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The Dark Underside to ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’

Duran Duran’s first major U.S. hit is a shiny, danceable pop anthem. But over the years, thanks to shifting cultural norms and a bizarre connection to a murder case, the song doesn’t sound as innocent as it once did

In 2007, the ska-punk band Reel Big Fish appeared on The Duran Duran Tribute Album, which as you probably guessed was a collection of covers of the British group’s biggest and most memorable songs. They took on “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and this is how they attacked it:

Their version kicks off with frontman Aaron Barrett “explaining” the song’s lyrics. “The woman is the hunted — the animal. And when I catch her — being the predator, the hunter — I’m gonna kill her,” he says with sarcasm in his voice. The cover is less a tribute than a driveby dunking that seeks to call out what they perceive as the song’s gross sexual/primal metaphor — carnal desire boiled down to its animalistic, predatory urges. They play “Hungry Like the Wolf” in a jokey, snotty way. They think the song is stupid and sexist, and they do nothing to hide that fact. 

It’s important to suss out the iffy connotations of certain songs — how their declarations of true love are actually tangled up in gross macho attitudes or potentially stalkerish behavior — while also acknowledging that, sometimes, the lyrical content is so dopey that it’s more innocuous than actively troublesome. For all the years that “Hungry Like the Wolf” has been in the world, listeners generally haven’t wrestled with what Simon Le Bon has been singing about. Is it a song about treating your mate like prey? Possibly. Is it mostly just another variation on the perennial “Girl, I’m really into you” tune? Oh, probably. Does it help that the song is so vague — and undeniably catchy — that it mostly just feels harmless? Almost certainly.

“Hungry Like the Wolf” wasn’t Duran Duran’s first single, but it was their first big smash in the States, making them huge on radio and (especially) MTV. A song about desire, the Rio cut made the art of seduction seem like one big glossy dance party. It’s a come-on whose sleek keyboards and big guitar riff came to symbolize the giddy, empty thrills of 1980s pop. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was too cheery to be gross, too fun to be ugly. It’s about a guy who really wants to get with a gal. Why are you making it weird by reading too much into it?

The band came together in the late 1970s, eventually settling on a lineup of Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor — with none of the Taylors related to each other. They were as concerned with image as they were with music, and in the early days, Le Bon tried to latch onto his own sonic identity. “I was trying to imitate David Bowie, I just did a very bad job of it,” the singer said recently. “Well, that’s a little bit flippant. I imitated Bowie, Peter Gabriel and I wanted to sound a bit like Patti Smith as well. As soon as we started writing our own songs, the songs gave me the voice. When [Duran Duran’s debut single] ‘Planet Earth’ was finished and my voice was in the mix, I could hear the power and the emotion in it. That was me, that wasn’t me pretending to be David Bowie.”

Their 1981 self-titled debut did well in the U.K. thanks to hits like “Girls on Film” and “Planet Earth,” while America remained indifferent to them. It wasn’t until the following year’s Rio that things started turning around for them here. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was one of the tracks they wrote for the record, and it came about quickly. “I started it in the morning with a sequencer,” Rhodes later said. “As each band member arrived through the day, the song was built and by the evening it was pretty much complete.” But it was also prompted by Rhodes and Le Bon feeling hungover after a night of partying — their guilt at overindulging inspired them to go into the studio and do some work:

For as long as Duran Duran have been around, Le Bon has been teased about the fact that his lyrics don’t make much sense. And that was certainly the case with “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Here’s how he sets the scene:

Darken the city
Night is a wire 
Steam in the subway
Earth is afire 
Do do do do do do do dodo dododo dodo 
Woman you want me
Give me a sign
And catch my breathing even closer behind 
Do do do do do do do dodo dododo dodo

From there, the song leads into its big chorus:

In touch with the ground 
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you 
Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd 
And I’m hungry like the wolf 
Straddle the line, in discord and rhyme 
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you 
Mouth is alive, with juices like wine 
And I’m hungry like the wolf

