Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Album Reviews # 67 Blondie - Blondie

         Blondie sound forty years down the line entirely the most spontaneous, best fun and least pre-meditated of all the first wave of CBGB's bands. Their first album is still a thrill! Released just as '76 turned to '77, it's melodic and amped, with a poetic, caustic edge but not a note of pretension. Influenced by Warhol of course but not noticeably by The Velvet Underground, more informed by Surf, Spector, British Mod, Girl groups, and Pop with a capital 'P' and fronted by the most attractive woman ever to lead a band of any kind, and also one strangely devoid, even to this day, of egotistical posturing, despite her natural, arresting beauty.

'I saw you standing on the corner. You looked so big and fine. I really wanted to go out with you. So when you asked to go out with me. I laid my heart on the line.'

Twisted yet pure urban romanticism has never been nailed to the mast quite so definitively as by the opening lines of this record. With the initial  Be My Baby drumroll and then Debbie Harry's voice cutting in a brief but devastating way. 'You watched my heart burst then. You'd step in...' We've all had these moments and won't forget them. X Offender is unsettling, given its subject matter, but that's what early Blondie were about, and in the promo for the song, (posted above), you can witness the unmistakable tension within the band itself that was smoothed out shortly after the album's release by the exit of Gary Valentine, who co-wrote the song. He and Stein vie for attention on the camera lens throughout the clip and it seems that one of them had to go and of course it was always bound to be Valentine, leaving the stage to Harry and the rest of the band's gradual relegation to becoming her backing group with all the inevitable tensions that would ensue from that point on.

'She loves you right now. So don't close your eyes. She'll be talking and laughing with six other guys.'

Little Girl Lies is more conventional and less tart. A classic if safe choice for second song on the record. Chorused by cheesy sixties handclaps and Jimmy Destri's Farfisa organ coming to the fore at its most Wooly Bully and 96 Tears. It's conspicuously throwaway and asexual. Nobody's favourite Blondie song but disliked by few either I imagine and paving the way for the gradual assertion of Harry's persona over the course of the rest of the record. This, naturally was always Blondie's trump card.

'We're walking one day. On the Lower East Side...'

This assertion begins to set in with third track In the Flesh, Blondie's first real hit of any kind, if only in Australia, but it set the bandwagon rolling. This is definitely Spector, though more explicitly seventies, and it laid down the blueprint which the band would go to work on and improve and subsequently storm the global pop charts over the next few years. But it's really all here. With the sign off line, 'Warm and soft. Close and hot...' Harry signaled her intent to be direct but alluring, distanced herself from the band's obvious sixties roots and set themselves forward as a different and more immediate and highly sexual proposition. It would take a while for the message to truly hit home.

'You look good in blue. It matches your skin. Your eyes dripping with pain...'

Look Good in Blue is back to more comforting territory. Not a 'get together' or 'break up' song. Just maintaining the relationship with the listener with a string of compliments. The band laying back and immersing themselves in the joys of their record collections. Learning their craft in a way that again would serve them well further down the line.

'New York is covered by grey. Concrete piles. Blues play my way...'

In the Sun is back on the attack. Blondie understood the joys of the beach and surf sound in a way that none of the bands apart from them, save The Ramones, did. Perhaps that was the bond between the two of those groups. This stuff was deliberately throwaway. An understanding of a certain core of American Pop Culture that Patti Smith, Television and Richard Hell never really touched on, so keen were they to tap into the European poetic literary culture and a point of removed cool. Blondie didn't aspire to this at any point of their careers. Never straying for a moment from the street, the bar, the sun or the dancefloor. From the directly accessible and immediate.

'We're meeting in a neutral zone: the last car on the train.'

A Shark in Jet's Clothing lays down their schtick explicitly with its obvious West Side Story borrowings, finger clicks and whistling. So much of early Blondie is unashamed pastiche. Lifts from New York culture but with an emphatically light and poppy touch. Three minute melodramas which make you understand why they were never taken entirely seriously by their CBGB contemporaries with more serious pretensions but also giving you an insight as to why they outlasted them all commercially, so broad and well-versed were the sources of their initial inspiration and what they chose to do with them.

