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Record Buyer

October 2001 – Pages 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Parallel Lines – Blondie In The 21st Century

Nigel Cross goes into the bleach as the hit bands six best-sellers are revamped, revitalized and reissued.

As they used to say in those old Superman comics, it’s a bizarro world. Talk about parallel lines – any self-respecting rock fan could be forgiven for waking up of a morning and thinking they were back in 1974 or ’75, perish the thought. They only have to go out on to the street and stare. Every style-conscious kid is cutting a dash in flared blue denims, while the weekly music press (what’s left of it) is muttering about a great new scene emerging from the Big Apple – New York bands like the Moldy Peaches and the Strokes are being touted as the future of rock’n’roll. But what’s really bizarre is that the forefathers of these new renegades are all back in town doing live gigs.
The past six months have seen UK shows by many acts from the class of ’74 – those bands that grew up in the foetd NY club scene spearheaded by Max’s Kansas City, the Mercer Arts Centre and CBGB’s. We’re talking Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers and Blondie. The Patti Smith Group played to critical acclaim and a packed house at the Hackney Ocean, while Televison reformed for the Toroise- curated All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands. Why, even Talking Heads spin-off band the Tom Tom Club have also put in a live appearance.
Sadly for obvious reasons, Johnny Thunders & his Heartbreakers won’t be able to make it, and neither will an original complement of the Ramones. Recently-deceased Joey garnered plenty of headlines with his premature death in April when everyone from Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie to Poptones boss Alan McGee paid lip service to the singer from whose loins punk rock practically sprang.
That little scene born from dying gasps of Warhol proteges the Velvet Underground and the glam antics of the New York Dolls boasted a pedigree and significnce that has hardly been matched before or since. It was a musical hot-bed that dished up raw, primeval rock (no coincidence that Patti Smith guitarist and mainstay Lenny Kaye had compiled the fabulous original ‘nuggets’ garage-band set). While its look for the most part was all snappy, minimalist threads and haircuts but still packed a zazor-like intellectualism, that put most of the prog rock bands of the time with their bogus, philosphical twaddle to shame. Pete Frame later succinctly nailed the incest of this tiny scene, charting all its twisted inter-relationships and rivalries in his Smouldering In The Bowery Pt 1 and Out In The Streets family trees. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood borrowed generously from it for both the sound and the look of British punk rock, while ex-Television bassist Richard Hell coined its catch- all ‘blank generation’ monicker. Indeed, back then NY had it all, from the searing guitar sound of Television, which based its instrumental prowess on great jazz improvisers like John Coltrane to the sleazy, smack-addled gutter swagger of the Heartbreakers that made even Keef Richards seem like a pillar of society. It encompassed the edgy smart-ass lyrics and ingenious songs of David Byrne and the glorious liberating rock of the Patti Smith Group, as much inspired by old-style ’60s garage as it was by poets William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud. All the bands would go on to enjoy varying degrees of success.
However there was one group that was part and parcel of this scene that stood apart – Blondie . Somehow, they were the jokers in the pack who, to mix metaphors, also broke the mould. Like their peers, they had attitude by the yellow cab load – they all carried it like a membership card to some exclusive street gang. But both in the way they sounded and projected, Blondie were unique. Unlike the Ramones, they favoured ’60s pop (singer Debbie Harry had debuted in psych-pop outfit The Wind In The Willows and an album for Capitol Records) but their tunes exuded a different tone.
The Ramones may have tipped their hat to the likes of Phil Spector, but they were equally knee-deep in the garbage on the street and it was no surprise they were big fans of creepy cult movies of like Tod Browning’s classic Freaks. Scuzz rock indeed, and hardly the kind of people you’d want to bring home to a dinner party! Blondie, by comparison, were far more groomed and sophisticated. While Patti Smith’s unconventional looks and working boots screamed anti-image, Debbie Harry could, to quote from one of her songs, have been a debutante – she was, after all, an ex-Bunny Girl, by the end of the 70s, had turned into pop’s Marilyn Monroe. And the group behind her in their tight tailored jackets, white shirts and black ties, drainpipe trousers and sharp barnets pretty much defined the standard image of the New Wave as punk quickly became absorbed into the mainstream.
