For many of the British pop acts who achieved tremendous success in the 1980s, the start of the 1990s marked a difficult time as they saw their popularity erode in the wake of hair metal, hip-hop and grunge music. Duran Duran were no exception. Having achieved international stardom in the Eighties, the band—whose lineup at the time consisted of singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo—found themselves at a creative and commercial crossroads following the cool reception to their 1990 album Liberty.
“After Liberty, we decided we weren’t sure we had gotten the direction right and went from being a five-piece band to a four-piece band again,” Rhodes said in 2013. “The ‘80s had ended and a lot of people wanted to lock the door, and close Duran Duran in that decade too…We had grunge, techno and rave culture, which left us in a place where we felt we had to make ourselves relevant to the times.”
But initial doubts about the band’s future were dashed away when they released their seventh studio album Duran Duran, most commonly known as The Wedding Album, on February 11, 1993. Thanks to the success of its first single “Ordinary World,” The Wedding Album served as Duran Duran’s comeback record and has been viewed as a pivotal turning point in the band’s career.
“The Wedding Album is a very important record for me because it was the first international album that I had been trusted to make!” John Jones, who co-produced the record with the band, recalls today. “It was so handmade that I learned lessons every day from Nick, Simon, John and Warren. I can never thank them for believing in all of us enough to pull it off! Anytime I hear any song from the album, I am proud of what we did. Thirty years later, “Ordinary World,” still gives me goosebumps.”
Jones’ association with Duran Duran goes back sometime in the late 1980s when he worked at London’s AIR Studios, which was founded by legendary Beatles producer George Martin. It was there that Jones first saw the band and struck a friendship with Rocks, Rhodes’ keyboard technician. One of Jones’ first collaborations with Duran Duran was for “This Is How a Road Gets Made,” the B-side of “Do You Believe in Shame?”off of the group’s 1988 album Big Thing.
“I was given a tape by Rocks,” says Jones (whose other production credits include Celine Dion, Fleetwood Mac and Glass Tiger singer Alan Frew) and asked to make it listenable: ‘Can you turn this into something?’ That’s what I did. And they liked it. These guys are smart and they work hard. So they expect it to be good. If they asked me to cut something up, they expect to get back something they could listen to. So that was cool.”
Alongside his work on Duran Duran’s 1989 single “Burning the Ground,” a mash-up of several of the band’s biggest hits, Jones did the programming on the Liberty album, which came out the following year. “When I look at Liberty, it’s like the toughest job in my life,” he recalls now. “I worked hundreds of hours on that thing before we’ve gotten into the studio all the way through, and not necessarily creatively–I mean creatively in using the equipment. Of course, we all have ideas and they get used or they don’t. I think what we realized at the end of it was that the songs really weren’t as good as they thought they were, and it was kind of like pulling teeth to really get it all done—that record.”
After Liberty, which uncharacteristically for Duran Duran didn’t yield any U.S. Top 40 hits, the band and Jones decamped to Cucurrullo’s home studio in Battersea, London, and set up their equipment to write and record. “Warren, of course, does not want to waste time,” Jones adds. “He wants to get going and he wants to start writing songs. So he suggested that they come over and start writing at his place. That’s basically where The Wedding Album started right there…I would say [the band members] trusting each other, being able to work together in that room with one mike in the middle, all of us wearing headphones, clapping, singing, whatever—it was just so brilliant.”
One of the first ideas that the band worked on, according to Jones, was the soaring and now-classic ballad “Ordinary World.” Le Bon’s lyrics for the song were inspired by a dear friend who died of a drug overdose. In a Behind the Music episode spotlighting Duran Duran, Le Bon said of “Ordinary World”:
“When he died, I dedicated a part of myself to him. I was finding it very difficult to let go of the sadness and to move into the next chapter of my life, and I had to free myself. I wanted to say goodbye, and that’s why I said, ‘But I won’t cry for yesterday/There’s an ordinary world…’ that I want to live in now, and I will carry on and I will survive. That really was my way of burying my friend instead of trying to keep him alive in my own heart, but with sadness and loss.”
Jones knew that “Ordinary World” was something special prior to its eventual release as a single. “I loved it right away,” he says. “It was fantastic. We really knew exactly what we wanted and worked towards it. When we started recording that, it wasn’t a whole song, but it had the base of the chorus. I believe we did the first demo of it. That’s the first recording because we did it on 12-track analog tape and we kept a part of the outro vocal. We used part of the outro vocal in the final song, and we used acoustic guitars. The rest of it–a lot of layering.
“John [Taylor] would come in with a new idea. I remember particularly with that song, the last verse–the breakdown verse that ends with “de doo doo, de doo doo, de doo doo, de doo doo, de doo”—that’s John. So although it appears to be like a keyboard part, it’s a bass part. It’s the bass player. He found that magic there. And Nick and I grabbed it and added strings and made it bigger. That’s a good example of how things worked together.”
Jones also remembers that he and the band worked on “Ordinary World” more than any other song for the record. “The highlight for me was getting Steve Ferrone to play drums on it–I just fell over. It was so powerful, so wonderful…What’s beautiful was when we sent that tape to [engineer] David Richards to mix it. David then captured it in a way that we weren’t expecting quite. Sonically, it was quite different what he did. It was much thinner and smaller. We had it much bigger and fatter. But you know, he was right completely.” (laughs).
