Song Beneath the Song: “The Reflex” by Duran Duran

 

WHEN I WAS IN fifth and sixth grade, I was obsessed with Duran Duran. I had all three albums then available—Seven and the Ragged Tiger, Rio, and Duran Duran Duran Duran—and I listened to them over and over. I had Duran Duran posters in my room. I bought issues of Tiger Beat and clipped pictures of Simon LeBon and John Taylor and Roger Taylor and Nick Rhodes—Andy Taylor didn’t usually make the cut—and I taped them to my walls from floor to ceiling. I had a blue and white sweatband that looked like the one Simon wore in the “Reflex” video, and I wore it around my wrist every day, and I got pissed when my mom insisted on washing it and the color faded. If I wore that wristband, the thinking was, someday I might grow up to be like Simon LeBon, crooning in a successful New Wave band and careening through the Aegean on a yacht. My parents were very, very concerned about me.

The level of my obsession gradually waned, as childhood obsessions mercifully do, but I never fully let Duran Duran go. By the time the ho-hum Notorious was released in 1986, the band had begun to occupy the overexposed/overrated territory that Justin Bieber is currently king of, and admitting you liked them was social death—a phenomenon I wrote about in my novel Totally Killer.1 This did not stop me from triumphantly bringing my newly-purchased Decade collection to school. I continued to play Duran Duran tracks here and there, and spun them regularly at the epic dance parties we threw in college (c. 1992-95), along with other favorites from the early 80s, thus helping usher in the “80s retro” movement (you’re welcome). I more or less stopped actively listening to the band when I moved to New York after graduating, although, unlike the subsequent if not quite as ardent predilection for Billy Joel that dominated my middle school years, my Duranophilia is not something I’m ashamed of.

Back in fifth grade, I was confounded by any attempt to understand the meaning of any Duran Duran song. The advantages of the Song About Nothing—namely, that nonsensical lyrics wear better than stupid ones—were then out of my reckoning. “Save a Prayer” seemed to involve a one-night stand, and “New Moon on Monday” was presumably about a moment of change, but “Rio”? “Hungry like the Wolf”? Simon LeBon’s lyrics were about as easy as a nuclear war.

As a grown-up, I revisited those lyrics, hoping that my degree in English Literature, my writing bona fides, and my three semesters teaching undergraduate creative writing would arm me against the illogic of Simon’s words. No such luck. Despite the ostensible wisdom of my advanced years, I still have no idea what forces comprise the Union of the Snake, if they are mounted for good or ill, or what their rising heralds—this despite untold hours listening close to the voices in your body coming through on the radio. To be clear: wackadoo song lyrics are not necessarily bad—it’s better to string together interesting phrases in the style of Beck than to go the Steve Miller route and badly rhyme cliché with cliché. Simon’s lowest moments are still vastly superior to anything, say, Steve Perry has come up with. Bad lyrics are like bad pennies—once they turn up, you can’t stop paying attention to them. “Mouth is alive with juices like wine” is orders of magnitude superior to “Born and raised in South Detroit,” and not only because there’s no such place as South Detroit.

(I picked Journey as an exemplar of bad lyrics because I recently took part in a Tributon—an evening at this great place called Market Market in Rosendale, N.Y., in which a bunch of different musicians play songs by a given artist—that was billed as “Journey vs. Duran Duran.” I mean, that’s not remotely a fair fight. That’s my daughter’s teeball team against the Yankees. Or the Mets against the Yankees. I could argue about this for hours, but I’ll confine myself to two points. First, Duran Duran made videos that looked amazing in 1983 and look amazing still. Journey made the video for “Separate Ways,” which is possibly the most unintentionally funny thing ever created. Second, when John Taylor would turn up around town, girls would faint. Faint! No one ever fainted at the sight of Neal Schon, except maybe at the sheer mediocrity of the music he was making. I played an acoustic version of “New Moon on Monday” that glorious night at the Tributon, finally realizing my childhood dream of channeling Simon in front of an audience, albeit a drunk and sympathetic one. As far as I know, neither video nor audio exist, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I killed.)

Duran-Duran-Seven-and-the-Ragged-Tiger

Of all of their tunes, “The Reflex” is one of the most popular, and also one of the most perplexing. For years, every single attempt to decode the lyrics left me answered with a question mark. And then, at a party in Manhattan some time ago, a friend of mine clued me in. “This song is about masturbation,” she told me. “Seriously. Think about it.”

