Record Collector - September 1999
NOTHING IS REAL
BUT THE GIRL
JAMES R. BLANDFORD REACHES INTO THE BLEACH TO LOOK AT TWENTY-TWO YEARS OF BLONDIE.
Few bands have achieved a comeback as stylish as Blondie's. After a seventeen-year hiatus, the New York pop-punksters, one of the first bands to emerge from the Big Apple-based New Wave of groups such as the Ramones and Talking Heads, have waltzed effortlessly back to the top of the charts with a No. 1 album, "No Exit", and a No. 1 single, "Maria". Their iconic singer, the ultra-cool and impossibly sexy Debbie Harry, may be 53, but a recent sell-out tour - they're still on the road as I write - has proved that age means nothing when you're a living pop legend with a list of timeless hit singles to pick from. And, in addition to pleasing their original fans, Blondie have captured a new audience by tapping into current musical trends, including a track with Coolio and a dance update of the classic "In The Streets", both featured on the new LP.
THE BIRTH OF BLONDIE
Debbie Harry's musical career began in 1967 when she hooked up with folk-rockers Wind In The Willows. Founded by former civil rights activist Paul Klein, the seven-strong band featured the decidedly brunette Debbie on vocals. In the male-dominated music environment of the time, the Willows were bound to make some small impression and thanks to a manager named Peter Leeds - who would later go on to become Blondie's controversial manager - they landed a deal with Capitol, who released their eponymous debut LP in 1968. The LP sank without a trace, while a spin-off single, "Moments Spent", fared little better - although it remains little more than a curio for Blondie fans, "Wind In The Willows" has been reissued on CD in recent years.
The group split in 1969, disillusioned by the album's failure, and Debbie would spend the next few years battling with drug dependencies, occasionally returning to live with her parents and finding her place in the New York underground art scene. Short-lived jobs saw her working as a Playboy bunny and waitressing in the trendy Max's Kansas City, but performing live was Harry's prime motivation, and in 1972 she found herself joining female vocal trio the Stilettoes, singing high-camp numbers such as "Lady Marmalade" and the Shangri-Las' "Out In The Streets". The Stilettoes may not have been the most talented act of the day, but they were interesting enough in 1974 to be checked out by David Bowie and one Chris Stein, who was smitten with Debbie from the moment he saw her. Stein quickly joined the girls' backing band and formed a relationship with Debbie that was as creative as it was sexual, leading to Debbie's decision to leave the Stilettoes and work with Chris in a new and independent musical direction. At the same time, they took the Stilettoes' rhythm section with them, effectively consigning the group to oblivion.
The next year was spend working the club circuit under the moniker the Angel and the Snake, with a line-up consisting of Debbie on vocals, Chris on guitar, Fred Smith on bass and Billy O'Connor on drums. Their progress was somewhat undermined when Fred Smith left the band to join Tom Verlaine's Television, and the departure of O'Connor shortly afterwards threatened to destroy the band completely. However, they dropped the name the Angel and the Snake and enlisted keyboard player James Destri, bassist Gary Valentine and drummer Clem Burke, changed their name to Blondie and began gigging at legendary New York punk joint CBGB's, where they were soon to attract a cult following thanks to Debbie's outrageous on-stage antics and their refusal to fit the mould of the club's more dour acts such as Patti Smith, who famously frowned upon their initial efforts.
It was in 1976, during the recording of a "Live At CBGB's" LP that Blondie came to the attention of producer Richard Gottehrer. He watched the band rehearse and was immediately struck by their chaotic style and energy, something he felt could be better captured in a studio. He proposed that Blondie should do a single for the Instant Record label, so the band went into the studio and recorded "In The Sun" and "Sex Offender" - the latter penned by Gary Valentine and Harry and based on the former's traumatic experience of making an underage girl pregnant, for which he was arrested. The tapes were then played to Howard Rosen of Private Stock, a label best known for Frankie Valli's 1975 hit "My Eyes Adored you". Rosen was impressed enough to put the tracks out as a single, although "Sex Offender" was retitled "X Offender" for fears of controversy. So much for punk.
