Trouser Press - September 1982
BLONDIE - PUMPING VINYL
Written By: Jim Green
Blondie is the new wave success story, from Bowery boys-and girl-to glamorous chart-toppers. Yet the band has never felt it had to toe any musical party lines. Singer Debbie Harry, guitarists Chris Stein and Frank
Infante, keyboard player Jimmy Destri, bassist Nigel Harrison (replacing original Blondie Gary Valentine) and drummer Clem Burke are an often volatile brew, but after a fairly stable seven years together they've proven their worth on six albums, not including a Best of Blondie compilation and solo LPs by Harry and
Destri. On the following pages the members of the band (minus Infante, whose status as a Blondie was unclear at press time) provide a behind-the-scenes look at their work.
Debbie Harry: I met Chris when he was a bass player for Eric Emerson. He would go down on his knees and everything; he was really different as a bass player than he is as a guitarist. I thought he was marvelous. But I think it fits him better intellectually to play a guitar than bass.
Jimmy Destri: Chris was a better bass player than all of us. He had a really great bass feel.
DH: We hadn't recorded anything and we wanted to hear what we sounded like on tape, and have a fairly decent quality demo to play for people. I was the only one who had recorded before.
Clem Burke: The little session with Alan Betrock: We went to somebody's basement somewhere in Queens. It was like no one actually knew where they were going. I'm not sure how we got there, it must have been in Debbie's
Camaro. No one really knew what we were gonna do. I remember playing piano on "Platinum Blonde," and we all thought it sounded great.
DH: It was July, and it was so hot and humid that we couldn't keep anything in tune. It was like being under water. Plus there was no sound in the room, no acoustics. I think that if those things were mixed properly they would be a little better. The proportions are a little bit whacked out.
We were always asking Betrock for the tape, we said we'd buy it. He wasn't doing anything with it but he didn't want to let it go, 'cause he obviously had plans for it.
CB: Blondie was basically done live, with the four musicians playing.
DH: All the songs were about death [laughs]. They just seemed to come out that way. We liked comic books and stuff like that. Everybody collected comic books and was always reading comic books. The place was full of comic books.
JD: Plaza Sound, when we recorded the album, is at Radio City Music Hall. The whole place is suspended on springs because of the vibrations of the Rockettes rehearsing next door.
CB: The studio had a big shade on the control room window. One time we were in the mixing room and we pulled up the shade and there was like a 40-piece orchestra on the other side of the glass while we were mixing "Rip Her to Shreds" or something. Later on I was surprised how small some recording studios were because Plaza Sound was massive.
DH: We wrote "X Offender" around November, December of 1975. That was the first "X" song - the first anything with an X in it. There were no groups named X, no songs named X, nothing. We were going to call the song "Sex Offender" but some people had a few doubts about that, so I called it "X Offender."
CB: I think "X Offender" is the best thing we've ever done. I like the 45 mix 'cause it's so compressed and tinny and so
Spectoresque. It's almost like an art piece. "X Offender" totally amazed everybody, 'cause they didn't know what to expect from us and it was a total production, not just the live sound at
CBGB's. It should have been a hit.
The video of "X Offender" was supposed to have been shown on an Australian TV show, Countdown, but when the tape came on it was "In the Flesh." Everyone rushed out and said they wanted "In the Flesh," so "In the Flesh" became a number one hit in Australia. It created huge problems when we finally got to Australia, because the people that were tuned to such things knew we were a New York underground punk rock group from the depths of the Bowery. But then the other half of the audience expected a band that played light pop ballads. There was a real clash of personalities in the audience for those shows.
"In the Flesh" was intended as a single, because [producer Richard] Gottehrer put a lot of work into it, with backup singers and all that stuff. I think what Blondie was about at that point was going totally crazy onstage, making as much noise and racket as possible.