A lot of their contemporaries stuck to their artistic guns and quickly burnt out. It’s a sobering thought that Blondie made their UK debut, inauspiciously enough, as tour support for Television, whose bassist Fred Smith had been in the Stilettoes with Harry and guitarist Chris Stein. Television were surfing a huge wave of critical acclaim with their first long-player, ‘Marquee Moon’, high in the charts – Blondie had just released their own eponymous debut album. Yet a year later, with their follow-up ‘Adventure’ torn to bits by those self-same critics, Television were in tatters, their early promise now a fast-fading memory. Blondie, meanwhile, were steadily rising on the ladder to success.
EMI will this month reissue (re-mastered, and with extra cuts) the first six Blondie albums on CD, a body of work which catches the band at the absolute zenith of its powers. This piece is in no way intended to be an exhaustive overview of the band whose history and recordings were covered in Record Buyer’s March 1999 issue. Instead it aims to examine one of America’s biggest bands as an enduring phenomenon in an industry where last week’s thing might as well have been last century’s!
There are few rock groups – if any – who can actually boast of having Number 1 hit singles in three consecutive decades, none of them on the back of a re-release. Yet that’s exactly what Blondie managed to achieve in the UK when their comeback song ‘Maria’ sailed up to the top of the charts in February 1999. By a process of imaginative and canny re-invention and not a little luck, Blondie have managed to stay on top in the commercial arena and still command a lot of respect from both their contemporaries and successive later generations.
Label manager/scene-maker Marty Thau would subsequently observe that, in contrast to the rest of the original pack back then, Blondie were at least photogenic, while the material they wrote benefited from having some of the best hooks since pop’s ’60s heyday. It was an irresistible, winning combination and, as the early Blondie got going, they employed some crack professionals like veteran producers Richard Gottehrer and Craig Leon to iron out the creases. From the start, Blondie were a very combo. They were also fortunate to interest legendary writer Alan Betrock, who produced their early demos back in 1975.
These fascinating, formative versions of ‘Platinum Blonde’, ‘Out In The Streets’ and ‘The Thin Line’, together with both sides of the rare 7-inch on Private Stock Records (‘X-Offender’ and ‘In The Sun’) are to be found on the reissue of ‘Blondie’, while the Betrock demo of ‘The Disco Song’ (better known as the future Number 1 ‘Heart Of Glass’) crops up as a bonus cut on the re-issued ‘Plastic Letters’.
By the time of the Private Stock 45 in ’76, the line-up was beginning to coalesce into the band that everyone now remembers as Blondie, with drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri joining Stein and Harry. Creatively there wasn’t enough room for Gary Valentine (who’d co-written ‘X-Offender’) and he left to be replaced by Frank Infante. The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place with Englishman Nigel Harrison from Aylesbury arriving just as Chrysalis bought them out of their Private Stock contract. Rumous – unsubstanstantiated – circulated that it was for a cool half million!
The band have always insisted there was no big master plan, but by March 1978 they were enjoying their first UK Number 1 with the exceptionally catchy ‘Denis’. The fine-tuning had continued with the arrival of Brit producer Mike Chapman, renowned for his work with early- ’70s glitter-rockers like the Sweet. The cynical would say that this was one more smart career move, the charitable that it was all past of blondie’s love of the early glam scene – after all, didn’t they cover T Rex’s ‘Get It On’ (a live version of which crops up on the reissued ‘Parallel Lines’)?
With Chapman on board, Blondie really began to deliver the goods, a to-die-for brand of super- charged pop full of cool, arty humour and irony that few could touch. Plus the band boasted some fine playing, especially Destri’s Farfisa work and Burke’s imaginative powerhouse drumming. Yet without Debbie Harry they would have gone nowhere. Her physical attributtes need few words of explanation – has a pop singer ever looked more lovely than Debbie Harry on the front cover of ‘Parallel Lines’? But behind the platinum-blonde sex-symbol exterior was a fine singer with as much suss as she had sass! Feisty female singers are ten a penny nowadays but Harry was there 20 years ahead of ‘girl power’ and set the standard for those who came after, from Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews to the Cardigans’ Nina Persson.
