Duran Duran: Working for the Skin Trade

Duran Duran - Working for the Skin TradeSynopsis: Live concert by Duran Duran from 1988, featuring nine examples of their glitzy pop, from the early hit ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’ to the contemporary sounds of ‘Notorious’ and ‘Vertigo’.  

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Duran Duran: Working for the Skin Trade 7.5

eyelights: Vertigo (Do the Demolition). Notorious. A View to a Kill. The Chauffeur.
eyesores: Hungry Like the Wolf. New Religion. the editing.

In 1987, Duran Duran embarked on their first tour in three years. Much had changed in the intervening years: Duran had fractured, losing two of their key members, they parted with their management team, released a studio album that struggled in the charts, and dropped a series singles that failed to recapture their old fans. The magic was pretty much gone.

The Strange Behaviour Tour, in support of fledgling album ‘Notorious’, would run for half a year, starting in Japan and completing in New York – before adding a couple of Brazil dates over four months later. It brought to the masses a new Duran Duran, a trio backed by hand-picked musicians, performing a set of what some have dubbed as “white funk”.

They hit Rio de Janeiro on January 8, 1988, at the Hollywood Rock Festival, headlining one of the four nights. Playing to an estimated 100,000 people, Duran and their backing band of seven musicians and vocalists served up old hits as well as new tracks -18 songs in total- over the course of two whole hours. It would be one of the last massive concerts that they would do for a long time.

‘Working for the Skin Trade’ is a video document of that show. Released on VHS in various countries, but not in North America, the show was truncated by half, leaving only 9 of the 18 songs, and running at less than an hour in length. A rarity, it ended up heavily bootlegged by fans until it was issued as part of the limited edition 2CD/1DVD re-release of ‘Notorious’ in 2010.

The programme begins quite abruptly, right in the middle of a Carnival-esque atmosphere taking place on stage, with a bevy of Brazilian dancers and musicians entertaining the crowds while the stage is being set-up. It was very strange that we were thrown right into this with no forewarning, as though the programme was already in progress. The credits came a bit later.

Duran Duran were then announced and they took the stage with Simon at the front and centre, naturally; Nick at center stage, on an elevation, behind Simon, wearing a grey suit; John left of stage in a black shirt with peace sign on it, a scarf and black leather pants. Warren was at the right, and behind them, on platforms, were the drummer, horns and background singers.

The programme breaks down as follows:

1. Intro: This is the afore-mentioned set of Brazilian dancers and musicians. The producers of this video should have either put the whole number and introduced it better, or cut it out completely. This presentation doesn’t do it justice; it feels like an afterthought. 4.0

2. A View to a Kill: Finally introduced, the lights go on and the band breaks out into their most recent chart topper. I had never heard this one played live (except at their July 29, 1993 show). It doesn’t translate completely to the live format but it’s still good. Unfortunately, Simon’s vocals are a bit off here: he can’t hold notes or hit highs. And I have to comment on his outfit: a black jacket with a white bird and fringes on it. Obviously his style radar was also off that night. 8.0

3. Notorious: Strangely, the lights went off and then they came back on stage in time for the song’s chorus. Were they making a separation between the old and the new? I’ve no idea. This is actually an excellent rendition; it really worked. Too bad Simon’s moves are infected with Caucasian Male syndrome. Thankfully, he’s shed the jacket and is just wearing a gray vest with black pants. He looks great, actually. It is kind of strange to see Warren on guitar and a different drummer than Roger. Don’t get me started on the horns and background vocalists. That’s even more jarring. 8.0

4. New Religion: John introduces this one. Rambles briefly, really. This version of the song has been morphed to better fit the ‘Notorious’ sound: Warren’s guitar part is slow, so is the bass. Heck, it’s not just slower, it’s groovier, funkier. It really doesn’t work; it lacks edge. And Nick’s keyboards are lost in the funk – and they were central to the original version. 4.0

