That Blondie may be remembered as perhaps the best singles band to emerge from the new wave era — in fact, a world-class hitmaking powerhouse — is extraordinary for those who recall the group’s humble genesis and occasionally appalling early efforts in the mid-’70s. Even after the New Yorkers had secured a recording contract, few expected they could ever surpass the commercial level of, say, Lou Reed — i.e., a moderate fluke hit single, perhaps a charting album, but mainly cult status. How could the torpid, immovable, generally disgusting commercial music establishment of the day somehow reverse itself and open up to Blondie? Like the rest of the “us” they were part of, it seemed Blondie would always be on the outside looking in.
Yet the core members (singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, keyboard player Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke) always had a vision that anything was possible. So what if they weren’t slick studio musicians? They’d still be able to put the sounds in their heads on plastic, sounds that weren’t just “Pure Pop for Now People” but pure pop for Top 40 radio — in the most sincere, uncynical and popularly resonating tradition. So they engaged in inspired, positively subversive, musical “pilferage” and synthesis in ways few others have consistently sustained. And through all of that (until the last album of the group’s original existence, anyway), Blondie maintained a distinctive group identity.
Some of their dabblings weren’t successful, but it’s only fair to note that many others wet their musical toes in the same exotic waters only after Blondie set the precedent. Moreover, Blondie largely pursued their commercial and artistic goals in nonconformist fashion, often to the dismay of their record company and even some of their fans.
Blondie effervesces with exuberance which, at points, extends the band’s reach beyond its grasp. Still, it’s a guileless classic, and arguably the group’s best album. They create a series of charming musical Frankenstein monsters — stitched together from salsa, funk, Broadway pop and thrill-flick soundtracks — in addition to their more typical girl-group/surf/Anglopop hybrids, as on “X Offender,” the debut single included here. Any lapses in expertise are counterbalanced by the sense of ebullient abandon, as captured by producer Richard Gottehrer.
Plastic Letters reflects not only professional seasoning and a better rapport with Gottehrer, but also the turmoil of changes in personnel, management and record label. The resulting album — fuller, tighter and more authoritatively rocking than the debut — includes the band’s first two UK hits, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” (written by, and recorded as a sort of tribute to, departed bassist Gary Valentine) and “Denis” (a revamp of the 1963 Randy & the Rainbows oldie). There’s also a brooding feel to many of the tracks — the hard, riffy stuff and the thoughtful experimentation (“Cautious Lip”) alike. More conservative than Blondie, and less exciting.
By Parallel Lines, the new lineup had already jelled, and producer Mike Chapman (looking to repeat the massive success he enjoyed during the early-’70s days of English glitter-pop) took over behind the board, effectively imposing his exacting, disciplined approach. The band seems totally in control of every musical form it takes on, from zombie metal to pop-a-billy, from quasi-avant spaciness to the hitbound electro-disco flirtation, “Heart of Glass.” Compared to Gottehrer’s first-take spontaneity, some of the LP seems a tad clinical, but it’s easily good enough to be considered America’s answer to Nick Lowe’s first solo LP.
Eat to the Beat, surprisingly, proved less artistically and commercially successful than an album that recapitulates a soaring band’s strong points should have been, but it does have some of the best sheer rock’n’roll the group ever produced. Autoamerican goes in precisely the opposite direction; breaking out of a stylistic cul-de-sac, Blondie jumped out in a number of new directions again: cocktail jazz, Eurodrama, country (sort of) and rap. An “A” for effort, but Blondie’s most uneven album, ranging from obvious boo-boos to the hits “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High.”
Two years after that ambitious album, The Hunter sounds as though the band’s excitement about musical recombination had simply degenerated into a polished but sterile capability of manipulating a wide variety of stylistic devices. Bereft of things to say, or ways to say nothing with style and grace, the album is aimless and elephantine — its largely impenetrable pretentiousness is not so far removed from dinosaurs like Jefferson Starship or Yes.
The Best of Blondie should really be called The Singles Album, since that’s exclusively what’s on it and what limits the view it gives of the group. It doesn’t include the spiffy version they did of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” for the soundtrack of the movie Roadie, but it does have three special remixes and the otherwise non-LP hit “Call Me” (from American Gigolo). The US and UK editions differ according to Blondie’s chart successes in those markets.
With the group on the verge of collapsing from fatigue and acrimony in 1981, Harry made her first solo album, KooKoo, in collaboration with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic (plus a little help from Stein). She’s out of her depth. Trying to insert herself into their musical format, she strains for vocal personae (serious romantic and quasi-politically streetwise) to which she is unsuited. About a third of the record is moderately successful infectious funk-pop. For all of its shortcomings, however, the then-controversial pairing with the pre-crossover Chicmen still stands as an example of the adventurous and prescient trailblazing that had typified Harry and Stein within Blondie.