Le Bon kept the images evocative but also a bit oblique. (Listeners have spent decades figuring out how you straddle the line in discord and rhyme.) But while “Hungry Like the Wolf” had a carnal vibe, the singer’s desire didn’t seem especially aggressive or dangerous. Maybe it helped that people never took the song that seriously: The New Wave bands of the time were so busy being mocked for their big hairdos and wimpy demeanors that the idea that any of them could be sexual predators never crossed people’s minds. If anything, the homophobia directed at any band that didn’t rawk in the 1980s led most observers to assume these well-dressed, beautiful young men were probably gay.

When Duran Duran were plotting Rio’s release, they decided to do a series of music videos in Sri Lanka for the album’s prospective singles. “All three videos were made for something like $30,000,” Rhodes said in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “We pulled every favor we could from the Sri Lankan authorities. It was cheap to work there, but it was like a SWAT team. Simon and I got dropped from a helicopter onto the top of a monument, because they couldn’t land the helicopter. I must have been entirely insane.”

Just as Duran Duran thought carefully about their look, they were meticulous about making videos that were artsy and told stories, a strategy that helped them stand out at a time when MTV was looking for dynamic content. “‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ had a vague plot,” John Taylor said in I Want My MTV. “Simon was Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, going up the jungle. And we were searching for him.”

“It’s funny to think about, in retrospect, because we went to Sri Lanka as a club band,” Le Bon said in August. “We made the videos in Sri Lanka, which almost arrived in Australia at the same time as we did. And by the time we got to Australia, we were massive stars. It was extraordinary.”

If you haven’t seen “Hungry Like the Wolf” in a while, two things will stand out. First, it’s extraordinarily cheesy in the exact way that a lot of 1980s videos are cheesy — it’s far too self-serious and earnest, like they think they’re making a masterpiece. (“‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ demanded a lot of acting,” Le Bon declared in I Want My MTV. “When other bands made videos with stories to them, you’d see them smirking and giggling. Whereas I acted as though I truly was being chased in the jungle.”) 

Second, its treatment of race is deeply cringy. In the video, Le Bon chases after a Black woman whose makeup is done in such a way to make her look “native” — she’s practically a wild animal. Meanwhile, the rest of the band play dress-up like explorers/colonizers, with the Black locals serving as extras and “local color.” The Sri Lankan locales made “Hungry Like the Wolf” seem “exotic” in a way that was novel at a time when most videos were shot on city streets or soundstages. But like “Rio,” which was also filmed in Sri Lanka, “Hungry Like the Wolf” has an oblivious-tourist vibe to it that’s off-putting. On the whole, the video is more innocently obtuse than malevolently insidious, but it certainly speaks to an era in which cultural sensitivity wasn’t taken into consideration. Ultimately, it helped that the video was just silly: Despite Le Bon’s insistence that there was meaningful emoting going on, all those slow-motion shots of Sheila Ming (who was credited as “Beautiful Tiger-like Indian Woman”) thrashing around on the jungle floor with Le Bon just made the whole enterprise seem campy.

Rio elevated them to superstars, and the band capitalized on that momentum, producing a series of hits over the decade, including their smash James Bond single “A View to a Kill.” Critics slagged them, the Grammys mostly ignored them — although Duran Duran did win two prizes for their videos — but they just kept going, not worrying one lick about the people who didn’t respect them. When I interviewed Le Bon back in 2007, he touched on this briefly, saying, “A lot of men — a lot of male journalists — got the hump with us because girls liked us. And that’s their problem, not mine.”

Duran Duran got the last laugh, of course. Like a lot of things from the 1980s, the band remains a cultural force, putting out their most recent album, Future Past, yesterday. Guys used to bash them for their sharp threads and good looks, but they’ve accrued hipness as they’ve gotten older. They’re pals with artists like David Lynch, who in 2011 released the concert film Duran Duran: Unstaged. “It was an art project, and we gave him utter control over the visuals — you don’t try and direct a director like David Lynch, really,” Le Bon said. “It was quite bizarre.”

