Duran Duran: Big Milano Thing

Duran Duran - Big Milano ThingSynopsis: Amazing 2008 Italian fan club only DVD featuring footage and capturing the magic, excitement, and pure adrenaline of the band’s Milano Palatrussardi’s concert on December 12, 1988; including most of the tracks from the then-released ‘BIG THING’ album.

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Duran Duran: Big Milano Thing 7.0

eyelights: the closing numbers.
eyesores: the discrepancy between the music and the setting. the lack of energy. Simon’s failing voice.

Do you remember Duran Duran’s ‘Big Thing’? Heck, while we’re at it, did you even know that Duran Duran has an album called ‘Big Thing’, released between ‘Notorious’ and the so-called “Wedding Album’?

For most people, the answer to both questions is a firm “no”.

And it’s hardly surprising.

By 1988, the wheels had fallen off of Duran Duran’s wild ride: since their 1983-84 peak, they had lost two core members, much of their fanbase and they weren’t charting like they used to.

‘Big Thing’ barely registered on most people’s radars, selling far less than its predecessors. And the three singles they released were each progressively less popular than the last.

I myself, who had grown up on a steady diet of Duran Duran, didn’t give a rat’s @$$ about the new album, with its multi-coloured, fluorescent cover, featuring just the title and no art.

I had already disconnected with ‘Notorious’, given the band’s new sound and look, which was nowhere near that rock edge that I loved. But this new Duran album took them even further from that.

Part of Duran’s problem is that they were in crisis: the music that they wanted to make fell on deaf ears and they were desperately trying to remain relevant. So they grabbed at the latest thing.

That thing was House music.

Perhaps they wanted to be fashionable (Lord knows Duran Duran have always been far too focused on that) or maybe they had fallen in love with this club music. Either way, they decided to push it.

But, let’s face it: House music is not what fans had fallen head-over-heels in love with Duran for. Sure, being photo/telegenic was part of their recipe for success, but they knew how to mix soft and hard.

On the one hand, you had gorgeous ballads like “Save a Prayer”, and on the other you had more primal numbers such as “Hungry Like the Wolf” or “The Wild Boys”. They appealed to male and female.

Their new House music-inspiration was too far removed from this. It lacked edge, for one, but it was also too alien for mass consumption, stripping most of the instruments for beats and synthesizers.

The album has its strengths, of course. The first single, “I Don’t Want Your Love”, is a terrific dance track. The stillborn third single, “Do You Believe in Shame?”, is every bit as crystalline as “Save a Prayer”.

And the second half of the disc, which steps away from House music and is filled with all manners of instrumental passages and indulgences, is one of the most flowy sides of their whole career.

But you had to get beyond the interesting, but awkward, first side and the image problem: the impression of a band in its final throes, and the smell of desperation. That’s rather hard to do.

The subsequent tour naturally didn’t help matters much: many of the prime locations that they used to visit were skipped altogether, or the venues were downgraded to more manageable ones.

One rather notable exception on the Big Live Thing Tour was the trio of shows that they held back-to-back at the Palatrussardi, an arena in Milan, Italy, which could hold upwards of 8000 people.

That’s where this programme (which was broadcast on Italian TV) was recorded, on December 12, 1988. It was only officially released on DVD through their fan club and in the reissue of ‘Big Thing’.

‘Big Milano Thing’ (or ‘Big Thing Live’, depending on the source) finds the trio on a relatively bare, medium-sized stage, with a small backing band consisting of a guitarist, drummer, keyboardist and a wind/brass player.

The look of the band and stage is sort of a new-mod style, which just doesn’t work with Duran; you’d half-expect a psychedelic pop outfit – not a rock band. Or even a House-influenced pop act.

The DVD starts with long shots of the concertgoers before a spoken-word intro by Simon begins. Called “God”, it discusses the state of politics at the time and his concerns – an unexpected way to begin.

Duran then kick off the show with “Big Thing”, anchored by a drum beat and repetitive chorus. It makes for a slow start to the concert. They then kick it with “I Don’t Want Your Love”, a terrific track that finds them more animated.

