In 2002, Nick Rhodes collaborated with Stephen Duffy, lead singer of The Lilac Time and one of the co-founders of Duran Duran, on an album, Dark Circles, which they released under the name The Devils. Dark Circles was mostly comprised of music Nick and Stephen had written together back in 1978 shortly after forming Duran Duran; for an added layer of authenticity, Nick used era-appropriate vintage analog synthesizers on the album to recreate Duran’s 1978 sound.
Dark Circles is pretty consistently great. Hell, “Big Store” probably makes my top ten list of favorite Duran songs, even though the band never actually recorded it (Stephen recorded a version in 1979 with his post-Duran band, The Subterranean Hawks). For the purposes of this Duranalysis, I’m focusing on The Devils’ half-hour electronic press kit, which was produced by Stephen and edited by Gary Oldknow, visual artist and frequent Duran Duran collaborator (Oldknow, you’ll recall, came up with the concept for the violent and awesome anime-style “Careless Memories” video that played onstage during the band’s 2004 Astronaut tour). The press kit features a lengthy interview with Nick and Stephen, plus archival photos, footage from their recording sessions, and the videos for “Dark Circles” and “Hawks Do Not Share.” It’s all pretty entertaining; Stephen and Nick are relentlessly cute and charming together. Here we go:
The featurette kicks off with some exposition from Stephen, who explains how a chance meeting with Nick at a Vivienne Westwood show in 2000 led to their decision to dust off their old music and see what could be done with it. Nick goes on to say that, had Stephen remained in the band, Dark Circles “…would have been the first Duran Duran album, there’s no doubt about that.” According to Nick, he and Stephen made every effort while recording the album to ensure each element would be the same as in their early performances—same songs, same sound—though he admits one concession to modernity: “We don’t have as much clarinet on this.”
Nick, who is sporting a gorgeous mop of streaky blond-and-black hair and looking like a gajillion bucks, discusses the original lineup: In the pre-Simon, pre-Andy, pre-Roger incarnation of Duran Duran, John Taylor (then known by his given name, Nigel) played guitar, while Stephen sang and played bass, Nick played synthesizers and operated the rhythm units and tape recorders, and Simon Colley played bass and clarinet. Nick goes on to say, perhaps unnecessarily, “It was quite a bizarre sound we made, actually.”
Nick points out how, in 1978, it was a simple transition to go from wanting to be in a band to being in a band. As a teenager in Birmingham, England, he found himself surrounded by ambitious young musicians who, like himself, only had a rudimentary knowledge of chords: “I remember watching a few of the punk bands and thinking, okay, I know D, and A, and F.” Stephen chimes in: “That was easy for you, because you had stickers on your keyboard!”
It’s cute. They’re cute together. They’ve got a natural teasing rapport, they have similar senses of humor and artistic sensibilities, they even look a fair amount alike. From this featurette, it’s not hard to imagine a Bizarro universe in which John left the band to focus on his studies at art college, leaving Nick and Stephen to turn Duran Duran into a critically beloved and modestly successful electronic duo. They’d probably be somewhat akin to the Pet Shop Boys, only with more fabulous hair.
Stephen talks about first seeing John Taylor while he was performing at a local pub with a band called Dada, then later meeting him at the art college they both attended. John had split with Dada by that time, so he and Stephen decided to team up and form a band. Nick’s introduction to Duran Duran isn’t addressed in this featurette, but everybody knows this story, right? About how Nick quit school at sixteen so he could join a band with his older friend John? This is the sort of behavior that makes parents break out into hives, but hell, it seems to have worked out okay for Nick.
Nick launches into a story about Duran Duran’s first-ever performance, which was at the notorious Birmingham club Barbarella’s: “I remember walking onstage and thinking, oh my god, it’s the punk crowd. They pogo, they spit, and occasionally they throw bottles. We’re walking on wearing women’s clothes … Stephen walked up to the microphone and, in his most fey voice, said, ‘This next song is influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer some of you may have heard of; it’s called “So Cold in El Dorado.”’ I thought we were going to die.”
