BLONDIE: LIVE (1999)
1) Dreaming; 2) Hanging On The Telephone; 3) Screaming Skin; 4) Atomic; 5) Forgive And Forget; 6) The Tide Is High; 7) Shayla; 8) Sunday Girl; 9) Maria; 10) Call Me; 11) Under The Gun; 12) Rapture; 13) Rip Her To Shreds; 14) X Offender; 15) No Exit; 16) Heart Of Glass; 17*) One Way Or Another.
While in their prime, Blondie never released a live album — the «cult of the live album», so sternly supported on the prog-rock and hard-rock circuits, hardly existed at all among the punk and New Wave outfits of the late 1970s (not that there weren't exceptions, and for some bands, like Talking Heads, the art of live performance was every bit as essential to their reputation as their studio output). Bootlegs and scattered semi-official archival releases show that this was rather imprudent — Blondie could be quite an awesome live band, benefiting both from the instrumental skills of its members (Clem Burke's drumming, for instance) and their creativity onstage, experimenting with their own material as well as covering other great artists; not always successfully — their take on Bowie's ʽHeroesʼ, for instance, bordered on the dreadful — but when it comes to live playing, the «win some lose some» principle is always preferable to «play it safe and sound», and they practiced it regularly.
In the light of this, the band's decision to finally come out with their first proper live album (and live DVD as well) in the middle of their surprising comeback has to be qualified as a «cash-in». With ʽMariaʼ riding on top of the charts, sales for No Exit showing a positive balance, and the band's live shows receiving a warm welcome from fans — why not a live album to prop up the comeback and keep the news flowing? They wouldn't exactly be rushing in to write up and record a new bunch of original songs, anyway, so a live LP would be just fine.
Five out of sixteen songs on the recorded setlist are from No Exit, demonstrating that the album was more than just an excuse for the old guys and girls to get together — however, most fans would naturally be more interested in whether they still have it as far as the golden oldies are concerned. As you can easily see from the tracklist, they offer a rather predictable, but representative retrospective, covering all the records except for The Hunter (understandable) and Plastic Letters (inexcusable — not even ʽDenis Denisʼ? come on now, that was a hit, wasn't it?), but usually concentrating on commercially successful radio standards.
Equally predictably, I would have no problems whatsoever with these performances — they sound sufficiently tight and energetic to ward off technical criticism — if it were not for the unfortunate demise of Debbie Harry's voice as a magical device of the Viagra variety, and its rebirth as a dull chunk of homeopathic placebo; meaning that every now and then, you are likely to come across some dryly admiring statement like «Ms. Harry's voice, contrary to malicious rumors, is in surprisingly fine form». She is certainly more alive than dead, and she does not hit many bum notes, or flub the lyrics, or mix up the moods — it's just that there is no more magic in that voice, period. So much for drinking, smoking, and hanging out with those types from Chic.
In stark contrast with their struggling vocalist, the band's instrumentalists perform their required push-ups admirably. Mr. Burke is beyond reproach — just listen to his drumming alone saving ʽScreaming Skinʼ from perishing under its own five-and-a-half-minute repetitiveness, as his rolls and fills become the most individualistic and expressive part of the performance. And yes, that fabulous coda to ʽHeart Of Glassʼ is retained essentially intact, plus there is an extra coda where he gets to be Keith Moon for about thirty seconds (and I am being serious — had he really wanted to, he could have become the most authentic Keith Moon impersonator in the world, he can get that close to invoking Moonie's spirit). Paul Carbonara, standing in for Frank Infante on lead guitar, slavishly reproduces all the original parts with total success, and session player Leigh Foxx on bass gets a chance to shine on ʽAtomicʼ, which is here stripped of its disco gloss and made to sound more like a trance-inducing psychedelic dance extravaganza (which it might have been from the very start if not for the unfortunate circumstance of being recorded at the height of the disco era). Meanwhile, the «angry» songs like ʽRip Her To Shredsʼ receive heavier arrangements, with thicker, more distorted guitar tones that you'd probably expect in the post-grunge / alt-rock era — quite fine with me when you're talking live performance.
Ultimately, the further you can get away from the idea of «Blondie» as a backing band for the seductive pop charm of Debbie Harry and the nearer you can move towards the idea of «Blondie» as a musical band, period, the more prepared you will be to enjoy Live as a bona fide reflection of a tight, crunchy, sweaty musical show. It does have the benefit of finer production than any archival release from the old days, as well as the benefit of a strong, mostly filler-free setlist (although I'd much rather hear them do ʽNothing Is Real But The Girlʼ and ʽHappy Dogʼ than ʽForgive And Forgetʼ and ʽNo Exitʼ), and do not be too offput by my putting down Debbie's vocal transformation — in the end, it's not that bad to have your attention transferred from front-lady to back-gentlemen. Who knows, they may have been waiting for this to happen for the previous 25 years, so why wouldn't we want to oblige them?