Rapture: A Retrospective of Blondie
Listen to the playlist on one of the following services as you read along. Due to limited availability only YouTube has the entire playlist, including some live performances.
I first kissed a girl when I was nine. She was a precocious eleven year-old from Scotland visiting our neighbours in the summer of 1979. She and I hung out together for a few days and on the last day of her time in Toronto, much to my surprise and exhilaration, we kissed. Playing on the stereo at the time, as it had for most of the few days we spent together in my neighbours’ basement, was Parallel Lines by Blondie.
At the same time my interest in girls was having its initial stirring I was, still being a very young lad, a firm believer in Santa Claus. I didn’t challenge the notion since every Christmas morning I awoke to find a packed stocking from him next to my bed filled with small toys and treats. After going through that I would move to the living room where there would be a few unwrapped gifts under the tree also from Santa. I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so the jolly fellow was ok by me. By Christmas 1981 I was eleven years-old and hanging onto the Santa tradition as long as I could because, you know, extra gifts. At that age I was less inclined to go for toys and had found music, and that Christmas there were three new albums under the tree waiting to be played: Beauty and the Beat by the Go Go’s, Ghost in the Machine by The Police, and The Best of Blondie. I had asked for the first two on my Christmas list, but Santa had thrown me a bonus with the Blondie record. In the end, that’s the one I would listen to the most of the three, although all would have their grooves well worn over time.
- X Offender
- In the Flesh
- Rip Her to Shreds
- (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear
- I’m on E
- Poets Problem
- Hanging on the Telephone
- One Way or Another
- Heart of Glass
- Die Young Stay Pretty
- Call Me
- The Tide is High
- Angels on the Balcony
- Island of Lost Souls
- Nothing is Real but the Girl
- Good Boys
- Songs of Love
- What I Heard
- The End The End
- I Want to Drag You Around
- Long Time
- Best Day Ever
So you could say Blondie found me as much as I did them – a relationship born in the warm memories of a first kiss and a surprise gift from Santa/mom. I would always be fond of their music, but years later when I would go back and explore their albums more fully, I realized that Best of Blondie album was just the tip of the iceberg. This band was fantastic. As an unabashed fan of the pop music format (though usually not keen on much ‘popular’ music) Blondie is the complete package. Catchy, tight tunes with wonderful blends of guitar, drums and keyboards, all backing the wondrous voice of Debbie Harry. I am deeply in love with her voice and can be won over to pretty much anything she sings (case in point, how cool is she here on The Muppet Show?).
Debbie Harry was born Angela Tremble in Miami and was put up for adoption. She was adopted by Richard and Catherine Harry who lived in Hawthorne, New Jersey, where she was raised as Deborah Ann Harry. She moved to New York City in the 1960s after graduating college with an arts degree. She did several odd jobs around the city including as receptionist at BBC Radio, a waitress at the famed Max’s Kansas City, a go-go dancer at Union City in Jersey, and as a bunny at the Playboy Club. She started her singing career with a folk band called Wind in the Willows before joining a band called The Stilettoes.
Chris Stein was born in Brooklyn and joined the Stilettoes in 1973, seeking a band that fit with the emerging music of the Mercer Arts Center. In 1974 Stein and Harry formed a new band which they eventually called Blondie, not surprisingly based on the catcalls that Harry would often receive on the streets of Manhattan (1970s New York was not a very hospitable place for anyone, much less a woman that looked like Debbie). This would be the start of a relationship that lasts to this day and must rank among the most prolific partnerships of modern pop music. They were romantically involved from their early days performing together until 1989. It should also be noted that Debbie was already 29 years-old at that point and much older than her musical peers as Blondie launched itself on the world.
X Offender; In the Flesh; Rip Her to Shreds \ Blondie (1976)
By 1975 Stein and Harry had changed over several band members and were assembling a stellar group of musicians. First was Clem Burke from New Jersey, one of the best rock drummers of all time. On bass they were joined by Gary Valentine, replacing Fred Smith who would go on to join the band Television (in turn replacing Richard Hell who was forming The Heartbreakers). By the end of the year they would add Jimmy Destri on keyboards.
The band established themselves at the clubs Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, which together were the very heart of New York’s progressive arts community, frequented by the likes of Andy Warhol’s Factory contingent. Like many of the artists in these venues, Blondie felt unconstrained by convention and were exploring new approaches to rock music, stripping it down to a bare, raw, and urgent form. This was counter to the movement of the big band, fully orchestrated rock most evident in that year’s major albums such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.
