In the fall of 1975, when Blondie could often be found playing the back room of Mother’s, a gay bar-turned-rock club on West 23rd Street, it seemed far from likely that they (or, for that matter, any of the amazing bands at the forefront of New York’s quixotic rock scene) would go very much further. Or that they even wanted to. While Blondie’s self-conscious revivalism held plenty of in-crowd appeal for the motley crew of record collectors, Max’s Kansas City glamsters, writers, would-be stars and New York Dolls acolytes who made up their following, their sweet compote of punk-pop sneer, genial ’60s girl-group attitude and grassroots DIY invention didn’t sync at all with the soulless modern mush that was then feeding music’s commercial machine. When Blondie beat the odds and became one of the first Bowery bands to snag a real record deal, the future was still lacking in wattage: Their corporate benefactor was a low-rent singles label whose flagship act was ex-Four Seasons singer Frankie Valli. As the Magic 8 Ball might have put it, “Outlook not so good.”
Well, fuck me sideways. Rather than complete the familiar sad story of dreams dashed and millions lost, Blondie marshaled its potent assets – a beautiful lead singer who could write songs (and seem sexy without ever pushing it), a superlative drummer and no shortage of creative imagination, plus a canny producer and a far better second label – to come out on top. Between 1979 and 1981, Blondie notched up three million-selling albums and four No. 1 singles, becoming an early MTV mainstay and an enduring avatar of New York new wave. And despite roots planted deeply in the past, Blondie had an open mind about the present, introducing white pop to stylistic elements – most notably disco and rap, but also a little reggae – which many other acts followed.
In Chronological Order
The keys to Blondie's future success could be discerned on their 1976 debut, but not in the music's amateurish charm so much as in its highly marketable lack of rebellion. For an offbeat band emerging from an exotic underground, Blondie was less inclined to break rules than to embrace familiarity and make it cool. (Skinny ties were, after all, just a standard fashion given an ironic afterlife.) The album is spunky entertainment, in line with the young group's nostalgic fandom and divergent enthusiasms. From the liner notes: "Blondie hates fun, but they have so much of it that...this blonde has come to give you a ton."
Singer Deborah Harry, perhaps practicing for her future as a movie actress, brings lighthearted theatricality to the innocuous attitude-mongering of "Rip Her to Shreds," "X Offender" and the West Side Story-inspired "A Shark in Jets Clothing." Matching the genial whiff of mock delinquency, the period sound by producer Richard Gottehrer (who had a personal hand in some important '60s records) is evocative rather than rote. So while keyboardist Jimmy Destri kicks in the needed dosage of classic Farfisa organ, he's unafraid to be modern, using majestic synthesizer for the surfin' sojourn of "In the Sun." Even if "In the Flesh" waltzes through a romantic cloud of cooing background vocals (including one of the Shirelles and Brill Building song legend Ellie Greenwich), it would never be mistaken for the Shangri-La's.
The brief album doesn't shine from end to end, which is its biggest failing. The lack of a dominant songwriter lends diversity — as well as inconsistency. Harry has credits on more than half the songs; Destri ("Look Good in Blue"), guitarist Chris Stein ("In the Sun") and bassist Gary Valentine ("X-Offender" with Harry) all contributed as well. A delightful start, but some fine tuning needed to be done.
It's always unsettling for a band that has strong songwriters to find success with other people's material, but two borrowed numbers are all that separate Blondie's second album from being an accomplished dud. Paradoxically, as the album is otherwise much less in thrall to the past than the debut, someone (producer Richard Gottehrer, perhaps) had the genius idea of turning Randy and the Rainbows' doo woppy 1963 hit "Denise" into a cooing Gallic powerpop ode to the male "Denis." With Clem Burke drumming up a vintage-style storm and Deborah Harry at peak coquettish form, the song became the band's breakthrough single in the U.K., setting the stage for prouder achievements to follow.
