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Aug 09

DURAN DURAN – “The Reflex”

FT + Popular65 comments • 4,027 views

#534, 5th May 1984, video

At school we had a music teacher, and like most music teachers he decided that the way to reach the kids was to indulge their love of pop. So one day he asked us to name a current song we loved, to talk about in a future lesson. Fully three-quarters of the class gave the same answer: “The Reflex”, please.

The idea was quietly dropped. Looking back I feel for him: getting any kind of teachable grip on “The Reflex” would be a big ask. It’s not really a song, just a collection of clattery effects, thumping along on – to swipe a phrase – the ‘audacity of huge’. The words, for instance, don’t just (famously) fail to make sense – they deny it. Le Bon sings about dancing on the Valentine and treasure in the dark and what he’s giving off isn’t even conviction, it’s a kind of invulnerability.

(Individual lines in the song are terrific, though – “I sold the Renoir and the TV set, don’t wanna BE AROUND when this gets out!”)

In a way the gleaming patchwork abstraction of “The Reflex” is as perfect a product of its individual moment as “Mouldy Old Dough” or “Telstar”. Problem is, you could say the same about so many mid-80s records – “Too Shy”, the first Frankie hits, even Duran’s last single. There’s only so often you can revel in the neon glory of unmeaning before you start to need a different angle.

Luckily it takes more than lyrics or structure to make a song – that massive schoolboy “Reflex”-love wasn’t built on an appreciation of Duran’s PoMo credentials or a sense that they were really saying something. It was more a way for boys with a suspicion – or total ignorance – of club music to say they recognised a banger when they heard it. Even if they were never especially cool, the band had genuine roots in nightclubbing, and “The Reflex” is an stab at fusing that and their new status as global pop stars, creating something massive enough for world-tour arenas to dance to.

So the most memorable instrumental touches in the track are percussive – those steel drums and woodblocks – and the vocal hooks that stand out aren’t by Le Bon but the backing vocalists: the off-kilter opening “Na-na-na-na”, the jagged “Flex-flex-flex-flex!”, the Merseybeat-style “Wheye-eye-eye-eye-eye”. A melting pot of everything that might work in a small club, splattered across an arena. It’s hubristic, it’s messy, it’s emptyheaded – but when I was 11 I answered “The Reflex” in that music lesson like everyone else, and I was just about right.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Conrad on 12 Aug 2009 #

    Funny career trajectory, Duran.

    Their peak in commercial terms, 1983-85, saw only 1 album (the duff Seven and the Ragged Tiger – even that title!), and a clutch of singles that generally disappointed. I think NME got it right when it reviewed “Notorious” and described it as their least strident, least paranoid single since “Rio”.

    The bit between Rio and Notorious was a bit all over the place really.

    This I quite like – it does have a few hooks but it’s not a patch on the 81-82 output, which I’m glad to see is getting more rerelease treatment soon.

    “Like An Angel”, now there’s a song.

  2. 52
    DV on 12 Aug 2009 #

    This is a dreadful song; its spending so long at number one (unlike many other more poptastic Duran Duran tunes) says much about the problems of the world.

  3. 53
    Steve Mannion on 12 Aug 2009 #

    #50 if only the windmill to which Le Bon has been strapped to in the video had been on the base of a dartboard in which the rest of the band were flinging darts, with Jim Bowen in place of the strange mechanical bald guy.

  4. 54
    wichita lineman on 14 Aug 2009 #

    The opening track on disc one of Now That’s What I Call Music 3, which ran like this:

    Duran Duran : “The Reflex”
    Nik Kershaw : “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
    Sister Sledge : “Thinking of You”
    Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark : “Locomotion”
    Ultravox : “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes”
    Howard Jones : “Pearl in the Shell”
    Blancmange : “Don’t Tell Me”
    Phil Collins : “Against All Odds”
    Frankie Goes to Hollywood : “Two Tribes”
    Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel : “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)”
    The Special A.K.A : “Nelson Mandela”
    Womack & Womack : “Love Wars”
    The Style Council : “You’re The Best Thing”
    Bob Marley & The Wailers : “One Love”
    Bronski Beat : “Smalltown Boy”

  5. 55
    lonepilgrim on 14 Aug 2009 #

    re54 That’s not a bad selection – despite Nik Ks droning dirge – which would probably make me all nostalgic for a few seconds if I heard it again.

    Sister Sledge: ‘Thinking of you’ is my all time desert island disc for it’s sheer syncopated joyfullness.

    I saw Womack & Womack at the Brighton Dome in 1984 and got to bellow ‘Love Wars’ into one of their microphones at the front of the stage – and I remember listening to Two Tribes on the way to the gig.

    ‘One Love’ a hit because of the release of ‘Legend’ that year I presume.

  6. 56
    Tom on 14 Aug 2009 #

    Pretty sure the cassette versh of that Now was the tape I listened to Two Tribes on in the story I tell in the FGTH entry. “White Lines” was the first hip-hop record I really liked too. I would love to say that it sparked an immediate interest in rap but it didn’t really, don’t think I owned a hip-hop record until ’88.

