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Simon Le Bon: ‘I’m very lucky. Solo artists have nobody to tell them they’re being an arsehole’

Can you hear me now? Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon was a lonely teenager but found friendship, and fame, through a love of David Bowie.

Simon Le Bon has been a pop star for 40 years, ever since his band Duran Duran’s debut single Planet Earth rocketed into the Top 20.

Duran Duran were pioneers of the music video, stars of the New Romantic scene and found fame around the world. The band have sold more than 100 million records, recorded a classic Bond theme (A View T A Kill), performed at both Live Aid (in Philadelphia) and the Princess Diana Tribute Concert and toured with their hero, David Bowie.

Their latest LP, Future Past, entered the charts at No3 when it was released in October 2021 – meaning Le Bon and his bandmates Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor have had Top 5 albums in each of the last five decades. Not bad for a band that grew out of a nightclub in Birmingham.

In this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, he tells The Big Issue‘s Adrian Lobb how he initially wanted to be an actor – but that he still gets the same thrill from playing music as he did when Duran Duran first started playing together.

I know exactly who I was at 16. This was before punk and I was just getting into David Bowie. I remember Space Oddity being on the radio, but didn’t buy a Bowie record until Aladdin Sane. I found the song Drive-In Saturday absolutely compulsive. This modern, clean, young fresh world he painted, this utopia. Bowie inspired this feeling of optimism in me and it made me tingle. It’s very different from the feeling at the moment. There’s not a lot of optimism around, is there? I miss it.

I had stopped being so shy but two years earlier I didn’t have any friends. I remember walking into town in my CND greatcoat from the army surplus, walking around, buying a bar of chocolate, walking home again and not talking to anybody.

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I’d like to tell that boy who used to walk around, lonely as anything, not to worry – a love of Bowie and Genesis, who were a huge band in my clique, will help you. I joined a gang who used to hang out at the dirt track behind the houses in Durley Avenue. We used to smoke and talk about sex, music and fighting.

Music is a healing force. Music makes people feel they’re not alone in the world.

Simon Le Bon

I was going to be an actor. As well as Pinner County Grammar School, I went to the Studio School, run by these incredible women, Mollie Hudson and Bess Jones. They were serious thespians and I expected to do my exams then go to drama school. I was a huge fan of Laurence Olivier’s style, which was quite an impediment to my acting.

I was playing King Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons and my teacher told me to stop doing this Shakespearean voice rip-off of Olivier! I went to auditions and found out I wasn’t as good as I thought. That was a big learning experience. 

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At Harrow Art School I was in a band called Dog Days. We were a proper punk band – this was 1977-78 – and we played our one and only show at Harrow Tech supporting a power funk band called Supercharge, who wouldn’t let us set up on stage. We had to play on the gym floor. We went past our time and they pulled the plug on us, but we carried on without amplification. All you could hear was the drums and a little bit of shouting from me. As we walked off, we heard the MC say “Thank you Dogshit!” But you had to start somewhere. 

My mum was a very, very big influence in my life and she taught me about being a good person. She taught me to be kind and not be a bully, and to help people when they need it. And I think music does help people. Music is a healing force. Music makes people feel they’re not alone in the world.

That’s what I get more than anything from fans of Duran Duran. They say: “You put into words and music the way I feel. It feels so good to know I’m not alone.” Music is a very, very powerful force for good.

1984 Onstage between Duran Duran bandmates John Taylor (left) and Andy Taylor at the height of the band’s global fame Photo: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

My younger self has a lot to look forward to. There was such excitement in the band when I met them. An ex-girlfriend, Fiona Kemp, had a job in the Rum Runner nightclub [in Birmingham] and put me in touch with them. I went down one afternoon, and you know what those places are like, the smell of beer and smoke and dancing bodies in the carpet? There’s a definite scent.

It was a heady thing, the smell of the club and meeting these guys who dressed like me. This was early 1980, street fashion was changing. What was later called New Romantic was a reaction against the monochrome aspects of the industrial post-punk movement. There was colour, there was style, there was flamboyance – but it still had one foot in punk. I met the band wearing pink leopardskin trousers. We had a buzz around us and within us.   

The 16-year-old me didn’t know he was going to be a rock star. But I can see the building bricks for Duran Duran in my younger self. The acting thing was crucial because we came on the scene at the same time as video and the explosion of MTV. Duran Duran had an advantage in that I knew how to do stuff on camera that would work.

