Melody Maker - September 9th 1978
Pages 2, 8, 9, 22, 29
Pages 8 & 9
From Blondie with love...
by Harry Doherty
CLEM BURKE offers a rather intriguing analogy about his band: Blondie are now playing the roles patented earlier this decade by Gary Glitter, T. Rex and Sparks. In '78 teenage adulation is back.
Burke's theory is based on a number of factors. The first was the scene outside the Blondie photographic exhibition at the Mirandy Gallery, London, three weeks ago when Debbie Harry was unceremoniously mobbed and the band chased by fans.
Another is that Blondie devotees have become noticeably younger (14 and upwards) and are taking an interest in the sharp dress sense of band members. The third is, of course, Debbie Harry herself, who is facing an increasing onslaught of media pressure and public attention.
"It's an interesting phenomenon," says Burke. "I dunno if it's the British fans or press or what, but the thing here seems to be very fickle. Right now, we're in the genre of Bolan and Glitter, and it'll be really interesting to see if we can surpass that short-term aspect and just find our own niche where we can keep progressing.
"I don't want the sort of thing to happen to us that happened to Bolan and Glitter, obviously. I get the feeling that they sort of gave up because they couldn't break through to the States.
"When Bolan and all those guys were making records, there was an art to it. They were trying to make hit records but that in itself is an art. People shouldn't shrug that off as being teenybopper or whatever. I know now that we're regarded as a teenybopper band, which is pretty funny."
Debbie Harry takes the short-term career aspect a step further to involve the attitudes of the record company.
"It seems that most of the newer groups since the start of the Seventies haven't lasted and I think that's because of the manipulation of the business and it's because of the pressure that's put on about product.
"The record company says: 'We want to develop an artist' but I don't think that's real. What they want is product on a regular schedule so that they can release it according to their sales programme. It doesn't have to do with any sort of cyclical inspiration.
"Rock groups don't last long now because of the system that's developed around the marketing or rock and roll, and that system is ingrained in the public's mind."
But Clem Burke, who was sporting short hair and snazzy thin ties on the streets of New York four years ago (according to Jimmy Destri), is already thinking about the next move.
"I think it's bad to get trapped into an image as well. Maybe now we should all grow our hair long again."
BLONDIE are becoming a very big band in Europe, with a sold-out major British tour (opening this weekend at Hammersmith Odeon, where they play three concerts).
The 75-minute set that I saw in Stockholm (at the Tivoli Gardens) and Oslo (Chateau Neuf) was devoid of the untidy amateurism that has marked previous visits to this country, but without, I must add, losing any of the band's essential rock and roll feel.
The set is representative of the band's three albums, with six songs from "Blondie", six from "Plastic Letters", and as many again from the new album, "Parallel Lines". The strange thing is that the material from the latest album seems much more suited to live performance than the recorded work would lead you to believe.
The band's musical competence, too, has increased on a par with the excellence of the material. Obviously, Debbie Harry is the focal point in any performance, and she is emoting better than at any time I've seen before, although there was one eerie point in Oslo when, after being hit by a piece of plastic thrown by some Norwegian idiot, she retreated to the drum podium and didn't budge for the rest of the set. It deflated the gig totally, and emphasised her importance to Blondie.
Otherwise, it was good to hear the guitar solos in the mix, and for once we could appreciate the contrasting styles of Chris Stein and Frank Infante, quickly emerging as a cool character within the band.
His song "I Don't Know" could be the anthem of the Blank Generation. English bassist Nigel Harrison (who requests us to say hello to relatives in Berkshire) has combined perfectly with drummer Clem Burke, whose busy style is given unusual prominence.
Blondie, you see, are out to establish itself, and they feel that too many people have been blinded by the beauty of Debbie Harry. They want it recorded that they are a band with a history, that they formed in May 1975 and recorded their first single in May 1976.
