Graded on a Curve: Blondie, Blondie

Celebrating Debbie Harry on her 76th birthday.Ed.

Any discussion of ‘70s-era pop-rock is incomplete without due time spent on Blondie, and vinyl mavens unversed in their essence can play catch-up in one fell swoop with Universal’s box set of the six LPs from the group’s original run. As no-frills as its title, Blondie offers exact reproductions and absolutely nothing extra; the totality captures the heights and depths of a highly successful and influential band.

If the most commercially solvent entity to emerge from the ‘70s New York City punk/new wave scene, Blondie’s style, at least for a significant portion of their ’75-’82 existence, is most aptly compared to the Ramones. Purists may balk, but honestly I’d be perplexed if by this date on the calendar there are more than a handful of bitter goats clinging to the notion that Blondie were hangers-on or sellouts.

Spearheaded by vocalist Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein and after early personnel changes solidified through keyboardist James Destri, bassist Gary Valentine, and drummer Clem Burke, in December of 1975 Blondie’s self-titled debut appeared via fly-by-night independent Private Stock Records. It didn’t shift many units, but their popularity surged once Chrysalis scooped them up, releasing Plastic Letters in the fall of ’77 and reissuing Blondie in the bargain.

There were lineup adjustments, with Valentine out and replaced by Frank Infante, who promptly switched to guitar upon addition of bassist Nigel Harrison. The membership remained stable until ’82, when disappointments revolving around The Hunter inspired a breakup. This collection doesn’t include everything; missing are the five illuminating ‘75 demos cut with Alan Betrock and the ’80 Giorgio Moroder collaboration “Call Me” from the soundtrack to Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo; instead it simply boxes-up the half-dozen long-players devoid of editorializing.

All of these platters were once extremely cheap and relatively easy to pick up used (though I’ve never glimpsed a Private Stock edition of Blondie), and I can’t imagine the situation has changed. But I realize there’s a breed of vinyl connoisseur equivalent to those licensed drivers who wouldn’t stoop to buy a second-hand car; bluntly, this set is for them.

Blondie’s kinship with the Ramones basically stems from an undisguised adoration for assorted ‘60s pop-rock forms and a fitting emphasis on girl-group sass. They were of course far more pop-inclined and unabashedly professional in objective, with Harry a surprisingly adaptable lead singer and vet of ‘60s folk-pop also-rans Wind in the Willows (one LP for Capitol in ’68), all factors contributing to the nagging anxiety over their punk bona fides.

The antidote for this malady is “X Offender,” the first single and lead-off track from Blondie. Opening with Philles Records-styled spoken ersatz candor, it quickly blooms into a Farfisa-driven femme-voxed garage-pop gem; the drumming is punchy and accented by tambourine, the bass supple and the guitar raw as it never wavers from the melodic ideal and even delivers some bold notes in a brief mid-‘60s-ish solo.

The tune’s spirit has been nicked by the Go-Go’s, the Primitives, and hundreds if not thousands of bands, most of them never making it out of the garage, mainly because practice as they might, they couldn’t get close to celebratory nature that “X Offender” exudes with such economical panache. Inexpensively recorded without sounding cheap, Blondie has aged very well, which is impressive for an LP relying so heavily on past models.

Slow groove “In the Flesh” is so thoroughly ‘60s its backing vocals are by the great songwriter Ellie Greenwich (same for the ‘70s slinkiness of “Man Overboard”), “Rip Her to Shreds” basks in bad girl attitude (it’s actually about tabloid journalism), the energetic “In the Sun” is a beach-rock classic, and the titles of “A Shark in Jets Clothing” and “The Attack of the Giant Ants” kinda speak for themselves.

Yet even when retooling Randy & the Rainbows ’63 hit “Denise” on Plastic Letters’ excellent “Denis” they steered far wide of the retro tag, in part because it got sandwiched between sinewy hunks of contempo rock in “Fan Mail” and “Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45).” Again produced by Richard Gottehrer, Plastic Letters is more vivid than Blondie and finds them at their most punk, wielding the pogo ready “Contact in Red Square,” “I’m on E,” and “Detroit 442,” plus the chunkier “Youth Nabbed as Sniper.”

A few lesser songs hinder Plastic Letters, most notably the citified rockabilly of “Kidnapper,” but it also contains the glorious “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear”; penned by the freshly exited Valentine, with its majestic power pop guitar and Harry’s increasingly confident emo-tug it sounds like it could’ve been written by the team of Greenwich and Pete Townsend.

