"She performs with utter aplomb and involvement throughout: even when she's portraying a character consummately obnoxious and spaced-out, there is a wink of awareness that is comforting and amusing yet never condescending" - Rolling Stone
Dominated by keyboard player Jimmy Destri’s fairground sound Farfisa organ and drummer Clem Burke, funnily enough, blonde bombshell vocalist Debbie Harry was not the most notable thing about the band’s sound. What was clear, was that, embryonically, they had something, music and an image. Harry, for sure, had a sort of Lower East Side tough girl with a romantic side image and a 60s girl group sensibility. It was built on the traditions of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las - ostensibly hard housing project girls but with a sweet, loving vulnerability and a desire to find that perfect dream boy. Many punks in the New York scene at the time didn't go for this at all, preferring their female singers to be like Patti Smith, full of confrontational street grubbiness as if they have just spent the night in a seedy squat. A track like the swooning girl pop of In The Flesh was anathema to many punks. For me, I always found it quite deliciously sexy. Debbie was making it quite clear what her intentions were - she wanted her boy - in the flesh. As a late teenage boy at the time, I loved hearing her sing this sort of thing. So, girls did get as hot for it as we did. It was an expression of female lust that those sixties girl groups would never have dreamt of. It is a beautifully sensual little song.
Debbie Harry said of the New York scene that it was "tough but it had a lot of affection as well" describing Rip Her To Shreds as "dirty and menacing" but "just something we do when we get catty" as if there was a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek about it. I always got the impression that the whole Blondie image was a bit of a send-up, done with a comic-book sense of fun. The track is, I guess, what would come to be described as "camp".
Anyway, back to the rest of the album - the lively Kung Fu Girls is probably the album’s punkiest number, Man Overboard, with its vaguely white reggae feel and Rifle Range are very much what would come to be known as "new wave", while the quirky and decidedly oddball Attack Of The Giant Ants showed the band’s liking for 50s horror “B” movies, but, unfortunately, little else. Not the best track they ever did. It does feature some killer drums from Clem Burke, though. Incidentally, the sound quality and production on this album is much better than on the follow-up album. On this track it is particularly good.
There is some really good stuff on here, but, to be honest, it is all over before it has started. Not much for your money, but that was the way it was then, thirty minutes was the norm, and had been for years. I still enjoy it, however, on its occasional re-appearances on my sound system. Back in 1976 upon release fans of supposedly "real" New York punks like Richard Hell and The Ramones despised Blondie and everything this album was all about, which was somewhat unfair and a shame. Never mind, give it eighteen months and new wave would be here and they would briefly rule the world. In many ways, this was an album ahead of its time, quite ground-breaking in its little-noticed way. Nothing much else sounded like this in 1976, you have to say.
** The bonus tracks included the expanded release of the album are the dreamy, fifties-early sixties girl group pop-influenced Out In The Streets; the vituperative The Thin Line with its echoes of Rip Her To Shreds but this time with Debbie's contempt aimed at a man and Platinum Blonde with its piano-driven bar-room rock'n'roll feel. As the original album was so short, it really could have accommodated these three with ease.
In early 1978, when Blondie’s second album was released, fourteen months after their first quirky, comparatively ignored debut, they were still comparatively unknown. Indeed, many, including myself, bought their 1976 debut album AFTER buying Plastic Letters, now that they were familiar with the band. They had been knocking around gigging in the UK in 1977 ( I missed seeing them in November 1977 at Friars, Aylesbury due to having a heavy cold, to my eternal regret. I didn't get to see them live until 1999, unfortunately). For more information on Blondie at Friars, Aylesbury, check out
I remember seeing them perform Denis on Top Of The Pops. Everybody was talking about them/her the next day. That was when Blondie really arrived. February 1978.
Punkier than the 50-60s-influenced debut, to be honest, Plastic Letters is a bit of a mish-mash of short, frenetic, organ-based guitar pop songs that often finish before they have even got going - classic examples are the otherwise impressive, urgent Fan Mail, the similarly exhilarating Contact In Red Square, the bizarrely-titled Youth Nabbed As Sniper, the intense, mysterious Bermuda Triangle Blues and the short, sharp shock of I'm On E (not written about the drug ecstasy, for it was twenty years before its 1997 heyday). Just when you are getting into these songs, they end. The sound is also quite lo-fi. Enjoyable, but nowhere near as accomplished as the songs that appeared a few months later on Parallel Lines. There again, two minute thrash punky pop songs were the order of the day, so nobody really complained at the time, thinking that indeed Blondie had their finger on the punk pulse. In many ways they had. In early 1978, this album fitted the prerequisites perfectly. The old “side one” contains the shorter, faster songs, while “side two” saw some longer, more introspective material. Listening to it now, I have to say, it all sounds perfect. Better than I remembered it.
** There are some interesting extras on the latest CD-digital release - Once I Had A Love (aka The Disco Song), which is an early prototype of Heart Of Glass. It is an attractive, melodic version with acoustic guitar featured and some pleasing, understated rhythms. As someone who was never a huge fan of the original, I have to admit that I prefer this version. It would not have been the huge hit its eventual incarnation was, however. Cautious Lip is a menacing, Velvet Underground-influenced, brooding number with a breakneck, Patti Smith-style ending. Scenery is a poppy and appealing number with slight Talking Heads vibes that would have been a nice addition to the album, possibly in place of No Imagination or Kidnapper. Then there is the afore-mentioned Poets Problem which was also deserving of an album place. Finally we get a storming live version of Detroit 442, Blondie were never the best of live bands, but they nail this one.
The lively Buddy Holly cover I'm Gonna Love You Too is another “get up, join in” number. Even the lesser-known tracks like the brooding I Know But I Don't Know, Will Anything Happen and the understated but tuneful closer, Just Go Away are impressive. There is not really a duff track on the album, is there?
The whole album is perfectly created and suited the power pop-new wave trend perfectly. Indeed, it is probably the quintessential power pop album. The band never sounded better on this one, either. Clem Burke’s drums, Jimmy Destri’s keyboard, Chris Stein’s guitar. The blend was perfect for what they were looking to achieve at the time. Later output would reveal limitations, but certainly not here. Apparently, producer Mike Chapman said they had less ability as musicians than any band he had ever worked with and he had to work really hard to get Burke, Destri and Stein to sound remotely competent. He obviously managed it. Bass guitarist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante were said by Chapman to be the best of the band’s musicians. The opinions Chapman expressed were possibly a pointer as to why Blondie were generally considered a pretty poor live band. Amazingly, the album was recorded in only six weeks. Also, what is surprising, is that the band all hated each other, apart from lovers Stein and Debbie Harry.
Personally, maybe I have just heard it too many times, but I prefer dipping into Plastic Letters or Eat To The Beat these days. That is just a personal listening choice, however. It can't be denied that this was by far Blondie's finest album.
** Included as bonus tracks on the expanded release of the album are a frantic, extended bluesy groove of a live cover of T. Rex's Get It On; a grungy, dense live version of I Know But I Don't Know and a suitably energetic live cut of Hanging On The Telephone.
The pop, hook-laden singalong sounds of that stream of hit singles from the previous album was replaced by a more industrial, almost grungy, “post-punk”-ish tone to the sound on many tracks, as if they were trying to say “hey, we’re punks after all, guys…”. In a lot of ways, I prefer it to Parallel Lines. It is definitely the most punk/new wave of the group's albums. Yes, there are still a couple of disco-rock dabblings, but overall it is a album of harsh riffs and clashing soundscapes.
Shayla sees Debbie in classic torch-song influenced new wave ballad territory, a bit like Fade Away And Radiate on the previous album. Her voice is beautifully haunting on this. Eat To The Beat is a wired-up, frantic punky drum-driven rocker. Accidents Never Happen has that typically 1979 guitar intro, like something by The Police or Joe Jackson, a great rumbling bass line and one of those effortless Harry vocals and more great Clem Burke drums. Die Young Stay Pretty has some of those vague reggae hints that were so de rigeur at the time and an instantly appealing chorus. There is also a quirky keyboard intro riff.
Slow Motion has an ethereal vocal from Debbie and a 60s-style backing but a little bit of a muffled production. There is a bit of mystery to these songs, though, which was somehow lacking on Parallel Lines. This is where I find myself liking this album more. There is a strange sadness to this track, under the surface. The afore-mentioned Atomic, with its thumping beat, magnificent bass hooks and hypnotic guitar riff is just superb, let’s be honest. It soars. Disco rock at its finest. Sound-A-Sleep is another of those airy, dreamy Fade Away slowies that Debbie did so well. Her voice floats effortlessly over a pounding bass note. Very atmospheric and evocative. Victor, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, a raucous mess, if I’m brutally honest. Bizarre backing vocals and a shrieking nonsense of a vocal from Debbie. The album and its ambience could have done without it. The album concludes with an improvement in the punky thrash of Living In the Real World.
In conclusion, though, this was Blondie's last really good album and, although Parallel Lines was obviously the best one, this definitely had its positive points. I have read some reviews dismissing it out of hand, which I feel is ill-considered. It was not bad at all. Despite that, though, it would never be as good for Blondie as it was in those glory years of 1978-1979.
** The bonus tracks are all live cuts - the appealing white reggae of Die Young Stay Pretty; an impressively urgent cover of The Four Tops' Seven Rooms Of Gloom; an ethereal, sensual cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" and an enthusiastic, unexpected cover of Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire.
I remember getting this at the time and barely playing it. Compared to their previous albums, the hit singles apart, it is a bit of an underwhelming album. Although it included a number one hit single, Blondie's stock was falling, rapidly, and my younger self was losing interest in them too. Their new wave spunk had become eaten into by their burgeoning disco obsession, although to be fair, their dabbling in rap was unique and ground-breaking. They also mess around with jazz and show tunes so it carries evidence of a band trying to diversify. So, is it time that I re-assessed this album?
Europa is a sombre-sounding instrumental that was surely influenced by contemporary post punk-synth music. It plays like an introduction to a live concert and is pretty much dispensible. Living It Up taps into the band's proclivity for disco-influenced numbers and is actually a reasonable track in that very Blondie 1979-80 style. It has a nice groovy bass line, some fine keyboards and a funky wah-wah guitar. It is far better than I remember it.
Not so impressive, though, is the 1920s-ish throwaway jazzy fun of Here's Looking At You. It sounds like something Freddie Mercury would put on a Queen album or Bryan Ferry would cover, in much better style. It is an incongruous inclusion. Now we get the irresistible cover of The Paragons' reggae hit, The Tide Is High. I remember absolutely loving it when it came out and time hasn't eroded that feeling. It is one of the better reggae covers. Angels On The Balcony starts in disjointed fashion but soon becomes an attractive sixties-influenced new wave number, featuring some good guitar and organ parts, as well as a typically cool Debbie Harry vocal. Go Through It is also in the style of the previous few years and is another of the better tracks. It reminds me somewhat of Brice Springsteen's River material from the same year. It is enhanced by some Mexican-sounding brass backing, which broke the mould.
Disco kicks off the old "side two" with the cool-detached vibe of Do The Dark, which has a heavy-sounding chorus in between its swirling middle-Eastern backing. I like this one and next up is Rapture, which has claims to be the first "white rap" number. Debbie raps with her iconic laconic voice about men from Mars eating cars over an infectious slow dance rhythm. These two tracks exemplify the dance-y Blondie sound of the period perfectly. Check out those funky guitar lines - memorable. The saxophone is great too as is the rock guitar solo near the end. It all goes jazzy again on the 1930s-ish Faces which finds Debbie singing over a late-night jazz saxophone backing. Although it is another incongruous track, I quite like it. T-Birds is a strange sort of song, sort of new wave with a big, muffled Spector-esque production that doesn't quite gel, for me. Walk Like Me is a healthily drum-powered new wave number, highlighting the great drummer that Clem Burke was. The slow torch song-style Follow Me was a tune from a stage show and it ends the album in low-key fashion.
The album lacks cohesion, in my opinion, and I would have preferred Follow Me, Faces and Here's Looking At you replaced by the upbeat stand-alone riffy dance single, Call Me (particularly in its excellent extended format) and maybe two other tracks in the Blondie dance style, giving the album more of a dance mood throughout. The 'b' side to The Tide Is High, Suzy & Jeffrey, has a nice new wave sound, but its car crash subject matter blights it for me.
This was Blondie's first album since 1982, and although it suffers from the curse of the end of the nineties-early 2000s in that the CD age had made it simply too long (nearly an hour), there is some good stuff on there.
Screaming Skin is Blondie meets two tone - it has a lively ska beat and an infectious sound straight out of 1981. It was a fine welcome back. The quality is continued on the cool, Blondie-disco sound of Forgive And Forget, with Debbie's ethereal vocal floating over the subtly insistent rhythm.
