been looking at the band and their contributions as a whole and when I wasn’t, I would focus on John’s bass playing – simply incredible (most bass players speak of ‘Rio’ but check out with ‘Last Chance on a Stairway’ – !!!) – or Nick’s keyboard stabs and arpeggios because I had played piano for years. I guess it never occurred to me to focus on Simon because well, being the lead singer, it seemed like he wasn’t exactly starving for attention, right? The post that follows in an hour hopes to address and make up for my egregious oversight all these years.

To understand ‘Proposition’ and 1986’s ‘Notorious’ album, you first need to consider the enormous pressure Duran Duran were under. It was a difficult record for Duran Duran to make, to say the least. ‘Notorious’ followed the monumental commercial achievements of ‘Duran Duran,’ ‘Rio,’ and ‘Seven and the Ragged Tiger’, all of which were global successes. But no band can stay on top permanently. It is impossible. If you know anything about the band’s trajectory from when they started with the classic lineup in 1978, then you are aware that from 1979 to 1984, they didn’t really ever slow down.

Everyone wanted a piece of them and when you’re young, hungry, and eager to make it, you make the mistake of thinking you have to say yes to everything. By the time ‘Seven…’ was released, they were all pretty cheesed off of where the fame machine had gotten them. They were run off their feet by contractual agreements, and they couldn’t step outside of the house without getting mobbed. They were not enjoying the hurricane of fame they now found themselves in the center of. Some of the band dealt with it better than others. John’s coping mechanism was drinking a lot and doing a lot of drugs.

I did not know until I read John’s book that it was their managers Paul and Michael Berrow who decided to kick ‘Duran Duran’ and ‘Rio’ producer Colin Thurston to the curb for album #3, not the band. American Alex Sadkin, who had made his name producing Grace Jones and Bob Marley, was given the keys to the studio, along with Ian Little, who had produced earlier UK chart-topping single ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ The band thought that they needed to mix things up for creative reasons and to stay vital in the industry, and ‘Seven…’ certainly moved the needle for them. Most original Duranies I know love the album; I can take it or leave it when I consider against some of their later, less famous albums that I think are infinitely better. I think the best thing about ‘Seven…’ is the back cover art (sorry for the quality, but check out that gorgeous painting):

cover art

‘Notorious’ was the first release of the ‘big three’ era of Simon, John, and Nick. Following Live Aid, drummer Roger Taylor left, citing exhaustion. Lead guitarist Andy Taylor was no longer part of Duran Duran but for a much less sympathetic reason: his personal talent being built up by the music industry in Los Angeles, he was persuaded into a solo career, but not before he had strung Simon, John, and Nick along, making them think he would return to them to work on Duran Duran’s fourth album. When they finally realized he wasn’t coming back, there was reasonable anger. To this day, some fans, including myself, have an axe to grind with Andy over this.

Given the internal turmoil in the band, it isn’t surprising that the ‘Notorious’ sessions led to a collection of songs that had a negative bent. If you look hard enough in the lyrics, all of them have sinister connotations. Title track ‘Notorious’ addresses the tabloid rumor mill and takes a side swipe at Andy for good measure (“Who really gives a damn for a flaky bandit?”). ‘Skin Trade’ was Simon’s way of explaining that as humans, we all whore and sell ourselves out, one way or another (the band talk about how it was made here). ‘Winter Marches On’ is a dirge. ‘So Misled’ is obvious, isn’t it? ‘Vertigo (Do the Demolition)’ is a song about drug use and Simon sings, “do the dance, do the demolition / and lose the chance to hear ’cause you don’t listen,” as if something needed to be blown up and destroyed before any real change was to occur. Was Simon being reactionary against the industry who no longer wanted anything to do with Duran Duran, who they now considered washed up after their fans’ initial hysteria? Was he pissed off about what had happened with Andy and Roger? Or was he frustrated that one of his best friends, John Taylor, was losing himself to cocaine? Probably all three.

On most days, ‘Notorious’ is my favorite Duran Duran album. I admire them for taking a bad situation, figuring a way out of it, and coming up with a set of thought-provoking, toe-tapping songs that sounded nothing like their earlier albums. With the richness of the tracks owing to production by Nile Rodgers, the addition of a brash brass section, and their willingness to experiment, it’s the turning point at which I say Duran Duran, now a trio, grew up. Last track ‘Proposition’ was always my favorite.

Blown by the wind of reason” from ‘Proposition’ was one of my favorite lyrics of Simon’s; I used it as the title of the essay collection page of the Duran Duran fan site I had built on Geocities, working on it late at night at school. (I’m sad to say that I think I didn’t bother to pull the text from my essays on the band before Geocities went bust in 2009. If I have them, they’re on an old 3.5” disk somewhere in my house.) ‘Proposition’ is powerful and catchy at the same time, so what’s not to love? The original Duranies may have hated it, but the band could do no wrong in this era in my eyes. As I entered my 20s, I had drawn up a backstory to the song in my mind, that Simon was singing about Eastern Europe during the Cold War and the sacrifices women made in those desperate times. Remember, the Berlin Wall didn’t fall until 1989, 3 years after ‘Notorious’ was released. Maybe with all the coverage on the atrocities in Kosovo in 1998-1999 on the news had affected my young mind.

Song analysis on deck for 11 AM this morning EDT. Stay tuned…