Against The Odds
UME/THE NUMERO GROUP
Their first eight years boxed
Even if they hadn’t included a song about West Side Story on their 1976 debut, Blondie would still have been the quintessential New York band, with their hands in seemingly every scene in the city. After covering The Shangri-Las’ “Out In The Streets” during their first recording session – demos from which are included in this generous boxset – the band fused girl-group pop with outer-boroughs garage rock and Bowery punk on their first two full-lengths. In 1978 Parallel Lines, their best album, bridged CBGB with Studio 54, thanks to the flashy sheen provided by producer Mike Chapman. “Heart Of Glass” was a legitimate disco hit (the demo here is even called “Disco Song”), rarity “Puetro Rico” embraces the Latin music explosion in the Bronx, and their 1980 hit “Rapture” gave a shout-out to Fab Five Freddy and the burgeoning hip-hop scene. The bonus material proves just as revelatory as the remastered albums, as Against The Odds doubles as a shadow history of the city’s creative heyday.
Extras: 8/10. Liner nots from Uncut contributor Erin Osmon, a trove of demos and rarities. STEPHEN DEUSNER
Pages 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85
A new boxset shines fresh light on BLONDIE’s remarkable journey from downtown scenesters to uptown habitués. Peter Watts explores the roads not travelled during their formative years in the company of DEBBIE HARRY, CHRIS STEIN and CLEM BURKE. “It was always kind of an experiment…”
Photo by ROBERTA BAYLEY
WHEN Chris Stein moved out of Manhattan around 20 years ago, he took several boxes of Blondie ephemera with him and stored them in his garage. These included a backstage mirror from Hammersmith Odeon that was hauled back to America like Viking plunder, as well as approximately 100 water-damaged reels of unreleased music, acetates, vinyl and home-recorded cassettes. Some came from the very start of the band’s career in 1974, when Stein and Debbie Harry live together in a succession of crummy New York apartments. Others were experimental remixes, created in 1982 as the band fell apart. In between were the origins of most of Blondie’s biggest hits.
Did Harry have any idea of what her bandmate was sitting on? “I know he is a very good collector and he always kept very interesting things,” she says. “It’s been a while since we lived together, but I knew that anything he recorded at home or in his own studio would be there. There’s all the stuff we recorded together, home demos. Chris had his own label, Animal, so it’s all that stuff too.”
“All that stuff”has been reclaimed from Stein’s garage, restored, transferred and listened to anew for the Blondie boxset Against The Odds: 1974-1982. This is the first time Stein, Harry and drummer Clem Burke have authorised such a deep dive through Blondie’s archives. As well as the six original studio albums, there are four albums of rare material including 36 previously unreleased tracks. Collectively this represents a chance to take a proper overview of Blondie’s career as well as a glimpse some of the roads not taken – weird experiments with sequencer and drum machine, a discarded album with Giorgio Moroder, unexpected covers and song ideas that never left Stein and Harry’s home.
“My garage had become a repository for all the Blondie stuff that was floating about,” says Stein. “We wanted to put some of this stuff out in the world. There’s a lot of interest in the process of how this stuff got made. People like to hear demos. They are the beginning of the creative journey – they show that initial idea before we get to the reality of the finished thing. I didn’t see The Beatles thing [Get Back], but everybody was very enthusiastic about it, watching them just fuck about in the studio for hours on end. People told me that was the charm of the thing, seeing it normalised. This set is another version of that.”
The box redraws the very boundary of the Blondie timeline, containing three unreleased recordings from 1974 by an early lineup of the band that had Billy O’Connor on drums and Fred Smith – later of Television – on bass. While rudimentary, they evidently contain Blondie’s DNA: the deadpan cover of The Shangri-Las’ “Out In The Streets”, a funky take on Ike & Tina’s “Sexy Ida” and one original, “The Disco Song”. The track finally emerged four years later as “Heart Of Glass” – the transformational moment where Blondie eclipsed their CBGB peers. “We were the first of those New York bands to go to No 1 – maybe the only one,” says Burke. “Our legacy on a very superficial level is our success.”
