Arcadia: s/t 7.5
eyelights: the fantastic music.
eyesores: Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes’ posturing.
In 1985, Duran Duran took a much-needed hiatus from the constant touring and frenzy surrounding them; they had released three studio albums and a live album in five years, and the incessant promotion was taking its toll. Even separated, however, they simply couldn’t stop playing music: John and Andy started The Power Station, while Simon, Nick and Roger formed Arcadia.
Although Roger would take leave soon after the release of Arcadia’s ‘So Red the Rose’, Simon and Nick devoted themselves to the release of four singles from their sole album, as well as another from the ‘Playing for Keeps’ soundtrack. Surprisingly, ‘So Red the Rose’ was nowhere near as popular as ‘The Power Station’, even though its aesthetic was closest to Duran Duran. Still, it went platinum anyway.
Personally, ‘So Red the Rose’ is my next favourite Duran-related project after ‘Rio’. I had no idea what to make of it when I first got it, back in the day (I was a musically unsophisticated 12-year-old!), but it was full of hooks so I played it a lot. Over the years, it grew on me considerably, and I even began to enjoy the two closing tracks, which I found utterly dull at first (I still don’t enjoy “Missing” much).
‘So Red the Rose’ is an extremely polished album (perhaps too polished, some might say) and it features the contributions of none other than Carlos Alomar, David Gilmour, Herbie Hancock, Grace Jones and Sting. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and its breathtaking album cover is in my all-time top 5 (so much so that, if I could find a poster of this artwork, it would adorn my walls).
Evidently, when the album was remastered and repackaged as a 2CD/1DVD set, in 2010, I had to buy it. Having it on vinyl, cassette and CD wasn’t enough: I also wanted all the remixes and b-sides I didn’t already have. And the videos. I had to have the videos too – I had actually never seen any of them save for ‘Election Day’, and that was so long ago that couldn’t remember any of it. It was an easy sell.
This DVD is a re-release of an eponymous 1987 programme that was originally released on VHS and laserdisc – except with a menu and chapters. There are no bonus features and no frills (and no video for “Say the Word” from ‘Playing for Keeps’). But, at an hour in length, it’s nonetheless a superb time-capsule for fans of Duran Duran and/or Arcadia (can one only be either, not both?)
The programme follows a simple formula: each video is presented chronologically, in the order in which the singles were released, preceded by some behind-the-scenes footage of each, along with some short interview snippets. It’s hardly exhaustive (there was surely some press material worth including here), but it’s informative and entertaining enough that it passes by relatively quickly.
Much of the footage consists of the lovely sights in the cities they filmed the videos in: Paris, Côte d’Azur and London. The stuff shot in France is particularly beautiful, impressive to look at, what with all the palatial architecture and so forth. Some of the sets are also quite the sight, in particular the one for “Election Day”, without a doubt one of the most elaborate and artsy of the lot.
It’s interesting to note that Simon is never interviewed on camera during this programme; all of the talking goes to Nick (and Roger is entirely absent, naturally). Nick discussed the origin of the band’s name, which was taken from the Nicolas Poussin painting Et in Arcadia ego, how they wanted to do something more cinematic with their videos, something inspired by Jean Cocteau.
Nick is also shown being more involved in the process, behind the scenes. One gets the impression that Arcadia might even be his baby: at one point, Dean Chamberlain, who directed “Missing”, comments that he’s just trying to make the video the way that Nick wants it. Of course, even in the Duran Duran videos, Nick was always quite involved, and feels like the conductor in some fashion.
The most shocking aspect of watching the video is seeing the band’s look, which is different from Duran Duran’s: although they retain some of the new wave/new romantic style of the period, they incorporated a much more gothic touch, from their black hair to the darker clothing. There’s also a lot more posturing, as though they’re self-consciously trying to convey a certain image.
Although this new image works well in tandem with the album artwork and the music, it feels unnatural, ill-fitting on Le Bon and Rhodes. After their first video, for “Election Day”, they would gradually morph their look back to a more Duran-esque style. Nick goes on to defend the change, saying that he gets bored quickly. It sounds somewhat disingenuous, given how coordinated this was.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. Election Day: “Election Day” was the opening number from ‘So Red the Rose’ and the leading single. It was the only Arcadia single to make the Top Ten in the UK or the US. Frankly, I’m surprised that it was the first volley, because it’s not as accessible as most of the other tracks on the album. It’s a perfect album opener because it sets a unique tone and resets expectations (and, frankly, it wouldn’t fit anywhere else on the album), but it’s not the greatest introduction to Simon, Nick and Roger’s new sound – it might be too dramatic a change. To make matters worse, this is a remix of the original track. I hate it – I think that it needlessly dilutes the song.
Strangely, given Duran’s flair for videos, this clip is extremely static, it looks like a set and it has no narrative to speak of. Simon and Nick walk in. Both are dark and broody, have an unusual gait and are sporting black hair (they don’t rock the black hair at all). There are a bunch of models everywhere. Simon goes down some steps. The video starts to get animated via quick cuts, but not through camera movement. Simon dances with two girls at what looks like a restaurant or convention. Nick hangs out in a corridor. There are shots of two women playing an intricate, decorative board game. Carrying a candelabra, Nick walks in a room that has a wall with faces on it. Then horse-men and models arrive on the set. Simon dances, backed by models, then dances solo. It end with both of them at a table with a girl, chatting and laughing. The video really feels stilted; it’s a mess. This is a case where less would be more. 7.0/6.5
2. The Promise: The second half of ‘So Red the Rose’ features only three extra-long tracks and an abridged instrumental. One of these tracks, the delicious pop epic “The Promise”, features Sting on background vocals. This should have been a massive hit. Unfortunately, the seven and a half minute album version was butchered by close to three minutes for the single mix – plus which it fades out very awkwardly. It’s still good – just not nearly as good.
