In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran describes the life and times of John Taylor – a founding member of one of Britain’s most successful pop exports, Duran Duran. In Australia the band is often considered an ‘80s phenomenon although the true believers know they’ve never stopped releasing albums and show no sign of giving up their enthusiasm for music-making. Taylor, in fact, suggests that the media circus the band experienced in the ‘80s probably compromised their creativity and they are now much freer to write better songs. But whether you prefer the old new romantics or the new old romantics, Pleasure Groove demonstrates the important role they played in contemporary music history. Duran Duran have been feted for breaking new ground in the development of music videos and as innovators in the arenas of synthesiser pop and bravely obscure lyrical poetry. John Taylor’s story also unfolds around some of the most exciting moments in popular culture from Live Aid to iTunes.
Pleasure Groove is structured as a traditional autobiography, delivered chronologically in short vignettes with a pleasing assortment of photos, ranging from family album snaps to stylised portraits by the world’s best music photographers. John’s personal trajectory is also a familiar one: from working class lad through megastar to rehab and, ultimately, enlightenment. It is a passionate analysis of what it means to desire the life of an artist but find oneself tangled in the machinations of the very industry that facilitates that creative life. Like so many musicians who find success at a young age, Taylor was propelled onto the world stage with no preparation for the obstacle course he would be navigating when he got there. He offers a lot of useful insights for young players and reminds us that all that glitters is not gold.
It was 1973 when John Taylor (at age 13) met Nick Bates (“the man who would be Rhodes”). They spent the seventies in and out of garage bands and playing high school socials, soaking up as much live music as their part-time jobs would fund, enjoying the earliest performances by acts like Rod Stewart, Siouxsie Sioux and Blondie. As college students in Birmingham, they embraced the intersecting worlds of art, music and fashion as punk made way for androgynous glamour, military chic and disco dazzle. They cherry-picked chords and clothes from a range of musical influences, spent long nights outlining naïve plans for musical world domination, and experimented with their looks and identities as all good teenagers should. For most keen teens these bedroom daydreams are about as far as the fame boat sails. But by the age of 21, Taylor was one of the best known bass players in Britain, clocking up hit records and TV appearances, cowering in the back of black cabs while screaming girls pummelled the windows, with his every public utterance on record for the teen zines.
As a long time fan of Duran Duran, In the Pleasure Groove put flesh on the bones of many stories I remember from this era. I was an avid reader of such fine purveyors of pop propaganda as Smash Hits and Countdown Magazine. I have a vague memory, for example, of learning that Taylor made model aeroplanes as a boy; in Pleasure Groove I learned of the special role this hobby played in John’s relationship with his war veteran father. As a jealous teen I wrote off many of his early model/actress girlfriends as airheads or status-seekers, whereas Taylor gives them a voice, a perspective and the respect they deserve for putting up with someone who would have been an extremely challenging boyfriend!
This book rewards any reader who was on board with Duran in the early years with anecdotes about the origins of song lyrics and interactions with other ‘80s celebrities. I particularly enjoyed behind-the-scenes tales from the filming of iconic music videos like Rio and Hungry Like the Wolf, which famously saw the band journeying to exotic locales like Antigua and Sri Lanka to loll about on yachts with bikini clad models. It seems they also fought off bouts of dysentery and quarrelled a lot with local authorities, learning a few early lessons about their perceived entitlements and invincibility. Unfortunately, though, when Duran Duran was at the height of its powers, Taylor was also tortured by addiction: to fame, to drugs and to alcohol. It would take him many years to find peace with himself and appreciate the good fortune he’d experienced.
In Pleasure Groove, John contemplates his relationships with his parents, his partners, the band, his daughter and God. He is frank about his triumphs and stuff-ups. Autobiographies offer the chance for public apologies, vindications and explanations and there are plenty of those here. “How lucky are we of the therapy generation, oversharers perhaps, but at least it’s not considered ‘bad form’ … to discuss your problems with others” Taylor writes, reflecting on the repressed issues his beloved parents carried to their graves and his determination to overcome this traditionally British determination to bury one’s feelings. Throughout the book, this tension between John’s British heritage and his growing position as a world citizen colours many aspects of his storytelling. Life in LA, where he is predominantly now based, is all about free speech and “authenticity” ; whereas his upbringing was grounded in prayer and, literally, not mentioning the War. The book feels as though it is the culmination of many years of therapy – or perhaps, in fact, another step on the road to self-discovery.
To pen an autobiography one must feel that one’s life has been special enough to write down. This requires a certain level of narcissism, and I did find Taylor’s narrative voice periodically arrogant and his firm belief in Duran Duran’s pivotal position in music history just a little biased (“Is Rio the greatest album cover of the eighties? Discuss.” ) This strident attitude, though, is what makes the ordinary man fulfil his extraordinary ambitions – and his writing style is a refreshing change from the false modesty and self-deprecation practised by a lot of British celebrities. It can be annoyingly disingenuous when those in the limelight try to convince us they are unchanged by the millions of dollars, mind-altering experiences and constant attention levelled at them by the celebrity industry.
Putting aside the fame and fortune, though, Taylor’s growth to maturity is a saga to which many of us can relate; every teen has wild ambitions, and everyone reaches mid-life searching for meaning and what-comes-next. The final chapters tenderly describe John’s relationships with his current wife (Juicy Couture founder Gela Nash), his daughter and step-children and his parents, at the end of their lives. No fan can fail to be moved by the image of Simon le Bon singing Save a Prayer at Taylor Senior’s funeral. In the end, this man around whom the universe revolved finally succumbs to human frailty and finds he prefers a life governed by love rather than ego.
Pleasure Groove will be a satisfying book for anyone who likes their reading with a dose of ‘personal journey’, though naturally it will be fans who get the most out of this window into Taylor’s private world. I, for one, will be revisiting the back catalogue, up loud, on my iPod not my Walkman, closing my eyes and feeling those memorable bass lines resonate in the pit of my stomach, with a much deeper understanding of the man behind the music.