Monday, May 4, 2015

The Art of Arcadia

A big special thanks to my friend Maya Garcia who helped me out with this post. Also, of course, to my friend Jason Hyde who provided the inspiration.

On the whole, we seldom want art in our entertainment.

We want it even less when it's pretentious art. Meaning, it's not meant to especially evoke beauty and it's not exactly making a point, rather it exists because simply because someone could. I was reminded of the American disdain for pure art when my good friend and geek brother Jason sent me this article reminding me of an anniversary. This fall will mark 30 years since the release of Arcadia's So Red the Rose. But who is Arcadia, you might ask?

Well I suppose I don't blame you, considering. I shall briefly explain.

Cast your mind back to the summer of 1985. Duran Duran, my favorite band, was the biggest musical act on the planet. Unfortunately, there were fissures and cracks all throughout the band. Their somewhat, err...lackluster performance at Live Aid helped widen that division even more so. The band split into two distinct camps to work on their own side projects. John Taylor and Andy Taylor, the talents mostly responsible for the single "Wild Boys," co-founded Power Station with Robert Palmer and ex Chic drummer, Tony Thompson. Not to be outdone, the other three band members created their own project.

Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes, the minds who gave the band artful, deep cuts such as "The Chauffeur," began to work together. They brought Roger Taylor along for drums. It is from Nick Rhodes, however, that the entire concept of this splinter group would arise. I have long considered Nick to be the creative soul of the band and with good reason. Let's face it: he's arty. At the time of Arcadia's founding, he lived in a Victorian townhouse which he had decorated in Art Deco style and adorned with his private collection of Warhols and Picassos. In December 1984 he had his own exhibit of Polaroids and had just published his own book of photography, Interference. It should therefore be no shock that the project's name would come from a painting.

"Et In Arcadia Ego" was a 1638 painting by Poussin. It was based on the work the poet Virgil and was referenced by many writers such as Goethe and Nietzsche. It also is somewhat steeped in occult and conspiracy lore if you're interested in such things (an aside: So Red the Rose was recorded in Paris, relatively far from Rennes-le-Chateau, location mysterious location connected to the Poussin painting. Read up on it here.) So Rhodes and Le Bon lifted the name for the band, decided to title the forthcoming album, So Red the Rose, and the artyness just increases exponentially from that point.

First, there's the lead track on the record: "Election Day." The majority of the lyrics for Duran Duran's catalog were written by Simon Le Bon. His writing style, especially in the 1980s, was greatly inspired by the Romantic poets of the early 19th Century. Consequently, the words don't always have a logic to them and nor are they meant to. A few years back, I saw a tongue-in-cheek blog post called "Duran Duran lyrics that make no damn sense." Most were single lines from single songs. When it came to "Election Day," the blogger simply said, "ALL OF IT."

That's right. Whatever drugs Simon was on when he wrote this, give me three of them. Indeed, the song sounds as if it were composed from a giant Boggle bubble of phrases. Rather than that, I choose to believe it was written through the cut-up method of composition as made popular by William S. Burroughs and adopted by musicians such as David Bowie. Adding evidence to my theory is the fact that Burroughs makes a cameo appearance in the video for "Election Day."

Ah, yes. The video. What can I say about it? You thought the lyrics were nonsensical and the project pretentious? Just check this out (in long form, no less):

Yeah, there's really painful choreography going on in that one.

This video is beyond esoteric...and I'm writing a blog with that word in the title. Simon and Nick stated that the imagery was drawn from La Belle Et La BĂȘte by Jean Cocteau. I really wish I had read more Cocteau so that I might comment upon that but whaddya gonna do? Just sit back and let all those visuals wash over you. Nick and Simon with their hair dyed jet black and wearing leather and vintage tuxes as they wholly shun the diurnal and descend into some gothic underworld where human chess pieces pop out of the floor and geometric shapes are pulled about as hot chicks further add to the ambiance. Grace Jones adds a dominatrix-like, spoken word bit. There's also supposed to a torrent of occult messages included, but as with a sky full of fluffy white clouds, you can make almost anything you want to out of it. It's all very Dadaist.

"Election Day" was a hit in the U.S. but that's all that managed to chart off of So Red the Rose. The trio fared better in Europe and it's not all that surprising. Much of the record is synth-art and Europeans are more accepting of that. "Lady Ice" is a borderline goth piece, all cool and moody. Yet the real gem on the record, to my way of thinking, is the somber, beautifully ethereal "Missing," based upon the poem "On a Dead Child" by Richard Middleton. Check it out. You'll never forget it:

It's also quite a video, directed by the same artist who would go on to create the video for Duran Duran's 1989 hit, "All She Wants Is."

Another striking feature of So Red the Rose is the interior art. Simon, Nick, and Roger all had large portraits done by fashion illustrator, Tony Viramontes. All black and white with splashes of red, they seemed quite goth inspired. If memory serves, Viramontes even painted over the MTV studios in November of 1985 when Simon and Nick played guest VJs. Wow, if I ever had the money...and was ever pretentious enough...I always said I would commission a painting of myself just like the Viramontes portraits. They're exquisite.

Pretentious. We say it as if it's a bad thing, but in reality, it's another reason why I continue to be irked by the labeling and branding of Duran Duran...and tangentially "teen pop idols." However nonsensical, could mere "teen pop idols" produce anything as artful and deep as So Red the Rose? Does Justin Beiber or any of his contemporaries have anywhere near the wherewithal to produce anything of this kind? My answer is a resounding and most vehement "NO!" So I say why not to pretentious.

As Nick Rhodes himself said when the question was put to him:

"Pretentious?" smiled Nick Rhodes when challenged on it. "I should jolly well think so."

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