X Offender/Little Girl Lies/In The Flesh/Look Good In Blue/In The Sun/A Shark In Jets Clothing/Man Overboard/Rip Her To Shreds/Rifle Range/Kung Fu Girls/The Attack Of The Giant Ants
An odd but strangely attractive little album, this, from a band who nobody quite knew what they were, at the time. They weren’t punk, they weren’t rock. They had a few 50s/early 60s style rock n roll stylings. They weren’t “new wave” yet, because it hadn’t been conceived of, similarly “power pop”. Maybe that was why, initially, this album slipped under the radar, only selling retrospectively once they became famous. Indeed, I only bought it in 1978, after first buying the album's follow-up, Plastic Letters. It has a beguiling appeal, however and is worth the occasional listen. It helped to set trends, although is never really acknowledged in those terms, probably because it was initially somewhat overlooked. It was initially released on Private Stock Records but I bet most people bought it when it was re-released on the Chrysalis label. That certainly applied to me.
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.
Musically, the fifties diner fashion sound was there all the way on the catchy and appealing Little Girl Lies, the afore-mentioned rock 'n' roll ballad of In The Flesh, the "West Side Story"-influenced keyboard-driven rock of A Shark In Jets Clothing and the new wave sound in waiting arrived on the joyous blast of X Offender, the frantic, punky drum-driven In The Sun and the uber-bitchy Rip Her To Shreds. These latter three are the best tracks on the album. Indeed, X Offender is an underrated, little-mentioned Blondie classic. It was on this track that the trademark organ sound was first heard at its best. Just check out those rolling drums and swirling organ breaks. Together with Debbie's soaring, sexy vocal it blew me away back in 1978 upon first hearing it, playing it endlessly. There is a fair case for it being the quintessential Blondie track. In fact you can put Rip Her To Shreds up there with it. Two all-time Blondie classics on one overlooked album. Not bad, huh?
Another little-mentioned but impressive song is Look Good In Blue, with its intoxicating organ sounds and seductive melody, not forgetting the saucily intentional double entendre of "I could give you some head...and shoulders to lie on...". Naughty Debbie. Listening to to this and A Shark In Jets Clothing again after a while has been enjoyable, they are both surprisingly good tracks. I love the letters slightly Parisian feel.
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 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.
PLASTIC LETTERS (1978)
Fan Mail/Denis/Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)/Youth Nabbed As Sniper/Contact In Red Square/(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear/I'm On E/I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No/Love At The Pier/No Imagination/Kidnapper/Detroit 442/Cautious Lip
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 https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.
However, It was the hit single Denis that earned singer Deborah Harry a legion of teenage male fans and girls who admired her chutzpah too. Blonde hairdos emerged all over the place. Regular girls found a way into punk via Blondie too, which previously had been difficult, unless they wanted to go down the Siouxsie Sioux route, which many didn’t. Here, by looking like Debbie Harry, they could get their punk kicks while not going the whole gothic hog.
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. Kidnapper starts out sounding like Elvis and ends up just like Suzi Quatro, though. It is a slightly odd glam rock throwback that sits a bit strangely on the album.
The two hit singles from the album are top notch, however - the delightful power pop of Denis and the more mysterious (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear and Detroit 442 is a more complete rocky closer to the album, featuring some great drums. My goodness, though, all these years later and I still love Denis. The track was a cover version of a sixties doo-wop song by Randy & The Rainbows and was originally titled "Denise". Debbie decided to add a somewhat improvised verse in French, for some reason.
An underrated, rarely mentioned gem is to be found in Presence’s “B” side, the drug-referencing but also tender ballad Poets Problem - proof that punky ballads could be created. Retrospection has slammed this album as “the difficult second album”, but at the time myself and my peers and many others loved it. We heard tracks like Fan Mail (the first on the album) and were more than satisfied. Songs like the surprisingly good and singalong I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No, the powerful "Beatles-styled lyrics meets hard rock” of No Imagination and the rousing, drum-powered Love At The Pier contain hints as to what the next few months’ songwriting would yield from the band, however. Blondie were now one step from their period of brief greatness. Like their first album, this was an underrated and subtly influential piece of work. I always quite enjoy listening to it again.
