Article – Blondie

Once I Had A Love And It Was A Gas

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS magazine)

The argument about who is the best band in the world tends to occupy people’s minds to excess. There’s not much that won’t get Noel Gallagher chattering away, but ask him who’s the best band ever and he’ll chew your ear off all night about how great the Beatles are – with Oasis coming in a close second, natch. Similarly, arguments are put forward for the likes of the Stones, the Pistols, Led Zep, U2, Nirvana and all sorts of people who have their fans somewhere. If we take the argument that this is all pop(ular) music, the artform which predates rock ‘n’ roll and is the only musical categorisation that is worth anything, then for my money Blondie are the greatest pop band there’s ever been.

Why? Several reasons. Over the course of a massively productive original stint from 1976 to 1982 they produced six albums – one a year, for those without degrees in maths, and the sort of output that bands simply don’t do anymore. All these albums were stuffed with the most perfect of pop music; the holy grail of anyone with an interest in music who isn’t a sullen outcast who only ever likes bands’ first albums.

As an idea of the sort of pop music we’re talking about here, pick up any of Blondie’s (unfortunately) innumerable Greatest Hits albums and study the tracklisting: Atomic, Call Me, Touched By Your Presence Dear, Rapture, Hanging on the Telephone, Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl… It’s a measure  f how great they are that there are some great tracks, such as One Way Or Another, that aren’t on them simply because there’s no room. Only the Beatles and Stones can claim to make compilation albums as good.

Since the seventies we’ve been blighted by a whole slew of artists who presume they’re making the perfect pop records. The likes of Elvis Costello, Difford and Tilbrook, Neil Finn and Elton John all strive to be craftsmen of their art, emulating a golden era (usually from sometime in the sixties) that only results in them producing bland garbage. Blondie also presumed to make perfect pop, yet they never tried to emulate what went before; they were resolutely of the hear and now, taking the best of punk and New Wave, and adding in such then new elements as reggae, disco and rap whenever they needed. And because they kept things simple and direct they never once sounded embarrassing.

I’ve often heard it said that Blondie’s near contemporaries Abba were the ultimate pop band. But there’s nothing to love about Abba. Sure Benny and Björn were possibly the ultimate in pop music craftsmen, but that’s precisely the reason why they can’t be loved. Pop music isn’t about craft, it’s about directness and impact. Blondie had this in spades and it’s what makes the clanging guitars of Union City Blue so taunting, the pop punk of Hanging on the Telephone so all-embracing and the all-chorus formula of Atomic so mesmerising.

Blondie founder members Debbie Harry (ex-Playboy bunny and former member of hippier-than-thou band The Wind In The Willows) and Chris Stein (guitarist and ex-art student) first met in 1974 and quickly formed a band on their joint love of upbeat pop. In one of pop music’s great romances they’re still together to this day; making them second only to Poison Ivy and Lux Interior of The Cramps as rock’s coolest couple. Other members were recruited, including Clem Burke on drums and Jimmy Destri on keyboards – other members Nigel Harrison (bass) and Frank Infante (guitar) have Stalinistically been wiped from history since the comeback.

They managed to effortlessly ride the spiky New Wave era of bands who played CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City (where Harry worked as a waitress) whilst still producing wonderfully unapologetic pop music. This straddling of two forms was what made their early music so essential, as borne out on the first two albums Blondie and Plastic Letters, which are chock full of songs like Denis and Rip Her To Shreds. The albums Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat followed soon after and they started having indecent numbers of number one hits, particularly in punk-addled Britain, where they demonstrated how easy it was to achieve true crossover appeal.

In part this was undoubtedly down to Harry herself, the punk years’ main pin-up. Boys across the land would go utterly gooey for her and she wasn’t afraid to play on her sexuality, although in a very classy way – after being a Playboy bunny, taste was the only direction to go. Often, the criticism against Blondie is that they were one beautiful woman and five blurry blokes in the background, but this is to ignore their undoubted genius as songwriters (most songs were written by Harry and Stein, with the others contributing too) and their hugely influential look, which extends down to the White Stripes and the Strokes today.

In 1982 they made their only bad album, The Hunter, and split up soon after, partly because Stein came down with a rare and often fatal genetic condition. Harry, bless her, put a solo career on hold to help nurse him back to health. But you know what’s really great about Blondie? Almost uniquely they made a comeback and didn’t embarrass themselves. The ‘chief’ members – Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri – were all still talking to each other. In 1999 they got back together again with surprising dignity and immediately scored the sort of worldwide number one, Maria, the sort of song they used to produce all the time back in the 70s. They also released a rather good album, No Exit, and toured the world, with nary a sniff of getting-back-together-for-the-cash-but-they-all-still-hate-each-other. In an era when just about every classic band has had a reunion of some sort, Blondie topped every single one by doing it with style, grace and a band who act like they’ve never been away.

Rather disgracefully, the follow up to No Exit was delayed for two years when their record company collapsed. Even more disgracefully, the new album, The Curse of Blondie, hasn’t got a proper distribution deal in this country yet but they’re going to be touring here anyway in November. In an era when long-running bands tend to split up because of the colour of the guitarist’s shoes, it only makes the legend of Blondie all the stronger that they haven’t let these setbacks get to them, particularly for a band who have had to put up with the attention paid to the lead singer all these years.

Blondie are the greatest pop band ever, I’ve no doubt of this. They’re the catchiest, hippest, sexiest, funkiest and most dignified bunch pop has ever seen. Check ’em out and see if you disagree.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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