Monday, March 1, 2010

Blondes Have More Fun

Imagine for a moment that you were a musician in Blondie. On the plus side, you were part of a brilliant band, pioneers of the American punk and new wave scene in the mid 70s. Against that, you were destined to be largely ignored by the media, no matter how well you played, as you would inevitably be overshadowed by the beautiful, charismatic singer: the original platinum blonde, Ms. Debbie Harry. To the cognoscenti, Debbie’s celebrity status did not lessen the impact of the group, even though the label’s early press releases felt the need to reinforce the importance of the others with the tagline, “Blondie is a band”.

The relative lack of appreciation was particularly tough on the likes of Clem Burke, whose powerful drumming provided the perfect backbeat for all their different styles, from thunderous rock to disco grooves. Jimmy Destri’s keyboards were also a highlight with his mixture of sparse synths and barnstorming organs alternately taking the lead and falling into the background. The guitar duties were shared between the wonderfully named Frank “The Freak” Infante and band founder Chris Stein, who was maybe better known for being Debbie’s boyfriend, even though his intense technique was ideal for their brand of power pop.

"Lipstick Vogue"

However, there is no doubt that Debbie Harry was the focal point of the group, the undisputed star of the show, the “Leader of the Pack”. A former waitress and Playboy Bunny she may have been, but she was confident, street-wise and appeared completely in control. The inspiration for the band’s name, reputedly based on truckers calling out, “Hey, blondie” as they drove past Harry, this was no dumb blonde. She may have been one of the biggest sex symbols the pop world has ever seen, but hers was a contradictory appeal. Her perfect cupid’s bow was offset by her slapdash use of the peroxide bottle, so that she resembled a sort of sophisticated tomboy, personifying a tough-girl glamour.

Quite possibly the most influential and stylish frontwoman in the history of pop, Harry could switch from sweet chanteuse to punk fighter, exuding cool elegance while still appearing eminently approachable. She may have looked like a pop princess, but she had the attitude of a rock rebel. Even at its most saccharine, her singing demonstrated a bite lacking in other female vocalists with a formidable range: one moment purring like a kitten, the next growling like a lioness. Possessing many vocal tricks and affectations, she could play sultry, aggressive, sweet and vulnerable – often within a single song.

"Hands across the ocean"

Each of Blondie’s first three albums are wonderful, but the boys (and girl) were at their peak on “Parallel Lines”, their third album released in 1978, which is the perfect example of their ability to blend 60s power pop with 70s new wave as witty, infectious harmonies complemented Harry’s unique mix of raucous, luscious vocals. Recorded very quickly over the summer, which might explain the fresh sound, it may not be the most energetic or experimental of their albums, but it is a symbol for how effortless, stylish and plain enjoyable pop music can be. The group’s Blonde Ambition informed the first two albums, the eponymous “Blondie” and the intelligent “Plastic Letters”, but “Parallel Lines” is like a more refined, sophisticated version of that hard-edged sound. The band’s roots (see what I did there?) are very worthy of examination, but this is the album where everything worked.

Produced by British glam rock svengali, Mike Chapman, who had previously worked with the likes of Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro, the album delivered a more commercial sound without sacrificing the band’s underlying new wave credentials. Chapman was a hard task-master and Harry was struck by the intensity of his working methods, “It was diametrically opposite from working with (former producer) Richard Gottehrer. He's very laid back and Mike is a real hot chili pepper and very energetic and enthusiastic. Mike would strive for the technically impeccable take, so we would do take after take, whereas Richard always went for the inspired take”. Chapman’s mastery of the mixing desk and his ability to spot a great pop tune acted as the ideal catalyst for Blondie’s natural talent and unbridled energy, taking their music to a new level and resulting in an all-time classic.

"I'm too sexy for my shirt"

Nevertheless, the band was condemned by some of their New York contemporaries and the music press for selling out, because of the perceived change in direction, as the brooding artiness of their early work was replaced by a crisper, cleaner sound. Despite the apparent move towards the mainstream, in reality this was a group that was prepared to take chances, happy to try new things and more than ready for the international success that followed.

