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Aug 09

DURAN DURAN – “The Reflex”

FT + Popular66 comments • 5,913 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. 1
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2009 #

    I once had a conversation with a friend when we tried to decide what was the most cocaine-addled record we could name. In the end, I couldn’t decide between this and ‘Junior’s Farm’ by Wings (blatant things like ‘White Lines’ didn’t count).

    Obviously, the lyrics are nonsense, but its a kind of skittery, boastful, nonsense that people talk when they are high. Being in the company of such people is invariably very tedious, but an advantage of listening to records is that it gives you an insight into how it must feel to take drugs without having to endure the tedious company of people taking them – or at least being able to switch it off when it becomes wearing.

    The combination of enormously loud bangs and stabs and laughing lines about going too far and having to get out is something that I find quite exciting to listen to in moderation, but which soon stops being interesting. So ‘The Reflex’ works best as a single that you come across on the radio, or a track on ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’.

    I wasn’t thinking about drugs when I was eleven, so couldn’t get any sort of a handle on ‘The Reflex’. It just sounded stupid to me then. It still sounds stupid to me now, but I can now imagine some emotional resonances into it.

  2. 2
    admin on 4 Aug 2009 #

    “I sold the Renoir and the TV set”

    OMG. i have never really known this line. all the lines either side, but this one got lost

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2009 #

    #2 Watch. Two weeks of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Automatic’ which – unfairly – sounds sedate and conventional when heard next to ‘The Reflex’, but is quite enjoyable in its own right.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Duran Duran performed The Reflex thrice on ‘Top Of The Pops’ (the Christmas show we’ll come to in the fullness of time);

    26 April 1984. Also in the studio that week were; Sandie Shaw (and The instrumental Smiths), Belle & The Devotions, Echo The Bunnymen and The Flying Pickets. Simon Bates and Janice Long were the hosts.

    17 May 1984. Also in the studio that week were; Break Machine, Denice Williams, Hazell Dean and Womack & Womack. Simon Bates and Peter Powell were the hosts.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Hm, ‘Relax’ is quickly followed by ‘Reflex’ – coincidence?

  6. 6
    Tom on 4 Aug 2009 #

    #1 Amazingly, perhaps because more than any of these records it feels such a part of my boyhood, I had never once thought of “The Reflex” as a coke record until reading your post. Well, not consciously, all that stuff in the review about superhuman invulnerability etc. suggests some kind of awareness of what might have been going on here.

    There’s a distinction to be made, you’re right, between records which give the undrugged an idea of what being on a drug is like and records which simply remind you being with someone on those drugs. We might pick that thread up in the mid-late 1990s.

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Terrific “constructivist” sleeve, heh.

  8. 8
    Rory on 4 Aug 2009 #

    This is another song I associate with the art class whose teacher loved Jim Steinman and whose students included a Boy George-by-proxy. Our teacher let us listen to the radio while we were working, provided it was THE-FM, the local equivalent of the not-yet-national JJJ. THE wasn’t as alternative as the Js, as it played regular chart tracks along with the indie stuff; actually, it’s more accurate to say that it played the alternative end of the regular charts, because the whole notion of indie/alternative was still well underground in Hobart in 1984.

    So it was no surprise when the DJ cued up the 12″ mix of this one afternoon, a version that cranked up the song’s idiosyncrasies to the point of annoyance. The surprise came just as it was hitting its stride with an extended “the RE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE”, when I heard my first ever live-to-air “zzzzzzrp” of a needle being yanked off a record, and the DJ saying “That’s enough of that.”

    I can never hear it now without wanting to do the same. That moment has similarly cut off any potential for assessing the track objectively, so it wouldn’t be fair to add my rating to the collective judgement here; I honestly don’t know what it would be. As Duran songs go, I enjoyed this more than their previous UK number one, and more than “Wild Boys” and other hits from their middle period, but just as they never had an Australian number one they were never really number one with me.

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2009 #

    B-side watch: An almost unimaginably awful live version of ‘Come Up & See Me (Make Me Smile)’, a choice which made Steve Harley a great deal of money at the time.

