Anyone who still considers Duran Duran some sort of fluffy '80s boy band needs only to read an interview – any interview – with Nick Rhodes. The keyboardist (who turns 54 on June 8) is a serious student of synthesizers and technology, as well as an ardent music fan and historian. He's also enormously respected by keyboard enthusiasts, mainly because his technique, approach and knowledge continues to evolve with the times.
That certainly shows in Duran Duran's music – a heady mix of glam, new wave, synthpop, post-punk and art rock – and extensive, diverse catalog. "What was so incredibly exciting and inspirational in the early ’80s when I was making the first Duran Duran records, was that the synthesizers coming out at that time by Roland and Korg and Moog were completely unique," Rhodes told Keyboard in 2011. "Each one had a sound all its own, and that really enabled people to make extraordinary records with synthesizers. The possibilities were endless." That same sense of adventure informs Duran Duran's latest album, Paper Gods. Rhodes' parts especially ensure the record takes a more futuristic approach than 2011's All You Need Is Now.
To celebrate the synth maestro's birthday, we compiled Rhodes' best songs. It was difficult to choose just 15, so honorable mentions go to "New Religion," "Rio," All You Need Is Now's title track and Arcadia's "The Flame."
"Anyone Out There"From: 'Duran Duran' (1981)
Duran Duran dabbled in alienation and loneliness on this album track from its 1981 self-titled debut. Rhodes' droning, drifting keyboards not only amplify this disaffection – they serve as an unsettling foundation for John Taylor's burbling bass lines and Simon Le Bon's slightly confused, slightly panicked vocals. It's an early example of Duran Duran's interlocking musical chemistry, something that would keep the band relevant for decades to come.
"Election Day"From: Arcadia, 'So Red the Rose' (1985)
Duran Duran was so huge in the '80s, even its offshoots were massively popular. Arcadia featured Le Bon, Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor, and hewed close to their main band's manicured synthpop. The hit "Election Day" also wasn't a far cry from recent Duran Duran work – dig the keyboard stabs! – although its soulful swoon and easygoing lounge vibe sounded very of-its-time. Still, the presence of guest vocalist Grace Jones, as well as some abstract synth work as the song progressed, gives "Election Day" a welcome arty feel.
"Is There Something I Should Know?"Single (1983)
The band's first U.K. No. 1 single is also one of its poppiest, upbeat tunes. A big part of that reason? Rhodes' synth work, which is deceptively simple. On the verses, he crafts an entire separate melodic world and scheme; on the chorus, he adds underlying heft to Le Bon's main melodic path. In hindsight, "Is There Something I Should Know?" was the perfect bridge between Rio's New Romantic enigmas and Seven And The Ragged Tiger's widescreen pop gloss.
"Electric Barbarella" From: 'Medazzaland' (1997)
Duran Duran's Medazzaland was fraught with tension, between John Taylor leaving the band in the middle of recording and Le Bon struggling with writer's block. (In fact, Rhodes said in late 2015 he wrote a lot of the album's lyrics, and even took lead vocals on the title track.) Still, the single "Electric Barbarella" – which Rhodes and then-guitarist Warren Cuccurullo co-produced under their TV Mania moniker – showed no signs of stress. With chemistry lab-like programming twitches and choppy background serving as nice counterpoints to the severe guitar swerves, Rhodes ensured the song conjures Duran Duran's dance hall days.
"New Moon On Monday" From: 'Seven and the Ragged Tiger' (1983)
David Bowie's Let's Dance album had an influence on Seven And The Ragged Tiger's "Union Of The Snake" and (let's face it) the vibe of "New Moon On Monday," a Billboard Top 10 single from the same album. That's certainly not a bad thing: In fact, the percolating keyboard work on "New Moon On Monday" is refreshingly forward-thinking and evocative – so much so that the song still sounds fresh today.
"Paper Gods"From: 'Paper Gods' (2015)
The title track of Duran Duran's most recent record exemplifies the band's latest incarnation: sleek, curious electronic fans fascinated by futurism and how that fits into their existing sounds and approaches. "Paper Gods" is a pastiche of different genres and styles – minimal techno, cyberpunk, synthpop – which doubles as a showcase of Rhodes' talents.
