ZIGZAG - February - March 1978
Pages 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 22, 23, 39
I LIVE HERE IN KILL CITY WHERE THE DEBRIS MEETS THE SEA...
WELCOME TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ZIGZAG... AND I HOPE THIS ONE HAS REACHED THE SHOPS A BIT EARLIER THAN LAST MONTH. SORRY IT WAS LATE, ALL DOWN TO CHRISTMAS I'M AFRAID (AND NOT ONLY 'COS WE WERE ALL LEGLESS!) ANYWAYS AS A RESULT THIS ONE HAD TO BE DONE IN HALF THE TIME TO GET BACK ON SCHEDULE - AND IT'S KILLING ME! (SO'S WRITING LIKE THIS SO YOU CAN READ IT BETTER!) YOU'LL NOTICE THIS ISSUE IS THE FEB/MARCH... THAT'S 'COS WE'RE LATE, NEXT ONE'LL BE MARCH/APRIL - WE AIN'T GONE BI-MONTHLY OR ANYTHING. ANYWAY, IN THE IMMORAL WORDS OF JIM - WHAT HAVE WE GOT? ON THE COVER (WHICH WAS TAKEN BY CHRIS STEIN BY THE WAY) IS THE STUNNING DEBBIE HARRY, THAT MEANS BLONDIE ARE INSIDE. ZIGZAG SPENT THE DAY WITH 'EM ON THEIR RECENT LIGHTNING VISIT, BUT WE WOULD PICK A DAY WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMED TO GO WRONG! STILL, THE NEW ALBUM IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT AND THEY'LL BE BACK THIS MONTH...
A Day with Blondie
So suddenly it's in to have fun. The very same self-styled prophets who fell over their spanking new bondage strides last year to tell the world that Dole Queue Rock was the only Music for Today are now coughing with a sideward glance and proclaiming Power Pop is The Sound of '78, conveniently forgetting that they were among the miserable bunch slagging off the prime purveyors of Power Pop, Blondie, on their debut UK tour last Spring.
Blondie's debut album was like finding a box of uppers at one of those booze 'n' downer parties so popular a few years ago. It smelt of surf, semen and sand, tasted of sugar but kicked like a mule on sulphate. It was pure fun pop with a distinct 'B' movie American tack rating unseen since the second Dolls album. These guys could play, tunes to make you sit in the lampshade or swoon sighing to the floor, and it was all topped with the melt-in-your-mouth cream-bitch croon of Debbie Harry, who was responsible for most of the attention the group had then with her blonde bombshell-of-many-disguises looks. The most photogenic and photographed face since David Bowie, I can't wait to see you in the flesh.
Trouble was, apart from the expected "Whey-hey" indulgence of the MUSIC press, the MUSIC press practically ignored or slagged off the MUSIC, and from that tour it seemed Tom Verlaine's Television, which it seemed someone forgot to switch on, emerged as Super Musicians of this Intelligent New Age in Music, heroes of the tour, while Debbie & Co, who after all were co-headlining, came off worse for the deal. Seemed at that time you either had to play it supercool intelligent and musical or manic-thrash Punk a go-go. No room for fun-time. Here was a great pop group and none of the people who tell us who to like could see it 'cept Tony Parsons.
Alright, so Blondie return on two short hit-and-run visits which act as a slow motion warm-up for The Big Tour later this month. The first was last November, the second a couple of weeks ago. Even in between those two sorties things have changed, drastically. Punk Rock has top-geared itself into an overdrive burnout, reaction has set in and a new craze is needed fast. Why not fun? Look smart in the process. Filter away the filth, call groups things like the Boyfriends.
Even though I detest the fact that groups who last year feebly clung to the New Wave with pockets wide open have made the subtle switch to Pop Power, it's good that the climate is right for the groups which pioneered fun music in the face of all odds, like the Groovies... and Blondie.
February is Blondie month, no doubt about that! Three out of four music paper covers in one week, packed out club gig-tour to follow, hotsingle - album to follow. Now the cover of Zigzag!
The Powers that be decided to start Blondie Month with a Bang by arranging that one-off gig at Dingwalls before the Blondies went to Europe for a string of dates there. Maximum interest would be generated by that one gig cos there's only one and it'll be hard to get in cos it'll be press and liggers - oh and the odd fan - allowed in. Then in between that gig and the full-scale tour, anticipation will be stoked to fever pitch by the single and album. By the end of February we have Blondie-mania!
Trouble is the February Blondie bang intro finished a bit like a time bomb in a bucket.
See it was just one of those days when EVERYTHING goes wrong.
The Blondies played the songs I love fine but the magic which can flow between them didn't seem to be on tap that night. But that ain't surprising in view of the er circumstances which summed-up, and for all it matters now were: Chris Stein (guitarist) had a temperature of 104 that day from some nip flu he'd caught in Japan. The PA was a newly-hired one, not broken in and inadequate for the group's needs, the sound man was new too which meant he wasn't familiar with the group's sound (and he'd previously worked with Kiss, which could go some way to explaining the ear-whipping volume). The group was knackered - they have been on this jaunt since October. Oh yes, and Dingwalls is a mis-shaped accoustic nightmare full of bloating posers glancing at themselves in the mirrors on the walls.
