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The History Of Rock – American Dreams


From plastic punksters
to Autoamericans

AT THE END of the Seventies, pop went blonde in a big way with Abba, the Police and Blondie registering a three-way claim to be the biggest singles sellers of 1978-79. Of the three, Blondie were the surprise packet. They were deliberately uncategorisable: poppy one minute and arty-serious the next; a group with an unusually open mind whose style was a rag-bag of swiftly-assimilated influences. Punk, power pop, disco, reggae, rap – you name it, they did it, in an often exhilarating and wildly successful stab at world domination of the radio airwaves and poster shops.
In former Playboy Bunny Debbie Harry they had the undisputed female sex symbol of the time. In 1978’s Parallel Lines they had one of those rare albums that sells and keeps on selling; more than a million copies were bought in the UK alone and the LP spent over 100 weeks in the charts. Their demise was almost as sudden as their rise, but their career was certainly fun while it lasted.

Dark roots
Blondie grew out of an occasional, jokey New York group called the Stilettoes. Variously described by Debbie as ‘tacky’, ‘gaudy’ and ‘general chaos’, the band generally included three girl singers, and therefore naturally tended towards early-Sixties pop material sung by girl groups such as the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes and the Supremes. In the serious, slightly stodgy music biz of the early Seventies, this was considered a highly unusual basis from which to work.
The Stilettoes had not been Debbie’s first group (she had even made an album in 1968 with a band called Wind in the Willows), but it was the first to feature her boyfriend, Chris Stein, who had more definite ideas about making a career out of what had started out as part-time fun. With the current Stilettoes rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy O’Connor, they formed a group that, after playing under a variety of names, became Blondie in 1974, when, briefly, it had two blonde backing vocalists.
The name – best-known for Chic Young’s long-running cartoon strip – was apt for a group that used imagery from cartoon, B movies and tabloid headlines as inspiration for most of its early songs: ‘X Offender’, ‘A Shark In Jet’s Clothing’, ‘Kung Fu Girls’ and ‘The Attack Of The Giant Ants’ were among the sensationalist titles that featured on the first album, Blondie (1976).
By the time of its release, Blondie featured a new rhythm section. Gary Valentine came in on bass, Fred Smith having left to join Television, and Clem Burke joined on drums. Burke was just 18 but already steeped in Sixties pop, English groups in general and Keith Moon in particular, and was clearly a valuable addition. As Debbie succinctly remarked: ‘He fell in enthusiastically with our plans to form a pop group that aimed to modernise AM radio sounds. Clem never wanted anything else but to be a pop star.’ This was the sort of single-mindedness a struggling group needs.
Pop and fun were the keywords to the early Blondie. Their songs were brief and to the point (three-and-a-half minutes was long by their standards) with lots of punch and few pretentions. The LP was produced by Richard Gottehrer for the small Private Stock label, later known among the band as Private Joke, as its impact was strictly local. It was not even released in Britain until 1978 when their new label Chrysalis issued it along with the second album, Plastic Letters (1978).
Outside New York, the first people to take more than a passing interest in Blondie were the Australians, who made ‘In The Flesh’ a Number 2 hit – the only success under the group’s belt when Chrysalis decided to invest half-a-million dollars in its future. Chrysalis’ gamble paid off with the release of the first 45 from Plastic Letters – ‘Denis’, a reverse-sex version of a 15-year-old American hit by Randy and the Rainbows, which Debbie chose against strong opposition from within the band.
The single was an immediate hit in the UK, rising to Number 2 with the aid of a startling first appearance on BBC-TV’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ which began a lasting affair between Debbie, cameras and the British public. ‘Denis’ was a beginning and an end – the final blast of the group’s fascination with Sixties nostalgia and (until 1980’s ‘The Tide Is High’), their only non-original hit.
Blondie had already toured the UK with Television in 1977, but TV and press approval plus an aggressive marketing campaign by Chrysalis (in which, initially, Blondie seemed merely to be an alternative name for Debbie) quickly established their popularity. 1978’s Plastic Letters, an altogether darker and more adventurous album than ‘Denis’ would seem to suggest, remained over a year in the UK charts, reaching Number 10. Its best track, ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’, written by departed bass-player Gary Valentine, became a UK Number 10 hit in May.
By this time, the band – now six-strong with the addition of keyboardist Jimmy Destri and English bassist Nigel Harrison (which meant that Frank Infante shared the guitar-playing with Chris Stein) – was recording with a new producer, the famed ‘hit machine’ Mike Chapman. The decision to work with Chapman represented a change in the band’s direction, from post-punk to mainstream ‘hit or bust’ pop. Blondie’s new, streamlined and accessible sound gave them a far better chance of receiving airplay on American radio – notoriously slow to pick up on new groups, especially if they were reputed to be ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’.

