Blondie Albums From Worst To Best
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.
The Hunter (1982)
Blondie's last album until 1999 sounds like a collapsing point, and for good reason. With Chris Stein's health issues, drug and money problems throughout the band, and the fatigue that comes with trying to scrape together a contractual obligation record, 1982's The Hunter was a depressing faceplant of an album right when the new wave zeitgeist Blondie had ruled for the past six years was at its crest. What should've been a victory lap has maybe a couple salvageable moments, and one of them -- the winking John Barry-goes-mod pastiche "For Your Eyes Only" -- is mostly interesting in its historical status as a rejected James Bond theme. "Dragonfly" and "Orchid Club" sound half-finished and tossed off, their synthpop pulses clogged with hesitation and their lyrics sounding like free-association placeholders for words that actually mean something. (When in doubt, just make up a bunch of terms that sound like they came from a sci-fi or pulp-adventure novel.) Throw in a doofy Edward G. Robinson imitation ("Little Caesar"), a disillusioned backwards-looking reminiscence over The Beatles ("English Boys"), and a song about how it sucks being too famous to be able to live your life like a normal person ("The Beast"), and it feels like a band once smartly in tune with pop culture now depended on it entirely just to keep inspired. After The Hunter and its accompanying tour flopped, Blondie were done. The band that should've ruled the '80s were done while the decade was still young, with little of substance to show for it afterwards but an underappreciated Harry solo career and Chris Stein's crucial work on the Wild Style soundtrack. That's not the worst legacy, but still: Everyone involved deserved better.
Panic Of Girls (2011)
Play "D-Day" for someone who's never heard it and give them five chances to guess who's performing it. Then spot them another ten or so. If they somehow guess it's a Blondie song, they've probably either cheated somehow, or they've forgotten they already listened to it some time ago. That it doesn't really sound like Blondie, at least until you strain to hear Harry's characteristic melodies cutting through the heavy-bottomed electro clamor in the chorus, is symptomatic. And even when Harry's voice is left to its own devices, that recurring issue is both a minor point and a major demerit in the case of Panic Of Girls. It rarely feels like it typecasts Blondie as the band people vaguely identify them as, and entrusting things to Jeff Saltzman -- producer of the Killers' Hot Fuss and Fischerspooner's Entertainment -- seems, at least on paper, to be enough to give them an updated but still true-to-self sonic identity.
But with the original band down to Harry, Stein, and Clem Burke (meaning no sign of the always pivotal keyboard player Jimmy Destri) and a lot of nu-wave bloat weighing down the performances with more gloss than hooks, the only thing an instrumental version of Panic Of Girls would clue you into as far as its performers' identity is the presence of a few mirror-polished yet sluggish-sounding reggae pastiches ("The End The End"; "Girlie Girlie"; a cover of Beirut's "Sunday Smile"). The characteristic Harry/Stein wit is lacking, too -- the songs are either flatly cliche ("I see all the lonely souls/ Nowhere left to go/ I see you're the lonely/ You're my one and only chance") or quotable for the wrong reasons ("This ain't no dot-com/But this is a dot-come-on"). Not sounding like a half-remembered idea of "typical Blondie" is one thing, but it'd still help if they sounded like somebody.
Blondie 4(0) Ever: Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux: Ghosts Of Download (2014)
It's been both fascinating and a little strange to see Debbie Harry age into something of a synthpop torch singer. There's a smokiness to the wear in her voice that doesn't so much damage or limit it as it does give it a weight of experience, and it shows even through production that's meant to be blatantly rejuvenating. The new-stuff half of last year's two-fer stretches pretty far to maintain Blondie's place in the present way of dance-punk things instead of just making them a key legacy act, with featured guests scrambling all over the place to bolster the stylistic versatility Blondie's long been known for. So you get Colombian collective Systema Solar infusing "Sugar on the Side" with a hooky cumbia thump, Beth Ditto joining in on the modern-electro jam "A Rose By Any Other Name," and Spanish-language reggaeton/hip-hop verses from Oakland's Los Rakas on "I Screwed Up."
It sure beats the Rod Stewart approach of making a beeline for Ye Olde Standards when you're someone from the '70s hitting your seventies, but it still ricochets a bit from modern relevance to retro comfortability, and some of it's way too cute for its own good. (What if Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" actually sounded relaxed?) Harry and Stein mostly concocted the music themselves through digital means and with an army of production assistants, and while that doesn't sting as much as it feels like it should, even the involvement of Blondie's two most integral songwriters can't keep it from feeling like a Debbie Harry solo record in all but name. Then there's the weirder half of this package, the Deluxe Redux bit, where Harry performs Blondie Karaoke over re-recorded backing tracks that sound like a pretty decent tribute band at best and weakly redundant at worst. If you're looking for proof that Blondie still have that spark, neither disc does much to ease any skepticism.