That Blondie were able to sit on a song as good as “Heart Of Glass” says something about the quality of material the band were writing at this time. “It’s interesting to see the development of the song and the music and see where we were at any specific time,” says Harry. “I always want to hear other musicians and bands, to get an insight into their creative process and system of growth. For me as a vocalist there are probably a few things that I cringe when I hear, but I guess that is normal. It’s rare these days to be surprised. Usually everything is already available on the internet. So I heard some of these things for the first time in years and it’s heart-warming and horrifying, but hopefully it’s illuminating.”
THE idea for Against The Odds took shape as the Magic Shop studio on Crosby Street in New York’s SoHo district, where David Bowie recorded The Next Day and Blackstar. Blondie recorded Pollinator there in 2015. One day, Stein found studio owner Steve Rosenthal listening to old tapes in the basement. “I was listening to Dave Van Ronk and Chris said, ‘What the hell is this?'” recalls Rosenthal.
“I explained that while people made new records upstairs, I was downstairs doing preservation and archive projects. Chris said he had some stuff. My interest was immediately piqued. He said he had tapes up at his house and would I like to check them out? He warned me of one thing – they’d got wet at some point, and by that he meant there’d been a flood.”
Rosenthal gathered a team and headed to Stein’s home, a couple of hours’ drive north of New York City, down a winding dirt road. On arrival, the team donned white masks and gloves before opening the garage door. “It smelt a bit funky,” says Rosenthal. “There was mildew, so you could tell it was mouldy and getting mouldier. I wasn’t too worried. Analogue tape it a very resilient format. Stuff was buried under other shit and it had all got wet at some point, so we decided to take the stuff out the barn. We had a trunk with us and we packed all the reels into that. There were some LPs, there was quarter-inch tape, there was two-inch tape. We packed it up and brought it to a storage facility in Manhattan.”
The next step was getting the tapes in a condition where they could be played. First, they removed the mould with a vacuum cleaner. Next, the tapes were baked at 130 degrees in a convection oven and then transferred at the Magic Shop, while studio outtakes and original masters sourced from label vaults were transferred in London and LA. Rosenthal did a rough mix of around 70 unreleased tracks and sent them to Stein, Harry and Burke. In the process, a portal opened to the band’s past.
“Over the years I have heard lots of Chris’s demos, and I knew he’d been archiving that stuff for quite some time,” says Burke. “After Steve had gone through and baked the reels, we all reviewed the material over a period of several years. I spent a lot of time listening to all the outtakes. I was particularly excited to hear the original recordings for Plastic Letters because that was a bit different to the debut album, we had Frank Infante join us primarily on bass and guitar and some of those tracks were very interesting to hear in unproduced form. We were able to go back and reassess the creative process. I loved listening back and making notes, and everybody contributed.”
EVEN in a city like New York during the ’70s – a haven for creative thinkers, artists, writers and musicians – Blondie stood out.
“There was a lot of freedom, a lot of underground sentiment in music and the arts,” Harry recalls. “It was a direct hangover from the 1960s, which was all about freedom. Freedom of this, freedom of that. Freedom of underwear, freedom of love. The entire hippy nation.”
Culturally stitched into the fabric of alternative New York, they were attuned to the city’s artistic achievements – Phil Spector girl groups, Brill Building songcraft, the wiry energy of CBGB, Studio 54’s disco gloss and South Bronx hip-hop battles. The band’s links to the city’s vibrant community of artists, photographers, filmmakers and designers included Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amos Poe and Stephen Sprouse. This connectivity allowed them to occupy more than one world at the same time: new wave and disco, downtown and uptown, the underground and the mainstream.
Such a gift came partly from the diverse personalities of the band. Even today, these differences are apparent. Stein, who spend so many videos hiding behind shades, is matter-of-fact and economical in conversation, Harry warm, helpful and a little self-deprecating, while Burke digs deepest to explain the Blondie phenomenon. “We come from the streets of New York, where there was no mandate on anything other than for us to be ourselves and to be creative,” he says.