The main reason for the criticism was “Heart Of Glass”, a disco pastiche turned disco classic. An old Blondie song, know to fans as “The Disco Song”, this was the single that transferred the band from CBGB to Studio 54, as they bridged the diametrically opposed sensibilities of solid underground credibility and unapologetic pop aspiration. Clem Burke characterised the sound as Kraftwerk by way of Saturday Night Fever, though he could not resist some trademark, exuberant drumming towards the end of the track, which featured a remarkably assured vocal by Harry, whose gorgeous, glacial voice soared over the bubbling, machine-like rhythms provided by Jimmy Destri’s shimmering keyboards. This was just one of the songs on the album that dealt with the theme of love and lost love in particular, “Once I had a love and it was divine/Soon found out I was losing my mind/It seemed like the real thing, but I was so blind/Mucho mistrust, love's gone behind”.

"New York Dolls"

OK, “Parallel Lines” may not have been as abrasive or challenging as Blondie’s first two albums, but it is by no means a soft, fluffy record with satirical, cutting lyrics providing wry observations on love and life - a hard centre beneath the glossy surface. It manages to walk the line between several different musical styles with the band’s diversity almost reminiscent of The Clash’s appetite for experimentation, as they packed punk, new wave, art rock, psychedelia and (later) reggae and rap into a very catchy pop format. They hopped across numerous genres, singing their way across the full spectrum from soft, atmospheric ballads to punk-inspired rock-outs, ensuring that they enjoyed a broad appeal. Even when the songs had a simple bubble-gum sound, the arrangements gave them an edgy, gritty feel, covering many emotions including passion, love and infatuation. Their eclectic approach owed much to the several songwriting combinations in the band with contributions from all members, even the lesser lights like bassist Nigel Harrison (“One Way Or Another”).

Whatever the style, Blondie are rightly remembered for being the ultimate practitioners of perfect pop, as can be seen in the lively, engaging “Hanging On The Telephone”, which is just what the doctor ordered for the opening track. It’s a great introduction to the album as Clem Burke drums with equal parts restraint and abandon, Chris Stein and Frank Infante slash out power chords and, above all, Debbie Harry gives us two minutes of pure lust wrapped in a pleading, insinuating vocal that unleashes all her theatrical capacity, “I had to interrupt and stop this conversation/Your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation/I'd like to talk when I can show you my affection/Oh, I can't control myself”.

"Never mind the Fade Away, just Radiate"

Equally “poptastic” is the high-spirited “One Way Or Another”, which features a simple yet effective guitar riff that is one of the most recognisable ever. A brutal slab of militant feminism, bordering on stalking (“I will drive past your house/And if the lights are all down/I'll see who's around”), this song exhibits Harry’s mean girl snarl in all its glory, as she taunts and teases. It’s all too believable when she sneers, “I’m gonna getcha”.

Of course, Debbie Harry was one of the sexiest women in pop, the music industry’s very own blonde bombshell, and she was not above using her assets, pouting and winking her way through “Picture This” with its blatantly suggestive cover, showing her lasciviously licking the disc’s black vinyl. The song itself is another luminous moment of immaculate, sublime pop with a memorable, melodramatic melody underlining Harry’s worshipful, yet somehow scornful vocals, “All I want is a photo in my wallet/A small remembrance of something more solid/All I want is a picture of you”. Just as seductive is the apparently superficial “Sunday Girl”, elegant to the point of lushness. Harry is youthful innocence personified, but it’s a bittersweet symphony. The beguiling tune disguises a caustic worldview, “I know a girl from a lonely street/Cold as ice cream, but still as sweet”, which could actually work as a description of the singer herself.