Well, the original idea, to avoid the standard "Tell me about the new album" type interview which the band must have done 600 times in as many different languages over the last few weeks of their world tour, was for me to spend a Day With The Blondies to go with the fab cover which Chris Stein let us have when we asked him last visit. We picked some day to do that! Anyway here we go and here I am, sitting in an empty Dingwalls Dancehall (shudder) at two-thirty in the afternoon having left the party early and blown out a twenty quid radio spot to get here in time to catch the end of the soundcheck, which should have been wrapped up around three I'm told. The thoughts surfacing in my alcohol-drenched brain currently follow the line of "Where the fuck are they? I could have had another southern comfort and been twenty quid in the black by now."
A couple of phonecalls but a few more minutes later Blondie drummer Clem Burke, and keyboard wizard Jimmy Destri show up. I'm sober again by now!
It turns out that the band is late owing to Chris's illness, a particularly lethal form of flu he picked up in the Land of the Rising Nip which had him sweating through a 104 fever earlier that day before the nice doctor and his syringe mainlined his troubles away with a monster shot of B12. They'll have to do the sound-check without Chris.
Clem and Jimmy are sorry and all that I've been kept waiting. Don't matter, they've got enough problems, I mean is Chris gonna make it or are they gonna have to blow out their prestigious London gig. "No, he says he'll do it", comes the reply. He does, but if you were there and wondered why Chris spent most of the set leaning dazed against one of Dingwalls conveniently placed stage pillars you know why now - he wasn't being laid back or anything!
Clem and Jimmy tell me about the tour, which started back in October and has kept 'em at it ever since, through Europe, a five-week spell in Australia, Japan, even Bangkok, the capital of Thailand! After this date it's back to Europe then Britain and finally a two-month assault on the USA, with just a three day holiday in New York.
The group like Europe and Japan, loved Bangkok ('cept Debbie, who went through her turn at flu then) but wouldn't exactly be heartbroken if they never saw Aussie again. They had to spend Christmas there and for the whole tour were bored silly. Apparently the only Artificial Stimulant you can get Down Under is Fosters lager or the Big H, oh and some very weak weed. Apparently a high number of the Bruce's plump for the latter.
Thailand was a different toke (for different folks) with head-blowing Thai sticks retailing at a mere 5p each.
The Blondies did a gig at Bangkok, which must rank as the strangest they have ever done. Clem: "They'd never seen a rock group before. Whole families came to see - old men in turbans with babies in their arms! They seemed to like it though."
The rest of the band arrive - Frank Infante first, then second new member, bassist Nigel Harrison, finally Debbie Harry, dressed against the cold in a huge black leather coat ("D'ya know anyone who wants to buy it - I can't stand the sleeves"), scarf and woolly hat pulled down over her face, oh I don't mean literally like she was going on a bank raid but at least to eyebrow level.
Meanwhile the roadies continue scurrying about twiddling and testing while the group waits... and waits. Clem tests his spanking new kit with high-speed paradiddles. I'm sure if the group broke up he could get a job as a road drill. Jimmy gets his synthesiser synthesising loudly.
At this point I'd better explain the personnel shuffle, which happened just before the album was done. The previous bass player, Gary Valentine, left the group for a number of reasons including the standard "musical differences", but there were personal reasons too. I hear he's getting a new band together.
With Blondie stuck for a bassist they got in Frank Infante for the album sessions. He plays guitar too and when shortly afterwards Nigel Harrison came in as full-time bass player, Frank stayed on, fleshing out the sound on second guitar.
Another recent upheaval for the group was their move from Private Stock to Chrysalis, the latter paying several hundred grand for them. Hence the delay in release of "Plastic Letters".
Still the wait was worth it. It's a devastating album, racey fun pop like only the Blondies can do it. Thirteen tracks, several of them killers and a true progression from the excellent first album. Richard Gottehrer produced again but this time the sound is bigger and better... and mixing only took two days.
Although the album is basically Blondie's very special tacky-teen bop they go for a lot of styles - rockers (the charging "Detroit 442", about Iggy, and "Youth Nabbed By Sniper"); ballads (the stately "No Imagination") big beat wall-of-sound whammer-jammers ("Denis", the single, which sounds like Peggy Sue meets the Ronettes and should be MONSTROUS) and even boogie woogie ("Kidnapper").
And there's enough hooks on this album to fill a whole cloakroom. Sure they're more of a group now, touring's got 'em tighter and they've matured so they can control their explosions. Debbie sounds more confident too.