Maria was the album's big hit single, providing the band with a number one, and the longest time for an artist between numbers ones (since The Tide Is High - eighteen years). It is a wonderful piece of Clem Burke-driven Blondie power pop, with the catchy sound of 1977-78 all over it. Nice one. Up there with Blondie's best songs of all time, no question. No Exit is a fusion of classical-influenced ELP-style keyboards with rap and hip-hop, full of huge chunky beats and rap vocals from guest rappers Coolio and others that I can't remember. There is a great fuzzy guitar solo to that goes all classical at one point. Bach's Toccata And Fugue and Grieg's Hall Of The Mountain King are interpreted by keyboard and guitar. It is an innovative piece. Double Take is a sombre, synthesiser-backed love song that is once again full of atmosphere. Debbie's vocal has a sad tone to it. Candy Dulfer guests on saxophone. Nothing Is Real But The Girl is another very typical late seventies Blondie track, it would have sounded fine on Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat and still sounds beautifully nostalgic on here.
Blondie have always liked a bit of cool, jazzy vibes and they deliver it here on the attractively quirky and oddly-titled Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room. Both Night Wind Set and, particularly, Under The Gun have more seventies Blondie echoes. I like the latter a lot. Out In the Streets is a mournful-sounding, string-backed cover of The Shangri-Las' sixties number that has a sadness to it that suits the song.
Happy Dog is a nice, chuggingly riffy and humorous number about a dog's hairy butt that suffers from being near the end of the album, so I sort of tended to forget about it. By now the album should have ended, as it would have done back in 1978. The Dream's Lost On Me is country influenced while Divine has reggae tinges. This genre-hopping album ends with the experimental, psychedelic-ish Dig Up The Conjo.
As I said, the album was too long but it doesn't really detract from its appeal. It was a convincing comeback, something that doesn't always happen.
This is a double album release from Blondie, a group synonymous with the new wave era of 1977-82 who are no still plugging away, trying to adapt their music to fit in with contemporary trends and styles. Fair play to them for doing that and trying to stay relevant, although the music they are currently putting out does not appeal to me in the way their output did back in the late seventies/early eighties.
There are sixteen new tracks on the Ghosts Of Download new material section of the album It is quite difficult to analyse each and every one of them on an individual basis, as I usually do with albums, because, for me, an awful lot of them are very similar. A pounding, digital, contemporary backbeat underpins all of them and electronic keyboards are far more prominent than guitars. I feel when you have a great rock drummer like Clem Burke then you should use him a lot more than this music allows. Listening to the whole album, a swathe of electronic keyboards and programmed drums sweeps all over you. A few selected tracks is quite enjoyable, but all sixteen of them gets a bit samey. Maybe I am just showing my age. A clubber I never was. That said, several listens in and I am warming to it, which is always a good sign. Beneath the booming backing there are some subtleties. As with all contemporary recordings, you need to turn the volume down a bit to fully appreciate it, and I am someone who likes their music loud. I have two hi-fi systems. One is far more bassy than the other. This album sounds better on the less bassy system. It is normally the opposite. Basically, this is an electro-pop album, certainly not a new wave one, but this is what Blondie do now and I can accept that.
The cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax is pretty pointless, to be honest. For the first time on the album, the beat disappears and the whole tempo is slowed down. Really, this is the track that needed that “da-da-da” riff and sladegehammer drums. No, half of it is done at walking pace with ghostly, ethereal vocals. It doesn’t work for me. That trademark riff comes in half way through, but really slowed down. No. Sorry. The last couple of minutes save it just a bit. Only just, though. Take Me In The Night has a Kraftwerk-style vocal and echoes of some of The Phenomenal Handclap Band’s output. It is actually quite an addictive track. The tuneful, lively Make A Way is as close to early eighties Blondie as the album gets.
Now for the re-recordings of the greatest hits…
While these classic hits have all been re-recorded, it is not an exercise in re-interpreting them. To the last, they are played straight, with just the occasional added sound effect here and there, such as on Heart Of Glass. Debbie Harry's voice sounds older (obviously) and carries less of the languid but vibrant tones of when she was much younger. Clem Burke's drumming, though, is as good as it ever was. The overall sound is bassier and warmer which is not surprising considering the advances in recording techniques, but, other than that, it is nothing more than an interesting listen every now and again. Debbie's new rap on Rapture sounds, unsurprisingly, less vital and new than it did. Strange to think that this, upon release, was one of the first times anyone had heard rap. Apparently, Maria is the original 1999 recording. No wonder it didn't sound any different!
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