BLONDIE: EAT TO THE BEAT (1979)
1) Dreaming; 2) The Hardest Part; 3) Union City Blue; 4) Shayla; 5) Eat To The Beat; 6) Accidents Never Happen; 7) Die Young Stay Pretty; 8) Slow Motion; 9) Atomic; 10) Sound-A-Sleep; 11) Victor; 12) Living In The Real World; 13*) Die Young Stay Pretty (live); 14*) Seven Rooms Of Gloom (live); 15*) Heroes (live); 16*) Ring Of Fire (live).
When Blondie entered the studio to record Parallel Lines, they were a bunch of quirky, unpredictable proto-hipsters with relatively little knowledge of what it takes to be a world class star. When one year later they returned there to record the follow-up to Parallel Lines, they were a throng of Pop Gods, with Debbie Harry as Sex Symbol Supreme and the indisputable ruling Pop Queen of the Universe, whether they wanted to or not. And knowledge and acceptance of this is all over Eat To The Beat, which is both good and bad news.
The good news is that there are songs here that make me kowtow on an instinctive level. The opening track, ʽDreamingʼ, and ʽUnion City Blueʼ is what I'd call «regal pop» — grand, epic scale pop compositions, borrowing their attitude from Phil Spector, throwing in a pinch of Europop, and tempering it all with classic, colorful, thick electric pop riffs. This is what ABBA would sound like if the production on their records owed more to rock'n'roll than to glossy «adult pop» (if you listen closely, you will hear that Debbie's vocal moves on the bridge section of ʽDreamingʼ are like 100% ABBA-esque in construction). More importantly, these are just gorgeous, dazzling micro-pop-symphonies, whose combination of a steady mid-fast-tempo with deep, bombastic production and a mighty, inspirational riff (with Debbie often singing in unison with it) makes the songs soar to high heaven — in terms of romance, this is no longer the purr of a teenage vixen, more like the sensual amorous fantasies of a mature woman. "I'd build a road in gold just to have some dreaming, dreaming is free" and "power, passion, plays a double hand" are two of the most memorable lines in pop music history (of course, only if you take them together with their musical history).
This newly found «regality», which they could do so well, goes hand in hand with «diversity»: if Parallel Lines did indeed put them on a sky-high pop pedestal, then it is only natural that they should aim for their own version of The White Album now. Thus, in addition to this «lush» pop-rock style, Eat To The Beat has its Bowie-influenced funk-pop (ʽThe Hardest Partʼ), more traditional (for Blondie, that is) New Wave-style pop (ʽAccidents Never Happenʼ), reggae (ʽDie Young Stay Prettyʼ), more disco (ʽAtomicʼ), some basic rock'n'roll (ʽLiving In The Real Worldʼ), and even a waltzing lullaby (ʽSound-A-Sleepʼ). No heavy metal or Andean music, but I guess cautious Mike Chapman just wouldn't let them go for double album format.
Maybe he was right, too, because not all of this works. While Side A of the album is every bit as strong as everything they made and maybe even stronger, by the time we get to Side B they begin allowing themselves an occasional dud. The usual culprit is ʽAtomicʼ, a rather blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ by coming up with another disco hit — but this time around, they make the big mistake of not placing Debbie Harry at the center of it: instead, much of the song is instrumental, pinned to a repetitive riff and running out of ideas long before it fades out at the 4:30 mark. It's not a «bad» riff as such, but the principal difference is that ʽHeart Of Glassʼ was just a good, fun song that was able to benefit from a disco cloak, whereas ʽAtomicʼ sounds like it was specially pre-designed to provide basic entertainment for the dancefloor, and I have no idea why they decided to go that way in the first place. Ironically, Robert Fripp, who had earlier provided eerie guitar backing for ʽFade Away And Radiateʼ, was once again invited to guest star on ʽAtomicʼ — maybe they thought they could get him to recreate the effect he had on David Bowie's ʽHeroesʼ, but they couldn't. (To compensate, they did play ʽHeroesʼ with Robert Fripp at the Hammersmith Odeon concert in 1980, a track that is included in the bonus section of the remastered CD edition of Eat To The Beat).
The worst song on the album, though, is not ʽAtomicʼ, but rather ʽVictorʼ, a confused and confusing screamfest that really sounds like it was quickly thrown together at the last moment to fill up empty space — a practice that I could not accuse the band of up to now. (The title track, while also containing elements of chaotic hooliganry, is actually much more tight, and its humorous message, condensed in the ʽEat To The Beatʼ title, is reminiscent of the band's young and innocent days). This is the first sign to indicate that maybe things weren't really going all that well, and pointing to the soon-to-come creative exhaustion. But on here, it's more like an unfortunate accident, one of the few that does happen, despite us being told to the contrary (ʽAccidents Never Happenʼ, another fabulous pop rocker with Debbie at her most femme-fatale-like).
In case you thought ʽDreamingʼ and ʽUnion City Blueʼ were the only true highlights, I'd also like to single out ʽSlow Motionʼ — a perfectly spritely tune, all pins and needles from the rhythm section and the keyboards, and especially those "slow motion!... stop!... take me back!..." jolts from the background singers (including Liza Minnelli's sister Lorna Luft) that add such stark conclusiveness and arrogance to the song. And I'd also like to single out ʽThe Hardest Partʼ: wedged in between two of the lushest soundscapes ever is this mean, lean, punkish, hard-rocking tune about robbing an armored car (hey, a good enough return to the «musical situation» style of Plastic Letters — welcome back) that goes from screechy, ugly funk verse to an even sterner disco chorus where Nigel Harrison's bass appropriately sounds like a machine gun.
Ultimately, discounting the silly ʽVictorʼ and the rather poor sequencing of Side B (by all means, ʽSound-A-Sleepʼ should have been the last track, an appropriate wind-down after the disco heat of ʽAtomicʼ), Eat To The Beat is only a shade less consistent than Parallel Lines, representing the band at the peak of its «mainstream commercial» powers without compromising its playful and intelligent essence (well, maybe ʽAtomicʼ does compromise it a little). It is also notable for being one of the first, if not the first, album where each song was accompanied by its own video — a costly, but curious publicity act that is still fun to watch after all these years. Most importantly, it is just another great lesson in how you can pass through the grinder of the music industry and still end up with great melodies and cool meanings. Major thumbs up, of course.