Burning down the acid house

Grunge died in 1997. The major labels knew it, and they didn’t see anything on the rock ‘n’ roll horizon to replace it.

About the only thing happening in the so-called “underground” at the time was a bunch of splintered electronic music genres, seemingly homogenous but branded with unique names — techno, ambient, garage, two-step, hardcore, electronica.

Thinking it could use brute force and money power to push this underground music to the mainstream, labels signed up the likes of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, trumpeting them as rock’s next evolutionary step.

Thing is, the kids had already moved onto Spice Girls and Britney Spears. And young rock fans turned to … Creed.

Madonna gave electronica a huge blip when she released Ray of Light in 1998, and U2 had already been hanging out with the likes of Flood since 1993’s Zooropa.

But electronica refused to cross over, and in time, even the club kids that catapulted the genre to its underground hip status had moved back to rock music around the time Jack White became cool.

Duran Duran learned this lesson nine years before everyone else.

The band released Big Thing in 1988, a time when its status as teen idols receded into distant memory. Line-up changes from three years previous made people lose interest in the band, and the optmistically-titled Big Thing set out to prove Duran Duran had the mettle to produce challenging work.

For the most part, the band succeeded.

Inspired by acid house, the songs on Big Thing are dark and ominous. Nick Rhodes employed rougher timbres on his keyboard work, and the drum machines used rhythms far more processed and complex than what incredible ex-drummer Roger Taylor could imagine.

Eschewing the bright energy of the band’s early ’80s hits, Big Thing oftentimes went for introspection. “Land” achieves a bittersweetness “Save a Prayer” never aspired and predates the poignancy of “Ordinary World” by a good five years.

“Edge of America” is perhaps the sparsest song Duran Duran has ever written, while the dischordant bells on “Too Late Marlene” give the song an uneasy tonality.

Big Thing has its dead spots. “Palomino” is the band’s clumsiest song ever, while “Do You Believe in Shame?” really does sound like “Suzy Q”.

But when Duran Duran thinks big on this album, it doesn’t hold back. Rather than fade the album’s conclusion, the instrumental “Lake Shore Driving” cuts off suddenly. On “Drug”, the band finally learns how to integrate horns comfortably in its writing, while the opening title track is the grimiest song in the Duran Duran oeveur.

Big Thing scored a fast-rising No. 2 single with “I Don’t Want Your Love”, but subsequent follow-up singles — “All She Wants Is”, “Do You Belive in Shame?” — tanked. Quite frankly, “I Don’t Want You Love” was the only single-worthy track on the album.

Duran Duran has shown a habit of coming up with ideas before technology could support them. In the first half of its career, the band recorded 12-inch singles from scratch, before sampling technology made remixing easy.

Big Thing is another example. Had Duran Duran waited nine years for technology to catchy up, the band could have actually recorded an “acid house” album.

Instead, it drew inspiration from the clubs and worked in the way it knew how, and Duran Duran produced an album ahead of its time.