JD: I always thought Richard Gottehrer was a very good producer. He maybe wasn't as strong and committal with us as he should have been, or as Mike Chapman was later. But he was always very good, always has a great sound and he makes great records, fun records. Very entertaining records. He's basically a nice guy. He wasn't tough enough to get into the pain and misery of being here.
DH: "Man Overboard" was supposed to have a Latin sound, and I think Richard gave it more of a girl-group sound.
Chris Stein: This album was angrier, more anti-establishment than the first.
DH: I didn't expect Gary Valentine to be playing on this record. I didn't think he had wanted to be in the group anymore for at least half a year before. I think he had a lot of ideas about what he wanted to do and he felt Blondie was holding him back.
CB: The second album had a totally different atmosphere from the first, what with [then-manager] Peter Leeds breaking the news to us about going to Chrysalis Records. I had mixed emotions, 'cause I didn't really know what it meant. And I felt sort of bad about Gary leaving. I quit the band right after he left, sort of threw a tantrum. I felt as wit's end a bit on Plastic Letters, not having a bass player and losing a friend at the same time, and being so new to it all. I think that album's really good; Richard Gottehrer's a really good producer. Those early albums hold up to this day.
JD: Plastic Letters was a very dark album. Plaza Sound was a dark studio, the Rockettes were getting older, Radio City was closing. . .
I wrote six songs on Plastic Letters, and not one has a groove that's similar to the others. "No Imagination" is directly inspired by Lou Reed's "Lady Day" - you know, nightclub decadence. The whole album is like a portfolio of illustrations from a graphic artist. A lot of good songs on there - for Chris it was a stepping stone into what he would finally lock into Parallel Lines.
CS: We were getting into synthesizers; I don't think Jimmy had a synthesizer for the first record. We had been to England and were influenced a lot by the punk scene building up there.
We did "Denis" because we had it on a K-Tel compilation - 44 Golden Oldies or something - and we thought it was a great song.
DH: I thought if we played a song that had been popular, the d.j.s would finally listen to us. It turned out to be a monster in England and France. I didn't know this beforehand but St. Denis is the patron saint of France. Psychic choice.
CB: Our second hit single in England, after "Denis" was "(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear." I put in a lot of work on that. It was a fitting swan song for [composer] Gary. The way the drums come in always reminds me of "Day Tripper."
CS: "I'm on E" was about running out of gas - being empty. If you listen to the lyrics, there's a reference to driving in a car. I played bass on "Fan Mail," "Denis" and "Youth Nabbed as Sniper."
DH: This was the first time I worked up the lyrics after hearing the music - which is a much better way to write songs.
There's only one place where I would say we should have done things differently: the two or three-month period after recording Plastic Letters. Instead of going right to LA for those gigs with Frank
[Infante] on bass, we should have stayed in New York and got a good player, figured out what we were gonna do, or gone to LA to get somebody instead of having to do gigs right away. We had never had a period of time when we weren't booked or didn't have something to do, where we weren't under pressure to come up with product or have an obligation to fulfill. Our manager made us lose our perspective and lose control of the band at this time. He put us on the road before we had a chance to regroup, as it were - re-organize the band. That threw us totally off balance for about two years.
[English bassist Nigel Harrison joined Blondie after spending most of the 1970s first with Silverhead and then with ex-Door keyboardist Ray Manzarek's Nite City.]
Nigel Harrison: I literally walked out on Ray, which was a horrible thing for me to do. I felt real guilty, but Ray was very supportive of my joining Blondie.
DH: Nigel had seen us at the Whisky in LA the first time we were out there, with Gary. He knew who we were, and what our material was like.
NH: I was on the road with Blondie for six months, all around the world, before we recorded Parallel Lines, so musically we were real tight.
JD: The first time we all had a strong belief that Blondie could work was just before Parallel Lines. We were changing producers, changing labels, money was being poured into us - people in the industry started to believe in Blondie. We'd had a couple of hits in England, and that gave us the belief that if we could do it there - we have the right producer now, and he was thinking the same thing. So it was an initial concentration on the part of Mike Chapman and us to break America. It was a very tough nut to crack.
