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Rio: by Annie Zaleski

While the 33 1/3 series seems mainly targeted at fans of a particular album, it may be best, as with any critical approach, to consider each new title without preconceptions, good or bad. Such is the case with Annie Zaleski’s fond and studious look at Duran Duran’s 1982 game-changing album Rio. Anybody who doesn’t know the group’s reputation as pretty-boy MTV fodder can read Zaleski’s approach as a level-headed profile of an act that happened to catch the imagination of a generation of teenage girls. But Simon Le Bon and his young bandmates had an appeal that went beyond a single demographic, and it was their luck to be the right act at the right time in a rapidly changing industry.

It should be no surprise that one of the formative moments for the Birmingham-based group came when Nick Rhodes and John Taylor saw David Bowie and Roxy Music perform on “Top of the Pops” in 1972. But even long time Duran fans may be surprised to hear that, before Simon Le Bon came along, Taylor envisioned the group as a cross between Chic and the Sex Pistols. It was Chic bassist Bernard Edwards who inspired Taylor to take up bass, for one, and while Le Bon was no scowling front man in the vein of Johnny Rotten, Duran Duran was a synth-pop act that still put stock in the guitar, and it was that combination of old and new instrumentation that helped make “Hungry Like the Wolf” a worldwide smash.

Zaleski spends a couple of chapters getting into the group sound, where it came from and how it fit into the mercurial, genre-straddling ‘80s charts. The band had come hot off a moderately successful debut album, and their sophomore effort happened to emerge out of a growing air of confidence, and a zeitgeist that was ready for exactly what they had to offer: good looking boys and a sound that reflected a changing of the guard from conventional hard rock to synth pop that absorbed Bowie and Roxy Music and funneled them into hooks that would eventually dominate the airwaves.

But success didn’t come immediately, especially in the U.S. What tipped the scales for Duran Duran was something that would soon take over the world: MTV. Zaleski briefly lays out the history of music videos and the network that delivered them to American, and it may come as a surprise to some readers that MTV was not always the ubiquitous force it became. In fact, the station was at first targeted to smaller markets outside the New York-Los Angeles hubs, and the early sales effects were fascinating. Marketers could pinpoint what areas had access to MTV simply because Rio, months after it was first released, would sell better in those neighborhoods simply because of the power of music video. The excitement is palpable as Zaleski follows the slow rise of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” which rode the waves not only of MTV but of radio DJs looking for something beyond the Album Oriented Rock format.

You don’t have to be a Duran Duran fan to get something out of Annie Zaleski’s Rio. It’s engaging cultural history, told from a perspective of fondness but with a clear journalistic eye. What more can you ask from a 33 1/3 book?

Summary
Put aside what you may remember about Duran Duran and enjoy this loving and level-headed analysis.
79 %
Pop Fantastic
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