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.