Record Collector - February 1985
DESPITE THEIR RECENT INACTIVITY, THEY ARE STILL ONE OF THE MOST COLLECTABLE NEW WAVE BANDS.
BY RICHARD JACKSON
For a few months in 1979, Blondie were arguably the most successful
band in the world. "Heart Of Glass", "Call Me", "The Tide Is High"
and "Rapture" all topped the American charts, a feat emulated in
Britain by "Heart Of Glass", "Sunday Girl", "Atomic", "Call Me" and
"The Tide Is High". Their commercial decline, eventual split and
subsequent absence from the music scene is all the more surprising
given this record of commercial achievement - and the fact that it
happened so quickly. In the time it took for Debbie Harry to record
a solo album, between the release of the group's "Auto-American" and
"The Hunter" LPs, Blondie's stock fell dramatically. Ms Harry's
project met with mixed reviews and disappointing sales, and by the
time the full group had reconvened for what proved to be their last
album, the bubble had burst, and apparently few people were still
Five years after their peak is a useful time to look back at their
career, and judge how their reputation has been maintained during
their period of silence. Debbie Harry is still very much a media
figure, even if only seen by the press as a grieving companion
during Chris Stein's serious illness last year. But Stein's own
record company appears to have gone into some form of decline, and
the band's other members have achieved little in recent years. Even
Debbie Harry's acting career, most notably in "Videodrome", has
attracted less interest than expected, and the prospects of her
becoming a major movie star in the foreseeable future seem slight.
With this background, then, it is remarkable how well Blondie's
position has held up in the collecting world. Traditionally, few
people are interested in yesterday's heroes, and it often takes
several years for an act to achieve the kind of legendary status
that assures their future popularity with collectors. But as far as
the value of their records is concerned, there has been little fall
in Blondie's standing over the past three years. Musically, they
have at last moved away from the shadow of Debbie Harry's glamorous
image, which threatened at the time to turn the group into little
more than an extended vehicle for a media publicity career. The
band's early rarities have kept the high values which they won in
the first flush of their success, and later releases have also
started to climb in value over the last twelve months.
Record Collector No. 9 told the detailed story of the band's
influence and formation; but it is worth recapping the major stages
on the road from the New York clubs to international success. Debbie
Harry's first serious, recording outfit was the Wind In The Willows,
a soft, folky band formed by Paul Klein in 1967. They recorded two
albums, one of which was issued on Capitol (in the States only) in
1968 as SKAO 2956. Original copies still change hands for upwards of
£20, a price which has also been fetched by the late Seventies
reissue on Capitol CAPS 1030, itself deleted in 1981. Any price of
the magnitude paid for the reissue, however, appears to be as a
mistake, rather than because the re-release is particularly rare.
Despite its deleting, you shouldn't have to pay more than £5 for a
copy in Mint condition.
While Debbie Harry languished in the Willows, Chris Stein made a
breakthrough of some kind in the Morticians, a group who were
connected with the legendary Left Banke. The two eventually came
together in the Stilettos, originally a three-piece girl group formed by Debbie, Elda Gentile and Rosie Ross to mingle the sound of the Shangri-Las with rhythm and blues. Among the musicians called in to boost up the group's sound were Stein, Billy O'Connor and Fred Smith. When Debbie became bored with the Stilettos, she and Chris formed another, at first unnamed band, introducing ace drummer and anglophile Clem Burke into the line-up. Some time in 1974, they played their first gig as Blondie, and after a series of quickfire personnel changes, the personnel who were to record the group's first LP were assembled sometime in 1975.
Blondie now comprised of Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Clem Burke (drums), Jimmy Destri (keyboards) and Gary Valentine (bass). During 1975 the group recorded their first demos under the auspices of Alan Betrock, the editor of 'New York Rocker', the man who recorded Chris Stamey and the DBs, and
the author of the seminal study of the "Girl Groups". Four tracks from these sessions were subsequently pressed up as a limited edition bootleg EP ("Out In The Streets", "Platinum Blonde", "Thin Line" and "Puerto Rico"), an illicit release which has itself been heavily counterfeited. Also written during the same period were several other songs which later appeared on Blondie releases, including "Heart Of Glass" and the B-side of "Atomic", "Die Young, Stay Pretty".
These first demo recordings didn't immediately secure them a recording contract, but they did catch the attention of producer Richard Gottehrer (the man behind such Sixties' 'punk/pop' classics as the McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy"), who agreed to work with them on making a single for his own Instant Records label. Two tracks, "X Offender" and "In The Flesh", were recorded during the spring of 1976, and then taken by Gottehrer to Private Stock Records, a company previously best known for their work with the Four Seasons' lead singer, Frankie Valli, who was also a major shareholder in the company. Private Stock agreed to put the single out, and although it sold poorly outside of New York, they also put the money up for Gottehrer to produce the band's first album.