The video is even worse: after a small amount of black and white news footage, we are taken to a spare set with Simon standing and Nick sitting on some steps behind him. They will not move from those positions for the whole video. News footage will enhance the video to some degree, but not much. Not only is this video painfully static, but it’s also in black and white. Perhaps the intention of going for a bland video was to put the onus on the song, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s a truncated version, so it defeats the purpose. If that was the intention. In any case, it’s the reverse problem of the video for “Election Day”. Sigh. 8.0/7.0
3. Goodbye is Forever: This track has a great drum rhythm/sound. It starts off with that and a guitar hook, and it’s very catchy. I love the sound of it. The keyboards kick in at the same time as Simon starts to sing. It’s so very catchy (did I say that already?). The chorus is even better. How did this not become a hit? Perhaps it’s a question of being taken out of context? Maybe it doesn’t rock enough? Was it too reliant on keyboards?
The theme of this video is “Time”; it features all sorts of clockwork, …etc. It finds Simon and Nick sitting on strange chairs, one behind the other. Simon wakes. We discover that the chairs are part of a sort of carnival ride when the chairs begin to move through an unusual set. The pair jumps off the chairs and fall downward to a cushiony surface. Simon is tied to a clock face, turning around like he did in Duran Duran’s “The Wild Boys“, while Nick is swinging above him on a pendulum. The chairs then take them through a room full of models (how they got back on the chairs is unclear). They come out at the face of a cuckoo clock and back in. Eventually they come out of the ride. It’s an okay video, with the sound off; it’s creative and detailed. But it doesn’t work with this song. And Simon’s lip synch is poor. 8.0/7.75
4. The Flame: This is a remixed version of the original and it starts with the chorus. I don’t like it nearly as much as the original. I love Simon’s voice, because it’s a bit lower than with Duran; it changes the mood. This has a terrific bass rhythm, but the big hook is the chorus, which is absolutely infectious. I understand why they wanted to start the remix with it, but this killed the opening. There are also effects in this remix that I don’t like. But, overall, it’s decent. It just doesn’t pay off the way the original does, which I’d give a much higher rating.
Wow… I’m not really sure what to make of this video (which was directed by Russell Mulcahy, of “The Wild Boys”); it seems so discrepant. Simon and a woman walk through a gate that opens onto a vast, smoky set that looks a little like a ’50s b-movie cemetery. This leads them to a mansion, where they join a dozen people (including Nick) for a dinner party. However, the mansion is rife with concealed passages, traps, even poison. Simon and his date are separated, so he goes out looking for her, and all manner of slapsticky mishaps befall him. It’s meant to be comedic but it feels out of place with Duran Duran/Arcadia’s image. It ends with them leaving and a caption: “To be continued…?”. The video has a strange tone, given the song. It’s nice looking, but I’m really not sure about the comedy. It’s an excellent concept, but it would have been better in another context. 8.0/7.5
5. Missing: “Missing” has always been the album’s Achilles Heel for me. Although I’m no huge fan of “Election Day”, it sets the tone quite nicely. But “Missing” lacks the hooks and harmonies inherent to most of Duran (and Arcadia)’s work to that point. It’s not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just uninteresting to me.
The video, however, is another matter. It utilizes extended exposure techniques to create what looks like a series of still pictures cut together to animate the video. It’s highlighted by special effects. The setting is a mansion, and it doesn’t feature the band at all; its protagonist is a young woman, and all she does is wander about. The video has a fantastical, fairytale quality to it. It’s gorgeous. Too bad it’s my least favourite song on the album. 7.0/8.25
The programme ends with a Nick saying that he’s proud of what Arcadia has achieved and what it was about. I’m sure that, had it been a greater success, he wouldn’t have felt the need to defend the project. If anything, it makes it seem as though he’s masking disappointment by putting on a brave face. I’m pretty sure that he and Simon would have wanted greater acclaim for it.
Unfortunately, response to Arcadia, at the time, was mixed. While the album sold very well, its singles (aside for leading track “Election Day”) languished on the charts, and critics weren’t entirely on board with its artsy posturing (although it has been reassessed over the years). Heck, even Simon called ‘So Red the Rose’ “the most pretentious album ever made”.
As for me, I sincerely think that it’s a genius album, a perfect slice of art pop that could not have been made at any other point in time. The only issue I can find with Arcadia is an image one, one that resonates through the photographs and videos: it was too self-consciously artsy-fartsy and didn’t come off as accessible – not even to its participants, who seem ill-at-ease.
They tried really hard, perhaps even too hard, to adopt a new mode – one that was either out of their grasp or that was poorly conceived. Mostly though, the likely problem may be that audiences were craving more excitement than they served up: their videos sometimes felt static, dull, and even cheap. And, after the killer buzz of Duran Duran, this was a major disappointment to most.
The only way for Arcadia to make their new image work would have been to focus on atmosphere, and reduce the contrivances – but this probably would have further alienated pop audiences. Frankly, I don’t know that Arcadia had any chance of succeeding in its ambitions given its lineage – and this coming from a MAJOR fan of their music. Its image problem was insurmountable.
And, watching this DVD, it is abundantly clear what went wrong. A damned shame, too.
Date of viewing: June 7, 2014