As Debbie herself puts it: "For all people know, we could have just been put together by Peter Leeds (their manager), hired and popped out of a can." She also feels that she is in a very "schizophrenic" position. While seeing the logic of exploiting her glamour, she is also desperate that the band's general identity is retained.
At one stage in their career she suggested that only pictures of the band should be distributed. "That was my basic premise a long time ago and I was told that I was crazy, that you have to ride the wave that comes along. I can see that, but I can't really feel that."
Just before signing a recording contract (with Private Stock), Debbie also wanted to change the band's name because, as Clem Burke explains, "she thought that if that name stayed the reference point would be her.
There was a vague idea to change the name to Hitler's Dog, because Adolf's pet was called... you guessed it, but the band kindly turned down Debbie's gesture.
JIMMY DESTRI wrote "I sold my own vision for a piece of the cake" on "Fan Mail", the opening track of "Plastic Letters", and the line was immediately seized upon to prove that Blondie had sold out. The track was, in fact, the last song written for the first album but there wasn't enough room to include it.
Destri explained that the original intention with "Fan Mail" was sarcasm. "We were all dumb kids then. When I was writing it, Debbie said: 'Why do you always complain about the business. Nothing's even started yet. I don't wanna hear anything about the business. Wait till it really happens.' And she was right.
"The thing about Blondie is a very American mainstream thought, rather than a couple of poseurs in fancy dress and black guitars. The way we considered Blondie to go into Europe would be like an American sports car driving through Marble Arch, something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
"The danger is that Debbie could become over-exploited and that could hurt the group. We could turn into a European joke band if we're not careful, and one thing we don't want is to become a second-rate Abba."
STEIN and Harry are at pains to point out that they value their integrity. Everybody in the band, Stein explains, comes from a very idealistic generation - "even more so than the Beatles or Stones, who were happy to succumb to the pop star life".
One of the criticisms voiced about "Plastic Letters", indeed, was that the shift from the pop of the debut album to the hard rock of the follow-up was so severe that Blondie had obviously sold out in order to gain mass appeal.
"Plastic Letters" was hard, Debbie answered, because the group felt hard at that time. They did agree that they wanted mass appeal and went on to note that if they achieved it, they would like to draw people's attention to matters like the run-down environment.
"And when we talked about things like the environment," Stein moans, "people are just gonna say, 'they're full of shit. They're saying this as a cop-out, to protect themselves'. And yet those people who accuse us of copping out, what are they doing? Nothing. They just sit there.
"I happen to think that 'Parallel Lines' is a safe album in some ways and because of that a lot of people are going to accuse us of selling out even more. I think that the album will have more mass appeal, but I still don't think we have abandoned our principles....."
Harry: "No. I think it's a firmer statement of our principles because what we've always done is a wide variety of pop music. 'Parallel Lines' is a better Blondie. Better songs. Better playing. Better singing.
"The only thing that might not be better about it is that it's as adventurous in terms of our original stance, but maybe our next thing will be a further step in terms of adventure."
Stein: "We would like to combine a certain degree of experimentation with mass appeal, like that Donna Summer song, 'I Feel Love'. It was a big hit and the thing to me is very experimental and was probably a real chancy thing for them to put out, not knowing that every body would accept something that was completely electronic like that."
Earlier in the day, Stein, in the flow of a conversation had used the term "MOR Punk" to describe what Blondie was trying to achieve.
"Bringing all people together. I think it's dangerous always to have an 'out' group, the way punk alienated itself from other music. I was thinking particularly of "Will Anything Happen", from the new album, which is a melodic, punk-edged song when I used the term.
"We are trying to do what the Beatles did. The Beatles had gigantic mass appeal. They created an identity for a lot of young kids. They created a huge diversity in music. Granted, they had a longer span. Our thing is a lot more compact in a shorter time.
"Part of the frustration in doing what we do is being at the mercy of anybody at this point. I wish that these people who accuse us of capitalism would go to Russia and find out just what they can write there."
