I should clarify that statement. According to Merriam-Webster, “huh” has several possible meanings: “Used to express surprise, disbelief, or confusion, or as an inquiry inviting affirmative reply.”
I was not requesting an affirmative reply. My huh is somewhere between the first three, as in “Huh. I think I was expecting more.” Another possibility is, “Huh. Wonder what all the hoo-hah was about?”
Late last year I decided to explore a genre I refuse to believe exists: New Wave. I found a list of New Wave bands somewhere and Blondie was on the list. Other than a couple of their hits, I hadn’t paid a lick of attention to them. I had a vague impression of something between punk and rock because of a picture I saw of Joan Jett hanging out with Debbie Harry and was dimly aware of some kind of connection to disco, but that’s about it. I read some fan reviews of their albums and took in the usual fan bullshit about how everything Blondie had ever done was the greatest thing in the history of the human race, then I read the thoughts of a few critics who were more measured in their appreciation. I took note that Blondie was enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and followed that discovery with a yawn. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame consists of people who made a lot of money for the music industry and a few historical figures selected to give the whole stinking enterprise artistic and socio-cultural credibility. Here’s how Blondie got in, according to the HOF website:
One of the most popular bands of the New Wave era, Blondie hit the scene with visually arresting frontwoman Debbie Harry. Her bleached-blonde hair and full, pouty lips made her look the part of a new age Marilyn Monroe with a hint of punk hauteur (which paved the way for Madonna’s more risqué approach). “Looks have been one of the most saleable things ever,” Harry told journalist Karen Davis. “When I woke up to that, mine helped a lot.” Blondie’s striking visual image was bolstered by hooky, retro-chic pop tunes and canny art-rock leanings.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Blondie had eight Top 40 hits, including four that went to Number One: “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.” No other New Wave group had that many chart-topping singles. Striking a balance between edginess and catchiness, Blondie enjoyed hit records and artistic credibility—a best-of-both-worlds situation that few others (the Police, the Cars and Talking Heads come to mind) pulled off in that era. Blondie could number Robert Fripp and David Bowie among their pals, and they fearlessly dabbled in such genres as reggae, rap, disco and a touch of the avant-garde. Yet they also maintained ties to the tuneful, ear-catching Sixties pop aesthetic.
So they got in because they sold a lot of records, because they hung out with rock ‘n’ roll artistes and because Debbie Harry was hot and she knew it.
The “canny art-rock” leanings and “touch of the avant-garde” have more to do with location than content. New York is the world’s capital of artistic pretentiousness, and the hyperactive media in that city does everything it can to amplify those pretensions, a tendency especially evident in their shameless promotion of New York-based artists who have caught their fancy. A few years ago I read a fawning article about Yeah Yeah Yeah in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and decided to investigate the extraordinary claims of cutting-edge artistry by reviewing their latest album. It turned out to be a total piece of crap, right down to one of the worst album covers in history.
Look. No one would have paid a lick of attention to the Velvet Underground had they applied their craft in Omaha. No one would have heard of Patti Smith had she launched her career in Albuquerque. I’m not saying that Lou Reed and Patti Smith were no-talent losers—my reviews of those two artists have been quite favorable. All I’m saying is New York-based artists who are lucky enough to draw the attention of the local media always seem more talented and influential than they really are, thanks to New York media power.
Another factor that served to raise Blondie’s status was Debbie Harry’s connection to celebrated artistes like Andy Warhol and David Bowie. Debbie Harry became Warhol’s latest Campbell’s Soup can in 1980, giving her iconic status with the American consumer and another notch on her artistic credibility belt. Pictures of Debbie hanging out with Bowie at New York hot spots also confirmed her station in life as an avant-garde purveyor of haute-culture pop music.
Since imagery can be both seductive and deceiving, I thought I’d explore Blondie’s music and see what was behind the curtain. Though my intention from the start was to review Parallel Lines, their third album, I bought the first five albums and listened to each one several times. I wanted to understand what they were all about, visualize their artistic trajectory, grasp the reasons behind their popularity and discover what contributions they had made to the advancement of the musical arts.