CS: Everybody was excited about working with Mike Chapman but nobody was prepared for it. Gottehrer is very relaxed and was interested in capturing inspired moments rather than personifying a performance or making a hybrid performance. Mike's theory is that if you can do something once, you can do it again better. He would make us do things over and over again until we got up to his standards. And nobody was prepared for that.
CB: It probably was a bit tense at first. But I think that was the idea actually going professional. With Mike it was very intense. Our first two albums weren't done with the idea of making hit records, they were just playing, almost free form. But then the idea with Mike was to make a hit album. Parallel Lines was the hardest we had yet worked on an album.
DH: Everybody was really concentrating, trying to make a good record. Mike worked us really hard. I don't think Clem was ready for it. Gottehrer let him get away with murder, so to speak, but Mike was Mr. Perfection. Clem was real surprised; he really worked on that record.
NH: I could never understand what a record producer was meant to do until I met Chapman. He drove us to insanity at times.
JD: The reason I respect Mike Chapman is that he's as arrogant as I am. I once threw my keyboard at the guy - a $50,000 synthesizer. I picked it up, threw it and said, "You play it." But he could do the same thing to me. That's how we battle it out, and that's why it works.
DH: We worked up the Parallel Lines material in a small studio downtown, and then we came uptown and recorded it. Chapman helped us on the arrangements.
JD: Chris always wanted to do disco songs. He's a dadaist. We're running through this new wave/I hate disco/punk rock scene, and Chris wants to do "Disco Inferno" and "Love to Love You Baby." We used to do "Heart of Glass" to upset people. It was his idea to bring it back, but as a funky song.
DH: "Heart of Glass" was an old song of ours. We changed the feeling of it when we recorded it because it wasn't fitting in with the rest of the record. We always called that our disco song, even when we were doing it as a funk song, around 1975.
CS: The original arrangement of "Heart of Glass" - as on the Betrock demos - had doubles on the high-hat cymbals, a more straight-ahead disco beat. When we recorded it for Parallel Lines we were really into
Kraftwork, and we wanted to make it more electronic. We weren't thinking disco as we were doing it; we thought it was more electro-European.
We planned to release "Heart of Glass" as a single, but we wanted to hold it back, because we knew we were gonna get tagged with the disco thing. We didn't want to release it first from the album. The album was out six months before it came out.
CB: Our record company didn't see any hit singles on Parallel Lines at the time. They put out "I'm Gonna Love You Too" as the first single off the album, and it bombed totally. Then they put out "Hanging on the Telephone" in America, and that bombed. Then "Heart of Glass" became a hit, and the album went back up the charts. It took around 35 weeks to get into the Top 10. Until the
Go-Go's, we were the band to take the longest to get an album into the Top 10. Parallel Lines is a classic album. I think when people think of Blondie they think of Parallel Lines, "Heart of Glass. . ."
CS: "I'm Gonna Love You Too" was a Ramonesy-type thing that dated back to the CBGB's period. We hadn't intended it as a single, but Chrysalis wanted to release it because the Buddy Holly revival was going on.
DH: Jeff Pierce from the Gun Club was a fan of ours. He sent our manager a cassette of "Hanging on the Telephone" by the Nerves, Jack Lee's band. We were playing it in the back of a taxicab in Tokyo, and the taxi driver started tapping his hand on the steering wheel. When we came back to the US we found that the Nerves weren't together anymore and we said, gee, we should record this.
NH: I used to make home tapes with two tape recorders and a rhythm machine. My original music for "One Way or Another" was this psychedelic, Ventures-like futuristic surf song gone wrong. Jimmy really liked this piece of music, and we would play it while on the road. Then Debbie picked up on it; she came up with the
"getcha-getcha-getcha"s. The ending, where it gets crazy, was Chapman's idea.
