A selection of Blondie songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.
X Offender Gary Valentine joined Blondie in 1975 and he helped the group develop their sixties-American-Mods look as well as writing this song, which became the group’s first single. Valentine came up with the melody of the song but his original lyrics were about a guy getting into trouble for sleeping with his underage girlfriend. Debbie Harry rewrote the lyrics to make the song about a prostitute who falls for the cop that arrests her. That lyric rewrite says everything you would need to know about Debbie Harry and about Blondie–they were a pop band with a somewhat retro look and sound based on sixties pop bands and girl groups, but they were sharp and they knew just the details, lyric or sonic, that would put a song into a category that was a cut above many of their Bowery band brethren. The song was originally titled “Sex Offender” but record label Private Stock insisted on the name change because they feared backlash or censorship. The band got on famously with their producer Richard Gottehrer, who had a career as a Brill Building songwriter and record producer that included “My Boyfriends Back” and “Hang on Sloopy.” Chrysalis signed the band on the strength of the single, which they reissued as the B-side to their first single from the debut album, “Rip Her to Shreds.”
Rip Her to Shreds Do you remember Robert Hall Clothing? I do. They were a discount clothing manufacturer that operated their own stores, pioneering the discount superstore concept. Their clothes followed the leading fashion trends for people in suburban America but by the time Blondie recorded this song Robert Hall was only a year away from declaring bankrupcty. Regardless, Debbie Harry’s line “She looks like she don’t know better/a case of partial extreme/Dressed in a Robert Hall sweater/acting like a soap opera queen” is perfectly cutting. At the time the song was reputed to be about Nancy Spungeon, the loud-mouthed Yankee girlfriend that Sid Vicious would eventually knife to death in the Chelsea Hotel, but Debbie explained in interviews that the character was more of a composite of women in the NYC punk mileau and that it was also meant to be about the way that gossip magazines write about these women in a critical manner.
(I’m Always Touched By) Your Presence Dear By the time Blondie was recording their second album, Plastic Letters, Gary Valentine had left the band and was replaced by Jimmy Destri. Even so, drummer Clem Burke persuaded the group to record this track for the sophomore effort. It became a staple of their live shows and something of a cult favorite, later covered by Tracey Ullman and Annie Lennox. Valentine wrote the song about the telepathic bond he experienced with then-girlfriend Lisa Jane Persky while on tour, and it foreshadows his interest in paranormal and occult studies as a highly successful career as a writer specializing in these topics. Although he fronted a new band, The Know, and played briefly with Iggy Pop, by the ’90s Valentine was a full-time author (under his real name, Gary Lachman) of books on topics ranging from Swedenborg to Aleister Crowley and Colin Wilson.
Detroit 442 The Oldsmobile 442 was a muscle car produced from 1964-1987. 4-4-2 stood for a four-barrel carborator, four-speed transmission, and dual exhaust. It’s a hot and sexy car, with a little danger thrown in for good measure. Written by Jimmy Destri and Chris Stein, this song also has a reputation of being about Iggy Pop, who hails from Detroit and whose real name is James Osterberg. “Feel hot to go like Jimmy O, dodging flying objects at the show” leaves little doubt that they are referring to Iggy, but it’s more about the way his music makes you feel. It’s also one of Blondie’s more agressive songs, with more of a punk feel and less pop than many of their popular tracks.
Fade Away and Radiate 1978’s Parallel Lines was Blondie’s breakthrough album, and many believe it to be their best (not me). The chiaroscuro color scheme of the cover implies a struggle of opposites, resulting in stasis. For every romantic gesture, there’s a tough street girl lurking underneath. For every yes there’s a no. For every happy there’s a sad, and for every sad, there’s angry or depressed. For every motion, there is an opposite and equal countermotion. “Fade Away and Radiate” is an atomic ice queen anthem, but not a dance number, like “Atomic” on Autoamerican. We’re down in Frankenstein’s lab, and we’re checking out what’s on the slab. Lights flicker, David Lynch style, and Robert Fripp’s guitar is here to extend the weird late-night TV vibe, to provide the guitar accents that only he can provide. Even though Debbie wouldn’t appear in Videodrome for another five years, this song always makes me think of that film–the blue glow of the television screen, and the dreamy lyric: “The beam becomes my dream/my dream is on the screen.” There are a lot of good songs on this record but this is the one that breaks the mold and creates a kind of dream sequence type of song that the band will return to again.
Dreaming So by the time Eat to the Beat, Blondie’s fourth album, is released, the people who are listening to what the band is playing behind Debbie are already well aware that Clem Burke is one of rock and roll’s great drummers, worthy of inclusion on the drummer’s Olympus whereby reside Keith Moon, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and the other mad dogs of rock drummer history. But on his intro to “Dreaming,” the opening track of “Eat to the Beat” his drumming bursts forth with such force that no one–and I mean no one–can resist it. Nor will anyone listen to anything else on that song the first few times out because once you hear the clean, crisp, fast drumming on the intro you will focus on it–the drumming–and only the drumming. Clem Burke holds Blondie together just as surely as Charlie Watts holds the Rolling Stones together and Mike Chapman can bitch all he l. ikes about how they weren’t great musicians and he had to rehearse them, blah blah blah…In the clean, mod, pop sense, Clem is a fantastic drummer. The other thing about this song is that it’s perfect and the ‘live’ video clip that was used to promote it, where Debbie wears what seems like a blue velvet pillowcase, is like a dream in itself.