With ‘78’s Parallel Lines, Blondie broke into full stride and cut their finest LP. Partisans of the previous two and the talent of Valentine (who also wrote “X Offender”) will perhaps disagree, but any record beginning with a well-executed cover of the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone” (one of two by Jack Lee) is setting the bar high, and the band hurdle it 11 more times as the disc unfolds.

They immediately follow it with rocker “One Way or Another.” It features some of their meatiest playing, with Stein particularly raunchy as Harry belts one of the most libidinally aggressive sets of lyrics this side of Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha.” Naturally, a lot of Parallel Lines’ hubbub concerned the supposed disco sellout of smash hit “Heart of Glass,” a perfectly fine single that under the working title “Once I Had a Love (aka The Disco Song)” had been in the group’s book since ’75.

Looking over Blondie’s lifespan it becomes apparent they never met a street-level musical genre they didn’t like and subsequently wish to integrate into their arsenal, and over 35 years hence the glitter-ball dabbling of “Heart of Glass” isn’t a bit laughable. Elsewhere “Fade Away and Radiate” sports a cool reggae ending as “Pretty Baby,” the power poppy “11:59” and the indie pop foreshadowing “Sunday Girl” retain the ‘60s hooks, while “I Know But I Don’t Know” flaunts new wave atmosphere and “Will Anything Happen?” is sturdy if definitely Pro melodic punk.

Parallel Lines even holds a boisterous cover of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” complete with a short ripping solo by Stein. Establishing an unbeatable standard, they still gave matching it a valiant try, especially considering ‘79’s Eat to the Beat consists entirely of originals, though much of it serves as a template for the anthemic ‘80s pop-rock just around the corner; through restraint “Dreaming” and “Accidents Never Happen” transcend the scenario.

There’s also the modern rock strutting of “The Hardest Part” and “Living in the Real World,” the mid-tempo Harry-led moodiness of “Shayla” and the vocalist’s outright flipping of her wig in “Victor,” as the more forthrightly reggaefied “Die Young Stay Pretty” predicts No Doubt. But part of Eat to the Beat’s problem is that while the title-track nods to punk and “Slow Motion” to the ‘60s, both examples resonate as gestures, an issue compounded by the spaghetti western electro of “Atomic” and the rocking-crib prettiness of “Sound-A-Sleep” each just a tad too long.

In retrospect, Eat to the Beat is the prologue of a band running its course. Minus its two great numbers, one a cover of The Paragons’ Jamaican nugget “The Tide is High,” the other the now famous early rap borrowing/electro-funker “Rapture,” 1980’s Autoamerican is a near washout. The half-assed Modernism of opener “Europa” suggests a concept album, but Blondie’s strength wasn’t a propensity for the profound; rather, it was smartly distilling the everyday into succinct moments of brilliance.

Mildly funky techno pop elements in “Live it Up” and “Do the Dark” prove adequate, but the Jazz Age Flapper-ism of “Here’s Looking at You” was ill-advised and the closing version of Lerner and Loewe’s “Follow Me” isn’t far behind. Autoamerican should’ve spelled the end of the association with producer Mike Chapman, and in truth should’ve marked the end of Blondie.

A cult following for Autoamerican is understandable (if suspiciously willful), but I can fathom no such circumstance for The Hunter, a record as terrible as its sleeve is goofy. And where production once served the group, here Blondie is beset by additives, though a stunningly average reading of Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” aside, the songwriting amounts to little.

There’s the overextended percussion segment in “Orchid Club,” the horn arrangements on the fraudulent calypso of “Island of Lost Souls” and the dance floor-inclined treadmill of “War Child,” the passed-over Bond-theme of “For Your Eyes Only” (Sheena’s is superior) and another dip into rap during “The Beast,” this one tepid. When the lightweight synth-pop of “English Boys” and the uptempo keyboard-driven bopping of “Danceaway” are the best you’ve got, the time’s past due to pack it in.

But did Blondie attempt a comeback? You can bet your sweet tuchus they did. And albums? Oh yes indeed and maybe next holiday season a box will arrive housing those. But for 2014, there’s this one; Blondie starts strong, gets better, undergoes a decline and finishes with a whimper not a bang.

Blondie
A-
Plastic Letters
B+
Parallel Lines
A+
Eat to the Beat
B+
Autoamerican
C+
The Hunter
D+

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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