The other tune came from a more proximate source. As his parting gift to the band, departing bassist Gary Valentine left the group "I'm Always Touched by Your (Presence, Dear)," a great tune given a deliciously atmospheric and energetic arrangement. Otherwise, keyboardist Jimmy Destri and guitarist Chris Stein wrote most of the material, a haphazard set of tunes that don't define a sound or style. Unlike the first album's frivolity, the songs here dabble in pulp fiction ("Youth Nabbed as Sniper," "Contact in Red Square," "Bermuda Triangle Blues") but never go far enough. For her part, Harry co-wrote the syncopated "I Didn't Have the Nerve to Say No" and the racing "I'm on E" (which I have always assumed was about standing on a musical key rather than a prescient ode to taking ecstasy) and came up with the kicky "Love at the Pier" on her own. A woman's work is never done.
Emboldened by mounting success and buoyed by a stabilized six-piece lineup, Blondie made its third — and finest — album with British glam-pop maestro Mike Chapman (Sweet, Suzi Quatro), a shameless-but-savvy Top 40 button-pusher suited to the group's growing professionalism and ambition. Together, they embraced the allure of chart-pop's heritage with a minimum of actual nostalgia.
Freed of any obvious stylistic obligations, Parallel Lines has the impatience of a teen trying on clothes. There's boppy twee ("Pretty Baby" and the winsome "Sunday Girl"), peppy rock ("Hanging on the Telephone" and "Will Anything Happen," both written by ex-Nerves guitarist Jack Lee), catchy nonsense ("One Way or Another"), Berlin-era Bowie atmospherics ("Fade Away and Radiate") and, most shockingly at the time, disco. Credit Blondie's creative courage and prescience that "Heart of Glass," which was a divisive breach of new-wave faith at the time thanks to the percolating sequencer line and Clem Burke's lisping high-hat, now sounds as timeless and right as the cover of Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You Too," which follows it.
Given all the styles it encompasses, the album could have been chaotic, but judicious song selection and Deborah Harry's relaxed singing ties it all up in a pretty bow. Made by recent graduates of New York's rock fringe — the first to sell themselves to a mainstream audience — this thoughtful but harmless set of tunes is a virtual master class in full-color MTV pop.
While setting out to repeat their collaborative approach on Parallel Lines, Blondie and producer Mike Chapman misplaced the band's whimsy and failed to match that album's consistent delights. Gone are the smiling young jokers in their new wave suits, replaced here by solemn adults, posed like fashion models and photographed in soft sepia by the period cliché Norman Seeff. Gone too are joyous explosions like "One Way or Another" and "I'm Gonna Love You Too." Instead, the program features "Die Young Stay Pretty," "Living in the Real World" and "The Hardest Part," a poorly-sung and incoherent tale of armed robbery set, in part, to funk copied from David Bowie's "Fashion."
To be fair, the group coasts through the album ably, and the loss of innocence is far from fatal. Many of the band's virtues (chief among them Deborah Harry's fluty voice and Clem Burke's stupendous drumming) are used to great effect in the hook-filled "Dreaming," "Union City Blue," the Motown-styled "Slow Motion" and the fidgety "Accidents Never Happen." But the attempts at seriousness here compromise the band's exhilarating essence. And while the group can be forgiven for transplanting the sound of "Heart of Glass" into the single "Atomic," they really should have done more with the lyrics. "Your hair is beautiful/ Oh tonight/ Atomic" is an insult to the insouciant wit of "Once had a love and it was a gas/ Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass."
For a group with a lot at stake, career-wise, Blondie showed a lot of guts in making Autoamerican, a Petri platter of unprecedented stylistic ambition. Rather than play it safe after losing Parallel Lines' commercial momentum with the similar Eat to the Beat, the group tried on all sorts of costumes, not many of which proved flattering. They did break through what was, at the time, rock's formidable resistance to hip-hop by making "Rapture" equally alluring and ridiculous, added a lone American voice to the 2 Tone ska revival by sashaying through the Paragons' "The Tide Is High," and played at American funk in the wah-wah bounce of "Live It Up." Even the galloping cowboy twang of "Go Through It" is amusing, as is the surfbeat pulse of "Walk Like Me." But experimentation is risky. The suave continental soundtrack (plus bewildering recitation) of "Europa" is a terrible opening track, and attempts to frame Deborah Harry as a chanteuse (in the mock mustiness of "Here's Looking at You," the lush cover of the show tune "Follow Me," from Camelot, and the smoky nightclub invocation of "Faces") only serve to highlight the thinness and stiffness of her singing here.
