Duran Duran, Neil Gaiman, and Beginnings

I’m both a friend and fan of Neil Gaiman, and a former music critic. So for years I’ve known about, but had never seen, Neil’s very first published book, the 1984 quickie biography of Duran Duran, arguably the biggest band to emerge from the first era of MTV (“You know! Back when they actually played music!” the 80s kids grouse, shaking their canes in unison). It’s a difficult find because a) it was a quickie bio of a pop band, not exactly meant to survive through the ages, b) apparently the company that published it went under shortly after it was published, so there were never that many copies to begin with. The fact that Neil’s become NEIL GAIMAN also adds to the rarity as collectors snap them up. Decent copies of the book fetch hundreds of dollars; at this moment on eBay there’s a copy whose description all but implies the tattered book is smudged with a then-14-year-old girl’s kisses which is being offered for $130. And while I like Neil, I’m not sure I’m willing to part with that much in order to see the thing.

Fortunately, there’s now a “Neil Gaiman Rarities” eBook Humble Bundle (which, at the time of this writing, is on its last day — pick it up here if you see this within 24 hours of this post’s publication), and Neil stuck in the bio as part of the bundle. As soon as I saw that it was in there, I slapped down my money (more than the $15 required to unlock the tier that included the bio, I’ll note) and made a beeline to download the pdf version.

How is it?

Oh, my friends. It is glorious.

It is glorious primarily because it is a triple-treat bit of nostalgia. One, it’s a nostalgia piece for the 80s, and of a certain stripe of 80s British music journalism, a tone and feel I personally most associate with Smash Hits, the magazine me and all my we-want-to-be-too-cool friends in high school would read to find out what Morrissey and Pete Burns were up to (apparently they were friends! Pete would come round for tea! or so I recall). Two, obviously, it’s a nostalgia piece for Duran Duran, who when the book came out were at their most Duran-iest, which is to say, with the original line-up, before Andy and Roger left, with those first three studio albums and all those Russell Mulcahy videos.

Three, it’s a nostalgia piece for Neil, although I suspect as much or more so for him as the rest of us, because here Neil is 24 years old and a journalist and almost no one has the slightest idea who he is. He hasn’t become NEIL GAIMAN and won’t start being that guy for a few more years yet, when Sandman kicks in. Nevertheless this is a reminder that everyone who is someone comes from somewhere and starts with something; this is where Neil begins as an author of books. For anyone who is a published author, a book like this is going to be evocative of their own first book, however many years back in the timestream that is.

Yes, yes, you say. Fine, nostalgia, whatever. Is the book itself any good? It’s Neil Gaiman writing but can we see the NEIL GAIMAN he became in it?

Maybe a little? I think maybe there’s some expectation management that needs to be put in place. To wit: it’s a quickie bio of a pop band. The thing is 132 pages long, and most of that is pictures. It ain’t exactly Mystery Train, nor would it be fair to suggest it was supposed to be. I don’t know the specifics of its compilation, but I would be a bit surprised if Neil had more than a couple of months to cobble the thing together with bits and anecdotes from newspaper and magazine articles. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Neil spent any time with the band itself, back when the thing was put together (he does go to a concert, however, where he’s frustrated by the inarticulateness of the band’s fans, which leads, somewhat amusingly, to him being upbraided for his snobbishness by a fan on a train, after the concert).

The nature of bio — short, full of facty tidbits rather than personal connection, probably written fast — mitigates against actual, shall we say, art. Neil gets in a clever line here and there, and his penchant for sardonicism via phrasing and pacing is in embryonic form in the text. If you know Neil Gaiman’s mature writing, you can see some of what he does in that, here. If you were reading it cold, I don’t know, maybe you’d see it? It’s hard to say.

As noted above, the tone of the text owes as much to a certain style of journalism as it does to Neil’s native writing gifts and discipline. I doubt that anyone who read this in 1984 slammed it down on completion and said “My God, this is the voice of a man who will become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time!” On the other hand, I doubt that if you got into a time machine and told that same 1984 reader that Neil did go on to become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time, they would look at you in horror and wonder what sort of dystopian hellscape allowed such a thing to occur. I suspect they would go “Really? Huh,” and then ask you why, if you indeed had the privilege of a time machine, you would waste it on such a trivial errand.

