Today we’re spinning off Sean-Michael Yoder’s excellent feature, Gun Club, Pt. 2: Walking with the Beast: 1983-85, which I published last time. While that post was still in draft mode, Sean and I discussed any number of topics related to it, including Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who figured prominently in the first part of “Walking with the Beast.”
Because Sean was so critical of Stein’s production on the Death Party EP (as well as Miami, discussed at length in Gun Club: Preachin’ the Word, Pt. 1), I wasn’t sure where he stood on Blondie. So, I asked.
LD: Do you like Blondie?
SY: I am a fan.
LD: Wasn’t sure because you weren’t exactly flattering in this piece. But, I was figuring that might be context. In the Blondie context, Debbie and Chris made some pretty sweet singles. Did they have a great album??? I want to say Parallel Lines is close, but is it really? I feel like even their better albums have an above average signal:noise ratio.
SY: I thought Eat To The Beat was a really good album. The rest had good songs, but they weren’t in the same class as the first four Ramones albums. They actually wrote a song for Jeffery Lee Pierce, “Under The Gun” [YouTube]. Like a lot of other bands they made bad business decisions and devalued their work, but hey, that’s show biz.
LD: Good analysis. I probably should just sit down with their albums one of these days.
SY: You should.
Sean then posted the video below as an example of peak Blondie. Recorded shortly before they released their 2nd album, Plastic Letters, it shows Blondie the rock band in fine form. They were a year away from worldwide fame via “Heart Of Glass” and not yet the the polished tunesmiths they’d become under the tutelage of producer Mike Chapman. But, watching this performance, there’s something to be said for raw intuition. It’s not perfect. I think the band strikes a few false notes towards the end of the set. But, taken as a whole, it’s an excellent document of a rock ‘n’ roll band just as their entering their prime.
You’ll see a few references to the New York Dolls below, and while Blondie is far from a carbon copy, you can hear how Stein and Harry, like David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, skillfully combined ’60s girl group pop with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley guitar. The Ramones did a similar thing, but they were all caveman downstroke — not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, Blondie, like the Dolls, swung like a motherfucker because both bands featured a brilliantly unsung drummer: Jerry Nolan of the Dolls and later The Heartbreakers and Clem Burke of Blondie.
The other reason I’m posting this video is because Debbie Harry just turned 70. SEVENTY!!! 60, sure. Who wouldn’t believe that? But, 70??? True story. Deborah Ann Harry was born on July 1, 1945, BEFORE David Bowie, Gram Parsons, Keith Moon, and Iggy Pop, all of whom were born in 1946-47. Unreal. Throughout those 70 years, Debbie has remained gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh, like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or silvery wine flowing in a spaceship.
Because of her stunning beauty, though, Debbie Harry was often overlooked as a singer. In fact, she was one of the most underrated vocalists of her era and certainly one of the most unique. Conventionally speaking, she was an alto with a pretty good range, but her singing style transcended the notes. She was all breathy, reserved, and in control, always hovering around the melody, and then SUDDENLY EXPLOSIVE. Happy birthday you golden goddess.
Blondie on Musikladen
January 19, 1978
:10 – X Offender
Blondie’s debut single, it was originally titled “Sex Offender,” but the record label, Private Stock, understandably thought that might be a poor career choice. So, they changed it to “X Offender.” That’s just as well because I’d hate for a stupid title to distract anyone from the utter brilliance that is this song. Perfectly constructed pop tailor made for a punk audience. When will that ever go out of style? Three Thousand Never?
3:17 – Little Girl Lies
The second track on Blondie’s self-titled debut, “Little Girl Lies” is another song indebted to ’60s girl group, but it doesn’t quite catch fire here. Good, not great. For what it’s worth, not many women could successfully rock camo casual with knee-high boots, but Debbie Harry isn’t most women.
5:14 – Look Good In Blue
“If it’s alright with you
I could give you some head
And shoulders to lie on”
Written by keyboard player, Jimmy Destri, “Look Good” features a killer Stein guitar solo from 6:30-6:49. Not that it’s particularly note-y, but he has a great chunky, fuzzy tone, with Burke and bassist Nigel Harrison pushing underneath to drive the song into fucking Who territory. Moments like that are why Blondie were a great rock band, not just crafty pop stylists.
7:47 – Man Overboard
“Look Good In Blue” goes right into “Man Overboard,” and if you can say nothing else, Clem Burke was such a fuckin badass. A total security blanket for Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, who knew they could go in any number of songwriting directions and Burke could hold down the fort. While you could argue that he’s occasionally too busy, I think that rhythmic shiftiness contrasts nicely against both Debbie’s laid back vocals and Destri’s econo keys.
11:16 – In The Flesh
I could watch Debbie Harry sing this song all damn day. “In The Flesh” was the band’s second single and one of their early classics.
13:44 – I’m On E
We finally enter the Plastic Letters portion of the Blondie catalog. Here’s an underrated gem and there’s not really much to it. It’s basically a three chord punk song, not unlike the New York Dolls, but with that prominent keyboard part putting a spin on the Johansen/Thunders template. Burke especially echoes the tom-heavy style of the late, great Jerry Nolan, who I mentioned in the intro.
One thing that set Blondie apart from most of their New York contemporaries is that even when the band set its songs in sleazy climes, the song feels more playfully sexy than actually dangerous. This was undoubtedly goes back to The Velvet Underground, whose influence continues to radiate through NYC, but especially in the 1970s and ’80s. And of course, you could argue that this faux-sleaze was PRECISELY why Blondie was perfectly set up for pop stardom.
16:10 – Love At The Pier
“Love At The Pier is just ok. Can’t deny the energy, but I’m not sure the song is all that good. Debbie is a treat to watch (and listen to, obviously) and Stein takes a great solo from 17:04-17:12. In fact, it was on this song that I saw for the first time that Stein occasionally plays with a thumb pick to help give his guitar — and those leads — a nasty, biting tone. Dave Alvin does the same thing. Why more guitarists don’t do this is beyond me.
18:30 – I Didn’t Have The Nerve To Say No
“Didn’t Have The Nerve” reminds me of a pocket-sized Who. The lead instrument is the drums, there’s a shredding, tightly wound guitar solo, and the song doesn’t build so much as uncoil. The whole damn band swings and Debbie is on top of her game.
For what it’s worth, I find it disturbing that from 20:30 to the end of the song, Harry’s performance eerily presages Eddie Vedder. I like when Debbie Harry does Debbie Harry things, but inexplicably reminding me of the goatsinging, angst-ridden Vedster is not one of them. That fuckin’ vibrato. Good God.
21:04 – Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)
This is another one that’s just ok, in part because the ballad is constantly being interrupted by a keyboard communicating from outer space. Destri’s keys feel like they’re inventing all those overwrought pop songs I fucking hated in the ’80s. Goddamn ’80s. You and those synths. And you wonder why we can’t have nice things.
23:34 – Kidnapper
Despite their shared sensibility, this is a perfect example of a song the Dolls could’ve pulled off, but I’m not sure Blondie does. It feels a little blackfacey.
26:22 – Youth Nabbed As Sniper