UNCUT - March 1999 - Pages 23 + 85
London Sound Republic
MADONNA turned 40 last year and marked the occasion with the most critically-acclaimed album of her career. The biggest selling single in the UK was by 52-year-old Cher. And here comes Debbie Harry, just a few months shy of 54, reminding young pretenders half her age - hell, in the case of Billie or B*witched, less than a third her age - that she is still Goddess Of All That Is Pop.
We are here tonight to praise older women. In much the same way that Susan Sarandon was more fanciable as a nun in Dead Man Walking than she was wearing little more than a whire bra and slip in The Rocky Horror Picture Show 20 years earlier, so La Harry today is possessed of even more poise, grace and confidence than in those adolescence-accelerating promo clips for "Denis" or "Heart Of Glass".
She practically struts onto the stage of Sound Republic (a curious yet pleasingly apt hybrid of CBGB's and Studio 54) for this all too brief set being filmed by the music station, VH-1, wearing a short black dress with a backprint that reads "stunning, brilliant, a tour de force" - how many bands are so helpful in writing a review? She bellows the opening line of "Hanging By The Telephone", and we're off, Clem Burke - still the most urgent, frantic pop drummer on the planet - slaps the song into life, while Chris Stein, resembling Father Ted in Paul Smith threads, holds the rest of the band together with quiet dignity.
It's about half oldies, half new songs from the No Exit album. Among the latter, the ska-like "Screaming Skin" is the sound of Blondie showing No Doubt how it's done, the single, "Maria", declares its intention to return the group to the Top 20, and the faintly preposterous "Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room" echoes the highbrow humour of Debbie's Jazz Passengers days.
Inevitably, the hits receive the biggest cheers from the 200 or so invited guests, and there's a neat line in theatrics when Debbie removes a clasp to allow her blonde mane to cascade about her head at the precise moment she sings "Your hair is beautiful" in "Atomic". Perfect.
Everything is done with an effortless cool and an assured sense of what makes an impact, what will mean something to people in years to come. Like Madonna (her only serious challenger as the greatest female pop figure of the century), Debbie Harry is an icon for exactly the same reasons Courtney Love will never be.
She's so far ahead of the game, it's as if she's using an extra sense.
But, hey, as the dame herself once said, it's really not cheating.
BMG Beyond **
Return of the influential New York art-poppers.
IN the 16 years since Blondie split because they "hated each other", those of us who loved them and never could say goodbye to the most aesthetically perfect pop phenomenon of the century have wished into competence some variable Deborah Harry solo albums, eccentric movie roles and meandering Jazz Passengers shows.
Now there is, at last, the Blondie comeback album. And how frustrating, and melancholy, that while it's undoubtedly classier than most pop records that'll be released this month, it's nothing special. No Exit may break your heart with its so-so, that'll-do, OK-ness. Magic doesn't do encores.
While the intentions seem decent, with early producer Craig Leon at the helm and a variety of genres battling for pre-dominance, the album is disjointed, its awkward twists of dark humour failing to dovetail with pop sensibilities that can't decide whether to retread hallowed ground or career screeching up to date. And if there are three or four nuggets, they're all but scuppered by perhaps the most disastrous opening track imaginable.
"Screaming Skin" is a horrid, misguided ska-rock romp, with crunching guitars and fairground keyboards skipping on a piece of jerky tat that wouldn't misrepresent Bad Manners, or even No Doubt. Debbie's vocals try too hard, and the whole thing is, from head to toe, not funny. I find myself too stunned at the cosmic scale of the misjudgment to cry. It's as if someone's told Harry, Stein, Destri and (world's best drummer) Burke that the wacky, irritating fillers on the classic albums (Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines, Eat To The Beat) were, in fact, the stand-outs.
The title track's also an abomination, a stab at Run DMC/Beasties rap-metal which dilutes Harry's own rap-tures with a pointless Coolio cameo. And the what-could-possibly-go-wrong rattles through New Wave rock, such as "Nothing Is Real But The Girl" and "Under The Gun" (dedicated to former fan club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce), feel dated and deferential.
Such howlers break up any flow and hamstring the tracks that have legs. It's not all bad; it's just not all Blondie. Single "Maria" is an enjoyable Destri contrivance, the lyrics about romantic male obsession given added piquancy when coolly sung by one of the most iconic females of rock's times. "Forgive And Forget" locates a chunky groove, and "Double Take" is a fine, lush ballad, gorgeously produced, vaguely reminiscent of "Brite Side", "Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room" is a creditable essay into lounge jazz, complete with rimshots, scatting and harmonics. It gives La Debs a chance to show how much her jazz-vamp experiences have improved her expressive range and phrasing, and unwittingly suggests that this is the kind of thing she'd rather be doing.
Much of the rest is radio-friendly and regulated, lacking razzmatazz. "Happy Dog" is a flippant stream of dodgy puns on mutts and pussycats, "Divine" another low-tide reggae blip. Hope is resprung by "The Dream's Lost On Me", a strange, bittersweet country elegy where the fabulous voice elevates the banjos and fiddles.
The finale, "Dig Up The Conjo", is a whirring, muddy voodoo stomp which hints at the scything sensuousness of prime - say, "Union City Blue" - Blondie. It's tough, but not enough.
If anyone merits a red-carpet return, it's this group, but as a grand entrance No Exit makes a good pratfall.