This first single also provided the band with their first major rarity. "X Offender" had appeared as an A-side in Europe, Australia and Japan, but not in the UK. However, prompted by US imports creeping into the UK in 1976, Private Stock's London office planned a commercial release, with "In The Sun" as the flipside. A catalogue number was assigned, PVT 90, but the disc never reached the shops, although 500 copies left the factory. The only known recipient of the single was the BBC Music Library, which received two stock copies on 9th March 1977. A handful of A-label promos was also prepared, the first known example surfacing at a UK record fair in April 1996. The disc itself has been valued at £750 - the less affluent collector will settle for obtaining "X Offender" (albeit in a slightly remixed form) as the flipside of "In The Flesh", which sells for a more reasonable £20.
Blondie signed an album deal with Private Stock and in 1976 released their eponymously-titled debut, recorded with Richard Gottehrer. The LP didn't provoke much interest in the States, though it did engender a following in the UK. However, the band weren't happy with what they perceived to be a lack of success with Private Stock, prompting a move to British label Chrysalis, which re-released "Blondie" shortly afterwards.
Another single was plucked from the album, the attitude-driven "Rip Her To Shreds", while the romantic "In The Flesh" reached No. 1 in Australia. This was the album's only hit, although "Rip Her To Shreds" would later put in an apt appearance on the Nightmare On Elm Street 4 soundtrack.
The second Blondie album was recorded in 1977 after an exhausting Stateside tour with David Bowie and Iggy Pop. "Plastic Letters" saw the departure of bassist Gary Valentine, who was apparently unhappy with a management contract he felt forced to sign, and who was replaced by Nigel Harrison. The LP also saw the introduction of Frank Infante on guitar.
Released in February 1978, "Plastic Letters" was to be the band's breakthrough album in Europe, although like its predecessor it sold next to nothing in the States. Featuring a reworked cover of the 1963 Randy & the Rainbows hit "Denise" - Debbie's own choice - and the Gary Valentine-penned "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear", the LP marked the band's departure from the rawer punk energies of their earlier work. Radio stations responded, as did the public, and the album peaked at No. 10 in the UK. Record Mirror noted that "Debbie Harry is neither of the things her accusers suggest, i.e. a glamour girl who eclipses Blondie as a band or a talentless visual gimmick sold like cornflakes. The band on this album are vital fun, no musical mekanoids, smart as suits and with a direction they never suggested on the first album."
"Denis" was the obvious first single, and took six weeks to reach its highest position of No. 2 in the UK, while "Presence Dear" hit No. 10 in May. The 12" of "Presence Dear" featured the Jimmy Destri-penned "Poet's Problem", which was unavailable anywhere else at the time (although it now appears on the remastered "Plastic Letters" CD, alongside an alternate working version of "Denis"). Other stand-out tracks on the album include "Detroit 442" and "Cautious Lip", both of which would play an important part in Debbie's solo live work throughout the 80s.
1979 was the year of Blondie-mania. "Parallel Lines", the band's third album, was recorded with Mike Chapman - one half of the famous Chinn-Chapman team and a hit producer twenty times over in the UK (Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro) - who had realised his ambition for American hits by relocating to Los Angeles, where he worked with power-pop bands like the Knack. Harry comments in Making Tracks, the band's official 'autobiography', that "we weren't prepared for his level of expertise so we learned an enormous amount about how to record from him... Chapman helped us become more commercial, with tighter arrangements and perfect basic tracks."
The original inner sleeve for "Parallel Lines" featured the lyrics to a track called
"Parallel Lines", which doesn't actually appear on the album. Some have explained it away as a 'poem', but according to Debbie in Making Tracks, "the title is especially significant. It comes from a song we didn't have time to finish, but we used the name about communications, characterisations and the eventual meeting of different influences."
The cut that was to carry "Parallel Lines" to the top of the charts was the energetic disco-influenced "Heart Of Glass", a song that had been initially demo'd back in 1975 under the working title of "Disco Song". Based around a preset on a Roland Rhythm Machine, the backing track alone took ten hours to put down, but Blondie's efforts were rewarded when "Heart Of Glass" became the band's breakthrough as far as American success was concerned. While they had found fame and recognition throughout Europe and as far away as Australia, the States had proved persistently tougher to conquer, and the Giorgio Moroder-inspired sound was exactly what was needed to sway an American audience. The single went platinum and pushed album sales over the one million mark - to date it has shifted in excess of 20 million! Blondie were well and truly established and Debbie Harry swiftly became one of the world's most photographed women.