“The lines were blurred,” continues Burke. “We had common denominators like The Velvet Underground, The Shangri-Las and the Stooges. We were also on this Club 82 glam-rock scene with people like Wayne County, Teenage Lust and The Harlots Of 42nd Street. Then there was Bowie – we all went to see Ziggy Stardust at Carnegie Hall. That all informed Blondie in a lot of different ways, whether it was the style, the sense of outrage or thinking outside the box.”
This gave Blondie a musical dexterity that differentiated them from their contemporaries. Debbie Harry’s carefully cultivated, semi-ironic pin-up image made them accessible in a scene where accessibility wasn’t necessarily regarded as a virtue.
“We grew up with some many different styles of music,” says Stein. “I grew up listening to movie soundtracks and folk music and then got into pop and rock, and it all became part of our musical existence, which is very diverse.”
On Against The Odds, this is apparent through previously unreleased cover versions of songs by Ike & Tina, The Doors and Johnny Cash as well as the theme to 1964 movie Topkapi. Blondie took two cover songs into the charts – “Hanging On The Telephone” and “The Tide Is High” – evidence of their natural ability to make a song their own thanks to Harry’s personality and the band’s imagination. This familiarity with covers helped them to experiment with genres throughout their career, confident that they could take on different textures and flavours without losing their own strong identity. Towards the end of Against The Odds there are three tracks stripped of melody and vocal, reduced only to synths and drums – sparse, unnerving but still unmistakably Blondie.
The group began playing clubs and bars in New York in 1974, where covers were de rigueur, something that Harry says they used to their advantage. She still enjoys playing covers today – “From Russia With Love” was a highlight of the 2018 tour in a typically cheeky nod to electoral interference. “We went through a small period playing cover songs at the very beginning and that was an important part of the experimental process,” she says. “It was like going to college.”
“We did so many covers,” says Stein. “We covered everything. We did Rolling Stones songs, we played ‘Heat Wave’ all the time. When we played bars, we’d have to do ‘Lady Marmalade’ when that was a hit even though none of us were crazy about it. The Doors cover of ‘Moonlight Drive’ was done around the time of Plastic Letters. We would do that song live and one time somebody turned on the tape when we were in the studio.”
Burke particularly enjoyed hearing the Doors cover as he felt it played to one of the band’s biggest strengths. “I always make an analogy between Debbie and Jim Morrison,” he says. “She reminds me of Morrison in terms to stage presence. People go for the obvious comparison like Madonna, but Debbie reminded me more of Jim Morrison or David Bowie or Marc Bolan. I was always looking for somebody to front a band who would have that kind of power and Debbie had that. Her looks meant people overlooked her brilliant songwriting and vocal performances.”
“HEART Of Glass” introduced Blondie to the wider America public. The first of four US No 1s, it brought into focus their gifts for melody, attitude and new wave suss. But although Blondie were unquestionably a very successful chart act, they never really felt like a mainstream band. “Whether or not Blondie was a big band is always a matter of opinion,” says Stein. “We always felt we were a big cult band. Maybe now people consider us part of the mainstream, but that’s now how we felt at the time. We never felt like a pop act.”
Against The Odds includes four versions of “Heart Of Glass”, spanning four years – from the original “Disco Song” demo recorded at Performance Studios in New York in late 1974, through a 1975 take titled “Once I Had A Love”, to a pre-production version from the Parallel Lines sessions with producer Mike Chapman on guide vocals.
The song’s development mirrors the band’s own journey from ambitious but shaky bar band to glamorous, futuristic disco-pop. As the band remake and remodel the song, it is also possible to witness the band’s craft and creativity in full flight.
Yet even the finished “Heart Of Glass” was never really considered a contender. The fourth single taken from Parallel Lines, it came out almost six months after the album was released.
But how come it took so long to get the song right in the first place? “We started that song in 1974 and didn’t release it for many years,” she says. “We tried it many, many different ways live. We tried all kinds of different feels and styles. We just knew it wasn’t right yet, but we really liked it and kept on playing it and it was quite a few years until we get it right.”