The Wedding Album (whose nickname was inspired by the distinctive Nick Egan-designed cover art) was a stylistically diverse work verging on rock, electronica, dance and experimental music—and yet it still had that unique Duran Duran D.N.A. The hard rocking side of the group was evident on the album’s opening track “Too Much Information,” a pre-Internet commentary about mass media overload. “It was one of the early ones too, another Warren-started song,” Jones recalls. “Again, our political state of mind coming out of Liberty and the Gulf War. It was a very heavy time. So [“Too Much Information”] was a perfect song against the establishment.
““Sin of the City” I’ve always loved,” Jones continues. “That’s a song we put a lot of work into. And you gotta see us in the living room doing this stuff. There were so many songs that Simon did the lead vocal standing in the middle of the room with us sitting around him. We all had our own headphones. Sometimes we would simultaneously just start clapping while we were working and we used it. Or somebody sang and we used it. And the kids outside on the street, sometimes they’d start singing some Duran Duran song while we were doing a vocal and you could hear it coming through the wall.”
Another highlight from The Wedding Album was the sublime and romantic-sounding “Breath After Breath,” a collaboration with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. Jones remembers: “Basically [Warren] and I made the demo. It was just an instrumental. So we pulled that off rather nicely, made a cassette and sent it to Milton. I can’t remember how much later, but it seems like it was quite a while that we hadn’t heard anything [from Milton].
“And there’s a cassette in the mail [from Milton] and some dates on when he’s coming to town. We put on his cassette and we’re floored. What you hear on the record–his parts–he did them. He came up with those parts, those melodies, just gorgeous. Simon simultaneously came up with his parts without hearing what Milton had done; Milton hadn’t heard Simon’s. It was a big love, boy. He came, we recorded them both that day together. Just unbelievable magic.”
Duran Duran was completed and awaiting a release by the band’s record company. But then a new song came forth as “Come Undone” was a last-minute addition to Duran Duran‘s track list and later became another huge hit for the band. According to a Pandora interview, Le Bon penned the lyrics as a birthday present to his wife Yasmin.
““Come Undone” was the cover of “First Impression” [a track from the Liberty album],” remembers Jones. “It was such a great idea. [Warren] had a few ideas, and that was the one. I came in the next day after hearing a few of them the day before and it was just perfect. He’s like, “Get that loop up from your song,” a song I had done called “Face to Face.” So I’ve done it with that loop and with the same bass. We just loved it. We were like, ‘Why did it take us so long to find something this happy and in your face?’ And all it is is a loop, for God’s sake…Great song. That’s why it went so quick.
“Warren and I remember this differently, but we played it over the phone to the A&R department at Capitol Records in L.A. We didn’t have any vocals on it, it was just the riff and the drum loop. It was so exciting. Then we played it for Nick on the phone and Simon on the phone. Nick was there a couple of hours later, and we basically finished the music that afternoon. And Simon sang it the next night. I think we did backing vocals and extra overdubs on the third day, and it was mixed on the fourth day.”
Duran Duran could be comparable to the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled double record (a.k.a. The White Album) in that both works contained eclectic-sounding, back-to-basics songs as well as being eponymously named. Jones brought a copy of The White Album with him during that period. “I had that CD right in front of me all the time,” he says. “Eventually, it became our guiding light. And the guiding light of that album is: ‘You do what you love. You don’t have to do everything this way, that way, over here, together–no. Just do what you love. We can do it, we don’t need to go spend a million dollars to do this. So let’s just do it.’ I think that’s a huge part of [Duran Duran] being an unnamed album in that sense. It’s just an honest album, man.”
“I remember,’ Le Bon said in 2013, “at the end of the project, I drove and parked on a dark street somewhere close to home; I took the cassette of the master and put on the stereo. And upon playing The Wedding Album for the first time from start to finish, I began to realize the scope of what we had created together… As I said, the music speaks loudest.”
Duran Duran’s comeback began when “Ordinary World” was first leaked to a Florida radio station; its airplay generated interest and prompted the song to be put out as a single in late 1992, eventually peaking at number three on Billboard. Upon its release in February 1993, the Duran Duran album went to number seven in the U.S., giving the band their first Billboard Top 10 record since 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Promoted through touring and media appearances, The Wedding Album turned out to be a much-needed shot in the arm for Duran Duran creatively and commercially.
“I just remember thinking ‘Thank God!’ and being incredibly relieved,” Taylor recalled, per Classic Pop Magazine. “For so long we had been faced with ‘Eighties band! Eighties band! They’re done! They’re done!’ And the success took the pressure off us and allowed us to get a foot in the door of a new decade.” Rhodes also commented to Idolator in 2013 about The Wedding Album’s success: “I don’t think you ever expect it at any point in your career. But we were hugely grateful that the record broke through on that level.”
Over the decades, The Wedding Album has stood the test of time and is held in high regard by the band members and Jones. “It’s the hand-made thing that we were able to do—that they’ve continued to do,” Jones says. “And even now, they’re so good at it. They can work in any situation. Their last two albums [Paper Gods and Future Past] are all good records, good sounding. It’s never a let down in terms of quality stuff, and they put their hearts into it.”