Yesterday’s papers
The LP that Blondie recorded with Chapman, Parallel Lines (1978) was one of those rare records that reflects the time it was made as perfectly as an old newspaper. It had great variety – not only in an egalitarian use of all six members among the songwriters, but in a wide range of styles both vocally and instrumentally, which gave a great many tracks the feel of a snappy single. Which is what no less than four of them successively became – ‘Picture This’, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Sunday Girl’ – with the last two providing the group’s first British Number 1 hits. In addition, the disco-flavoured ‘Heart Of Glass’ finally broke the band in the US. Disco was officially acceptable on American radio and ‘Heart Of Glass’ soon shot to Number 1.
By 1979, Blondie were getting more coverage in the Sun than they were in Sounds: they were a pop group with a capital P. Their 1979 album, again with Mike Chapman at the controls, was Eat To The Beat, one of the first albums to be simultaneously released as a video. A little strained in places by comparison with Parallel Lines, it was still a tremendous hit, a Number 1 album that yielded another three major hit singles in ‘Dreaming’, ‘Union City Blue’ and ‘Atomic’.
‘Union City Blue’ was confusingly not used in Union City (1980), an appealing, low-budget black comedy that provided a first film role for Debbie and a first film score for Stein. Union City was the first sign of increasing outside interests for Blondie members. The group had also gone through a protracted change of manager from Peter Leeds to Shep Gordon, the power behind Alice Cooper’s Seventies success.

High tide and lost souls
Some inter-group wrangling occurred over who should produce the next album, with Stein and Harry being in favour of Euro-disco producer Giorgio Moroder. In the event, Moroder did the transatlantic Number 1 ‘Call Me’ as an independent single while Chapman was back at the mixing desk for Autoamerican (1980), which was generally better received in the US than in the UK, although it made Number 3 in the British charts.
The album provided the group’s last UK Number 1 hit with the muted reggae of ‘The Tide Is High’, while the jokey rapping of ‘Rapture’ took it to Number 5. This time, however, the variety of styles (the LP even included examples of movie-soundtrack music) seemed more wilful than adventurous. One of the few reminders of old-style Blondie pop, ‘T-Birds’, was curiously ignored as a single. The LP appeared particularly disappointing after the band’s 1980 tour, which showed them at the peak of their form. In future, it seemed that Ms Harry was more likely to be seen on The Muppet Show, in jeans commercials or at the movies (she starred in the 1983 horror film Videodrome) than on stage.
The 1981 release of Debbie’s solo collaboration with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Koo Koo, seemed likely to signal the end of the band. Much of the record sounded disappointingly cold and mechanical and, although it reached Number 6 in the UK, it provided only one minor hit single, ‘Backfired’.
In the event, there was to be one more Blondie record, the widely-derided 1982 release The Hunter, which had the sound and look of a contractual obligation, and saw Stein and Harry’s fascination with rapping taken to ridiculous lengths. As the band began to go their separate ways, ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ looked certain to be the group’s last UK Top Twenty success. Nevertheless, Blondie had done more than prove themselves the United States’ biggest musical export of the late Seventies; their look and sound had been widely imitated and, for as long as Debbie Harry remained a media figure, the band would not easily be forgotten.

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