(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #59, November 2019)
Unearthing Electronic Gold
Somewhere, out there in the infinite multiverse, is a parallel reality version of Duran Duran. An incarnation where original frontman Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, rather than quitting the band in 1979 on the brink of their commercial breakthrough, stayed the course and found himself strapped to a cyberpunk windmill and dunked headfirst into a vat of fiery water, surrounded by bare-chested Mad Max extras at the height of 1980s MTV-fuelled excess.
However, for those of us with a distinct admiration for Duffy’s wilfully eclectic career, our version of events is infinitely preferable. Chart hits ‘Kiss Me’ and the sublime ‘Icing on the Cake’ were the sound of my 1985, and he’s since made a virtue of his seemingly boundless musical curiosity. There’s the delicate folk-rock of The Lilac Time; the experimental proto-house of the enigmatic Dr Calculus, and – most improbably – Me Me Me‘s ‘Hanging Around’, a cheery Britpop anthem with a post-Parklife Alex James along for the ride, rubbing chartbound shoulders with the Spice Girls in the beery summer of 1996.
In 1999, however, it was the unfinished business of his early Duran Duran adventures – and a chance encounter with Nick Rhodes – that sparked inspiration. The former bandmates bumped into each other shortly after Duffy’s discovery of a long-lost cassette of their pre-fame songs, and set to work on a heroically selfless feat of musical archaeology. With a manifesto of using only the synthesisers available to them in 1979, and not changing a single gauche teenage lyric, they finally recorded the album that might have been.
The resulting 2002 record, Dark Circles, is magnificent. Duffy and Rhodes – recording as The Devils – joyously re-create their adolescent awkwardness with supremely deadpan dedication. “I like going shopping / Shopping in the big store / Shopping in the large store / Any store that’s big,” sings the 42-year-old Duffy, accompanied by dystopian synths and soulful backing vocals. I laughed out loud when I first heard it, and fell in love with the whole glorious caper.
Elsewhere, ‘Come Alive’ has a whiff of Berlin-era Bowie’s poppier moments; ‘Newhaven-Dieppe’ sounds like Nick Drake fronting Soft Cell, and the throbbing title track is a genuine dark-synth classic: “You’re Stockhausen with pictures / Ulysses in ugly shoes” spits Duffy, as Rhodes whips up a whirlwind of tight synth-funk rhythms.
Shortly afterwards, Duffy was visited by Robbie Williams, sounding out potential writing partners. Spying the vintage synths still piled high from the Dark Circles sessions, Williams clocked a new direction. Their resulting co-written single, ‘Radio’, went to No 1, and Duffy found himself playing to international stadiums as Williams’ new musical director. Rhodes, meanwhile, rejoined Duran Duran, and was equally no stranger to a larger-than-average crowd.
The songs of Dark Circles were arguably lost in the slipstream of the commercial pop juggernaut once again. But you’ll never find a more touching – and superbly realised – paean to the giddy rush of wide-eyed teenage ambition.
Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here: