In 2015 Neil Gaiman told an audience at the Hay Festival a nasty little secret: somewhere, out there, was a book “I wish I’d never written”. Come now, Neil. We all conducted ourselves clumsily in our wonder years, but regret gets us nowhere. A great writer once said: “Sometimes you do things you regret, but there’s nothing you can do about them. Times change. Doors close behind you. You move on.” Oh wait, that was you, Neil.
So what kind of heinous, lamentable subject could bring one of the world’s most popular and prolific authors to hang his head in shame?
Duran Duran: The First Four Years Of The Fab Five by Neil Gaiman
Proteus Books, 1984. Not available for sale.
Duran Duran: The First Four Years Of The Fab Five is now out of print – and Gaiman is ensuring it stays that way. But we all know what happens under conditions of prohibition: the original book sells for over £800 on eBay, and a black market in dodgy scanned copies thrives. I’m loathe to admit that a LIBRARIAN friend sent me an illegal pdf copy* … concealed on a memory stick, like the final missing clue in some high-octane dystopian thriller. I’m still waiting for it to self-destruct now that the book is safely nestled on my Kindle.
Gaiman admits he wrote the unauthorised bio purely for the money. He was 22, a fledgling writer, and a music fan (though not so much a fan of the Fab Five). I’d be thanking all the American gods if the worst thing I’d done for money at 22** was create a twee tribute to Simon Le Bon. Heck, at 14 that’s pretty much all I did – and I did it for free.
So (in the words of Eric Idle) what’s it like?
Cashing in on an ’80s goldmine
If the ’80s are important to you on any level, this book is a goldmine. As a rock bio, created for no other purpose than cashing in on the band’s moment in the sun, this truly has it all: quotable quotes, facts and figures, lascivious photography and the occasional mention of music.
More importantly, the young Neil Gaiman manages to shoehorn in some properly insightful analysis of how and why bands like DD rose to fame in the way they did, at the time they did.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the New Romantic period as something foppish and indulgent. The music of the era comes and goes through phases of retro interest – though it’s never really been ‘cool’. Yet elsewhere on this blog I’ve reviewed autobiographies by the likes of John Taylor, Morrissey and Gary Kemp – all of whom view their contributions to music history as rebellious and disruptive.
Is it possible that synthesizers, androgynous fashions and toxic quantities of hair gel were actually a post punk two fingered salute to The Man? Gaiman makes his case for the affirmative:
In some ways, both of these movements [punks and New Romantics] can be seen as symptoms of Great Britain’s economic malaise. Different reactions to the same thing: punks with no hopes, no dreams and no future […or the kids…] who figure that since there isn’t anything attractive about the outside world, and no future but a dole queue, then they might as well look good and have fun. On the ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow will be just as drab as today’ principle.
We sometimes talk of the 1980s as a time of affluence, but it wasn’t all ‘greed is good’, especially in the UK. The early ‘80s was, for many, a time of harsh taxes, industrial downsizing, unemployment and rebellion against long term conservative politics. A ‘UB40’ is an unemployment benefits sign on form. Even Wham’s first few songs were about life on the dole queue! Gaiman brings some well-deserved nuance to a music movement that’s too readily written-off as fluff.
Fashion, fame and fake news
In addition to its message, Duran Duran is a fabulous example of fan-oriented ‘80s pop not-quite-journalism. We talk now about spin in a post-truth era, but we’re reaping what we’ve been sowing with gay abandon for many years. This book uses a ‘cut and paste’ approach to smoosh quotes from a range of older interviews into loosely themed passages. Gaiman finger-paints a picture of each band member, from their childhood backstory to their latest love interest, via quirky hobbies and musical inspirations, using bits and bobs from a BBC band file. The Boys remain delightfully enigmatic despite this hard hitting expose … which is not surprising given they had zero involvement in the process.
The photos are, obviously, divine. But, like the ‘interviews’, the portraits are gleaned from random sources, with no attribution to photographers. Many don’t include dates or locations. This is a shame, because for those who are not salivating over a shirtless Simon (any more) the imagery provides lessons on fashion and fame, illuminates the changing face of world cities, and takes us behind the scenes at game-changing festivals, photo shoots and recording studios.
Duran Duran were also interested in art, photography and cinematography: it’s what made them the golden boys of the early MTV era. Gaiman explores this with good data on the band’s fortuitous collaborations with video directors like Godley and Creme (Girls on Film) and Russell Mulcahy (most of the others). Love or hate the tunes, clips like Rio and Hungry Like The Wolf included some of the most iconic moments of ‘80s music screen time.
Je ne regrette rien (ish)
To my inner 14 year old, this book is like all the best volumes of Smash Hits rolled into one bumper Christmas edition. With this in hand, I’d have taken careful notes of John Taylor’s favourite film, who Nick Rhodes was dating, and what dish to serve at dinner should Simon Le Bon ever drop by***.
From a distance, Gaiman’s Duran Duran is a delightful museum piece that manages to show both the band and the era that made them as multi-faceted and important.
No regrets, Neil. No regrets.
*Late update: said librarian has reminded me that she bought the pdf copy via The Humble Bundle, when it had a short term release to raise money for refugees and Gaiman’s own The Gaiman Foundation. Lessons learned: A librarian would NEVER breach copyright (I should have known), and also, it’s possible to use the things we do in our wayward youth ‘for good’. Thanks Neil.
**Regular readers may remember the koala suit debacle.
***If only I’d had these handy conversation starters at the ready when I met the band in 2004 and promptly lost all ability to speak.