  10. 10
    Tom on 4 Aug 2009 #

    #8 – The 12″ had a position in my mind as a stand-in for everything that was terrible but also kind of great about 12-inches of the time, especially the seemingly random cut-and-repeat on individual phrases.

    Now sadly it just sounds like a not especially good one (other Night Versions are much better.)

  11. 11
    rosie on 4 Aug 2009 #

    It’s probably symptomatic of my increasing alienation from chart culture by mid-1994 that I look at the title of this number one and it triggers no recollections at all. Which is odd because even if Duran Duran was a familar name of the time, and the titles of most other Duran hits sound familiar even if I can’t conjure up the sound in my head

    And then I listen to the track, and even that doesn’t jog my memories. I sounds like a generic mid-eighties track that I might encounter while out shopping, probably in the kind of shop that wouldn’t detain me long, and it has a distinct Duran twang. But still it won’t identify itself to me. It sounds to me like a succession of the kind of gratuitous electronic effects that annoy me – that bit of guitar vibrato grafted onto the vocal track – euch! I have a hunch that this works best with some pharmaceutical assistance, and probably not the kind of pharmaceuticals readily available in my student day.

    In 1994, the year of my 30th birthday which I was already dreading by May, I was either becoming a dreadful olod fogey or on the cusp of a new departure in life. We shall see!

  12. 12
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Aug 2009 #

    I only found out the title of this record a couple of years ago. I suppose ‘Reflex’ is easier to fit on a 7″ sleeve than ‘Why-Ay-Ay-Ay-Ay’.

    It’s a good song though – definitely one of DD’s better ones. I mean, I still can’t remember how the verse goes but at least I don’t start singing something else halfway through the chorus.

  13. 13
    will on 4 Aug 2009 #

    I love this. Favourite bits? It has to be the breakdown: ‘why-yi-yi-yi-yi-yah, wah-wah-why-yah-yah’. (Computer noise): ‘BLUERGH!’

    And the bit in the vid when the wave crashes through the video screen, drowning the front two rows of Duranies.

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Wow we’re up to here already! Although now that it is I think I’d rather be talking about the brilliant ‘Automatic’ oh well. I find it highly memorable at least, lines like “Ill cross that bridge when I find it, Another day to make my stand, ohhhhh” as much as anything else.

    Just another for the ‘how much joy did it bring me as a kid? lots / how often do i want to listen to it now? never’ file. I made the fun mistake of singing this in a New York karaoke bar a few years back and that kind of killed it for me (and for everyone else witness I expect). What a compliment for Le Bon.

  15. 16
    Tom on 4 Aug 2009 #

    I thought we were in the same country!

    This is what happens when the world cannot live as one :(

  16. 17
    lonepilgrim on 4 Aug 2009 #

    re 15 look up Reflex on Google Videos and you can see it on Daily Motion

    What struck me about this on listening to this again for the first time in ages is how much it reminds me of Yes – not just ‘Owner of a lonely heart’ whose use of a sampler may have been a big influence – but earlier songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Yours is no disgrace’. It may be something to do with the intense dynamic of a band whose members are intent on showing off their skills by banging away at their instruments at maximum velocity without much clue or care where they are heading – and with a singer spouting nonsense in a high voice.

    The video seems aimed at a US audience – promoting their attraction as a live act. I’m sure the lighting and video screens must have seemed state of the art at the time

  17. 18
    Mark M on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Oddly enough, I remember feeling at the time that this sounded a bit dated. I certainly would have guessed it was some time before Relax, although I dislike(d) it for many of the same reasons.

    Feel fairly sure that none of the boys in my class in Mexico at the time (13/14 year olds) would have admitted to liking the Durans – that was strictly for girls (and blimey, did the girls at my school love DD). AC/DC would have probably be the boys’ choice with votes for Van Halen and Def Leppard, with my pretentious mates opting for Talking Heads. Our music teacher played us Sid Vicious’s My Way and Bob Marley’s Burning And Looting.

  18. 19
    Mark M on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Re 17: Duran Duran were well prog in many ways by this time, all that Union Of The Snake nonsense…

  19. 20
    Erithian on 4 Aug 2009 #

    #16 – you see, Tom, Lennon was right!!

