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Van Duren: Revisiting Memphis’ Golden Age of Power Pop

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Van Duren isn't resting on his laurels, though he has accumulated over 40 years' worth of them since releasing his first power-pop masterpiece — Are You Serious? — in 1978. That album and its follow-up have enjoyed renewed interest of late, especially since the 2019 release of the film Waiting: The Van Duren Story, made by Australian super-fans who became obsessed with Duren's Memphis-grown, post-Big Star approach to the perfect pop gem.

Now, after international reviews of both the film and Duren's performances to support it, the attention has culminated in reissues of both of Duren's late-1970s works, fully remastered and with new liner notes, to be released by Omnivore Recordings next month.

Van Duren, circa 1970s. - SETH TIVEN
  • Seth Tiven
  • Van Duren, circa 1970s.

But when I speak to Duren about all this, the first thing he wants to talk about is the new single he and Vicki Loveland released digitally in late August. "A Place of No Place" features Duren's Stonesy guitars under Loveland's angry, impassioned singing of lines like: "Tell us we're unpatriotic/We question despicable deeds. ... You're keeping children in cages/Doubling down on your hateful speech." Recorded at Royal Studios, its flourishes of soul horns give it an unmistakably Memphis sound.

Memphis Flyer: The political/social commentary song seems like a new direction for you.

Van Duren: Yeah, maybe so. Previously, on the Loveland Duren records, it's been more about familial things. Family and abuse, things like that. And there are a lot of love songs or out-of-love songs, which has been my thing for decades. But yeah, the new single's very topical and gets more so every day.

We had a song on our last record, from 2016, called "Not Allowed in the House Anymore." And it's exactly the same theme, really. Nothing changes, it's only gotten worse.

MF: Was that song and the others from the upcoming Loveland Duren album influenced by last year's tours, where you promoted the film Waiting by revisiting your early work?

VD: Touring behind the film last year in Australia, we went back to those songs from 40 years ago. And that forced me to go back and play keyboards again, which I hadn't done since 2013, when Vicki and I started working together on records. So that opened up a different avenue to writing that I had kinda shut down. Because I didn't want those things, seven or eight years ago, to start sounding like the things I'd done 40 years ago. Well, when it came to this one, since I'd been playing piano on that tour, it opened me up to playing piano. I hadn't forgotten.

MF: I imagine it's been emotional, seeing the old stuff come out. Especially the second album, Idiot Optimism, which was simply shelved.

VD: The first album was released in 1978 and it actually sold well for a new independent label. The album came out in March, and we toured in the spring and into the summer. And the experience of playing live for great crowds in the northeast really made me want to do less ballads and acoustic-oriented things, and a lot more band-oriented things. So we started recording in October 1978, and it took until January of 1980 before we had the thing completely done. At that point, the label had changed names and a couple of the original owners had left. I was hanging on for dear life. Everybody except for me and one other guy had converted to Scientology.

The pressure was on to go to the mission and take out bank loans for unbelievable amounts of money to pay for courses and all that. I just put 'em off and tried to be nice and buy some time. When the record was mixed, I got a cassette of the mixes and I walked. I just left. One thing led to another over the years, and then Omnivore did the soundtrack ablum for the film last year. It was a natural progression, and we decided to do these records right. I had a heavy involvement in everything this time. It's hard to believe that, 42 years after the fact, these two records are coming out like they were supposed to. Jeff Powell mastered it for vinyl, and the fidelity is just astonishing. I can hear all my mistakes.

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