Which is to say: The bio’s not bad. It’s competent — possibly more competent than its editing, which occasionally allows for paragraphs to appear more than once. It’s light and it’s a quick, mildly informative read. Neil jams in the Duran Duran trivia (you can tell it’s the eighties because we learn all the band members’ astrological signs) and even attempts a bit of criticism with the albums and the videos, although none of the criticism is really that critical; there are a couple places where Neil is all “well, that one was a bit dodgy, wasn’t it?” but that’s about it. This is not an actual complaint on my part, because again: quick bio of a pop band, aimed at its fans. If Neil had gone off on a rant about how none of the lyrics of Seven and the Ragged Tiger actually mean a single goddamn thing Jesus what the hell is going on in Simon Le Bon’s head besides cocaine and Cristal I suspect his editors would have pulled him aside to let him know to trim it up otherwise he’d be murdered by a roving pack of Duran Duran fans. And thus would the history of comic books and fantasy literature have been irrevocably changed.

(Although, seriously: Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Nothing there makes even the slightest lick of sense. “The Union of the Snake” is just friggin word salad, man. We can say it now, here in 2015.)

But, you know. I didn’t read it expecting it to be brilliant stuff, and I don’t find it glorious because of its prose. I find it glorious (aside from the nostalgia value) because it’s 2015 and I know who that 24-year-old writer is going to become one day, even if he doesn’t. I know that 31 years down the line, the kid writing about these other vastly more famous kids — Neil is the same age as the Duran Duran members — is going to be in his way just as famous as any of them, individually or possibly even together, and he has absolutely no idea. It’s probably not even on his radar, because how would it be? All he knows is that someone said (more or less): “Hey kid, write a book on Duran Duran,” and he said “Yeah, okay, I can do that,” and inside he was probably thinking this is it. I’m on my way. Because when you get your first book, that’s what you think: Here we go.

I wish I could get back in that time machine to 1984 and tell 24-year-old Neil about this. “Neil!” I would say. “In 2015 you will have 16 times as many Twitter followers as Simon Le Bon!” And he would say “Those words all make sense individually but not as a sentence,” as politely as possible and then he would back away quickly from the very odd American blathering nonsensical terms like “blog” and “Internet,” who is telling him something about people named “Amanda” and “Anthony” (two people named Anthony, actually) and suggesting that black really is going to be a good look for him, just wait and see. Poor 24-year-old Neil, accosted by creepy balding Americans from the future. Perhaps best to let him be.

I also find it glorious because 24-year-old me was not at all unlike 24-year-old Neil: A journalist, writing about famous people and not really knowing how vastly different his future was going to be from his then-present. In fact, one of the famous people the 24-year-old me wrote about and interviewed was a guy named Neil Gaiman; I wrote a whole newspaper story about the hip new medium of graphic novels just so I could have an excuse to call him up and talk to him (I didn’t know how to pronounce his last name so when his daughter picked up the phone and I asked to speak to him, I could hear her say “Hey dad, someone wants to talk to Neil GUY-man!”). My own first published book wasn’t a quickie bio, but a book on online finance, now also out of print and utterly unrelated to the sort of work I would become known for (it’s also competent and a quick, informative read).

I don’t want to press the comparison too heavily, mind you; Neil’s, uh, a little bit further along than I am (and Simon Le Bon has twice the Twitter followers I do). But I am saying when I read the Duran Duran bio, I smiled, because I remember being someplace very similar to where that kid was, back then.

As I said, the Duran Duran book is an exercise in nostalgia. But a nostalgia that does not suggest that the past was a better time than now; just a different time, gone but not entirely forgotten. Here in the present, within days of each other, Duran Duran, 35 years into a career, put out a new album, and Neil has put out a new edition of his own (in collaboration with Amanda, his beloved wife). Times have changed, and times are good. The bio chronicles the start of a band and of a writer, and both are still going strong. I like that I’ve seen the beginning, and the latest, from each. The world has not heard the last of either.

(Reminder: If you’re seeing this within 24 hours of its publication, you still have time to pick up the Duran Duran bio, and other rarities from Neil, through the Humble Bundle. Totally worth it, plus you help the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and literacy charity The Moth. Go get the bundle while you still can!)