Shayla Eat to the Beat is my favorite Blondie album. Though I love Parallel Lines and Autoamerican, the albums that preceded and succeeded ETTB, I just find the collection of songs and performances on ETTB to be the perfect realization of the Blondie sound. A wide collection of musical styles, the group handles it all with aplomb. Also, band members seem to have become comfortable with, or at least accepted, their roles within the band, and musically they’ve never sounded better. Then there are the songs–dreamy little pop masterpieces but with an edge. In this case, the edge is that Shayla, our starry-eyed factory worker is sucked into some kind of cosmic vortex and disappears in a showy display of lightning and atmospheric disruption that are seen by drivers of cars on the L.A. freeway. It may be that she’s abducted by aliens, or burns out in death accession to godhead. Here the group manages to create a ‘soft’ industrial sound, full of soundscapes and droning electronics that yet is studded with shimmering guitars. It’s similar in some ways to “Fade Away and Radiate” but much less cold. There’s also a video that hints at some kind of mass production of human beings, but that may be reading too much into it. Eat to the Beat was released as the world’s first complete album of rock video, with a separate video for each song on the album. It was originally released as a promotional VHS and then issued commercially on videodisc and videotape in 1980. Though long deleted, the video album was reissued in 2007 with the reissue of the album’s 2001 remaster.
Angels on the Balcony Autoamerican did better than Eat to the Beat, gaining a higher peak position on the US Billboard 200 (#7 vs. #17) but it was, overall, a low key affair that signaled maybe a slowing of the vehicle. The sunny, tropical “Tide is High” stood out even more against the ghostly, greyish backdrop of the rest of the album–ridiculously so. It screamed ‘I am the hit single–love me’, and radio complied, playing the record endlessly throughout the endless summer (though the single was issued in October). With its Euroinstrumental opening track followed by a little disembodied poetry, Autoamerican is like the new wave soundtrack to a movie that no one saw. There are some really good songs, though, and “Angels on the Balcony” really stands out. With its minor key moodiness and industrial production intro it cuts in like a phantom broadcast. “Silent light in the theatre’s sky/phantom cigarette and a silent cry/The door swings open and it’s cold outside/run and hide, run and hide.” Harry’s voice when she sings “cold outside” is throaty and raw. Blondie was fraying around the edges; producer Mike Chapman saw it during the Eat to the Beat sessions, and following Autoamerican the band would not release a record for two years, and when they did it was the (by now) formulaic, uninspired The Hunter. Six months into a US tour supporting that album the group splintered apart. The band’s European tour was canceled. Blondie was no more.
Maria Until 1999 when the group was revived with their No Exit album and this extraordinary single. Written by Jimmy Destri (who wrote or co-wrote some of the group’s coolest songs, including “Detroit 442,” “Picture This,” “11:59,” “Accidents Never Happen,” “Atomic,” and “Angels on the Balcony”) it perfectly distilled everything people loved about Blondie, and it harkened back to their first two albums in terms of the direct simplicity of the arrangement and presentation of the songs. Clem Burke’s crisp drumming, Chris Stein’s clipped, punky guitar, Destri’s organ, and Debbie’s voice soaring freely over the chorus, buoyed by angelic background vocals and chimes. It was a heady concoction that drove the album to #18 on the US Billboard 200. But it wasn’t the comeback the band had hoped for, which is difficult to understand when you listen to No Exit. It’s a solid album in the typical Blondie smorgasbord of musical styles, but it doesn’t feel like they are just going through the motions as it did on The Hunter. It’s a shame that this record just didn’t breakthrough whether for marketing reasons or the timing of the record’s release. But “Maria” is instantly recognizable as classic Blondie.
Gravity In 2013 Blondie released a reissue Greatest Hits for their 40th anniversary, coupled with a brand new Blondie album, Ghosts of Download. Ghosts’ production team included producer/mixer Kato Kandwala and new keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen. It was much more of a collaborative effort with Debbie’s vocals at the fore than a Blondie group album, but it yielded some interesting results such as “Rave,” and “A Rose By Any Name.” 2019’s Pollinator seems much more like a real Blondie album, even though original members are down to Debbie, Chris, and Clem Burke. The band also actively sought songs from friends and songwriters they knew, including Johnny Marr, Sia, Nick Valensi of the Strokes, and The Gregory Brothers. “Gravity” was written by Charli XCX and Dimitri Tikovoi, which is unsurprising given the debt that Charli XCX owes to Blondie and Deborah Harry. It’s a perfect storm of songwriter, song, and performer, and it stands up to Blondie’s most classic tracks.