I have thought about it, and arrived at the same conclusion. “The Reflex” is indeed a song about self-pleasure. The eponymous “reflex” refers to that moment of joussance that we attempt to bring ourselves as close to as possible for as long as we can before realization—the “danger line” somebody’s fooling around with his chances on, in other words. Pretend he’s saying “climax” instead of “reflex” (they mean the same thing) and the rest of the lyrics (or most of them, at least) make more sense. Our narrator is whacking off, and trying to make it last as long as he can.

Simon strings together phrases hinting at this masturbatory meaning. “I’m dancing on the Valentine” is a gorgeous euphemism for “I thought I was going to have an orgasm, but after moving my hips just so, I was able to arrest the release for a few more minutes”—the “bridge” that will be crossed when he finds it. “High time is no time for deciding if I should find a helping hand” refers to him recognizing the fact that once he’s erect, he won’t be in the right frame of mind to opt to put it away and wait for a comely groupie to do it for him.

But the giveaway is the bridge between the verse and the chorus:

So why-yi-yiyi-yi-yi don’t you use it
Try-yi-yi-yi-yi not to bruise it
Buy-yi-yi-yi-yi time; don’t lose it

The meaning now reveals itself clearly. What else can “try not to bruise it” refer to? But the rhythm, too, brings home the point. Imagine, if you will, that your hand is cupped around an imaginary phallus. Now, jerk that hand up and down along the shaft of said invisible wang to the tempo of the yi-yi-yis. Quod erat demonstrandum!

The four bars of musical interlude between lose it and the reflex, the dominant waiting and waiting and waiting before yielding to the inevitability of the tonic, represents the last moment before the climax. Then, the triumphant chorus begins, representing the post-ejaculatory contentment. “He”—that is, his manhood—no longer “high,” has been reduced to “a lonely child waiting in the park,” charged with “finding treasure in the dark.” Finally, as our narrator contemplates the sticky-fingered world of orgiastic aftermath, his lust temporarily sated, he remarks on the mystery of what had driven him to his release—that he is now “watching over lucky clover” is “bizarre.” But then, the entire operation puzzles and confounds him, leaving him “answered with a question mark.”

Once this is understood, the second verse is obvious to the point of comedy. “I’m on a ride and I wanna get off” is about as straightforward as Simon LeBon is capable of being, and the bits about not slowing down the roundabout and not wanting to be around “when this gets out” border on literality. The only cryptic line is “I sold the Renoir and the TV set,” which seems to hint at the depths to which he’ll go to exact his priapic pleasure—although I prefer to think it’s shorthand for some kinky sex act Simon is too bashful to disclose.

The video for “The Reflex” was shot in Montreal, because Duran Duran always gave good shows there, and the French-Canadian crowd was dependably and singularly first-rate2. Unlike most of the band’s videos, which involved Simon, John, Roger, Nick, and sometimes Andy cavorting around Sri Lanka—a sovereign nation they were kicked out of and are not allowed to return to; how is being banned from a country less punk rock than wrecking a hotel room? Suck it, Mötley Crüe—“The Reflex” is a performance video, a gentle reminder that yes, these guys are really, really good at playing their instruments.3 But even in this, the simplest of their videos, there are clues to the song’s hidden meaning: the phallic Greek pillars behind the stage, the silhouetted man and woman in bondage poses, the complete lack of dudes in the audience (these are all girls on film). And then, toward the end of the song, coming out of the musical interlude, a crudely-rendered cascade of water spills from the screen atop the stage onto the unsuspecting ladies screaming below. We see them get doused. But look again at the egregiously lame computer-generated image; is it perhaps too milky to be water?

Furthermore, the name of the album hints at this meaning. The titular “tiger” is ragged, as in worn out, but also ragged, as in swaddled in a strip of old cloth, for reasons that should now be patently obvious.

We may never find out who Rio is, or why her sand-dance is comparable to a river in Texas, but we do know that when Simon is hungry like the wolf, he is not above taking matters into his own hands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. I sent a galley of that book to Simon, because he has a book blog, but he did not read it, as far as I know.
  2. I know this because I read about it in Tiger Beat in 1984
  3. John Taylor=One of the greatest bass players of all time. Swoonworthy, one might say.
Greg Olear

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller. He lives in New Paltz, N.Y.
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20 Responses to Song Beneath the Song: “The Reflex” by Duran Duran

  1. Davis says:

    Wow. This is the most shockingly accurate reading I have ever seen of Duran Duran. Nicely done.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I was talking about Duran Duran the other day, but I can’t remember why.

    The Reflex is probably my least favourite Duran Duran song, although still preferable to anything by Journey.

    Definitely too milky to be water.

