vogue.com – 23rd August 2022
BY ERIK MORSE
For those who came of age listening to Top 40 radio at the end of the 1970s, the sounds of Blondie offered a singular glimpse into New York’s glittery underground during one of its most artistically fecund eras. Classic tracks like “Rapture,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Call Me” were a potpourri of glam, punk, power pop, disco, rap, and experimental noise that sounded different from anything that had come before. Because of the band’s fluid musicianship, visual reinvention, and extraordinary frontwoman in singer Debbie Harry, Blondie proved to be the most successful NYC-based band of the decade—and one rivaled only by the Velvet Underground and Suicide as the most influential of any era.
The new 10-LP box set Blondie: Against the Odds 1974–1982 presents the most comprehensive recounting yet of the band’s classic releases and offers a compelling argument for Blondie’s premier status. Among the panoply of demos, outtakes, and remixes from Blondie (1976), Plastic Letters (1977), Parallel Lines (1978), Eat to the Beat (1979), Autoamerican (1980), and The Hunter (1982) are also early, unreleased recordings (including a garage-rock incarnation of “Heart of Glass” referred to as “The Disco Song”) and a series of home tapes and synthesizer mixes. Presented in its entirety, the box set chronicles the warp speed by which Blondie transformed from a fledgling punk band into a global phenomenon.
“[Blondie] wasn’t really solidly formed,” Harry explains over the phone about those initial years of the band’s run. “We had a lot of changes in the membership. We were always changing and still discovering who we were.”
Yet the vast collection—with its accompanying liner notes, interviews, detailed timeline and discography, and hundreds of photos—suggests a group that, from the beginning, was more than a shambling garage band that had stumbled out of CBGB. Harry and guitarist Chris Stein began playing at Hilly Kristal’s infamous Bowery club in the spring of 1974 as the Stilettos (later Stilletto Fads), a cabaret-inspired act founded by Elda Gentile (a singer and actor at the experimental La MaMa theater), with the help of off-off-Broadway director Tony Ingrassia. By that fall, Harry and Stein had left to form the more musically focused Blondie, which for a time opened for the likes of the Ramones and Television. “[Those bands] came in fully formed,” Harry says. “And it was much easier to understand who they were.”
“There was…an element of Debbie being very pretty that kind of put us in our own place—like we were just trading on her looks,” Stein adds.
Perhaps because of the band’s striking frontwoman and protean image, Blondie rapidly evolved beyond punk’s masculine, rockist origins to become a very different creature: a radical, multimedia experiment that embraced disco and other non-rock styles, androgynous fashion, and video, all of which anticipated a new era of audio-visual technologies and consumer media.
Unlike many of the other bands that emerged from CBGB, Harry and Stein had art and performance backgrounds—Stein graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1973 and was an avid street photographer. Both had frequented downtown spaces like the Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City, where Harry had waitressed after modeling as a Playboy bunny. They had also attended (separately) the multimedia happenings organized by Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable with resident band the Velvet Underground (Stein’s early garage band First Crow on the Moon had opened for the Velvets in 1967), while Stein had produced a short-lived television show called Hollywood Spit with members of San Francisco theater group the Cockettes Tomata du Plenty, Screaming Orchid, Gorilla Rose, and Fayette Hauser.
“We shot a series of video shows, which we put on public-access cable television in Manhattan at the very start of cable service in New York,” Stein recalls. “The four members of the group did various drag-oriented skits, and they would spend much longer putting on makeup than it took for us to shoot them.”
New York City’s drag craze was another major influence on Blondie’s style. Harry and Stein frequently attended downtown drag performances, like those by the Ridiculous Theatrical Group, which blended seamlessly with the androgynous glam-rock scene emerging in the early ’70s. They were also regulars at the fabled Club 82, a former East Village drag cabaret that doubled as an after-hours disco and hosted everyone from Lou Reed to David Bowie, Jayne County, and the New York Dolls. Harry even performed in a revival of Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis’s drag musical Vain Victory at La MaMa in 1975.
Harry’s epicene fashion and posturing were inspired in part by drag’s gender-bending imagery and campy theatrics. Onstage she would sometimes don a witch’s dress, wedding gown, pillowcase, or S&M leatherwear and perform herky-jerky dances or exaggerated shimmies and shakes. “I wanted to do dance moves that weren’t typically related to dance,” she explains. “They were probably awful. But to me it was just part of my emotional state.”
These affectations all played into Harry’s evolving Blondie character, a bottle-blonde postmodern simulation that was equal parts vulnerability and aggression, disco and punk, bombshell and engagée. If fellow punk Patti Smith’s early shows were noted for the singer’s sly interpretation of a man by a woman, then Harry’s persona was often said to be a woman pretending to be a man posing as a woman. Or as Amy Raphael writes in her book Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas (1996), “[Harry] exuded something previously associated only with male musicians: cool.”