Blondie set itself apart by drawing upon the early 60s pop style. While their first single, “X Offender” was a sample of the emerging punk sound of the city, “In the Flesh” sounded like something recorded by The Shirelles or The Ronettes. But watching the band didn’t make you think anything of those early pop generation bands. Debby Harry was demure, sexy, and dangerous, and a rare female lead in the punk clubs. After sounding innocent and sweet during “In the Flesh,” she’d come back at you with a vicious snarl in “Rip Her to Shreds.” The fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous was simply a fortunate bonus to the whole package (though a constant challenge to the band’s identity).
She and the band’s music were getting noticed. They released their first, self-titled album in December 1976 and set themselves up to be part of one of the greatest years of rock history, 1977, centred in New York City.
Denis; (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear; I’m on E \ Plastic Letters (1978)
Poets Problem (1978)
Chrysalis Records was a British A&R label formed around Jethro Tull in 1969 and distributed through Island Records. Known mostly for its Prog Rock acts like Tull, Procul Harem, and Ten Years After, the US branch broke free in 1976 as an independent and partnered with PolyGram for distribution. Recognizing the exciting wave of new bands coming out of London and New York, Chrysalis would shift gears and become one of the leading labels for new wave music during the ensuing years. They also formed 2 Tone Records in England with Jerry Dammers of The Specials and helped launch the British ska scene.
Chrysalis so desperately wanted Blondie they agreed to pay their label, Private Stock Records, to free them of their contract. It was a risk since Blondie’s first album didn’t sell well as the band was still only a sensation in a few New York City clubs. The move however would pay off as the band was coming together and writing better and better songs. They had also gone through a line-up change as Valentine left, replaced by Brit Nigel Harrison, and Frank Infante was also brought on as a second guitarist.
The second album, Plastic Letters, released in February 1978, maintained the edge and energy of the first album but was more complete. It was a landmark album of the late 70s New York scene. “Denis” held the retro 60s vibe with a little French thrown in for an exotic twist and “I’m on E” held a pace few bands strove for save for their CBGB clubmates, The Ramones. But it was the pop brilliance of “Presence Dear” that indicated something special was coming with this band. Keyboards, drums, guitar and Debbie’s voice come together perfectly into one of pop-rock’s most fantastic moments. You could also flip the single over and find a non-album B-side, “Poets Problem,” that sent you on another fantastic swirl through those combinations again.
There was no doubt this was a band on the rise. The album lacked a breakthrough single and the rest of America wasn’t yet ready to embrace the New York rock sound, distracted instead by the other New York sound of the time and other landmark club, disco and Studio 54.
Hanging on the Telephone; One Way or Another; Heart of Glass \ Parallel Lines (1978)
Bringing on Australian producer Mike Chapman, emboldened by their increasing – but still minor – success, and profiting from a creative tension amongst a group of talented and ambitious musicians, Blondie broke big with the next album, Parallel Lines and its’ massive hit, “Heart of Glass.”
I strongly encourage you to watch these two videos: The Making of Parallel Lines and this short one on the recording of Heart of Glass which provide great insight to the creative process and inventiveness of the band at this time in their history. One detail, not the least of which, is Clem Burke had to play each drum separately during recording “Heart of Glass” in order to time it perfectly with the backing drum machine.
The irony was that “Heart of Glass” caught the disco vibe of the time and launched Blondie to international success under the impression that they were a disco band. It was a reputation they would forever struggle with since the rest of Parallel Lines had no disco elements at all. “One Way or Another” is as snarling and menacing a rock song, especially sung by a female, as you could find for the time. Hearing a blond bombshell sing, “One way or another / I’m gonna get ya,” turned the sexual dynamics of the time on its head. “Hanging on the Telephone” was a cover of a song by The Nerves, part of the new underground of American power pop in which Blondie was a part.
In 2008 my wife Julia and I would schlep up to Casino Rama to see Blondie on their tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Parallel Lines. They played the album in its entirety to kick off the show and it was a treat to hear.
