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…

“The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark.”

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It’s been over a year since I’ve been on here, so I thought I should start with an update of sorts to explain my absence before going back into posting analyses.

1. My 2013 Macbook decided to give up the ghost mid-November 2018. I was working one Saturday afternoon and POOF!, the screen became unresponsive. Multiple attempts to resuscitate and change hard drives were to no avail. My brother is expected to visit later this year and will try to revive it. Fingers crossed.

Having suffered major laptop problems in the past, I hadn’t been keeping too much on the hard drive, so it wasn’t a huge loss. Well, until I realized some of my music discovery spreadsheets had only been saved on the hard drive. All those hours of hard work are now lost to the ether.

2. At the time of the Great Macbook Failure, I was also sick as a dog with an undiagnosable cough. I was sick for over a month. I was even absolutely miserable during a birthday trip to Glasgow and Sheffield in late November into early December. Thank goodness I went to visit some of my loveliest friends. I ate amazing food everywhere, finally went to the famous York Christmas market on a weekend, went to two holiday-themed etsy markets, and got to see Ben Lomond in the distance on my birthday, from a pier on a sunny day in Luss no less. Check out my cover photo on Twitter.

3. I got a new laptop at New Year’s. It’s an Acer running Windows 10. So speedy after I upgraded the RAM and hard drive, but the monitor is pretty crap. It’s way too bright, and the monitor problem is a known flaw that I misjudged as something I could cope with. I feel like I’m getting a suntan every time I open the lid. To cope with it, I have to decrease the brightness so my gorgeous photo of the Yorkshire countryside that I’m using at the background looks dark, dull, and sad. Needless to say, I don’t use it as much as the Macbook.

The new laptop has a CD / DVD player, very uncommon among Windows laptops these days. I have been hooking up the laptop to my tv with an HDMI cable so I can watch YouTube on the bigger screen. This has been an odd game-changer. I never considered watching a video I’d otherwise watch on my phone on a much larger screen. Given how bad my laptop monitor is, anything significant like a concert or interview looks infinitely better on my tv than on the laptop.

4. Given the problem with my laptop and some other things going on personally, I decided to turn TGTF to dormant as of 5 April 2019. Going forward and except under special circumstances, we will not be posting any new content. I was a music blogger and editor for over 10 years, and it was time to focus my energies in a different direction. More information on my decision can be read here.

5. Thanks to the kindness of a young velvet rope minder Saturday 4 May at Liverpool Sound City 2019, I met and excitedly chatted with Andy McCluskey of OMD. He was every bit as lovely as I imagined he would be. I am the same age as ‘Electricity’, give or take a few months. I thanked him for everything he has done to bring synthesizers to the mainstream and congratulated him on their 40th anniversary. When he found out how old I was, he gave me a huge hug for my birthday this year. It’s hard to imagine anything else will happen before December 31 to top this moment for me.

6. The following week, Liverpool FC won the Champions League in Madrid, beating Tottenham Spurs. Take that, Harry Kane! After our painful defeat in the 2018 final, this was the result we needed. Go Reds!

7. I started a new job in May. Hooray! I have now been there for 2 months, and I can say without question that putting TGTF on ice could be the best decision I have made this year. Jobs are like juggling acts as it is. But trying to get onboarded at a new place, getting things organized the way you want them, *and* continue with new content at TGTF at the level I would have wanted, and at the same time, would have been impossible.

Right, seven bullet points are plenty. On with the show!

Song Analysis #57: The Killers – When You Were Young

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Title: ‘When You Were Young’
Where to find it: ‘Sam’s Town’ (2006, Island Records)
Performed by: The Killers
Words by: Brandon Flowers

During the ‘Hot Fuss’ era, I was pretty obsessed with Brandon Flowers and The Killers. With the prominence of the synthesizer in their music and Flowers citing Duran Duran has a key influence, a Duranie like me didn’t stand a chance. While ‘Hot Fuss’ remains on my mp3 player, as does their third album ‘Day and Age’, I never warmed up to sophomore LP ‘Sam’s Town’. The one song that escaped my writing off the rest of their second album is ‘When We Were Young’, which invokes something not commonly found in pop songs, at least with any level of seriousness: religion.

If you know anything about the Killers, or indeed Brandon Flowers himself, is that he is a proud, card-carrying Mormon. Mormons in America, like Roman Catholics, are often painted as a caricature of being out of touch. Recall Mitt Romney’s 47% comment that killed his chances at becoming President. (I guess I shouldn’t groan too much, since there’s a chance Mitt might return for another bid in 2020 and could potentially be our Commander-in-Chief!) Mormons also abide by some strange rules. They’re not supposed to drink soda or any drinks with caffeine in it or smoke. Interestingly, in this short interview last year after album ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was released, he reveals he can’t resist a Coke and took up smoking when he worked as a busboy in Las Vegas just so he would get breaks at work.

Whether consciously or not, I think it’s a good thing Flowers hasn’t focused on God and religion in Killers songs. As a result, the Killers’ back catalogue, at least lyrically, is much more accessible and relatable to a much wider audience, an audience that might otherwise be put off by uber religious overtones. The appearance of ‘When You Were Young’, then, is an interesting one. It names Jesus, so is it a religious song? Or is ‘Jesus’ simply a metaphor for a mortal who appears to be a savior like Jesus?