“Perhaps it was because I seemed fearless and aggressive,” Harry says about this oft-used descriptor. “It wasn’t something I thought about having to be. I think my objectives were much simpler than that.”
“I don’t know if uncaring is the right word—but back then nobody said, ‘I don’t give any fucks,’” Stein adds. “[And] that was a part of Debbie’s persona.”
Against the Odds also spotlights the extent to which film—particularly B movies— informed the band’s musical evolution. From exploitation- and horror-film-inspired pop songs like “Platinum Blonde,” “Attack of the Giant Ants,” “Kung Fu Girls,” and “Island of Lost Souls” to the American Gigolo theme song “Call Me” and the Bernard Herrmann–inspired masterpiece “Europa,” Blondie proudly foregrounded its cinematic pedigree. Indeed, Harry and Stein’s passion for film took on other, more ambitious forms than in music alone: They were able to capitalize on the proliferation of portable video cameras and VHS cassettes by the late ’70s with the release of a companion video album to Eat to the Beat, the first example in pop-music history. The 12 videos mixed live concert footage, colorful set pieces, avant-garde fashion, and primitive effects to achieve a kaleidoscopic aesthetic that would become the template for the new decade’s multimedia culture. “The record label wasn’t very enthusiastic,” Stein admits, “but we pushed forward regardless, with what in hindsight was groundbreaking at the time.”
At the same time, Stein was producing and cohosting a second public-access program on Channel D called TV Party, with Warhol associate and Interview editor Glenn O’Brien. Similar in spirit to Hollywood Spit, the punk variety show experimented with live interviews, cultural reportage, and improvised performance, anticipating both MTV and the typical 1980s daytime talk show. Harry and the band were frequent guests.
Because of her natural talents onstage, Harry also appeared in several low-budget films in the late 1970s by TV Party director Amos Poe. These included Poe’s so-called home movie The Blank Generation (1976), which featured grainy Super 8 footage of a young Harry camping it up on two of the band’s early songs, and his first narrative films Unmade Beds (1976) and The Foreigner (1978), in which Harry made brief cameos singing seductively to the camera. She later popped up in two seminal No Wave films: Downtown 81 (1981) and Wild Style (1982), both of which portrayed the musical and visual crossovers between the downtown Manhattan loft scene and the South Bronx’s hip-hop and graffiti art. (Blondie’s ’81 hit “Rapture” features a rhyming homage to Wild Style stars Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, who had befriended the band in 1978. A holiday flexi-disc duet between Freddy and Harry called “Yuletide Throw Down” is also included in the box set.) All of these early efforts eventually culminated in Harry’s starring turn in David Cronenberg’s cult masterpiece Videodrome (1983), a dystopian horror film based around new media like satellite television and virtual reality.
If Blondie’s increasing fascination with new media betrayed a distinctly Warholian sensibility, it should come as little surprise that Harry and Stein had been friends with the pop artist from the band’s earliest days. Warhol’s embrace of unorthodox techniques and emerging technologies within the art world mirrored the band’s turn away from traditional rock-and-roll frameworks of the 1970s. Warhol’s influence can be seen most clearly in Blondie’s concept album Autoamerican, which was provisionally titled Coca Cola and meant to have an image of the soft-drink can as its record cover. (A mock-up is included in the box set.) In 1980, Warhol produced his famous silkscreen painting Debbie Harry, elevating her image from mass culture to fine art, alongside the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor; of equal importance was his computer portrait of Harry, executed live at Lincoln Center in 1985 on a Commodore Amiga 1000. Harry’s computer-rendered face summed up how the analog glamour of disco had been transformed into the electronic glamour of New Pop.
“Andy took a lot of first steps for society and for culture—not only in his paintings or drawings but as a person,” Harry says. “He came to be fearless. He was himself at all costs. That’s such a valuable trait as a human being.”
By the time of Blondie’s breakup in late 1982, much of the band’s visual and musical aesthetic had already gained a mainstream gloss thanks to the launch of MTV. The network’s VJ-hosted music-video format, and later variety shows like Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, were directly inspired by experiments like TV Party and Eat to the Beat’s video album. (In fact, MTV would play the videos for “Rapture” and “Heart of Glass” during its inaugural August 1981 broadcast.) Its popularity among a new generation of teenagers would contribute to the rise of Harry-inspired pop acts such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Wilde, as well as to the crossover success of hip-hop and New Pop (both of which Blondie had helped to promote). Despite barely surviving into the 1980s, it remained the defining band of the era.
Taken together, Against All Odds is more than a shiny souvenir for Blondie fans or a rummage through the band’s archive. Instead, it is the soundtrack of a city and a culture that was taking its first steps beyond the traditions of rock music and into the future of the multimedia age.
Blondie: Against the Odds 1974–1982 is out on August 26.