Sometimes, if you want to know how good a song is, just listen to how bad its cover versions are. Reel Big Fish’s is intentionally shoddy, but travel around Spotify and you’ll find other abysmal takes — some of which, presumably, are actually meant to be great. Take Hidden Citizens and Tim Halperin’s slowed-down, faux-ominous cover, which is used in the trailer for Apex Legends and follows the playbook of turning a popular upbeat song sad in order to give your movie/TV show/video game extra gravitas. It’s ghastly in such a way that it’s hard to look away — they think they’re “improving” “Hungry Like the Wolf” when they’re really illustrating how little sense of fun or imagination they have. 

Not that all of the song’s covers are wretched. At the height of Hole’s popularity, Courtney Love would play “Hungry Like the Wolf” in concert, adding extra snarl to the lyrics. (When she introduced it one night, she opened by saying, “We are now going to play the best song ever written that you all pretend not to know,” a slap at the too-cool alt-rock crowd that wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to something as poppy as Duran Duran.) Simply by being a woman, Love proved that the song’s underlying lust could apply to boys or girls, transforming “Hungry Like the Wolf” into a universal anthem of sexual desire.

Of course, some folks decided to take the song’s title literally. For years, Burger King pursued Duran Duran in the hopes of obtaining permission to use “Hungry Like the Wolf” in its ads. In that same 2007 interview, Le Bon said it wasn’t anything as daft as “artistic integrity” that caused the band to turn the chain down. “They didn’t give us enough money!” he said. “If they had offered us the right amount of money, we’d have done it. Hey, that song’s available for the right amount of money. They were just being fuckin’ cheapskates. You’d think Burger King could come up with a little bit more than they came up with.” Apparently, Old Spice didn’t have the same problem since the deodorant company cast Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell in one of its commercials to play a piano-playing crooner doing a lounge-y version of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” 

But the song has had more troubling public associations as well. In 1983, an Oregon woman named Diane Downs was arrested for trying to shoot her three young children in her car. (Her daughter Cheryl died.) Downs told police that she’d been carjacked while “Hungry Like the Wolf” was playing on the stereo. In Ann Rule’s book about Downs, Small Sacrifices, the author claimed, “If Diane had a favorite song, it was Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like the Wolf.’” In fact, during Downs’ trial, the song was played in court, prompting the accused to tap her foot and bob her head. When Rule’s book was turned into a 1989 TV movie starring Farah Fawcett, the filmmakers dramatized that pivotal courtroom moment. (Downs was given a life sentence, with her next parole hearing set for this year.)

“Hungry Like the Wolf” really is such an innocuous song, dreamed up quickly in the studio, emblematic of the disposable, addictive pop music of its age. (“A ripple in a stagnant pool” is how an NME critic described one of the band’s early live shows.) But because of its glossy pleasures — its bright surfaces and ingratiating Do do do do do do do dodo dododo dodos — a darker layer has developed on the underside of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” a psychic space where the song’s potentially creepy overtones and the video’s cultural insensitivity have quietly grown over time. (Also worth noting: In 2018, Le Bon was accused of sexual assault, a charge he dened.) Even “Hungry Like the Wolf’s” attachment to Downs’ murder trial underlines the song’s strange, accidental sinisterness — the same way that Patrick Bateman rhapsodizes in American Psycho about Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square.” The 1980s’ shiny sleekness suggests something chilling underneath. 

I don’t think Duran Duran intended any of that. They were just trying to become stars. But it’s part of the song’s weird pull that its unsettling real-world associations only make it more seductive. Just when you think you’ve exhausted “Hungry Like the Wolf,” it sinks its claws back into you. “Stalked in the forest / Too close to hide / I’ll be upon you by the moonlight side,” Le Bon sings. It’s as much a promise as it is a warning.