Duran Duran, ‘Watching the Detectives’ – Terrible Classic Rock Covers
Sometimes recording a great cover can jump-start a career (just ask Los Lobos). But when all goes wrong, it has the potential to sink even some of an era's biggest stars, as it did in 1995 when Duran Duran recorded their all-covers album 'Thank You' and, in particular, Elvis Costello's 'Watching the Detectives.'
From 1982 through 1986, Duran Duran were one of the biggest bands in the world, but by the end of the decade their fortunes had considerably fallen. But they rebounded strongly in 1993 with 'Duran Duran' ('The Wedding Album'), a surprisingly mature statement from a band whose previous worldview seemingly consisted of raiding London's top modeling agencies. The record spawned two Top 10 singles ('Ordinary World' and 'Come Undone') and was their highest charting album in 10 years. Wanting to strike while the iron was hot but devoid of material, they decided to record a covers album.
'Thank You' was an attempt by the band to pay tribute to its influences, and while covers of Bob Dylan ('Lay Lady Lay'), the Temptations ('Ball of Confusion') and Led Zeppelin (the title track) showed that they had good taste, the execution was somewhat lacking. Their take on 'Watching the Detectives,' Costello's 1977 single, was a perfect example of what went wrong
At the time, lots of artists were scoring hits with synthed-up, reggaefied covers (UB40, Maxi Priest, Big Mountain), and the original already had kind of a reggae groove, so why not apply that formula to 'Detectives'? The problem was that the electronics removed all of the song's jittery intensity. The original's propulsive bass line should have been a perfect fit for John Taylor, Duran Duran's excellent bass player, but it's buried under a wash of keyboards attempting to create a spooky atmosphere.
Singer Simon LeBon doesn't do the song any favors either. Costello's dense, elliptical lyrics have tripped up many good singers over the years, but LeBon doesn't even seem to understand what the song is about and pulls off a remarkable trick of simultaneously whispering and over-emoting.
'Watching the Detectives' wasn't even the worst song on 'Thank You,' an honor that belonged to the group's attempt to turn Public Enemy's hip-hop classic '911 Is a Joke' into an acoustic blues number. 'Thank You' was universally panned, and none of its singles got anywhere near the Top 40. Even though it managed to go gold in the U.S., none of the five albums Duran Duran have released since then have sold as well.
Listen to Elvis Costello's 'Watching the Detectives'