42 thoughts on “Duran Duran, Neil Gaiman, and Beginnings

  1. I bought that book before the prices went all astronomical and took it to a signing. Thankfully, Neil was not upset to be confronted with it. He admitted that he was a bit embarrassed by it until he met Simon le Bon on some kind of cruise and sheepishly admitted that he’d written it.

    “Which one was that?” Simon asked.

    “The gray one from Proteus,” Neil replied.

    “Oh, that one was good!” Simon exclaimed, “We LIKED that one!”

    As Duran Duran biographies go, it really is the best one out there, unless you count the autobiographies that John Taylor and Andy Taylor wrote.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about the Gaiman Bundle expiring soon. Smacked myself on forehead, clicked over to Humble Bundle and bought before it slipped my mind again.

  3. I have also played that mental time machine game! Personally, I think it would be a hoot to hunt down a penniless young chess geek named George-something-Martin in the early 1970s and inform him that some day he’ll be so famous that he’ll be mocked in song during the effing Emmy Awards telecast.

    Perhaps this is proof neither of us is quite ready for the moral burden of time machine ownership.

  4. Chris – I recall watching ‘Barbarella’ on TV in the mid 80s with some friends and their friends; and when Duran Duran was mentioned someone remarked “they pinched that off the band”…

  5. Harry, I thought the same at first until I realized it went the other way. Duran Duran is actually a SciFi band…. weird.

  6. Interesting how Smash Hits was perceived in the states, here in the UK it was the pop mag your little sister read, the really cool wannabe posers (um… me sadly) read NME or Melody Maker…

  7. What, no Trouser Press or NME? (Sniffs disdainfully while thinking of his collection of all issues of both, in plastic bags and acid free backing boards, knowing, certain that they’ll be worth big bucks… some day…)

  8. For reasons passing understanding, I wound up with an ARC of “Ghastly Beyond Belief,” Neil’s compilations of strange and amusing quotations from old movie ephemera. I wouldn’t call it great art, but it certainly highlights a wonderful sense of humor.

  9. Duran Duran’s lyrics have always been maddeningly obtuse, but Seven and the Ragged Tiger was certainly at the extreme end. I still have trouble singing along to new Moon on Monday because no word rationally leads into the next.

    Another maddeningly obtuse lyricist? Tori Amos. And she name drops Neil in a handful of songs. I feel like there’s a connection there, but there isn’t. Much like a Seven and the Ragged Tiger lyric.

  10. I figure Duran Duran’s lyrics are like Gilbert&Sullivan patter songs – you remember them more off the music (which is lovely and perfectly evocative of its time) than trying to make the words make sense….

    Mazel Tov to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, and their new edition! He probably doesn’t remember, but he and Tamora Pierce used to be in the same CompuServ SF/Fantasy Forum for a time while Tammy was working on THE IMMORTALS Quartet. She asked him if it was okay that she base her God of Dreams on his Sandman, and he said “Sure” – which is why He’s named “Gainel”. :)

  11. I’ll have to add Neil to my list. I have a running roster in my head of people who started life as 24-year-old journalists who went on to write something more permanent.
    Every so often I end up speaking to some hipster working on the great American novel who wants to talk about how he could never be a journalist because it precludes creative work or whatever version they’re using that day.
    It would also be really refreshing to run into a young dude hipster working in journalism because he wants to be Neil Gaiman someday. That kind of thinking will never be my favorite, but given that the usual idol is Ernest Hemingway, Neil Gaiman disciples seem more likely to have the kind of fake habits one can live with in a co-worker.

  12. I lived in England for the 1981-82 academic year and then came back to the US, which was generally a good thing but had the unfortunate consequence that I got peak radio airplay of Duran Duran twice. It appeared to me at that time that music trends in the US were lagging those of the UK by about a year, and that was not a good year to repeat for my taste.

    Almost the only song I liked that was a mainstream hit in the UK that year was “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. I’m sure there was tons of worthwhile stuff going on that I didn’t have access to…

  13. How is it Neil is a year or two older than me but looks 10 years younger? Aging is yet another misogynistic thing. Sigh.

    Well, I was dramatically, painfully uncool, unhip, whatever, in 1984, but of course I had MTV (back when they played videos!!!) and you knew the Duran Duran videos of that era were going to be entertaining. I saw a compilation of them (interspersed with the band reminiscing about them) last year and was still entertained.