Photo by Norman Seeff.
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.
PARALLEL LINES (1978)
Hanging On The Telephone/One Way Or Another/Picture This/Fade Away And Radiate/Pretty Baby/I Know But I Don't Know/11.59/Will Anything Happen?/Sunday Girl/Heart Of Glass/I'm Gonna Love You Too/Just Go Away
Released in September 1978, only seven months after Plastic Letters, this was the album that everyone remembers Blondie for. It was of those albums that contained multiple hit singles - the power pop of Picture This, the punkier kick-ass rock of Hanging On The Telephone, the disco groove of Heart Of Glass and the melodic radio-friendly singalong pop of Sunday Girl. Added to that, everyone seemed to know One Way Or Another too, or at least they do now. Incidentally, Hanging On The Telephone was a cover of a 1976 song from a short-lived Californian punk band called The Nerves. I have to freely admit that I had gone all these years completely unaware of this original version of the song. Blondie's cover is virtually note for not, even down to the telephone ring at the beginning, although The Nerves' version has an appealing Duane Eddy-style guitar backing and some convincing punky sneering vocals. Actually, you know what - I may just prefer it. It has a rockabilly/punk appeal compared to Blondie's power pop anthem. Blondie had the image, though, and the song always seemed tailor-made for them.
The other tracks contain some gems too, 11.59 and Pretty Baby are very appealing upbeat power pop numbers, while, conversely, the spooky Fade Away And Radiate had a post-punk mystery about it, full of imagery about cathode rays and sci-fi. This song was one of the album's underrated numbers and it showed that Blondie weren't simply new wave preeners but had a taste for the bleak demi-monde too. Robert Fripp plays guitar on it too, giving it a link to the bleak soundscapes of David Bowie's "Heroes". I would always put it in any "best of Blondie" playlist.
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. Not really a duff track on the album. They also managed to subvert the mainstream impassively by doing what so many other artists were doing by 1978 and went full on disco with Heart Of Glass. It made them many new fans who were certainly not punks or even new wave fans but people who enjoyed the commercial sounds of this mega-selling single as well as Sunday Girl, Picture This and Hanging On The Telephone. Ironically, by doing a disco song to be deliberately uncool, by their own admittance, Blondie had made new wave cool. They were not part of the cultish CBGB sub-culture anymore, they were firmly part of the mainstream.
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.
EAT TO THE BEAT (1979)
Dreaming/The Hardest Part/Union City Blue/Shayla/Eat To The Beat/Accidents Never Happen/Die Young Say Pretty/Slow Motion/Atomic/Sound A-Sleep/Victor/Living In The Real World
After the phenomenal success of Parallel Lines that saw Blondie move from being a “cultish” power pop/punky band to being a darling of mainstream radio and seemingly permanent fixture in the charts, they tried, in many ways, to return to a spiky, punky sound for this, their fourth album.
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.
The album kicks off with a true power pop classic, however, Dreaming. Clem Burke’s drums roll into an addictive guitar riff and Debbie Harry’s laconic vocal about “when I saw you in a restaurant…”. It has a killer chorus as well. Blondie at their very best. It was a big hit single, unsurprisingly. Forget Heart Of Glass, this blows it away. The punky The Hardest Part sees the disco-ish rock thing that had begun with Heart Of Glass continued, as indeed it was on the album’s other really big hit single, the irresistibly catchy Atomic, which was packed full of hooks, designed to hook-in, so to speak, the mainstream disco-obsessed audience that had been gained by Heart Of Glass. Union City Blue was a mid-paced piece of new wave rock which was also a hit, but a lesser one. Once again, though, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s instinct for a captivating chorus was clear.
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 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.
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.
BLONDIE LIVE AT THE BBC (1979)
Recorded live on New Year's Eve 1979 in Glasgow
A live album catching "power pop" favourites Blondie at the height of their chart success in 1979. Unlike many of the At The BBC releases, this is not a collection of "recorded live in studio sessions" recordings, but a full live gig, from Glasgow's Apollo Theatre. The sound quality is not 100% perfect, but it is perfectly acceptable.
Blondie were never the greatest live band around at the time, a little bit messy at times (maybe it's just me though), but this is an enjoyable New Year's Eve romp. I remember watching it live on the TV that very evening (remember live gigs were extremely rare back then).
Although the set list concentrates a lot on their latest release, Eat To The Beat, (actually every track except for Sound Asleep), all the hits are played (a disappointing, slowed-down, lazy opener in Denis, Atomic, Dreaming, Hanging On The Telephone, Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl) plus some of my favourites in X Offender, Pretty Baby, Die Young Stay Pretty and a surprisingly good cover of The Four Tops' Seven Rooms Of Gloom. Some searing lead guitar on The Hardest Part that also sees Debbie Harry at her sneering punky vocal best. Accidents Never Happen is also well delivered too, another piece of outstanding guitar/organ interplay. The cacophonous, discordant Victor is actually more tolerable on here than on the original Eat To The Beat album.
There is a strange bit at the end of Atomic when the band launch straight into Eat To The Beat (which has already been played) and it ends abruptly and they go straight into Picture This which is a bit confusing. Should Atomic have come before Eat To The Beat? But the earlier Eat To The Beat starts differently, so who knows!
Good memories. Every now and again I put it on and it's New Years' Eve 1979 again.
THE GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD/BLONDIE REDUX (2014)
Sugar On The Side/Rave/A Rose By Any Name/Winter/I Want To Drag You Around/I Screwed Up/Relax/Take Me In The Night/Make A Way/Mile High/Euphoria/Take It Back/Backroom/Put Some Color On You/Can't Stop Wanting/Prism
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.
Sugar On The Side has a Spanish spoken intro and some vaguely Santana-esque rhythms before the track settles into an appealing, mid-pace disco-ish groove with a strong vocal from Debbie Harry . It has some Spanish hip/hop style interjections that add atmosphere to it. Rave has a searing guitar intro and another confident vocal, with a slightly Heart Of Glass beat before the thumping dance beat kicks in. The stabbing guitar bits retain a bit of a new wave vibe. A Rose By Any Name has a catchy chorus refrain although again the beat is unadventurous. It is still quite a good track.
Winter is a favourite of mine, with a late seventies riff powering it on and a good vocal. It sounds a bit Stonesy in places. Not in its sound but its construction and basic melody. You could imagine them doing their own version of it. Well, I can anyway. Particularly the “never think twice” bit. It has a Robert Fripp on “Heroes”-style guitar solo too. Good track. I Want To Drag You Around has a quirky little rhythm to it, swirling keyboards and a plaintive, mysterious vocal. I Screwed Up has a bit of a Cajun-style accordion sound and a Latin-ish groove to it. Burke’s drums sound more “proper” on this one. It features more Hispanic hip/hop vocal enhancements, which are again positive ones.
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. Mile High just washes over you in its electronic way, although it has some subtle guitar parts in places. Euphoria has a slight reggae vibe to it and is ok, but I’m starting to tire by now. Eleven tracks - fine. Sixteen - too many.
As for the remaining tracks - Take It Back is lively, beaty and appealing with an impressive vocal; Backroom is a lyrically-odd number about “drinking all night in the backroom”; Put Some Color On You may have sounded better at the beginning of the album; the same applies to Can't Stop Wanting, athough Prism closes things on a bit of a Fade Away And Radiate slow vibe.
Now for the re-recordings of the greatest hits…
Heart Of Glass/Dreaming/The Tide Is High/Maria/Sunday Girl/Hanging On The Telephone/Rapture/One Way Or Another/Call Me/Atomic/Rip Her To Shreds
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!
© Edo Bertoglio