I’ll address the last issue first: Blondie didn’t contribute anything to the advancement of the musical arts. Most of their music is warmed-over early-60 girl-group stuff enhanced by fancier arrangements and slightly more direct eroticism reflecting the comparatively greater sense of permissiveness of the 70s and 80s. They were indeed eclectic in the sense of dipping into different genres, but those dips sound more like fucking around with new playthings than serious attempts to understand the musical foundations of a given musical style. Occasionally they demonstrated some ability to rock, but those efforts are few and far between. Their musicianship was spotty at best.
Their first two albums fall into the category of “they’re not very good but there’s some promise there.” The main problem with the first two records is that the band isn’t in sync. Drummer Clem Burke has exceptional energy but sometimes the band fails to follow his cues or match his intensity—and sometimes he just flat-out overwhelms them. The organ consistently cancels out the potential edginess and the rest of the band spends most of its time in deep background. Debbie Harry is sometimes off, sometimes on. There are a few good songs here and there, but they sound like a band in desperate need of a decent producer.
Enter Mike Chapman, an Australian bloke determined to apply some discipline to this aimless bunch. According to Wikipedia, he had his hands full:
However, Chapman found the band difficult to work with, remembering them as the worst band he ever worked with in terms of musical ability, although praising Frank Infante as “an amazing guitarist”. Sessions with Chris Stein were hampered by his being stoned during recording, and Chapman encouraged him to write songs rather than play guitar. Similarly, according to Chapman, Jimmy Destri would prove himself to be far better at songwriting than as a keyboardist and Clem Burke had poor timing playing drums. As a result, Chapman spent time improving the band, especially Stein, with whom Chapman spent hours rerecording his parts to ensure they were right. Bassist Nigel Harrison became so frustrated with Chapman’s drive for perfectionism that he threw a synthesizer at him during recording. Chapman recalls the atmosphere at the Record Plant in an interview for Sound on Sound:
“The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough. None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie, and there was so much animosity. They were really, really juvenile in their approach to life—a classic New York underground rock band—and they didn’t give a fuck about anything. They just wanted to have fun and didn’t want to work too hard getting it.”
Through a combination of imposing his will, coaxing the kids to behave and keeping their sound within the strictures of successful pop, he managed to produce the hit album that made Blondie a household name. As a person who regularly applies the philosophy of discipline in her kinky sex life, I can talk all night about the endless virtues of discipline in the creation of an artistic experience. Then again, you can always overdo it with the discipline, and while Parallel Lines is a vast improvement over their first two records, there are hints that the record could have been even better had Chapman captured more of the underlying intensity of the performers, like Guy Stevens did with The Clash on London Calling.
This is most obvious in the opening number, “Hanging on the Telephone,” a cover of the original written by Jack Lee of the sadly obscure L. A. band The Nerves. It’s a fabulous opener, the best thing Blondie had done to date. The guitars are flying, the bass is strong and steady, Clem Burke is in full command of skins and cymbals and Debbie Harry nails the vocal, varying her delivery between her sweet voice and her street voice, heavy with that marvelous Jersey accent. However, the live version on the 2001 remaster is even better, where you hear Blondie combine the discipline learned in the studio with the electric energy they felt that particular night. When I listen to the studio version I’m happy, but had I been in the Dallas audience that night (impossible, because I hadn’t been born yet), I would have jacked off repeatedly in a fit of joyful abandon. Whether opening an album or a concert, “Hanging on the Telephone” hits all the right spots.
A sad truth of human existence is that pretty girls attract creeps. It’s the reason I became a practitioner of certain martial arts, and it’s the reason Debbie Harry wrote “One Way or Another.” The rather upbeat music tends to disguise the underlying darkness, leading superficial listeners to believe the song is simply an expression of determined desire. I found the generally jolly music frustrating until I read Debbie Harry’s explanation to Entertainment Weekly: “I tried to inject a little levity into it to make it more lighthearted. It was a survival mechanism.” If you can’t understand why someone would try to inject levity into a story about a jealous ex-boyfriend stalker, then you are probably not a woman. Women nearly always try to make light of truly terrifying experiences involving aggressive males because they live in a society that doesn’t take them seriously when they report such experiences while granting men a whole lot of latitude in the methods they use to try to get pussy. We are conditioned to believe that we’re overreacting or even crazy, and though the balance may be shifting in the Western world due to recent revelations of rampant harassment in various corridors of power, many laws and customs remain that blame rape on the victim. Debbie Harry does a superb job of replicating the mental state of this possessive prick, delaying delivery of the more manic lines to reflect the loose screws. Due to past personal experiences, it’s not a pleasant song to listen to, but I appreciate Debbie Harry for having the guts to shine the light on these situations—exposure is the first step in the cure.
