In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
With Duran Duran about to be indicted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what better time to re-examine Thank You, their eighth full-length offering, released in 1995 to a blaze of apathy. To be fair, it didn’t actually fare that badly in the charts, reaching the top 20 in both the UK and the US. The singles did less well, failing to make any stateside impression and only one of them bruising, just, their homeland top 20. The critics gave Thank You a fairly uniform hammering, with the legacy casting a long shadow over the rest of their career: Q magazine, in 2006, called it the worst record of all time, having had 11 years to make that considered opinion. At the time Rolling Stone described many of the selections as “stunningly wrong headed.” Ouch.
Today we’re thinking it about time this much derided potpourri of styles and statements had a good seeing to, via the retrospectroscope. I fully confess I had never listened to Thank You until researching this piece. So I got me a copy sent through, all of £3 plus p&p, which currently equates to about $3. Money well spent? Well, you know, actually, yes, it isn’t half as bad as I had been led to believe, and some of the tracks are really rather good. Of course, it is dated, but, by imagining myself back all those 27 years, I find myself heartily disagreeing with those snarky scribes from Q.
The first thing worth saying is to note quite how many extra musicians got crammed into Duran Duran. Original members Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and John Taylor were joined, once again, by Warren Cucurullo, the ex-Zappa sideman who took Andy Taylor’s place in 1986. They didn’t even have an official drummer; once and future stickman Roger Taylor only appears on a couple of tracks. Indeed, no one drummer appears on more than a few tracks, with five other individuals getting various whacks in. A full string section gets to appear across several tracks, and a whole bevy of additional singers and, ominously, rappers are bolted on the give a greater heft. This, perhaps, is one of the issues that the critics found least appealing. Many artists from, let’s say, orthodox guitar pop-rock backgrounds were looking nervously at the explosion in popularity of rap, usually making poor decisions around trying to blend that format into their own. More of that later. One name I was pleasantly surprised to see was that of Lee Oskar, the master of harmonica, famous for his playing with War.
Thank You kicks off with Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It).” I was expecting some sort of radical reworking, disappointed to find it a near facsimile, even down to the choral aahs and the (lifted) bassline. Whatever else he does, LeBon can’t rap for toffee, so it is a relief to find the full Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel included, are present to relieve him of an excruciating first attempt. If unfamiliar with the original, it’s OK, and that isn’t as unkind as it sounds.
Straight from that anti-drugs statement, the band launch into a spirited take on Sly Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher,” possibly a message in the polar opposite direction, but hey. Again, no attempt at revision, but the addition of a fair old bit of studio trickery gives it an attractive sheen, the female vocal parts from Lamya, once of Soul II Soul. It loses its way towards the end, the suspicions being they may have not all been taking Melle Mel’s earlier sage advice.
Lou Reed is on record as saying that the Duran Duran version of “Perfect Day” is the best of the many he had heard. It is certainly better than many, and the band imbue it with a hazy, psychedelic hue, perhaps as it was originally conceived. Treated keyboards and vocals shimmer and sway, the orchestration adding to the overall sense of disengagement, Tessa Niles wailing away convincingly towards the close.
I gather much of the opprobrium directed toward this release stems from the rendition of “Watching The Detectives,” labeled as easy listening, which is harsh. I like the dubby feel the band gifted it, with LeBon’s phrasing pleasingly off-kilter, the harmony with Niles adding a sense of momentum possibly lacking from the original. Cucurullo adds another of his idiosyncratically angular guitar solos, his playing actually a highpoint throughout, and Oskar adds a wondrous melodica like harmonica solo. “Lay Lady Lay” doesn’t seem an obvious song for the Older New Romantics to cover, but this too gets a good shot. Uncertain who is adding the duet vocals, but this lifts it beyond the humdrum.
Back to the school of rap for “911 Is a Joke,” which comes over all Aerosmith and Run-DMC. Going out on a limb, I wonder whether LeBon and the boys were as much, more maybe, just drawing the attention of their audience to this genre, making for a slightly more honorable reason for all the applicable covers. This time they interpret rather than copy, and they’re to be credited for that. LeBon still can’t rap, mind, but it’s a better effort.
