Relix - June 1979
Vol. 6 - No. 3
Cover photo: by Joe Kline - Starburst Studios
Pages 22, 23, 24, 25
They're A Group!
Not A Girl!
by Howie Klein
See the picture of the blonde? That's Debbie Harry. That's NOT Blondie. Blondie's Clem Burke (drums), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Debbie Harry (vocals), Nigel Harrison (bass), Frank Infante (guitar) and Chris Stein (guitar). Blondie's a band; Debbie's a blonde. Debbie is also one of the most photogenically alluring images in rock'n'roll today. The fact that she looks sexy and gorgeous has unquestionably contributed a lot more to Blondie's print media coverage - which has been both immense and intense - than have the band's considerable musical attributes.
But late this past winter, while chuggin' down Market Street in my '64 Fairlane, what do I hear the dorkoid AM Deejay announcing 'cept "Blondie, that beautiful new English disco star!" Now how many mistakes can you make in a seven word intro? Of course, the fact that the intro was followed by an airing of Blondie's first U.S. top ten hit single, "Heart of Glass," taken from their third album, Parallel Lines, on the biggest radio station west of the Mississippi, KFRC, sort of made the inaccuracies irrelevant. 'Cause ya see, for Blondie (and for any of the groups that had the somewhat dubious honor to be labeled "punk rock" or "new wave") the whole ballgame is moving from championship by the print media to tentative acceptance by the far more wary and conservative broadcast media. What I'm talking about is radio, as Elvis Costello so aptly puts it, "radio, radio."
But, for the record, let's first clear up the little mistakes the deejay made. 1) Like I said in the beginning - and like the band's always emphasizing - Blondie is a group, not Debbie; 2) the band is hardly "new," unless you're comparing it to the old giants of yesteryear like the Zep and Dead (Blondie formed in 1975 and all the members have rich musical pasts); 3) neither the band nor its singer is English - the band was definitely formed in downtown Manhattan and Debbie's from Miami - although original bassist Gary Valentine's replacement, Nigel Harrison is British (the band is gigantic in England, on a Kiss/Aerosmith level); 4) disco is not actually the band's forte; pop/rock is - although "Heart of Glass" was a bona fide disco hit which got massive airplay all over the radio-waves and in discotheques from SoHo to Polk Street; 5) and last, Blondie isn't quite a "star" yet, but they are well on the way.
As evidence of this, let me offer a little comparison between Blondie and the ever-excellent Ramones. Both bands started playing around the CBGBs scene in New York at the early stages of the punk-rock mini-explosion. Both bands developed devoted local followings, and in each case the bands would've been rich if every newspaper and magazine write-up could've been traded in for a few bucks. The Ramones and Blondie got - and still get - more press coverage than giant platinum sellers like Boston and Bob Seger. But of New York Rocker covers and Bob Christgau "A"s, gold records are not made. What that's all about is breaking through to the record-buying masses - people who don't "get" the joke, people who did not study Duchamps in art school, people who don't necessarily think Andy Warhol movies are better than Superman and The Wiz. OK, that means getting on the radio - and at first, radio didn't wanna know about Blondie or the Ramones. I personally may think the first Ramones album should've gotten tons of airplay (I do) and that programmers are creeps for suppressing it (I do), BUT I can see how blanded-out audiences might find it a bit ruffling to have a Ramones cut stuck in between cuts by ELP and Barbra Streisand.
The first Blondie album, on the other hand, wouldn't have been hard to take for anyone. It was guilt by association all the way; no one judged it on its musical merits. It isn't just a matter of me thinking it should be on radio. This album is so in synch with the most basic, easy-listening rock'n'roll aesthetic sensibilities, that it's inconceivable that it didn't get massive AM radio play. But it didn't. So both of the little New York bands started playing scuzzy, CBGB-like scenes around the country. The Ramones and Blondie packed the Roxy, the Whisky and the Mabuhay Gardens on the West Coast - great shows, but they barely dented the sales charts, let alone the radio play-lists. What to do? Why not turn all the media attention (read: enthrallment with band as novelty, coupled with old fashioned hometown - in this case NYC - hype) into opening shots for major bands?
The Ramones never had a chance. They opened gigs in places like Tennessee, Minnesota and San Bernardino for the likes of Foreigner, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult. Those in the audience who hadn't already made up their minds before the show (and ya know they didn't just happen to have all the rotten fruit in their pockets; punk-rock-sux), took one look at the sparse black-and-white unit whose value as conceptual art is undisputed (in conceptual art circles at least), and if they didn't have the rotten fruit, threw their earth shoes. Without making any musical judgements, I've got to report the exact opposite happened for Blondie. They walked out in a 5,000 seat auditorium to open for REO Speedwagon, and left the hall with a good 4,000 new fans. They opened a New Year's Eve Show for Journey in front of 12,000 and won a tumultuous encore. The loveliness of Deborah Harry has given Blondie the chance that the concept of the Ramones never really gave that band.