Loosely conceptual, "let's try something different" albums like Autoamerican are the reason best-ofs exist. Eat To The Beat sounded like a lot of things, but an encroaching rut wasn't one of them, so the band's decision to push their natural eclecticism to more absurd lengths speaks to an excess of restlessness that tries to do on one LP what The Clash's Sandinista! -- released one month later -- let sprawl more ambitiously (and successfully) over three. Like their increasingly NYC-obsessed cohorts from across the pond, Blondie pulled off a memorable hip-hop pastiche in "Rapture," even if Debbie's rambling flow and man-from-Mars silliness makes "Magnificent Seven" mic controller Joe Strummer sound like Rakim in comparison. "The Tide Is High," another gem from their lineage of left-field covers, turned a Paragons rocksteady classic into a faithful yet distinctly unique homage, and proved to be the last time until the '90s that the UK charts agreed with their desire to be somebody's #1. ("Rapture" did top the Billboard Hot 100 the following year, making it the first rap track -- or at least first with rap verses -- to hit #1, and the last until "Ice Ice Baby" in 1990.)
But there's no third single, and not just because American Gigolo theme "Call Me" proved to be a bigger smash than any candidate on Autoamerican. "Live It Up" is the closest the rest of the album gets to Blondie's end-of-the-70s mixture of new wave grit and dancefloor glamour, but good luck selling America on an uptempo disco track in November 1980. Other side one cuts, like the hard-charging gallop of "Go Through It" and the jangly glimmer of "Angels On The Balcony," feel like precedents for later, more famous and substantial ideas from Adam & the Ants and the Go-go's, respectively. But Blondie strayed far out of their element for a good chunk of the record, and not just because producer Mike Chapman shanghaied them out to Los Angeles to record the thing. The dramatic pomp of orchestral instrumental opener (!) "Europa" and the billowy lightheadedness of Camelot ballad "Follow Me" prove to be the wrong kind of Hollywood for a band whose lead singer fared better working with David Cronenberg and John Waters. And the processed torch songs ("Here's Looking At You"; "Faces") probably would've worked better if they at least had a bit of Tom Waits gloom casting a smoky pallor overhead -- or at least what we got from the Jazz Passengers 17 years later. In a better world, this album would've been an overambitious detour -- in this one, it was the beginning of the end, at least for a long time.
No Exit (1999)
The weird thing about post-comeback Blondie albums is that each one tends to have a different lingering sense of disappointment to it. And where successive releases were too overproduced (The Curse Of Blondie), too unmemorable (Panic Of Girls), or too self-consciously retro-modernist (Ghosts Of Download), No Exit only really suffers in there not being enough signs of how they found themselves again. An attempt to claw out from under seventeen years of absence-driven speculation and the encroaching specter of nu-wave that Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani were already hinting at, No Exit's "good for a legacy-act comeback" status seems like it begs praise that's fainter than it deserves. Treating this album as though they'd never left actually flatters it a bit more -- there's some throwaway crud here and there, but when has there not been when a band's a quarter century into their career? And since the buzzsaw alt-rock riffs and ska/reggae maneuvers were simultaneously 1999 contemporary and well in keeping with Blondie's DNA, there's no need for them to force much of anything here.
"Maria" was the big hit, a guitar-driven UK #1 that made for a convincing slice of relevance in a world that seemed to flail in any direction it could to keep "modern rock" a going concern. But there are other cuts that get deeper to the sly, enigmatic, cool-yet-emotional core of their best songs -- check for the existential sincerity of "Nothing Is Real But The Girl" ("You'll teach her to find out while you're dying in your living room how much you need her"), the enigmatic physical panic of "Screaming Skin" (an allusion to the autoimmune disease that Chris Stein fought back against during his downtime), and "Under The Gun (For Jeffrey Lee Pierce)," a requiem for the Gun Club's late, legendary founder -- and Blondie U.S. fan club president. Sure, there are moments where the camp on No Exit becomes just a little too much: The title track's Coolio guest spot on the Toccata In D Minor-lifting title track is somehow dippier than Harry's rap verse, and if the title to "Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room" doesn't set your hairs on edge, the caricatured yet harmless burlesque lite-sleaze of the song itself probably will. But even the bigger failures are entertaining ones, and are often easy enough to forgive or at least flatteringly recontextualize (imagine the otherwise baffling alt-country oddity "The Dream's Lost On Me" in the hands of, say, Neko Case). And they sure as hell didn't sound old.