    But even I, in my vast extreme uncoolness, knew that NME was the magazine to read. Don’t think I ever bought it, but often leafed through it at Tower Records (which I miss). This book was probably on the shelves there (or at the Wherehouse across the street, also gone), but not being a major Duran Duran fan I don’t recall. And of course, the odds that some kid writing a quickie book would become beloved of the world were ever so close to zero.

  14. @Kevin Roche as an unashamed Durannie I can tell you the following:

    1) Durand-Durand is the name of the character in Barbarella, Not Duran Duran.
    2) They went through a number of names but finally settled on “Duran Duran” as something that wouldn’t mean “anything but themselves” to most people (from the Sing Blue Silver documentary)
    3) Barbarella’s might have been an influence, particularly given that Roger (the drummer) performed there before he joined Duran.
    4) Duran officially debuted at the Rum Runner in Birmingham on July 9, 1980.

    Source: http://www.duranduran.com/wordpress/new-site-timeline/

    Yes, I could probably be using those brain cells for something more important, but I was a child of the 80s. And Paper Gods is a decent album, though the Word Salad continues.

  15. This is definitely a nice collection and if there’s anyone who has physical copies of all of these (aside from Neil), they they are doing quite well. I have a number of them, but having e-copies makes it more convenient to read them than taking them out of my locked vault of rarities. Like Marshall, I first knew of Neil as the guy who did the neat Douglas Adams book (which the original Titan Books edition is also an early Dave McKean cover) who was starting to do comics.

  16. I had already grabbed the Bundle – the Durans were one of many attractions. I’m glad that you reminded people that it’s out there – good stuff for a good cause.

    But I will say that Duran Duran couldn’t have been at their Duraniest at this point – Andy’s hair was still blonde and Nick’s hair was still brown, so they were still in “New Romantic” mode. (And sadly, no, I didn’t have to look any of that up. Check out most of the Mulchahey videos and you’ll see my point.)

    I’m happy for Neil and Amanda. What a lovely adventure.

    I had the good fortune to interact with Neil once, at a signing for “Anansi Boys”. I was in the next to the last group, and the poor man must’ve been exhausted. I’m not completely sure that I could’ve formed a coherent sentence under similar circumstances, let alone been gracious, approachable, and charming. Somehow he managed all four.

  17. Word salad? WORD SALAD?!?!?

    That’s it. This insult cannot go unanswered. Choose your weapon, sir. I shall see you at dawn.

  18. Ah, Smash HIts! And the U.S. version, Star Hits! In the 80s, I was convinced I was gonna get out of the house, take my typewriter and move to NYC, where I would promptly get a job with Star Hits and be able to interview members of Duran Duran all the farking time.

    Heh. Oh, the adventures I had instead…

  19. Duran Duran is perfectly understandable…after a few pints. Of course, they were hard to come by for me, as I was 13 when Seven and the Ragged Tiger came out.

  20. John, I hate to say such an awful thing, but honesty compels me: 24-year-old you looks more than a little like Scott Walker.

  21. I totally remember that book – I’ll need to check out the basement today and see if I still have it. Thanks for the tip!

  22. Ahh, MTV and Duran Duran. I remember watching, with a few friends, the first ever MTV broadcast, Video Killed The Radio Star by The Buggles. Duran Duran’s Girls On Film was also played very early on MTV during its first year. I think that is still my favorite Duran Duran song, though Wild Boys is a close second.

    I never understood the common derision towards ’80s music. I had a great time in the ’80s and the music was a big part of that. And MTV was a big part of that. MTV really should go back to their original format. They suck these days.

  23. I hazily remember running across a copy of this book at the public library during the year I was studying in Aberdeen (Scotland) in the mid-90s, when I was just getting into Neil’s work on Sandman. So refreshing to have it confirmed that the book actually existed!

  24. telling him something about people named “Amanda” and “Anthony” (two people named Anthony, actually)

    I read this and immediately started crying at the beauty and sadness it contains.

  25. For what it’s worth, my wife has a copy. Because she found it for seven bucks, which, when she DID get it signed, Gaiman said was probably about the right price for it.

    It’s not bad. It’s perfectly competent, and, even if you didn’t know who Neil Gaiman was, if you liked Duran Duran, you’d feel just fine about spending seven bucks on it.

  26. I second what stringmonkey says upthread. Ghastly Beyond Belief was my introduction to Neil Gaiman, and it’s still hilarious. Totally.

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