"I don't pray that way"

There’s a 60s girl group air to “Sunday Girl”, which is even more the case for “Pretty Baby”, which opens with some spoken words that recall The Shangri-Las. Apparently referring to Brooke Shields’ character in the scandalous movie of the same name, this is an ode to youth and beauty, as Harry dreamily intones, “Stars live in the evening/But the very young need the sun”. Although not the fiercest example of “girl power”, the feel is not dissimilar to Blondie’s breakthrough singles in the UK: the bouncy “Denis” and the moody “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”. Even the 50s were referenced with a joyous cover of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”, which was performed New York-stylee.

To underline Blondie’s art background, Robert Fripp contributed ethereal guitar to the eerie “Fade Away And Radiate”, a sinister homage to a deity which is slowly revealed to be a television, “The beams become my dream/My dream is on the screen”. Beginning with a slow, haunting pulse beat and cool synths, before jangly guitars and keyboards break through, this track owes a debt to early Roxy Music. Moody and apocalyptic, it’s also progressive and hypnotic. Seductive even, but then I do love my TV.

"It was all about the image"

The tougher sound of old was also present in a couple of tracks. Like “X-Offender” and “Rip Her To Shreds” from the debut album, they were also bursting with Blondie’s unmistakable zest and tongue-in-cheek humour. The anthemic “I Know But I Don’t Know” is a quirky song with goofy synthesizers, featuring weird vocal stylings and an interesting harmony between Infante and Harry (“I give but I don't get/I will but I won't yet/I lose but I don't bet/I'm your dog but not your pet”). Similarly, “Will Anything Happen” matches a massive punk rhythm with a classic pop hook and could easily have found its way onto “Plastic Letters”.

You want some teen angst, some ambivalence and despair? I give you Jimmy Destri’s superb “11:59”, a great song with an even better title that encapsulates the anxieties of youth, “Today can last another million years/Today could be the end of me/It's 11:59, and I want to stay alive”. How about some teen attitude? Please accept “Just Go Away”, a sardonic, vitriolic dismissal complete with aggressive call-and-response, “You got a big mouth and I'm happy to see/Your foot is firmly entrenched where a molar should be/If you talk much louder you could get an award/From the federal communications board”.

"No arguments here"

Yep, La Harry is a tough chick. You only have to look at the iconic album cover where the singer stands there in a white dress, unsmiling, hands on hip in front of her band giggling like naughty school boys in dark suits. It’s a pose full of confrontation – do you want some? The band never seemed to take themselves too seriously. They did such a good job that it all seemed so effortless, so natural, but the album produced six singles and it became an unintentional greatest hits package.

Of course, Blondie would go on to produce many more hit singles: “Atomic” and “Union City Blue” from the album “Eat To The Beat”; “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture” from “Autoamerican”; and “Call Me” from the film “American Gigolo”. The band broke up in 1982 after the release of “The Hunter”, but reformed fifteen years later, notching up another number one single with “Maria”. That meant, fact fans, that Blondie were the only American act to reach number one in the UK charts in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Quality and quantity, not to mention longevity.

"Live and Dangerous"

There's something about Harry. Sure, the camera loved her, and her stunning looks were in some ways as important as the music, but this was definitely no damsel in distress. She may have had a sexual image, but hers was a playful, independent personality. As Rolling Stone said, she performed with “utter aplomb and involvement throughout: even when she's portraying a character consummately obnoxious and spaced-out, there is a wink of awareness that is comforting and amusing yet never condescending”.

Debbie Harry has inspired a host of copycats, most obviously Madonna, though the former Mrs. Ritchie has focused more on the ambition than the music, while other so-called tough female artists should be eternally grateful to Harry for paving the way. I’m thinking of Gwen Stefani, Pink and (God forbid) Lily Allen and The Ting Tings. Of the younger pretenders, Lady Gaga would give her left bollock to have a tenth of Debbie Harry’s talent, not to mention class.

"Smile and the world smiles with you"

“Parallel Lines” was the album that made the world love Blondie and everyone fall in love with Debbie Harry. The girls wanted to be her, while the boys just wanted to be with her. Blonde highlights? There were loads.

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