Dreaming; Die Young Stay Pretty; Atomic \ Eat to the Beat (1979)
Improbably, Blondie managed to follow up their massive success with another fantastic album. Having a massive success can be the undoing of many a band, but not so for this group. There was one challenge, the new album was consistent with their power-pop sound and not of the disco variety – although “Atomic” was most definitely a dance-oriented song and consistent with the synth-based music growing in popularity in North America and the UK. So it wasn’t guaranteed their newly expanded audience would stick with them.
Like Plastic Letters, the album lacked a hit single. “Dreaming” would become a classic of theirs, as would “Atomic,” but while songs like “Accidents Never Happen” and “The Hardest Part” were undeniably great, they were not geared to a mass audience. Regardless, the album went to number one in the UK and was one of Billboard’s top ten albums of the year.
Of note on this album was the introduction of reggae rifts, most notable in the song “Die Young Stay Pretty.” The band was broadening their sound from the retro and expansive sounds still heard in songs like “Union City Blue,” but now there was greater variety throughout the album.
Also notable on this album was Chrysalis experimenting with new forms by creating a video album for Eat to the Beat. There was a video made of each song and made available as a package. Keep in mind this was two years before MTV would debut. This was also likely done because Blondie was so photogenic, centred of course on Debbie, who must have been one of the most photographed people on the planet in the late 70s. This would become an issue, not for her, but for the rest of the band.
Call Me (1980)
If Blondie was concerned about the drop in commercial success from their last album it was alleviated when they released a single early in the new year that became their second #1 hit. “Call Me” was used in the movie American Gigolo and captured the spirit of an America re-finding its mojo at the start of a new decade. For the band, it must have been a relief that it was a song in their traditional, guitar-synth power pop mold and not a disco song. Ironically though, it was a collaboration with Georgio Moroder, known mostly for his electronic and dance compositions. Perhaps that’s why it also has one of the most recognizable synth solos of that early era of synth use.
The Tide is High; Angels on the Balcony; Rapture \ Autoamerican (1980)
The next album was one of contradictions. Musically, it was their weakest yet but still had two #1 singles, “The Tide is High” (a cover of a song by the Paragons) and “Rapture.” Autoamerican departed more pointedly from their rock sound and embraced the island sounds first hinted at in the prior album. “The Tide is High” is entirely built around calypso sounds and Caribbean inspired horns. “Rapture” is famously the first song with rap lyrics to reach #1. It also re-introduced the band to audiences as a dance-focused act due to its heavy funk and disco elements.
Blondie, now five albums into their four-year recording history were straining at the seams despite being at their peak success with three consecutive hit albums and four #1 songs. Disputes over musical direction and media attention on Debbie were leading to strained relationships. The band was increasingly looking like a backing act for Debbie – they were called ‘Blondie’ after all.
Island of Lost Souls \ The Hunter (1982)
Like so many other bands of the 70s, the 80s were not kind to Blondie (and they did themselves no favours with that awful album cover!). The Hunter is better in retrospect but at the time, lacking anything close to a single commensurate with their prior work, the album would effectively flop for the band. Watching that painful performance Debbie gives for the TV appearance I’ve chosen for “Island of Lost Souls” (YouTube playlist) makes you wonder where her head was.
Before The Hunter, the band actually had taken its first break since its formation. The year off allowed many of them to try different things. Harry and Destri released solo albums (both helped by Stein) and Debbie also tried her hand at acting in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Clem Burke played on the Eurythmics first album, and Infante oddly sued the band for lack of credit for his work on Autoamerican. It was settled out of court and he stayed with the band, but not surprisingly it created additional tension the band didn’t need.
Blondie kept its fans happy during the break with the release of its greatest hits, the Best of Blondie – the same that would come to rest under my Christmas tree in 1981.
Once released, The Hunter did not sell well – at least nothing like their prior albums. Continuing to explore new styles including their continuing fixation on reggae, the band seemed to have lost its way. Songs like “Dragonfly” and “Island Caesar” are ok, but seem to wander and lose energy compared to their other work. “For Your Eyes Only” was recorded for the James Bond movie of the same name but was passed over for Sheena Easton’s song. “Island of Lost Souls” and “War Child” were the singles and decent songs, but didn’t capture the attention of fans (“War Child” didn’t even get onto the charts). The accompanying tour ended up being cancelled due to poor ticket sales and emerging health concerns regarding Chris Stein.
Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus, an autoimmune disease that affects the skin and could be fatal if not treated. This development on top of the general unhappiness in the band led to them calling it quits. They announced their breakup in November of 1982.