"Skin Trade"From: 'Notorious' (1986)
Time has been kind to the Notorious-era single "Skin Trade," which at the time only hit No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song's stacked jazz horns and Le Bon's falsetto croon have aged well, while Rhodes' lush, soulful keyboards and programming inform the song's slow-motion-striptease vibe. "Skin Trade" perhaps wasn't what people wanted from Duran Duran at the time, but the song has emerged a worthy entry in the band's catalog.
"Secret Oktober"From: "Union of the Snake" single (1983)
This "Union Of The Snake" b-side is yet another Rhodes and Le Bon collaboration that quickly became a fan favorite. The watery, EKG-monitor keyboards are at once skeptical and mysterious, a perfect fit for the inscrutable lyrics. Contemporary groups such as M83 or Tame Impala could do bang-up covers of this song – a testament to how Duran Duran's music was ahead of its time.
"Girl Panic!" From: 'All You Need is Now' (2011)
For 2011's All You Need Is Now, producer Mark Ronson pushed the members of Duran Duran to reach back to their early days for inspiration. In Rhodes' case, he also excavated vintage synths from his collection for the record, which gave it an uber-'80s feel. Exhibit A: The glitter-disco catwalk strut "Girl Panic!," whose retro-fabulous keyboards screamed glamour and intrigue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rhodes was a major architect of the song. "For me to be inspired personally to write a piece of music or a lyric, then I definitely need to have had something that has affected me in a way that’s enough to want to create something relating to that," he said in 2012. "I mean, 'Girl Panic!,' for example, was inspired by one beautiful girl across a room – and pure fantasy, really, from then onwards."
"The Reflex"From: 'Seven and the Ragged Tiger' (1983)
Duran Duran's first U.S. No. 1 single has nearly nonsense lyrics – even Le Bon, who wrote the song, has said he isn't sure what it's about – and a shuffling disco-soul vibe buoyed by backup singers and quirky electro effects. Rhodes' synths occasionally pop out of the chaos to add dynamic color. "If, for example, you listen to a lot of the synth parts on 'The Reflex', they're borderline in tune, yet they work," producer Ian Little told Sound On Sound in 2004. "He was more concerned with the effect a part had on the track than whether or not it was perfectly in tune, and that has always been my approach."
"The Chauffeur"From: 'Rio' (1982)
The last song on Rio, "The Chauffeur" finishes the album on an ominous note – mainly due to Rhodes' creaky-stairstep synth work, which repeats in an even-keeled fashion throughout. Atop that, he layers additional keyboard color, fleshing out the tune with even more somber flourishes. It's the perfect backdrop for Le Bon's lyrics, which rank among his poetic best.
"A View To A Kill" From: 'A View to a Kill' soundtrack (1985)
Recording this James Bond theme wasn't a happy experience for Rhodes: He had notorious creative differences with composer John Barry. Still, these disagreements led to some of his most well-known, enduring keyboard work: icepick synth stabs, Doppler-like dynamic effects and very spy-appropriate atmospheric tension. No wonder "A View To A Kill" remains a staple of Duran Duran's sets.
'Ordinary World'From: 'Duran Duran' (1993)
After the fallow late '80s and early '90s, Duran Duran came roaring back strong with 1993's self-titled (a.k.a. "Wedding") album. The record didn't shy away from modern-sounding electronic trends – witness the Jesus Jones-esque "Drowning Man" – but it did feature more sophisticated songs such as "Ordinary World." Rhodes' presence is subtle and textured, but his nervy, wavering sounds on the bridge alone makes this tune among his best.
"Planet Earth"From: 'Duran Duran' (1981)
Duran Duran's debut and breakthrough single begins with a flanged keyboard sound (a Kurzweil K2000, Rhodes has said) and sails along thanks to prominent synth counter-melodies, which alternate with undulating guitar and bass lines. However, Rhodes' stardust programming and the tension inherent in his arrangements is integral to the charms of "Planet Earth" – and explains why the song feels beamed in from outer space.
"Save A Prayer" From: 'Rio' (1982)
"Save A Prayer," which hit No. 16 on the Billboard Top 100, sounded entirely distinct from what was then popular on the radio or MTV. The song is also one of Rhodes' finest moments on Rio: The waterfall-esque synth riff which starts the song (and then repeats throughout) sets a ghostly, misty vibe that's vaguely mystical. It's the perfect foundation for a song whose lyrics are elliptical and cinematic, a story with only some of the identifying details sketched out.