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Friday, November 14, 2014

Blondie: Blondie


1) X Offender; 2) Little Girl Lies; 3) In The Flesh; 4) Look Good In Blue; 5) In The Sun; 6) A Shark In Jets Clothing; 7) Man Overboard; 8) Rip Her To Shreds; 9) Rifle Range; 10) Kung Fu Girls; 11) The Attack Of The Giant Ants; 12*) Out In The Streets; 13*) The Thin Line; 14*) Platinum Blonde.

Like the Renaissance began out of a fervent drive to return to the «healthy» values of Antiquity, rather than a conscious desire to create something «innovative» and «revolutionary», so did New Wave originally grow out of a desire to return to the «innocent» values of the early rock era, with a new teenage generation more influenced by Buddy Holly, pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, the Shadows, and Phil Spector than by Hendrix or Pink Floyd. If that ain't all of the story, it is at least an important component of the story, and I don't think any other record of the early New Wave period illustrates this any better than the self-titled debut by Blondie.

The songs, mostly written by guitar player Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and Our Lady Deborah Harry in the flesh, were certainly no great shakes, composition-wise. For the most part, they just show how omnivorous these guys were when it came to late 1950s / early 1960s pop culture: Motown, doo-wop, light pop-rock, tango, rumba, you name it — curiously, the one thing that is nearly missing in this master scheme is «gritty» rockabilly, or anything, in fact, that would make their debut album sound «punkish». The melodies are catchy enough, but overtly derivative and, more often than not, a little «undercooked»: in fact, the entire band sounds almost defiantly, do-it-yourselfishly amateurish — Phil Spector would probably have fired them on the spot, or at least would have had to resort to one of his figurative bullwhips as a sanitary measure.

However, this is one of those cases where «derivative melodies» are totally redeemed with the elusive, but real «atmospheric» component. First and foremost, there's Debbie — one of the most fascinating pop characters of the epoch. Not having much of a vocal range or any particularly im­pressive singing technique, she compensates for this by an amazing ability to «get into character», and on almost each and every one of these short tunes, she plays a slightly different, and always convin­cing, type. Whether seducing a police officer in ʽX Offenderʼ, viciously putting down an image competitor in ʽRip Her To Shredsʼ, enjoying life's simple pleasures ʽIn The Sunʼ, offering sexual consolation to her lover in ʽLook Good In Blueʼ ("I could give you some head and shoulders to lie on" got to be one of the crudest double entendre's in the history of pop music, and it's all because of the word some!), or just stalking a potential lover ʽIn The Fleshʼ, she gives this kind of music exactly the kind of thing that its primary influences lacked — a realistic, believable protagonist. It's like an authentic corporate pop album without any corporate songwriting, if you know what I mean. It's all been there before, and yet it's never been quite like this.

Second, there is the band's uncanny ability to focus in on the essential. The production could use some gloss, the overdubs could be more inventive, the hooks could be better thought out, but this is, in a way, the same kind of exercise in absolute minimalism that Blondie's pals, the Ramones, were doing at the same time from their «punk» angle. As a rule, each song establishes a single, punchy, repetitive, obnoxious groove (the triumphant organ line in ʽX Offenderʼ, the stern tango rhythm of ʽLook Good In Blueʼ, the mock-doom-laden synthesizer riff of ʽA Shark In Jets Clothingʼ etc. etc.) and sticks to it through thick, thin, and whatever's in between — and it works, because all the songs are short enough to remain committed to one or two musical ideas and not bore the listener, particularly if Debbie Harry is staging her little life dramas across the surface. Later on, the band would hone both its songwriting skills and its instrumental chops (Clem Burke, for instance, is not yet immediately perceived as one of the top drummers of his generation), but at the cost of this obnoxiously disarming brutality.

Since all the songs, without a single exception, follow this relatively straightforward, but tremen­dously efficient recipé, I couldn't even talk about highlights and lowlights — although, given the record's stylistic diversity, you are almost certain to end up with your own individual personal favorites. My early ones were all cuddled together on Side A, the more sentimental and purry one: the tempting little guitar swirls on ʽLittle Girl Liesʼ, the doo-wop tenderness of ʽIn The Fleshʼ (mixed with the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing venom of its jealously competitive mid-section), the femme-fatale attitude of ʽLook Good In Blueʼ, with Debbie adding a bit of Marlene Dietrich to her personality, the not-a-care-in-the-world joyful rave-on of ʽIn The Sunʼ.

Next to these, Side B might originally pale in comparison, but later on you come to understand that this is where they provide an outlet for their weird side: ʽRifle Rangeʼ has a bit of a James Bond flair to it, with «mystery» organ and spooky backing harmonies and lyrics that hint at what, the protagonist being afraid of her homosexual urges? In the meantime, the last two songs seem both inspired by cheap movie thrills, including Asian martial arts (ʽKung Fu Girlsʼ) and crappy sci-fi horror (ʽAttack Of The Giant Antsʼ, utilizing a merry Rio-carnival-style melody to support pleasant lyrics like "then they eat your face, never leave a trace", and crossing it with a chaotic mid-section that lets you know what the roar of a giant ant might actually sound like).

However, where those two last songs are essentially novelty numbers, the mystery of ʽRifle Rangeʼ leaves a much more lasting impression, and so does ʽRip Her To Shredsʼ, which is, in a way, the quintessential Blondie song (along with ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ) — you can really tell there is nothing in the world that Debbie Harry likes quite as much as tearing up cartoonish figures, just by the way she mouthes out these words ("oh you know her, Miss Groupie Sup­reme"...). This is the only song on the album that seems more influenced by the Rolling Stones circa Aftermath and Between The Buttons than pre-1965 music, and its presence alone would have convinced me that this band really has got what it takes. Meet Debbie Harry, devil and angel bottled in the same package.

The remastered and expanded CD edition of the album adds some important bonus tracks — for historical reasons, it is useful to hear their cover of ʽOut In The Streetsʼ, confirming The Shangri-Las as one of their most essential spiritual mentors in the art of streetwise romancing, and ʽPla­tinum Blondeʼ, a very simple and straightforward pop tune that was the first song Harry ever wrote — straightforwardly presenting her ironic life philosophy and, funny enough, written and recorded in a «glam-rock» rather than in «New (Old) Wave» style (the demo is from 1975, when the band was just starting to find its footing). But they also confirm that, in those two years that chronologically separate Blondie's formation as a band in the heart of New York City from the release of their first LP, they'd already significantly evolved as songwriters — Blondie may be still a little raw and rough around the edges (and hey, some people would love it just for that), but it is completely self-assured, and can easily compete with their acclaimed classics from the next few years to come. Old ideas given a fresh new lease on life, funny, charming, and irreverent to the perfect degree — thumbs up without a hitch. 


  1. Let's face it, a significant amount of the potential artistic population of the world had neither the ability, nor the desire, to master the art of music to the level of a Hendrix, Clapton, Emerson, or Zappa. Punk brought things down to street level, politically as well as musically. Rockers on the commercial end of New Wave had nowhere to go but up, so had no choice but to look back to Merseybeat and the Brill Building (Blondie, Cars, B-52's, etc.).

  2. I have always found the melodies irresistibly catch; and I adore the themes of the album–we need more songs about Giant Space Invading Ants!