Harry and Stein retreated into isolation as she dedicated her time to treating him and helping his recovery. They also decided in 1989 to end their personal relationship and Harry moved into her own place in Manhattan. Harry would release a few singles over the rest of the decade but couldn’t re-gain the attention she’d had with Blondie.
In the 1990s interest in Blondie was growing as a new generation of artists raised on its music was taking hold. Harry and Stein, who was now fully recovered, decided to reform the band in 1996. Burke, Destri and Valentine agreed to return. Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante unsuccessfully sued to prevent the reunion. Unfortunately, this band has a sorry history of suing one another.
Screaming Skin; Maria; Nothing is Real but the Girl \ No Exit (1999)
In February of 1999 the band released its first new music in seventeen years. Valentine had left before writing and recording, so this was now a four-piece version. Led by the single, “Maria” they immediately regained a level of success as the song reached number one in the UK, the sixth time Blondie had achieved that and twenty years after its first ascent to that spot with “Heart of Glass.” They embarked on their first headlining tour since the reunion. I saw them at Massey Hall and fell in love with them all over again.
Harry at this point was 54 years-old and her voice still sounded fantastic. The music was generally straightforward and had many of the band’s traditional elements, though the guitar was a bit tougher at times and they tilted more towards a jazz and beat sound rather than the reggae and island sounds of their last releases. What was clear is the band could still put great pop songs together. And while Harry had some moderate success as a solo artist during the interregnum, and others such as Clem Burke had played with many other successful acts (The Romantics, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Dramarama, Iggy Pop, and Joan Jett), they achieved more when they were together.
Good Boys; Songs of Love \ The Curse of Blondie (2003)
While Blondie had often utilized dance beats and had struggled with the misnomer of being a disco band, in 2003 they released an album that unabashedly embraced dance music. “Good Boys” reminds me quite a bit of New Order’s music of the same period. “Songs of Love” is a lovely slow tune that closes the album.
Unfortunately, the album’s title proved true and the move to a purer dance sound cursed them to mixed results. Fans didn’t embrace the new direction. The Curse of Blondie was the lowest charting album since the debut album and relegated the band out of the spotlight of current music. Perhaps No Exit had succeeded due to the novelty of the reunion, but in the end Blondie was yesterday’s news, now touring in casinos and other smaller venues that cater to artists of yesteryear, even though not many older artists are still producing new music so regularly.
In 2004 Destri would leave the band to deal with drug addiction problems. Despite plans to bring him back to the band it would never happen. This left Harry, Stein, and Burke as the only original members.
What I Heard; The End The End \ Panic of Girls (2011)
In 2008 they toured for the thirtieth anniversary of Parallel Lines, where I would see them for a second time, this time at Casino Rama. The casino is an awful venue to see a band like Blondie. Most of the audience didn’t seem to have any knowledge or interest in the music, and many left during the full-album performance of Parallel Lines. Also the room is large with grandstand seating but not curved, so the seating at the ends is well-removed from the stage and removes any sense of intimacy or ambience. Seeing the band struggle with that audience and room led to a very unsatisfying show. The band fought gamely to make something of it, but there were too many countervailing circumstances to overcome. As they returned for the encore most of the crowd was leaving, prompting Debbie to call out, “Where are you going? Come back, the show isn’t over!” It was an ignominious sign of the band’s situation.
In 2011 they released their ninth album, Panic of Girls. Returning to their traditional pop-rock sound it was the strongest album since their return. The electronics now enhanced and filled out the sound, rather than dominate it. The song writing was more consistent and the songs were tighter. The album held together start to finish better than anything they’d done since Eat to the Beat. It included a great cover of Beirut’s song “Sunday Smile” (which brought back reggae riffs), a rare instance of an older band covering a newer band (and reminded me of Bowie covering The Pixies’ “Cactus”). Unfortunately, the album came and went with barely any notice from record buyers. This was likely due in part to the fact Blondie was having trouble finding a record label, being forced to release it themselves in the UK. With the weakness in distribution it’s not surprising the album did poorly – again a disappointing state of affairs in which to see such an illustrious band.
I Want to Drag You Around; Euphoria \ Blondie 4(0)-Ever / Ghosts of Download (2014)
The band celebrated its fortieth anniversary by releasing a package titled Blondie 4(0)-Ever. It included an album of remastered and remixed greatest hits titled Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux. I don’t care much for these versions. Perhaps they renew the songs for today’s audiences, but after living with these songs for forty years I’m still happy with the originals. What was exciting and great to hear was the new album they packaged with it, Ghosts of Download.
