Pages 98, 99, 100
Deep dive into the NY punk-pop trailblazers’ archive, including home tapes, lost gems and an embarrassment of hits. By Mark Blake.
Blondie: Against The Odds 1974-1982
UMC/NUMERO GROUP. CD/DL/LP
SOMETIME IN 1975, Blondie’s vocalist Debbie Harry and her boyfriend, guitarist Chris Stein, visited an opera singer-turned-clairvoyant named Ethel Meyers in New York. Blondie were still two years shy of having hits, but Meyers predicted Harry was going to become a star.
Years later, Stein listened back to a recording of the meeting, and the clairvoyant’s voice had faded. “In the way of a ghost deteriorating over time,” he said. Harry reminded him that the world was a different place in 1975: “There was a lot more acid in the air, Chris,” she cautioned.
In Debbie Harry’s memoir, Face It, Stein confessed to spending most of Blondie’s golden years self-medicating. So much so he couldn’t always differentiate between what he called “psychic events” and “merely induced delusions”.
This admission comes to mind on Against The Odds, which corrals Blondie’s first six albums with dozens of demos, home tapes and 36 previously unissued tracks. These rarities float, sometimes half formed, between the cracks, like a clairvoyant’s voice or flashbacks to an ancient trip. With the music remastered at Abbey Road and accessorised by expansive linernotes, it all demonstrates how adventurous and contrary, sometimes messed-up and uniquely brilliant Blondie were.
Stein, a guitarist and New York School Of Visual Arts student, met waitress and model Debbie Harry in 1973, when she was performing with vocal group The Stilettoes. By the following year, they’d found a Who-worshipping drummer, Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine, and a fanbase at punk haunts CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. The arrival of keyboard player Jimmy Destri completed the picture.
Tracks from Blondie’s October 1974 and June ’75 recording sessions sound like musical DNA samples. Harry and Stein’s artistic vision (“Like a comic coming to life,” said Debbie) was still ahead of their abilities. But what’s fascinating about ’74’s The Disco Song is how rounded it already was, years before it morphed into the UK and US Number 1 hit, Heart Of Glass.
Before then, Hang On Sloopy co-producer Richard Gottehrer signed them to Private Stock and oversaw Blondie and Plastic Letters (the second with Frank Infante taking over from Valentine). Most of the pieces were in place on Blondie’s debut single, X Offender, where Harry’s deadpan voice tells the story of a prostitute falling for her arresting police officer. Later, Rip Her To Shreds’ verbal destruction of “Miss Groupie Supreme” floats over Destri’s rinky-dink Farfisa organ, like a ’60s beat group with punk phlegm in their tonic suits.
Apparently, Clem Burke had returned from a trip to London, waving a copy of Dr. Feelgood’s Malpractice. But Kung Fu Girls, The Attack Of The Giant Ants and Love At The Pier could only have originated on Planet Blondie, with its eco-system of trash TV, surf pop, the paranormal and garage rock. All music was up for grabs there.”‘New wave’ sounds like the name of a laundry detergent,” remarked Harry at the time.
Britain fell for Blondie before the States, though. Chrysalis Records spent half a million dollars buying them out of their contract with Private Stock and were rewarded with the hits Denis and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear, a song about a psychic event between Gary Valentine and his girlfriend. English bassist Nigel Harrison’s arrival saw Infante switch to guitar, in time for 1978’s Parallel Lines, recorded with Sweet/Suzi Quatro producer Mike Chapman.
In the studio, Chapman behaved like a drill sergeant with a bunch of rookie recruits. He coaxed four Top 20 hits out of them, including Heart Of Glass, plus One Way Or Another, a Trojan Horse of a pop song about Harry’s real-life stalker. Chapman bravely includes his vocal demo for The Nerves’ Hanging On The Telephone, which illustrates how much Harry’s witty nuances brought to the piece.
On her debut composition, Platinum Blonde, included here, Harry sang about being like “Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene”. Parallel Lines fulfilled her wish, and Harry stepped out of the cartoon and onto the cover of fashion magazines. Blondie wasn’t quite the same after that.
The follow-up, 1979’s Eat To The Beat, suffered from a variation on Difficult Second Album Syndrome. Chapman loosened the reins and let Clem Burke scatter his Moon The Loon drum fills all over Dreaming. But it’s striking how melancholy Harry sounds on Shayla’s psychedelic country and the hits Atomic and Union City Blue, and sub-zero cold on Call Me from the American Gigolo soundtrack.