CS: "One Way or Another" really helped us break through in America. I still hear it used as background during baseball games. For the last two albums we've talked with Mike about consciously making songs that can be played at half-time.
JD: "Picture This" is basically my verse music, Chris's chorus music and Debbie's lyrics. We all had little pieces of one another's songs, just throwing in bits. I always write with the band in mind.
DH: It's scary when it's getting time for you to sing and you don't have lyrics written. With "Pretty Baby" I was saying, oh god, what am I gonna write, what am I gonna write. The night before I had to record the vocal I finally got an idea.
NH: I listen to songs like "Pretty Baby" and it sounds to me like it's got all the ambiance, and the magic of the first take. But it wasn't.
CS: "Fade Away and Radiate" had been laying around since the first album. We used to do the exact same arrangement, except I did a modified version of the solo. Robert Fripp came up to us at the Palladium in New York, one of the first times we played there, and said he liked us. We hit it off and he ended up putting his guitar licks on the song. We had it all finished, but we were so excited to have him do it.
CB: The end of that album was the whole group sleeping on the floor of the Record Plant at about 6 o'clock in the morning, and waking up to see Mike and his engineer at the time, Peter Coleman, walking out of the room and bitching about having to carry these 24-track tapes back to LA. It was just like, bye, we'll see
ya. We all went back to sleep on the floor, and Mike and Peter left.
EAT TO THE BEAT
CS: That was done fast - in three weeks, the fastest record we ever did with Chapman. He was into a looser approach at the time, more spontaneity. Also, Mike wanted to get out of New York as fast as possible.
DH: We weren't under the same pressure we had been. Leeds wasn't in the studio making our heads crazy, playing mind games on us. He was there all the time, he hung out.
CB: We were out from under Leeds, we had been touring a lot and we had a lot of hit records in England and Europe by then. I considered this to be my album in a lot of ways. I'm all over the place on it, but not in a negative sense. The songs are very up, and there are a lot of punk rock elements. That's our most rock'n'roll album. With a title like Eat to the Beat, it has to be.
JD: "Dreaming" was recorded live. "Living in the Real World," the song "Eat to the Beat," the basic track for "Slow Motion" - we did all that stuff live, it was great. Only "Atomic" and one other song were done with a click-track [electronic metronome]. By Eat to the Beat Chapman had really sharpened us up. Also, we had just come off the road, and it's great to play in a studio after being on tour.
CB: "Atomic" was supposed to be the last disco song. We said we'd do one more disco song and then that was it. "Atomic," though, sounds like Duran Duran to me.
CS: Jimmy came up with the idea of reviving "Die Young Stay Pretty," which was an old song of ours. We wanted to do a reggae song and that number had always been arranged that way. We thought "The Hardest Part" might do something in the States as a single but one thing I've learned is that one never knows. So much of it has to do with politics, craziness. If hit records only concerned people's taste and not all these weird prejudices about what type of music it is, they would be a lot easier to pick.
CB: Eat to the Beat went platinum but it didn't have any hit records (in America) on it. "Atomic" went to number one in England.
JD: Eat to the Beat was a big letdown for me. I loved that album. But unfortunately we put in a lot of songwriting talent without one unifying idea.
NH: The most digusting experience of all time for us was choosing a new manager. Very few groups have had to sit in a room while 36 managers try to sell you on why they're so wonderful. I don't trust any of these people; it's just a business, and I hate the business side of music. The first few weeks the whole band would go, 12 to 2, at our accountant's office. As the days went on just Clem and I went there, then I'd go there alone to talk to managers, 'cause no one wanted to know about it. We were making Eat to the Beat, and it just doesn't go with the creative process. Some of these guys are more show business than the groups themselves. We decided on Shep Gordon, who was the first guy we saw out of the 36 that we interviewed.
DH: Giorgio Moroder handed us a demo on a cassette. The whole first verse came to me after seeing American Gigolo. Once I had that, that was the basis for the rest of the song.