At first Burke wasn’t a fan of “Heart Of Glass”. Although he spent many nights at Club 82, where disco tracks like “Shame Shame Shame” were played in between sets by the New York Dolls, he wasn’t sure this was a direction that Blondie should go in. But the success of the single in America made him realise he could trust his bandmates’ intuition. “By the time we did Autoamerican, I had an ‘anything goes’ attitude and was happy to be as open as possible to the possibilities of every song,” he says. “That’s integral to the creative process, but it took me a while to accept it. Even in 1978 we didn’t really see ‘Heart Of Glass’ in commercial terms. We were influenced by Kraftwerk and Donna Summer. The track was buried on the second side or Parallel Lines because we thought of it as experimental.”
Just as Stein suggests that Blondie were a cult band in mainstream clothing, Burke notes that Blondie’s American No 1s were all somewhat atypical of the band’s rock’n’roll core. “Heart Of Glass” was disco, “Call Me” was written by Giorgio Moroder, “The Tide Is High” was a reggae cover, while “Rapture” was a trailblazing fusion of rock and hip-hop.
“We were a success in the UK, but we’d return to the States and still be an underground band,” says Burke. As a consequence, the band continued to perceive themselves as the underdogs, giving themselves licence to keep trying new things – whether it was working with Moroder (there are a couple of previously unreleased Moroder demos for a proposed album on Against The Odds) or fusing rock with rap on “Rapture”. Boxset rarity “Yuletide Throwdown” was the first step in this direction, featuring a different version of “Rapture”, and another insight into Blondie’s alternative reality. “We were working on ‘Rapture’, we decided it was too slow initially, so I taped a version of the slower version on two-inch tape and overdubbed vocals from Fab 5 Freddy and Debbie,” says Stein. “This was for a British magazine called Flexipop which came with a little flexidisc. This was the Christmas issue, but it didn’t come out until February anyway.”
The experimentation was mostly tolerated by Blondie’s record label, especially when it resulted in chart success. “That meant we got to experiment, and that’s the interesting thing about these tapes,” says Harry. “For us it was always kind of an experiment. I sort of have a contentious personality to some degree. I like ideas, and one of the things we have always done is take some chances and stretch ourselves as much as we could. I don’t think that is a mainstream way of thinking, so I don’t think of us as mainstream. Labels don’t encourage that. They want to sell their product, and once they get a formula and associate an artist with a certain style they just want more of the same. We never did that, and some of the things we did were without the label’s approval.”
Producer Mike Chapman, who worked with the band from Parallel Lines to 1982’s swansong, The Hunter, was critical in supporting their thinking. On the one hand he ensured the label were kept at a distance, forbidding them from attending recording sessions, but he also made sure that the day-to-day business of recording remained enjoyable. A couple of tracks on Against The Odds have Chapman on guide vocals, placing his wobbly voice where you’d usually expect to find Debbie Harry. “Mike didn’t want me to sing the same thing 100 times,” says Harry. “But he really did like to have fun, so getting to perform a little was a lot of fun for him.”
HUMOUR? Versatility? A strong visual identity? All these factors tumbled into Blondie – along with a commendable refusal to be pigeonholed, their cultural inquisitiveness and the desire for success on their own terms. While Against The Odds tells that story in detail, the Stein archive is not yet exhausted. Steve Rosenthal talks tantalising about reels of live recordings that are awaiting transfer. Stein, meanwhile, is excited about his Animal Records archive, which includes recordings by Iggy Pop, The Gun Club and James Chance as well as a Dee Dee Ramone rap song that has never been released. Burke thinks there might be still more covers, while for Harry there are home cassettes of demos recorded by Stein that are particularly precious.
At present the three band members are all in New York, back in the studio working on fresh material, which will include a mix of originals, covers and, perhaps, a song by their friend Johnny Marr. Later this year they will be back on the road to support Against The Odds. Blondie are still very much a working band, which means this new boxset should be seen as a comma rather than a full stop. They all insist that Blondie still approach music much as they did in 1974. “The way we record now is very similar, both artistically and technically, even though the technology has changed,” says Harry. “When you are seeking to create something you work within the same parameters, and for younger musicians who are trying to put their style and sound together, this set shows the reality of the creative process for Blondie.”