"Blondie" was recorded in August and September 1976, and released in January 1977 in America, and April 1977 in Britain. It has since come to be regarded as possibly their best work, comprising a selection of heavily Sixties' influenced power-pop, semi-punk songs, all showcasing Debbie Harry's slyly attractive vocals, the band's sloppy but entertaining musicianship, and Gottehrer's immaculate production. In Britain, "In The Flesh"/"X Offender" was issued to coincide with the album's release, and has since become their rarest U.K. single, with original copies fetching around £6 in Mint condition and demos selling for about twice that. American promos of the single also sell for upwards of £10 apiece.
Before the recording of their second album, Blondie underwent another change of personnel when bassist Gary Valentine was fired from the group by their manager, after personal and musical conflicts dating back some months. His immediate replacement was Frank 'The Freak' Infante, who later switched to guitar when Nigel Harrison was introduced into the line-up to make Blondie a six-piece. Gary Valentine, meanwhile, entered into a solo career. The first fruit of this was a single, "The First One"/"Tomorrow Belongs To You", issued in 1978 on Beat Records 001, a small independent label which received little distribution. Gary then formed a band called the Know, whose sole released recording appears to be "I Like Girls", which was released on the Planet new wave compilation LP "Sharp Cuts" in 1980. Apart from including a track by the DBs, the album had little else to recommend it, and copies should be available in secondhand shops in this country and America for less than the current price of the average single.
Blondie, meanwhile, found fame and public acclaim waiting for them with the release of the "Plastic Letters" album, which was stylistically very similar to their first LP, and the singles from it, "Denis (Denise)" and "I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear". "Denis", originally recorded by Randy and the Rainbows in the early Sixties, proved particularly popular in Britain, where Blondie received ecstatic and comprehensive press coverage, especially from 'Sounds', who barely let a week go by without putting Debbie Harry on their front cover.
By this time, Blondie had moved record companies from Private Stock to Chrysalis, in the hope that a bigger and more sympathetic label might be able to increase their sales. One result of the switch in Britain was that the band's first album was reissued just five months - and few sales - after its original release on Private Stock. Original copies quickly became collector's items, selling for about £10 each; and that price had been maintained, and even increased, since then, with an average Mint condition value now being about £12.
Few of Blondie's major hit singles contained any material of great interest to the collector, although the fact that all but their first release came in picture sleeves automatically made them collectable. Only "Presence Dear", which included the otherwise unavailable B-side "Poet's Problem", offered any interesting bait until the group finally broke with long tradition and offered another non-LP flipside on the back of "The Tide Is High" in 1980. The group had other enticements for record-buyers, however, such as the single "Picture This" (the first to be taken from the group's third, Mike Chapman-produced album, "Parallel Lines") being released in a special edition pressed in yellow vinyl. In addition, 12" singles began to be released of each new single, beginning with "Rip Her To Shreds" - although few of these contained any extra material, either.
The group's 12" versions of their next two hit singles, "Heart Of Glass" and "Sunday Girl", however, did present something new for loyal fans to purchase. The long version of "Heart Of Glass" on the 12" single was different from that offered on the 7" or LP, while on the flipside was a disco instrumental version of the song. Similarly, "Sunday Girl" in 12" form came with the added bonus of a French-language take of the song, unavailable elsewhere in Britain. Completing a consecutive trio of worthwhile 12" releases, the elongated issue of "Atomic"/"Die Young, Stay Pretty" featured a bonus track otherwise unreleased, a live version of "Heroes" recorded with the aid of Robert Fripp, leader of King Crimson.
Blondie's success probably reached its peak with the release of the "Eat To The Beat" album, for which a special videodisc presentation was also produced. The band's run of orthodox singles from albums was briefly broken by the release of "Union City Blue", a song which was taken from the soundtrack of a film directed by Mark Reichert, in which Debbie Harry appeared and for which Chris Stein wrote the (as yet unreleased) score. It wasn't quite as commercial a number as the group's recent releases, and so it interrupted a series of Top Three successes that was quickly restored with the release of "Atomic" and another film soundtrack song, "Call Me". This latter recording was written and produced by the former king of Munich disco, Giorgio Moroder, as part of his score for the film "American Gigolo", and its sub-heavy metal approach was particularly popular in America, where it was the band's biggest-selling record.