EAT TO THE BEAT
"Eat To The Beat" was recorded at the Power Station in New York, with Mike Chapman taking control of the production for a second time. Debbie Harry notes in Making Tracks that they "were becoming more adventurous about songwriting and playing, having had three years professional experience. We were looser in the studio now, tailoring the material for recording."
In keeping with the filmic theme of the album, augmented by Debbie's acting debut in the 1950s-style thriller Union City as well as a cameo for the group in the movie Roadie, also featuring Meatloaf, the band released a film version of "Eat To The Beat". This was the first ever video-album and was intended to cash in on the burgeoning video market - and how with a retail price of £29.95! Reviews were less than ecstatic however, with Record Mirror grumbling that "with a video anything is possible, yet this one was surprisingly tame. You've already seen two slices from it on previous editions of TOTP and the rest isn't much different, save for one song where Debbie is disguised in a black wig, sunspecs and stockings. What about this 'Blondie is a group' campaign of old? You hardly caught a glimpse of the five other members."
The LP itself contained the band's first tentative foray into reggae with "Die Young, Stay Pretty", and produced another run of hit singles. "Dreaming" peaked at No. 2, while the follow-up, "Union City Blue" - confusingly not featured in the Union City movie - stalled at a disappointing No. 13. Nevertheless, three months later, the Harry/Destri collaboration, "Atomic", crashed straight into the British charts at No. 3, reaching No. 1 the following week. This was followed by the Giorgio Moroder-produced "Call Me", culled from the soundtrack of the movie American Gigolo, which provided the band with their third UK No. 1 (though "Eat To The Beat" failed to produced a single American No. 1).
Blondie's fourth album was recorded in Hollywood with Mike Chapman at the helm once again. Debbie Harry has said that the band consciously wanted to rally against everything they had previously recorded. In an attempt to create a different Blondie sound, Debbie even tried inhaling helium, though, as the rest of the band disliked the result, the idea was dropped.
"Autoamerican" took more time to complete than anything else the band had recorded, with each track being discussed at length in order to "satisfy everyone". "Rapture" was attempted twice, one version being considerably slower than the released version; "T-Birds" was named after the LA girls' roller derby team; "The Tide Is High" included percussion consisting of eight tracks of drumsticks being taped on a piano bench, while "Do The Dark" was created late one night on a cassette machine. As a final flourish the band employed a thirty-piece string section for Chris Stein's "Europa" and a jazz combo to back Debbie on "Faces".
"Suzy And Jeffrey", the flipside of "The Tide Is High", was inspired by a curious episode which took place as the band were in the studio. A young couple on their way to get the necessary blood tests for their marriage
license had an argument, prompting the boyfriend to drive their car into the studio wall. Nobody was hurt, but the crash led to a straightforward recounting of the incident complete with "Leader Of The Pack"-style revving noises and references to Perry Como and Orson Welles, who were also recording at the studios at the time.
"Autoamerican" was released in November 1980, and reached the Top 3 on both sides of the Atlantic. It yielded the usual crop of hit singles. "The Tide Is High" was a No. 1 hit in the UK while "Rapture", which reached the top spot in the States, stalled at No. 5 here. The single also has the distinction of being America's very first rap hit - pretty good for a white NY pop group. The "Rapture" 12" featured extended mixes of the title track and "Live It Up", both of which have since resurfaced on the CD issue of "Autoamerican".
In 1982 it became apparent that the runaway pace of Blondie's success was slowing down. The band was being pulled apart by growing internal tensions, due in part to the press' concentration on their photogenic lead singer as opposed to their music. Furthermore, a British tour was cancelled due to apparent lack of interest. Harry had released a solo album, "Koo Koo", immediately after "Autoamerican", partly to make the point that Blondie was a group. However, the album's artwork, by renowned Alien designer H.R. Giger, proved too much for some - a gaunt-looking Debbie peered out of the cover with a slew of skewers piercing her cheek. The LP wasn't a commercial success, but the media saw it as evidence that Blondie had split up. Of course, they were wrong, although they weren't far from the truth - "The Hunter" would turn out to be the group's last album for sixteen years.