Chrysalis wanted the group to keep re-making Parallel Lines, but Planet Blondie was now riven with civil unrest and hard drugs. Chapman persuaded them to record 1980’s Autoamerican in LA. They brought New York with them, though, talking up hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and ‘Fab Five Freddy’ Braithwaite on Rapture. Meanwhile, Europa, where Harry narrated a poem about machines conquering the world over Hollywood movie-score strings and death-march synths, probably turned their A&R man’s bowels to ice, and is all the better for that.
Blondie signed off for almost two decades after 1982’s The Hunter. Harry was exploring a solo career, Stein’s health was failing and Destri had thrown a Moog Vocoder at Mike Chapman. Every LP before looked and sounded timeless, but most of The Hunter seemed as distant as Harry’s thousand-yard stare on the sleeve.
The demos here colour in the blanks and the alternative mixes are like watching a favourite movie from a different camera angle. But Against The Odds reminds the listener that there were always two Blondies. Ever at the height of their imperial pop-star phase, they were smuggling Robert Fripp onto Parallel Lines, and for every Heart Of Glass or The Tide Is High, there’s a version of the theme to the 1964 crime caper Topkapi or a scuzzy home recording of Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire.
“We always wanted to be uncool,” said Debbie Harry in 1978. Against The Odds proves it was the best mission statement Blondie could have had.
SHAKEN NOT STIRRED
While recording 1982’s The Hunter, Blondie thought they’d been approached to compose the theme for the new James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. “I don’t know if we were really offered it,” admits Chris Stein. “But we thought, if we did it, we’d give it to somebody and they’d go for it anyway.” Blondie’s melancholy ballad For Your Eyes Only “would have been a great James Bond song,” insisted Debbie Harry. Sadly, they lost out to Sheena Easton.
BLONDIE’S GUITARIST ON MEMORIES, LA, AND POGOING IN BOURNEMOUTH.
“I have an unreleased Dee Dee Ramone rap.”
Chris Stein speaks to Mark Blake.
A lot of the rarities on Against The Odds came from your archive. Is it true you have a barn full of old tapes?
“It’s actually a garage, which is a very different animal to a barn. But it’s just an accumulation of all my home recordings going back years. But I’m discovering that I don’t know everything that’s going on this damn box set (laughs).”
Did they find anything you’d completely forgotten about?
“Our version of the Doors song Moonlight Drive. I wasn’t aware that had even been recorded. We used to play it live and this is just us jamming during the making of the first or second LP. Whoever was recording didn’t turn the tape on immediately, so the front is missing. That, and the Sunday Girl demo, which is kind of cool.”
What do you recall about Blondie’s first British tour in May 1977?
“We played a warm-up gig in Bournemouth, and we weren’t used to the physical dancing. In New York there was no physical dancing. Everyone there was still in ’60s coffee-shop mode, just standing and watching. In Bournemouth we had all these people pogoing and flinging themselves around. A revelation and very exciting.”
It’s said producer Mike Chapman really knocked Blondie into shape for Parallel Lines.
“Ha! Mike was great and he was the right element to put into the mix at that time. Making Parallel Lines was very… repetitive. Making [the follow-up] Eat To The Beat was not so hard. But Mike was always charming and had a great bedside manner. I learned so much from him – it’s affected everything I’ve done since.”
Blondie were such a New York group, but Chapman took you to LA for 1980’s Autoamerican.
“I found Los Angeles interesting and atmospheric, but it was still a little bit seedy back then. All the smog and the hills on fire and these strange characters drifting by the studio. You can hear it on the record.”
How is it hearing all this music again? Does you life flash before your eyes?
“I’ve become used to it. I can’t differentiate, though. The albums are all movements in one large piece. It’s so long ago and these songs are so ingrained in my DNA, I go to CVS, a drugstore near me, and I hear our songs playing as muzak. I experience a strange combination of emotions.”
Glen Matlock has taken your place on the current Blondie tour. Do you miss playing live?
“I still like it, but I can’t tour now because of health stuff [Stein has atrial fibrillation]. But I have been doing it for years (laughs). I’ve just written my memoir which was interesting and challenging. It’s been a test remembering everything because I’ve had so many fucking experiences.”
Presumably, this is the last word in Blondie box sets?
“Could be. But this is just scratching the surface of my archive. I still have a lot of material people haven’t heard. I just saw a photo of the tapes in my garage prior to them being moves and it reminded me that I have a Dee Dee Ramone rap song that has never been released. Now that is pretty great.”