The Curse Of Blondie (2003)
By 2003, you could add a newer wave of new wavers to the legacy of hot indie artists that owed at least something to that first late-'70s stretch of Blondie classics. (Let's face it: There are many more cuts on those first couple Strokes albums that sound like "One Way Or Another" than there are ones that sound like "Venus In Furs," and we're all the better for it.) So if there was a time for the original Hot NYC New Wave Band That Broke Huge to re-stake a claim on the real estate they helped develop, it was the early aughts. Still, while No Exit felt positioned as an originators' riposte to the assorted Garbages and No Doubts that had been portrayed by alt-rock media as next-gen Blondies, The Curse Of Blondie isn't really a reaction, a retort, or an attempt to grab some elder-spokesmodel sovereignty over a scene they once ruled.
What it is, exactly, still feels like an attempt -- sometimes successful -- to recapture their grasp on the pop consciousness in a way that the catching-up No Exit couldn't always manage. To that end, "Good Boys" is the unqualified triumph of the record, a surgical strike of electro-pop that sounds appropriately icy and could sit well next to Ladytron in DJ sets. You kind of have to dig for the rest, since producer Steve Thompson steers their sound towards a borderline-aggro alt-rock bombast that has too much overproduced bloat to do justice to the band's traditionally nuanced less-is-more style. (For some reason most of Chris Stein's guitar parts sound like he's auditioning for Def Leppard.) There are still some strong songs underneath all that, though -- "Rules For Living" captures Harry's characteristic ambivalence in a search for love cut with deja vu, and the lovers rock "Background Melody (The Only One)" finds grace in the potentially mortifying subject of addressing all the listeners who owe their existence to her music -- both literally and figuratively.
In what might be the funniest opening salvo in a worth-taking-seriously band's history, Blondie opens with Debbie Harry at her Shangri-Las sweetest: "I saw you standing on the corner/ You looked so big and fine/I really wanted to go out with you/ So when you smiled, I laid my heart on the line." The punchline of "X Offender": the "you" is a cop and the "I" is a prostitute, which makes it a twisted '70s NYC love song if ever there was one. As much as the Ramones are venerated for twisting '60s pop and rock into something deeply absurd while maintaining reverence for its power in joy, Blondie pulled it off just as well and managed to add a twist of tongue-in-cheek sex appeal in the bargain. Harry performed like an older-and-wiser version of a girl-group ingenue looking back at her formative years with a jaundiced eye, rearranging the rules of teenage love and heartbreak from what had previously been considered the wrong side of 30.
Other songs pull goofball inspiration from b-movies of both old-school drive-in vintage ("The Attack Of The Giant Ants") and '70s grindhouse fare ("Kung Fu Girls"), find complicated love via Sondheim-ian gang warfare ("A Shark In Jets Clothing"), watches men drown in the sea of love ("Man Overboard") and offers them a double-entendre solace ("Look Good In Blue," with its immortal line "I could give you some head/ and shoulders to lie on"). The band's still finding its footing -- ballads like "In The Flesh" sound more like throwbacks than callbacks, and given how offbeat "Attack Of The Giant Ants" and "Man Overboard" sound, they hadn't entirely nailed the ability yet to go Caribbean without making it sound like a goof. But they were close enough to grab at that new wave ideal, with the mean-girl Cinemascope eyeroll of "Rip Her To Shreds" spitting gossip-columnist vitriol like Harry's preparing herself to find out what it's like to be a target.
Plastic Letters (1978)
There's something oddly sinister about Blondie's second album, a serrated edge showing through the nod-and-wink surface of their pop hooks and new wave cool. It could be the cop car on the cover, or the criminal grime that took the cheery seediness of "X Offender" further into threatening turf (the hoodlum-surfer menace of "Youth Nabbed As Sniper"; "Kidnapper" and its arch scuzz-boogie), or even the title -- evoking not just rock-club marquees, but how the cops spell your name out when they take your mugshot. The old critical knock against this one was a flimsy side two, though neither contemporary or recent reviews can agree on what the exceptions to the second-half drag might even be. And it shouldn't even matter anyways with the one-two closing barrage that crops up here. You get a heavy dose of muscle-car goonstomp nastiness in "Detroit 442," which compacts Springsteen factory-town ennui into Iggy Pop derangement through tweaker velocity and government-name "Jimmy O dodging flying objects at the show" allusions alike. And "Cautious Lip" is skulking, feral detachment dripping with the aftermath of '77 Bowie, Harry's glamorous snarls doing their damnedest to coax the truth out of some reluctant target. The hits are great, of course -- "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear" is a fine example of their knack for hiding sincere aching beneath hip detachment, and the gender-flipped Randy & The Rainbows cover "Denis" broke them across the Atlantic as pop throwbacks of the highest caliber. But the fact that they concealed something a bit meaner, weirder, and smarter than they'd been given credit for makes Plastic Letters feel more special than just a transitional sophomore-slump record.