'Yeah, I've been sailing the sea of love. Experiencing romance. With what I know, he never stood a chance...'

So to Side 2. They're not hanging around here. Harry is backed on first track Man Overboard as on In the Flesh by Ellie Greenwich, Micki and Hilda Harris veterans of the classic sixties girl group sound the whole record is so deeply versed in. Here she takes the femme fatale role she was frankly born to play. She'd been in girl group territory before of course with previous bands Wind in the Willows and The Stilletoes, Blondie with time would refine the inspiration and make it their own. There's the briefest hint of reggae in the guitars here which would also feed into the original version of Heart of Glass. Also the vaguest hint of Prog stylings with Destri's synth breaks. But it's all highly efficient, chopped and minimal. They're virtually inventing New Wave, at least two years before its proper arrival.

'She looks like the Sunday comics. She thinks she's Brenda Starr. Her nose job is real atomic. All she needs is an old knife scar.'

To Rip Her to Shreds, probably as close to Punk in the conventional sense as the band ever came. But it's no thrash, Blondie were always too tasteful, not to say able for that. It's an acid, catty putdown of a female rival and it's great to see Harry flexing her claws. Backed by the mass slurred boy backing vocals that would become another of their trademarks, the lyrics are wonderful in documenting the CBGBs scene that Blondie grew from. The nicer but not altogether nice little sister of I Wanna Be Your Dog.

'If I lose my head, we'll be certainly dead. With visions of acid. How I wish they bled.'

Rifle Range is one of the record's finest tunes played out to probably it's sloppiest, least coherent lyrics. Never mind, you can't really hear them anyway and it works fine as a piece of music. Blondie jumped in terms of content from tales of romance, to espionage, to life on the mean streets. All pulp paperbacks, B-Movie features and trash TV, they were a less surly and better groomed Ramones. And ultimately, much to that group and particularly Johnny's chagrin they had an altogether better understanding of the Pop world they sought entry into and how to force that entrance. Blondie is very much an apprenticeship for what came next. Although it took them a while to distance themselves from the slight disdain some of their contemporaries at CBGB's viewed them with, (Patti Smith and Television particularly, both bands pilfered early Blondie band members), everything they achieved with third album Parallel Lines is rooted here, just waiting for the guiding input and touch that Mike Chapman provided there.

'Down in Chinatown, (the year of the cock). He sold the silver belt, put it in hock.'

Kung Fu Girls is almost a scene from Tarantino. He didn't get here first by any means. Blondie, in their appreciation of Trash Culture, knowing exactly just how throwaway and disposable it all is and just as importantly what rich source material it offers for truly great pop music, were way ahead of the pack though they've never really got the credit they deserve for it in the eyes of the 'serious' rock critic. Both Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent, the dons at The NME at the time, remained slightly sniffy about them. But they were wrong. No-one had ever done this in quite the way they were doing it. Lester Bangs to his credit did fully appreciate them and lionised them for it. It's Pop Art in the truest sense, Blondie, more than any of those great seventies New York bands understood where Warhol was coming from and packaged themselves and their songs accordingly to appeal to a broader audience than the literati and the rock snobs. The cleverness of this trick is to pull it off and retain a central, keen intelligence. They would never lose it.

'Giant ants from space. Snuff the human race. Then they eat your face. Never leave a trace.'

Blondie would refine and revisit these same themes and melodic tricks over the coming years as they ascended to the fame their leaders looks and sheer charisma always offered as a prospect but which they would never have achieved without the required team ability, looks of their own and no little drive. They would never be as purely Pulp as here though ever again. This is one for their fanclub. Blondie is thirty three minutes long, plays at thirty three and is a better guitar and synth driven pop album than any young band is likely to put out in 2016. That's rather sad but also probably rather true!

No comments:

Post a Comment