Blondie spends the rest of Side One displaying their eclectic approach to music, with mixed results. The most interesting is “Picture This,” a girl-group vignette about a girl and her garage monkey flame. The girl is completely obsessed with ” . . . her finest hour/The one I spent watching you shower” and wants a photograph—“a total portrait with no omissions.” My guess is she spent that finest hour playing with her clit and wants the full-length portrait to get her through those dark days when the shop is overwhelmed with valve jobs. “Fade Away and Radiate” is of interest because of the appearance of Robert Fripp on guitar, but this brief venture into progressive rock falls completely flat due to a combination of the band’s limited talent, Debbie Harry’s little girl voice and nonsensical lyrics that Chris Stein probably wrote under the influence. The third, “Pretty Baby,” features a choppy structure, dime store background vocals and Debbie Harry’s pretentious, partly-narrated vocal, spiced with “high-class” Italian and French phrases likely to be familiar to the yahoos in the audience. The last song, “I Know But I Don’t Know” is simply one of the dumbest songs ever made and I hope to fuck I never hear it again.
Side Two opens with Jimmy Destri’s “11:59,” probably the best original composition on the album if you put aside the completely superfluous, pompous introduction and the disastrous decision to use the organ to replicate the melodic line in the instrumental break. The organ is the saltpeter of rock ‘n’ roll unless applied in small doses or used as a percussive instrument with a strong attack—listen to Gregg Allman and Seth Justman and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Using it to deliver the main theme in an uptempo song is like watching a guy with a big bulge in his crotch unzip his pants and experiencing dismay as the foot-long salami he was using to feign stud status tumbles helplessly to the floor, leaving only a sagging willie behind.
Back to “11:59,” I must say that Debbie Harry does a wonderful job with the phrasing here, masterfully riding the flow of the structure-breaking extended lines. Those lines almost qualify as well-crafted lyrics, but Jimmy Destri got lazy and blew his shot at immortality. The offending indolence can be found here;
Pumping like a fugitive in cover from the night
Take it down the freeway like a bullet to the ocean
Wait until the morning, take tomorrow by the hand
Take it down the highway like a rocket to the ocean . . .
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Jimmy. Do you think that maybe in oh, thirty minutes, you could have used your noodle to avoid repeating the metaphor instead of pathetically trying to disguise your laziness by using different words? What’s the difference between a freeway and a highway? Even more significantly, what is the tangible difference between a bullet and a rocket in this context? Both are projectiles launched at high speeds, and both accomplish the same thing: to communicate a sense of urgency in getting your ass down to the ocean. Since you used the phrase “take tomorrow by the hand” in the line before the repetition, couldn’t you have continued the time-as-something-graspable metaphor to complete the thought? Jeez maneez.
But Jimmy, I still like the song—I’m just a bit frustrated that it was a couple of tweaks away from greatness.
Blondie gave Jack Lee another opportunity to collect royalties with “Will Anything Happen?” a song with fairly decent lyrics ruined by an intensely busy arrangement that communicates more anger and bitterness than is justified by the words. It’s followed by the more consistent “Sunday Girl,” a pure pop number that did well as a single in Europe but is far too sweet for this girl’s taste.
Before we get to the song that turned Blondie into international superstars, let me explain my feelings about disco music. Since the fad had thankfully disappeared right around the time of my birth, I don’t have the emotional attachment to the phenomenon that my parents have. When I bring up the subject with my parents, one or the other will go off on a rant about how disco was the most shocking, offensive and regressive development in music history. I think their feelings are tied to the Baby Boomer view of progress as a fundamental expectation of life, so it makes sense that music that regurgitated the early 60’s by disguising it in glitz and spinning balls would be offensive to them.
