The rock band Blondie celebrates 40 years together this year. If you wish to feel old, that means as much time has passed between then and now as between then and the repeal of Prohibition. The lineup has shifted over the years but retains the core of singer Deborah Harry, collaborator-guitarist Chris Stein, and ace drummer Clem Burke.
The band emerged from the stew of Manhattan’s mid-70s Bowery and the burgeoning punk scene of CBGB’s. Harry, New York Bowery to her bones, was already a grizzled scenester when Blondie formed (that’s her lazing on the cover of this Wind in the Willows album from 1968). Harry and Stein have kept their eyes and ears open and have never been afraid to try something new, which has made for some dubious choices but also kept Blondie from becoming an inert nostalgia act. The group’s judgment may have sometimes faltered, but their invention has never flagged, from punk to pop to disco to rap.
Their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a live appearance in Manhattan during Super Bowl week 2014 prove the band has stood the test of time, albeit as a great band that hasn’t always make great records.
The new CD Blondie 4(0) Ever marks the bands 10th studio album, a two-disc package that includes one disc of re-recordings of past hits. But reducing the band’s output to a handful of polished dance-rock singles leaves out much of their grittier punk past. Here then, is a hopelessly subjective chronological rating of Blondie’s 10 albums, with tough letter grades in the style pioneered by rock-god-critic Robert Christgau.
1. Blondie (1976)
Released years before producer Mike Chapman would polish them up and propel them to worldwide fame, their self-titled debut remains intriguingly unclassifiable, gritty and sunny all at once. It retains a rogue sense of dark urban exuberance reminiscent of midnight movies and sketchy subways. The cartoonish, punky sound is delivered with panache, without sliding into three-chord Ramones monotony or the dense pretensions of Talking Heads, two of their compatriots on the local scene. Opening cut “X Offender” (which was “Sex Offender” before the radio censors) sums up the tensions of the record – a sweetly perverse tale of a prostitute with a crush on her arresting officer. Cracked, cheerful tributes to sci-fi and kung fu keep Side 2 fun (yes, I am old).