Discover more from Bring Me Giants
Smells Like It Sounds
Duran Duran, Niles Rodgers & Chic, and Bastille at the S.A.P. Arena
The other night, as I set out for San Jose, I meant to text my friend whose last name is Duran to jest that I was off to see her extended family.
In those days, D-squared is what we called them for short, and we called the singer Simon Lebonbon. This was back when they were huge, and omnipresent and Princess Diana’s avowed favorite band. They were the kings of new wave and of MTV itself, and if I remember correctly, my friends and I had total contempt for them. We thought they were a bunch of poseurs with poodle hair and that their songs were exceedingly silly. One of their biggest hits, “Hungry Like the Wolf,” for example, contained the absolute dumbest lyric of all time ever: “I smell like I sound.” I smell like I sound. Honestly! What does that even mean? You could possibly sound like you smell, but I am not sure it works the other way around.
Thanks for reading Bring Me Giants! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
“If I remember correctly,” though. There is the rub. Though Duran Duran were hardly high art, it’s hard to recall now, at a thirty year remove, what our angst was all about. As with Confederate statuary, bands like D squared and so many others have gone through severe historical revisionism. Usually, it happens when they’re deceased: Stone Temple Pilots are suddenly deemed worthy of interest, and it turned out that Gordon Lightfoot was everyone’s favorite artist. No shade to GL, but who ever said that before he died?
D2 are still alive and kicking, though, and last weekend they were playing Bottle Rock in nearby Napa, and the next night’s gig at SAP in San Jose wasn’t even sold out. On Saturday afternoon I saw an ad saying there were tickets for twenty dollars, less than the cost of a movie and a popcorn. Given my former feelings about D 2, I still wouldn’t have sprung for it but a) my daughter really likes the opener Bastille and so agreed to come with me, b) also on the bill was Nile Rodgers and Chic, and c) we could take the train. What was the downside?
There wasn’t one, so I pulled the trigger, although because there is such a thing as being too cheap, like with eggs, or clothing on that Shein site, I paid a little more, $40 for slightly improved seats. And let’s be real, with ticket fees (a ridiculous $14 per ticket) plus the impressive amount of crappy food we felt compelled to consume, it was not a cheap evening out. But it was also, entirely unexpectedly, INCREDIBLY FUN AND TOTALLY WORTH IT! In fact, this was one of the best three-band bills I ever went to in my long career of covering music. Legendary. So here’s to revisionist history!
“But Gina, it was at SAP Center, how could that be fun,” I hear you cry. And you would have a point. But there is a certain type of band, typified by Duran Duran, that only sounds good in an enormo-dome. It’s impossible to imagine them playing in a club, or even a place the size of the Fillmore, but they fill a space like an Ice Hockey arena nicely, thank you very much. Possibly this is because D squared are entirely unafraid of the rock concert cliché – never have been, never will be. Flashing lights, dry ice smoke, ridonculous video imagery –the more debased and overdone the image, the more likely they are to use it, in order to make it clear they are in on the joke. Giant gestures, pointing and posing, pretending to be robots, all that junk – it was so trite but it was also so hilarious. As they say in the film world: no notes.
Also, here’s a thing I never noticed: Simon Lebonbon is a pretty good singer. Swear to God. It was a little weird hearing him cover the song “Superfreak” but he handled it OK: in fact, all the acts we saw sang honest and true, exactly as if autotune had never been invented. The Bastille guy was also an awesome singer, and as for Chic: Jesus Lord above. Thanks to TikTok and the deaths of Aretha and Tina, one had forgotten there were singers like that left on the planet, but holy moley, there are, and here they were among us.
To be clear, Rodgers, with Chic, slayed from the gitgo. It started out great and then built from there. In fact, there was this incredible moment, on song number three, when the band burst into the Diana Ross hit, and Kimberly Davis sang out, “I’m. Coming. Out,” and the entire crowd at the Shark Tank rose to its feet in unison and screamed, I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW, and from then on: mental mayhem. Chic played all its hits (“Le Freak” etc.) and then pretty much all the number one hits that Rodgers wrote or produced by Madonna, David Bowie, Daft Punk, Beyonce, i.e. all that is central to modern music and culture and without which this would be a poorer planet.
They played “Good Times” and inserted “Rapper’s Delight.” They played “Material Girl” and the crowd sang the parakeet-pitched Whoop-Whoops. They played “Let’s Dance” and it was exactly like attending a raging punk rock show, only if said punk rock gig took place in economy class on Spirit Airlines, i.e. everyone was glued to a seat with no room to move their arms or legs.
But even that was fine; as with Duran Duran, it was actually a good thing it was performed in an arena this size, since a smaller space might have funked the crowd to its actual death. (It wouldn’t have been a bad way to go, but still.) Anyway, now I am not a critic I can just sit back and wallow in the pleasures of the flesh, and the older I get, and the farther away we move from the old ways of experiencing popular culture, the more important I think it is to stay in touch with live music. Just music, qua music, and this music, in particular. At its best, Nile Rodgers’ biggest hits evoke that mid-1970s post-Civil Rights we-won-that battle vibe that is so joyous and infectious and which, if you think too hard about it now, just makes you want to weep.
There was a time when I thought otherwise, but today I see the consumption of live music as being well akin to what used to be called “primitive” cultures, where tribes would gather in tribal costume and conduct unified chorals of the songs their ancestors sang and then dance in concentric circles to celebrate the changing of a season or an auspicious portent or just to make it rain. Surely going to the Shark Tank to see Duran Duran and Nile Rodgers – all of us in our face paint and fancy clothes -- has way more in common with that experience than not. Perhaps, and it’s a hope against hope, that’s what Duran Duran mean by smelling like you sound: it’s when your senses blend together as one and you achieve unity with those around you. It is a consummation of sorts, and forty bucks is a reasonable amount to pay for. it
Anyway, it was good to hear it, even though the aging nature of this kind of experience sometimes makes me feel like popular music, like the planet Earth, is a top that is winding down and is about to fall over. I just got lucky that I was able to spin around with it at its fastest point. Nowadays when I am at shows, I notice all the changes from that point, like how between sets people just sit quietly staring at their phones instead of brewing with excitement, and how during the concert they lift their phones up to film the stage, so the floor looks like a sea of tiny fairy lights winking on and off.
All these new modes of dissemination – streaming and social media – have changed everything immeasurably, for both good and ill. They make it so that people have no patience for the songs they don’t already know, and annoying as that is, they also make it so people of all ages know all the songs from yesteryear to today. My daughter, for example, knows the music of both Duran Duran and Bastille, despite the time span; and she can spit the entire lyric of “Rappers Delight” alongside Nile Rodgers at speed, and this is because rock music, writ large, is now like classical music: something that you learn by heart because you hear over and over and over in every possible situation. Maybe in the 22nd century Rodgers’ songs like “Roam” and “Get Lucky” will be like classical music is today, i.e. compositions written in the 18th century and performed by high school orchestras two hundred years later as if they were contemporary.
Or maybe, at the rate things are changing, things won’t be enough the same by then for that to come to pass. I hope it does though, for surely the people of the future will enjoy these songs at least as much as we enjoy the Jupiter Symphony.