Unfortunately, neither is cogent with one’s expectation of Duran, and it makes them look like wannabes. Further to that, the show immediately appeared all too much like a TV appearance, not like a big time concert.

I soon began to realize that the venue just wasn’t right for Duran’s new sound: they needed to play in club – not in an arena, where rock and pop acts are found. In a smaller venue, they would be more at home.

Thankfully, they also served up some more appropriate arena fodder, like “Hungry Like the Wolf”, but the juxtaposition was awkward, sandwiched as it was in their newer, tamer fare. It was only a tease, but it overshadowed the rest.

They did try a few medleys to integrate their various sounds more, but it didn’t always work. In fact, sometimes the slower groove of the newer tracks tarnished the classic ones, as was the case with “All She Wants Is” and “Planet Earth”.

But it worked wonders in some instances, such as in “The Wild Boys” and “Drug” which are musically incompatible, but somehow was made to work to some degree. It was a weird mix of Rock and House, but it was the best performance of the show.

…and at long last we had a rousing number (even it seemed out of sorts for this particular band to be playing this song)!

Another surprisingly good live number was “Palomino”, which should have been filler but stood out from the rest, particularly due to Simon’s solo improvisations during the musical tail end of the track. It was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, Simon struggled with his vocals right from the onset, and was incapable of hitting the high notes for the whole show. He was even helped out by a female vocalist in a black cloak during the woefully under-appreciated “Winter Marches On”.

Sadly, the band found a way to spoil this one too. While Simon and the other singer danced about the stage, the clarinetist transformed it into a jazzy number, of all things. This otherwise pristine epic was stripped of its magic and majesty.

The band didn’t seem all that “on”, to be honest. Although John was grinning the whole time, there was little spark between the players. Thankfully, Simon limited himself to swaying during some numbers, instead of trying to funky (like on the last tour).

Sadly, the stage production wasn’t remotely conceived to distract from the on-stage lapses: there were hardly any frills, leaving the background singers to mock-catwalk during “Girls On Film” or strip behind a screen during “Skin Trade”.

This “Big Thing Live” concert was a far cry from the ambitious rock shows of the era.

The set came to a close with a “Grazzie” and “Ciao” before the band returned for a short encore, the two-part “The Edge of America/Lake Shore Driving” – one of the more interesting tracks from “Big Thing”, and likely a surprise for fans.

Personally, I never thought I’d hear this one live. It’s a good closer because the last part is instrumental, allowing the band (especially Cuccurullo) to break out a bit. But a lengthy jam is probably not what the audience wanted to hear at the end.

Honestly, had I seen Duran Duran for the first time in this iteration, I would have concluded that they weren’t ready for the big time. Watching this act, it’s surprising to think that they once were the biggest band in the world.

This is reflected in my ratings for each track. Although some of the original studio versions rank extremely high in my book, they lacked spark here, leaving many to appear far weaker than they really should. A damned shame.

1. God (London) 3.0
2. Big Thing 7.0
3. I Don’t Want Your Love 7.0
4. Hungry Like the Wolf 7.5
5. Do You Believe in Shame? 7.5
6. All She Wants Is / Planet Earth 6.5/7.5
7. This is How a Road Gets Made / Winter Marches On 7.25
8. Palomino 8.0
9. Too Late Marlene 7.0
10. Girls on Film 7.5
11. Notorious 7.75
12. Skin Trade 7.0
13. Is There Something I Should Know? 7.25
14. The Wild Boys / Drug (It’s Just a State of Mind) 8.0/7.5
15. Save a Prayer 8.0
16. The Reflex 7.75
17. Rio 7.75
18. The Edge of America/Lake Shore Driving 7.75

As with the last DVD, from the ‘Notorious’ deluxe edition 2CD/1DVD set, this disc is fairly spare: this one only features the three music videos that Duran released at the time. There are no interviews, TV performances, …etc.