The couple lost the next few years to Stein’s extended and debilitating illness, although Harry did contribute a song to the soundtrack of the 1985 hip-hop movie Krush Groove and pursue the acting side of her career. Regrettably, Rockbird, Harry’s first attempt at a real comeback after Stein’s recovery, is nearly a cipher. Although nicely produced (by J. Geils Band keyboardist/songwriter Seth Justman), and starting strong with the bouncy “I Want You,” the album carries little overall impact. There aren’t many catchy tunes; the lyrics are surprisingly flat. “Secret Life” is particularly annoying for announcing a revelation but saying nothing at all. The song that best captures Blondie’s lovable playfulness is “French Kissin’,” but Harry had no hand in writing it.
While Harry did little recording over the next few years, fans got a chance to see her in Hairspray and on TV’s Wiseguy, where she portrayed (natch) a rock singer.
Considering how badly their career was going at the time, it’s ironic that the Thompson Twins wrote and co-produced the best song on Def, Dumb & Blonde. “I Want That Man” is a kicky love song with an immediate hook and delightfully flip lyrics. (Their other contribution, “Kiss It Better,” is patented TT bounce-pop that Harry coos alluringly.) Otherwise, the surprising reunion with producer Mike Chapman yields one handy reminder of Blondie’s surging ’60s guitar pop (“Maybe for Sure”) and a lot of dull stylistic retreads. The CD adds four, including the old-fashioned “Bike Boy” and Harry’s crisp rendition of the Fast’s kitschy “Comic Books.”
Although it shares five songs with The Best of Blondie, Once More Into the Bleach — a mix of group songs and Harry’s solo work — offers some of them (and eight others) in drastically remixed and elongated form. Considering this music from a decidedly dance-oriented perspective overlooks its historical context, eliminating the friendly openness of Blondie’s new wave pop records for the distant sound of anonymous star product — an effect the original albums, regardless of their hits, always avoided. Clubbing up already rhythmic jams like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” and “Rapture” involves no great stylistic leap, but cutting the joy out of “Denis” is unforgivable, and the Coldcut dub mix (complete with seagulls) of “The Tide Is High” (inexplicably credited here to Harry solo) is idiotic. Oddly, the set ends with the group’s delightful (and previously rare) French rendition of the third album’s “Sunday Girl,” mercifully unsullied by studio second-guessers. In 1985, Remixed Remade Remodeled: The Remix Project yielded better results, with such notable hip-hop and technocratic stars as Utah Saints, E-Smoove and Armand Van Helden revising 11 items from the band’s catalogue.
Keyboardist Destri’s solo outing, produced by Lou Reed/Pink Floyd cohort Michael Kamen and featuring Clem Burke, takes traditional pop values and updates them with decidedly Bowiesque leanings. Destri had already proved himself a creative and occasionally inspired musician and songwriter in the group context (and beyond — in 1980 he produced an album by Joey Wilson); here, he proves solid, if not exemplary, in those capacities. But his lack of vocal ability or even identity is a definite drag on the proceedings.
The 19-track Blonde and Beyond combines not-quite greatest hits — beloved album tracks never released as singles — and such rarities as B-sides, live cuts and foreign language versions of songs. The next year brought the more exhaustive two-disc Platinum Collection, which gathers all of the band’s singles and most of their B-sides. It also boasts Blondie’s widely bootlegged early demos, the best of which is a cover of the Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Street.” The liner notes offer commentary from Destri, Burke, Gary Valentine, Frank Infante (who played bass on Plastic Letters after Valentine’s departure and then switched to guitar when Nigel Harrison joined, in time for Parallel Lines) and Harrison, demonstrating that whatever tensions and hard feelings tore Blondie apart appear to be water under the bridge, at least amongst the supporting players. Stein and Harry are notable in their absence from this project.
The first official Blondie concert album, Picture This Live, was released as part of a celebration of EMI’s 100th anniversary. Recorded in Philadelphia and Dallas in 1978 and 1980, it proves Blondie to have been a powerful live act, which makes it especially odd that it took 15 years after their break-up to release a live disc. Highlights include a reggaefied “Slow Motion,” a version of “Heart of Glass” which gives credence to the band’s claim that they were aiming more for Kraftwerk than Donna Summer when they originally recorded it and an epic 15-minute medley of T.Rex’s “Bang a Gong” and Iggy’s “Funtime.”
Having spent the better part of two decades apart (Burke did endless amounts of session drumming and was a member of Chequered Past, Dramarama, the Plimsouls and several other bands; after his illness, Harry and Stein concentrated on her solo career; she also moonlighted in the Jazz Passengers; Destri retired to low-profile studio work), the core members of Blondie reunited in 1999 (with old school New York new wave producer Craig Leon) for No Exit. Whatever old fans might have been hoping to hear from the band, the lead-off “Screaming Skin,” a vampire story set to a ska beat, most likely wasn’t it. “Forgive and Forget” lands more firmly in traditional Blondie territory, but it’s the third track, Destri’s “Maria,” that finally delivers the goods: this soaring pop song is a clear reminder that when the chemistry between these four individuals is mixed in the proper proportions, they are capable of magic. The rest of the album is a mixed bag, and the number of outside writers, including Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, is a little worrisome. The title track is an embarrassing mash-up of horror films, Coolio and J.S. Bach. “Nothing Is Real but the Girl” is a rocker that would’ve sounded fine on Eat to the Beat. “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” is a jazz number that is nowhere near as excruciating as the title suggests. The excellent “Under the Gun” is a moving tribute to the late Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce. A finished recording of “Out in the Streets” is an overproduced genre exercise compared to the original demo. After a few more forgettable tracks, including an excursion into country twang, No Exit returns to horror movie imagery with the strange zombie chant “Dig Up the Conjo.” Exactly what the band is going for here is anyone’s guess. Unlisted live renditions of “Dreaming,” “Call Me,” and “Rapture” are included as a bonus. The good stuff here is good enough to atone for the bad, which is actually forgettable rather than terrible, but No Exit is definitely more of a piece with The Hunter than with Parallel Lines. It’s great to have Blondie back, but the album falls short of making a strong case for why.
