Culture

Grading Blondie's 10 Studio Albums on their 40th Anniversary

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).

A-

2. Plastic Letters (1977)

Another batch of eccentric, culture-mining songs, including the best telekinesis song ever (admittedly not a long list) “Touched by Your Presence, Dear” with its classic line: “When you play at cards you use an extra sense/it’s really not cheating.” But side two gets murky and muddy and trails off into silly songwriting, though “Love at the Pier” has a 60s kick and “I Didn’t Have the Nerve to Say No” is blessed with a nifty chorus.

B+

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnmSXknKK9I

3. Parallel Lines (1978)

The band’s universally acknowledged masterpiece, which also brought them fame in America after some success overseas. Workhorse producer Mike Chapman provided a bright glossy sound that mirrors the classic clean cover artwork, the monster smash “Heart of Glass,” surprisingly the 3rd single off the record after the first two failed to chart stateside. They managed to get over being embarrassed by the unapologetic “disco song” and its lack of street credibility. The opener “Hanging on the Telephone” never grabbed me, but the pulsating organ and aggressively danceable “11:59,” written by keyboard player-secret weapon Jimmy Destri, should have been a single. “Sunday Girl” and “Picture This” are surprisingly poignant and heartfelt, not always adjectives attached to Blondie, while Harry puts her vocal range to emotive use on “Pretty Baby.” “Long live innocence,” indeed, even though the band never was.

A

4. Eat to the Beat (1979)

My personal favorite, maybe the most uniquely Blondie of any Blondie album, a magic combo of Lower East side cynicism and pop-rock hooks spilling out from every song, without the self-conscious stylistic stretching that rendered later releases brittle. Lost classic “Shayla” is cryptic and poignant – what happened to her, anyway? “Dreaming” is a sweet single, while “Victor” and “Atomic” are experiments that work, and the pulsing “Slow Motion” should have been a hit follow-up. Take out the lullaby to insomniacs and maybe the overly jittery title track, and you’ve got that rarity – an album with no dead spots.

A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wy_byPjj1Q

5. Autoamerican (1980)

Vaguely futuristic in concept, Autoamerican flirts with anemia down to the pale yellow cover art. But it became the band’s last million seller on the strength of the two #1 singles, one gentle reggae (“The Tide Is High”), one groundbreaking rap (“Rapture,” naturally). As you can guess, it’s all over the place, eschewing guitar rock in favor of synth, Broadway pastiche, and whimsy. Imagine the background music in a cocktail lounge of the future. They get away with it, barely, but the trend of stylistic isolation would reach its nadir next time. Hidden gem: “Angels on the Balcony” and its bridge of joyous bumper music.

B-

6. The Hunter (1982)

Here’s where the rot sets in. The Hunter came out during a troubled period for the group. They even look uncertain on the record’s cheap-looking cover. Inside is a stylistically splintered mishmash whose few decent cuts are dragged down. Only “Island of Lost Souls,” a weak copy of Autoamerican’s “The Tide Is High,” dented the lower reaches of the Top 40. The neglected “Danceway” rises above the muck, thanks to Destri’s joyful Farfisa organ and Harry’s punchy vocals. Guitarist Chris Stein would soon be hospitalized for a rare skin disease, and a disastrous tour would be cancelled before reaching Europe.

C-

7. No Exit (1999)

This surprise comeback, 17 years later and minus two band members, is not a full return to form — a kind of stiffness remains in the music’s bones — but while it tries too hard, it gets over on the undeniable “Maria,” a welcome pop smash in the UK. The opener “Screaming Skin” and the title cut featuring rapper Coolio were fairly dire, and Harry’s contrived accents flop. But the band shakes loose on “Dig Up the Conjo,” which may be about zombies, and Harry uses her jazz cred on “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room.” Hidden gem: “Under the Gun,” a heart-felt tribute to the band’s former fan club manager, who had recently passed away.

B-

8. The Curse of Blondie (2003)

No Exit‘s followup wasn’t released in America, not the best sign, but after a dubious statement of purpose in cut one (“Shakedown”) it recovers with “Good Boys,” as stylish and sexy and streamlined as their best pop, and the haunting, wistful “Undone” and “Rules for Living.” After straining for relevance on No Exit, Curse is an updated version of what made them world-beaters in the first place. The middle stretch is nothing special, but the overall effect is more confident and straightforward than No Exit, a surprise improvement which flirts with but does not succumb to overproduction.

B

9. Panic of Girls (2011)

This is the first Blondie record not to use a band photo on the cover (well, none of us are getting any younger). But fears of creakiness proved unfounded, as Panic opened with three gratifyingly solid tracks, especially the Debbie-infused synth-punk of “D-Day,” while “Mother” is an open-hearted tribute to past times at the famous New York City club. But too many tunes settle for being cutesy, like Harry’s Jamaican patois on the reggae cover “Girlie Girlie.”

C+

10. Ghosts of Download (2014)

This record is attached to a CD of hit remakes. The new tracks suffer from that late-Blondie weakness for collaboration, but also delivered a catchy duet with Beth Ditto, “A Rose By Any Name.” It’s too dominated by electronics, with Harry speaking as much as singing, and the departure of Destri extends the sense of alienation. But fresh fun disco breaks through on “Take It Back” and especially “Rave,” with a chorus that harkens to the band’s the glory days.

C+

****

In partnership with the new fiction publishing platform Liberty Island, PJ Lifestyle is going to begin promoting and co-hosting a series of debates and discussions about popular culture. The goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that in the future we can promote and create better fiction and culture of our own. These are public brainstorming sessions for writers and culture advocates interested in developing a more vibrant popular culture. You’re invited to submit your answers to any of these questions — or a related one of your own! — that interests you:

A) in the comments

B) Via email to PJ Lifestyle editor Dave Swindle.

C) at your blog, then let us know in the comments or via email. 

The most interesting answers may be linked, crossposted, or published at PJ Lifestyle. See this week’s previous questions, focusing on music: Friday’s “What Are the Most Badass Punk Rock Songs?,” Thursday’s “What Are the 5 Essential Rap and Hip-Hop Albums?,” Wednesday’s “Who Are the Greatest Female Vocalists Of All Time?,” Tuesday’s “Who Are the Greatest Country Music Artists Everyone Should Have In Their Collection?,” and Monday’s “Are Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones Better Than the Beatles?

 Also check out the previous weeks’ writing prompts and email in your thoughts on any questions that strike your fancy: 5 Geek Questions To Provoke Debates About the Future of Sci-Fi and Fantasy5 Controversial Questions To Inspire Spirited Debates About Music.