15 Apr 2011
Retrospective | Blondie
Thinking of Blondie today, what usually springs to mind is the enviable coolness of Debbie Harry, memories of screeching along to their top hits with friends, aunties and mothers alike, and the kind of epic and successful comeback usually reserved for aging, leather-decked rockers. The fact that scores of party-goers are still guilty of breaking into yelling-into-fake-phone dance moves at the chorus of ‘Call Me’, and that ’Heart of Glass’ and ‘The Tide is High’ still echo out from any self-respecting club (whether it be a retro night or otherwise), impressively demonstrates how their legacy spans both time and genre. Besides being the poster children for the burgeoning New Wave in the 1970s, what set Blondie apart from other bands on the scene was the way they broke the man-centric mould of the time and pioneered the way to the charts for women-fronted rock bands. Without them we might not have had Gwen Stefani fronting the ska-punk of No Doubt, Shirley Manson’s rebel-cool in Garbage, or Courtney Love leading Hole down the punk-pop road in a blaze of glory.
The Debbie Factor
Undoubtedly, Debbie Harry was always the North Star in the sky of Blondie; that shock of blonde hair, fishnet tights and kohl eyeliner set off with an attitude of suave indifference and a strong, distinctive vocal made her instantly and achingly cool. Harry’s strong aesthetic and on-stage charisma led many to believe she alone was Blondie, and even the band’s name was taken from truckers shouting “hey, blondie!” at the singer as she walked by. But inevitably, this was a source of contention for both the seemingly emasculated band members and Harry herself, who resented the oversight as much as they did (a scenario played out in No Doubt‘s video for ‘Don’t Speak’). This led to a clever marketing ploy of badges with the motif “Blondie is a group!” Ch-ching.
Debbie Harry’s secret weapon was sheer talent underpinned by an infallible, muted, timeless sex appeal. Arguably, former jobs as a playboy bunny and cocktail waitress enabled Harry to construct a sexual performativity that was simultaneously accessible and restrained, her intriguing aloofness marrying perfectly with her icy appearance and spiky performances. Whilst contemporaries Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith firmly perfected their rock credentials, Harry established herself as something of an anomaly, appealing to rock, punk and mainstream pop audiences alike.
As well as fronting Blondie, the talented Harry managed to release five solo albums throughout her lengthy career (Koo Koo - 1981, Rockbird - 1986, Def, Dumb & Blonde - 1989, Debravation -1993, Necessary Evil – 2007) all of which charted to varying degrees of success. Probably the best known single is her top ten hit ‘French Kissin’ In the USA’, released in 1986. She also wrote the song ‘Rush Rush’ for the Scarface soundtrack which enjoyed success in the dance charts. Blondie arrived on the scene just as music videos were taking their place as the new popular music medium, and the videos for ‘Rapture’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ were aired on MTV’s very first day – coupled with Harry’s status as a punk fashion icon (celebrated by such luminaries as Vivienne Westwood), this heightened visibility cemented Harry as the face of the 1970s.
Harry’s influence continued to permeate well beyond the boundaries of music. The star dabbled in a few minor film roles, in addition to becoming Andy Warhol’s muse – the resulting painting now an iconic 80s image. It could be argued that Harry spawned the notion of the modern woman in pop, cross-pollination into the worlds of film, art and fashion being adopted by everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga.
Blondie formed in 1975 with Debbie Harry on lead vocals, her partner Chris Stein on guitar, Clem Burke on drums, Jimmy Destri on keyboard and Gary Valentine on bass. Their punk-new wave sound was the breath of fresh air the industry had been looking for, and they penned a deal with Chrysalis in 1977. As Harry herself put it, ”before our time the trend was toward bigger bands, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles, and you didn’t hear a lot of pop music with girls in it. It was a man’s world – the good ol’ boys chugging their guitars. So we were really counterculture”. Regulars at the infamous CBGB club in New York from their early days, Blondie had a groundbreaking effect on the punk scene; they became the first band with punk roots to reach number one in the US with ‘Heart of Glass’ in 1979, and Talking Heads‘ David Byrne is reported to have said that until Blondie scored their number one, he didn’t believe that punk music would ever break the charts.
Blondie helped kickstart the New Wave movement which took punk and injected it with disco, pop and electronica. In the late 1970s popular bands were very much ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ with the likes of Abba, David Soul, and Wings dominating the UK charts. Over the years, genre-bending Blondie have racked up an impressive four No.1 singles in the US and six in the UK. Their first chart success was in February 1978 with ‘Denis’ from second album Plastic Letters (1977), just missing out on the No.1 spot to Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’.
The epitome of New York cool, Blondie captured the UK hipster’s hearts and remained popular throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. September 1978 saw the release of Parallel Lines, which reached No.1 in the UK and is chock-full of Blondie classics: ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘One Way or Another’, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, and ‘Sunday Girl’ all featured, and the album is still regarded by many as their best. A Rolling Stone cover followed – Blondie had well and truly landed.
Fourth album Eat to the Beat reached No.2 in the UK in 1979 and boasted standout hit ‘Atomic’, whilst fifth album effort Autoamerican reached No.3 in the UK in 1980, garnering great success with singles ‘The Tide is High’ and ‘Rapture’. The release of sixth album The Hunter in 1982 proved to be a disappointment both critically and in the charts (peaking at No.9 in the UK) and was the last album the group would release for 17 years.
Blondie disbanded in the 1980s when guitarist and Harry’s partner Chris Stein fell ill with a rare disease called pemphigus. Harry tended to him throughout his illness before the couple went their separate ways in the 1990s. The band still racked up decent sales in this time with remix albums in the 80s and a Best Of album in ’91. They eventually went on to reform in 1997 to great success, incredibly reaching No.1 again with single ‘Maria’ in 1999 from new album No Exit, a massive 20 years since their first UK No. 1. Their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 marked the contribution they had made to music. Their latest album The Curse of Blondie was released in 2003 to mixed reviews and forthcoming album Panic of Girls, has yet to have its release date confirmed.
No two Blondie singles sound the same, rather they plunge fearlessly into previously unexplored musical waters. ‘Call Me’ effortlessly fused rock and disco to become a dancefloor staple, ‘Rapture’ saw rock music taking its first tentative steps into rap’s playground ‘The Tide is High’ gave a firm nod towards reggae, becoming the audio bible for the 90s neo-ska revival, and ‘Heart of Glass’, apart from being a right belter, is credited with starting the glorious synth-pop trends of the 80s.
Scores of underground bands have been influenced by the stylings of Blondie, but the band have also made an impact in some surprising areas of music. Through their innovative fusion of rock, rap, disco, punk and pop, Blondie drew attention to the trend of genre-mashing. The fusing of different styles of music has become increasingly popular since then; from Aerosmith and Run DMC continuing the trend of rap vs. rock to people like Girl Talk and M.I.A keeping the blogs buzzing with ever more elaborate mash-ups.
With a career spanning 36 years and a legacy of hits, Blondie are still going strong with sellout tours across the globe and a new album set for release this year. One way or another, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Debbie and co.