5. Vertigo (Do the Demolition): This time Simon does the introduction. It’s a superb rendition, but it must have been a shock to old fans, those who hadn’t bought the latest album. It works live: there’s even a noisy guitar solo and they go into an extended jam at end. Excellent stuff. For some reason, there are lots of cuts (how many cameras were there?). As became habitual during this phase in their career (see ‘Three to Get Ready’), Simon doesn’t have his groove on, posing awkwardly, trying too hard to be funky. 8.25

6. The Chauffeur: There are four songs missing between this and the last track ,which explains the abrupt cut between the two numbers. Then some dissonant guitar and trumpet fill the space; they just don’t blend with the delicate keyboard touches that drive this song. Inexplicably, Simon’s now wearing a captain’s cap and a long beige coat. WTF. The song is okay, but the trumpet keeps interrupting and Simon tries to break into vocalizations. It’s kind of weird, contextually. At least the last stretch is more traditional and quite good. John’s bass stands out, a good thing. There are images from the music video for ‘The Chauffeur’ on a large display behind the band, composed of many TV monitors. 8.0

7. Save a Prayer: Simon introduces this number with a few strange comments about suicide. Not sure what that’s about. They decided to play this one acoustic, with Simon vocalizing at the beginning. Meh. It’s an interesting version, stripped down like that, but it doesn’t really fit at this point in the set. And it doesn’t beat the original, anyway. 7.5

8. Skin Trade: This one starts with some blues riffing while Simon tries to sing a blues song. His voice doesn’t work on this because it’s not just low enough: the blues has to be raunchy, ya know? So he plays the harmonica. It’s a slow jam, which is really weird for Duran Duran. But John’s loving it; he’s all smiles. Turns out that this was an intro to “Skin Trade”, of all things. There’s an extended jam at the end that is horn-based. It’s not bad. They churned out a good rendition of the song, but I still don’t like it. Actually, it might even be my favourite rendition of the song so far – which is not saying much. Still confusing the crap out of me, Simon does a lot of play acting, making faces, …etc., while wearing a black vest with gold trim and jeans. What exactly was he trying to do? 7.5

9. Hungry Like the Wolf: Shoot me now. For reasons unknown, Duran transformed this classic into a funky number with a totally different groove. I don’t like it at all. Not one bit. In fact, the horrid “Dooh dooh doohs” kill me. What made it work was the rock edge. But it’s gone. The band’s playing pretty good though. If they weren’t trying to do Duran Duran numbers they’d be okay. Wow… on the flip-side, the background singer is a real hottie. Um.. goodnight? Really? The show’s over? For all my complaints, it flew by. 5.5

10. The Wild Boys: Ah, yes… the requisite encore. They were trying to go for the extended version of this song, which starts with an instrumental bit, but the instruments don’t quite sound right. It’s a good intro anyway. Then Simon’s face is blown up on the video display, but he doesn’t appear to take the stage – at least he’s not clearly visible. It feels very Big Brothery, which I like but is strange for Duran Duran. Anyway, this version is slightly slower, not as edgy, and towards the end it gets funky, with the horns chiming in and Warren doing funky guitar. Oh well. 7.5

In the end, the trio bowed goodbye to the massive crowd, and then the end credits rolled over to the sounds of keyboards, heavy bells and the chatter of tens of thousands. It was an underwhelming close to what should have been a triumph – they were, after all, playing to as many people as there are in some small cities. But the video’s producers somehow found a way to make it all seem insignificant.

Thankfully, the DVD is bolstered by a few extras. To me, this somewhat softens the blow: it doesn’t feel like an entirely half-hearted effort.

Music videos

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Notorious: Duran Duran’s first release in nearly a year and a half, and the lead-off single from the album of the same name, it was a strong player on many charts although it was slightly soft compared to their most recent singles. It’s hardly surprising: the fans had moved on and the band had changed its sound, eschewing their rock roots for a funky groove with short bursts of rock guitar. Heck, even the keys are funkier, not new wave. Throw in the horns and you’ve got a very different sound than before.