BLONDIE: "Parallel Lines" (Chrysalis CDL 1192). Deborah Harry (vocals), Destri (keyboards, vocals), Frank Infante (guitar, vocals), Nigel Harrison (bass), Clem Burke (drums). Produced by Mike Chapman.
BLONDIE'S third album seems designed to cater for two distinct requirements: a) to satisfy the near-hysterical cries for the pure pop of the band's debut album; and b) to consolidate their popularity with the hard-rock audience that helped chart the second set, "Plastic Letters."
Presumably, that is the significance behind this album's title. "Parallel Lines" emerges as an interesting endeavour by Blondie to keep two yelping hounds at bay without sacrificing any artistic integrity and even hinting on one track ("Fade Away And Radiate") that their musical future lies far from the commerciality of the first two albums.
Having subjected the album to intense scrutiny (i.e. I've had a tape for a couple of weeks and played it nightly), I'm of the opinion that the compromise between the first and second album is a healthy one and should ideally serve to confirm Blondie's importance in the present and future.
Mike Chapman (you must know Chinnichap) has been called in to handle the production (Richard Gottehrer directed the first two albums), which is a commendable and ambitious attempt by the band to crystallise their pop attitudes. But I have to say that Blondie are no Sweet, Smokie or Mud and are really not suited to the discipline Chapman obviously wields in the studio.
For starters, I'm not too enamoured of his handling of Deborah Harry's vocal. He forces a strict delivery that is uncharacteristic of her usual casual, street-corner drawl.
On the other hand, there are choruses on the album ("Hanging On The Telephone" and "Pretty Baby" especially) where voices have been tightened to capture that magical Ronettes-like poppiness.
To his credit, though, Chapman has pushed Blondie's lucrative pop sensibilities to the fore, exaggerating hooks (which perhaps explains why Debbie Harry's vocal is mixed so high) and making what were very commercial songs even more magnetic.
This works best on "Hanging On The Telephone," the brilliant "Pretty Baby" (a
number one smasheroo if I ever heard one), "11.59," "Sunday Girl" and "I'm Gonna Love you too," all of which are of a pop excelience that qualifies them for singles and would be more appropriate as a 45 than the dull (in comparison) "Picture This."
Another obvious single is the disco-flavoured "Heart Of Glass," which has, naturally, bass and keyboards prominent against Debbie's beautifully seductive vocal.
Generally, there is a consistency in the band's writing that, in retrospect, may have been previously missing. With the rock songs, the pushy "One Way Or Another," the nonchalant but deviously potent "I Know But I Don't Know" (with Infante duetting with Harry on vocals), "Will Anything Happen," a panic-stricken rocker, and "Just Go Away," with Debbie at her bitchiest ("If you talk much louder, you could get an award from the Federal Communications Board"), Blondie further exploit their growing interest in hard, melodic rock.
That leaves one track, "Fade Away And Radiate," the most testing composition Blondie have yet recorded. Not only does it challenge their own capabilities, but the song is a radical departure from what the band's fans (who get what they want here otherwise) expect. It features Robert Fripp on guitar.
My immediate reaction was to recoil in surprise at the shock shift but I've since found that the track has a haunting, hypnotic appeal and, with each subsequent listen, I've appreciated it more.
This album will consolidate Blondie's UK popularity. The next, I suspect, will test their audiences loyalty. - H.D.
pick of the week's gigs
BLONDIE: London Hammersmith Odeon, Saturday, September 9. Support act: the Boyfriends. Tickets sold out. Concert starts at 8pm. Blondie return to England better and tighter than on any of their previous visits - constant gigging in America having got the band into condition. Debbie Harry's singing and projection is excellent, while the rest of the band's playing has matured tremendously. Expect a set that reflects the tones of their three albums, the pop of the first, the rock of "Plastic Letters" and the mixture of the new one, "Parallel Lines."