Later in 1980 Blondie produced their most adventurous album to date. "Autoamerican" spawned two singles which showed how closely Debbie Harry and Chris Stein had been listening to developments in the black music field. "The Tide Is High" lightly fingered the band's interest in reggae and ska, while the follow-up, the group-composed "Rapture", was probably the first white rock record to show any recognition of the growing 'rap' cult in New York. "The Tide Is High" made No. 1 in Britain and America, while "Rapture" made an even bigger impression, despite not selling quite a well, especially in the States.
To hammer home the black music influence, Debbie Harry asked Chic producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to work on a solo album with her. It eventually emerged in 1981, to lukewarm reviews, and the general feeling among critics and fans alike was that it fell uncomfortably between the original Blondie style and the New York disco feel, doing neither influence full justice. Two singles, "Backfired" and "Inner City Spillover"/"The Jam Is Moving", were taken from it, both available in 7" and 12" versions, but neither sold as well as expected and both have now become deleted, with the 12" copies selling for around £4 apiece in their picture sleeves. In fact, most of the press coverage of the album's release
centered around its unusual cover photograph, which showed Debbie Harry's face apparently pierced by long rods, in an elaborate 'sci-fi' mask designed by H.R. Giger. The album "Koo Koo" can finally be marked down as an interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful, experiment, which so far Debbie Harry has chosen not to repeat.
During the lay-off which Harry's solo work entailed in the group's activities, and which prompted the usual flurry of press claims that the band had split, other members too the opportunity to indulge themselves in solo projects. Most notably, Jimmy Destri released a solo album, "Heart On A Wall", which featured contributions from Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick. Meanwhile, Chris Stein launched his own Animal Records label, with releases from the likes of John Cale and Iggy Pop, as well as taking the opportunity to produce an album for Casino Music on Ze Records, and work with Walter Stedding on his eponymous album on Red Star Records.
Blondie came together again late in 1981 for the sessions that were to produce their final album. And it was obvious from the start that something had changed. The lay-off had dissipated the group feeling that had been so important throughout their time together, and the LP, "The Hunter", reflected all the group's diverse interests without succeeding in typing them all together. Although the album's first single, "Island Of Lost Souls", was a British hit, it flopped in America, a failure repeated by the "War Child" single which followed it. This happened despite the release of both singles being attended by 12" and picture disc versions, and the issue of the LP in a limited edition picture disc format as well. To date, Blondie have issued no more new material, and releases have been confined to repackagings of their earlier work. Most notable of these is "The Best Of Blondie", an orthodox and predictable compilation of single hits up to and including "Rapture", which also contained early tracks like "In The Flesh" and "Rip Her To Shreds".
Confusion was added to the band's discography at the end of 1981 when Chrysalis chose to reissue all the group's 12" singles which had been deleted up to that point, a total of seven in all. Differences were noticeable between the two issues: for example, original copies of the "Rip Her To Shreds" 12" listed the catalogue number on the cover as CHS 2180, while the reissue added the 12 prefix to that number; similarly, the originals carried the original marketing claim, "three tracks for 75p", while this was understandably missing from the reissues. At present, original copies sell for about twice the price of the reissues.
Besides the straightforward Blondie releases, there is one other single which the group has a hand in recording, although they were hardly instrumental in its release. In 1978 they taped a version of the Sixties' car song "Little GTO" with L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer and American Spring. Debbie shared lead vocals with Rodney, with American Spring (and according to some reports, Brian Wilson) backing them up. Rodney promised that the single wouldn't be released, but in 1979 it appeared on London HLZ 10574, with Bingenheimer's vocals removed, and credited to 'The New York Blondes.... featuring Madame X'. Issued also in Europe in a picture sleeve, the single was quickly withdrawn, and now sells for anything up to £6 in Mint condition. A more legitimate release followed on U.S. Bomp 127, credited to Rodney and the Brunettes, with this time Debbie Harry's vocals mixed out and Rodney's mixed up in their place.
There are a host of Blondie releases from Europe and other overseas countries which interest collectors, mainly because they have different track listings or picture sleeves to the U.K. issues. We hope to examine these in more detail in a future issue. Particularly noteworthy, however, are the foreign language recordings already mentioned: "Sunday Girl" in French on Chrysalis 6155 252, and "Call Me" in Spanish on Chrysalis 2414. There are also several coloured vinyl releases from other countries which generally sell for about £5 apiece in Mint condition.
Although Blondie are no longer working together, the impact which they made on the rock scene at their peak at the end of the Seventies has ensured that their output is still keenly collected, both here and in America. And it seems certain that as the years go by, the nostalgic appeal of their records, which captured and mixed the best of American and British new wave and pop, will continue to increase the value of their original releases.