Recorded at the Power Station with Chapman taking on production duties yet again, "The Hunter" was released in May 1982. The LP featured the minor hits "Island Of Lost Souls" and "War Child", and reached the Top 10 in the UK and the Top 40 in the Sates. The title track was the group's cover version of Smokey Robinson's "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game". "For Your Eyes Only" had originally been recorded for the James Bond film, though it was dropped at the last minute when Sheena Easton was recruited to record the movie's soundtrack. Other stand-out tracks on the album include "Danceway" and English Boys", though critics and fans alike shunned it. In Cathay Che's biography of Debbie Harry, Platinum Blonde, Harry is quoted as saying that "we identified as both hunter and hunted, but obviously we were more of the hunted at that point. We were really marked for slaughter and determined by a bunch of different people right around then as we had really bad business problems. The record company just didn't market it."
In February 1983. tensions within the band had come to a head and Blondie announced their break-up. Clem Burke went on to play with Eurythmics, while Debbie took a break to nurse Chris Stein when he was struck with the potentially fatal skin disease pemphigus vulgaris. Blondie's roller-coaster ride of success had ended. Or so it seemed.
BLONDE AND BEYOND
Throughout the years following the demise of Blondie, Chrysalis released a glut of Blondie compilations while Debbie Harry recorded a clutch of decidedly mediocre solo albums such as "Def Dumb And Blonde", "Rockbird" and "Debravation". The latter part of the 90s saw Debbie singing with the Jazz Passengers, taking in European and American tours as well as a '96 appearance at the Phoenix Festival. She also concentrated on her film career, consolidating earlier roles in films such as David Cronenberg's Videodrome with spots in John Waters' Hairspray as well as an episode of Tales From The Darkside on US TV. The 90s also saw dance-mix reissued of some of Blondie's greatest hits as well as a number of remix albums such as the widely unappreciated "Beautiful - The Remix Album". The pick of the compilation albums has to be 1994's "Blondie And Beyond". Alongside a selection of B-sides and rare early tracks, this CD presents the previously unreleased demo of "Heart Of Glass" - here entitled "Once I Had A Love" - as well as rarities such as the Spanish language version of "Call Me" and the French version of "Sunday Girl". Effectively an official bootleg, the album also rounds up soundtrack appearances such as a live version of "Ring Of Fire" and a cover of Bowie's "Heroes". Definitely one for the fans and an excellent collection-filler.
So, sixteen years on from the poorly-received "The Hunter", Blondie are back. Instigated by Chris Stein, now fully recovered from his illness, rumours of a reunion had been rife since 1996, but late '98 finally saw them become reality as Blondie took to the road on a sell-out tour. Including original members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri, the reunion met with a minor hitch when former members Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante were not asked to be involved. Inevitable litigation concerning the use of the band's name ensued, though this doesn't seem to have overly concerned Miss Harry and chums, as 'Blondie' had been arrived at long before Infante and Harrison appeared on the scene.
Blondie marked their reappearance on UK TV in January with a spot on the prime-time National Lottery, on which they showcased their comeback single, "Maria", which crashed into the charts at No. 1. The album, "No Exit", followed in February. Produced by Craig Leon - who also oversaw their eponymous debut back in 1976 - the album features their usual range of styles, from the ska-flavoured "Screaming Skin", through the classical organ and rap blend of "No Exit" - featuring Coolio, no less - to the girl group dance meld of "In The Streets" - that old Stilletoes fave.
Blondie have certainly proved that they are not rooted in their past successes with this album, consequently attracting new fans as well as loyal oldsters. With a second single, the menacing disco-romp of "Nothing Is Real But The Girl", more UK concert dates lined up for the end of the year as well as talk of another LP, it looks as though Blondie are, as Take That might've put it, back for good.
Thanks to Vinyl Tap, Mark Roper and Minus Zero for supplying illustrations.