A new decade, a new birthday but a reassuringly familiar face. Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein turns 70 today. In honour of his milestone, a redux rewind.
Eighteen years ago, I was delighted to be asked to co-compile the Blondie Greatest Hits album with Capitol-EMI’s Kevin Flaherty in Los Angeles. Kevin had seen my work in MOJO magazine and in particular the spin-off book The MOJO Collection, where I penned the story of Blondie’s epochal Parallel Lines. This was the first Blondie “Best of” compilation to be officially sanctioned by the band for over 20 years, the first to be digitally remastered, and the first to include their comeback hit Maria, a British No.1 single in February 1999. Greatest Hits was released in the UK on 21 October 2002 and peaked at No.38 the following week.
My main concern, I suppose for slightly sentimental reasons, was that Greatest Hits featured all of the tracks from the band’s very first hits compilation (and the first Blondie album I ever bought), 1981’s The Best of Blondie, including all four of Mike Chapman’s long-deleted ‘special mixes’ of Heart of Glass, Rapture, In The Flesh and Sunday Girl. I pushed for the inclusion of 1979’s I’m Gonna Love You Too and 1999’s Nothing Is Real But The Girl, but as the irrepressible Clem Burke correctly pointed out to me, “that would make it a compete singles collection.”
As Wikipedia correctly states on their album page, I was in the “early stages of working with Debbie Harry on a lavish illustrated coffee table book entitled BlondieStyle (the sequel to his acclaimed BowieStyle book with Mark Paytress, published by Omnibus Press), though as of 2010 the project is still on hold.” Guess what, as of 2019 the project is still on hold, though that’s neither the fault of Debbie nor myself.
I was also essayist for the Greatest Hits sleeve notes. And I’m happy to say they were only censored once, with my use of the phrase Debbie’s pet pussy replaced by pusycat. “Scandalous!” Kevin said. Miaow.
The feisty ambition of ex-Playboy Bunny Deborah Harry and her mop-topped male colleagues has paid off. A quarter of a century after their debut, Blondie are rightly acclaimed as one of the most influential bands of their generation. They also became the most commercially successful act of the entire Punk and New Wave scene. Though it didn’t exactly happen overnight.
Debbie Harry first featured on record as a member of folk-rock troupe The Wind In The Willows (a self-titled album was issued by Capitol in 1968), but it is in 1974 that the Blondie story really begins, when Harry and partner/guitarist Chris Stein formed a new group out of the remnants of spiky girl trio New York club outfit The Stilettoes. Joined by Clem Burke, Gary Valentine and Jimmy Destri, Blondie built up a sizeable underground following.
The group, were eventually signed to Private Stock in 1976. An album appeared early the following year, though Blondie was transferred to Chrysalis for a full international release in September ’77. It sounds every bit as vibrant 25 years on. One of the stand-outs, In The Flesh, hit a soft spot “down under” and hung around the upper reaches of the Australian chart for a long time, confounding everyone’s expectations. In sharp contrast, an early take of X Offender had been issued as an introductory Stateside single but was commercially ignored. At the time the new pop sensibility, ‘Punk’ was still not considered suitable airplay material.
Just when is Debbie going to tell us who, the deliciously vicious Rip Her To Shreds is about? One thing is for sure, though: it’s undoubtedly a killer single. Plastic Letters arrived in early ’78, while the attendant single was the delectable Denis, an adaptation of a 1960’s Randy And The Rainbows Top Tenner picked by Debbie against some opposition, but, as she told the band firmly at the time: “Look, if we do an oldie right, the American DJs will play it, and I think we could have a hit.” A hit? For sure, but, alas, not in the US. No one, least of all Harry, expected Denis to climb to No.2 in the UK that March: “I wasn’t even thinking about foreign countries,” the frontwoman admitted. “I just wanted to break in the States.”
While recognition in their homeland continued to evade them, the single signalled the beginning of a ‘special relationship’ between Britain and Blondie that’s still going strong. Debbie would refer to the country as the band’s “second home” and it wasn’t long before the tender timbre of (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear was also making itself felt on the UK chart.