When Gary Valentine left Blondie he sure was kind in his will cos his sole offering - "(I am Always) Touched By Your Presence Dear" turns out to be one of the best songs on the album. Multi-tracked Debbie is still with her dead lover - "I am always in touch with your presence dear". Her heart-melting voice and the surging Spectorama backing lift this off the turntable and into your heart forever. (Aah!) "Love At The Pier" is the Blondie Sound never better, blood brother to "In the Sun" riding on a high-kicking Beach Boys roller coaster, Debbie soaring over the top.
"Cautious Lip" is sultry and steamy, "I Didn't Have the Nerve to Say No", "Contact in Red Square", "I'm on E", "Fan Mail" and calm-before-storm atmospheric "Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)" (sad and mysterious)... all these are great songs. This is a great album... your move.
Debbie says Chris is still asleep. We talk about the tour, album - which she is really pleased with - and stuff like that. It always amazes me when people say she is cold or whatever. I always find her warm and friendly, which is pretty good considering the legions of attentive people - ranging from drooling plain-clothes division D.O.M.s through journalists, pests (often the same thing) and other ranks of people-who-are-quite-nice-to-know-really who must inflict themselves upon her all the time. She's a bit shy with a little girl sense of humour. Oh, and forget any of that stuff about dumb blondes.
Meanwhile, back at the soundcheck... the soundcheck still hasn't happened. The PA ain't right, monitors playing up and it's well past seven o'clock. The group clamber onstage. SCREEEE-ECH! Feedback. They clamber off. "That's just what I needed to clear my head", says Debbie.
A few adjustments and they're back on, hammering out songs from the LPs. By the time they've finished the sound is approaching reasonable so the group head off for the hotel. They're not over-happy but the car ride to the Kensington hotel is lifted out of downer silence by Tales of the Tour, notably the one about an Australian whose party piece was biting the head off a live roach and eating it. Then he'd wash it down with a bottle of piss gurgling "Mmmm, good piss this!"
At the hotel the group splits to shower and eat and are all surprised to find they've been asked individually to settle their hotel bill. A hint?
Chris Stein calls me into his and Debbie's room. He's sitting up in bed the fever having passed. He still feels pretty rough he says, but no sweat about not making the gig. "I'll just wear shades and be cool!"
While Debbie has a bath and gets ready for the gig, Chris shows me his portfolio of self-taken photographs. His stuff has appeared in US mags like "Punk" and on tour his camera is always clicking. If he ever gives up rock 'n' roll...
We talk about the album, Power Pop, and all that, while Debbie flits about. She's worried she's caught Chris's flu and takes the brandy bottle with her for comfort. She looks great in faded denim and gold boots - Dingwalls gear.
As we're getting ready to leave she shows me her trumpet. I never knew! "Oh, I just blast through it and make a noise at the end of 'Cautious Lip'", and indeed she does.
We head downstairs. A string section saws away in the restaurant and heads turn as the group saunter past, Debbie in her black coat and gold boots, brandy bottle in hand.
Dingwalls is packed. Lotsa press and a few fans crowded round the front of the stage. I join them as the band comes on, tune up then blast into "X Offender". Oh Christ the sound! It's terrible! It'd be pretty deafening at Hammersmith Odeon at this volume, still eventually the sound mixer realises he ain't in tokyo stadium and the volume and quality is adjusted to just plain bad. It's fucking sad! They don't particularly wanna do the gig, the sound is cringe-inducing yet all eyes of the media are upon them. Still, even through the morass of feedback and overkill ear assault it's easy to see how much more confident the band has got. They're now playing better than I've ever seen 'em, hopping on the thin line between tight and slick. There's a solid selection of numbers from the two albums, each one invoking further enthusiasm from the crowd. The press and liggers soon get thirsty but the fans never tire in their efforts to get nearer the vision of Debbie Harry in the flesh before them.
Blondie's choice of cover versions have always been Just Right. I well remember being catapulted clean out of my seat at the Rainbow when they broke into the Shangri-Las' "Out In the Streets". On the previous tour it was the Daytona's "Little GTO" and Doors' "Moonlight Drive" (which was recorded for the new LP but ain't there). Latest addition to the set is the Stones' "My Obsession".
There is an encore, they do "Youth Nabbed as Sniper", which segues on a Clem Burke kit-stomp into... dunno, we didn't get
further than that cos at that point he suddenly stopped playing, ran through his kit, pushed past Jimmy and headed offstage. The band followed scratching their heads. "Er, Goodnight", said a surprised but not pleased looking Debbie, and that was it.
What happened I dunno. I've read and heard various reports since but wasn't about to bust in on any dressing room tension to find out. It was probably a storm in a teacup, blown up by nerves frayed with the bad sound and other problems.
So ended my Day with Blondie, and I retired troubled to the bar in search of oblivion.
That was Blondie's second London gig in three months to be hit by sound problems. Don't judge them too harshly, wait for the Roundhouse next month. Meanwhile there's that album. Blondie are gonna be huge.
Here comes success. And it's written in Plastic Letters.