  7. 57
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Aug 2009 #

    is it my lolcatz-damaged ears or is lebon singing “teh reflex”?

  8. 58
    Brooksie on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Like this song, but then I’m a Duran fan. I think this might be the official point they became a ‘singles’ band. Their first two albums were solid enough, but ‘Seven and the Ragged Tiger’ was weak, and the fact that this outshone it speaks volumes. They had two more big singles (‘Wild Boys’ and ‘View to a Kill’), but the duff live album ‘Arena’ just continued the downward trend. Then they did a bunch of side projects which, again, generated a couple of good singles but weak albums – and their time was up. First half of their career – album band, second half – singles band. At the point that ‘The Reflex’ topped the charts there was still time to save their careers, everything hung on their next album, but all people got was a live album and some rubbish sideshow albums, by the time ‘Notorious’ hit the shelves Duran were done. The Notorious album didn’t even bother the top 10.

  9. 59
    abaffledrepublic on 7 Mar 2011 #

    Late to this one, I heard it for the first time in a while recently, and realised how ludicrously enjoyable it is. It may be, as Tom says, that both song and video were geared towards the band’s leap into bigger live arenas, but to me the song sounds like an FX-crazy studio creation, and nothing wrong with that.

    At the time (I was nine) the lyrical content of songs like this fascinated me endlessly, seeming to hint at mysterious territories yet to be explored, but not to spoil it by telling all. Who or what was the reflex? What would happen if I accidentally bruised it? Why didn’t I use it? Because nobody showed me how to. But as Simon says on the fade, all these things are answered with a ?.

    #39: poster sleeve or twelve inch picture disc (yay!); take your pick.

  10. 60
    punctum on 8 Mar 2011 #

    Although “The Reflex” was their second number one and their biggest British hit, Duran’s career was on a downturn, and, much as with Bowie a year earlier – and indeed as with Trevor Horn and Spandau a year still earlier – Nile Rodgers had been roped in to try to turn an utterly humdrum pseud-funk album track workout into something resembling pop. Rather cynically he simply repositions Duran in Let’s Dance land with the same meaninglessly booming, distant drums, echoed instrumentation of indeterminate origin and some elementary messing about on the Fairlight.

    Duran needed the smash, since both the parent Seven And The Ragged Tiger album and its first two singles had underperformed badly – although the fanbase ensured that they initially charted high, they slipped quickly – and unsurprisingly so since even by Duran’s humble standards Seven And The Ragged Tiger is an inedible bouillabase of semi-digested Japan and what Robert Palmer might once have led them to believe was electrofunk.

    Even remixed, “The Reflex” is enough to engender indignant heartburn. I’m not going to waste time pointlessly working out whatever they meant by “dancing on the Valentine” or “watching over lucky clover” since it is highly likely to be random doggerel pieced together out of stray strips of chewing gum by kids who think that Burroughs just did it (the tragedy of Duran Duran is that they think they are the reincarnation of the New York Dolls, when in reality they are the Bay City Rollers). LeBon bellows his unlovable roar – like an ageing trout unable to extract the hook from his strutting nostril – and despite Rodgers (and indeed the original producer, the late Alex Sadkin, who seems to have been content with kipping in his hammock and letting them get on with it) the record is top-heavy, as stodgy as a seven-week-old Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie and boasts a turgidity worthy of summoning the plumbers.

    Thereafter Duran more or less fell apart as a group; despite two further number two hits with “Wild Boys” and “A View To A Kill” (and what a right pair of number twos those were) they soon atomised, and by 1985 had detached into the dual studium factions of Arcadia and the Power Station. There would be reformations, further albums, more hits (at longer intervals) and even a little more screaming; by supposed virtue of their trudging on they have inexplicably emerged the heroes of the latter-day Stalinist rewriting of New Pop history. I was there, Reader. Costermongers will always be costermongers, no matter how prettily one dresses them up, or how many Renoirs or TV sets they manage to sell, or to whom.

  11. 61
    thefatgit on 8 Mar 2011 #

    Not so much “Reflex” as reflux…heh heh…um

    …coat.

  12. 62
    punctum on 25 Mar 2014 #

    TPL comes to some surprising conclusions about the parent album.

  13. 63
    Red Seeker on 1 Dec 2014 #

    Never ever got into this song – looking back not sure i really got Duran Duran . Found Le Bon’s vocal too whiney on this song.

  14. 64
    Tommy Mack on 1 Dec 2014 #

    Couldn’t sleep last night and watched an old TOTP2 that featured this. It’s grown on me a lot since I first heard it and though ‘huh, call that a song?’ I’m pretty much with Tom on this – it’s the audacious sound effects and ludicrous couples lines that impress most and the cut-up vocals and proto-sampler-noises in the third verse, like a comic book story that doesn’t make much sense as a story but contains lots of stand-out single frames. Weakest for me is the pre-chorus instrumental that really dissipates the momentum so that the chorus, when it comes, feels really tacked on when it could have flowed more naturally.

  15. 65
    hectorthebat on 3 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 54

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