Before we go down the rabbit hole, the words:

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 1
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young

Verse 2
Can we climb this mountain
I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy
Easy now
Watch it go

Chorus 2
We’re burning down the highway skyline
On the back of a hurricane
That started turning
When you were young
When you were young

Bridge
And sometimes you close your eyes
And see the place where you used to live
When you were young

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 3
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young
(Talks like a gentleman)
(Like you imagined)
When you were young

Outro
I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

Now, the analysis:

I find this song particularly fascinating for the emotions it manages to raise inside me. Even if you’re not religious or even in any way spiritual, there’s no denying the power in both the way the song builds and a booming strength in Flowers’ vocals. This combination is explosive. Considering ‘When You Were Young’ was the Killers’ attempt to capture ‘Born to Run’ / ‘Thunder Road’-era Bruce Springsteen in a pop song, this isn’t so surprising. If you forgot this period in the Killers’ history, read this opinion piece about ‘Sam’s Town’ a decade after its release, in which author Steven Hyden recalls an interview Flowers did with Blender’s Jonathan Weiner and proclaims his love for The Boss. Beyond this paragraph in Hyden’s piece, it faithfully reports on the time when what was coming out of Flowers’ mouth in interviews was his band’s own worst enemy.

The lyrics for ‘When You Were Young’ by themselves are particularly poignant, returning us to a place of innocence, when life was simpler and our imagined happily ever after was far off in the distance but still seemed entirely attainable. It’s a cool trick, that any young music fan who comes across ‘Sam’s Town’ now will be in this boat, long after those of us who were around for its release, and be in the same exact position we were then. As we get older, the illusion of this happily ever after breaks, whether acutely like a shattered mirror after a spouse cheats on us, or the cracks appear and grow wider over time as we get hurt repeatedly. Some of us play a game of pretend that everything’s just fine and dandy. Others try to hold on to the reality, deciding to suffer through it because the thought of being an escapist is worse. Those people hope the painful reality won’t break them before they get to the other side. Neither of these choices is better than the other.

Over the years, I’ve read bits of psychobabble here and there on how society has brainwashed women to expect and wait for a man to come rescue them because they can’t take care of themselves, that they’re incomplete without a man. Some of the more controversial pieces I’ve seen, including this one, paint Disney as one of the worst offenders when it comes in promulgating what’s called here as ‘the Disney princess effect’. While I see their point, it discounts us women – all of us who were once young girls – from making up our own minds. There’s a different between watching a movie or reading fiction and what you decide you want in real life, right?

In the first verse and chorus of the song, Brandon Flowers is a bystander, talking to a woman who’s visibly upset, or imagining he can have a conversation with her. “You sit there in your heartache / Waiting on some beautiful boy to / To save you from your old ways” can represent the mythical knight on a white horse, coming to rescue her. This is a man looking over a woman’s predicament. How a man views a relationship ending or one on the rocks is, most times, very different than how a woman would view the same situation. “You play forgiveness” suggests the woman is merely going through the moments of forgiveness without actually believing it herself. Then “Watch it now / Here he comes”, the man she’s forgiven, in theory at least, returns to her.

The anthemic chorus comes in and puts the pedal to the metal. He’s still imagining what’s going through her head. He’s not judgmental. He’s sensitive to the fantasy that’s been sitting inside her mind for years: “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus / but he talks like a gentleman / like you imagined / when you were young”.

Verse 2 indicates obstacles and conflict, using a formidable mountain as a metaphor: think Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s peerless ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. I’m imagining that Flowers is the other man, not the one of her dreams, but he’s insistent that despite the mountain being “higher now than ever before,” with him, “I know we can make it if we take it slow.” The modified chorus that follows suggests further upheaval and a life that isn’t going as smoothly as we wish: “We’re burning down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane / That started turning”. The repetition of the title here and throughout drives home the overarching influence of what the girl wished for when she was young.

I’ve honestly thought long and hard about the bridge and have trouble wrapping my head around it. The only explanation that makes sense to me is a religious one. If you take it literally and equate the devil’s water to alcohol, it makes sense from a Mormon point of view. Taking it wider into the world of bigger vices, for Mormons or not, the bridge seems to take on the idea of sinning, of doing something bad in God’s eyes, and saying doing something ‘bad’ actually as terrible as everyone says it is. Sure, don’t jump in the pool with the devil, but stick your toes in there like everyone else, and you’ll be all right.

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1 repeats and the chorus returns with echoed lines. But have a look how the words change at the outro. It’s Flowers’ last stab at reminding the girl that he understands her childhood dream but “more than you’ll ever know,“ the other guy isn’t who she thinks he is. And he’s definitely not his savior. The official promo video has religious overtones and it’s staged so that the end of the song comes across as a warning to the girl. You realize everything you’ve watched before that moment is what will soon be for her. This isn’t a video analysis blog but I’m sure someone who’s into that would have a field day with it.

I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

If you’ve wondered why this song is so catchy and easy to sing, there’s a reason: Flowers admits it was written with one chord progression and some simple variations of that progression. You weren’t just imagining it. Even he appreciates the simplicity of the song!