Music videos

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

1. I Don’t Want Your Love: I don’t remember why, but I picked up the 12″ vinyl a few years after its release. I don’t think I had even heard the album yet. But I enjoyed this ultra-catchy dance number, even if it wasn’t Duran Duran to my ears. Unfortunately, the song lacks something here, not sure what, aside for the bass. Maybe I’ve just outgrown it. Either way, it was a decent enough hit for the band, making it into the top 10 and onto dance floors. It was also the number one single in Italy that year.

The video is mostly b+w and largely takes place in a court. It’s all quick cuts of a judge, the press, a jury, and newspaper headlines, with some lyrics flashing on the screen. Duran are shown in separate close-ups, singing – à la “Is There Something I Should Know?”. Warren Cuccurullo, the drummer and a saxophonist also appear, playing their instruments. During the chorus, a cute blonde and a guy dance/fight in a luxury apartment. Eventually, Duran walk into the court, mobbed by people. It would probably be a pretty good video if it wasn’t cut so quickly; you don’t get to savour anything here. 7.5/7.5

2. All She Wants Is: This track starts with the band saying “All she wants is” to a beat and the moans of a back-up vocalist. It’s a dramatic change for the band, who tended to serve up hooks in its heyday. The biggest surprise comes when we discover that is also the chorus (A spoken word chorus! WTF. This is Duran Duran?). Nonetheless, it was a popular song in clubs and was the number two single in Italy for 1988. The song really comes out musically in the video; the bass and keys are particularly in prominence. Too bad the chorus is repetitious.

Bringing back photographer Dean Chamberlain, who had done Arcadia‘s “Missing” video, the band served up another unusual video – one that won an MTV Video Music Award for innovation. It was shot with long exposures times, allowing Chamberlain to create interesting lighting effects. But it required the band and the actress to stay still for extended periods of time, taking nearly a month to complete.

The band were unavailable due to other commitments so they used awful mannequins in their stead, making the video look crappy, despite Chamberlain’s efforts. The only time they actually show up for is the beginning, eating side-by-side at a table, and at the end. Otherwise, the video consists of a girl wandering about a house and then posing on a bed, while the Duran Duran mannequins are awkwardly animated.

Actually, side for the mannequins, the video looks cool, even if it doesn’t fit the song. And I wish it was for any other band than Duran, who look like a bunch of late-’80s hipsters by that point. Gah. 7.75/7.5

3. Do You Believe in Shame?: This is such a gorgeous, melodic number. It’s a wonder why it wasn’t a hit. To me, it goes right up there with “Ordinary World”, which was a comeback single for the band, for goodness’ sake. Were they just ahead of their time? Interestingly, Simon includes it as part of a trilogy with the latter and “Out of My Mind”. Hmmm… musically, it makes sense. I’ll have to play the three back-to-back and see…

The video begins with a picture burning and then it follows our trio separately. Nick is sitting about, looking mopey. We are shown a picture of Nick with a friend. John is shown at (presumably) his daughter’s birthday. John and Nick cross paths at a cathedral. Meanwhile, Simon is walking around downtown New York, sees a blind man, a girl skipping up some steps. He then gets locked out of his apartment, John is unable to get into a hotel and Nick is seen putting out garbage. It ends with Simon hanging about the waterfront, dominos falling, and the three standing in an empty white apartment. There are also shots of a telethon of some sort. The song was dedicated to three friends of theirs who had passed away recently, so possibly the video was meant to reflect that. Personally, I don’t think it does the song justice. 8.0/7.5

That’s it. That’s all there is on this DVD.

Frankly, I’d have to say that ‘Big Milano Thing/Big Thing Live’ is the most disappointing of all the Duran Duran videos I’ve watched in the last year. Not only does it find the band in a weakened state, but the disc itself doesn’t even try to overcome quality with quantity.

For good or bad, their next album, the dismal ‘Liberty’, was not re-released in a deluxe edition, so there is no DVD material available for that era. There was a short EPK, but that’s about it. So I suspect that ‘Big Milano Thing’ will retain its dubious distinction.

But, on a positive note, this means that the next Duran Duran material we’ll cover is related to their much-loved self-titled album from 1993, the so-called “Wedding Album”. So it’s all uphill from here, folks. I can’t wait to watch Duran return to form.

Date of viewing: December 22, 2014

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