For the next album, producer Mike Chapman proved to be a huge boost for the Blondie sound, teaching the band the importance of tighter arrangements and backing tracks honed to glossy perfection. Chapman was rather taken with Heart Of Glass, a blues tune which had been around in their live set for years, and reworked the song into a highly commercial disco send-up. It became a sure-fire smash that topped a million sales, not only in the UK, but (hurrah!) in the US as well. Well, if you’re going to have your first hit in your own country you might as well do it in style.
The uniform excellence of Parallel Lines became such an enormous success that, by the spring of ’79, Blondie, now including Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante, were arguably the biggest pop band on the planet. The stalker-styled One Way Or Another gave them their second Billboard® Top 40 placing, while in Britain three more hits were plucked from this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of an album: the voyeuristic splendour of Picture This had showed in at No.12 in September 1978, edgy Hanging On The Telephone (originally recorded by New Wave neurotics The Nerves) crashed at No. 5 in time for Christmas, while the luscious Sunday Girl – Chris’s paean to Debbie’s pet pussycat – followed Heart Of Glass to the top in May 1979.
Eat To The Beat built on Blondie’s all-consuming rise, with expansive American power-pop chords and Clem Burke’s pounding Anglophiliac drumming a noticeable highlight, particularly on the lead track Dreaming, panoramic Brit hit Union City Blue and the awesome Atomic, a UK No.1 which makes a bass solo sound sexy. The LP also spawned a US single, The Hardest Part, a surprisingly short faux-funk firecracker featuring Debbie’s filthiest vocal performance.
Two transatlantic No.1’s followed. Call Me, an electro-rock collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, spent six weeks at the head of the Hot 100 in spring 1980, and was succeeded in the fall by The Tide Is High, a top cover of The Paragons’ reggae classic. It was an atypically tropical taster for the Autoamerican album, which heralded a more eclectic approach to recording. Rapture was the undoubted masterpiece. Five years before Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith joined forces, the track was the first real example of white rock interfacing with black hip hop, and is the band’s last US chart-topper to date.
A rare promotional single edit of Rapture, which boasted an extra verse not present on the regular 7″ or LP versions, found its way onto The Best of Blondie in 1981, and nestled alongside a sterling selection of well-known tracks, including unique versions of Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl (a charming ‘Franglais’-style mix, which made the song’s bridge of handclaps all the more delightful) and In The Flesh, specially created for the album by Mike Chapman. All four are made available again here on Greatest Hits in newly remastered form.
The group reconvened for their sixth album proper in 1982. The Hunter was trailed by the catchy calypso charm of Island Of Lost Souls, and though it peaked at a half-decent No.11 in the UK, the LP performed poorly internationally. There was a feeling that things had run their course, not to mention internal conflicts and health problems, and Blondie disbanded at the end of a North American tour.
But what a legacy they left behind. They were pioneers in the art of “crossing-over” and combining different styles of music – unprecedented at the time, though it is now very much the norm. Therefore, unlike many of their contemporaries, the Blondie sound has hardly dated at all, and their run of classic pop singles is one of the most accomplished in music history.
And the story doesn’t end there. In the 1990’s Chris approached Debbie about getting the band back together, and 17 years after their last album – amid roll-call of shiny and new female singers and girl-fronted groups who cited Debbie as an important influence (Garbage, Hole, The Cardigans, Annie Lennox and Madonna, to name but a few) – Blondie, with the original line up of Debbie, Chris, Clem and Jimmy, were back.
The release of No Exit proved that the band were still a creative force to be reckoned with. Deborah and the gang also managed to achieve something they could never quite manage before: entering the British singles chart straight in at No.1! In a market saturated by manufactured teen pop, the headline-grabbing success of the infectious Maria made the feat all the more remarkable. Blondie were the only group to have UK No.1’s in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And they’ve got time yet to add to that impressive record. Here’s to the next 25 then.
Steve Pafford, August 2002
Steve Pafford is the author of the forthcoming book BlondieStyle
First published: album sleeve notes for EMI/Capitol, November 2002