We only went into the studio with him one day [for a projected Moroder/Blondie album]. He's used to studio musicians who come in, play and leave. He makes records in 15 hours, which is not the way Blondie works. He couldn't work the way we work, and we couldn't work the way he works.
CS: Autoamerican solidified our relationship with Chapman. After that we felt a lot more committed to each other.
DH: Thank goodness Mike was still available to us. He saved our necks on that one.
CB: The pressure with Autoamerican came after it was released. The record company went through the roof because the album was so weird to them. They didn't hear any hits. They just heard strings and mariachi horns.
JD: Chris took the most interest in the whole album.
CS: We wanted to get away from a mold. I was really angry at the time; a lot of that stuff was a slap in the face to critics and people with preconceptions about what we were and what new wave music was supposed to be. I was appalled by the way new wave was being absorbed into the mainstream. By the time we did
Autoamerican, new wave had been totally absorbed, the same way hippies were absorbed. The album may have confused people because it was so eclectic; the linking theme was the diversity of it all. Rolling Stone said I was trying to destroy pop music; they're out of their minds.
NH: I think Clem felt a little odd about Autoamerican. After doing Eat to the Beat he couldn't really lay into it; there's only a certain way you can play "Rapture."
CB: I'm really proud of my playing on "Rapture." Autoamerican is the album where I gave up wanting to play like Keith Moon and decided I want to play like Steve
Gadd. Autoamerican was fun; we got to spend two months in California. I'm always up for a free ride.
CS: "Rapture" was one of the few songs we've worked up in the studio. We did two versions; one slow, a Christmas rap with Fast Freddie, the rapper, duetting with Debbie. That was on the Flexi-Pop flexi-disc. After we cut that track we felt it should be faster, peppier. There's a great bass break in the first version.
JD: "The Tide Is High" is very similar to "X Offender" musically.
"Angels on the Balcony" - these weird lyrics came to my head about a haunted movie theatre where a greaser got shot. You see a phantom cigarette in the theatre.
"Do the Dark" is about Satan. The Stones made the devil into George Sanders, I wanted to make him into John Travolta - Satan as a disco guy, "walk on glass with the master."
"Walk Like Me" is about the whole rock'n'roll scene. Real nasty. Just call me sick, sick, sick on that album.
CS: I went to see Camelot and "Follow Me" stuck in my head. By doing something corny like that I was trying to wake people up to the validity of that type of music. I felt new wave fans were getting as stuffy as opera lovers: "I can't listen to that - it's about teenage suicide and doesn't have raging guitars in it." The band thought I was insane.
"Live It Up" is an old song.
CB: Classic record company quote: When we were beginning The Hunter, they said, "Well, we hope this isn't another album like
Autoamerican." What do you mean, you hope there's not gonna be two number one singles on the album?
CS: This was the first album done pretty much in the studio, with very little pre-production. We wanted to experiment, to stretch the limits a little. The record evolved during the session. Nigel had lots of idea tapes. "Orchid Club" was a simple riff that we structured; "War Child" was the same thing. I had the theme and title of "English Boys."
NH: I brought in a tape of "War Child," and the band really jumped for that one. Chris thought it was like the Jackson 5. My other song on the album, "Orchid Club," was kind of a Marvin Gaye cop.
JD: "Danceway" is my little story about my band. Debbie said, write a song about us!
NH: I thought we were gonna do "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" like the
Marvelettes' original, but I think Chris and Mike decided they wanted it real primitive-sounding. When I hear it I keep waiting for the whole drum kit to come in.
DH: I don't think that song's ever been covered the way we did it. We tried to get a King Kong feeling.
CB: The Hunter is the composite album (after Best of Blondie). Every phase that Blondie's been through manifests itself on this disc.
NH: The challenge now is just to keep growing. This last album we definitely grew, and I know we're capable of more. There's no way we can ever backtrack.