My whole career would blow that teenager’s mind. When we first met David Bowie he was still a spaceman to me – he fulfilled all our expectations and later we toured together on the Glass Spider Tour and got to see a different side of him. Going on stage at Wembley Stadium after Elton John for the Princess Diana concert in 2007 was really special. And playing in the Rocket Garden at Nasa in Florida was extraordinary – an art collective called Studio Drift choreographed 300 drones, they flocked like slow-motion starlings while we were playing.

I would warn my younger self that fame is corrosive as well as addictive. People lose themselves. I’m very lucky to be in a band. Solo artists have got nobody around them to tell them they’re being an arsehole. They get indulged and it’s corrosive and it’s corrupting. You have to learn to say sorry, to be tolerant, to accept differences.

We split everything equally. We’re democratic. It means you can concentrate on the important thing, which is the music. When you split everything equally, it doesn’t matter who writes the songs – we all get paid the same.

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I was very left-wing when I was younger. I remember arguing with a businessman who was a family friend and very much a capitalist. He said I would find out when I got older, and to some extent, he was right. But I still believe in fairness. When you look at the few extremely wealthy people and the huge amounts of very, very, very poor people?

That’s why Duran Duran support Global Citizen, an organisation that’s all about stopping people starving to death. Because nobody should fucking starve to death in the year 2021. It doesn’t take much to prevent the kind of abject poverty that kills people. That’s why I’ve always supported The Big Issue.

2018 With wife Yasmin and their daughter Amber in London Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

I would tell my younger self to be a bit braver with girls – and maybe a bit less picky. Because as a young person I was too scared to ask out the girls I fancied. But I wouldn’t change anything, because would I be with Yasmin [his wife of 36 years] otherwise? I’d just say, look, when you get married, that’s a closed book to you. You can look at the menu but you’re not gonna drink the soup.

Grandparenthood is all the love and all the affection without the anxiety. But not because of that old cliche that you can hand them back. It’s because when grandchild number one misses a meal, you know he’s not going to starve to death, unlike his parents. And unlike how Yasmin and I felt when it was our daughters.

You’ve just got to get through the tough times. One of the themes of our album Future Past is that nothing is perfect, especially life. But it’s all we’ve got so you might as well make the best of it. We had tough times in the band with substance abuse. But we stuck together and had compassion for each other. Sometimes it takes an imaginative leap to get into somebody else’s head and see how they feel.

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Being in a band, you can get so wrapped up in your own work that you lose your love of music. I came downstairs one day and Tallulah was listening to Radio 6 and I went, ‘it’s breakfast time, I really need to put Radio 4 on’. She said, ‘Dad, call yourself a musician? You don’t even like music – especially new music’. I thought, oh my god, she’s right! She guided me, using incredible tools like Bandcamp and Spotify and Radio 6, listening out for new stuff and getting into it. I found there is a huge, rich river of new music. So my radio show came out of lockdown. You are starting to see the emergence of bands again. Fabulous artists – one who deserves special mention is a British band called Dry Cleaning. They are stunning. Snapped Ankles, Working Men’s Club, Glass Animals, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, The Clockworks, Fontaines DC – the Irish punk scene is incredible – Murder Capital. And there’s an incredible spoken word artist called Sinead O’Brien. And I’m so excited that we have Chai – the Japanese all-girl punk band – and Ivorian Doll on the new Duran Duran album.

Duran Duran didn’t start off as friends – we were guys who made music together. But over the years friendship has developed. We liked each other, and Nick and John were friends, but not the rest of us in the beginning. We went through different stages – rivalry, when we were competing for attention or for girls. Then the stage where people’s rough edges really annoy you. But then you reach the stage where you realise you are friends because you’ve stuck together. You’ve got all these shared experiences. And all the rough edges that used to annoy you, you now view as the assets of the band. Those are the things that made it work, that create a spark and tension that makes the music interesting. 

I still remember the thrill I got when I joined the band 40 years ago. Listening to chords and discovering a melody line that made sense out of it was amazing. The thrill of that discovery now is still the same as when we were writing songs in the Rum Runner. So the last thing I would say to my younger self is don’t worry, you’re never gonna lose that thrill.

Future Past by Duran Duran is out now. Duran Duran appear on BBC Radio 2 In Concert on December 2, iPlayer and BBC Sounds from 7pm.

Interview: Adrian Lobb

@adey70

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