Blondie Live, a concert document of the reunited group, captures a still-inspired live act. Tellingly, the album leans predominantly on vintage material, but the new stuff included compares favorably to the classics. In this context, “Screaming Skin” and “No Exit” don’t sound so bad at all. A non-essential re-recording of “One Way or Another” which served as the theme song for the short-lived TV show Snoops is included as a bonus. The digitally remastered 2002 Greatest Hits, which is front-loaded with bona fide US hits for an odd sequence, serves up 18 of the usual suspects plus the absolutely worthy “Maria.” Oddly, for such a belated project, the back cover photo is of the first-album lineup.
In a development that would have been inconceivable 20 years earlier, The Curse of Blondie did not have a US label when it was released in Europe at the end of 2003. (That situation was rectified in April 2004.) Following what seems to be a tradition, the album begins with a dreadful opener, “Shakedown.” (Has any other major band ever ignored the advice to start an album with a strong track as often as Blondie has? See “Europa,” “Orchid Club,” and “Screaming Skin” for further evidence.) But, after that, Curse is a solid album and a definite improvement over No Exit. “Good Boys” is a great Blondie disco song, and most of the rockers that follow, especially “Undone” and “Last One in the World,” find the group back in the neighborhood of their salad days. “Magic (Asadoya Yunta)” adds traditional Okinawan folk music to their list of try-anything-once experiments with charming results. “End to End” plays like a down-tempo cover of “Call Me,” while “The Tingler” is more sparkling dance pop. The exceedingly strange but fascinating “Desire Brings Me Back” sounds like the band trying to play Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia” while a klezmer band tunes up in the corner. The torchy “Songs of Love” ends Curse on a strong note. If No Exit was a tentative return, the band definitely regained its confidence on The Curse of Blondie.
A seemingly endless torrent of Blondie compilations has poured into the market in recent years. Most are dubious, micro-label releases, the kind that turn up in truck stop mini-marts and Walgreens checkout lines — worthless and pointless to even try and keep track of. A couple are noteworthy, however. The EMI Singles Box packs up CD single replicas of all the 45s issued by the band during its ’70s and ’80s heyday, nearly duplicating the Platinum Collection and thus non-essential (not to mention an inconvenient format for, you know, listening), though it does contain the live cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” from the “Atomic” 12-inch. Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision is likewise superfluous (and oddly named, after a Bowie song the band didn’t cover), although it does contain a DVD compilation of 16 vintage videos. Live by Request documents Blondie’s appearance on the A&E Network’s Live by Request program; an okay live performance marred by the absence of Destri.
After writing the best song on each of the band’s first two albums — “X Offender” and “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” — original Blondie bassist Gary Valentine split New York for Los Angeles, where he formed a great power-pop combo, the Know. They recorded one single, many demos and got a lift from inclusion on the Sharp Cuts compilation of unsigned bands but managed to steadfastly miss out on every opportunity they had to sign to a major label. Their long-term prospects were further hampered by the fact that the LA pop scene (post-Knack) was about to be decisively flattened by the onrushing hardcore juggernaut. After the Know disbanded, Valentine retired from music to become a writer and journalist. Although he was asked to join the Blondie reunion, he didn’t stay long enough to record No Exit. Still, the experience rekindled his interest in making music and he formed the Fire Escape. With violin, saxophone and bass taking the lead instrumental roles, Fire Escape had more in common with English post-punk bands like the Delta 5 or Essential Logic than either Blondie or the Know. Fire Escape recorded one EP before disbanding.
Tomorrow Belongs to You compiles Valentine’s entire post-Blondie output. The tracks by the Know showcase a power-pop outfit with better than average songs but lacking the spark that would have set them apart from similar bands of the time. Valentine is an excellent songwriter but only an adequate vocalist. It’s probably unfair to point out how much better the Know’s songs would have sounded with Debbie Harry singing them, but the presence of the Know’s decent rendition of “Presence, Dear” makes comparisons to a classic performance inevitable. The Know material also includes a ragged but endearing live version of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and just plain ragged version of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” The Fire Escape tracks are excellent and intriguing, with fine songwriting and the unique duel of violin and saxophone. It’s a shame the outfit didn’t last long enough to record more than the five songs included here. Overall, Tomorrow Belongs to You shines an overdue spotlight on a talented guy who never quite managed to catch the big break.