Award-winning music journalist Annie Zaleski spoke with 360°Sound about her new 33 1/3 book on Duran Duran’s classic second album Rio. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, Zaleski has had music articles published in numerous publications, including Billboard, Rolling Stone, Time, and the Los Angeles Times.
The British new wave band’s 1982 album spawned the hit singles “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Save a Prayer,” and “Rio” – all of which had groundbreaking music videos that helped usher in the MTV era. Zaleski conducted new interviews with band members and other important figures behind Rio for the 144-page book. Duran Duran’s Rio is out now on Bloomsbury Academic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Why did you choose Rio as the album to write a 33 1/3 book on?
Annie Zaleski: I pretty much have never had another album in mind for the [33 1/3] series. I’ve been a longtime fan of the series. Rio was always the record I wanted to write about. It has such a great backstory. Now, people see it as one of the best albums of the ‘80s. It has the amazing Patrick Nagel cover. It has the hit singles. It’s a great album from front to back, but it also has a really great story. It was very popular in England, but it took forever to become popular in America. It wasn’t a hit until basically almost a year later. It was 1983. I knew the record had a good narrative to it, and also, the Duran Duran music videos from this era were so interesting and influential. There was a lot to talk about.
I found it interesting that Duran Duran took a while to catch on in the United States. What had to happen for them to eventually break the U.S.?
When Rio came out in the U.S. in 1982, they had some radio stations that supported the record and played some singles. They sounded so different than what was going on at that point in rock and pop music. Rock music was still very American-oriented – Bob Seger and Steve Miller Band. On the pop music side, things were a little softer, kind of a ‘70s holdover. Duran Duran sounded different, so that was one obstacle. Their music was very David Bowie-influenced and sounded very futuristic.
Another thing is Duran Duran looked like they were from another planet. They dressed differently. They dressed very British; they wore suits. Some of them had impeccable makeup and hairstyles. MTV was just getting started when Rio came out. They launched in 1981 when cable TV was just sort of spreading across the country. MTV was kind of a slow rollout, so it was in a lot of suburbs. MTV was just becoming a phenomenon when Rio came out.
Radio was so different then. It was still very much guitar in the front. Synthesizers were not necessarily very high in the mix. Duran Duran had to tweak their songs a little bit. They worked with a remixer named David Kershenbaum to try to give the sound just a little different mix so it would fit in better on radio. Radio was how bands became popular at that point. It was basically radio or nothing. They needed to be on radio to raise their profile in America.
Today it seems clear that Duran Duran was unfairly maligned by the rock press at the time. Do you find that they were dismissed because of their image and the fact they had such a huge teenage girl fanbase?
Absolutely. This is one of the points I really wanted to make with the book. If you look through history, bands that have teenage girl fanbases are often maligned. They aren’t given as much respect because the taste of teenage girls is often kind of looked down upon. Duran Duran were all very good-looking. Throughout history, people say, ‘Oh, if you’re a band that’s good-looking you can’t possibly A) play your own instruments B) play live.’ Or ‘You don’t write your own songs.’
They were seen in some circles as this prefab rock band, basically put together by a Svengali. But the opposite was true. They started in the late ‘70s. They practiced. They were musicians who were really driven to become better players. John and Roger Taylor were emulating the rhythm sections they loved. [Guitarist] Andy Taylor had been on tour in the ‘70s. Nick Rhodes, the keyboardist, was really honing his craft. And [singer] Simon Le Bon had been in a couple of bands before Duran Duran but was a theater student, so he brought a different element to it.
They all had really interesting, unique strengths. Because they were all different, they fit together in interesting ways. As part of my research, I read some of the reviews from the time; people were just mean. They were really mean to Duran Duran in ways you wouldn’t see today because journalism was different back then.
Is it fair to say that Duran Duran was the most important group for music videos and MTV in the first half of the 80s?
I think in terms of the new music, they probably were. Early MTV was doing whatever they could, playing whatever they had on hand. There was a lot of Rod Stewart and REO Speedwagon; those are two that had a lot of videos. In terms of new bands, a lot of American bands were very skeptical of music videos and MTV. They didn’t need to use that before; they were playing live and touring.
Duran Duran understood they could make cinematic videos and reach a lot more people and stand out from the crowd. It made so much sense for what MTV was trying to do, which was break new music and be on the cutting edge of culture. Duran Duran was instrumental with MTV. MTV added the videos pretty soon after. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was added in the rotation in July of ’82. That was way before the song took off on the radio. It was very interesting to see the influence, and MTV supported them pretty much before anywhere else in America, which was really cool when I did research and found dates. It was very illuminating.
What do you think are the key themes of the album?
Rio has an overarching theme. So much of Duran Duran’s 1981 was them traveling everywhere. They traveled around the world for the first time and experienced amazing cities they’d only dreamed about. There was a lot of that excitement in Rio. The title track is a little bit like them talking about America, down to the Rio Grande. Simon Le Bon wrote it about a waitress, and it turned into something different, kind of their hopes and dreams.
There are references to parties. There are references to having fun at a party, to trying to chase someone at a party and not being successful. Some of the songs were about dreaming about what could have been and pursuits. It’s about the experience of being young and experiencing things for the first time, whether it’s good or bad or up or down. It’s a snapshot in time, I think.
Nearly 40 years later, what do you think is Rio’s legacy?
Nick Rhodes said they’ve done a lot since Rio. If you look at their entire catalog, they’ve put out so much great music since then. [Rhodes said Rio] really kind of set them on a path for where they are now. I thought that was such a good summation of everything because they had the hits in America, and they were able to parlay that into bigger hits. They had two No. 1 singles after Rio [“The Reflex” and “A View To a Kill”], and they were able to come and tour America still and do pretty well 40 years later.
Rio is one of those records that stands the test of time. I think a lot of ‘80s records sound like they’re from the ‘80s because of the production and instrumentation; it sounds pretty dated. But when you listen to Rio, it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Another testament is how many people still cover songs from it. You can go on YouTube, and it’s unbelievable how many covers there are. People are still discovering the record and falling in love with it. I think that’s a real testament to its legacy.
Check out our review of the Showtime documentary Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know.