When music critics talk about the reasons “punk had to happen,” they’re usually making accusations about how bloated and corporate arena rock was getting in the mid ’70s, or about how music was losing its sense of rebellious teenage fun. But the fact is that little of that actually matters in the face of its most lingering effect: its ability to narrow the gaps between artsiness and catchiness, being cool and being kind of a dork, teen stoopid and grown-up clever, pop stardom and the self-aware subversion of what that kind of status even meant. And out of all the first-wave New York bands to run around in that free-for-all landscape, Blondie came the closest to embodying all those paradoxes to a truly mass audience.
Deborah Harry, who spent the tail end of the ’60s honing her jaded-angel voice in hippie psych-folkie band The Wind in the Willows, went on to nail the goofiness and heartbreak of teenage rock’n’pop angst like only a knowing thirtysomething could, toying with the idea of being a sex symbol who knew what a mess sex symbolism really was. And the dynamic between traditional girl-group pop attraction and ensemble-cast rock band was fascinatingly blurred. Guitarist Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and drummer Clem Burke were constants through the group’s early existence and much of their comeback, but their genre-hopping versatility meant they were often hard to pin down. And their status backing up one of the biggest icons in pop culture meant they had to start handing out promotional buttons reading “BLONDIE IS A GROUP!”
That sense of elusive identity, seemingly ageless evolution, and repeated retreats from and returns to the spotlight have continuously reshaped Blondie. First, they were a cult punk act; then, new wave superstars; then eventually something approaching a legacy-minded idea of what Blondie means — only to chop it all up and reassemble it some other way all over again. Making sense of it all is tricky, and sorting it all out is trickier, but if you’ve heard one Blondie classic, you definitely haven’t heard them all. Let’s see if we can figure it all out.
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