The lessons learned in the heyday of New York’s underground are still valid today. “Warhol showed us how to walk that tightrope between commercial art and being commercial on your own terms,” says Burke. “We all wanted to be commercially successful, but it was about doing it on our own terms. We weren’t a pop band, we were a pop art band.”
Blondie: Against The Odds 1974-1982 is released on August 26 via UMC and The Numero Group
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
10 deep cuts from the Blondie vaults on Against The Odds
“THE DISCO SONG
The first fumbled iteration of “Heart Of Glass”, this foregrounds the reggae influence but melodically and vocally is instantly recognisable. The next version, from 1975, shows how quickly the band improved in the early months.
One of several tracks cut in Queens by New York Rocker editor Alan Betrock, the fun, self-knowing “Platinum Blonde” was an early anthem. A little kitschy, but a great example of how Harry was developing her stage persona.
A Gary Valentine song that was cut at the last minute from the debut album, it has a strong organ part, a tough vocal from Harry and lyrics that reflected the often violent streets of New York in the mid-1970s. Strong E Street/Patti Smith vibes.
“MR SIGHTSEER (HOME TAPE)”
A delicate 1978 home demo recorded by Harry and Stein, which went no further. The spy-themed lyric is a little undeveloped but there’s a certain suspense that has a curious appeal.
A live favourite – perhaps worked up to impress Ray Manzarek, who played in a band with Blondie’s Nigel Harrison and saw Blondie at the Whisky in LA – this slinky studio version misses the intro but demonstrates the band’s versatility, Harry’s vocal prowess and Burke’s pounding sense of rhythm.
“HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE
(MIKE CHAPMAN DEMO)”
Featuring Aussie producer’s Mike Chapman’s guide vocal. Chapman claimed he was giving Harry’s voice a break, but it sounds like he’s having a whale of a time. On a later take of “Die Young, Stay Pretty”, you can hear Chapman making up lyrics and directing the band while singing guide and playing guitar. “Boy that was a mess,” he says at the end.
“LIVE IT UP
(GIORGIO MORODER DEMO)”
One of a handful of songs demoed with Giorgio Moroder for a proposed album following “Call Me”. The Autoamerican song’s Donna Summer references made it ideal for Moroder, but the sessions were canned. Moroder said it was because the band were always fighting, while Burke thinks it’s because Moroder was only interested in working with Debbie Harry.
Stein is on synth and drum machine, while Harry performs vocal exercises in search of a vocal melody before she starts to work on lyrics. Recorded before Parallel Lines, it’s one of the purest insights into the duo’s creative process.
“SUNDAY GIRL (HOME TAPES)”
This is a darker version of the Parallel Lines classic, with Stein supplying a synth part that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the debut Suicide album before delivering a very rocky guitar solo. Like many of Stein’s demos, it’s a lot weirder than the finished version.
“WAR CHILD/CALL ME/HEART
OF GLASS (CHRIS STEIN MIX)”
A trio of instrumentals taken from the multitracks around 1982. Isolating synths, sequencer and drum machine, these broke down the songs into a minimalist, post-punk, dubby mix. Produced towards the end of the band’s career, they were never put out.
HEAT TO THE BEAT
Blondie tape bake-off
STEVE Rosenthal’s archive and preservation room is filled with machinery, but one of the most important is a humble convection oven. This is what he used to bake tapes at a low temperature – Rosenthal favours 130 degrees over the Library Of Congress’s recommended 125. But why do tapes need to be baked at all?
“Here’s what goes on with analogue tape and why you have to bake them,” explains Rosenthal. “If you look at a reel, there’s a brown side and a black side. There is a glue substance that glues the magnetic particles to the black backing. As the years go on, that dries out and that’s what shedding is – it means that literally pieces of the tape, the actual recording, fall off and you lose them for good. When you put that in the oven on a low heat, it re-emulsifies the glue and the two parts adhere to each other again, so you can safely play the tape without having any dropouts. Once they are baked, you can play them as many times as you like for six months, then you need to put them back in the oven. The question of how long depends on how, excuse my language, fucked up the tape is.”