OK, enough with the Ramones. Blondie has always exploited its attributes to the fullest - not the least of which is Debbie. It'd be hard not to. Clem, for instance - much acclaimed as one of contemporary rock'n'roll's two or three hottest "new" drummers - view the whole spotlight-on-Debbie thing with a certain amount of philosophical resignation. "There's a lot of superficiality in press coverage," he explains. "The fans, the ones who buy the concert tickets and the records, realize it's not just Debbie. They know it's a band - we just don't picture it any other way. But if someone from the press says, 'Oh here's a group with a girl; let's talk to her and do a story...' It helps promote the band."
True enough, but let's not blame it all on the press. Let's look at the promo films and the posters the band (or its representatives) have had control over. The emphasis is always Debbie. The Chrysalis Records press kit, for example, contains five glossy black and white photos - one of Debbie lying on her back in a tee shirt that says "sex," one of Debbie looking provocative in a skimpy black one-piece, one of Debbie lounging in cut-offs and a tee shirt, a lips-parted head shot of guess who, and, finally, Debbie with Jimmy, Chris and Clem on the corner of Hollywood and Vine (unlike the first album cover, the boys are in focus on this shot). Debbie's a lot more of a hook than Destri's Farfisa organ; so what else is new? Of course the real point is that if Blondie couldn't deliver the musical goods after they set out the bait, it's be all over quick. But that's not what's happening. They do deliver.
With Debbie's sultrily hot-and-cold, nonchalant vocals mixed way out front by producer Richard Gottehrer, even the first Blondie lp (recorded in the winter of 1976) had a "commercial" sound. What that means is simply that the band's sound has always been penetrable. Their music never had the noisy denseness of many of the other punk bands with whom they were categorized. From the very beginning of its recording career, Blondie was a pop band trying to get across to a mass audience. Their music is full of hooks, catchy hummable tunes, crisp, lively arrangements, and nostalgic, soaring harmonies. They cover the pop/rock spectrum. To say Blondie has sold out its "new wave heritage" is to miss the point of the band completely and to ignore the basics of this band.
First of all, let's remember Blondie has never been a band of untried teenagers trying to fit into a "punk rock" mold. The fact that the band was playing in the new wave circuit had more to do with that scene being all that was available for bands working out original material without the help of a mega-bux record company, than with any intrinsic musical values. Debbie, who is well into her 30's, is a professional. In the late '60's she was in a hippie-genre band called Wind in the Willows that cut an album for Capitol. She first met Chris Stein in October of 1973 when her all-girls rock'n'roll doo-wopp band, The Stilettoes, played its first gig at the Bovern Tavern on 24th Street in Manhattan. Chris later became a member of the Stilettoes, and with Clem, he and Debbie formed Blondie in 1974. In the early days, Debbie worked as a waitress at White's Pub on Wall Street and the band used to do gigs there. Fred Smith, who eventually joined Television, was Blondie's bass player at the time. No one had thought up applying the media-grabbing term "punk rock" to the New York underground rock scene yet.
Clem and Jimmy don't come from especially trendy backgrounds. Jimmy says his favorite groups were Cream, the Rascals, the Beatles, King Crimson, Procol Harum and the Doors. It shows in his playing, unlike the second and third generation new wave bands whose influences extend no further back than the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Clash and Blondie. Clem's biggest influence was Keith Moon, and his all-time fave groups are the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and the Yardbirds - in other words, he's a typical, healthy, red-blooded rock'n'roll fan. What I'm getting at is that this isn't a bandful of artistes with a tenuous connection to rock, via hanging out the Mercer Arts Center with the New York Dolls five or six years ago.
In the summer of 1977, while Blondie was working on their second album, Plastic Letters, again with Richard Gottehrer, at New York's Plaza Sound, Chris predicted that it would take three albums to break the group nationally. The band's strategy - at least as seen through hindsight - seems to have reflected this conviction (although switching labels, from Private Stock to Chrysalis, and producers, from Gottehrer to Mike Chapman, seems to have helped getting them across as well).
While Chris was stating flatly it'd take the forth-coming album, plus another one, to break the band, Jimmy was explaining why. "I figure we have a shot at the top and we all feel the only way is to move slowly - planning it out. We take it slow. Everyone's loaded with ideas that all get thrown into each other. They sort of cancel themselves out, and the best ones rise to the top and stick. It may take longer and draw out the process, but we think it's healthier for the long run and it'll take us further."
"Further" really means the one thing in Record Biz '79: Top 40 radio. And with "Heart of Glass," a re-make of the band's old "Once I Had A Love," later "The Disco Song," Blondie has indeed cracked the Top 40, and in some towns the Top 5. (In the U.K., the question is how many weeks Blondie records will hold the #1 slot). Anyway, the band is definitely not one of those one-shot novelty acts out for a hit or two and some quick bucks. The Blondies are out to carve a long-term career for themselves as a major international rock'n'roll band of superstar status. They've already filmed two movies and have some pretty grand plans for the future. That future includes another lp very soon and another U.S. tour, headlining in many of the places where they were introduced to other bands' mainstream audiences last time around. You won't have to watch too closely for them - pretty soon it'll be hard to avoid 'em.