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Friday, November 21, 2014

Blondie: Plastic Letters


1) Fan Mail; 2) Denis; 3) Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45); 4) Youth Nabbed As Sniper; 5) Contact In Red Square; 6) (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear; 7) I'm On E; 8) I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No; 9) Love At The Pier; 10) No Imagination; 11) Kidnapper; 12) Detroit 442; 13) Cautious Lip; 14*) Once I Had A Love; 15*) Scenery; 16*) Poets Problem; 17*) Detroit 442 (live).

Sometimes identified as a «transitional» album, wedged in between the sheer shockin' novelty of the self-titled debut and the stunning pop gloss of Parallel Lines, Blondie's sophomore effort tends to be a little overlooked these days, although back in 1977, it was a much bigger commer­cial success than Blondie, and landed the band their first big chart hit all over Europe. Ironically, that big hit was fairly atypical of the album — ʽDenisʼ was the band's cover of Randy & The Rain­bows' ʽDeniseʼ, a 1963 pop song with elements of doo-wop and Buddy Holly: Blondie more or less drop the whole doo-wop aspect and enforce the Buddy Holly aspect by freely quoting from ʽPeggy Sueʼ where the original had no such thing. The song's popularity, so it seems, was more of an American Graffitti-type of event, except it happened to be more popular in Europe than in Blondie's native US of A — go figure.

Anyway, even tossing ʽDenisʼ aside, had we wanted to, we could build up a very strong case for Plastic Letters as the «definitive» Blondie album, or maybe even the «best» one where these notions are correlated. Here they are still essentially a raw, untamed, unspoiled semi-underground outfit, hanging around NYC's «advanced» musical establishments, but showing an ever-increa­sing level of diversity and wildness of imagination. Arguably, some of the songs aren't quite as catchy as the ones on Blondie, but this is well compensated for by the band coming up with all sorts of «stories» and «situations» — lyrical and atmospheric subjects include mysteries, sus­pense, spy tales, catastrophes, femme fatales, and, of course, lots of character assassinations. At the same time they also stretch out and expand their musical boundaries: due largely to Jim Destri's complex keyboard palette, Plastic Letters, one way or another, covers the whole history of pop music from the late Fifties up to modern times. Doo-wop, rockabilly, Motown, and Mer­seybeat are here in symbiosis with modernistic punk, electronica, and even a bit of the «progres­sive» genre, and it all feels natural, because one thing that ties it all together is fun.

Well, that and Debbie Harry's hormonal activities, I guess — which take up a significant chunk of the album, ʽFan Mailʼ, ʽ(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dearʼ and ʽI Didn't Have The Nerve To Say Noʼ being the ultimate highlights. ʽPresenceʼ is the best realized of the three, and all the more fun when you understand that what they really do here is take that classic Byrds sound and turn it on its head, shedding the solemnity and stately beauty of Roger McGuinn's company and replacing it with sexy playfulness. Then again, I guess Debbie Harry could sing ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ and make it sound exactly the same way — this is simply in their inborn nature, they can't help being playful. Even when the love thing goes drastically bad, they still deliver the news swiftly and merrily (ʽLove At The Pierʼ, not the catchiest song on the album, but who else but Blondie would finish the song with lines like "Now I go to beaches with my girlfriend / No more love splinters in my rear end"?).

But the Byrds are far from the only musical reference / influence on the album. ʽBermuda Triangle Bluesʼ, in contrast, takes it slow and careful, with a delicate, yet stern-and-solemn guitar weave pattern that might recall stuff in the «epic folk» vein, anything from Neil Young to Van Morrison. It feels unfinished — cutting out just as Destri really begins picking up the heat on that organ and you start thinking that maybe Chris Stein will want to join him in a furious jam or something, just to illustrate the atmospheric pressure over the Bermuda Triangle — yet I would say that a certain portion of the charm of Plastic Letters is that so many things on here sound unfinished: «we saw, we conquered, we moved on without completing». The incipient spy epic ʽContact In Red Squareʼ, for instance — had that song been conceived by such experimental jokers as 10cc (and it could), they would have turned it into a six- or seven-minute mini-opera; for Blondie, two minutes of that experiment (which, if you listen close enough, includes some elements of Russian folk dance muzak for comfort) is firmly enough.

As consistent as the album already is, it actually seems to be getting stronger and stronger as it moves towards its conclusion. The last three songs, in particular, sound nothing like each other, but I don't even know which of the three I like the better — ʽKidnapperʼ, with its «Debbie-as-Elvis» bit, references to Norman Bates and Ray Milland, blues-rock harmonica, and garage guitar solo; ʽDetroit 442ʼ, the heaviest song in the band's catalog (imagine what a ʽLet There Be Rockʼ-era AC/DC song would sound like with one of the Young brothers switching to piano instead of guitar!); or ʽCautious Lipʼ, the album's longest, most heavily nuanced tune that I have no idea whatsoever how to categorize — is it «electronic blues»? «psychedelic swamp-rock»? what sort of mind effect are they going for, anyway? All I know is that the song wouldn't have sounded out of place on Their Satanic Majesties' Request, you know, one of those records.

All in all, Plastic Letters is that one Blondie album I can never see myself getting tired of — there is simply so much going on here, in all directions, that every time you put it on, you will discover yet another splatter of creativity on your jacket. Smart, hip, playful, diverse, stimulating, not particularly profound, perhaps, but never as dumb as an unexperienced novice's first listen to ʽDenisʼ could make the band seem for a moment, either. Like all great artists growing up on «pop trash», Blondie could take that slice of culture and viciously send it up for all of its clichés, while at the same time declaring undying love for it — as expressed in the energy, inventiveness, and wild combinatorics of the music. Their pop hooks would only become genuine weapons of mass destruction with the next two albums, but they'd never again make a record as, well, witty as Plastic Letters, and for this it deserves a thumbs up rating every bit as enthusiastic.


  1. Blondie became well known in The Netherlands because Denis reached nr. 1. Every teen - like me back then - understood why the band belonged to punk and New Wave: the attitude. You can see this on YouTube video's. Debbie Harry obviously has modeled herself after Marilyn Monroe. The big difference is the attitude. That bored, sulky look on her face is the exact opposite of seducing. As such the band produces a middle finger as big and convincing as any contemporary punk band.

  2. Bermuda Triangle Blues is a great song. I always feel silly for it, but that song & also Fade Away and Radiate are my two favorite Blondie songs. Maybe I do prefer folk and prog over pop music.