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Off the Beaten Tracks: Gentlemen prefer Blondie

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AS I mentioned last week, when I saw Television in Manchester in 1977 there was another New York band on the bill. They were loud and raucous, and fronted by a peroxide-bobbed ball of energy in skimpy T-shirt and hotpants. This was my introduction to the phenomenon that was Blondie.

On drums, Clem Burke. On bass, Gary Valentine. On keyboards, Jimmy Destri. On guitar, Chris Stein. And on vocals, ladies and gentlemen, the drop-dead gorgeous Debbie Harry.

Although she looked about seventeen, Debs was in fact in her thirties. She was born Angela Trimble on July 1, 1945, in Miami. Her mother, a concert pianist, rejected her and she was adopted at the age of three months by Richard Smith and Catherine Harry, who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey. They renamed her Deborah Ann Harry. Having graduating from college with an arts degree in 1965, she moved to New York City where she spent a year as a secretary for BBC Radio. She also worked as a waitress, go-go dancer and a bunny girl at the Playboy Club (‘a good job for a girl who wants to make a lot of money and doesn’t know what else to do’), and began her musical career singing in a (pretty terrible) folk group called Wind in the Willows.

Moving on to another band, the Stilettos, she met Chris Stein, five years her junior, and they immediately became a couple. Soon afterwards she bleached her mousy barnet, the rest of the group were recruited and Blondie was born. The band became regulars at NYC clubs such as Max’s Kansas City (where Harry had waitressed) and CBGB.

Their eponymous debut album was released by Private Stock records in late 1976 but bombed. The following year, after their British tour with Television, they bought out their initial contract and signed with the London label Chrysalis, which re-released Blondie in October 1977. It begins with X Offender  (originally titled Sex Offender but renamed to be more radio-friendly), followed by In The Flesh.

These accompanying videos introduced Harry’s feline features to legions of adoring males of all ages. Further highlights are Look Good In Blue and the bitchy Rip Her To Shreds.

The overall sound is pretty thin but the combination of pop sensibility and punk attitude, plus Harry’s cheekbones and charisma, were enough to set Blondie on the road to success.

Their second LP, Plastic Letters, came out in early 1978 and provided a commercial breakthrough. The first single taken from it, Denis, was a cover of the 1963 hit Denise by the New York doo-wop group Randy and the Rainbows. It went to Number Two in the UK charts.

The second single, the patronising I’m Always Touched By Your Presence, Dear was also a Top Ten hit, as was the album itself. As ever, sales were enhanced by videos concentrated firmly on the Harry visage.

By now, the punk aspect of their performance was rapidly receding and the transformation to full-blow popsters was completed later that year by a third album, Parallel Lines. The producer of the first two, New Yorker Richard Gottehrer, was replaced by Australian Mike Chapman, who with his business partner Nicky Chinn was responsible for a string of hits by artists such as Suzi Quatro, the Sweet and Mud. Parallel Lines was a worldwide Number One smash, selling 20million copies and finally breaking the band in America with the disco-beat single Heart of Glass.

Other singles from the LP include Hanging On The Telephone, the lovely Picture This, Sunday Girl, One Way Or Another and a remake of the Buddy Holly hit I’m Gonna Love You Too. A less commercial track, Fade Away And Radiate, somewhat surprisingly features guitar by Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

Parallel Lines is a lot poppier than my normal taste but the quality of the songs and production cannot be denied, even though Harry was still writing some of the lyrics on the back of a fag packet in the studio as Chapman was waiting for her to record her vocal tracks. It was the definite high point of the Blondie story, although the next album, 1979’s Eat to the Beat, also reached the top of the LP charts. Chrysalis savvily arranged for every track to be filmed to maximise the Debbie factor, making it the first video album, released on cassette and disc. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fans increasingly began to identify Harry as Blondie, a solo act, with the rest of the band mere backing musicians, much to their chagrin.

Eat to the Beat provided three hit singles in Dreaming, Union City Blue and Atomic, the latter craftily borrowing its riff from the beginning of the Beatles’ And I Love Her.

Chapman would later observe: ‘The music was good but the group was showing signs of wear and tear.’