Talking of efforts, clearly someone had a brainwave with the following track, “Success,” one of the songs David Bowie wrote for Iggy Pop. Unrecognizable from that original, or even anything ever done by the Durannies, it becomes a well constructed 1970’s glam-rock stomper, redolent of Gary Glitter in the drumbeat and snatches even of the author’s “The Jean Genie.” The hollered echolalic vocals are especially wonderful. Sure, I’d have hated it in 1972, possibly even in 1995, but it has a curious charm I now find quite endearing.
I confess I got a little worried when I saw the Doors’ “Crystal Ship” was next up. I needn’t have worried that much, it being a serviceable version, and the backing has a slightly ramshackle feel to it, taking attention away from the original. LeBon is no Jim Morrison, but he seems clearly a fan. “Ball of Confusion” is just, sorry, dire, a play-that-funky-music attempt to display their versatility that falls fully flat on its face, an affront to the Temptations. I suppose I should say that at least they tried to do something different to it.
I really like the title track. There, I’ve said it. LeBon channels Robert Plant near pitch perfectly, with the arrangement sufficiently whatever the opposite of bombastic is to draw attention away from the original. What sounds like a backwards guitar solo fits well against the echoed thwack of the drums, the simultaneous similarities and differences working well together. I can see that purists might scoff, but that would always be the case for a song this iconic.
“Drive By” isn’t a cover at all, but a bit of moody soundtrack noir to pass a few moments and buff up the band royalties. You’ll flinch as soon as the spoken word begins, but given it feels inspired by “La Folie,” the Stranglers song, and if you wear that mindset, the total bonkers of it actually works, and I love the “Ruby Tuesday” style recorder at the end. Could even be my favorite. (Actually described as an alternate version of “The Chauffeur,” a song from Rio, or, pseud alert, “an introduction” thereto, I am counting it as a cover, albeit of themselves!)
A second version of “I Want To Take You Higher” closes things, helpfully parenthesized with “Again.” Unsure why, it isn’t merely a reprise and seems a tidier version, unless the listener has just been worn down by exposure. It is the a version to which I would return, and, if they don’t still play it live, they should.
Later editions of Thank You included David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” and Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale,” so the job would not be done if these were not addressed, and, for good measure, the version of “Needle and the Damage Done” that graced the B-side of “Perfect Day,” one of the singles. The first of these, “Diamond Dogs” should have graced the original, unless they were operating a one artist/one song embargo (Bowie wrote, if never performed, “Success”). It strays little from the original, but the vocal sounds more in the groove than many of the cuts that were included, and is sung less robotically than Bowie was at that time.
Maybe the same sort of rule excluded the second Lou Reed written song and/or the second song originally graced by Nico. Hoping for another banger, annoyingly it goes all Hollywood, if with gated drums, and, even if you find Nico’s take oddly distant, giving her now the diction of a Dorothy seems a wrong move, however many distorted guitars Cucurullo chucks into the mix. And a talking section, as if we haven’t had enough of that caper. “Needle” seems an odd choice. Let’s leave it at that, although it feels likely the intent was respectful.
Is Thank You he worst record of all time? Definitely not, and not even the worst covers album of all time. We have featured many with a greater right to that crown. Flawed, undoubtedly, but it has enough bangers to drown out the damp squibs. The 1990s were an odd time, and Duran Duran was stuck in a dip between declines; today they are they still going, and I like them all the more again for taking the time and making the effort.
Thank You tracklisting:
1. White Lines (Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five cover)
2. I Wanna Take You Higher (Sly & the Family Stone cover)
3. Perfect Day (Lou Reed cover)
4. Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello cover)
5. Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan cover)
6. 911 Is A Joke (Public Enemy cover)
7. Success (Iggy Pop cover)
8. Crystal Ship (The Doors cover)
9. Ball Of Confusion (Temptations cover)
10. Thank You (Led Zeppelin cover)
11. Drive By (original)
12. I Wanna Take You Higher (Again) (Sly & the Family Stone cover)
13. Diamond Dogs (David Bowie cover)
14.Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground cover)
15. The Needle and the Damage Done (Neil Young cover)