On the surface, the catalysts of this revival are two men about half Le Bon’s age: Justin Timberlake, pop’s reigning wonder boy, and Timbaland, Timberlake’s producer, the most sought-after hit-maker of our time and a man with a preternatural ability to prop up flagging careers (say thank you, Nelly Furtado and Missy Elliott). The two Tims, always borderline Duranies themselves, met the band at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, when they presented them with a lifetime achievement award. “It was the mutual-fan-club thing going on,” Nick Rhodes, the band’s 45-year-old keyboardist, says in the bar of Blakes Hotel in London. “As often happens when you meet someone you like at an awards show, you say, ‘Oh, we must do something one day,’ and then everyone nods and there are big smiles and hugs, and then you never se e them again.”
Over the following three years, Timberlake and Timbaland soared to the top of the music industry while Duran Duran ended up playing a tailgate party at Super Bowl XXXVIII. But toward the end of last year, studio time was booked in New York, and the two Tims and Duran Duran began an instantly fruitful union. “Exciting” is how Timberlake describes the sessions, which left him impressed that the band “really wanted to modernize their sound.” The intense three-day collaboration yielded only three songs, including “Falling Down,” a duet with Timberlake, which has every mark of a hit single. Confident they had their comeback well under way, the band returned to London to finish the album with Timbaland collaborator Nate Hills. The result is a fresh and compelling set of dance tracks that, if nothing else, bears the punchiest, most confident title of any Duran album to date: Red Carpet Massacre.
It is, in almost every way, the polar opposite of Reportage, the grim, grasping-for-something album the band was hoping to release before Timbaland came to the rescue. To hear Rhodes describe it, the album sounds like a cry for help, if not a suicide note. “It was a very angry record for Duran Duran, quite political,” he says. “We’ve always reflected what’s around us; it’s just that we always tried to pick the more uplifting subjects. But there was so much doom and gloom and horror that it had got pretty deep under our skin.”
When the band played their somber album for Epic Records, the label shelved it indefinitely. The party line was that Reportage lacked a hit single, though clearly there were other reasons for concern. “There’s one track on there called ‘Criminals in the Capital,’ about our dueling leaders on both sides of the Atlantic,” Rhodes says, as if it were the most natural thing for a band previously concerned with little more than sexy sailboats to rant about Bush and Blair. What are the legions of Duranies to make of their beloved band singing about things like the war in Iraq? “Yeah, there was one song about a fighter pilot in the war,” Rhodes says. “There’s another song, one of my favorites on the record, actually, about the decay of the world and how we’re all ignoring ita song of desperation.”