I take a more measured view. I think disco music is absolute shit, but from the point of view of cultural history, I can understand the need for it. The 1970s were a period of darkness and decay in many spots around the world, and since none of the keepers of the flame of progress had any answers, the world seemed to be caroming down the tracks on a freight train to hell. The people responded to all this doom-and-gloom in exactly the same way they did through The Great Depression and World War II: they danced the night away! I’ve always thought it totally weird that a completely nonsensical song like “Mairzy Doats” hit the top of the charts in 1944 while Hitler was filling up the gas chambers and war raged on multiple continents, but it wasn’t the first time in history that cheerful songs dominated the charts during a period of human tragedy. “Mairzy Doats” was the WWII equivalent of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag,” the massively popular song penned in the early years of World War I. While “Mairzy Doats” isn’t much of a dance number, the swing bands of the era were at the ready to supply the public with plenty of feel-good dance numbers to help them through worldwide trauma—The Glenn Miller Band produced twenty-three number-one hits in the years between 1939-1943, including the utterly vacuous “(I’ve Got a Gal) in Kalamazoo,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
So, I’m actually happy that disco music sent people onto the dance floors all over the world—just don’t make me listen to it.
And that includes “Heart of Glass,” one of my candidates for the song most likely to accompany an eternity in hell. A melody designed for muzak. Relentless, maddening beats with little variation. Production so slick someone should have called the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the oil spill. Debbie Harry reveling in her diva moment. I find this song so horrifying that I have to break with past practice and refuse to link to the video of the album’s biggest hit. Rather than relieve my trauma, “Heart of Glass” intensifies it. Speaking as a girl who dances naturally at a moment’s notice and integrates dance into her sexual activities, “Heart of Glass” is the ultimate anti-dance number, music to accompany the hordes of automatons as they spill over hills and valleys to bring about the end of the human race.
I do find the intense reaction that followed the release of “Heart of Glass” hilarious. The rockers accused Blondie of selling out. Most disco joints wouldn’t play the song because it was too rock ‘n’ roll (WTF?). The critics went into a fucking tizzy and started a ridiculous debate about whether or not Blondie should lose their “New Wave” status. Over time, they worked out a compromise and started referring to Blondie as the inventors of a new genre called “Dance Rock.”
Huh. What had Dick Clark been playing on American Bandstand for twenty-odd years?
Blondie makes me feel a little bit better with their rather rollicking rendition of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” as it’s one of the few spots on Parallel Lines where they actually sound as if they like playing music. The festivities (such as they are) end with an appropriately nasty dash of New York attitude in “Just Go Away,” where Debbie slams the shit out of a loudmouth who’s trying to pass himself off as cool. This is one of her best performances on Parallel Lines—she sounds positively giddy taking this loser down several notches. The only thing missing in his song is the one thing that would have given it undeniable New York cred—ample and frequent use of the word “fuck.” I’ve spent more time in New York than any other city in the U. S. outside of those in California and it’s the only place I’ve ever felt so entirely comfortable using my favorite fucking word whenever the fuck I fucking felt like it.
After Parallel Lines, Blondie produced a string of hits before the first break-up in 1982, occasioned in large part by Chris Stein’s life-threatening illness. Debbie Harry put her career on hold to take care of him, but when she tried to launch a solo career later in the decade, she didn’t gain much traction. The band remained in conflict even after the breakup, with occasional lawsuits over slights real and imagined. Since the original break-up, Blondie has re-formed a couple of times, and their most recent album, Pollinator, came out earlier this year to positive reviews and commercial success. I sincerely hope they all make a lot of money and put the lean and sometimes ugly years behind them.
But to answer the rest of the three-part question that began this journey, Blondie really didn’t have an artistic trajectory. They were popular because they made music that people could dance to and forget about all the serial killers, gas lines and rampant inflation of the 1970’s. Parallel Lines is one of their better works, but I still have this nagging feeling that it could have been a lot better with less discipline from the producer and greater intention on the part of the band.
C’est la vie.