Eat To The Beat (1979)
Kieron Gillen knows what's up: In his Phonogram mini-series comic story "The Singles Club," a pair of DJs imbued with arcane, music-based magic powers stare down a dead dancefloor and decide it's time to pull their trump card. "Is it time?" "It's time. Do it. Play the Blondie." They drop the needle on the glowing ultimatum and everything falls back into body-moving place. Gillen did that song's power justice by writing that scene, but the funny thing is, a moment as invigorating and delirious as "Atomic" might not just be a straggler runner-up in an argument for Blondie's best single -- there's also a strong case for it not even being the best song on its album. Start at the beginning on Eat To The Beat and you'll figure out why: With the stardom rocket bolted to their backs, they had to come with something as bracing as "Dreaming" to prove to their skeptics that they weren't going blandly 'mersh any time soon. With the energy of ABBA siphoned through the jolt of the Buzzcocks and a razor-wit opening couplet ("When I met you in the restaurant/ You could tell I was no debutante"), "Dreaming" is the kind of song you could open a record with and then guiltlessly coast on goodwill for a while afterwards.
Good thing they didn't. Eat To The Beat is Blondie working their hooks through a succession of songs that toy with their reputation for arch, aloof cool and feel as emotionally invested as anything they've done before or since. Along with the revved-up reverie of "Dreaming" and the lyrically minimalist vocal euphoria of "Atomic," there are a share of moments that are oddly tender and nakedly sincere: "Sound-A-Sleep" is a lullaby for a restless city that always leaves its lights on, and the pull in "Shayla" between being stuck in a go-nowhere life and risking the loss of its relative security makes for Debbie's most haunting performance. Intentionally or not, the love-as-fate "Accidents Never Happen" plays like a certainty-filled retort to Elvis Costello's waiting-game agitation from earlier that year, Harry's voice slinking while the rest of the band sprints. The Motown pulse of "Slow Motion" is so thorough that it perfectly drives home the power of music to mess with time and space where falling for someone is concerned ("Pick up the beat, you can move like you're made out of vapor"). And even "Union City Blue," a song Harry wrote during a break from shooting her acting debut in the mostly forgotten neo-noir Union City, feels deeper than the film-inspired stream of vague abstraction it looks like on paper, just from the yearning in her delivery of the line "What're we gonna do?" With music videos becoming increasingly popular in the late '70s, promo clips were shot for all 12 songs on the album -- but if you want Eat To The Beat to evoke some powerful visuals, just closing your eyes and listening should do the trick.
Parallel Lines (1978)
Sometimes the moment where everything clicks perfectly comes in the guise of a sellout. Parallel Lines is still the biggest hit record to ever come from a band rooted in CBGB's, and at the time its multi-platinum status and disco hit single were easy to frame as some kind of betrayal. But that kind of accusation, especially in hindsight, falls apart after a surface examination. Not only is that big dance club smash "Heart Of Glass" just one of the band's countless genre exercises, an extension of Harry and Stein's infatuation with classic pop tropes from girl-group R&B onwards, it's more nervy and strange and perfect than anything else in the litany of circa '78-'79 rock-goes-disco singles flooding the market at the time. A song originally written in '74 to a mutated reggae rhythm, given a dance-step-sabotaging bridge, and hinging on bitter love-lost lyrics that didn't include the titular phrase in early drafts because they went with "pain in the ass" instead? Not exactly a hitmaker formula, but here we are.
Singles-wise, that smash was preceded by two canny covers that did the crucial New Wave service of reuniting the then-estranged worlds of rock and pop. The jittery Buddy Holly rave-up "I'm Gonna Love You Too" was the unlikely lead single, while their giddy, anxious take on "Hanging On The Telephone" -- originally cut two years earlier on the opposite coast by the short-lived L.A. power-pop catalysts the Nerves -- bolstered their chart presence in the UK and across Europe. And their charting originals saw Harry at her sly postmodern best whether she was twisting stalker monomania into an initially coy, increasingly unhinged sneer ("One Way Or Another") or wrapping silky melodies around upbeat Jan & Dean joy ("Sunday Girl," which sounds even better in French).
Best of all, Parallel Lines ducks the singles-plus-filler rep most bands who sell a ton of Greatest Hits compilations wind up with. A guest appearance on guitar by Robert Fripp pairs up with Harry's voice to haunting, wistful effect on "Fade Away And Radiate." The torn-up panic of "11:59" and its doomsday romance boast Jimmy Destri's needling keyboards and Clem Burke's avalanche drums as some of the most breathtaking work either musician had laid down to that point. And "Will Anything Happen" is as frantic and insistent and indelibly catchy as anything the Ramones were doing in '78, from its feedback intro to to Burke's punching-bag beat to a chorus that proves the only thing more breathtaking than a full-bore Debbie Harry is a multitracked Debbie Harry. By the time "Heart Of Glass" even comes up on the album, you've already heard nine songs before it which proved disco was just one of the things Blondie could turn into dizzying pop art.