The corresponding video is fairly low-key by Duran standards – it’s not what you’d expect from them (or from a first single, for that matter): it’s a mix of black and white and colour photography and consists of the band on a soundstage with drapes in the background. They’re all wearing jackets, with white shirts and no ties. There are models dancing and a few outdoor shots of the trio with trees and a model which are reminiscent of the album cover. It’s okay, but it’s not exciting or ground-breaking. 7.75/7.0

2. Skin Trade: This is the second single from ‘Notorious’ and it didn’t do very well at all. This was the beginning of Duran’s chart troubles. I can’t say it enough: this song has a good groove but it somehow still bores the fudge out of me. The best part is the chorus – and only for the horns and guitar breakdown. Meanwhile the horn solo during bridge is jarring as heck. Seriously… these guys used to be a rock band?

Right from the start, the first impression that the video makes is that it looks cheap. It consists of flashes of the band members, fluorescent effects, and a girl dancing. Actually, in some ways it kind of reminds me of The Power Station‘s “Some Like it Hot” video, but not as cheap. A real waste. Honestly, given the song’s subject matter, this should have been sexier. 6.0/5.0

3. Meet El Presidente: This is the third and final single from ‘Notorious’ and it also died a quick death on the charts. It’s a good song, but as a single… not so sure? I always hated the title and, thus, the chorus. I would have picked “Vertigo”, “Hold Me” or “Winter Marches On” waaaaay before this. To make matters worse, the single is a remix – which is pretty different, bassier and with congas on it. Seriously.

The video is culled from concert footage. A cynic might say that they ran out of money to film a proper video, but they also released the single to coincide with the Strange Behaviour tour, so it sort of makes sense. But seeing the band wearing bolero-style outfits wouldn’t have pulled me to see the show. And their stage performance lacks edge, even if it there’s some good dynamics between band members. The only embellishments are flashes of international flags. Whoopee. 7.0/5.5

The biggest problem with these videos is that the bar had been set pretty high with Duran Duran, having innovated with their conceptual and/or stylish videos. These videos were par-for-the-course at best, and dull as !@#$ in many instances. There is no way that old fans would have been pulled to these and it would be very unlikely that it would bring in new ones. It’s a serious image problem.

Top of the Pops

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Notorious: Duran Duran returned to TOTP for another mimed performance on November 6, 1986. My first impression was of the largely white crowd trying to clap along to the funky sounds of “Notorious”. It’s awkward as heck; these people invented the white-man’s overbite. To make matters worse, Simon shows off some awkward moves – he’s just not funky. Le sigh. Duran Duran are dressed in black with white shirts. John is wearing a long coat and a hat. They give off some energy, but it’s mostly enhanced by some cuts. What’s amusing is that there’s no guitarist, even though the guitar is present throughout the song. There’s also no background singer, even though she’s central to the chorus. This betrays the lameness of the TOTP’s synched format. 7.5/6.0

Look, I know that Duran Duran were aching to get come respect after making their career off of teen girls. But they were trying too hard to “mature” their sound with ‘Notorious’. It’s an excellent album on many levels, but they underestimated the importance of the rock side of their sound: it’s the rawness that made them edgy, dangerous, appealing. Shedding it a little bit wasn’t a horrible notion (one has to grow, expand), but I think that they should have picked their singles more carefully.

It’s a shame, because people were put off and missed out on some superb stuff from the ‘Notorious’ era.

This extends to the edited concert, which mostly stuck to the singles. I would love to see the full two-hour show, without any songs cut out. Perhaps someday someone will re-edit this concert and give it the vibrancy that it richly deserves. Sure, it’s not Duran Duran at their peak, but they were still a good band, and ‘Working the Skin Trade’ simply does not do them justice. I don’t suspect that I’ll be watching this very often in the future, although it may play in the background.

But if it’s re-released in full, and with a different composition, I will no doubt give it another chance.

Date of viewing: August 22, 2014

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