  3. Cassidy says:

    At 2:36 a chain gets yanked…literally. I’d say the theory is sound.

    1. Yank the chain
    To Masturbate.
    1. Greg, stop yanking your chain and get to work!
    2. Get out, I gotta yank the chain
    3. All he does is stay in his room and yank his chain.

  4. Patrick says:

    No complaints about your assessment of Duran Duran…but I preferred the more lowbrow references to masturbation by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

    I must take issue, however, with your swipe at Journey’s Separate Ways. No doubt it is a ridiculous video and your critique is accurate. I would suggest, however, that some context is needed.

    As a metal band (debatable….but for another post), in 1983, I think it is fair to put Journey in the same category as other ‘scrap’ metal bands of that era such as Dokken, Triumph and Ratt–three bands off the top of my head….there are dozens of others.

    The videos to these ‘hits’ are equally, if not more, ridiculous. Watch the videos for Ratt’s Round and Round , Dokken’s Breaking the Chains , or Triumph’s Follow Your Heart and you may start to see Separate Ways in a whole new light….

    Thanks for the post.

    • The Editors says:

      Milton Berle did not appear in the Journey video, as he did in “Round and Round.” I think the “Separate Way”s video was even ridiculous AT THE TIME. That’s the difference.

  5. J.M. Blaine jmblaine says:

    A smattering of thoughts I had while reading this post:

    Surely someone has made the comparison to Gaga & Duran?
    Very artpop/smart pop, very Warhol, very Fashion.
    (Very Nagel)

    Duran Duran’s concert film, Arena is excellently maddening.
    The Sing Blue Silver piece is still high art.

    Until about ten years ago I think it was a secret just how incredible of a bassist
    John Taylor is. I think they had to wait until he wasn’t so attractive because it just didn’t seem fair. Actually, the whole band was/is quite good. Try playing a Duran Duran song sometime. Andy’s parts will kill you too. That guy knew some chords.

    Arcadia & The Power Station still sound great. Andy Taylor’s solo LP was really good too.

    Astronaut was a top-notch reunion record. Red Carpet Massacre, a disaster.
    All You Need is Now was every thing a fan would want it to be.

    I’ll read all of this you got, sir.

    • The Editors says:

      All fine points, sir. JT’s bass skills were well documented, even back in day — he was the one playing bass on the Band Aid song, remember — although, to be fair, the people saying that were mostly teenyboppers like me whoknew nothing. Dude was, and is, amazing. And agree about Andy…the first album is the best one, because it’s more them playing as a band…after that, Nick got a little too cute with the synth, and the guitar is buried too low in the mix. I’d be shocked if Gaga has not seen the “Girls on Film” video about a thousand times.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Ann says:

    This was fun to read. Now I’m thinking back on all those Duran Duran songs I love. I remember wondering what the heck they were talking about but loving them anyway.

  7. Thanks for this. Pop songs about masturbation are hard to come by.

    But I will dutifully point out that CGI water (or other) fall at the end of the video immediately cuts to a shot of a handful of men looking very concerned that they are about to get wet.

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  9. JRapp says:

    Are you kidding me! This song is about a drug deal. I cannot believe that you as a fan and MORE as an author/journalist/English whatever you, are don’t know this. Simon once even said it was written about John and his drug days. Listen again. “The Reflex, is a lonely child, he’s waiting by the park”. Where do drug deals happen?? “I sold the Renior and the tv set. Don’t wanna be around when this gets out.” Why would you SPOTANEOUSLY sell a Renoir? FOR DRUGS! HELLUR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Alex says:

    JRAPP – drugs and masturbation stem from the same reflex – wouldn’t you say?

    Agree, Taylor is the most amazing bassist who made these songs so danceable and groovy.

    Simon is such a star. And this video’s subtle S&M visuals – the silhouette of the man and woman with said yanking chain – set the tone for what Madonna would do a few years latter. It even looks like something from her oeuvre, ahead of its time.

    Shoulderpads and hairstyling – wow. WOW.

    There are a lot of guys in the video – that one dancing up in the balcony doing the classic “80s” new wave dance – kind of amazing. I want to be him.

    The lyrics are not “Imagine” by John Lennon but nevertheless a major dance song we all grew up with and loved. Fantastic article, and the best part is going back to watch the video with your songlyric breakdown in mind! I die.

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  13. PGW says:

    Interesting take. Not sure I buy it quite yet, but I’ll definitely give it consideration.

    As for Rio, though, I’d always heard that they’d said in an interview it was “our love song to America.” They’d just done a major US tour and had so enjoyed it that they wrote Rio.

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