Any lingering sense of Debbie Harry as just the glamorous figurehead of a musical boys club ended with the credits of The Hunter, which identify her as the lyricist of all but one of the 10 originals. Maybe the baby-band marketing slogan of "Blondie is a group" was meant to equitably share the creative talent, not just the visual appeal.
The subjects of her wildly diverse creations here include haunting autobiography ("English Boys" and the stardom-lacerating "The Beast"), a pair of chilly post-breakup missives (possibly aimed at guitarist Chris Stein, who ceased to be her romantic partner but continued to be a musical collaborator), global politics ("War Child") and lunatic science fiction ("Dragonfly," much of it, like "The Beast," spoken rather than sung).
If only these compelling communiquÃ©s had been hitched to equally stimulating music. With only rare bursts of instrumental fire and a few diverting tracks ("War Child," "English Boys," "Island of Lost Souls"), the lack of memorable melodies and incisive production ideas leaves The Hunter — the last album Blondie would make for nearly two decades — lost in the weeds.
Reconvening after a generation of acrimony, illness and musical change all around them, Blondie picked up where they left off, in the wanton unpredictability of The Hunter. Spirited in mood and performance (drummer Clem Burke sounds like a man in a hurry), the album follows ska, rap, country, cabaret, rock and other styles, sometimes with fine results but also to some dead ends. Deborah Harry does a convincing impression of jazzy crooner Blossom Dearie on the verses of "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" but recites tedious spoken sections elsewhere and sounds ridiculous rapping with Coolio on the impossibly confused title track. The inclusion of a Shangri-Las oldie, "Out in the Streets," reconnects Blondie to the vintage girl group sound from whence it arose, but ends up being just another passing fancy. Capping the handful of winning tracks here, No Exit finally triumphs with the memorable "Maria," the kind of knockout hit single that plays to Harry's strengths and made Blondie stars in the first place.
Like other new wave groups active in the early days of MTV (Simple Minds, OMD, Berlin), Blondie put their musical mark on a film, and had their greatest chart score with "Call Me," which Giorgio Moroder co-wrote and produced as the theme song for American Gigolo. The powerfully seductive dance track's inclusion adds to the value and completeness of this excellent singles collection, whose 19 tracks capture Blondie's essence and outline the band's achievement, while sloughing off the uneven results of their more audacious experimentation. It aptly summarizes No Exit, the band's 1999 reunion record, with exactly one track, the wonderful "Maria," and holds The Hunter down to a single shot as well. Otherwise, this is everything you need to hear, from "X-Offender" to "Rapture," "Hanging on the Telephone" to "Heart of Glass."
Other than its uncharacteristic hard-rock guitar sound, The Curse of Blondie is an undistinguished album whose many evident ambitions, exertions and contributors leave no mark. The novelty of a traffic report (on the first track, no less!), traditional Japanese music, skronking free-form horn jazz and jarring noises (which harsh the otherwise pleasing "Rules for Living") is progress of the wrong sort. And Deborah Harry reciting prose rather than singing songs is an old notion that should have been left behind. The production, loudly busied up with synths and guitars, ironically adds to the set's facelessness. The mix nearly drowns Harry out on "End to End," while "Diamond Bridge" has the cheesy sub-Halen sound of Scandal. When it's not flailing down a dead end alley, The Curse of Blondie finds serviceable uses for dance music, rock and pop. In a mark of something (efficiency?), "Good Boys," which bears more than a passing resemblance to "Call Me," does all three at once.