The new album was released online, song-by-song for several weeks leading up to the album’s release. It’s another venture into a heavily electronic, dance oriented album. This time though, the band got it right and refined its approach with this music. The lead single, “A Rose by Any Name” could fit easily in any dance club of today. However, it was far from the best song on the album. There are too many other good songs on the album that I’m not including it in the playlist. The bands penchant for great and varied pop songs was now wonderfully married to their use of electronics. “I Wanna Drag You Around” was another strong down tempo song. “Sugar on the Side” included a Columbian hip-hop band, Systema Solar, giving it a little extra flavour. “Euphoria” stomped along with a heavy beat, nicely offset to Debbie’s vocal. Despite its strength, the album again was largely ignored, even despite the band appearing on many daytime and evening talk shows.
Long Time; Best Day Ever \ Pollinator (2017)
May 2017 Blondie released its eleventh album, Pollinator. It’s the fifth since their reformation. Continuing the trend of alternating styles, this one returned to a rock-oriented, full band sound and the electronics took more of a back seat. A new twist was several collaborations with other song writers such as David Sitek from TV On the Radio, Sia Furler, and Nick Valensi from The Strokes. Stein and Harry only wrote two songs on the album without a guest. Joan Jett appeared on “Doom or Destiny,” which had a politically oriented video featuring the two women giving a newscast featuring messages about Donald Trump, the environment, sexism, and inequality.
The album had an environmental message, with the title referring to the threat to the global bee population. A share of proceeds from the album would go to saving the bees. Musically it was solid, though not as catchy as Ghosts of Download. The first single, “Fun,” was not very good and fell prone to the soulless, boring sound an electronic song can have if not done properly. Yet there were definite gems on this album, since a band as experienced and capable as this could not be denied. “Long Time” was a solid second single, and “Already Naked” was another electro-rock combination in which the band has become more adept. “Best Day Ever” is a fun, alt-pop type song that had some fun with Debbie’s voice (can anyone stay clear of Auto-Tune these days?).
After touring Australia over the winter co-headlining with Cyndi Lauper, the band came to North America in the summer co-headlining with Garbage. Joining with other acts is an interesting move to garner a larger audience, a growing trend over the past several years. I saw them for the third time at The Sony Centre and thankfully it was a fantastic show – good enough to clear any ill will created by the Rama show (Blondie came to Rama a few years ago and I refused to go). At 72, Debbie was still going strong which was amazing to see. She lost nothing having Shirley Manson, 21 years her junior, perform ahead of her.
The contribution of Debbie Harry must be acknowledged, forever the iconic face of the band, whether they liked it or not, few acts have had as recognizable and enigmatic a lead singer. In rock n’ roll especially, few bands have had as capable and as beautiful a lead singer (it’s interesting she’s teamed up this year with others in Joan Jett, Cyndi Lauper, and Shirley Manson), adding a dimension to the band few others have had to their benefit. It’s ironic that as MTV took off the band broke up. If ever there was a band set to capitalize on the shift to video it would have been Blondie, yet their heyday was entirely absent from that forum. There was the video album done for Eat to the Beat but otherwise they never capitalized on the video medium.
Though Blondie has fallen out of the spotlight, their place in modern music history is entrenched having sold over 40 million albums and influenced many artists drawn to the combination of rock, dance, and pop. They were the only artist of the original group of acts to come out of the famed CBGBs to break into chart-topping and international success, bringing a mass audience to the punk sounds of New York by fusing it with pop and disco. Yet despite that, and despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, these days they are largely ignored and forgotten other than the usual round of TV appearances and interviews with each album’s release. I was pleased to see their concert sell well this past year, but their albums don’t garner any attention or sales (though I’m pleased to see Pollinator reached #4 in the UK). I’ve also heard “One Way or Another” heard in commercials over the years (one was for Swiffer, good grief), but it would also be good to hear them when top bands or their era are discussed. Maybe they were too popular for critics to take them seriously, or too brazen to not quit despite approaching their Medicare years, or maybe Harry was too pretty and written off as a novelty, but for whatever reason their music is due for a reassessment. Regardless, for me, I’ll always have all that great music to listen to and, of course, that first kiss and a gift from Santa to remember them by.