The next Blondie single was, unusually, not from an album. Call Me was a collaboration between Harry and the Italian disco king Giorgio Moroder, producer of Donna Summer’s major hits. It was the theme song of the Richard Gere movie American Gigolo, and topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Album number five, Autoamerican, came out in late 1980. It was stylistically much more varied than its predecessors but still contained two smash hit singles, the reggae-influenced The Tide Is High and Rapture, the first song including rapping to top the US charts.

The following year the band took a break and Harry made a solo album, KooKoo, assisted by Stein. Its dramatic cover image showed her face and neck pierced by metal skewers and was deemed too disturbing for posters of it to be placed on the London Underground. There were two singles from it, Backfired, which reached the giddy height of Number 32 in the UK, and The Jam Was Moving, which didn’t chart at all.

In 1982 Blondie were back with their sixth album, The Hunter, which produced two minor single hits with Island of Lost Souls and War Child. Another track, For Your Eyes Only, had been commissioned as the theme for the James Bond film of that name but the producers preferred a different song with the same title by Sheena Easton.

Their recent lack of commercial success, coupled with the other musicians’ resentment at the press and public’s obsession with Harry, led to tensions within the band and they broke up after Stein was diagnosed with the painful and life-threatening skin disease pemphigus. Harry nursed him through his illness and in 1986 resumed her solo career with the album Rockbird, which provided a Top Ten single French Kissin’ in the USA.

By the next decade a new generation was getting into Blondie and the band reformed to record the 1999 album No Exit which, for the first time since 1978 was not produced by Mike Chapman. He oversaw early demos but for the final cuts was supplanted by Craig Leon. A single from the album, Maria,  became Blondie’s sixth UK Number One 20 years precisely after the first, Heart of Glass. No Exit was followed in 2003 by The Curse of Blondie, which produced a minor hit with the single Good Boys but proved their worst-selling album since the first. There have been various reunions since producing little commercial success.

Harry and Stein parted some years ago and he is now married with two children, to whom his ex-partner is godmother. The old girl is still single at 73 and has outlived most of her musical contemporaries. In a 2007 interview with the Guardian she said: ‘Iggy [Pop] now lives in Florida. I see him rarely. I went to say hello to Bowie the other week. Unfortunately a lot of the old gang is dead now. I come from an era when people were taking a lot of drugs and there wasn’t much knowledge about them; I would say at least 60 per cent of the people I came up with in New York are dead. And then a lot of the people who surrounded the bands are gone. I have been to a lot of funerals.’

PS: Thanks to reader Badger for a brilliant comment on last week’s post. If you missed it, here it is, unedited:

‘Back in the eighties I used to frequent both the Tape Exchange and a second-hand bookshop in Notting Hill Gate, both close to the Tube. I built up quite a collection of interesting music cheaply, both cassette and LP, and learned the bookshop owner liked some of my kind of music too. So we would chat about books and music and I’d lend him the odd tape and he’d recommend the odd book. One of the tapes was ’Tom Verlaine’ by Television, a group I had only recently discovered, and I was bowled over by one of the most exciting guitar tracks I thought I had ever heard, and all those years later I still ration my listening, for fear of hearing it too often.

‘The album was Tom Verlaine and the track was Breakin’ in my Heart.

‘Now here comes the weird bit. I called into the bookshop one afternoon to collect that very album I had lent the owner, curious for his opinion. ‘Well?’ I asked. He said nothing but nodded to a skinny guy at the back of the shop engrossed in a book, and silently mouthed “Tom Verlaine”.

‘Gobsmacked is a word I only learned later, but that’s exactly how I felt. I looked at him, unaware of us, poring over his book, and wondered what I could say to my current hero. I would call him Tom or maybe “Mr Miller” (I knew his real name by then) and that would give him a jolt, thousands of miles from home, and I’d tell him what I thought of that marvellous track, the greatest solo I had ever heard.

‘But I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him, like some starry-eyed groupie (I was in my mid forties for goodness’ sake), so I said nothing, and a few minutes later he left without buying the book.

‘What I did was the cool thing to do, but sometimes I wish I had said something.* Anyway, here’s that track. I still give it five stars, tho’ whether it’s the greatest ever is nonsense, there is no “greatest ever”.

*‘I saw Van Morrison once in that bookshop, and I definitely did not speak to him.’

To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark https://am-records.com

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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