It was a formula with the midas touch. Between 1979 and 1982, the singles, ‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Atomic’, ‘Call Me’ and ‘The Tide Is High’ all leapt to the UK Number 1 slot. Memories of the band are many, but there must be a whole generation out there who’ll always remember them playing us out of the ’70s and into the ’80s via a live televised show in Glasgow on 31 December 1979. They were adept at effortlessly straying from their sleek power pop roots into areas as diverse as reggae and disco – the electro-pop of the Giorgio Moroder- produced ‘Call Me’ springs readily to mind. And it’s been argued that, on ‘Rapture’ (from ‘AutoAmerican’), they were the first white pop band to take on hip-hop. They could mix it without losing credibility, and took the sound of the streets into the mainstream.
After the success of later albums like ‘Eat To The Beat’ and ‘AutoAmerican’, the seeds of dissent began to pull the group apart. Harry’s first solo album, a lavish affair with artwork by Alien designer HR Giger and produced by disco legends Chic failed to excite. After ‘The Hunter’ in 1982, not even the combined might of the Chrysalis label and their heavyweight LA-based manager Shep Gordon could keep the show on the road as, with Chris Stein succumbing to a rare wasting skin disease, pemphigus vulgaris, the band ground to a halt.
Harry nursed Stein through his illness and, despite periods of depression, continued to pursue her career as an actress that had begun in 1979’s Union City with roles in John Walters’ camp classic Hairspray and Videodrome directed by David Cronenberg. Always a chameleon, Harry began to re-invent herself as a singer too. Early-’90s projects with Stein were no great shakes, but her work as part of the Jazz Passengers has garnered her much acclaim, providing if nothing else that the voice was always as important as the pretty face in her previous band! Re-forming bands – especially ones that have enjoyed untold fame and fortune – is always a risky business. It was therefore something of a surprise to learn that Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri planned to return as Blondie in 1998, considering the sea of change that had gone on in the music biz in their absence.
But it was an even bigger surprise that the first single ‘Maria’ from the reunion album ‘No Exit’ – as classic a slice of Blondie pop as they’d ever performed – should scale the British singles chart in the final year of the 20th century and end up in pole position. It was as if to say we’ll teach these young whippersnappers like the Spice Girls a thing or two! ‘Maria’ even got a remix by Talvin Singh, while the album itself, produced by Craig Leon, pulled one or two mean punches – not least a rap duet between Harry and Coolio on the title track. Not bad for a bunch of superannuated rockers who won’t see 50 again!
Two years on, the group – dried-out, drug-free and benefiting from periods of therapy – has completed a new album with Craig Leon once again at the helm. Recorded in NY in studios as diverse as Sony, Chung Kung and Chris Stein’s basement, it’s scheduled for possible release in February, while songs for possible conclusion are ‘Persia’, ‘No Class’ and ‘Motorman’ by recent recruit guitarist, Paul Carbonara. Harry, meanwhile, is working harder than ever as an actress with roles in upcoming movies like Deuces Wild, Firecracker and Red Lipstick. Outside of Blondie she continues with the Jazz Passengers and recently collaborated with ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers on his jazz album ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’.
I’m placing no bets on whether Blondie will do it again and enjoy a Number 1 in the 21st century. Then again, Frank Sinatra was written off in the ’40s and look what happened to him! Many never expected the Beatles to get past 1964. Success may be even more transitory in pop than it ever has been, but it’s always best to expect the unexpected. The sylph-like figure of Ms Harry that defined the ‘Parallel Lines’ era may now be but a memory, but at a full-on live gig Blondie can still rip it’s audience to shreds.
It’ll be very interesting to see whether the parallel New York scene of the new century can throw up such a world-beating band – the Strokes and company have an awful lot to live up to…

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