    I quite enjoyed this one at the time, without going overboard – it was, to coin a phrase, meaty, beaty, big and bouncy (soz Pete Townshend for that). The video was definitely a departure from the travelogue and fantasy ones they had made their name with, and seeing an audience digging it was a good advert for the band (whether they could cut it on stage for real might be another matter – thinking of the famous bum note at Live Aid!) Speaking of the Le Bon pipes, I can never hear that line “everyTHING the reflex does…” without hearing Monty Python’s version of “Anything Goes” (“AnyTHING goes in, anyTHING goes out…”)

  20. 21
    Tom on 4 Aug 2009 #

    #21 There is a 1982 live album coming out in a couple of months I believe so we shall see/hear.

  21. 22
    johnny on 4 Aug 2009 #

    tom, i agree with your summarizing of this song as “a bunch of clattery effects”. it feels like a direct attempt to outdo Frankie, but their clumsy attempt to ape that martial drum drive is no match for Trevor Horn’s genuine dancey know-how. still, this seems to presage the “ringtone” style of writing which runs rampant in our current decade. a continuous stream of 3-second hooks in place of a song. maybe they were pioneers after all!

  22. 23
    col124 on 4 Aug 2009 #

    “this seems to presage the “ringtone” style of writing which runs rampant in our current decade. a continuous stream of 3-second hooks in place of a song. maybe they were pioneers after all!”

    that’s a good point. There’s so many weird “non sequitur” hooks, phrases, noises throughout this track, it makes you wonder if it’s designed to be listened to randomly–you turn on the TV or radio, and even if it’s the middle of the song, there’s something to grab you immediately.

    For the 12-year old me, this was the Duran song that turned me off them, though I did like “New Moon on Monday” (same LP, right)?

  23. 24
    Stuart P on 4 Aug 2009 #

    It’s basically the sound of Nile Rogers (he remixed the stodgy album version) getting his new Fairlight out of the box. And all the better for it …

  24. 25
    lonepilgrim on 4 Aug 2009 #

    re 22 & 23 “weird “non sequitur” hooks, phrases, noises throughout this track” also describes much prog music but then those qualities would have been spread out across one whole side of an LP such as ‘Close to the Edge’ or ‘Supper’s Ready’ from ‘Foxtrot’ by Genesis.
    Here they’ve been compressed into a 3 or 4 minute single.

  25. 26
    dickvandyke on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Stuff that turned pretty boys into millionaires. Jealous? Not necessarily – just mighty frustrated. I didn’t get it then and, even with the benefit of 25 yrs of venom dilution and laughter lines, I still don’t. It brought nothing to the music table except e.coli.

    Perpetuating a drug habit on the back of 12 year olds’ pocket money is hardly a new phenomenon. Wound me up a little to see the Duran bleach boys win the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the Brit Awards – whilst the likes of Ray Davies go without the briefest mention in despatches.

    If Le Bon and his mates brand of pop music is escapism, then lock me up in Alcatraz with a rabid panther.

  26. 27
    Lex on 4 Aug 2009 #

    I have never heard it and can take or leave Duran Duran generally but this blurb makes me want to listen to the song!

  27. 28
    Poptrash on 4 Aug 2009 #

    Their first number one was Planet Earth and it was Australia….the Reflex was mixed by Nile Rodgers, so hence the disco sound. Not my favourite DD song by a long shot….but I will now dutifullly give it a re-listen.

  28. 29
    Steve Mannion on 4 Aug 2009 #

    pretty sure you’d hate it Lex (for the same reasons as ‘Relax’, minus the gay)

  29. 30
    Snif on 4 Aug 2009 #

    >>And the bit in the vid when the wave crashes through the video screen, drowning the front two rows of Duranies.

    I thought that part was the biggest disappointment/laugh in the whole thing…a huge wave rises up and goes crashing down – cut to some fans having a bucket of water tossed at them from off-frame.

    This song also reminds me of a friend who worked in a record shop at the time and loved importing DD merchandise from Japan. When he showed me the Duran Duran AA batteries, I figured the end couldn’t be too far away…

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