(As it turns out, this featurette has been nigh-impossible to Duranalyze, because Stephen and Nick are both so funny and self-aware that it leaves me with nothing to do other than… point out instances where they’re funny and self-aware. This is an uphill battle! There are no instances of hilarious nitwittery to gently lampoon, no moments of overblown and self-serious behavior to deflate. It’s all very un-Duranlike. Roughly ninety-five percent of the time, I’m convinced there is no flesh-and-blood person named “Nick Rhodes”—he’s actually a computer-generated hologram, or a fairy prince, or a wildly self-amusing performance art piece, or possibly a lethal yet glamorous cyborg sent from the future. And then videos like this come along, and I have to revisit all my preconceptions about Nick, because, damn it all, he seems real here.)
Stephen explains Duran Duran’s ethos: Despite being an art-school punk band, they wanted to avoid what he refers to as the “boring bits” of punk songs, i.e. politically- or socially-charged lyrics. Duran Duran—then as in now—had an aversion to anything overtly political; as Stephen puts it, “We wanted to sing about anything apart from the right to work.” He dissolves into giggles. “The right to shop, we were singing. As punks, we demand the right to shop!”
The right to shop. Amazing. No wonder Stephen and Nick get along so well.
Stephen and Nick compare notes on Duran Duran’s second performance, which took place in a puppet theater. The band decided to incorporate a visual element by, uh, projecting slides from John’s geography field trip (Stephen: “Which I still have and look at every Christmas”) onto a backdrop while performing. Because nothing’s more punk than a slideshow of natural rock outcroppings.
Nick and Stephen goof around in the recording studio, bouncing possible names for their collaboration off of each other. Stephen: “We could call ourselves The Tragic Moments.” Nick: “Of which we have many… How about Earl of Toadstool?” It’s never explained exactly how or why they settled upon The Devils, but as a band name, it’s a clear step up from Earl of Toadstool.
Stephen and Nick discuss the Dark Circles album track by track. Of “Big Store”, Stephen says, “It’s a really stupid guitar riff and a really stupid lyric, and the combination is…” “Fabulous,” Nick finishes for him. They’re both absolutely right: “Big Store” is a monstrously stupid song, and it is glorious. I love it to pieces and compulsively play it on endless repeat. In an interview with Nick and Stephen back in 2002, Caitlin Moran referred to it as “…the silliest, most solemn, most knowing song I have ever heard. I cannot conceive of how two 19-year-olds were clever enough to be that stupid.” Sample lyric: “I like going shopping / Shopping in the big store / Shopping in a large store / Or any store that’s big.” Wow. Takes the breath away, doesn’t it?
We see some of the Gary Oldknow-directed video for the album’s title track, “Dark Circles”, which is something of a psychedelic showpiece, filled with rotating Spirograph designs and neon outlines of Stephen and Nick.
We also get the full video for the moody track “Hawks Do Not Share”, which features a gaunt and lovely dark-haired woman wandering moodily around a graveyard and moping inside a cathedral while wearing a long, clingy black gown.
Hey, can you guess who directed this video? Did you guess Nick? It’s Nick, right?
Yeah, it was Nick. Obviously. Creepy Goth chicks, cathedrals, graveyards… this is all the sort of thing Nick lives for.
The featurette comes to a close with the final track on the Dark Circles album. Titled “The Tinsel Ritual”, it’s a short instrumental piece featuring a cacophonous racket of wedding bells played in reverse, which was the sound Duran Duran used to play as they left the stage. As a finale, it’s less of a rousing crowd-pleaser than, say, a raucous, rip-roaring encore of “Girls on Film”, but it’s a fitting end for a performance by a scrappy art-school punk band. Dark Circles shows us a glimpse of a smaller, quieter, more introspective, more intellectual version of Duran Duran, and it’s good.